Last week I gave a quick read through to a new book by Ben Witherington, a leading conservative New Testament scholar. The book is entitled, “What Have They Done with Jesus.” The title is apt considering the myriad of new views and theories about the Savior and his teachings that seem to proliferate with frequency as young untried junior faculty at seminaries, divinity schools, colleges, and universities endeavor to produce articles evidencing originality, in order to gain for themselves the highly sought for prize of tenure. Of course, it is not an easy task to provide original interpretation after original interpretation, when gospel truth manifests itself from dispensation to dispensation in but one version. In this connection the author in his opening paragraph poses a series of pertinent questions:
- Why is it that we are hearing so many new things about Jesus and his earliest followers these days?
- Has someone struck the mother lode and found all kinds of new information about Jesus and first century Christians?
- Have archaeologists dug up previously unknown documents that provide shocking new credible evidence … that tell a very unfamiliar tale about the life of Jesus and the origins of Christianity, providing evidence so compelling than it eclipses and corrects what we have long heard about the subjects?2
Such questions and their answers go straight to the heart of the Christian message and its primary source document – the New Testament, its reinterpretation, its continually revised versions of transmission, and its frequent retranslation.
A few years ago I was asked to speak to seminary teachers in Utah Valley on the subject of the historical background of the New Testament. My purpose was not only to provide actual historical information on a variety of topics, but also to stress to that audience the importance of context as a necessary part of understanding the text of the New Testament. At that particular time, near Easter, many television documentaries had recently aired that dealt with various New Testament and early Christian themes. As is often the case, these television shows presented themselves as academically sound by including interviews with a few university professors from the United States and Europe. However, many of these productions depended far more on the use of opinion and innuendo to make sensationalized claims than on the utilization of what most scholars would consider legitimate evidence. Not only was the methodology employed seriously flawed, but extremely clear was the obvious intent to discredit the original Christian proclamation of the divinity and resurrection of the Savior, as well as the sincerity of Jesus’s closest followers in offering what you and I would view as sincere and moving testimony of this so important message – the ultimate good news. Rather, such an undisguised and accusatory indictment of the New Testament account surely would bring to those who profess belief in Christ either consternation, or offense, or outrage, depending on their level of knowledge and, therefore, their ability to spot the stretching of evidence, or the lack of evidence altogether.
Some of the seminary teachers had seen the same programs and had had the very same reaction that I had experienced. I reminded them that some of their students may also have seen these programs when they were broadcast into their homes; that the students may have had questions about what they saw; that some of them may have been confused, or may have experienced difficulty in reconciling the so-called facts of the documentaries with what they had been taught in seminary. I used this as an example of demonstrating the necessity, especially in this day and age of such communications ease, of having access ourselves to the real facts, of actually knowing historical background, and of controlling thoroughly the context of the New Testament. To refute the claims of those who would challenge our faith or confuse impressionable and formative minds, knowledge is a tool indispensable as support to the powerful instruments of bearing testimony and the witness of the spirit. For example, on how many occasions was revelation the reward given after our Prophet Joseph sought knowledge through study to resolve a question for which he had not yet learned the answer. And so the significance of Doctrine and Covenants 88:118
And as all have not faith seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.
At the seminary teachers’ request my one hour talk lengthened to two as together we sought answers through exploring the text and context of the New Testament.
The Importance of the New Testament in LDS Tradition
The basic doctrinal position of our church as regards the Bible, and so the New Testament, is well-known. It is unambiguously stated in the eighth article of faith:
We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.
One must simply admire just how precise and accurate a summary of our belief about the Bible this statement makes. Indeed, in reference to this as well as the other Articles of Faith, we recommend the well penned assessment of B. H. Roberts: “The combined directness, perspicuity, simplicity and comprehensiveness of this statement of the principles of our religion may be relied upon as strong evidence of the divine inspiration resting upon the Prophet, Joseph Smith.”3
Despite problems with the text of the Bible, especially the Old Testament text, problems publicly recognized since the time of Joseph Smith, we have continued to use the Bible alongside our other standard works. Indeed, when we call the Book of Mormon “another witness of Jesus Christ,” the clear implication is that the New Testament is itself the first witness, let me repeat, the first witness of the Savior. The earliest generations of members of our church were likely more conversant with the New Testament than any other scripture. The majority of the Prophet Joseph’s sermons employed the New Testament more consistently and more frequently than any other scripture, especially when demonstrating that the gospel restored in this dispensation was the same as that taught by the Church of Jesus Christ in the meridian of times. By contrast, recent generations of church members are perhaps not so conversant with the New Testament as with latter-day restoration scriptures.
A personal anecdote highlights the present day lack of familiarity with the New Testament, especially among the younger generation. Two years ago I was asked to speak to a group of graduating physical science majors at BYU on the topic of the origin of certain false doctrines during the apostasy, such as ex nihilo creation. By way of background I mentioned apostate Judaizers who sought not only to impose on Gentile Christians circumcision and other Mosaic practices but also certain Jewish philosophies that led to denigrating the Son’s divine status as a way to preserve extreme aspects of monotheistic theology including ex nihilo creation. I looked back into a sea of faces uncomprehending of the term “Judaizers.” I said, “you know, the ever bothersome opponents of Peter and Paul mentioned throughout the pages of Acts. You remember. Paul wrote Galatians to counteract their efforts against the Gentile converts to Christianity.” Still blank looks. So I asked how many had read the epistle to the Galatians. Perhaps five percent of their hands went up. I followed with another question. “How many of you have read the Book of Acts?” While this time a few more hands were raised, they were certainly no more than ten percent. I went on to ask how many had read the Gospel of John, or Luke. Most said they had read a chapter or two. Only a few had read the gospels completely. These students were about- to-graduate seniors. I learned that every one had completely read the Book of Mormon and many had read most of the Doctrine and Covenants, but they remained basically unacquainted with the New Testament.
