Tuesday, June 12, 2007

How Did We Get Our English Bible?

How did we get our English Bible? 04
Introduction to Textual Criticism

There is significant difference between trying to determine that actual words (and letters) of "God's Word" between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

OT --Hebrew (and Aramaic) language, fluid, poetic, image-oriented
NT --Greek language, precise, logical, technical

OT--Much of the OT was originally orally transmitted, and the written page is a copy
NT--The written words are the original source

OT--Much of the OT material was compiled over many generations
NT--Each book was written complete by a single author

OT--Hebrew (Oriental) people revered the tradition of the text and were very careful in transmission
NT--Greek thinkers (Western world) was much less careful in transmission, preferring quantity to quality

To illustrate the difference, think about what it means to "get back" to the original text of the book of Psalms -- it's just a collection of songs. Each song came from somewhere other than the "Book of Psalms." Or, compare Psalm 14 and 53. Or, compare 2 Kings 18-20 and Isaiah 36-39. Or, think about Deuteronomy 34 -- Moses dies. Certainly that's not part of the original text that Moses wrote, yet, it is certainly part of the book of Deuteronomy. For these reasons, New Testament textual criticism is far more important and useful[1] than Old Testament textual criticism.

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Think of the "telephone game" where one person whispers a story into the ear of another. That person then repeats the story to another and on it goes. At the end of a long line, the story has morphed quite a bit. Each person remembers a different story.

Now, we can think of a poorly paid scribe copying the gospel of Luke for a wealthy landowner in the 6th century. He is in a poorly lit room, standing (not sitting) all day at a rickety desk, with poor writing paper and ink. He's cold (or hot) and hungry. He may be barely literate. His "original" copy is smudged in places, and apparently whoever wrote it had bad handwriting. Further, remember that there is no punctuation marks, every letter is capitalized, and there are no spaces between words. As he looks at the "original" he sees that someone has come along and "corrected" or edited the text in some places. There are original words crossed out and replacement words in the margins. He wonders which is truly original, and why the new words are there. Also, there are some personal notes in the margins -- some of which is done with terrible handwriting! To top it all off, his boss is very pushy and wants the completed copy immediately. Ok, our poor, tired scribe is doing his best, but he's bound to make mistakes.

We’ll return to our poor scribe but for now, let’s get more concrete. There are almost 5800 Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament, some are only portions of particular books and some contain many or even all of the New Testament. Besides that, we have 15,000 to 20,000 manuscripts of translations of the New Testament, primarily in Latin, Coptic and a few other languages. These versional copies help tremendously, too. Finally, many pastors (known as “church fathers”) wrote to each other and to other churches and regularly quoted their New Testament. We have more than 1,000,000 NT quotations in the writings of the church fathers. In fact, we could construct the entire Greek New Testament (except for about 6 or 7 verses) simply from the church fathers.

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Textual critics refer to textual “variants.” A variant is one possible “reading” of a particular part fo the text. For example, perhaps in one manuscript, at a particular place, it says, “Jesus.” In another manuscript, at that same place, it says, “Jesus Christ.” In another, it says, “Christ.” In another is says, “the Lord Jesus.” That would be 4 variants. Which is original? That’s the job of the textual critic. There are about 300,000 to 400,000 variants in the Greek New Testament. There are about 138,000 words in the Greek New Testament, meaning that for every word, there is an average of 3 or 4 variant readings.

By far the largest category is Nonsense and Spelling Errors. There were no dictionaries and so there were no standard spellings of words. Proper names, especially, were subject to many different spellings. Sometimes, it was clear that a scribe was getting sleepy, and making stupid mistakes toward the end of a page, or a paragraph. Then, sometimes, you can see on the next line, a fresh pen, good handwriting, and no stupid mistakes. It must be the next morning.

The second largest category of variants is those that do not affect the translation at all. For example, in Greek, the definite article can be used in front of a proper name, or not. For example, in Greek you could say, “the Paul went to Jerusalem” or “Paul went to Jerusalem.” No scholar has any idea what the difference is. There doesn’t seem to be any discernable pattern. The meaning is not affected at all.

Another large group are those variants that are meaningfully different, but not viable. For example, there are some church fathers that clearly misquote the New Testament (perhaps they didn’t take the time to look up the exact wording, but just relied on their faulty memory). If the only testimony to a particular variant is one church father, of course it is not original.

The meaningful and viable variants make up less than 1% of variants, and no cardinal doctrine is in question or is affected by any viable variant.

