Five More Myths about Bible Translations and the Transmission of the Text

There’s an old Italian proverb that warns translators about jumping in to the task: “Traduttori? Traditori!” Translation: “Translators? Traitors!” The English proverb, “Something’s always lost in the translation,” is clearly illustrated in this instance. In Italian the two words are virtually identical, both in spelling and pronunciation. They thus involve a play on words. But when translated into other languages, the word-play vanishes. The meaning, on one level, is the same, but on another level it is quite different. Precisely because it is no longer a word-play, the translation doesn’t linger in the mind as much as it does in Italian. There’s always something lost in translation. It’s like saying in French, “don’t eat the fish; it’s poison.” The word ‘fish’ in French is poisson, while the word ‘poison’ is, well, poison. There’s always something lost in translation.

But how much is lost? Here I want to explore five more myths about Bible translation.

Myth 1: The Bible has been translated so many times we can’t possibly get back to the original.

This myth involves a naïve understanding of what Bible translators actually did. It’s as if once they translated the text, they destroyed their exemplar! Sometimes folks think that translators who were following a tradition (such as the KJV and its descendants, the RV, ASV, RSV, NASB, NKJB, NRSV, and ESV) really did not translate at all but just tweaked the English. Or that somehow the manuscripts that the translators used are now lost entirely.

The reality is that we have almost no record of Christians destroying biblical manuscripts throughout the entire history of the Church. And those who translated in a tradition both examined the English and the original tongues. Decent scholars improved on the text as they compared notes and manuscripts. Finally, we still have almost all of the manuscripts that earlier English translators used. And we have many, many more as well. The KJV New Testament, for example, was essentially based on seven Greek manuscripts, dating no earlier than the eleventh century. Today we have about 5800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, including those that the KJV translators used. And they date as early as the second century. So, as time goes on, we are actually getting closer to the originals, not farther away.

Myth 2: Words in red indicate the exact words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.

Scholars have for a long time recognized that the Gospel writers shape their narratives, including the sayings of Jesus. A comparison of the Synoptics reveals this on almost every page. Matthew quotes Jesus differently than Mark does who quotes Jesus differently than Luke does. And John’s Jesus speaks significantly differentyly than the Synoptic Jesus does. Just consider the key theme of Jesus’ ministry in the Synoptics: ‘the kingdom of God’ (or, in Matthew’s rendering, often ‘the kingdom of heaven’). Yet this phrase occurs only twice in John, being replaced usually by ‘eternal life.’ (“Kingdom of Continue reading “Five More Myths about Bible Translations and the Transmission of the Text”

Nestle-Aland 28: The New Standard in Critical Texts of the Greek New Testament

Overview

At the annual Society of Biblical Literature conference held in Chicago last month, the latest edition of the Novum Testamentum Graece, or the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, was unveiled. This has been a long time coming—nineteen years to be exact. The Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung (INTF) in Münster is behind this production, and deserves accolades for its fine accomplishment. This is the first new edition of the Nestle-Aland text since the death of Kurt Aland, the founder of the INTF.

Kurt_Aland

Inexplicably, even though the new text was available at SBL—both as just the Greek text and in diglot with English translations—it could not be acquired through Amazon until later. I pre-ordered a couple copies last April; the diglot arrived in November but the Greek-only text will not be released until January!

Several gave presentations on the new Nestle-Aland text at SBL. Klaus Wachtel of INTF gave an overview of NA28. In his lecture, he noted, inter alia, the following:

  • The textual differences from the previous edition only occur in the Catholic Epistles. This is due to the fact that behind the scenes INTF has been doing exhaustive research on many variants in these letters and has produced the impressive Editio Critica Maior (ECM) series. These are the only books that have been thoroughly examined; hence, the changes to the text are only in these books. A total of 34 textual changes have been made.
  • In these letters, the siglum Byz is used instead of the gothic M (M).
  • As INTF worked through the Catholic letters, they came to see much greater value of the Byzantine manuscripts than they had previously. In Wachtel’s presentation, he noted that the NA27 displayed “prejudice against the Byzantine tradition” while the NA28 recognized the “reliability of the mainstream tradition.” This is a welcome change in perspective, made possible because of exhaustive collations.
  • For the entire New Testament, the apparatus functions now as “a gateway to the sources” instead of the more restricted purpose of the previous edition “as a repository of variants.”

