Text and Translation

Introduction

It is easy to read an article or facebook thread on the issue of textual criticism or translation and have trouble understanding what is going on. The conversation is shrouded by specialized terminology and polemics. This is often due to people getting their information from their favorite podcast or YouTube program. Often times, the conversation becomes muddled when it comes to differentiating between the underlying text and the translations made from those texts. There are two important conversations that happen regarding the Bible – the conversation of which New and Old Testament texts should be used for translation, and the conversation of translation methodology and quality. Yet these two distinct topics are constantly conflated and mixed together.

The most common occurrence of this conflation happens when people utilize the term “KJV Onlyist” when discussing the Greek and Hebrew. This argument was made popular first by internet podcast host James White and reiterated in Dr. Andrew Naselli’s critically acclaimed textbook How to Understand and Apply the New Testament. It is almost impossible to have a conversation about which underlying Greek and Hebrew should be used in translation now without being called a “KJV Onlyist” if you are brave enough to affirm against the modern text.

Yet there is an important difference between the text a Bible is translated from and the translation itself. This is easily demonstrated in the fact that people disagree on which modern translation is the best. Some people swear by the NASB because they believe it to be “the most literal translation available”, and others only read the ESV because it is the “most scholarly translation”. Most times, Christians select their Bible based on the translation methodology and the quality of the translation itself. The underlying Greek has nothing to do with it. So it is absolutely possible that somebody prefers the modern Greek texts, but does not prefer any of the modern Bible translations, and reads a traditional Bible based on their preference of translation alone. Yes, it is possible that somebody would prefer a KJV without knowing anything about the underlying textual discussion. 

The Textual Discussion

The conversation of “which Bible is the best” can be separated into two categories, text and translation. The first category has to do with the Biblical languages, which are the Hebrew Old Testament (which includes small portions of Aramaic or Chaldean as the Puritans called it) and the Greek New Testament. Some people have also taken the modern position that the Bible can also be translated from other translations, such as the Greek Old Testament or the Syriac Old Testament. The ESV, NIV, and NASB all do this. This would be akin to creating a fresh Bible out of the ESV. The confessional position states that translations should not be made from versional readings like the Greek Old Testament, but that falls into the category of translation methodology. 

In terms of the first category, which is the text, the conversation has to do with answering the question “which original text should be translated from?” There are a handful of positions when it comes to text. The first can be generically called the modern critical text position. Within this camp, there are an array of different thoughts, so this brief description will obviously not cover every nuance of the conversation. The main thought is that the Greek Testament is best represented in Codex Vaticanus and other texts similar to it. Codex Vaticanus is said to have originated in Alexandria around the fourth century and was published in the 19th century. Codex Vaticanus is stored at the Vatican Library and the first time it was explicitly mentioned was in the Reformation period due to Erasmus consulting some of its readings as a part of his work on his Latin and Greek New Testaments. Erasmus believed that the Vatican codex followed Latin versional readings, and rejected it based on his detestation for the contemporary iteration of the Vulgate he was seeking to correct in his Latin edition. 

The most significant markers of these types of manuscripts are their short, abrupt readings and the absence of the three most discussed variants (John 7:53-8:11; 1 John 5:7; Mark 16:9-20). It also excludes many majority readings such as John 5:4 and Romans 16:24. If you look in a modern Bible, these verses are simply skipped over without renumbering the whole chapter. The Vatican Codex was employed heavily by Westcott and Hort in their Greek New Testament published in 1881 and all modern translations closely follow the readings of this manuscript and those like it. Out of the close to 6,000 manuscripts extant today, Vaticanus represents anywhere from 17 to 30 of them. These manuscripts were formerly called the “Alexandrian Family”, but recent scholarship has moved away from that conclusion due to their lack of coherence with one another. It is more accurate to say that they are cousin manuscripts than a text family. 

In any case, those that hold to the modern critical text position believe that the Bible is best preserved (Read partially or generically preserved) in the readings contained within these manuscripts, and make textual decisions based on prioritizing the Alexandrian texts as better than the majority of the manuscripts available today. There are many nuances within this camp, and some modern critical text advocates adopt some majority readings over Alexandrian readings (Like the Tyndale House Greek New Testament at John 1:18). The Greek New Testament most employed by those in this camp is the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament which is now in its 28th edition. The Nestle-Aland text is the base text used for almost all of the modern Bible translations made today. The modern critical text position also tends to favor Old Testament versional readings like the Greek, Syriac, and the Latin Vulgate over the Masoretic Hebrew text (see ESV 2016 prefatory material for more information). 

