The Progress of Vernacular Bibles from Tyndale and Luther to the Present Day: St John's Gospel as a Case Study in the Textual Tradition

Presented by The Revd Prof Carsten Peter Thiede.
Edited by Revd Peter J. Parry.

Not far from Geneva, at the northern end of Switzerland, the University Library of Basel houses some priceless manuscripts. They include the collection of 11th and 12th century minuscules used by Erasmus for his first edition of the Greek New Testament, published by Froben at Basel in 1516. They also include the famous 8th century Codex E, added to the collection in 1431 ignored by Erasmus. In those days of Renaissance philology, it was fashionable and standard procedure to use the latest available manuscript, rather than the oldest available one. This was not as stupid as it sounds: either you assume that the older the manuscript is, the closer it will get you to the original itself, and that a comparatively brief gap between the original and the oldest extant copy minimizes the number of scribal errors or editorial changes. On the other hand, you could argue that the latest copy of should be the most accurate one, since the scribe has had the chance correct errors of his predecessors.

As for the textual tradition of the Bible, there are several historical moments when scholars operated on the assumption that they could edit a text the quality of which would surpass all previous manuscripts. In the early third century, Origen, edited the so called Hexapla, a six-column version of the Old Testament, which contained the original Hebrew, the Hebrew, Greek-letter transcription, and four different Greek translations (Septuagint, Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion). A century later, Emperor Constantine Inc Great ordered his court historian, Eusebius, to produce 50 imperial copies of the whole Bible in Greek. Manuscripts were collected from all over er tre Empire. The result was an edition which provided the text for all future copyists. It was an edition which tried to correct all errors found in earlier manuscripts, and to avoid new scribal errors along the road. In fact, some 95 per cent of all surviving manuscripts of the New Testament can he traced back to this text which we call the Byzantine oder Majority Text. Not a single one of these 50 great codices has survived, but their heritage shaped the first edition of Erasmus. Scholars even today are convinced that the Majority text is the best available text of the New Testament. At the end of the fourth century, Jerome had another go when he translated the Bible into Latin. Again, he worked from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek manuscripts. and there are scholars who regard Jerome's Vulgate as a valuable tool for text-critical decisions.

In the mid-twentieth century, however, a school of thought began to gain the upper hand which taught that the oldest extant papyri, and the oldest great codices are intrinsically the most valuable yardsticks for textual decisions Because of their age, and — as far as the papyri are concerned — because their material was the one used by the first Christian scribes. A result of this attitude can be seen by anyone who opens a copy of one of the current editions of the Greek New Testament, Nestle-Aland or UBS, Merck, or Bover-O'Callaghan. The list of manuscripts used for these editions begins with the papyri, regardless of value, simply because they are papyri and because the oldest of them are the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament to have survived. But no-one who uses such a Greek New Testament will notice that there are four parchment manuscripts that predate the 50 of Constantine, and that the oldest extant manuscript of the Book of Acts is in fact a parchment to be precise: the manuscript 0189 with Acts 5:3-21, dated to the mid-to-late 2nd century.

The truth can be summed up as follows: there is not a single biblical manuscript which is superior to any of the others because of its age or the writing material used, or of its place of origin. And there is not a single substantial biblical manuscript which is free of errors or variations. In fact, most classical philologists would tell you that even the very original of St John's Gospel would have contained errors. Look at your own writings — are you sure you can produce a single page without at least one typing error, or a word missing because you thought you had written it but had not?

Let us be clear about this: error in an ancient manuscript, biblical or otherwise, does not mean error of content, error of message, contortion of sayings, and such like. When a classical philologist states that ancient manuscripts are not error-free, he (or she) states the obvious and is not making a theological, anti-biblical or agnostic, but a philological point. In a nutshell then, there is not the one papyrus or the one codex which can be our ultimate yardstick today. The Hebrew or Greek texts which translators have used for vernacular versions since Jerome's Vulgate will always have been the results of a long textual tradition. This means that a good translator cannot take a copy of, say, Nestle-Aland's Novum Testamentum Graece and translate verbatim what is there, in the main text. He or she will have to consult the apparatus, and will come to the decision, more often than not, that the better text is hidden somewhere in the critical notes. There is a word for this, it is called eclecticism. Let me give you one simple example: John's Gospel is perhaps the one gospel with the best textual tradition. We have the famous papyrus P52, at the John Rylands University Manchester, with John 18:31-33 and 18:37-38, commonly dated to the first quarter of the second century, but probably, a first century document, belonging to the late eighties or early nineties. We have the equally famous codex P66, written around 150 AD. It is by far the oldest near-complete manuscript of any of the gospels. And we have the P75, of the early 3rd century, with surviving passages from Luke and John. Agreeing with P52 and P75, and with practically all later manuscripts, the main text of Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece prescribe the Greek text of John 18:37 in a form which was used by virtually all translations:

Pilate asked him: 'So you are a king?' Jesus answered, 'You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came to the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.'

