Textual History

How does it come about that we still possess the Old and New Testaments, when they were written and compiled so many centuries ago? In a world before printing, this was only because they were continuously copied and recopied by generations of scribes.

In the case of the Old Testament, there were until modern times no manuscripts copied any earlier than the late first millennium CE, something like 1,000 years after the last Old Testament book (Daniel) was written. It was only the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls that made available manuscripts going back to the last years before Christ. The library at Qumran, where the Scrolls were written, possessed more than one copy of many Old Testament books, and nearly all the books are represented at least in fragmentary form. It is remarkable how close these manuscripts are, in general, to what had previously been the earliest manuscript, the ‘Leningrad Codex’ (11th century CE), which is the basis for all modern printed Hebrew Bibles. From quite early in the Christian era there seems to have been a tradition of copying very exactly: in the Hebrew Bibles we have, even what are obvious mistakes in the text are copied exactly, and there are even marginal notes to remind the scribe not to correct the error!

Where the New Testament is concerned, the manuscript evidence is much nearer the origins of the books, with fragments of New Testament books written on papyrus – mostly from Egypt, where the dry climate preserved them – from as early as the second century CE, not long after the later books of the New Testament (2 Peter, for example) seem to have been written. But there is a striking difference from the Old Testament manuscript tradition: the copying is rarely exact, and there does not seem to have been any insistence that it should be. Scribes varied and corrected the text they were copying. In the case of the Gospels, they often ‘harmonised’ one Gospel with another. For example, sayings of Jesus that occur in different forms in Matthew and Mark often appear in particular manuscripts of Mark in the Matthaean form, probably because Matthew was read more and so was more familiar. It is not until the fourth century that we find major manuscripts containing the whole of the New Testament, such as the great Codex Sinaiticus, now in the British Library in London. In the New Testament as in the Old, the order of books is sometimes different from the one we are used to, reflecting a lack of fixity in the biblical canon.

All our modern Bibles rest on decisions about which of the various forms of the biblical text found in manuscripts are more likely to be the oldest, and therefore nearest to what the biblical authors actually wrote. The art of making decisions about this is known as textual criticism. Thus no printed version of either the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) or New Testament unquestionably reflects what the authors actually wrote. They are all an expert’s best guess as to what the original books probably contained. It is worth remembering this when people press very exact verbal details of the biblical text in argument. In broad terms we can feel confident that we have reliable Bibles, but the fine detail – and there is a lot of that – varies a good deal among the available manuscripts, and there is no one completely authoritative version. This is particularly true of the New Testament, and above all of the Gospels, where even in very early times there does not seem to have been even an ideal of a fixed text, let alone the reality of one. The Old Testament in its Hebrew form was more fixed by the time of Jesus, though even there the Dead Sea Scrolls show that some books existed in different forms; but even the Dead Sea versions are in some cases centuries later than the original books, and there is no knowing what changes may have been introduced over the intervening centuries. We know, for example, that the book of Jeremiah existed in both a longer and a shorter form, and which (if either!) really goes back to Jeremiah is an unanswerable question.

There are sacred books in the world which have always been known and used only in their original language. This is true, for example, of the Qur’an, never read by Muslims except in Arabic. It is a striking fact that by far the majority of people who have encountered the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and Greek New Testament have done so in the form of a translation into another language.

By the time of Jesus, many Jews, even in Palestine, were no longer fluent in Hebrew. It had become a religious language, rather like Latin in the Roman Catholic church, which was no longer spoken by ordinary people. Palestinian Jews mostly spoke Aramaic. This language is a close relative of Hebrew, sharing many words with it, but the two languages are not mutually comprehensible: they are about as close as German and Dutch, much further apart than Norwegian and Swedish. Aramaic had been spoken all over the Middle East in the first millennium BC and had served as a means of communication among people who did not know each other’s languages, much as English does today. By the first century Greek had supplanted it as the universal language, but it was still spoken by most people in Palestine. So the need arose, if the Bible was to be understood, for it to be translated into Aramaic. (A few chapters in the books of Ezra and Daniel are in Aramaic already.) The Aramaic translations, which are often quite loose, more paraphrase than strict translation, are known by the Aramaic word targum (plural targumin), meaning ‘interpretation’. They exist for the most important parts of the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch and the Prophets.

