This is the second installment of a series of draft portions of an article I am writing on Biblical translations. Comments are welcome via e-mail.
2. The Text Behind the Text
I will address the question of the original text of the Greek New Testament in more detail in a subsequent article, but will touch upon the subject here briefly, as well as the question of the original text of the Old Testament. In short, there are the two versions of the Old Testament text that the Orthodox Church considers authoritative, and one of the New Testament.
A. The Old Testament Text
For the Old Testament, the two textual traditions that the Church has preserved are that of the Greek Septuagint and the Syriac Peshitta. The Latin Vulgate played an important role in the pre-schism western Church, and so it too is a translation is worthy of consultation. The Orthodox Church is of course well aware of the fact that most of the canonical Old Testament books were written in Hebrew and Aramaic (the Deuterocanonical books having mostly been written in Greek), however, the Hebrew text that we have today is not the same text that existed during the Old Testament period or at the time of Christ. This is seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as in the Septuagint, Peshitta, and Latin Vulgate -- which were all translated from the Hebrew, and yet reflect a Hebrew original that often differs from that which we have today.
The Hebrew Text that has served as the basis for most translations of the Old Testament into English is based almost entirely on the Leningrad Codex, which dates from 1008 A.D. In comparison to the textual evidence that we have for the New Testament Greek text, this is a very late manuscript. It is an example of the Masoretic recension, which is usually dated to have been shaped between the 6th and 10th centuries A.D. This is well after the Septuagint was translated (3rd century before Christ), the Peshitta (1st and 2nd Centuries A.D.), or the Vulgate (4th Century A.D.). According to Christian tradition, the non-Christian Jews began making changes in the Old Testament text to undercut the Christian use of Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of Christ. In any case, the Hebrew Text that we now have was preserved outside the Church. The Septuagint and Peshitta texts were preserved within the Church, and so the Church believes that the text of the Old Testament was been authoritatively preserved in these textual traditions.
Furthermore, it is clear that the text that Christ and the Apostles used matches the Septuagint rather than the Masoretic text. For example, in Acts 7:43, the Protomartyr Stephen quotes from the book of Amos as follows:
“Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, figures which ye made to worship them” (KJV).
But when you look this quote up in Amos 5:26 in most translations, you will find that the quotation doesn’t match:
“You also carried Sikkuth your king and Chiun, your idols, the star of your gods, which you made for yourselves.” (NKJV).
Compare the above with the Latin Vulgate:
“But you carried a tabernacle for your Moloch, and the image of your idols, the star of your god, which you made to yourselves” (Douay-Rheims translation of the Vulgate).
And then with the Septuagint:
“Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Raephan, the images of them which y made for yourselves” (Sir Lancelot Brenton translation of the Septuagint).
Also, there are several sections of the Hebrew text that are simply unreadable without keeping one eye on the Hebrew text and one eye on the Septuagint. For example, if you look at the footnotes for the book of Habakkuk in the NRSV there are 5 places in which it states that the Hebrew text is uncertain, and 3 times in which they state that they are simply translating from the Septuagint, Peshitta, and/or the Vulgate, because the Hebrew text is so unclear.
Another example of a clearly corrupt reading in the Masoretic text is 1st Samuel 14:41, which reads as follows:
“Therefore Saul said unto the LORD God of Israel, "Give Thummim". And Saul and Jonathan were taken: but the people escaped.”
Several modern translations correct this clearly erroneous text based on the Septuagint and Vulgate to read:
“Therefore Saul said, "O LORD God of Israel, why have you not answered your servant this day? If this guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, O LORD, God of Israel, give Urim. But if this guilt is in your people Israel, give Thummim." And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped.”
The Masoretic text simply makes no sense, and obviously at some point a scribe skipped and entire line or two of the text. This is obvious because of the reference to the Urim and Thummim, which were two objects used by the priest of the Old Testament for discerning the will of God on matters such as that described in 1st Samuel 14.
Another example is the text quoted in Hebrews 1:6 (“And let all the angels of God worship him”) which is nowhere to be found in the Masoretic text, but is found in both the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls Hebrew text in Deuteronomy 32:43.
