Tag Archives: bible

Critical Editions

In my previous post, I gave an example of using a critical edition of the Old Testament, the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. In the comments I mentioned that it would be worth talking a bit about critical bibles generally, in particular the difference between eclectic and diplomatic texts.

A critical edition of the bible isn’t so much the bible text itself, but the footnotes. A critical edition is designed to tell you what variations there are in the text, and how those variations are commonly approached. It should provide a way of jumping off into other resources to find the in-depth debate on a particular verse and, using your personal criteria for how you evaluate the various source texts, allow you to come to a conclusion about how to treat the passage. This is all about the footnotes (called the ‘apparatus’). The text itself should only be there to provide the bits where there is no reasonable disagreement, and it obviously provides one of the alternatives when there are disagreements. Normally critical editions don’t log every spelling mistake or obvious error in every text, but they may point out such problems in the most important text, if the editor thought it worth the note.

The difference comes in how you decide what goes in the main block of text and what goes in the footnote. In a diplomatic text, the main text follows almost exactly some specific manuscript. So BHS is a diplomatic edition, because its main text is the Leningrad Codex. The Hebrew University Bible is another diplomatic critical text (not yet published in full), but it follows the Aleppo Codex. In a diplomatic text, the main text isn’t necessarily the ‘best’ text, you have to read the footnotes to get a sense of what form of words you might want to use. For translation (particularly the kind of translation you do at graduate school) diplomatic texts can be harder work.

In an eclectic text, the editors synthesize the main text from their judgements on the variations. So the total effect is a text that does not reflect any extant manuscripts, but picks and chooses from moment to moment. This puts the ‘best’ form of words in one place (as long as you agree with the editors on what constitutes ‘best’). The main NT critical text: Nestle Aland v.27 is such an eclectic text. There is a project underway to produce an eclectic Hebrew Bible, published by the OUP. For detailed scholarship, eclectic texts can be fiddly, because you have to continually unwind the decisions made by the editor.

This is not to say that eclectic texts bear no relationship to existing manuscripts. Typically the editorial team will favour a particular text tradition, and so the eclectic text will closely follow one particular set of manuscripts. NA27, for example, follows the Alexandria text tradition quite closely (for which it is often criticised by conservative evangelicals who prefer the Constantinople tradition used in their beloved KJV). And on the other hand, editors feel free to correct obvious mistakes even in diplomatic texts, removing obvious scribal errors. So you could say that the diplomatic-eclectic distinction is actually a continuum. So far, however, critical editions do tend to cluster at either end.

But notice, in both cases the text itself is ideally irrelevant. The text, combined with the footnotes, should give you the whole picture. If you just isolate the text itself, you don’t have a critical edition any more, you just have a particular original language version, one that more or less follows some set of manuscripts.

I say ideally, because, in practice the base text does influence the footnotes to some extent. It is difficult as an editor not to be drawn into the mindspace where the base text is the foundation and the footnotes are merely variations. Treating the base text itself as just another variation is a challenge. But in my experience (which by far is with the eclectic NT editions) the editors of critical editions do a great, and unsung job*. Without their hard and grinding work, engaging with the bible would be orders of magnitude more difficult.

Of course, the end reader of an English bible doesn’t see any of this. Most bibles have footnotes that indicate the odd major variation, but you miss out on the decades, or centuries of work compiling variations that went into the critical edition that your translator worked from. It couldn’t be otherwise, of course, but behind the seeming homogeneity of your english translation it is worth keeping in mind the thousands of texts and millions of variations that the critical editors have wrestled with.

I have a soft-spot for folks who do this kind of work. The professor who taught me Hebrew as an undergrad is on the BHQ editorial team. I got a glimpse of the painstaking effort that lies behind a few words of abbreviated latin.


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Reading the Resources — Ecclesiastes 2:25

Over on Sabio’s blog, he’s been blogging through Hector Avalos’s book “The End of Biblical Studies”. Now I confess that, like a lot of people who actually quite like biblical studies, I was prejudiced by the title. Also, I haven’t read it, so I’ve been happily spouting off in ignorance over there.

I don’t want to bring that discussion here. But I did think it was interesting talking through a bit about the resources one can bring to bear on these kind of linguistic issues. Because I think those readers of both blogs who’s resources are mainly web-based or study bibles might be interested in having a peek at the two main critical resources: the critical edition of the Old Testament, and the granddaddy of Hebrew lexicons.

Ecc 2:25 in the BHS - the standard critical edition of the Hebrew Bible.