Is the New Testament less readily studied today because it is difficult to understand, especially if background contextual information is not known by the reader? While the text itself is the starting point of study, comprehension can increase many fold if the text is understood in its proper context, and contextual considerations increase in importance proportionately to the time that the writing of the text is distant from the time of its reading. For modern readers to apprehend better the meaning of ancient texts, prerequisite is some knowledge of an ancient world very different in attitude and circumstance from the modern world. On the other hand, is the text itself simply insufficiently trusted as the word of God because we suspect tampering and, therefore, doubt the adequacy of its transmission and translation?
Could such lack of familiarity with the New Testament be a reason that the latest general conferences of the church have contained talks by general authorities encouraging study of the New Testament by church members? For example, in October 2005 President Packer reviewed the efforts of early translators of the Bible into English vernacular, men who labored long like the fourteenth century Wycliffe, or the sixteenth century Tyndale who paid the ultimate price to produce a translation, by acknowledging
“Work was done centuries ago for our day. … We owe much to those early translators, those martyrs.”
In the most recent conference Elder Ballard noted
“the more we read and study the Bible and its teachings the more clearly we see the doctrinal underpinnings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The Eighth Article of Faith contains two key phrases that appear in the title of this paper and relate directly to the way we address biblical exegesis – that is, the process of explicating and understanding the text. The phrases are “the word of God” and “as far as it is translated correctly.” Their occurrence occasions the need for several questions. What does the expression “word of God” signify? Does it indicate correct doctrine, divinely authorized, or mean that each word was uttered by God? If we do not have exact copies of the original Greek autographs, in other words, the very texts written down by the original authors of New Testament books, is it possible to have the exact word of God? And what about the fact that most people read the Bible from translations? Perhaps we should take thought of the example of Joseph Smith who once expressed his delight in reading the biblical text in the original tongues.
My soul delights in reading the word of the Lord in the original, and I am determined to pursue the study of the languages, until I shall become master of them, if I am permitted to live long enough. At any rate, so long as I do live, I am determined to make this my object; and with the blessing of God I shall succeed to my satisfaction.4
The prophet was so committed to eliminating the need to rely on a translation that, as is well known, Biblical languages comprised part of the curriculum in his School of the Prophets. To what extent can any translation be exactly the word of God unless the expression just means true doctrine or accurate teachings, divinely taught, inspired, or revealed
Even if this is the case, problems remain in translations. Concerns about the accuracy of New Testament translations come back to the very significant phrase “as far as it is translated correctly.” As regards our position on the absoluteness of the accuracy and historicity of the entire Biblical account, Hugh Nibley provides a compelling explanation.
The problem of the historicity of the Bible is exactly the same today as it has been since the days of the first apologists. One reads the Bible and decides for himself what is history in it, and what is allegory, and what is myth, and what is legend, and what is interpolation. There are two main schools of thoughts on the subject. There are the fundamentalists, who believe that everything put forth in the Bible as history actually happened as they find it stated; and there are the liberals who about the year 1925 reached the general consensus that the historical value of the Bible is nil. The LDS people have always stood between these two extremes.5
Elder Dallin Oaks makes a similar statement comparing with other Christian groups the LDS attitude toward the Bible in general, with specific consideration of our belief in the Bible as “the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.”
Some Christians accept the Bible as the one true word, completely inspired of God in its entirety. At the opposite extreme some other Christians consider the Bible as writings of persons who may or may not have been inspired God, which writings have little moral authority in our day. The LDS belief that the Bible is the word of God as far as it is translated correctly, places us between these extremes … but this belief is not what makes us unique in Christianity. What makes us different from other Christians in the way we read and use the Bible and other scriptures, is our belief in continuing revelation. For us, the scriptures are not the ultimate source of knowledge, but what precedes the ultimate source. The ultimate knowledge comes by revelation.6
Transmission of the Text of the New Testament
Problems in the text of the Bible have been recognized since the earliest days of the church. When the Angel Moroni first appeared to the Prophet Joseph, he is described as reciting the last chapter of Malachi, but quoting several verses different from the text contained in the King James Bible.7 Portions of Isaiah and of the New Testament Book of Acts were, however, cited exactly as formulated in the King James text8. That some sections of the biblical text are accurate, while others have been corrupted, and others have been interpolated, that is – added after original composition, we accept as implied in the doctrinal tenet articulated by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the eighth Article of Faith through the phrase “as far as it is translated correctly.” The Prophet provides further insight into the matter in his statement
I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing or corrupt priests have committed many errors.9
As is clear in this statement, the prophet Joseph associated the problems of transmission with the problems of translation. The English word translation comes from the Latin translatio, a noun formed out of the verb transfero, which has the meaning “to carry across.” In its original Latin form it means transmission as much as linguistic translation. Robert Matthews has explained this extended meaning in relation to the phrase “as far as it is translated correctly.”
