I have started to explain what it is translators of the New Testament actually translate. They do not translate just one manuscript or another; they translate what they take to be the “original” text as it has been reconstructed by textual specialists (some of whom are the translators themselves). These reconstructions can be found in printed editions of the Greek New Testament.
To make sense of what the translators actually have in front of them when they are translating, I need to give a brief history of the printing of the Greek New Testament. To that end I will provide in two or three posts the directly relevant material given in my book Misquoting Jesus. I’ve always thought this is unusually interesting information connected to “how we got our Bible.” I start at the beginning, with the invention of printing.
The text of the New Testament was copied in a fairly standardized form throughout the centuries of the Middle Ages, both in the East (the “Byzantine” text) and the West (the Latin Vulgate). It was the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century by Johann Gutenberg (1400-1468) that changed everything for the reproduction of books in general and the books of the Bible in particular. By printing books with moveable print, one could guarantee that every page looked exactly like every other page, with no variations of any kind in the wording. Gone were the days when transcribers would each produce different copies of the same text by means of accidental and intentional alterations. What was set in print, was set in stone. Moreover, books could be made far more rapidly: no longer did they need to be copied one letter at a time. And as a result, they were made much more cheaply. Scarcely anything has made such a revolutionary impact on the modern world as the printing press; the next closest thing (which may, eventually, surpass it in significance) is the advent of the personal computer.
The first major work to be published on Gutenberg’s printing press was a magnificent edition of the Latin (Vulgate) Bible, which took all of 1450-56 to produce. In the half-century that followed, some fifty editions of the Vulgate were produced at various printing houses in Europe. It may seem odd that there was no impulse to produce a copy of the Greek New Testament in these early years of printing. But the reason is not hard to find: scholars throughout Europe – including Biblical scholars – had been accustomed for nearly a thousand years to thinking that Jerome’s Vulgate was the Bible of the church (somewhat like some modern churches assume that the King James is the “true” Bible). The Greek Bible was thought of as foreign to theology and learning; in the Latin West, it was thought of as belonging to the Greek Orthodox Christians, who were considered to be schismatics who had branched off from the true church. Few scholars in Western Europe could even read Greek. And so, at first, no one felt compelled to put the Greek Bible in print.
The first Western scholar who conceived of the idea of producing a version of the Greek New Testament was a Spanish cardinal named Ximenes de Cisneros (1437-1517). Under his leadership, a group of scholars, including one named Diego Loped de Zuñiga (Stunica), undertook a multi-volume edition of the Bible. This was a “polyglot” edition – that is, it printed the text of the Bible in a variety of languages. And so, the Old Testament was represented by the original Hebrew, the Latin Vulgate, and the Greek Septuagint, side by side in columns. (What these editors thought of the superiority of the Vulgate can be seen in their comments on this arrangement in their Preface: they likened it to Christ – represented by the Vulgate – being crucified between two criminals, the false Jews represented by the Hebrew and the schismatic Greeks represented by the Septuagint.)
The work was printed in a town called Alcalà, whose Latin name is “Complutum.” For this reason, Ximenes’s edition is known as the Complutensian Polyglot. The New Testament volume was the first to be printed (vol. 5; completed in 1514); it contained the Greek text, and included a Greek dictionary with Latin equivalents. But there was no plan to publish this volume separately – all six volumes (the sixth included a Hebrew grammar and dictionary, to assist in the reading of vols. 1-4) were to be published together. And this took considerable time. The entire work was finished, evidently, by 1517; but as this was a Catholic production, it needed the sanction of the pope, Leo X, before it could appear. This was finally obtained in 1520, but because of other complications, the book did not come to be distributed until 1522, some five years after Ximenes himself had died.
As we have seen, by this time there were many hundreds of Greek manuscripts (i.e., hand written copies) available to Christian churches and scholars in the East. How did Stunica and his fellow editors decide which of these manuscripts to use, and which manuscripts were actually available to them? Unfortunately, this is a question that scholars have never been able to answer with any confidence. In the Dedication of the work, Ximenes expresses his gratitude to Pope Leo X for Greek copies that he had lent them “from the Apostolical Library.” And so the manuscripts for the edition may have come from the Vatican’s holdings. Some scholars, however, have suspected that manuscripts available locally were used. About 250 years after the production of the Complutum, a Danish scholar named Moldenhawer visited Alcalà to survey their library resources in order to answer the question. But as it turns out, he could find no manuscripts of the Greek New Testament at all. Suspecting that the library must have had some such manuscripts at some point, he made persistent inquiry, until he was finally told by the librarian that the library had indeed previously contained ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, but that in 1749 all of them had been sold to a famous rocket maker named Toryo, “as useless parchments” (but suitable for making fireworks).
Later scholars have tried to discredit this account; but at the very least it shows that the study of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament is not rocket science.