Saturday, July 18, 2015

Modern English Versions and the Greek New Testament

Some of us remember the days before the internet and Google, when a new software program came with an immense user’s manual. If you have ever seen any of these in a used bookstore, you probably noticed that it was relatively unused. The problem with those manuals is that they really were unusable. The indices were usually poorly done and the text was written by the people who wrote the program. Between “geek speak” and making gratuitous assumptions about what the computer illiterate user actually knew, the manuals provided more frustration than clarification to the user.

Modern English versions, in relation to the Greek text of the New Testament, are somewhat like those old user manuals. They tend to assume too much, and hence give the ordinary reader too little information. For example, the Preface to the ESV makes the following statement: “The ESV is based on … the Greek text in the 1993 editions of the Greek New Testament (4th corrected ed.) , published by the United Bible Societies (UBS) and Novum Testamentum Graece (27th ed.), edited by Nestle and Aland.… in a few difficult cases in the New Testament, the ESV has followed a Greek text different from the text given preference in the UBS/Nestle-Aland 27th edition.”  The Greek texts referred to here are the NAET of my prior post. Similar statements are found in the prefaces of other modern English versions. The problem is that, while accurate, it is full of “geek-speak” and thus of relatively little use to the ordinary reader of the New Testament. It does not, for example, note the existence of MT and TR texts. Granted, the NAET is currently something of a consensus text among New Testament scholars, but a significant minority support for an MT probably should merit some recognition. In my estimation, the Preface to the New King James Version is much more informative and more “user-friendly” for the ordinary reader.

The other point at which most modern English versions under-serve their readers is in the textual notes. For the most part, the notes themselves are clear enough, but the rationale behind them is unclear. So, for example, 2 Thessalonians 2:3 in the NIV reads, “the man of lawlessness.” There is a textual note that says, “Some manuscripts sin.” In other words, some manuscripts have “man of sin” instead of “man of lawlessness.” The ESV has the same note. The NASB (1995) has “lawlessness” but no textual note, as does the NLT. What the various versions do not make clear is why in some cases there is a note, whereas in other cases there is not. One might think that the idea is to have a note whenever there is a difference between the NAET and the MT or TR, but that is not supported by the evidence. For example, in regard to one of the most notorious passages in the New Testament (1 John 5:7), the NIV and the NASB (1995) both have a note explaining the “missing” verse, the ESV and NLT do not.

On this issue, my philosophy is “less is more.” The modern English version indicates its textual preference in the preface. The reader should assume that the translation reflects that textual preference. In that case, textual notes are unnecessary, unless there is a case where the translation differs from its preferred text. Then there should be merely a note indicating that the translators have preferred a different reading. As it is, most of the textual notes serve merely to confuse the reader.

Next: The New Testament text and the Westminster Confession.

No comments: