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Are Bible Translators Consistent? Readers’ Mailbag

In today’s Reader’s Mailbag I deal with a question that involves both the differences in the manuscripts of the New Testament AND the issue of English Bible translations.  As many of you know, almost all scholars agree that passages such as the “Woman Taken in Adultery,” in John 7:53-8:11 and the last twelve verses of Mark (Jesus’ appearances to his disciples after the resurrection) were not original to the New Testament.  (If you’re not familiar with this issue, see my book Misquoting Jesus and/or do word searches to find discussions on the blog).   And yet most modern Bibles continue to include them, even if they put them in brackets with a footnote saying that they are missing from the best manuscripts we have.

But why aren’t translators consistent in applying this rule: keeping verses they know are not original with footnotes?  Why  in other, analogous cases, do they more often remove the passages completely and put them in the notes?

It’s a great question:  here is how the reader phrased it, with very helpful examples.

 

QUESTION: 

Some Bibles have omitted verses like the following –

  • Matthew 17:21, 18:11, 23:14;
  • Mark 7:16, 9:44, 9:46;
  • Luke 17:36, 23:17;
  • John 5:4; Acts 8:37.

What is the reason for omitting these verses, but at the same time not omitting the longer ending of Mark?

 

RESPONSE:

The decision of Bible translators to be inconsistent is completely conscious.  And it is important to stress that the decision in every case is not based on scholarship per se or historical evidence.  The *main* reasons are theological, pastoral, and – this will surprise you – economic.  The final reason, once I explain it, may well sound cynical (on my part).  But I have solid reasons for thinking (or rather: knowing!) it.

You can look up all the verses the reader cites in your Bible.  If you have a modern translation such as the NRSV, you will see.  Just take the first two examples.  In Matthew 17 when the disciples can’t understand that they could not cast out a demon, in the King James and older English translations Jesus tells them that “This kind comes out only by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).  But in the NRSV, the entire verse is taken out and put in a footnote.  In the next chapter of Matthew when Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, in the KJV and other Bibles, he indicates that “The Son of Man came to save the lost” (Matthew 18:11).  But again, the verse is removed and relegated to a footnote in the NRSV and other modern Bibles.

The reasons are simple: a thorough study of the manuscripts of Matthew shows that these verses were inserted later by scribes; they were not original to the text.  This came to be known only after the King James was published.  So now the translators are more interested in publishing the text as it comes from the pens of the actual authors, without additions put in by later scribes.

But why then do the translators not do the same with the Woman Taken in Adultery and the Last Twelve verses of Mark?  Also in those cases the same translators know full well that the passages were not original – often these very scholars have actually published articles or portions of books explaining why they are not original – and yet they include them in the text rather than placing them in a note.  The note itself simply casts doubt on their originality.

Many of us appreciate the reasons for these decisions even though we find them a bit irritating.

I happen to know all of this personally from the inside, at least for the NRSV – the New Revised Standard Version, which is the standard translation advocated by the National Council of Churches in the U.S.  My mentor and advisor, Bruce Metzger, was the Chair of the committee that produced the NRSV; as a young graduate student I worked for the committee for years, sitting in on their translation sessions, acting as a secretary, and having lunch with the members of the committee (some pretty amazing Hebrew and Greek linguists…).  When I received my PhD, I worked full time for the committee in the last two years of their work, checking the translation for consistency and adherence to guidelines, and preparing it for publication for the publishers.

The matter of whether to include some “non-original” passages not in footnotes but in the text itself, was widely discussed by the committee and I had conversations with Metzger about it, and given the logic of the situation, I’m 99% certain that other translation committees had the same sentiments.

  1. Passages such as Matthew 17:21 and 18:11 (and all the other examples of passages relegated to footnotes) are very short; most readers would not notice they are even missing.  But without the Woman Taken in Adultery in John 8, readers realize they are really missing something significant (it is found nowhere else in the Bible); and without Jesus appearing to his disciples after his resurrection in Mark 16, very big questions are raised.  Quite different from the short verses.
  2. Most of these short passages aren’t missed so much because they can be found in *other* parts of the New Testament; for example, the words of Matthew 17:21, even if taken out of Matthew, can be found still in Mark 9:29. So they are still in the Bible and can be turned to if anyone wants them.  The Bible itself has not suffered a loss.  That is not the case with the long passages of John 8 and Mark 16.
  3. Therefore readers would be upset if they could no longer find these familiar passages in their Bibles, and it might cause them to have doubts, or at least it might prove unsettling to them — and there is no reason to rock the boat.  (This is the point at which other scholars like me start getting uncomfortable; I get it – I too don’t want to upset people – but why should people base their comfort and religious views on fictions instead of facts?  If a translation claims to be presenting the “original” words of the Bible, is it really right not to present the original words to make sure no one’s feelings get hurt?

I should point out that the same people take offense at in lots of other ways by these same modern translations – for example, when they translate Isaiah 7:14, the alleged prediction of Jesus’ virgin birth, as “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son” instead of the traditional, but incorrect “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”  In that older traditional (i.e., King James) translation the woman is a virgin and it is predicting a future event.  But translators now render it correctly, even if it makes waves.  Is it OK to do that with the Old Testament (Isaiah) but not the Gospels (Mark or John)?  If so, that is a theological or pastoral reason, not a historical or linguistic one.

  1. Some translators comfort themselves and justify their decision by saying that even though the passages of the woman taken in adultery and the longer ending of Mark are not original, they represent very old and probably historical accounts.  Metzger was famous for saying that the story of the adulterous woman wasn’t originally in John but was probably an event that actually happened.  There is almost no evidence for that, and I don’t know that he ever made an actual argument for it, other than saying that seemed consistent with the kind of thing Jesus would do.  But that’s not how one establishes the historicity of an account.  I don’t recall just now if Metzger thought that Jesus indicated that his followers would be able to drink poison and handle deadly snakes without being harmed (the longer ending of Mark is the only passage that says so).  (I need to clarify in case you’re wondering: Metzger was not just my advisor, he was my much beloved mentor and a father figure for me, for years; and he was almost certainly the greatest textual scholar of the 20th  I still revere his memory, deeply.   But that doesn’t mean I agreed with him on everything).
  2. Finally, the brute reality: it is expensive to produce Bible translations.  Very expensive.  At least the NRSV was.  The National Council of Churches was footing the bill.  They were very much hoping that sales of the Bible would help offset their losses, as church membership, and therefore church donations, was seriously dropping.  They were banking on it.  Other translations in our day are in a similar situation.  There are lots and lots of translations out there, and it is a finite market.  Most people who purchase Bibles are Christian believers who treasure the Bible and find deep comfort and solace in it.  Translations, literally, cannot afford to alienate readers.  Translations that are not comforting and do not provide solace will not sell.  People prefer the familiar.  They will accept some changes, if they have to, but not other ones.  Rightly or wrongly, it is widely believed that some changes  in the Bible would seriously undermine sales.

Putting a positive human interest spin on the matter, translators are so convinced of the superiority of their translations as a whole and the good they can do that they are not willing to sacrifice all their beneficent (volunteer!) work because of an issue that ultimately is not that important to them, whether a passage is in the text or in the footnotes.  Putting a more economic hard-nosed spin on the same topic, translation committees have to do their work with an eye to the market.  Some decisions are driven by economic concerns in a system where the produce is a pure commodity and there is a lot of competition.  This was not the concern of Bible translations in pre-capitalist societies.

So it’s a kind of long explanation.  My preference in historical scholarship is that it be consistent.  But in many ways biblical scholarship is not purely historical, even if some of us wish it was and do our best to ensure it is when we do it.  But most of the time, for most scholars engaged in it, biblical scholarship has theological and pastoral facets as well.  And in the dominant economic system of modernity, financial considerations creep in as well.

If you were a member of the blog, you could see posts like this all the time, five days a week.  Why not join?  It costs very little and every penny you pay goes to charities helping the needy, important now more than ever!  Just hit the register button and join up!


