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Bible translations: A case of lost and found

A question clergy are often asked is: “Which of the many translations of the Bible on the market is the best?” It is a question which invites a further question: “Best for what?” If you are looking for a Bible to read privately and to use for general study—with certain notable exceptions—most modern translations will do. Find one that you are comfortable with and have at it.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for a Bible to use academically or to use as a norm for establishing matters of doctrine, the the question of which translation is best is open to debate. Since the 4th Century, scholars like St. Jerome have been engaged in continual—and often acrimonious—arguments over which ancient texts of the various books of the Bible are the most authoritative.

The King James Version—the translation St. Stephen’s uses liturgically—is based on a text known as “The Received Text.” It is drawn from a family of ancient texts traditionally used by Western and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

The Received Text went unchallenged from the 16th Century until the middle of the 19th, when a German scholar unearthed a Bible at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert which was claimed to predate the earliest versions of The Received Text by a couple of centuries. It was a find that fueled scholarly debates that continue to this day.

The newly discovered book—dubbed Codex Siniaticus—was hailed as the repository of the earliest textual New Testament tradition. Its champions within the English Church, therefore, demanded a revision of the venerable King James Version and the result was a new translation published in 1881, as the Revised Standard Version (RSV).

The RSV did not meet with total approbation—in part because its leading scholarly critic, The Rev. John W. Burgon, Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, and Gresham Professor of Divinity, was excluded from the translation committee.

Siniaticus was seriously corrupted by errors, affecting not merely words and sentences, but entire passages, and Burgon objected to the revision committee’s “reconstruction” of large portions of the text through inference and extrapolation. He also questioned the committee’s use of paraphrase.

Burgon then deployed his vast erudition to cite sources more ancient than Siniaticus—including the writings of the Post Apostolic Fathers—to defend the integrity of The Received Text and argue for its superior authority. Other critics of the RSV—pointing to the presence of sectarian scholars on the committee, including a Unitarian—claimed that the translators had been chosen with an eye focused more on sales than scholarship. In any event, Burgon’s critique—which has never been fully answered—was so damning it cast a pall over the RSV’s popularity that lasted well into the last century.

The RSV text, however, steadily gained adherents in educational institutions, and, in the 1930s, it began to catch on with churches. Soon publishers were vying with one another to produce newer, more up-to-date versions. Today, the RSV and translations based on its underlying text are in far greater favor at universities and theological schools than the King James Version. And, doubtless, part of its appeal is that it is acceptable to a wider range of religious denominations and sects than the more demanding King James Version of the Received Text.

Probably as a consequence, an overwhelming majority of the new editions of The Bible are based on the RSV text. Currently, only one major modern language edition of The Bible is based on The Received Text: The New King James Version. But as it also employs paraphrase quite extensively, it is not truly a substitute for the old King James.

Recent publication of the full text of the ancient manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls injects what promises to be yet another fascinating element to the debate—at least as far as the Old Testament and the Apochrypha are concerned. According to a number of scholars, the texts found in the scrolls echo more closely the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible in use at the time of Christ, than either the Received Text or the more modern text derived from Codex Siniaticus.

Actually, as far as ordinary folks are concerned, it shouldn’t make much difference which text ultimately comes out on top. They are both quite similar. Israeli soldier/archaeologist Yigael Yadin pointed out the difference in texts are so slight that the Dead Sea Scrolls enable us to say for certain that the Biblical text has been transmitted from generation to generation with amazing accuracy for more than two thousand years. GPH✠

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