Chapter 3: The Text of The New Testament

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 3: The Text of The New Testament

The New Testament claims from its readers an unique authority, and the reliability of its text is therefore of great importance. We wish to be assured that, when we read it, even in translation, we are reading essentially what the original authors wrote, and not a corrupted version of their work. In one sense it is true that no translation can correctly render the nuances and subtleties of thought of the original, but for practical purposes the ordinary reader will be content if he can be reasonably certain of the fidelity of the translation which he reads to a Greek text which can claim to be substantially that of the original works.

If the Authorised Version of 1611, still by far the most widely read of all English translations of the New Testament, is compared with later authoritative translations, such as the Revised Version of 1881, or the American Revised Standard Version of 1946, it is at once clear that there are numerous differences, but that the sum of all these differences amounts to very little. In the words of one of the latest revisers --

‘It will be obvious to the careful reader that still in 1946, as in 1881 and in 190l, no doctrine of the Christian faith has been affected by the revision, for the simple reason that, out of the thousands of variant readings in the manuscripts, none has turned up thus far that requires a revision of Christian doctrine.’ (An Introduction to the Revised Standard Version of the N.T., p. 42.)

While the general reliability of the Authorised Version has thus been confirmed by recent scholarship, there is no doubt that the modern translations bring the reader in hundreds of small instances nearer to the words and meaning of the original writers. The Authorised Version is not altogether free from mistranslations, e.g. Mk. 14:8 ‘being before instructed ‘for’ ‘being put forward’, or I Cor. 4:4 ‘I know nothing by myself’ for ‘I know nothing against myself’, but its most serious defect, and one which requires it to be corrected in more than a thousand places -- most of them, of course, of trivial importance -- is that it is a translation of a Greek text which we now know to be comparatively late and inaccurate. Two examples will illustrate this. A comparison between the Authorised and Revised Versions of the Lord’s Prayer in Lk. 11:2-4 shows that in the Revised Version the prayer is much abbreviated; the abbreviation often strikes with a shock the reader who is familiar with the Lord’s Prayer as it is said in church services, and yet the shorter version is certainly nearer to what Luke wrote; the additions, mostly from Matthew’s form of the prayer, crept into later manuscripts which were employed for the earliest printed Greek texts on which the Authorised Version is based. Again the reader will look in vain in the Revised Version for the Three Heavenly Witnesses of I Jn.5: 7 in the Authorised Version; when Erasmus published the first printed Greek text of the New Testament in 1516, he left out the words because they were not to be found in any Greek manuscript known to him, promising to insert the clause if it could be shown to exist in a simple Greek manuscript. The clause is in fact a late gloss which crept into the Latin Vulgate in the sixth century; unfortunately, however, it was shown to Erasmus in a sixteenth century Greek manuscript which had been assimilated to the Latin Vulgate text; Erasmus kept his promise, and the translators of the Authorised Version followed the erroneous text.

Between the Authorised and Revised Versions there stand two and a half centuries of progress in the science of textual criticism and of the collection and study of manuscripts. In the nineteenth century especially, the scientific study of the text developed apace, and the Revisers included in their number the two great scholars Westcott and Hort, whose theories as to the history of the New Testament text played then, as they have done since for other translators, a large part in determining the text to be followed

Westcott and Hort were able to utilise a mass of new knowledge that their predecessors had brought to light. Thousands of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, as well as versions in numerous other languages, had been examined by scholars, dated, and grouped into ‘families’. The older and more important manuscripts had been minutely studied and exactly reproduced in printed editions. The chief textual variants had been grouped in the ‘apparatus criticus’ of critical texts, notably in the later editions of Tischendorf’s Greek New Testament.

On the basis of this accumulated knowledge and of their own painstaking studies, Westcott and Hort made a great step forward in the search for the true text. They divided the readings of manuscripts into four great groups. The great mass of readings of later manuscripts they regarded as deriving from a Syrian revision of the text, which took place in the fourth century, and as largely worthless for the reconstruction of the true text. A number of readings found especially, but not exclusively, in manuscripts from the West, and termed ‘Western’, they regarded as early but as generally due to a corruption of the apostolic texts. Another type of text, the ‘Alexandrian’, supported largely by writers and manuscripts associated with Alexandria, was to be suspected as likely to have been the result of correction by literary scribes. Finally, a ‘Neutral’ text was constructed containing readings that were pre-Syrian but neither ‘Western’ nor ‘Alexandrian’ and proclaimed as the purest. No manuscript, version, or Father preserved this text in its original purity, but the great fourth century manuscript B (preserved in the Vatican Library) comes nearest to doing so, often with the support of ((the fourth or fifth century Codex Sinaiticus, then in St. Petersburg and now in the British Museum).

Since the time of Westcott and Hort textual criticism of the New Testament has made great strides. New manuscripts and papyrus fragments have come to light, notably a fourth or fifth century Syriac ‘Gospels’ from Sinai which has preserved a very old translation from the Greek, the Chester Beatty Papyri from Egypt of the third century, our oldest witness by a century for the text of much of the New Testament, and a small fragment of papyrus from Egypt (now in the John Rylands Library at Manchester) which contains Jn. 18:31-33, 37-38 and is dated by experts within the first half of the second century, or within half a century of the original writing of the gospel.

Side by side with this acquisition of new material have gone new developments in textual theory. The ‘Western’ text, which is now seen from newly utilised evidence to have been more widespread than Westcott and Hort perceived, has been given by some scholars greater weight than before (in Acts especially the ‘Western’ text contains many interesting variations from the ‘Neutral’ text, some of which are mentioned in chapter 13). New problems, too, have come to light as our knowledge of the early text has grown. At present, indeed, there is a widespread inclination among scholars to doubt whether we can ever pierce through the period of ‘variations’ in the first three centuries to any certain knowledge of the original text. Yet it must be remembered that these ‘variations’ are comparatively small, and of little religious significance. It is also perhaps significant that the translators of the latest American Revised Standard Version of 1946, who preferred an eclectic principle in determining the text which they should follow in place of adherence to such a theory as that of the ‘Neutral Text’, found that --

‘It is really extraordinary how often, with the fuller apparatus of variant readings at our disposal, and with the eclectic principle now more widely accepted, we have concurred in following Westcott and Hort.’ (Op. cit. p.41)

The reader of any of the standard modern translations, such as the Revised Version, the new American Version, or Moffatt, can have confidence that he will nowhere be seriously misled on important points of Christian doctrine in his reading.

Books for Reading:

H. W. Robinson. Ancient and English Versions of the Bible (Oxford).

F. Kenyon. Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (Eyre and Spottiswoode).

G. Milligan. The New Testament and its Transmission (Hodder and Stoughton).

An Introduction to the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament (International Council of Religious Education) explains briefly the principles on which this recent new Version is based.

For more advanced study:

K. and S. Lake. The Text of the New Testament (Rivington).

F. Kenyon. The Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Macmillan).