Did the Gospel Writers Invent Barabbas? Readers’ Mailbag
Would It Matter If It HAD BEEN a First-century Copy of Mark? A Surprising Answer in the Readers’ Mailbag

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Comments

  1. epicurus
    epicurus  June 5, 2020

    I assume the NIV was theologically driven by evangelicals. Are there any financial constraints on it that you’ve heard of?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2020

      I haven’t heard of anything specific to it. It is the best selling translation out there.

  2. Avatar
    darren  June 5, 2020

    Your posts on Judas got me thinking about how much evidence we have about dissent among the Apostles. It seems possible that Judas was losing faith in Jesus, so turned him in as a divine test of his messiah claims. Thomas is a famous doubter. The Apostles don’t seem to understand Jesus in the gospels. We only really hear about a few of them post-resurrection, and they all flee after his death. Peter renounces him. Is it possible — is there any evidence — that Jesus was losing support among his closest followers before he was put to death?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2020

      None apart from Judas (assuming that was a “loss” of support) But we wouldn’t expect to find any in our Christian sources from years later, of course….

  3. Avatar
    tom.hennell  June 5, 2020

    Thanks for the inside story of the NRSV.

    Could I ask then about a verse you do not mention; Matthew 27:49 “And someone else, taking a spear, pierced his side and there came out water and blood.”? This words are a ‘Western non-interpolation”, present in all the ‘earliest and best’ manuscript witnesses (and in the Coptic, Ethiopic, Chrysostom, etc) but missing from the Western text tradition. The NRSV committee restored the other such non-interpolations – which had been excluded in some earlier critical editions – but not this one. Why?

    Bruce Metzger proposed this as a harmonisation to John 19:34, but that clearly cannot be; no one having the Gospel of John in front of them could possibly add the disputed words at Matthew 27:49, as there the spear thrust precedes (indeed causes) Jesus’s death. Whereas in John, the piercing is very explicitly stated to have happened after death.

    I can well understand that Christian commentators might prefer the words not to be there. They are a secondary addition in Matthew to Mark’s passion narrative; and clearly unhistorical – Roman soldiers did not dispatch live crucified criminals with their spears. But is that a good reason?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2020

      My sense is that it is an interpolation, but not from someone who had John in front of him but simply knew the famous line adn put it in where he thought best. In Orthodox Corruption I argue that these Western non-interpolations invariably stress the real human body of Jesus, and the verse certainly does that. But no, the question of whether it is historical or not has almost no bearing on the textual issue of whether it was originally in Matthew or not.

      • Avatar
        tom.hennell  June 7, 2020

        Thanks Bart, very helpful.

        Though your reference to ‘Orthodox Corruption’ does prompt a further query; as we know both from the manuscript record (the disputed words are expunged in many early texts), and from Severus of Antioch in the sixth century, that there was a deliberate and persistent campaign from ‘the orthodox’ to have the objectionable phrase removed from copies of the Gospel of Matthew.

        Which surely accounts for the observation that, after the sixth century, the phrase survived best in those parts of the world – Ethiopia and Ireland – that were least accessible to ecclesiastical authority.

        So, on the face of it, the removal of the phrase after the fourth century (whether it was in Matthew’s original or not), should be a paradigm documented instance of ‘orthodox corruption’. But I do not recall your arguing that at all; rather the contrary, that the inclusion of the phrase (notwithstanding orthodox objections to it), might nevertheless itself be ‘orthodox corruption’.

        On the other hand I suppose, your critics might have observed that, if such an almighty palaver was needed to remove this particular phrase, how come we lack corresponding explicit evidence in your other proposed instances?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 8, 2020

          There never was a top-down organized effort to alter manuscripts; it happened sporadically by the whim / choice of individual scribes. On only rare occasions is the effort commented on in our surviving writings. And when it is commented on again it is sporadically –nothing to indicate that any one instance (that I can think of (was universally known and talked about). So if most places that are talked about are talked about only rarely (in teh few surviving sources we have) then we would expect that most places (in teh same sources — the only ones available) would never be talked about. I deal with this issue a bit in Orthodox Corruption, as it’s obviously a big deal.

          • Avatar
            tom.hennell  June 8, 2020

            Except that in the case of this particular phrase, there undoubtedly was a “top-down organized effort to alter manuscripts”, eventually involving Pope Clement V; you can’t get any more top down than that. So that a reading that appears near universal (other than in the ‘Western’ tradition) in the fourth century, has become marginal, both textually and geographically, by the tenth century.

            Very few ( I think) dispute that the phrase is an interpolation; but far the most parsimonious explanation is that the interpolator was the author of the Gospel of Matthew, interpolating into the passion account of the Gospel of Mark.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 9, 2020

            I’m not aware of any effort of Clement V systematically instructing scribes to alter manuscripts. What are you thinking of?

          • Avatar
            tom.hennell  June 9, 2020

            Ubertino di Casale and the Spiritual Franciscans were teaching that the piercing of Jesus with a lance had happened before, not after, his death; on the basis of Latin manuscripts in Paris – apparently independent of the Irish/British tradition represented by the Book of Kells and the Lichfield Gospels. Clement V condemned both the teaching and the manuscripts at the Council of Vienne. His argument being that, as the issue of ‘blood’ presented the sacrament of the eucharist, and the issue of ‘water’ presented the sacrament of baptism, the salvation conveyed in these symbols required an origin after Jesus’s saving death – as in the Gospel of John.

            Otherwise, of course, we have the condemnation of the reading in Severus of Antioch; and the clear evidence of excision in many of the manuscripts witnesses.

            The most likely explanation, for me, is that both John and Matthew found this as a free-standing tradition about the crucifixion, and each inserted it into his text at the point that suited his particular theological agenda. For John, it supported his identification of Jesus as the ‘unbroken’ paschal lamb; for Matthew, perhaps a reference to Zechariah 12:10.

  4. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 5, 2020

    Who do you think was closest to Paul’s conception of sin and salvation – Augustine or Pelagius?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2020

      I’m not sure it’s possible to answer. But I know how each of *them* would have answered it!

  5. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  June 5, 2020

    I can certainly see the argument for keeping the woman taken in adultery in modern translations of the NT no matter what. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is probably the number one Jesus quotation that everyone knows.

  6. Avatar
    fishician  June 5, 2020

    It seems to me part of the problem is thinking that there is such a thing as THE Bible. The Bible is a product of church tradition. Some Bibles today still contain the Apocrypha. Some churches, like the JWs, write their own versions. Thomas Jefferson had no problem editing out all the miraculous stuff. If church tradition includes the Woman Caught In Adultery story, there is no reason to exclude it. If one has a problem with a single story that is not original, why include entire books, like 2nd Peter or the Pastoral Epistles, that were not original to the stated authors? Church tradition. However, it is very helpful for editions to note questionable passages. I like the NASB edition I use because it will note such passages, and often provides alternative translations in the margin, when there is a question about the best or earliest wording, or if vague or ambiguous phrases are used. And it’s not like serious scholars like you are going to use a Bible bought off the shelf at WalMart for serious study anyway!

  7. Avatar
    nichael  June 5, 2020

    An important point concerning any translation:
    Knowledgeable notes (whether footnotes or separate translators notes), are not simply “handy extras” for the word nerds; they are a critical part of any translation. And, more importantly, required reading for any serious reader.

    Any translation (especially for a translation as complicated an “meaningful” as the Bible) that doesn’t carefully explain the kinds of translation-decisions described above is simply a “pop reader’s version”, not a serious translation. And it is important to keep this in mind.

    This fact may make reading such works more complicated, but it quite simply a fact of life for anyone attempting to understand such a text in translation.

  8. Avatar
    veritas  June 5, 2020

    When you were a young man under Metzger’s guide, I am thinking you were still pretty much a believer. When sitting in on these committees and heard something you disagreed with, were you brave enough to let them know or did you just go along with it because your faith was pretty much still strong? Sitting among titans must be intimidating at a young age. You speak highly of him and sounds like he really brought you along. I read an article,which the name escapes me, where Metzger was mentioned as not having a belief/interpretation in the Creation story in Genesis. Are you aware of this and would that not shock the Christian Theological view as a whole?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2020

      They were all believers too (I know of only one exception), so it was not really an issue. And yes, Metzger thought Adam and Eve were part of a “myth” and he asked why anyone should claim that God was not able to inspire a myth. Good question!