First the text. Shown here is Ecc 2:25 in the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. The latest complete critical edition of the Hebrew bible*. The text is split into three. The body of the text itself (our verse highlighted – remember Hebrew reads right to left); the masorah parva in the outside margin; and the critical notes at the bottom of the page. The masorah parva is half of a traditional system of commentary and analysis – the larger half (the masorah magna) isn’t in modern critical editions. The parva contains checksums to help scribes make sure their copying is correct, links to other uses of a phrase, or indicates where what is read should be different to what is written (another tradition in Hebrew writings). The critical footnotes are written in highly abbreviated Latin with a good number of special abbreviations and symbols.

The phrase that Hector Avalos focussed his rebuttal of my off-the-cuff translation in Sabio’s blog is the two words at the end of the verse. The text reads CHUTZ MIMENI (tr. “except I”) It has a footnote. The footnote reads “sic etiam TV, sed pc MSS GS, MIMENU, l?” (where T,V,G and S are fancy symbols). Expanded this reads “sic etiam TV, sed pauci manuscripta GS MIMENU, legendum?”, or in english:

“thus, and so [i.e. as it was printed in the main text] are the Targumim [Aramaic translations and commentaries] and the Vulgate [the Latin version], but a few manuscripts, including the Septuagint [the Greek OT] and the Syriac have MIMENU, and that should be what is read? [the question mark indicates that this view is not settled]”

An excerpt from Brown Driver Briggs on Ecc 2:25

Now, onto the lexicon. I’ve shown here the relevant page from the Brown Driver Briggs translation and expansion of Wilheim Gesenius’s German lexicon (always just BDB). There are others, but this is the undisputed grandfather of Hebrew language resources. The relevant bit, to us, starts at “f. (late)” in the middle of the image. Up to this point, the lexicon has been discussing the various usage of the word CHUTZ. It has meanings around “outside”, but so far we’ve had more or less literal meanings. Here the indication changes. It says, there is a late use, in Ec 2:25, where it has the sense “outside of, i.e. except me”: a more metaphoric meaning. But, it goes onto say, it should be read, (along with G, the Septuagint, S, the Syriac, and the work of Delitzsch [De], Nowack [Now] and others [al]) “apart from him (i.e. God)”. It then goes on to say that there’s a similar Aramaic idiom which is used in (at least) two places in the Targums (the commentary on Ex 20:3, and Is 36:10) and a similar Syriac phrase with the same meaning.

So, it seems like everybody agrees that the text says “except me (i.e. Qohelet)”, but both resources agree that this was probably best read “except God”. Interestingly BDB changes the comparative when it changes the pronoun here, from “except, or outside” to “without”: a subtle change of gloss, but one which changes the feel of the passage.

Anyway, as I’ve promised to read Hector’s book, I can’t comment on whether I agree or not with his reading of this passage yet (I’m a bit confused what he’s saying, after hearing it second hand through Sabio). But I thought it might be interesting to have a peek at a couple of the most common resources used for looking at these questions.

* There is a more recent version of the Biblia Hebraica, called Quinta (its the 5th edition, after all). It isn’t completed yet, and isn’t expected until 2015. But Ecclesiastes has been published in this edition, in an initial fascile containing the “5 scrolls”. I don’t have a copy of that, however, so if anyone does and wants to scan in the relevant page, it would be informative to see what has changed.

Below Sabio asks about the Septuagint. Here is the greek text tradition, evidenced in the Codex Sinaiticus:

It has ‘AUTOU’ at the end of the first paragraph (line 6, which is the end of 2:25, in capitals this looks like AYTOY – see my previous post on original manuscripts for more details on reading these texts). AUTOS is ‘him’. As per the BHS and BDB, both of which said that ‘G’ (i.e. the Greek) had the ‘except him’ reading.


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Croudsourcing the Bible

Over at כל־האדם (“kol-ha’adam” or “all of man[kind]” ), Joseph has put forward an idea that has crossed my mind a couple of times: a central biblical resource featuring scholarly translation and apparatus. Done in such a way as to be useful to students and other researchers.

This would be nothing less than a new translation of the bible. It would have the opportunity to be a great resource, if its tendency to slip into partisanship and dogmatic infighting could be resisted.

I also think it could be commercially interesting: it could generate research funding, could spin off secondary materials and could charge a premium (much as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does).

Unfortunately it is *very* difficult for bible students to find translations that seriously try to engage with the text in a historical critical manner, and deliberately take steps to avoid being compromised by liturgical, cultural and theological idiom. The only answer is to learn the original languages, I think. For me that’s fine when I’m in the NT, but my Hebrew is pretty crummy. I’ve been pretty lapse about practising it. And I don’t see why, at least at undergraduate level, original languages should be a pre-requisite for doing some forms of higher criticism.

I’m switching off comments on this post, please head over to כל־האדם if you want to contribute or decry the idea!

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English Bibles

Here’s a very quick guide to the evolution and diversity of bible translations that I’m aware of. Hopefully I’ll get to expand and correct this post, because I’m aware I’m not an expert on history of translations, so I’d appreciate corrections.