It should be pointed out that the Hebrew text should not be ignored entirely. Particularly when the Septuagint and the Hebrew text are in agreement, we will better understand the Septuagint as a translation if we compare it with the Hebrew text that it is clearly a translation of. It is extremely helpful to understand the range of meaning of the original Hebrew text (when we clearly have it). For example, it is helpful to know that Hebrew does not have a past or future tense, but only a perfect and imperfect tense… and so just because an English translation is clearly in either past, present, or future tense, it does not necessarily mean that this is what is implied by the Hebrew original. One often encounters the use of the “prophetic perfect”, where a prophecy of something that has not yet come to pass is in the perfect tense, and so is often translated with the English past tense, e.g. “…with His stripes, we were healed” (Isaiah 53:5), when from the perspective of the prophet, he was speaking of something in the future.
There are at present only limited options available in terms of English translations of the Septuagint. There is the translation of Sir Lancelot Brenton, which is often awkward and wooden. For the Psalms there is the Psalter According to the Seventy, published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery. There are also various editions of the Old Testament readings that are used liturgically. The complete Orthodox Study Bible is due to be published around Pascha of 2007, and it will be a translation of the complete Septuagint in the style of the New King James Version.
There are also some translations based on the Latin Vulgate that are closer to the Septuagint text than are text based on the Masoretic Hebrew Text. The Douay-Rheims version is a translation of the complete text of the Vulgate, and the Coverdale Psalter, which is found in the older editions of the Book of Common Prayer is also translated from the Vulgate.
B. The New Testament Text
I address this issue in far greater detail in “New Testament Textual Criticism and the Ending of Mark,” but suffice it to say here that there are essentially two versions of the Greek New Testament that form the basis of the various translations we have in English. There is the traditional text, which is variously referred to as the “Received Text,” the “Textus Receptus,” the “Byzantine Text,” and the “Majority Text”. Then there is the revised text, which is based on the textual theory of Wescott-Hort, and is currently to be found in either the Nestle-Aland edition, or the United Bible Societies edition.
The traditional text of the Greek New Testament is the text that the Church has actually used and preserved for the past 2,000 years, and is to be found in the vast majority of Greek manuscripts, and is reflected in the vast majority of ancient translations of the New Testament—which in some cases originate from the time of the Apostles. The critical editions are based primarily a small number of manuscripts from Egypt, the earliest of which date from the mid 4th and century, as well as some of the papyri that likewise come from Egypt, some of which are dated as early as the 2nd or 3rd century.
The supporting premises of the theory that is behind the critical editions of the Greek New Testament has largely been shot to pieces by subsequent scholarship, but nevertheless, the theory remains the dominate approach to New Testament textual criticism because nothing has come along to replace it that has satisfied the majority of Protestant scholars.2 Consequently, almost all modern translations of the New Testament are based on the critical editions of the Greek New Testament, rather than the traditional text. The exceptions are of course the King James Version (along with various revised editions of the King James which are not really new translations but simply attempts to update the English), the New King James Version (which really is a new Translation, although it makes an attempt to maintain some continuity with the original King James Version, the Douay-Rheims, and a few other minor translations that are not in common use.
But are the differences between these two versions of the Greek New Testament significant? I have often answered this question by asking the proud owner of a translation based on the revised Greek text to look up John 5:4 and read it to me. It is always fun to watch as they discover that their Bible skips from verse 3 to verse 5. If you read this passage in context, removing verse 4 makes it entirely unclear what the paralytic is doing by the pool of Bethesda to begin with. Had the editors of the revised versions the guts to do it, you would also not find “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:43), or the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), but since they dared not remove those texts, you simply find them in brackets, with footnotes that tell you that “the earliest and most reliable manuscripts” do not contain them. In fact, if we accepted the assumptions of the revised Greek text, when the 3rd Matins Gospel Mark 16;9-20 is appointed, the priest would just have to whistle Dixie, because there would be no 3rd Matins Gospel.
2 See Wilbur Pickering, The Identity of the New Testament Text. Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 1980. http://www.revisedstandard.net/text/WNP/