  9. Avatar
    Stephen  June 5, 2020

    Undoubtedly there will come a day when they’ll wish to update the New Revised Standard Version. Is it too early to start thinking about what they can possibly entitle it?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2020

      They’re doing it now and it’s closing in on completion. It will be a very minor updating, by comparison.

  10. Avatar
    johnsotdj  June 6, 2020

    Fascinating. Thanks.

  11. Avatar
    Poohbear  June 6, 2020

    Excavations in the Timna Valley in Jordan attest to what scientists call the “invisible archaeology” of Edom. The first hard evidence that Bronze Age populations in the Levant were as high as the bible said they were.
    By definition, “discoveries” often surprise. And I wouldn’t be surprised with other Bronze Age finds such as domestic camels; Jewish settlements in Egypt or even the Ark of the Covenant.
    And if someone digs up fragments of 1st Century John’s Gospel with the missing Chapter 8 (the woman taken in adultery) I would not be surprised. Absence of evidence is not evidence for absence.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2020

      Hope springs eternal!

    • Avatar
      archieson  June 14, 2020

      “Now faith is the EVIDENCE of things HOPED for, the CONVICTION of things not seen.” Otherwise stated, faith is its own evidence of things that things we hope for do exist or will occur, and a strong belief when there is absolutely no objective evidence of the existence the thing wish for.

  12. Avatar
    Lms728  June 6, 2020

    I wonder if you could say more about the varying translations of Isaiah 7:14. In some versions, the girl/virgin *is* pregnant and *will* give birth; in others, the girl/virgin *will* be pregnant and *will* give birth. Will you take a few moments to explain why the former is the more accurate translation? How are present and future tense marked in the passage? Does the Septuagint passage differ tense-wise from the Hebrew Bible passage? Is context also a clue (in that the prophecy is reassuring to Hezekiah only if the girl/virgin is already pregnant)?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2020

      Hebrew doesn’t have past, present, and future tenses like English. In simplest terms: the Hebrew uses the “perfect” tense which is for verbal actions that have already reached their completion. So her being with child has happened, but the giving birth, which is expressed as an “imperfect” tense has not been completed

  13. Avatar
    Lms728  June 6, 2020

    Of course, the prophecy isn’t all that “reassuring,” is it? I should have said “meaningful” or “revelatory.”

  14. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 6, 2020

    Absolutely fascinating. How interesting to have an inside view from someone who was on the inside. Thanks.

  15. Avatar
    WLFobe  June 6, 2020

    Everyone assumes that the Bible contains no errors since printing began, but of course that can’t be so. The Sinner’s Bible is maybe the best known example of this. But there have to be more.

    And the Adultery Commandment – were there other mistakes in the Sinner’s Bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2020

      None that I know of, but I try not to be greedy….

    • Avatar
      tom.hennell  June 8, 2020

      As it happens, I have seen one of the few surviving copies of the ‘Sinners Bible’. The Ten Commandments at Exodus Chapter 20 are typeset as a separate section – each commandment is indented and starts a new line.. Consequently, the reading ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’ jumps off the page – as the line above reads “Thou shalt not kill”, and the line below reads ‘Thou shalt not steal”, So, the omission of ‘not’ was highly unlikely to be a mistake; but rather a deliberate act of sabotage by the typesetter.

      The highly lucrative privilege of printing King James Bibles had been granted to Robert Barker, the Kings Printer. But the job was so big that he subcontracted work to his main rivals, Bonham Norton and John Bill. By the date of this edition, these contracts had degenerated into bitter disputes; with Norton and Bill accusing Barker of selling sheets due to them as separate New Testament editions; and Barker accusing the other two of concealing their profits. At various times both Barker and Norton had found themselves in prison. This appears to have been pay-back.