Joseph Smith often used the words translated and translation not in the narrow sense alone of rendering the text from one language into another but in a wider sense of transmission, having reference to copying, editing, adding to, taking from, rephrasing, and interpreting. This is substantially beyond the usual meaning of translation. When he said the Bible was not translated correctly, he not only was referring to the difficulties of rendering the Bible into another language, but he was also observing that the manuscripts containing the text of the Bible have suffered at the hands of editors, copyists, and revisionists through centuries of transmission.10
Implicit in this teaching is the suggestion that the older the text, the closer the text may be to its original form, and the less likely it is to have fallen prey to ignorant translators or careless transcribers. In this, as in so many other areas, the Prophet Joseph saw far beyond the scholars of his own day. Since that time an entire field of scholarship, textual criticism, has arisen to establish as accurately as possible the correct form of ancient texts. The methodologies of textual criticism are applied when a variety of antique manuscripts, all differing among themselves, offer variant readings of a particular text that has survived antiquity. Whether considering manuscripts of the Bible or other manuscripts from the ancient Mediterranean, the fundamental principle of the textual critic is to give greater credence to the older manuscripts of any particular text. The older, and therefore chronologically closer, the manuscript is to the original autograph, the less likelihood of tampering.
Through the textual criticism of variant manuscripts, that is the study of differences between manuscripts and the determination of changes to manuscripts whether by accidental scribal error – what Joseph Smith traces to “careless transcribers”; or by deliberate design in order to update manuscripts so that they would continue to accord with the changing doctrines of Christian groups at various times – what Joseph Smith attributes to “corrupt priests,” through the study of such manuscript alterations modern scholars seek to establish a theoretical prototype manuscript antedating change. This process is applied not only to New Testament manuscripts, but also to other manuscripts from the ancient world.
Standardization of many ancient texts, especially those of Greco-Roman antiquity, occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such Greek and Latin texts enjoy wide acceptance among classicists and comprise a relatively stable and unchanging body of literature taught in colleges and universities. But no such stability is found in the acceptance by scholars of differing New Testament documents. Indeed, in recent years some popular scholars have issued books about what they consider to be the misquoting of Jesus and offered manuscript corruption as the justification for their own personal rejection of faith as in the case of Bart Ehrman:
My faith had been based on a certain view of the Bible as the fully inspired inerrant word of God. Now I no longer saw the book that way. The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book. Just as human scribes had copied, and changed, the texts of scriptures, so too had human authors originally written the texts of scripture. This was a human book from beginning to end.11
Professor Ehrman’s personal experience with scripture appears to me to have swung as a pendulum between the two extreme positions explained above in the quotation from Elder Oaks.
“Some Christians accept the Bible as the one true word, completely inspired of God in its entirety. At the opposite extreme some other Christians consider the Bible as writings of persons who may or may not have been inspired God”
What should our own position be in light of the knowledge that the Bible is neither perfectly transmitted, nor for that matter, perfectly translated? Again Elder Oaks’ statement points the way.
The LDS belief that the Bible is the word of God as far as it is translated correctly, places us between these extremes … but this belief is not what makes us unique in Christianity. What makes us different from other Christians in the way we read and use the Bible and other scriptures, is our belief in continuing revelation. For us, the scriptures are not the ultimate source of knowledge, but what precedes the ultimate source. The ultimate knowledge comes by revelation.12
There is no substitute for the revelatory kind of knowledge received through the spirit that faithful followers of the Savior can experience.
Nevertheless, the surviving manuscripts of the New Testament can be shown to be more trustworthy than Professor Ehrman would have us believe. Certainly they are more reliable than the manuscripts of Greek and Roman classics which enjoy near universal acceptance. The majority of surviving Greek and Latin classics were written before the time of the New Testament. Time does not permit in this venue a detailed comparative analysis of the necessary manuscripts, but a brief comparison of the antiquity of the manuscripts used to formulate the texts of the Greek and Latin classics with the surviving manuscripts of the New Testament, may enlighten controversy about certain sections of the New Testament or ambiguous passages whose present form does not accord with our understanding of gospel principles, and, therefore, affirm the statements of the Prophet Joseph Smith that pertain to the text of the New Testament.
The Manuscripts of the Greek and Latin Classics
Before the invention of printing the propagation of literary works was a laborious process by which scribes copied a text by hand either onto papyrus scrolls or page-like pieces of parchment, usually sown together to form a codex, the forerunner of the modern book. In comparison to modern printing, that few written volumes were produced through this process explains in part the scarcity of surviving texts, and that hand copying was subject to easy error, explains the wide variation demonstrated when a number of manuscripts survive. When such manuscripts date from a time much later than the original date of composition, the greater is the frequency of error or the wider the variations among manuscripts.
With the calamitous fall of the Roman empire many manuscripts of classical compositions were destroyed; moreover, in preceding decades in certain areas of the empire, Christians of the post-apostasy era sometimes sought to destroy works written by non-Christians including those of many of the great thinkers of Greco-Roman antiquity. Perhaps for these reasons most of the earliest surviving manuscripts of classical works are themselves copies of late date. Few date to antiquity; most derive from the late medieval era or the Renaissance, as copies either possessed by Christian monasteries or preserved in the Arabic world where the study of Greek and Latin classics was encouraged. For example, the oldest manuscripts of the fifth century B.C. Athenian tragedians, Aeschylus13 and Euripides14 date from the eleventh century, more than 1500 years after the original composition of the works! The histories of their Athenian contemporaries, Thucydides and Xenophon, are preserved by only a few manuscripts; the earliest manuscript of the former’s work dates to the tenth century A.D.,15 while the earliest codices of the latter are from the fourteenth century.16 The works and authors cited constitute only a sample of Greek authors and texts, though they are representative of situations repeated in the case of almost every Greek author and surviving work. Even Homer, the earliest and perhaps most important of Greek writers, fares no better. His widespread popularity and the use of his work as a basic school text, provided a need for many copies of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Accordingly, the chances for manuscript copies of Homer surviving from earlier periods would seem to have been increased. Nevertheless, despite a few fragments that date from the first century A.D., the first near complete texts of Homer are twelfth and thirteenth century A.D. manuscripts.17 Homeric texts are based on copies that are 2100 years removed from the author!
The texts of classical authors as established through the manuscript tradition are generally accepted as accurate. For most works a sufficient number of manuscripts survive to permit a process of comparison in the setting of the accepted version of a text. Occasionally, the text of a work may derive from only a single manuscript as when the extant portions of the first six books of the eminent Roman historian Tacitus’ Annales are preserved in a single ninth century manuscript.18 Despite such scant documentation for this text, and with little debate or discussion, it is nevertheless accepted at face value and widely used as the authoritative historical source for the period.
The Manuscripts of the New Testament
New Testament documents are of three kinds: papyrus fragments or manuscripts; later parchment manuscripts written in Greek capital letters called uncials, the standard transcription format of ancient times; and later manuscripts transcribed in the smaller hand and lower case characters customarily used in late antique or medieval Greek manuscripts, that were, therefore, named miniscules. Of these three kinds of copies of the New Testament text, there survive in whole or in part 116 papyri, 310 uncial manuscripts, and 2,877 minuscule manuscripts. By comparison to Homer, a classical author for whom a large number of manuscript copies or papyrus fragments survive, the New Testament documents are far more numerous than the 457 pieces of papyrus, 2 uncial manuscripts, and 188 minuscule manuscripts that survive to attest the work of Homer. So numerous are manuscripts of the New Testament that one scholar has exclaimed, “the textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of his material.”19
In current scholarly consideration of the New Testament text, considered most authoritative are several lengthy papyrus documents of surprisingly early date which preserve large tracts of both gospels and epistles. These papyri were acquired in the 1930’s in the British collection of Chester Beatty and in the 1950’s in the Swiss collection of Martin Bodmer.20 Among the Chester Beatty papyri are three very old copies of parts of the New Testament. A papyrus (p45) codex (in book form) preserving 30 (size 10″ by 8″) leaves of the gospels and the Book of Acts, dates to around 200-250 A.D., less than a century and a half to two centuries after the original writing of these books. Of even earlier date is a papyrus (p46) of 86 extant leaves (size 11″ by 6 1/2″) which preserves ten Pauline letters. Also of similar date is a papyrus (p47 ) containing ten leaves of the Book of Revelation. Most phenomenal, however, is a small papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John ( p52) that has been dated by most, though not all, experts to approximately 125 A.D.21, and depending on the dating of John’s actual writing of the gospel, is possibly only a scant few years removed from the composition of the original text by this last of the Apostles!
The Bodmer papyri are also of pristine date. A more complete copy of the Gospel of John, the Bodmer Papyrus II (p66 ), is preserved in this papyrus codex of 104 pages (size 6″ by 5 1/2″), that dates from 200 A.D. Of similar very early date is a single-quire codex of the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John (p75 ) transcribed perhaps as early as 175 A.D. That copies of portions of the New Testament survive from a period so near the time of their original composition becomes all the more amazing when considered in juxtaposition to the long centuries between the composition of classical texts and their earliest surviving manuscripts. Bruce Metzger, a leading textual critic has observed:
The time between the composition of the books of the New Testament and the earliest extant copies is relatively brief. Instead of a lapse of a millennium or more, as is the case of not a few classical authors, several papyrus manuscripts of portions of the New Testament are extant which were copied within a century or so after the composition of the original documents.22
If such papyri are of so great antiquity and so little removed from the time of the actual writing of the New Testament, why then can we not place greater credence in the text of the New Testament as it exists? Indeed, classicists have considerable confidence in the texts of the classics even when they are constructed from manuscripts, in some cases, two millennia removed from the composition of the original texts. As regards the present text of the New Testament we can, in fact, trust many portions of the text as transmitted, transcribed, and translated correctly. However, we must also remain cognizant of problematic passages and remember that the papyri enumerated above have come to the attention of textual critics only fairly recently. The complete versions of the New Testament in use by disparate Christian sects and in various languages, derive not from pristine papyri, but from parchment manuscripts of later date, some fraught with textual problems occasioned by accidental or deliberate alteration. This does not, however, necessitate rejection of the whole, but rather careful detailed work to know which actual sections of the New Testament are more reliable and which are less reliable.
During the so-called “Great Persecution’ at the beginning of the fourth century many copies of Christian writings were destroyed. Consequently only a few fragmentary sections of books of the New Testament survive from before that era, and they constitute extremely important evidence in seeking the form of the original texts of individual New Testament books. There are no complete manuscripts of the New Testament before those that date to the fourth and fifth century A.D. Fourth century uncial manuscripts may belong to a group of fifty copies of the New Testament commissioned by the emperor Constantine in 331 A.D. to compensate for the lack of surviving New Testament books.23 Such editions would have been subject to and may reflect in places the doctrinal changes sanctioned at the Council of Nicaea. The most important of these manuscripts, the codex Sinaiticus, was discovered in 1844 in the Sinai monastery of St. Catherine. As old, if not as complete as the codex Sinaiticus, is the codex Vaticanus, also possibly one of the Constantinian manuscripts, though because of certain deficiencies it may have not been accepted among the fifty manuscripts for whose group it had been intended.24 It has been housed in the Vatican library since before the first catalogue of the library’s holdings was made in the fourteenth century, and may have been in the possession of the church at Rome since the manuscript’s production in the fourth century. Indeed, it is not impossible that this was among Greek manuscripts which Jerome consulted in his translation of the Greek scriptures into the Latin Vulgate.25 Other important manuscripts are the codex Alexandrinus and the codex Ephraemi, both of fifth century provenance. All these famous codices are of a similar type and form a manuscript category, known as “the Alexandrian family,” about whose accuracy and doctrinal reliability Pres. J. Reuben Clark in various of his writings expressed doubt. While most textual critics give great credence to the Alexandrian family because its manuscripts are the oldest surviving complete manuscripts, they are, nevertheless, problematic particualrly in their occasional reticence to recognize the Savior’s divinity, a point with which Pres. Clark understandably takes exception.26
Pres. Clark did, however, express particular interest in the codex Bezae, another fifth century manuscript which offers not only a Greek text, but also a Latin translation. The manuscript was given to Cambridge University in 1581 by its namesake, Theodore Beza, successor to John Calvin as leader of Protestants at Geneva. It is thought to represent a whole different manuscript version, known as the western type, for which I have long theorized a possible descent from texts originating near Ephesus where the apostasy was for a time held at bay by John and bishops ordained by that Apostle and which, therefore, may be freer of some corruptions and interpolations placed in other manuscripts to accord with changing Christian doctrines both before and after the Council of Nicaea. Recent research into the manuscript by contemporary British scholars seems to corroborate that possibility.27
Other Greek manuscripts of the New Testament are of later date. It is difficult to say which if any of these hundreds of later texts, with their corruptions or deficiencies, accidental changes and deliberate changes made by design to accord with changing doctrines, may have influenced late Renaissance scholars translating the New Testament into the vernaculars of their respective nations or churches. These Byzantine style manuscripts are often fraught with erroneous readings. There are a great many of them due to concerted copying efforts by the Greek orthodox church in the late middle ages. For this reason they are sometimes categorized as “the majority text.” It is erroneous to assume that because they are referred to by the term majority this constitutes evidence of a correct approach. Rather they represent simply the most frequently surviving and most popularly used text type in medieval Greek Orthodoxy. In fact, they take a common origin from a single text used in Antioch, a place that seemed to have nurtured many elements of the Apostasy.
The very real antiquity of some papyrus fragments and manuscripts of the New Testament provides clear evidence that much of the text of the New Testament is quite sound. Similarly, textual departures from early texts, as manifest in more numerous later texts, corroborate the Prophet Joseph’s admonition about textual mistakes occasioned by either careless transcribers or by priestly scribes who sought to emend and correct texts they were copying to accord with doctrinal principles of the churches of their time and place, doctrines that had, no doubt, departed in some instances quite far from the teachings of the original authors of individual books of the New Testament.
Translation of the Text of the New Testament
The process of translation is rife with the potential for mistakes and problems. Many of these difficulties derive from the simple truth that a particular word does not always mean the same thing to different persons. Moreover, in almost all languages there are words that inherently possess multiple meanings. In such cases a translator is faced with the choice of selecting which meaning to render into the language he is translating to. And, of course, it is virtually impossible to find a word in another language that will share all the multiple meanings of the original word. For this reason the translator must make a selection of meaning, rather than leave it to the reader’s individual perspective and decision. Even more problematic is the challenge of rendering idioms or colloquial expressions, slang phrases if you will, into another language. In these situations one to one correspondent translation of each word into an equivalent word in the other language never works . Such idioms are extremely common. Could we render into another language word for word, and still convey the proper meaning, English idioms such as ” I am going to run to the store” when we really mean drive; or I am going to “catch” a nap. Common speech is filled with such idiomatic phrases. New Testament Greek is no different and word for word translation often fails to convey actual meaning. For example, in his Problems of New Testament Translation, the distinguished scholar Edgar Goodspeed notes as just one example of this problem the response Jesus makes to Pilate’s question whether he is King of the Jews – “thou sayest.” As translated the phrase seems to suggest evasion of the question, but in actuality the Greek idiom means something like “I am indeed as thou sayest;” not an evasion but a direct and emphatic response by the Savior attesting to his own identity.28
Translation of the New Testament is almost as old as the New Testament itself. In the eastern half of the Roman empire, Greek was ever the language of daily use. Even in Judea by the first century Greek was well on its way to replacing the old Persian administrative lingua franca , Aramaic, as the language of primary use. Hebrew, of course, had for centuries been relegated in practical usage to be a language known only by religious leaders and scholars. In the western part of the empire Latin was understandably the language not only of government use but of common communication throughout Italy and the provinces. Greek was known by many but not by the majority. When the Greek New Testament writings were read in western congregations, on the spot extemporary translation was generally provided. As time passed many congregations made their own written Latin translations for ease of understanding the scriptures on the part of Latin speakers. By the fourth century there were almost as many versions of Latin translations as there were congregations. As Jerome is said to have exclaimed tot enim sunt exemplaria paene quot codices29 – there are almost as many versions as there are copies! These Old Latin translations were varied and disparate in their renderings. To resolve the endless discrepancy of variant readings in 382 Pope Damasus commissioned a church scholar by the name of Jerome to provide a standardized Latin translation opening New Testament writings to the western populaces. It was called the Vulgate – that is the people’s Latin version, and for over a thousand years served as virtually the one and only translation of the Greek New Testament in the West.