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Ok, for a few more words about how these variant get into the text, let’s get back to our scribes. There were other common ways (in some places at various times) to copy the books of the New Testament. For example, a reader would stand in front of a large group of copiers. The reader would read a line of text from his manuscript and the copiers would then write down what they heard. If the reader went too fast or had an accent errors would creep in to some of the texts. If a listener heard the wrong word, he might write a word similar to what he heard. Think of these sentences:

Our chance that he will be allowed to chant aloud this hour is not good.
He was seen mourning in the morning scene of the play.
You two need to wait with your cart, too, for four people is too many in this car.

Also, sometimes somebody would cough, or a particular scribe would be inattentive for some reason. For example, in Revelation 15.6, most translations say that seven angels were clothed in "linen," but the ASV says they were clothed in "stone." Well, the Greek words for "linen" and "stone" sound very similar, but are spelled differently, and some manuscripts have one, others have the other.

This "He must have heard it wrong" kind of error is but one in a much larger category of unintentional changes. Bad handwriting, poor eyesight and dim lighting account for a large number of mistakes, too -- sometimes a scribe would skip a line altogether -- so in his new copy, 6 or 10 words would be missing, which made no sense at all. Sometimes, somebody would catch the mistake and put the missing text in the margin. Speaking of which, it was common for users of these texts to write notes to themselves in the margins of the book. If there was a word they were not familiar with, they would commonly put a synonym in the margin, but the margin was also used to correct the text. In later years if a scribe were to use this manuscript to copy from, how was he to know which one was a correction and which was a personal note? He made his best guess.

What is perhaps the most atrocious of all scribal blunders is contained in the fourteenth-century codex 109. This manuscript of the Four Gospels, now in the British Museum, was transcribed from a copy which must have had Luke's genealogy of Jesus … in two columns of twenty-eight lines to the column. Instead of transcribing the text by following the columns in succession, the scribe of 109 copied the genealogy by following the lines across the two columns. As a result, not only is almost everyone made the son of the wrong father, but, because the names apparently did not fill the last column of the exemplar, the name of God now stands within the list instead of at its close (it should end, of course, "…Adam, the son of God"). In this manuscript God is actually said to have been the son of Aram, and the source of the whole race is not God but Phares![2]

There were many intentional changes, too. Not all of the Biblical writers wrote with grammatical precision, so it was common to "correct" the grammar, spelling, etc. of the copy in front of you. Further, there are many "parallel" passages in the New Testament which are slightly different. Many of the monks had large sections of the Bible translated. If Mark's version of a gospel story was "lacking" compared to Luke's version, a scribe might put the "extra" sentence back in to his copy of Mark's Gospel. Early versions of Mark 1.2 say "as it was written in Isaiah the prophet." The quotation it refers to is a composite from both Isaiah and Malachi. Later versions of Mark simply say, "as it is written in the prophets." This was probably an intentional change. Other changes were made for theological reasons. For example, in Luke 2.41 and 43, the text reads "his parents" referring to Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus. However, some later manuscripts read "Mary and Joseph" in an apparent attempt to protect the doctrine of the virgin birth. Lastly, many "pulpit" copies of the New Testament were prepared specifically for public reading at worship services on Sunday. Each week, a little more was read, continuing where we left off last week. If a particular week's reading started with, "He began teaching them, saying…" then the "pulpit" copy would substitute the person's name ("Jesus" for example) instead of "He." Or, a brief phrase or sentence might be included to help the readers understand the reading. This was often confused as being part the text itself.

However, the vast majority of scribes and copies were amazingly scrupulous with their work. With the many thousands of copies made, we would expect to have far more textual problems than we have. Many errors (even in spelling) are copied over and over because most scribes would not change anything, they would copy exactly and check and recheck their work.

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One more thing. The average ancient Greek author has about 20 manuscripts of any kind. The very best is Homer (who wrote The Illiad and The Odyssey). We have less than 800 manuscripts for his work, even though he wrote 900 years before Christ. Also, the earliest copy we have of any Greek author is 500 years after the writing, but for the New Testament we have many copies from the 2nd Century (AD 100-200), which are about 100 years after the originals.

Next week, we’ll look at how scholars determine which variant is original, and why it matters. We’ll look at a few examples of some actual textual problems, and see if we can determine together which one is original. We’ll talk more about the significant differences between the KJV and the NIV. Which one is closer to the original?

[1] This does not mean that the Old Testament is less important, useful, relevant or inspired than the New, but we are simply talking about textual criticism here.
[2] Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, 3rd, enlarged edition, Oxford University Press, 1992, p.194-195.

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