June 12, 2009

Criticism made easy

If you look at a contemporary New Testament translation, you’ll see numerous footnotes on textual variants.  These range from 500-1000 (with the NKJV and New Jerusalem Bible having the most such textual notes.)  Unfortunately, these footnotes are nearly useless, since there is no explanation of the relative merits of the different versions.

And thus readers are the victims of textual criticism.  In other literary contexts, text criticism (the often quixotic search for the “perfect original text”) has gotten a bad name; with parties now preferring diplomatic texts to critical texts.  In Shakespearean studies, for example, the great synthesized plays, incorporating features from both the quartos and the folio, are on the way out – the Arden Shakespeare has now expelled the Jenkins critical Hamlet in favor of three versions: folio and the 1603 and 1623 quartos; the Oxford Shakespeare has two King Lears; while the Norton Shakespeare has three.  Similarly, who can forget the “scandal” of the Gabler Ulysses as it was played out in the pages of the NYRB (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here).  Today, we can buy the Gabler critical edition, the 1934/1961 edition, the 1922 edition, and a first edition facsimile (my favorite).  (With Bloomsday right around the corner, now is the time to complete your collection.)

But for New Testament studies, there is a certain snobbery from some advocates of the latest critical editions (currently the 27th edition of Nestle-Aland [NA27] and the 4th edition of the United Bible Societies).  There are many reasons one may wish not to use these:  (a) many of the decisions behind these editions seem arbitrary; (b) the German Bible Society has expressed its intention to enforce its copyright on these editions and disallow their use in web sites (I suspect these copyrights are not enforceable, but someone who challenges the German Bible Society must be prepared to fight it out in court); (c) one may interested in variants that reflect versions known to the ancient Christian authorities, e.g., to match up quotes with the Patristic literature; (d) one may just want to understand what those 500-1000 footnotes mean.

The problem is that until recently, there was no work in English that explained the critical choices; one could refer to the apparatus of UBS4 or NA27, but these were in Greek; and Metzger’s guide also presumed prior knowledge of the Greek variants.

141431034X Well, fortunately, there is a solution for that now – Philip Comfort has written an amazing resource, the New Testament Text and Translation Commentary.  This is, without a doubt, the best book I’ve ever seen published by Tyndale House Publishers.  The bulk of Comfort’s 944 page tome is a verse-by-verse listing of every contested passage in the New Testament – some three thousand entries.  For each entry

  • Comfort gives all variants (in both Greek and English).
  • He lists the manuscript evidence for each reading.
  • He lists which readings are found in which manuscripts, the Textus Receptus (basis of the KJV and NKJV); Westcott and Hort (the earliest and arguably the best of the critical editions); or Nestle-Aland and United Bible Societies (currently the favorite of most translators, but a flawed critical edition).
  • He lists which readings are found in major translations (ESV, HCSB, KJV, NAB, NASB, NEB, NET, NIV, NJB, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, REB, RSV, and TNIV).
  • He also lists which readings show up as alternatives in the notes of translations.
  • In places, he also comments on the readings in the GNT-TEV, RV, Goodspeed, Moffat, Phillips, and Williams translations.
  • He then gives at least a paragraph long explanation (sometimes much longer) discussing the relative merits of the different readings.

He also has an extensive introduction (which is an introduction to text criticism), a glossary, a number of useful appendices, and a bibliography.

This is such a useful work that I hope it is widely used and consulted.  With this work, even a non-Greek reader can meaningfully understand the different textual variants, can decipher footnotes in Bible translations, and can receive an excellent overview of the textual issues with the Greek Testament.  Perhaps its only drawback is that the book is quite large – the size of a large history book.

If you own Comfort’s book, you can be your own critic.  Or, alternatively, you can justify the readings of your favorite diplomatic text.  I recommend it.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Wow! That looks great! I'm glad someone's finally done the work on that. I always enjoyed Bruce Metzger's Textual Commentary on the UBS4 text, but, as you say, some of the decisions seem arbitrary. The UBS4 grading of variants certainly is. Tommy Wasserman has brought forward a suggestion for a much clearer grading system, based in objective criteria of external/internal support (which can still be fudged, but the system is a good deal better than just A, B, C grades!).

One interesting thing about the Robinson Pierpont Majority Text, essentially the Byzantine Text, is that they've completely released the copyright. The text is available for all to use here. The printed volume is beautifully done, however, and also includes a very helpful introduction and an interesting appendix explaining Robinson's "reasoned transmissionism" in support of Byzantine Priority. It turns many of the assumptions of the NA27/UBS4 "reasoned eclecticism" approach on their head. Fun stuff!

Jeremy said...

Very good, thank you. Another alternative would be Omanson's A Textual Guide to the Greek New Testament. I haven't had a chance to look at it, but it may be similar to Comfort's. Has anyone flipped through it before?

Nick Norelli said...

Jeremy: This is what someone told me about Omanson's volume in a comment on my blog:

"Borrowing from Comfort's commentary title, Metzger focuses more on the textual issues, while Omanson focuses more on the translation side. Omanson adds many discussions of how the Greek implies one translation over another, and how punctuation can affect translation. Omanson, OTOH, skips the 600 or so variants Metzger discusses that actually aren't in the UBS."

Hope that helps a little.

Anonymous said...


Omanson's Textual Guide is basically a simplified (i.e., less technical) and expanded version of Metzger. He wrote it so the non-Greek equipped layperson and/or non-native-English-speaking translator could better understand what Metzger and the UBS4 notes are saying, and why.

Peter Gurry said...

Thanks for the review. Sadly, my school's library does not have a copy yet. So I may have to pick it up for myself. I'm hoping this would be a great read for laymen interested in what's going on in all those footnotes in their English Bibles.