Those who have delved into their storied past through identification of their historic family tree, have often unpacked shocking details, unexplained mysteries, and even notable names that likely graced the lips of highfalutin “gossipeers” in their day.
Such notoriety exists even when tracing back the family tree of the Bible you hold before you.
The question that continues before us is how we are to trust the translation of Scripture we like to read, or perhaps the one quoted from in our church, or whether any translation can be relied upon to convey the truth of God’s words.
The main branch of this tree onto which we shall venture, as we move beyond the methods of translation explored previously, extends deep into the origins of the texts themselves.
As far as the New Testament (NT) goes, which we will review here, it was originally written in Greek. However, we do not have even a single fragment of any original documents that form our 27 books of the NT canon. Translators do have over 5000 Greek manuscripts, some of them complete records of Scripture, from which to compare (not to mention many thousands more in other languages).
That might seem like a slam dunk on where to start, but unfortunately, those documents do not all agree. Some have different words, some are missing entire paragraphs, and many are combined with other questionable documents that do not exist in our modern (Protestant, Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox) Bibles.
Scholars have proposed groupings of these early manuscripts into hypothetical family trees based on similarities in writing style, copy marks, and geographic backgrounds (as well as other more technical factors). The two most dominant family groups are called the Byzantine and Alexandrian Texts.
The reason this matters to us “common” Christians is that the particular translation you hold does not necessarily come from the same source that the one your fellow pew-warmer holds, let alone your pastor. Hence, the question remains, can you trust your Bible translation to accurately speak the words of God?
A dominant 94% of all Greek manuscripts fall under the Byzantine family, while about 4% are considered Alexandrian. It should be noted that there are only about 5% of actual differences between these two main textual groupings, and both present the exact same set of doctrines traditionally embraced by Christianity. But nuances of difference do exist, and as a result Bible translators gravitate to one or the other, near exclusively, whenever they begin to translate a new language version from the source language.
The earliest manuscripts, by hundreds of years, all fall under the Alexandrian family of texts. They originate out of Egypt, present a less wordy phraseology, and tend to represent the basis for the Western (or Roman Catholic) branch, even though the Catholic church shifted from Greek to Latin in the 600’s as their primary source language.
The Byzantine texts were widely copied, more descriptively worded, and were dominant in the regions where the original writings of the Apostles and early church had developed. Although few date before the 9th century AD, they are the basis for both the Eastern (Orthodox) branch and later for the early Protestant Reformation.
As the pendulum swings, the church has tended to rely on the Alexandrian texts from the early centuries, then into the highly restricted access of the Latin, then into the Byzantine (which shows far more uniformity within its family group than the much fewer sources of the Alexandrian), particularly as the Muslim turmoil pushed many Eastern Christians and their manuscripts westward during the 1500’s, just in time for the Protestant rejection of Catholicism and the newly questioned reliability of the Latin Vulgate.
At that time, Erasmus took a small handful of these Byzantine manuscripts and combined them from Greek into a uniform Greek that became known as the Received Text. In spite of its limited source material, integration of translated wording from the Latin Vulgate, and even backwards translating of some entire books of the NT from commentaries, rather than from actual biblical texts, it became the basis for Luther’s German translation, Tyndale’s English translation, and even the KJV.
But just as a pendulum continues to swing, and wind can change the branching shape of a tree, so the preferred source has again shifted. By the 1800’s, due to significant factors in philosophy, politics, archaeology and biblical criticism the vast majority of all modern translations are now produced from the Alexandrian family of texts. This extends from the formal equivalency translation of the NASB to the popular dynamic method translation of the NIV.
This source distinction is one of the major dividing lines for KJV-only proponents. Those who cherish the cautiousness of formal equivalency and find more comfortability relying upon the Byzantine family sources are often encouraged toward the NKJV, which is more readable than the KJV but closely representative, and those leaning in the Alexandrian direction are often pointed toward the NASB.
To answer the question: what difference does all this make? I will offer several insights.
First. The early church leaders (often called “church fathers”) quoted phrases that show up in both Alexandrian and Byzantine texts. They did not appear to exclude one for the other, but rather quoted as seemed best to them, presumably as they felt led by the Holy Spirit.
Second. The original apostle through whom the Holy Spirit worked to produce the treasured word of God within our NT cannon, appeared to have dealt with translations in exactly the same way as the later church leaders. Of course, in their case, they were dealing, as far as identified Scripture is concerned, with the Old Testament (OT), which was originally written in Hebrew, with a few sections in Aramaic. The translation they had access to was written in Greek and was called the Septuagint.
That Greek translation, just like exists between the Alexandrian and Byzantine textual groupings, has notable differences from the original language Hebrew text. In fact, just within the OT book of Jeremiah, there are some 2700 differences; an amount nearly equal to the percent of differences between the entire volume of NT manuscripts.
In spite of such known discrepancies between the Septuagint translation and the original Hebrew scrolls, the NT writers still read from, memorized from, and then even quoted from the Septuagint into what we now accept as NT Scripture. But as we are reminded by Peter, no part of Scripture, including its original writing, is subject to human interpretation or origination, for the word of God:
“…never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit”. (2 Pet 1:21)
And so we come to how we common leaves on the distant ends of textured branches ought to view the trustworthiness of the Bible from which we read, study, memorize, and teach.
In the same manner as so many before us, we can trust the promise of God to preserve his word through generations, through church splits, through theological twists, and even through translations. That doesn’t mean that everything is equally valid or worth embracing, but within the diversity available to us, if we submit to the lead of the Holy Spirit, he will guide us into all truth – just as Jesus promised would happen for his faithful in whom his Spirit dwells anew.
How do you demonstrate submission to the lead of the Spirit of God in how you evaluate what you read within your Bible?