The Oxford Annotated Bible - Cover

The Oxford Annotated Bible - The english translation of the bible I most often use. Its 4th edition is due out in March.

Formal Versions

In the beginning was the King James Version (also called the Authorized Version, because it was Authorized for use in the British state church). Actually this isn’t true, there were various bibles before this, and the KJV was based on a number of them, as well as texts in Latin. Still, the KJV is the earliest version still in significant use today, and it is the most important English translation of all time.

The KJV is a masterwork of english literature, and surely ranks alongside Shakespeare as the greatest achievements of english speaking culture. Its translation style is sometimes called ‘formal equivalence’ or ‘literal’ (although both terms have their problems). It tries as much as possible to translate a word directly into its nearest english sense. This isn’t always useful, of course. Sometimes the original word was an idiom or turn-of-phrase that doesn’t make as much sense in english. My favorite is ‘those that pisseth against the wall’ (1 Sam 25:22 KJV) meaning grown men.

The KJV was altered and tweaked through the centuries in a rather ad-hoc basis. More recently modifications have typically borne their own names. In the last 150 years its legacy has been taken up by two main families of translation.

The first are modifications of the KJV text designed to update its 17th century language, or correct egregious errors in the original version. I’m thinking here of texts such as the New King James Version.

The second are texts that use the same broad translation approach, but use up to date scholarship and textual criticism, correcting the elements (like the Johannine Comma) which the authors of the KJV didn’t know about. The most important of these is the Standard Version, which became the Revised Standard Version, and the New Revised Standard Version (which in my experience is the version most used in secular bible studies classes). Each iteration of these texts is less formal, leaving us with the situation that the NRSV is indistinguishable in approach from some ‘dynamic’ translations.

An important 19th century formal translation which is substantially different in character from the KJV is Young’s Literal Translation.

Dynamic Versions

Another family of bible translations abandons the literal translation approach and aims for ‘dynamic equivalence’ – trying to express what the original text probably meant. Of course, this covers a wide variety of literalness, from those almost indistinguishable from formal translations, through to re-tellings of the story that you’d not identify as a bible translation at all. Most of this class of bibles aren’t much use for bible study because the translators embrace, rather than resisting, their own theological bias. No translation is without bias, of course, but its best to at least try to minimize it!

Popular translations in the dynamic equivalence class are the New International Version (and its offspring such as the Today’s NIV), the New English Bible, the Living Bible and the Good News Bible. In fact, the vast majority of modern translations fit firmly into this category. The NIV is interesting because it was designed to split the difference between texts such as the KJV and SV and informal texts such as the Living Bible. It is on the formal end of the dynamic group and you’d be hard pressed to distinguish its approach from ‘formal’ versions such as the NRSV.


And finally there has been a recent explosion of ‘paraphrase’ translations that are so informal as to have no pretence at being equivalent to the original text. The Message is a very popular paraphrase, for example, which retells and reinterprets text in a wholly conservative evangelical theology. I have a feeling that texts such as this are one reason that many fundamentalists think their theology is so biblical, when in fact it is their bible that is so theological!

Other Issues

There are a few other formal style issues around translation. Each of which gives rise to its own micro-tradition of translations

One that has been important over the last few decades, is the use of inclusive language. Even translations that aspire to be more formal, use inclusive language in places. So if the bible says ‘all men …’ they might say ‘all people …’. This is, of course, a highly dynamic translation decision – we’re assuming that the authors used the gender in a generic rather than a specific way. But that, surely, is the job of the biblical student to decide! So I find myself stuck with the otherwise excellent translations of the recent RSV family, consistently frustrated that they feel the political correct need to change the gender all over the place.

A second axis of difference centers around the communities that the bibles are designed to serve.

Catholic communities have a slightly different and more nuanced canon (the books that make up the bible) than protestants. There are certain bible translations that are aimed at catholic readers (such as the Jerusalem Bible, and its offspring the NJB) and other translations that have editions aimed at catholic readers (such as the NRSV). [Thanks to CRL in the comments for pointing out this egregious omission, I must confess I have a protestant bias in what I know of translations because of the highly protestant nature of the culture in which I have studied].

There are also bibles translated by non-orthodox Christian groups. Such as the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s witnesses (which is a pretty good translation, I have to say).

And there is an excellent body of OT translation coming out of Jewish communities, both messianic and non-messianic. The Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the Tanakh (the OT) is particularly excellent, I think, with a moderately formal equivalent style  (more RSV than Young’s) and a distinct lack of some of the biases of Christian translation normally found in the OT. The JPS translation of Gen 1:1 is definitely non-fundie-friendly, and worthy of its own post!