The Introduction to the new work adds much more information. Among these consider the following:

  • “from now on, the Nestle-Aland will not appear only as a printed book, but also in digital form” (48*). This is more than what is already available in the digital copies of the NA27 that are part of the Accordance and Logos Bible software packages. For example, “Abbreviations, sigla and short Latin phrases in the apparatus are explained in pop-up windows. Above all, the digital apparatus becomes a portal opening up the sources of the tradition, as it provides links to full transcriptions and, as far as possible, to images of the manuscripts included” (48*).
  • Gone are the “consistently cited witnesses of the second order”—that is, those witnesses that comprised the gothic M (M) in NA27. Although this siglum is still used, its meaning has changed. Individual non-Byzantine witnesses that are part of the ‘majority text’ (a term that means more than just the Byzantine witnesses in NA27; it is unclear exactly what this siglum means in NA28) are now apparently cited explicitly, even if they agree with the Byzantine minuscules.
  • Conjectures are no longer to be found in the Nestle-Aland apparatus. There were nearly 120 conjectures listed in the previous edition. Nevertheless, at Acts 16.12 the editors still print as the text a reading that is not found in any Greek manuscripts (Φιλίππους, ἥτις ἐστὶν πρώτης μερίδος τῆς Μακεδονίας πόλις). Continue reading “Nestle-Aland 28: The New Standard in Critical Texts of the Greek New Testament”

The Demise of Codex 1799

A graduate of Princeton University in the early nineteenth century, Robert Garrett, acquired a medieval copy of Paul’s letters, Hebrews, Acts, and the Catholic letters from Mt. Athos in 1830. His estate later donated this manuscript to Princeton University. The manuscript was produced in the twelfth or thirteenth century on parchment. It was meant as something of a pocket Bible, measuring only 13.9 x 10.3 centimeters. The leaves are very fine vellum, extraordinarily thin. Housed in the Special Collections room of the Princeton University’s Firestone Library with the shelf number Garrett 8, it had only briefly been mentioned in works dealing with New Testament manuscripts.

According to J. K. Elliott’s Bibliography of New Testament Manuscripts, 2nd edition (Cambridge, 2005), the latest published discussions of this manuscript was in Kenneth W. Clark’s Eight American Praxapostoloi in 1941.

Kurt Aland’s Kurzgefasste Liste des griechischen Handschriften der Neuen Testaments, 2nd edition (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1994), the standard tool that indicates the location, contents, date, and other pertinent information of all known Greek New Testament manuscripts, put the location in parentheses and said that the manuscript was “verbrannt” or burnt. The Internet update to the Kurzgefasste Liste claims that the manuscript is now “zerstört”—destroyed. But just as when Mark Twain presumably proclaimed, after reading his obituary in a newspaper, “Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated,” so too the demise of codex 1799 is exaggerated. (Twain actually wrote, “This report of my death was an exaggeration.”)

I examined the manuscript on Thursday, 16 August 2012 for about an hour. It is true that the manuscript has been burned. It is also true that many of the leaves stick together, most likely from the heat melting the ink. But it is still completely intact. It needs to be restored, but it is not gone forever—not by a long shot. In fact, it is mentioned in some detail in Greek Manuscripts at Princeton: Sixth to Nineteenth Century, by Sofia Kotzabassi and Nancy Patterson Ševčenko, with the collaboration of Don Skemer (Princeton University Press, 2010). Mr. Skemer in fact wrote to me and said he had no idea why anyone would ever think the manuscript had been destroyed.

I am grateful to Mr. Skemer, the Curator of Manuscripts at the Firestone Library, and his assistant, Charles Greene, for granting us access to this and other manuscripts in the Special Collection. And I am thrilled that a presumably dead manuscript has come back to life!