By the last couple of centuries BCE there had arisen a similar development for the Jews outside Palestine, and especially in Egypt, whose everyday language was by now Greek. So Greek versions of the Hebrew Bible began to be produced. There is a legend that the Greek translation of the Pentateuch was made for the Egyptian king Ptolemy Philadelphus (285–246 BCE), and that the work was carried out by seventy translators who all worked independently yet produced (through divine inspiration) an identical version. Because of this the Greek Old Testament is usually known as the Septuagint (Latin for ‘seventy’), abbreviated LXX (Roman numeral for 70). The Septuagint is deeply important for the history of Christianity, since it is usually this version that New Testament authors, writing in Greek, quote from. Some, including Paul, could undoubtedly read Hebrew, but their everyday Bible was the LXX. In later years the Jewish community turned against the LXX, because it was preserved in Christian circles and at times, they suspected, had been tweaked to make it support Christian ideas. Further Greek translations, allegedly truer to the Hebrew, were produced by three scholars, Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, parts of whose work still survive. The LXX went on to become the Old Testament for the Greek-speaking churches, and remains the official Bible of the Greek Orthodox Church to this day.

In the West, in western Europe and north Africa, Latin became in due course the language of every day, and the need for translation arose again. The first Latin version of the Bible— now of the New Testament as well as the Old, since not all Christians could understand the New Testament in Greek—is known as the Old Latin (Vetus Latina in Latin). The Old Latin of the Old Testament was translated not directly from the Hebrew, which hardly any Christians knew, but from the LXX—so it is a translation of a translation. In the fourth century CE, St Jerome went to the trouble of learning some Hebrew from Jewish scholars in Palestine, and translated the whole Old Testament from the original. This version was not universally popular with Christians, who clung to the old familiar Vetus Latina, but in time it established itself as the ‘common’ Latin Bible, in Latin Biblia Vulgata. It is known in English as the Vulgate, and remains the official Bible of the Roman Catholic church, though in modern times it has been revised to form a ‘New Vulgate’ (Nova Vulgata).

From about the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, the Bible began to be translated into the vernacular languages of Europe. There was opposition to this from the officialdom of the Catholic church, and some people (such as William Tyndale) were even executed for translating the Latin Bible. But, especially with the rise of printing, the process of producing vernacular versions became unstoppable. The German Reformer Martin Luther single-handedly produced a complete translation of the whole Bible into German, an achievement as remarkable as Jerome’s. In England there were several revisions of Tyndale’s Bible, such as the Bishops’ Bible, which preceded the eventual production of what is known in Britain as the Authorised Version (AV) and in America as the King James Version (KJV). This was made under the official auspices of King James I by a panel of scholars, and was published in 1611. As the Preface makes clear, it was a deliberate revision of earlier translations, not a brand-new version. It established itself as the standard English Bible for the next two and a half centuries, and is still of course widely used and revered today, not least for the excellence of its English style.

During the 19th century advances in understanding Hebrew and Greek, together with an awareness that there were places where the AV was hopelessly obscure, led to pressure for a revision. Between 1881 and 1895 the Revised Version (RV) was published in Britain, and an American equivalent, the American Standard Version (ASV), in 1901. These versions are now hard to come by, and from a modern perspective represent only a light revision of the AV.

During the 20th century there was a fresh development in English Bible translation: versions produced by individuals working from the original languages, and not simply revising existing versions but starting from scratch. Notable examples are those by James Moffat in 1935 and by JB Phillips (mainly limited to the New Testament) in the 1940s and 1950s. The latter was often arrestingly modern and avoided hallowed phrases—even the titles, such as Letters to Young Churches for Paul’s Letters and The Young Church in Action for the Acts of the Apostles, told the reader to expect something with a contemporary idiom.