The second position is called the majority text position, which also has an array of different thoughts within it. Some scholars, like Wilbur Pickering, take a theological approach within the majority text position, and others take more of an evidential approach. In both cases, the majority text advocates reject the theory that the Alexandrian manuscripts are “earliest and best” and instead start with the readings represented most abundantly in the manuscript tradition (Or even pick one manuscript as the authentic representative). The basic premise of this position is that the readings that are most abundant are the readings that God preserved. Some within this camp do not dogmatically pick the majority reading every time, however. They still make decisions on each variant like one might do within the modern critical text camp based on the extant data available. There are Bible translations made from various collations of the majority text, like the family 35 majority text. Often times, the majority text advocates do not read a Bible that represents their favorite text, though the NKJV and even the KJV are popular within this camp. 

The third position is called the confessional text position (also called the Ecclesiastical text, canonical text, or less preferably TR advocates). This position favors the texts that were employed during the time of the Reformation and confessional period after which are represented by the Masoretic Hebrew Old Testament and the Received Text of the New Testament. While this position typically favors the Authorized Version (KJV), many within this camp read the NKJV, MEV, or GNV, and are open to fresh translations of the texts of the Reformation. Most read the AV simply because they believe the translation methodology employed by the translators is more faithful than the other Bibles available. This position is not so much about translation, but rather about the underlying Biblical texts used for translation. Since the modern Bibles employ a different underlying text, this camp rejects those Bibles because they do not believe they represent the original.

The Greek text preferred by the confessional text position aligns most closely with the majority of manuscripts available today, though it does depart from the majority text in certain places, which makes it a distinct position. This is why this position is often conflated with the majority text position, though they are different from one another. This conflation is made in Dr. Andrew Naselli’s textbook mentioned above. The major difference between this and the modern critical text position, is that this camp believes the work of collating manuscripts was accomplished during the Reformation period. During this time, the process of copying manuscripts evolved from hand copying to printing with the invention of the printing press, and thus the method of copying was formalized and a more concentrated effort of textual criticism was warranted. Since this text was to be massively distributed for the first time in church history, this effort represents a significant phase in the providential preservation of the Word of God. 

A major point of confusion by those who do not adhere to this position, is the fact that the confessional text camp is not trying to find the original Bible, they believe they have it. They are not primarily concerned with supporting every reading with extant manuscript evidence (though they can) because they do not believe this aligns with the Biblical doctrines of inspiration and preservation. The manuscripts do not offer definitive conclusions on the text 400 years removed from the time when they were still being copied in the Reformation period. Modern critical text advocates have trouble understanding the idea that the Bible was never in need of reconstruction, it was received in every generation and massively distributed for the first time in the 1600s. The effort of Reformation era textual criticism was not an effort of reconstruction, like today’s effort, but rather a collation and editing. Simply put, the Reformation era text-critics (not just Erasmus), were collecting faithful copies of the New Testament, and editing them into printed editions. Reformation era scholarship on inspiration and preservation demonstrates that this was the common thought of the day. They believed that the text of the New Testament was available, and with editing into one edition, could be found easily. Commentary by the Westminster Divines and other Puritan scholars affirms this overwhelmingly. Those in the confessional text camp affirm the determinations of these scholars and theologians, and believe that the text used for translation and theology for the next 300 years was the text that the people of God had used since the beginning (While acknowledging aberrant text streams and variants). 

Notice that while translation is connected with the textual discussion, it is not the same discussion at all. Those that are nuanced in the conversation select their Bible translation based on their understanding of the underlying text, but the translations themselves are entirely distinct from the text they are translated from. That is why it is unhelpful and actually detrimental to reduce the conversation of text to a matter of translational preference, as many do today. In fact, labeling somebody a “KJV Onlyist” for preferring the Received Text or Majority text only demonstrates an extreme amount of ignorance on the topic. Conflating the Received Text with the Majority text is even more condemning. The conversation of text can take place without discussing translation at all, though translation often comes up. It has to do with the underlying Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament. 

The Translation Discussion

A translation is simply the product of translating one language to another. In the context of Bible translation, the translations are typically made from the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament (though many modern translations translate from translations in the Old Testament). It is true that people often select the translation they read based on their view of the underlying text, though this is not always the case. That is because translation methodology is an entirely different discussion. A good translation has nothing to do with the text it is translated from. In fact, it is possible to make a horrible translation from a great underlying text, and an accurate translation from a horrible underlying text. A translation simply takes a text from one language into another. 

The conversation of translation can be separated into two categories – translation methodology and the accuracy of the translation itself. Translation methodology is more closely related to the textual discussion due to methodology often being impacted by the translator’s view of the text. For example, the Reformation era translators did not translate from versional or translational readings. They translated from the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. Modern translation methodology does not strictly translate from the original languages, but often translates from other ancient translations. Somebody could agree that the modern critical text is better, but disagree with the modern translation methodology, and choose to read a traditional Bible because of it. 

