Friday, August 31, 2007

How modern versions mislead about textual criticism

An article by a textual critic has criticised the misleading way that the NIV treats text critical matters. The article "Some Witnesses Have ...": The Representation of the New Testament Text in English Bible Versions is by Holger Szesnat of the Cambridge Theological Federation. He is also critical of the CEV which manages to confuse notes relating to translation and notes relating to textual criticism in its Preface.

New King James Version
The article does not address one of the most confusing translations with respect to textual criticism, the New King James Version. The marginal notes relating to textual criticism in this version are among the most extensive since such matters were introduced by the Revised Version. The footnotes in the NKJV make constant reference to the Nestle-United Bible Society critical Greek text and in some cases to the Majority text and thus create exactly the same kind of doubt with respect to the original text of Scripture that is in the other modern versions. By questioning the authenticity of such verses and phrases the notes create confusion for the reader and even skepticism. There is an expectation that Bible students will be able to pick and choose according to their subjective sense of what is authentic. Or else there is an assumption that readers will initiate themselves into the philosophy of textual neutrality or eclecticism, of picking and choosing between the readings of competing texts and versions. The latter seems to be entirely the intention according to the New King James Bible Study Edition which states that:
'It was the editors' conviction that the the use of footnotes would encourage further enquiry by readers. They also recognized that it was easier for the average reader to delete something he or she felt was not properly in the text, than to insert a word or phrase which had been left out by the revisers'.

Textual criticism is a complex,technical discipline requiring the knowledge of many ancient languages and in-depth historical awareness of the history of texts. Modern versions would launch the general reader with very little intelligible information into a vast field of knowledge that they cannot hope to process adequately.

New American Standard Bible
This version had originally cut out various parts of the New Testament on the basis of textual criticism and has recently had to reinstate them. One of these passages was the ascension of Christ in Luke. The NASB originally left this ascension account out, claiming it was not found in the best witnesses. It is now restored. As Theodore Letis pointed out they did so 'on the basis of the discovery of papyrus75, (p75), a very early third century witness to the validity of this ascension account. This papyrus was discovered in the 1950s, just about the time that the NASB project was getting off the ground. The NASB New Testament portion appeared in stages between 1960 and 1963, but the entire bible did not materialize until 1971 and as with the current Updated Edition of the NASB which already lags behind the most current edition of the Greek N.T., 27th ed., the original NASB N.T. edition never took full advantage of this new evidence (p75 was first published in 1961, thus affording them plenty of time to adjust their text to this new data'. Can we even believe that these modern versions have got their homework right in relation to the position that they take on textual criticism? As Szesnat's article shows, there is much that is misleading in this connection within the NIV. It is important to note that the Today's New International Version has not really changed the NIV's treatment of text critical matters.

New International Version

Szesnat notes the confusing way that text critical matters are introduced in the preface to the NIV. The preface states (ix-x):
'The Greek text used in translating [the New Testament] ... was an eclectic one. No other piece of ancient literature has such an abundance of manuscript witnesses as does the New Testament. Where existing manuscripts differ, the translators made their choice of readings according to accepted principles of New Testament textual criticism. Footnotes call attention to places where there was uncertainty about what the original text was. The best current printed texts of the Greek New Testament were used ... In the New Testament, footnotes that refer to uncertainty regarding the original text are introduced by 'Some manuscripts' or similar expressions'.

As Szesnat points out what is the reader to make of this? An "eclectic text"? "Manuscripts"? "Witnesses"? "Original text"? "Best current printed texts"? He says: 'Clearly, it would be most difficult to understand the statement in the NIV's preface without basic text-critical training. It does not present the reader with an explanation of basic text-critical issues—in fact, it almost seems as if the preface has a trained exegete in mind, rather than the ordinary reader'. Szesnat goes on to point out that 'even more problematic is a claim implicit in the preface, namely that footnotes in the NIV are given only if there is "uncertainty" as to the original text. The preface seems to suggest that it is only in those cases noted in the NIV that there is any doubt about the "original text".