  16. Avatar
    Stylites  June 6, 2020

    It is interesting that both the RSV and the NRSV in reference to Isaiah 7:14 do retain “virgin” in a footnote. I wonder if this was due to “economic pressure.” On the other hand, the NRSV in Daniel 7:13 uses “one like a human being” and relegates the Aramaic “one like a son of man” to a footnote. Could this be at attempt to appease more liberal purchasers seeking a gender neutral translation?
    As long as the reader has access to the footnotes, one can make up one’s own mind as to which is the better translation. However, not all editions include the notes. This I think is misleading, and such versions should be avoided as should those translations that pretend such questions do not exist and ignore notes or other discussions about them.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2020

      It’s certainly due to pressure from not wanting to discomfort readers.

  17. Avatar
    Gary  June 6, 2020

    There is a difference between a translator having a bias and a translator who perceives the presence of a spirit living inside him, telling him (or her) what is and what is not Truth.

    And what about textual scholars? Would any Christian take seriously the research of a Hindu scholar who claims to be objective regarding the historicity of Hindu miracles purportedly performed by an ancient Hindu prophet and miracle worker, if that same scholar also professes that he perceives the presence of that very Hindu prophet living within him?

    So why should anyone take seriously the scholarship of evangelical Christian scholars who claim that their research is objective regarding the alleged miracle of Jesus of Nazareth—his bodily resurrection—while at the same time claiming that they perceive the presence of Jesus living within them?

    It may be true that all historical scholars have biases, but the overwhelming majority do not claim that they perceive the presence of a ghost (spirit) living somewhere in their bodies who gives them supernatural guidance and wisdom.

    Evangelical scholars should be honest: Admit that they perceive Jesus living somewhere within them and admit that this perception completely disqualifies their scholarship regarding the alleged historicity of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

  18. Avatar
    WaterfrontSunrise  June 6, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, I was reading one of your older posts about the peculiar christology in Luke, as evidenced by the original wording of Luke 3:22 and the understanding that Luke doesn’t have a doctrine of atonement like the others. Is there a way we can use this christology to give it a firmer chronological placing in relation to Matthew (since in my understanding these two are often lumped together around the 80s)?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2020

      Ah, I wish we could, but alas, theology does not develop chronologically. People with all sorts of views of Christology and soteriology co-exist — just as today there are people who say that Jesus is God but not human or human but not God, but they all live at the same time. but it’s a great question. I think I’ll add it to my list of ones to blog on.

  19. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  June 7, 2020

    So some things were added into the gospels later on. But what about Paul’s letters? When I look at 1 Corinthians 15:3, I question if that was something that was original to the letter? It’s been argued that the first few verses of chapter 15 in 1 Corinthians was a composition insert to a earlier tradition. But when I read, “Christ died for our sins in accordance of the Scriptures”, I wonder if that was later added in by a scribe? Because did the early followers of Jesus really believe that he died for their sins? I always thought that it was an argument Paul made. Did Paul himself add that in or did a later scribe add that in?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2020

      Yes, it’s certainly worth thining about. The argument that the line is original is pretty strong though. We don’t have a single bit of manuscript evidence to suggest the line wasn’t originally there. Moreover, we have good evidence that virtually all the earliest Christians thought that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” It is a view independently embraced (apart from Paul) in all the early Gospels, and their sources, and teh book of Acts, and it’s sources, and other books of the NT that don’t rely on either Paul or the Gospels or any of their sources. My view is that Paul’s mission can’t be explained unless this was sometthing he realized at his converstion. So I’d say the line is almost certainly original. But I’m certainly open to contrary evidence/argument!

  20. Avatar
    Clair  June 7, 2020

    I was just reading up on Erasmus “cleaning up the translations” and wonder are we there yet? Re-translations of other ancient texts often change as we find better understanding of the words and way the author used the words in what we call style. I often see debate by some experts regarding the meaning of a word or phrase.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2020

      We’re never gonna agree on everything when it comes to how to translate texts, both because there are just fundamental disagreements based on philological and historical analyses and because our own language keeps changing. But transltions today as a rule are indeed better than the ones three centuries ago….

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