This is the text of the New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Edition. It is a highly polished, rhetorically refined way of speaking. Interpreters of John's gospel have often wondered if Jesus would have spoken like this, or if this is an edited version produced by the evangelist. But if you read Martin Luther's translation of this verse, you get a different impression. In the 1544 edition, the punchline is the omission of the repeated 'for this'. Jesus says, 'For this I was born and came into the world, to testify to the truth', not, as in the New Revised Standard Version, 'For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth'.

Luther's version is more immediate, less elegant, less rhetorical. All modern revisions of Luther's translation have preserved this simpler version. All Greek editions of verse 37 have the Greek eis toût, 'for this', twice. This is the unanimous evidence of all surviving Greek manuscripts. Well not quite for, like Luther, the oldest Greek papyrus of this passage, the P52 in Manchester, does not have the second 'for this', either. Luther could not know this, it was only identified and edited in 1935. Sixty-six years later, no modem edition of the Greek New Testament even mentions this variant, although it does occur in the oldest know papyrus of this passage. So what are we to do? Should we accuse Nestle-Aland, and the others, of disobeying their own yardstick, that the oldest textual evidence must be taken seriously? Should we agree with Aristotle, with the Torah, with Jesus and Paul, that one witness does not suffice to decide a case? Or should we praise Luther for his insight into the language of John the Evangelist. And then again, you may well ask, does it matter?

William Tyndale, who knew Luther's original German translation of the New Testament and used it, did not follow him here. Tyndale translates, 'and for this cause I came into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth.' Could it be that Martin Luther simply made a mistake and dropped the second eis toûto, 'for this', inadvertently? If the papyrus P52 had not been discovered, we would not even know that there is textual evidence for Luther's version.

But there are wider implications, the translations of the Bible, into the vernacular, from Jerome's Latin Vulgate to the present day, whether done by individuals or by committees, has always had an equalizing effect. Mark sounds like Luke, and Matthew sounds like Mark and Luke, John sounds like all of them, but on a higher pitch All the subtleties and individualities of the original Greek have gone. We have lost a whole dimension of the New Testament, simply because translators did not dare or did not want to transfer the personalities, the handwriting, of the original authors into their own target language. To put it bluntly, they are all lumped together in one style and mode of expression. The undeniable fact is that any reader of the New Testament in Greek will discover an amazing wealth of linguistic subtleties, of personal styles and writing skills which make these authors, particularly those of the four gospels, outstanding examples of the art of Greek prose writing in the first century. We praise Luther, because he listened to how people spoke, and contributed to the creation of a German literary language. We praise Tyndale for much the same reason, and justly call him one of the creators of English as a literary language.

When the 27 writings of the New Testament were composed, none of the authors knew that the Church would decide that they are actually part of a 'Canon', of a collection called the 'New Testament'. Ever since, the New Testament has been a whole, and as such, it is more than the sum of its parts. But its parts remain individual writings, written and read as such by their first readers. This is a challenge to translators today, vernacular Bibles should recreate the greatness and individuality of the authors. We need this, warts and all, to understand the creative genius of these writers. The New Testament is outstanding literature as well as God's message to us. Theological truth and literary genius are no contradictions, they are two sides of the same coin.

Tyndale in particular, was an outstanding Hebrew scholar, and remains a model of accuracy and insight, and it is certainly one of the tragedies of the history of vernacular Bibles that he was murdered before he could finish his translation of the Old Testament.

The textual basis of the Hebrew text has been improved in the 20th century, thanks to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and of the Aleppo Codex which had been used by the Rambam, Moses Maimonides, in the 12th century. The first Christians, including the authors of the New Testament writings, did not use the Hebrew Bible. The Septuagint was a Jewish translation for Jews who did not know enough Hebrew to read the original texts. It was produced in the 3rd and 2nd centuries before Christ and thus, by definition, was not influenced by Christianity. In fact, the great first century Jewish philosopher and theologian, Philo of Alexandria, decreed that the Septuagint was to be seen on a par with the Hebrew Bible, as it was 'equally inspired by God'.