But most 20th-century Bibles, like the AV, were the work of committees. There are, however, two distinct traditions. One works, like the AV itself, by revising earlier versions. Thus the ASV was revised to produce the Revised Standard Version (RSV, completed in 1957), which still has the flavour of the AV but eliminates many archaic phrases and pays conscious attention to the original languages. This tradition continues in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which has established itself as the version of choice for many students of the Bible in the English-speaking world, from all Christian denominations. The other tradition, following the lead of Moffat and Phillips, starts from scratch. This approach led to the New English Bible (NEB – later revised as the Revised English Bible (REB)), produced by a panel drawn from all the Protestant churches, and the Jerusalem Bible (JB – later revised as the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB)), which followed the lead of the French Bible de Jérusalem, a Catholic version.

Two other important modern translations should be mentioned. Evangelical Christians often use the New International Version (NIV), which has a style not unlike the NRSV, but concentrates on translating various passages where the meaning is disputed so as to favour an evangelical interpretation. The Jewish community for many years used either the AV or modified versions of it (of course only the Old Testament), but now tends to prefer the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) version, which sticks very faithfully to the Hebrew text as it can be found in printed Hebrew Bibles and avoids changing it, as most Christian Bibles (including the NIV) do, when it seems to most scholars to contain errors. It is, in effect, the only modern Bible not affected by textual criticism.

There have also been attempts to produce Bibles in genuinely contemporary English, rather than the slightly ‘academic’ style used in most of the Bibles mentioned so far. Among these are the Good News Bible (GNB), and the Contemporary English Bible (CEB). These often depart quite a long way from the original but make up for this by a vivid style that many people prefer to that of more ‘traditional’ Bibles.

From NRSV and NJB onwards, translators have become sensitive to issues of ‘inclusive language’—the need to avoid the suggestion that the Bible is addressed only to men! In Paul’s letters the Greek word adelphoi (brothers) is regularly translated ‘brothers and sisters’ in the NRSV, to emphasise that Paul was talking to all Christians in the churches he wrote to, even though (following the custom of the time) he addressed them as ‘brothers’. Sometimes this way of translating produces oddsounding phrases: instead of the disciples being told that they will become ‘fishers of men’ (AV) they are now told ‘I will make you fish for people’ (Matthew 3:19). The effect of this change is certainly to make women feel much more included among those addressed by the Bible, though sometimes it can mask the ‘patriarchal’ values that some biblical writers did believe in. And there is no way of translating the command to women to be silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34) that will make it less offensive to most modern women.

Almost all Christians, and many Jews, encounter the Bible only in translation. Some translations have the aim of preserving the tradition of earlier English versions (there are parallels in other modern languages), and thus helping the reader to fit into a long Christian history, hearing the same, or nearly the same, words as their forebears in faith. Others set themselves the task of surprising readers and encouraging them to put themselves back in the position of the first believers, hearing the word of God for the first time. In a religion such as Christianity, which is 2,000 years old, there can be a valid place for both approaches.

But in neither case can the Christian reader afford to become fixated on one particular version as though it somehow preserved God’s word in a definitive form. If there is to be such a feeling at all, it would need to attach to the ‘original’ Bible, in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and not to translations into any other language at all. But, as we have seen, even the ‘original’ Bible is something of an enigma. We do not possess the book of Genesis as it left the hands of its original author, in the way that we can possess the manuscript of a modern author. The situation is more like our relation to Shakespeare, where there are several different versions of many plays, some or all authorised by him, and some representing the working copies used by actors, so that the ‘original’ Shakespeare may not only be hard to reconstruct in practice, but actually impossible in principle – there is simply no such thing. The apparent fixity and permanence of the Bible as it shines out from a solid printed translation conceals an enormous amount of diversity and uncertainty that confronts anyone who peeps behind the scenes. This does not mean that there is really no Bible at all: the uncertainties represent only a portion of the whole. But knowing something of how we got our English Bibles it makes it hard to respond in a fundamentalist way to the exact wording that confronts us when we open them.

Professor John Barton is Emeritus Professor of Theology at the University of Oxford.


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