He states that this is misleading, 'if only because the NIV gives footnotes in many cases where there would be little 'uncertainty' among the vast majority of textual critics (e.g., Acts 8:37)'

'The NIV offers some 133 text-critical indicators in its text of the New Testament; two of these come in the form of notes within the text itself, the rest by way of footnotes. The format of these footnotes is fairly uniform, with few exceptions: variants are introduced as "some manuscripts
read / add..."(e.g. Mt 5:22) or "some manuscripts omit / do not have..." (e.g. Mt 12:47). It must also be noted that the abbreviations 'Mss' for manuscripts and 'MS' for manuscript, which are sometimes used in the footnotes of the NIV, are never explained. This seems odd, since these
abbreviations are hardly common outside the academic scene.'

In some instances, other indications are given with regard to the number of mss concerned: "a few" (e.g. Mt 27:35); "many" (e.g. Jn 13:32); "one" (only in Acts 10:19 and Heb 10:38); or "other" (only Acts 10:19). In some cases, temporal qualifiers are added: "some late manuscripts
..." (e.g. Mt 5:44); "some early manuscripts..." (e.g. Mk 6:14). In one instance, the variant reading is cited as being supported by "some less important manuscripts" (Jn 5:3)... One wonders though what the ordinary reader is to make of the information given: since no real introduction to textual criticism and the state of the NT text is offered, the reader's imagination is bound to run wild.'

In Mark 16 and John 8 there is some more of an explanation. 'The rather terse note reads: "The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20." But 'what do concepts like 'manuscripts' and 'witnesses' mean? Why are they important? What are 'reliable' or, for that matter, 'unreliable' mss?'

'In a number of cases, the NIV's description of external evidence is unnecessarily simplistic, if not misleading. A typical example is Heb 10:38, where the NIV states in a footnote: "one early manuscript But the righteous". Yet apart from "one early manuscript" (a reference to P13?) this
reading is supported inter alia by the so-called Majority Text...Another example of curious representation of text-critical matters is 1 Thess 3:2, where the NIV translates "Timothy, who is our brother and God's fellow-worker". A footnote states: "some manuscripts brother and fellowworker;
other manuscripts brother and God's servant." This selection is strange given that there are several other variant readings here, including the form that the TR / AV chose ("and servant of God and your fellow worker")'.

'Once or twice the textual variant is reported in ambiguous ways. Acts 13:18 (translated as "he endured their conduct for about 40 years in the desert") sports a foonote after 'conduct' which reads: "Some manuscripts and cared for them". The reader might therefore think that the variant
reading is "he endured their conduct and cared for them for about 40 years in the desert", whereas the translators presumably wanted to refer to the variant "and he cared for them for about 40 years in the desert". The footnote at 2 Pt 2:13 is a similar case.'

What is implied in the NIV is that the age of the mss is the most crucial aspect of textual criticism. But, quite apart from the importance of internal evidence (even if one is not a proponent of radical eclecticism), external evidence hardly works that way'.

The NIV, perhaps unwittingly so, implies an extraordinarily simplistic view that 'early' mss equal 'reliable', 'faithful', or 'accurate' scribes—somewhat akin to the desire of 19th century source critics of the New Testament to find the oldest gospel in the New Testament, assuming that it would necessarily be more 'accurate', or 'reliable', than the others. In this sense, it represents a simplistic, indeed naive, 'search for origins'. On the whole, this gives a rather erroneous impression, if only because it was precisely in the earliest stages of textual transmission that the scribes who copied the New Testament experienced the greatest freedom to alter the text quite deliberately (cf. Aland & Aland 1989;
Ehrman 1993; Parker 1997).

As John Burgo said of the Revised Version
'For, the ill-advised practice of recording, in the margin of an English Bible, certain of the blunders--(such things cannot by any stretch of courtesy be styled 'Various Readings')--which disfigure 'some' or 'many' 'ancient authorities,' can only result in hopelessly unsettling the faith of millions.

It can not be defended on the plea of candour,--the candour which is determined that men shall 'know the worst.' 'The worst' has NOT been told: and it were dishonesty to insinuate that it has. If all the cases were faithfully exhibited where a 'few,' or 'some,' or 'many ancient authorities' read differently from what is exhibited in the actual Text, not only would the margin prove insufficient to contain to the record, but the very page itself would not nearly suffice . . . . It is the gross one-sidedness, the patent unfairness, in a critical point of view, of this work...which chiefly shocks and offends us.'