When during the Renaissance as Latin was replaced in daily use by its vernacular derivatives Italian, French, Spanish, and even the Germanic English which had become packed with words of Latin origin, the Vulgate became the text from which vernacular translations of the New Testament were first made. For example, John Wycliffe’s first complete English translation issued in 1384 was based entirely on the Latin Vulgate. It and later translations based on it, such as Miles Coverdale’s 1535 English Bible were in many ways faithful renderings of the Vulgate into English. Greek manuscripts were extremely rare in the West at this time, even in scholarly circles. Not until the work of the Dutch Catholic scholar Erasmus in using several late antique and medieval Greek manuscripts to construct a synthesis Greek text, from which the well known textus receptus or “received text” derived two generations later, were scholars versed in Greek able to provide vernacular translations such as Luther’s German translation that Joseph Smith enjoyed, or the protestant martyr William Tyndale’s English translation first issued in 1526. The Vulgate based translations of Wycliffe and Coverdale, and Tyndale’s translation of the textus receptus, were employed to fashion an English Bible for use in protestant Church of England congregations. Published in 1539 it was first called the King’s Bible in honor of Henry VIII, but was later known as the Great Bible. Thirty years later a few revisions were made to its text and it reappeared in 1568 as the Bishop’s Bible. This became the basis for the King James Bible.
The mode of translation for the King James or the Authorized version was different than we might expect. There was, in fact, no cover-to-cover translation process. The text of the previous Bishop’s Bible, which came to form the basis of the King James text, and which derived ultimately from the earlier translations of Wycliffe, Coverdale, and Tyndale, was thoroughly examined. Where linguistic or theological problems were perceived to occur, those individual verses were retranslated using the familiar Vulgate text, the Greek textus receptus, and several other Greek manuscripts in the libraries of Oxford and Cambridge. While some attention was devoted to upgrading the style of language throughout, no cover-to-cover translation by King James’ bishops and scholars took place. Instead, the emphasis was on correcting problematic passages so that a volume theologically compatible with the doctrines of the Church of England and, therefore, readily usable in its congregations could be available.30
In his detailed work, Why the King James Version, Pres. J. Reuben Clark compared the strengths and weaknesses of this translation with recent translations that had appeared by 1956. His conclusion was that despite certain doctrinal and translation problems the King James Version remained the text of preference. Not the least reason for which was its elegant language, which had become almost a language of the sacred, and importantly the idiom used in the scriptures of the restoration. As Pres. Clark wrote “Could any language be too great, too elegant, too beautiful, too majestic, too divine-like to record the doings and sayings of Jesus … the Christ?”31 His expressed desire for the level of language respectful and appropriate to describe the person of the Savior is a consideration that especially resonates with this speaker. And yet Pres. Clark was also familiar with some of the theological, translation, and textual problems in that very King James Version. Some years before, his one-time teacher, Elder James Talmage had made the Church’s awareness of such problems clear:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accept the Holy Bible as the foremost of her standard works, first among the books which have been proclaimed as her written guides in faith and doctrine. Nevertheless, the Church announces a reservation in the case of erroneous translation, which may occur as a result of human incapacity; and even in this measure of caution we are not alone; for biblical scholars generally admit the presence of errors of the kind both of translation and transcription of the text. 32
President Clark may have had those very problems in mind when in the preface to Why the King James Version, he confided a desire for the future that
The most this author may hope for is that his Notes will somehow provoke in some qualified scholars having a proper gospel background, the desire and determination to go over the manuscripts and furnish us, under the influence and direction of Holy Ghost, a translation of the New Testament that will give us an accurate translation that shall be pregnant with the great principles of the Restored Gospel. We shall then have a reliable record of the doings and sayings of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ.33
Since through the earlier English translations they utilized, as well as by their own direct consultation, the King James translators had relied heavily on Jerome’s Vulgate translation of fourth century Greek New Testament texts, many problems in translation seem ultimately to trace back to choices and selections made by Jerome, namely which meaning of multiple meaning Greek words must have been indicated, and which Latin words were best suited to render that meaning.
I recall my excitement in a class taught over thirty-five years ago by Professor Hugh Nibley when the problem of translating words with multiple meanings was discussed. His proof text was John 1:1. The Greek word arche had several meanings corresponding roughly to the English beginning or first in chronological order. But the word could also mean first in order of rank, or it could mean a gathering of those who were first in order of rank. Indeed, in Greek secular writings it often indicated a ruling council. Jerome chose a good word to translate it–the Latin principium. It possessed both chronological and politico-sociological meanings, either first in time or first in rank. English had no equivalent with multiple significance. The King James translators made their selection on the side of chronology in using the word beginning. Another key word in the verse was logos. To it are attached a host of meanings ranging from the simple word to study, logic, speech, spokesman. Displayed on the overhead is the entry on Logos in the Liddell, Scott, and Jones Greek Lexicon. It will provide you some notion of the sometimes ponderous labor that goes into making the selection of a word meaning. No single Latin word contained so wide a range of meanings so Jerome had to make the choice; he selected verbum meaning simply word, no more no less. So we read in John 1:1–in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. Suddenly Nibley excitedly exclaimed, “no, no, no. Isn’t this what John’s Greek must have really meant–in the ruling council was a spokesman and the spokesman was in the godhead, that is among the gods, and the spokesman was himself a god.” Well, I leave it to you to decide which of the multiple meanings you prefer. I trust you recognize the theological gulf behind these choices between multiple meanings. Which one do you suppose best fits Pres. J. Reuben Clark’s call for “an accurate translation that shall be pregnant with the great principles of the restored gospel.”
