John Wesley's New Testament

John Wesley, the great preacher, teacher, evangelist and founder of Methodism, is not generally known for his revision of the New Testament, which has been somewhat neglected, yet his work is still in print (see below) 240 years since its first publication in 1755. (Some authorities quote 1768 but as Wesley's Preface is dated January 4 1754, the earlier date is most likely. The later date probably relates to a subsequent edition.) Originally entitled The New Testament with Notes for Plain, Unlettered Men who know only their Mother Tongue, it is basically a revision of the Authorised (King James) Version (AV).

As indicated by the title, Wesley's aim was very similar to that of Tyndale's translation, i.e. to make the New Testament comprehensible to the ordinary man of the time. After 140 years since the first publication of the AV the language had become archaic and Wesley's intention was to address the situation. The Notes were intended to supplement the text, providing a commentary which would make the scriptures clearer to the ordinary person. Wesley explains his approach in the Preface and it is worth quoting most of paragraph 4 of this Preface:

‘...I design, first, to set down the text itself, for the most part, in the common English translation, which is, in general, so far as I can judge, abundantly the best that I have seen. Yet I do not say it is incapable of being brought, in several places, nearer to the original. Neither will I affirm that the Greek copies from which this translation was made are always the most correct; and therefore I shall take the liberty, as occasion may require, to make here and there a small alteration.’

He adds that he aimed to preserve ‘what we have long been accustomed to and to love, the very words by which God has often conveyed strength or comfort to our souls.’

Having carefully studied a Greek text, Wesley made some 12,000 alterations to the AV in all but, as he says,:

‘...I have never knowingly, so much as in one place, altered it for altering's sake; but there only, where, first, the sense was made better, stronger, clearer or more consistent with the context; secondly, where the sense being equally good, the phrase was better or nearer the original.’

Most of the changes are comparatively minor and are, in part, due to Wesley's use of a different Greek text. The following extracts, taken at random, give some idea of the nature and extent of these changes. The words in red are Wesley's alterations or additions, with the replaced AV words in [green]:

Matthew 5:17-18
Think not that I am come to destroy the law[,] and[or] the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all things be effected [fulfilled].
Mark 8:14-16
Now they [the disciples] had forgotten to take bread, nor [neither] had they in the vessel [ship] with them any more than one loaf. And he charged them, Take heed, [saying] beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and [of] the leaven of Herod. And they reasoned among themselves, saying, [it is because] We have no bread.
Acts 21:11
And coming to us [when he was come unto us], he took up Paul's girdle, and binding [bound] his own feet and hands [hands and feet and] said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man whose girdle this is [that owneth this girdle], and [shall] deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.
Romans 9:25-26
As he saith also in Hosea [Osee ], I will call them my people, who [which] were not my people; and her beloved, who [which] was not beloved. And it shall come to pass, [that] in the place where it was said to [unto] them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the sons [children] of the living God.

It will be seen that although the alterations are many, they rarely alter the sense to any appreciable degree and some seem pointless, for example why should Wesley substitute ‘vessel’ for ‘ship’ in Mark 8, quoted above? In Ancient & English versions of the Bible (Ed. H. Wheeler Robinson, Oxford 1940) J. Isaacs describes the result as ‘An important but neglected revision midway between familiarity and stiffness, ...’

As far as the Notes are concerned, Wesley again says he has avoided ‘methods of reasoning and modes of expression as people in common life are unacquainted with’. He acknowledges that he has freely used the work of others, notably Bengelius (i.e. Johann Albrecht Bengel), an early critic of variant reading of New Testament Greek. Bengel had, in 1734, printed a Greek New Testament (his Gnomon Novi Testamenti) which included marginal notes on the text. Wesley apparently translated this work (or portions of it) and many of his Notes are taken from it.

The text of the New Testament reverted to Tyndale's arrangement by being divided into paragraphs but with verse numbers down the left hand side. This text is printed at the upper part of each page with the relevant Notes beneath it in smaller type. Most verses have their own individual Note but where this is not so, the Note to the previous verse/s covers the following verse/s. The whole provides a comprehensive commentary.

Each gospel, epistle, etc., is preceded by a brief introduction (except Luke, where the same function is served by an expanded note on the first four verses of Chapter 1), the greater part of which is taken up with a list of contents, including page numbers. There are also footnotes giving references to related passages in both the Old and New Testaments.

The introduction to Romans is, like Tyndale's Prologue, rather longer than most but it must be said that much of this relates to the epistles generally. The introduction to Revelations is also relatively long but omits the table of contents. Some of the Notes to Revelations are lengthy and the book also concludes with ‘An Index, Chiefly of Words Explained in the Preceding Comment’

Wesley's work has, over many decades, been an influence, especially on Wesleyans and on Methodist lay preachers in particular, although I suspect its main value, particularly in more recent times, has been in the Notes rather than the revision of the New Testament. The current, paperback edition runs to 1054 pages and is published by the Epworth Press under the title Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament. It can be obtained from the

Methodist Publishing House,
20 Ivatt Way,
Peterborough PE3 7PG
price 7.50 plus 1.15 per copy postage and packing to UK addresses (extra overseas). Quote reference ED164 and ISBN 0-7162-0368-5. Payment must be in sterling, cheques made payable to ‘Methodist Publishing House’. Access and VISA credit cards are accepted. (Telephone 01733 332201, Fax 01733 331201).

Colin Wolfe

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