What we need are vernacular editions of the Old Testament translated from the Greek Septuagint. You may think that this is rather far-fetched, to provide a translation of a translation. But this is not how Peter, Paul, John, Luke and the others saw it. And the Dead Sea Scrolls have taught us that the Hebrew text used by the translators of the Septuagint was apparently older and less contaminated by scribal errors than the Hebrew text used by the Masoretes of the 8th century AD, which remains the textual basis of modem editions of the Hebrew Bible, and of translations based on it. In other words, vernacular versions of the Septuagint will serve a double purpose: they will provide all those who do not read Greek with the text used by the first Christians, and it will give us a valuable insight into a very old textual form of the Jewish Bible.

An Old Testament translated from the Greek gets us closer to out roots as they existed, throughout the Jewish world. We need a Septuagint Tyndale, giving insights hidden in the depths of specialist commentaries on the New Testament to become general knowledge. People will then understand why there are what seems to be contradictions between a quote from the Old Testament in a New Testament writing and the actual passage in the Old Testament. Then they will realize that the New Testament author did not use the Hebrew, but the Greek text. There is a 'Dead Sea Scrolls Bible', edited by Martin Abegg Jr, Peter Flint and Eugene Ulrich for T & T Clark of Edinburgh in 1999. A popular not scholarly, edition of 'The Bible of the First Christians', of the Old Testament translated from the Greek, an edition that should be both inexpensive and widely available, is the next logical step?

Let me conclude with a look at Tyndale's translation of John 19:19 (Luther has more or less the same text).

And Pilate wrote his title, and put it on the cross. The writing was, Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews. This title read many of the Jews. For the place where Jesus was crucified, was nigh to the city. And it was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Then said the high priests of the Jews to Pilate: write not, king of the Jews: but that he said, I am the king of the Jews. Pilate answered: what I have written, that I have written.

Those of you who know the modern translations of this passage will have noticed that Tyndale and Luther agree as against virtually all modern versions. They have the three languages on the 'Titulus' in the order Hebrew, Greek, Latin, whereas the current Greek editions prescribe the sequence Hebrew, Latin, Greek. Historically, we now know that the Greek text of Erasmus which they used followed the Byzantine or Majority Text. This Greek version was established, after Helena had re-discovered the original Titulus in a cistern underneath a temple built by Hadrian, on the site of Golgatha. Manuscripts of John's Gospel written and copied before this discovery preserve the sequence Hebrew, Latin, Greek. This is how John remembered it, he got the three languages right, but not their order. In legal terms, it was necessary for Latin, the official language of the Roman administration, to come last, as a kind of prefect's seal. This is how we see it on the Titulus itself. When Helena returned to Rome with her fragment, the correct sequence obviously influenced the editors of those Imperial copies. As a consequence, the majority of all Greek manuscripts of John's Gospel, in the Byzantine or Majority text, copied this sequence, and via Erasmus, it reached the early translators into the vernacular, Luther, Tyndale, and others. Modern editors of the Greek text, however, reversed the order: deciding that the pre-Constantinian manuscripts of John's Gospel give us the original text, this is how we find it in current translations.

Who is right? Historically and legally speaking, Luther and Tyndale. In terms of the original text of the Gospel, the people behind Nestle-Aland and UBS are right and by implication, modern translators who follow them. Is it justifiable to go against what appears to be the oldest extant version of the original text? Can we correct John against John? Or should we live with his slip of memory in a detail which does not really affect the message as such and which does not interfere with the correct recollection of the three languages on the cross?

I have chosen this example at the end of my paper for another reason: the inscription on the cross of Jesus was indeed in three languages. Hebrew, as this was the language of the Temple and the Bible and thus the language of the alleged King of the Jews. Latin, because it was the legal language of the Romans and Greek, because it was the language everyone understood. Thanks to the fragment of the 'Titulus', re-discovered and authenticated in Rome, we can reconstruct the Latin line and, at least, part of the Hebrew line. But the fact remains that Greek was the language of the Jews who had come to Jerusalem, and of many in the Holy Land itself. And thus, by way of my example from John 19:19 in Luther's and Tyndale's version over against modern translations, I end with my plea: let us have a present-day Tyndale to give us an Old Testament translated from the Greek, and let us find scholars who will give us versions of the New Testament which combine the contextual knowledge provided by textual criticism, papyrology, archaeology, and classical scholarship, with the philological and literary genius of William Tyndale.

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