One of my favorite translation problems is found nine times throughout the writings of John. The phrase “if you love me keep my commandments” or its permutation “if one loves the Savior, let him keep his commandments” is found in a number of like variations in the King James Version. However, it may, in fact, mean a great deal more than appears on the surface. Now it is true that the word keep has changed meaning in the 400 years between our time and that of the King James Translators. The word keep then had something to do with guarding. We still use the old term the keep of a castle, for example. That meaning is also found in our use of the term “keeper” such as goal keeper, in games like soccer, or even Harry Potter’s “quidditch.” The Greek word that is rendered as keep is the verb tereo. In Greek it is actually very technical in its meaning; it is almost always used in a military context and is rendered stand watch as a sentry. The word that follows, entole, can mean commandment but is more generally instruction. Were I to render John’s Greek contained in this passage into the English, my translation would be “if you love him, stand watch as a sentry awaiting his every instruction.” Why did not the King James translators give us a more technically correct translation? The answer is clear. It was beyond the scope of their theology and theology correct by Church of England standards was one of their primary considerations. The passage in the Greek is actually about continuing revelation. If we love the Savior we stay in tune with the spirit and stand watch as entries to receive his instructions for guidance within the sphere of our stewardships, thereby receiving assistance in knowing what we should do to be better servants of the Lord. For the King James translators there was no more revelation. For them the only instructions were commandments of the sort engraven on stone at Sinai. For us the Lord’s instructions come by way of revelation to our living prophets and as inspiration of the spirit to all faithful followers. Our theology agrees with John in this matter and our translation can, in fact, allow the technical Greek of his writing.
The BYU New Testament Commentary
At last we have enough background to be in a position to speak about – The BYU New Testament Commentary. It is in response to President J. Reuben Clark’s above quoted expression of hope that someday a work on the New Testament fashioned by faithful LDS scholars would appear, pregnant with the principles of restored gospel and based on the teachings of the Lord’s living prophets, seers, and revelators, that the BYU New Testament Commentary project has taken shape. Approved by the BYU administration and its Board of Trustees and publicly announced three years ago, the project foresees the production of 15 volumes of commentary on individual books of the New Testament
The public announcement reads as follows:
The Board of Trustees of Brigham Young University has recently approved the publication of a multi-volume commentary on the New Testament. A broad-based team of Latter-day Saint scholars have joined forces to produce the set. Planned to take about 10 years to complete, this 15 volumes series will combine the best ancient linguistic and historical evidence with Mormon interests and doctrinal perspectives. … This commentary will be the first to combine scholarly expertise and Mormon scripture. Each book in the New Testament will be examined word by word. In addition, relationships between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants will be carefully examined.
The commentary will be not just another scholarly commentary, but particularly a Latter-day Saint Commentary. It will focus on passages of particular interest to Latter-day Saints; it will draw from all the LDS standard works; and we strive for it to be written with inspiration. Coinciding with issues raised in this paper, part of our purposes is to demonstrate the proper treatment of text transmission and translation — that is, to make use of what seems to be correct and offer alternate meaning for what seems to be incorrect. Each volume will contain substantial introductory and contextual material where questions of provenance, setting, authorship, intent and purpose will be addressed. Discussion of manuscript tradition and transcription will also be considered, as well as thematic or topical questions contained in the text being examined. The actual commentary will address the text as found in the King James Version. Pericopes, that is sections of the text divided into similarly themed verses, generally no more than a dozen at a time, sometimes fewer, will be treated verse by verse, and word by word. Analytical commentary will be offered in terms of linguistic analysis, including alternative translation possibilities based on literal Greek meanings of words, historical background, and theological significance. Where issues of textual transmission arise, consultation will be made of Greek texts unavailable to the King James translators, some newly discovered and of early date, others the synthetic product of 400 years of additional research, textual comparison, and new discovery. Sources for linguistic considerations will include not only well known recent translations of the New Testament, but importantly the Joseph Smith Translation in what places New Testament passages are addressed. Standard scholarly commentaries such as the Anchor Bible Commentary or Sacra Pagina, as well as many scholarly monographs and articles, will also be consulted. When Greek is cited it will be transliterated into the Roman alphabet used in English so as to be accessible to our readers. In this vein, both Greek and Latin references will be given in the original language and in a translated English form. For purposes of interpretation and comment, consideration will be given to writings spanning two thousand years from Apostolic Fathers and pre-Nicene Christian authors to the important truths revealed in latter-day scripture and the teachings of leaders of the Restoration from the time of Joseph Smith to the present day. Historical background, as it pertains to particular New Testament passages, will provide detailed discussion of the world at the time of Christ from cultural, political, and legal perspectives.
A Board of five editors, all senior and experienced BYU professors, directs the project. Each has different assignments. Mine is as History and Translation Editor. I must certify the historical accuracy of all said, and more significantly assure the correctness of all translation of any Greek or Latin word, phrase, or passage. Additionally each editor is principal author of specific individual volumes and directs the efforts of the team of scholars working on a volume. I am assigned the volumes on the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John, the second half of the Book of Acts – that is, the chapters about Paul, and the volumes treating the epistles to the Ephesians, the Colossians, and the Philippians.
Work proceeds well. A massive electronic database of all LDS writings pertaining to the New Testament has been collected. A report on this effort was made in November in Washington D.C. at the national meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Faculty teams are researching or writing five volumes at present. We are hopeful that the first completion–the volume on the epistles of John–will occur by year’s end.