A third feature of differentiation is in the translation of the names given to God. The word normally translated LORD in the OT is a personal name for God. Which in English is probably best transliterated ‘Yahweh’, but could also be rendered ‘Jehovah’. Many translations are otherwise mainstream, but use one of these transliterated names for God rather than LORD. Similarly some translations use the most likely Aramaic name of Jesus ‘Jeshua’ rather than the Greek version we’re more used to.

And one final, crucially important, factor is the supporting material printed with the bible. Most people buy bibles that have additional content in them. This can range from maps to detailed footnotes and cross references, through to ‘subject summaries’ and book introductions. These apparatus are often highly theologically colored, and in some cases downright deceitful. This is another reason that many Christians have a poor understanding of their bibles: when passages that show genuine difference or difficulty appear, they are often accompanied by a piece of apologetics that shows what the reader should believe.

So I hope that gives some sense of the diversity as I understand it. I’m not an expert in translations, and while I have probably 15-20, I don’t collect them. I’m more interested in improving my skills with the original languages, so I tend not to do exhaustive comparative studies between English translations.

If you’re looking for a good bible, I recommend the Oxford Annotated Bible (a NRSV text with a passable set of footnotes and introductions – they are highly biased towards orthodox Christianity, but at least they avoid lying to you!). The 4th edition is out soon.


2009-02-01: A couple of minor clarifications and typos. Added section on Catholic bibles, based on CRL’s comment. Reordered the ‘other issues’ section.


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The Johannine Comma – The story of how a bible verse was written — 1 John 5:7-8

The Johannine Comma in the Codex Sinaiticus

A version of the greek text (The Codex Sinaiticus - part of the Alexandrine text tradition) without the comma in place. The highlighted area shows 1 John 5:7-8. The small text above the following line shows a correction to a scribal error. The full photographic facsimile of this text is available online.

One of the hard things about studying the bible is working out what version of the bible to study. There are thousands of copies, all written by hand, and all different. Reconstructing what might have been the original text is the job of ‘textual criticism’, and it isn’t an easy job.

One example (which is much easier to figure out than many) is the so-called Johannine Comma. In the first epistle of John, chapter 5, there is a suspect phrase spanning the end of verse 7 and the start of verse 8. Those two verses say:

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

– 1 John 5:7-8

This section seems to read pretty well, and the two parallel sections fit together. In wider context, however, the passage does jar a little. And it becomes really suspicious when you realise that it seems to be slam-dunk evidence of the doctrine of the trinity, but that doctrine wasn’t formulated for more than a century after 1 John was composed. The trail is even more intriguing when you look at the earliest manuscripts we have, and the textual traditions from those early manuscripts.

[An aside – a textual tradition is what we call the set of copies that are made in one community or region from an initial set of texts. So we have an ‘Alexandrine’ textual tradition which is the set of texts copied in Alexandria, derived ultimately from some original set of texts (original for Alexandria, not necessarily first copies of the original works). Because of the copying within a textual tradition, you get consistent errors showing up through the family of copies, and conversely by looking at what is consistent and what is different within a tradition, you can reconstruct what the original texts in that tradition might have looked like.]

We find that the section about the trinity (the section in italics, above) doesn’t exist in early manuscripts. In fact it only appears in one textual tradition. That textual tradition is a tradition built on an early Latin translation of the Greek text.

What we think happened is this:

  1. The original text looks like it has a trinity in it (spirit, water and blood). But after the doctrine of the trinity was decided upon, some scholar felt that this alternative trinity needed explanation. So they wrote a marginal note in their copy of the latin version of the text, showing the parallel between John’s trinity and the trinity of God: one heavenly, one earthly.
  2. Some later point this text was copied. A scribe seeing this marginal note mistook it for an omitted part of the text (it wasn’t uncommon to add accidentally omitted parts of the text as marginal notes, much as we’d insert a bit more content into a handwritten text by writing it in the margin and adding a line, arrow or caret). He merged it into the text as best he could.
  3. At a later date again, a translation into Greek was made of this Latin text, and so the appropriate section was then turned into greek along with its surrounds.
  4. The textual tradition that grew out of these texts is the one that ultimately was used in the writing of the King James Version of the bible. So it ended up in the KJV.

Most recent bibles will omit the Johannine comma, with the text placed in a footnote. The evidence is so clear  that you might think it would be worth removing entirely. It is testimony to the great weight of the KJV of the text in English that most bible editors won’t do this. They think (rightly, I say) that people will compare their translation against the KJV and wonder why they are missing chunks out. So the footnote has to be there to explain.

This chunk of text is just representative of thousands upon thousands of variations in the early text. Almost every verse in the New Testament has several alternate renderings. Some are obviously incorrect (such as spelling mistakes), others dramatically change theological implications, and others (like this one) invent evidence for things that the New Testament writers knew nothing about.

It is that texture: interdependent, complex and contingent, that makes it such a fascinating text, I think.


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