In my experience, translation methodology is actually way more significant to people when choosing a Bible than the textual discussion. Most people choose the NASB because it is “the most literal” or the ESV because it is “the most scholarly” or the NIV because it “captures the original intention of the authors”. Most people reject the KJV because they “cannot understand it”. While the textual discussion is extremely important to some people, most Christians choose a Bible based on the translation itself. In fact, most people pick the ESV simply because they enjoy how it reads. 

Translation methodology is actually an extremely important topic that often goes neglected. It is important because most people only have access to a translation, so they have to trust that the translators have faithfully given them God’s Word in their mother tongue. Translation methodology has to do with which texts are being used to translate from, whether the translators are attempting to translate more formally (ESV, KJV, NASB) or dynamically (NIV, MEV), and even the complexity of the vocabulary. Bibles that are translated using formal equivalence (more literal) are often preferred over Bibles that are translated using dynamic equivalence (thought for thought). A simple internet search reveals that when people are selecting a Bible, this is the primary motivating factor for most people when selecting a translation.  

The second category of the translational discussion is the actual accuracy of the translation itself. This has to do with the accuracy of a word actually being translated from one language into another. It is more uncommon for people to choose a translation based on accuracy, but it is a factor that people take into account. People want to know that what they are reading represents the original language. This part of the discussion is another important component that is frequently neglected but it is certainly becoming more central to the translation discussion as the NASB and ESV are beginning to do more interpretation instead of translation in each new edition. A great example is whether or not αδελφοι should be translated as “brothers” or “brothers and sisters”. A literal translation would simply translate the plural form of the word “brother” (αδελφος) into “brothers”, but modern translation methodology has evolved into doing more interpretation than translation. While the usage of the word can include both men and women depending on the context, it literally just means “brothers”. In the case that a translation team decides to translate the word into “brothers and sisters”, the translators are making a decision to include an interpretation of the word in the translation itself. 

While this might seem like an unimportant nuance, translation accuracy is the reason many are decrying the next edition of the NASB. People are not comfortable with the translators interpreting a passage – they simply want the passage translated and the interpretation left to the person reading the text. Due to the trend of modern Bibles doing an increasing amount of interpretation in the translation itself, many people have actually decided not to purchase the newest editions of the ESV, NASB, and NIV. This is another great example of how translation methodology can cause somebody to determine which Bible they read, despite somebody’s understanding of the textual discussion. When I was a modern critical text advocate, I had already considered abandoning modern translations based on the direction that the translation methodologies were going. There are many people who read the KJV and NKJV simply because the modern translations take many liberties in translation. 

Conclusion

The conversation of text and translation is complicated and nuanced. There are a vast array of reasons that one might decide to read a particular translation over another, and the underlying text is only one of those reasons. In many cases, the underlying text is not even the main reason somebody picks one Bible over another. The important thing to recognize is that there are many important differences between text and translation, and some people care more about one than the other. In fact, most people are fine with the differences between the underlying texts used for translation because they believe they have “all the important stuff” no matter which Bible they read. The reality is, that many Christians read the NKJV or KJV based on translation methodology, preference, or familiarity over and above the textual discussion. That is because it does not matter how pure the underlying Greek and Hebrew is, if the translation is not faithful, than people want nothing to do with it. 

Simply calling somebody a “KJV Onlyist” reduces the conversation to polemics and is entirely unhelpful and even detrimental to the discussion. There is a plethora of reasons to reject modern Bibles, tradition is just one of them. It is time that Christians realize that being a “KJV Onlyist” is not the only reason to read a KJV, or the only reason people reject modern Bibles. The fact is that many Christians are becoming disenchanted with the increasing number of revisions to the underlying modern Greek text and the evolving translation methodologies of modern Bibles. People do not want a changing Bible. They want consistency and stability. The direction that modern translations have been heading for decades does not, and cannot offer this. 

4 thoughts on “Text and Translation

  1. “For example, the Reformation era translators did not translate from versional or translational readings. They translated from the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. Modern translation methodology does not strictly translate from the original languages, but often translates from other ancient translations.”

    Is this talking about new translations using prior translations as a basis? I know that’s a common thing, but I don’t think it was uncommon in the Reformation era. The KJV translators followed older translations, especially the Bishops’ Bible, pretty extensively.

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    1. Right – I would make the disctinction between referring to a version and translating from that version. All modern Bibles basically use the RSV and ASV as a base translation.

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