Saturday, July 18, 2015

Modern English Versions and the Greek New Testament

Some of us remember the days before the internet and Google, when a new software program came with an immense user’s manual. If you have ever seen any of these in a used bookstore, you probably noticed that it was relatively unused. The problem with those manuals is that they really were unusable. The indices were usually poorly done and the text was written by the people who wrote the program. Between “geek speak” and making gratuitous assumptions about what the computer illiterate user actually knew, the manuals provided more frustration than clarification to the user.

Modern English versions, in relation to the Greek text of the New Testament, are somewhat like those old user manuals. They tend to assume too much, and hence give the ordinary reader too little information. For example, the Preface to the ESV makes the following statement: “The ESV is based on … the Greek text in the 1993 editions of the Greek New Testament (4th corrected ed.) , published by the United Bible Societies (UBS) and Novum Testamentum Graece (27th ed.), edited by Nestle and Aland.… in a few difficult cases in the New Testament, the ESV has followed a Greek text different from the text given preference in the UBS/Nestle-Aland 27th edition.”  The Greek texts referred to here are the NAET of my prior post. Similar statements are found in the prefaces of other modern English versions. The problem is that, while accurate, it is full of “geek-speak” and thus of relatively little use to the ordinary reader of the New Testament. It does not, for example, note the existence of MT and TR texts. Granted, the NAET is currently something of a consensus text among New Testament scholars, but a significant minority support for an MT probably should merit some recognition. In my estimation, the Preface to the New King James Version is much more informative and more “user-friendly” for the ordinary reader.

The other point at which most modern English versions under-serve their readers is in the textual notes. For the most part, the notes themselves are clear enough, but the rationale behind them is unclear. So, for example, 2 Thessalonians 2:3 in the NIV reads, “the man of lawlessness.” There is a textual note that says, “Some manuscripts sin.” In other words, some manuscripts have “man of sin” instead of “man of lawlessness.” The ESV has the same note. The NASB (1995) has “lawlessness” but no textual note, as does the NLT. What the various versions do not make clear is why in some cases there is a note, whereas in other cases there is not. One might think that the idea is to have a note whenever there is a difference between the NAET and the MT or TR, but that is not supported by the evidence. For example, in regard to one of the most notorious passages in the New Testament (1 John 5:7), the NIV and the NASB (1995) both have a note explaining the “missing” verse, the ESV and NLT do not.

On this issue, my philosophy is “less is more.” The modern English version indicates its textual preference in the preface. The reader should assume that the translation reflects that textual preference. In that case, textual notes are unnecessary, unless there is a case where the translation differs from its preferred text. Then there should be merely a note indicating that the translators have preferred a different reading. As it is, most of the textual notes serve merely to confuse the reader.

Next: The New Testament text and the Westminster Confession.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Removing Verses from the Bible

What do the following verses have in common: Matthew 17:21; 18:16; 23:14; Mark 7:16; 9:44, 46; Luke 17:36; 23:17; Acts 8:37? That’s right. They are all verses that the "heretical new translations" have removed from your Bibles. Those “heretical” bibles include the NIV, the NASB, and the ESV. This assertion showed up in my Facebook newsfeed from a Facebook friend who wondered about it, because he had looked those verses up, and sure enough they were missing from the Bible he was using.

First, this is just an old scam from KJV-Only folks that want to stir up people against any translation but the KJV. But the real question is, why are these verses “missing” from most modern versions? The answer is: textual criticism. (Warning: the following discussion is simplified.)

Translations of the New Testament are based on printed texts that are collations (detailed comparisons) of ancient manuscripts. The manuscripts that we have of the New Testament originated in the period between the early second century and the late Middle Ages. These are copies of copies at least. Any time a text is copied, errors will occur. Such things as misspellings, mishearings (some manuscripts were copied by scribes from a manuscript that was read to them), accidental skipping of lines and words, “corrections” supplied by the copyist, and other issues accrue in the copies. New Testament scholars, in working to determine what the New Testament originally said, need to get behind these copies to what the original read. They do this by comparing manuscripts, and evaluating diverse readings on the basis of generally accepted principles. The result is the modern printed Greek New Testament.