I am sometimes asked our purpose in undertaking so large and time consuming a project that prevents us as individual scholars from proceeding unimpeded with other research and writing. Part of the reason has already been alluded to – a response to the hope expressed by President J. Reuben Clark. We share his hope in hoping ourselves to provide scholarly background from an LDS perspective that will enable interested members of our faith to delve into the study of the New Testament. My colleague John Welch has put it this way. “Latter-day Saints have many things to say about New Testament. Many New Testament commentaries are produced by people who have particular points of view, such as Catholics, Baptists, or secular historians. The BYU commentary will be written from a Latter-day Saint point of view, but at the same time it will pass the muster of scholarly rigor.” In this connection we wish also to demonstrate to the scholarly and sectarian religious world at large that the New Testament is a witness of Christ and his teachings, two thousand year old teachings that accord perfectly with the doctrines restored in this dispensation through the Prophet Joseph Smith. The books of the New Testament also constitute, when understood in the original meaning and intent of their authors, witnesses of the veracity of the Church of Jesus Christ in this dispensation. A very important part of our purpose is to help the New Testament be seen as the witness of Jesus Christ that it is, through perusal of whose verses a vibrant portrait of the living Christ may appear. We follow the admonition of Elder Packer in the October 2005 general conference as he quotes 2 Nephi 25:26 in our striving that “we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ.” Also “we labor diligently to write , to persuade our children and also our brethren, to believe in Christ and be reconciled to God” (2 Ne 25:23). Finally in this day and age when the question is appropriately asked by concerned believers “what have they done with Christ?” we hope that this commentary will be of value in convincing of the truthfulness of the testimony of Joseph Smith found in the seventy-sixth section of the Doctrine and Covenants.
And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: that he lives! For we saw him, even on the right-hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father–that by him and through him and of him the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten son’s and daughters unto God.
1 I am appreciative to BYU professors John Welch and Eric Huntsman for their reading of and suggestions for the improvement of this manuscript. Also the work could not have been completed without the able help of my research assistants: Grant Adamson, Cliff Parkinson, Andrew Stephens, and Mike Pope.
2 B. Witherington, What Have They Done With Jesus (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006), 1.
3 Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7vols., ed. B.H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1902-1932), 4:535. (hereafter ñ HC)
4 Joseph Smith, HC 2:376, 391, 396.
5 Hugh W. Nibley, Old Testament and Related Studies, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986), 1.
6 Dallin H. Oaks, “Scripture Reading and Revelation,” The Ensign, (January 1995), 7.
7 Joseph Smith, HC 1: 36-39.
8 Ibid. 1: 40.
9 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, edited by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1938), 327.
10 Robert J. Matthews, “Joseph Smith translation of the Bible,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 5 vols., ed. Daniel Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 2: 764.
11 Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2005), 11.
12 Dallin H. Oaks, “Scripture Reading and Revelation,” The Ensign, (January 1995), 7.
13 The oldest manuscripts are Florentinus Laur. 32.9 from the tenth or eleventh century, Florentinus Laur. 31.3 and Venetus gr. 468, both from the thirteenth century, but the majority of manuscripts date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
14 The earliest complete codex of Euripides’ Medea (Parisinus gr. 2713) dates from the eleventh century , though earlier fragmenta of fifth century provenance have been found.
15 Laurentinus LX IX2.
16 Parisinus 1640 and 1641.
17 Vaticanus 903 and Vaticanus 1316 date respectively to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
18 The manuscript is the Mediceus primus.
19 Metzger and Ehrman, 51. For information about New Testament manuscript types and numbers, also refer to idem, 50. The number of Homeric manuscripts can be found in Metzger’s earlier edition of the same (The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration [Oxford: 1968 second edition], 34).
20 The best summary description and assessment of importance of the papyri and important uncial and miniscule manuscripts of the New Testament is Metzger and Erhman, 52-92. The descriptions presented herein derive from Metzger and Erhman.
21 A good recent article discussing various views on the dating of this fragment is Brent Nongbri, “The Use and Abuse of p52 : Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel,” Harvard Theological Review, 98:1(2005), 23-48.
22 Metzger and Erhman, 51.
23 Eusebius, in his Vita Constantini, 4.36, explains that parchment manuscripts of three and four columns were commissioned by Constantine for new churches whose construction he sponsored. The codex Sinaiticus and codex Vaticanus seem to fit that description as well as dating to the right time to qualify possibly as manuscripts of Constantine. Also see Metzger and Erhman, 15-16.
24 Metzger and Erhman, 68-69.
25 Also consulted would have been already existing manuscripts of Latin translations known as “Old Latin” versions, which were said to have been so problematic as to have served as the impetus for Pope Damasus to commission Jerome’s translation in 382 A.D. See Metzger and Erhman, 100-109.
26 Among examples of such treatment noted by President Clark in relation to Matt 6:9-13, Mk 1:1, Luke 2:14, 22:43-44, and 23:34.
27 D.C. Parker, Codex Bezae: An Early Christian Manuscript and its Text, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
28 E. Goodspeed, Problems of New Testament Translation,(Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1945),64-68.
29 Found in Jerome’s preface to Novum Opus. See Metzger and Ehrman, 101, n. 84.
30 See A. Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, (New York: Harper Collins, 2003).
31 J. Reuben Clark, Why the King James Version, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), 355.
32 James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith, 236.
33 Clark, viii-ix.