There are, at present, essentially three modern printed Greek New Testaments: the Textus Receptus (TR), the Majority Text (MT), and the Nestle-Aland Eclectic Text (NAET). The TR is the text that lies behind the King James Version of the Bible. It was based on a relatively small number of Greek manuscripts. In the four centuries since then many more manuscripts have been recovered.

The MT and the NAET are both modern (20th-21st century) printed texts. They both use a large number of manuscripts that were not available to those who developed the TR. The main difference between the MT and the NAET is the set of principles used to compare and evaluate differing readings in the manuscripts.

Most New Testament scholars today (including theologically conservative scholars) hold that the NAET is the closest to the original New Testament. Some modern scholars (mostly theologically conservative) hold that the MT is closest to the original. Almost no one holds that the TR is the closest to the original.

All modern versions of the New Testament, except for the New King James Version, are based (with some variation) on the NAET. In the judgment of the editors of the NAET, the verses in the list above were later additions to the text of the New Testament. In other words, the modern versions are not removing verses from the Bible; the TR was adding verses to the Bible.

I’ll have more to say in a later post.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Making Sense of Kings

For many people, the Books of Kings are two of the most confusing books in the Old Testament, for the simple reason that the historian is telling two stories at once. Here are some clues to helping make sense of it all.

First, get the big picture. The two books easily divide into three sections. The first section is the reign of Solomon (1 Kgs 1-11). The second section is the period of the Divided Kingdom, down to the fall of the northern kingdom (1 Kgs 12-2 Kgs 17). The third section is the story of Judah, from the end of the northern kingdom until the Babylonian Exile. Another big picture item is the story of Elijah and Elisha, which covers most of the material from 1 Kgs 17-2 Kgs 8.

Second, get the names straight. The northern kingdom is Israel. The southern kingdom is Judah. The first king of Israel is Jeroboam. The first king of Judah is Rehoboam. Later on there is a second Jeroboam in Israel. There are two kings named Jehoram (also spelled Joram), one in Israel and one in Judah. They rule about the same time. There are also two kings named Jehoash (or Joash), one in Israel and one in Judah. They also reign about the same time. Then there is a King Azariah in Judah, but he is known as Uzziah in 2 Chronicles and in Isaiah 6.

Third, notice how the historian tells the story. He begins (after the split) with Israel, telling the story of Jeroboam. After the death of Jeroboam, he tells the story of the kings of Judah until he reaches past the end of Jeroboam’s reign. Then he shifts back to Israel. It is the back-and-forth nature of the narrative that loses most people.

Fourth, the order of the story is as follows, identifying the king, the nation (I for Israel, J for Judah), and the length of his reign: Jeroboam (I, 22 years); Rehoboam (J, 17 years); Abijam (J, 3 years); Asa (J, 41 years); Nadab (I, 2 years); Baasha (I, 24 years); Elah (I, 2 years); Zimri (I, 1 week); Omri (I, 12 years); Ahab (I, 22 years); Jehoshaphat (J, 25 years). At this point, we have arrived at the end of 1 Kings. 

Ahaziah (I, 2 years); Jehoram (I, 12 years); Jehoram (J, 8 years); Ahaziah (J, 1 year); Jehu (I, 28 years); Athaliah (J, six years, a usurper); Joash (J, 40 years); Jehoahaz (I, 17 years); Jehoash (I, 16 years); Amaziah (J, 29 years); Jeroboam II (I, 41 years); Azariah (J, 52 years); Zechariah (I, 6 months); Shallum (I, 1 month); Menahem (I, 10 years); Pekahiah (I, 2 years); Pekah (I, 20 years); Jotham (J, 16 years); Ahaz (J, 16 years); Hoshea (I, 9 years). At this point, the nation of Israel is destroyed by Assyria.

After the end of Israel, the story is straightforward, because there is only one nation to deal with. The rest of the kings of Judah are as follows: Hezekiah (29 years); Manasseh (55 years); Amon (2 years); Josiah (31 years); Jehoahaz (3 months, then taken captive to Egypt); Jehoiakim (11 years); Jehoiachin (3 months, then taken captive to Babylon); Zedekiah (11 years). At that point, Judah was destroyed, bringing the period of the monarchy to an end as well as ending the narrative of the Books of Kings.