If someone translates the New Testament today into English, French, Arabic, or Swahili — what exactly are they translating?  They must have access to some kind of Greek text.  But what?  Are there lots to choose from out there?  Are they wildly different from one another?  I pointed out in my previous post that the King James and just about all other versions before the end of the 19th century were based on a printed Greek text that is now widely seen as flawed.  So what do folks use today?  Or if someone is just wanting to *read* the Greek — what options are there?  Is there some kind of “official” version?

Blog readers occasionally ask me these questions and luckily there is a fairly standard answer known to almost no one but scholars.

When scholars translate the New Testament into any modern language, they almost always (apart from fundamentalists who prefer the Greek used for the King James) use the same Greek text.  It is a printed edition of the Greek New Testament published since 1965 (with revisions since then) produced by a small but international team of textual scholars assembled and commissioned by the United Bible Societies (various countries have a Bible Society – an organization devoted to the distribution of Bibles and the promotion of knowledge about the Bible: there is one in America, one in Britain, one in Germany, one in the Netherlands, etc; the “United” Bible Societies is the overarching organization with representatives of each country).

The team was assembled in 1955 in order to produce a standard edition of the Greek New Testament, based on an intense study of the available Greek manuscripts, early versions (i.e. ancientPhoto of Bart Ehrman / When scholars translate the New Testament into any modern language... translations of the NT into Latin, Syriac, and Coptic, etc.), and quotations of the NT in the writings of the church fathers (from figures such as Irenaeus, Origen, Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, and so on).   The purpose of the edition was

to provide an accessible and widely available Greek text to translators around the world who were making translations in languages that, until then, did not have access to the New Testament in their own language, as well as to translators in various countries who were providing newer translations to replace ones already available.

The committee originally consisted of four scholars, and these were among the leading textual scholars in the world at the time (arguably they were *the* leading scholars): Kurt Aland of Germany, Matthew Black of Scotland, Allen Wikgren of the U.S., and (my teacher) Bruce Metzger, also of the U.S.   Later a fifth scholar was added to the team, Carlo Martini of Italy (who was a Catholic priest, then bishop, then the Cardinal of Milan, the largest Roman Catholic diocese in the world; for a time his name was thrown about as a possible candidate to be the next Pope).

Before then there was no standard publication, no one text that everyone could turn to and basically agree on.  This team was supposed to come up with one.

Specifically they were assigned to accomplish the following:

  • Establish to the best of their ability the wording of the books of the New Testament as the original authors had written them;
  • Provide an “apparatus” of readings at the bottom of each page indicating significant places where the witnesses (manuscripts; versions; quotations) differed among themselves. For the purposes of this edition there were not be a *lot* of variant readings indicated — just the ones most important for someone wanting to know what the best possible readings were where there were variations that could matter for translation.  The apparatus of this UBSGNT (the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament) typically has one or two variant readings in the apparatus on each page of text.
  • Give an indication of the relative degree of certainty the committee had for the textual decision they had made. That is, the committee, at significant places where the manuscripts etc. differed from each other, had to choose which reading they thought was the original.  The apparatus indicated places where other witnesses had different readings.  In the apparatus the team not only indicated which witnesses had which of the variant readings, they also ranked the confidence they themselves had in deciding which reading was original.  There were four options: A B C and D.  An A ranking meant the team was completely confident they had gotten it right; a D ranking meant they were divided among themselves and were not at all confident.  B and C were somewhere between those two extremes.
  • Provide a separate apparatus indicating how various earlier published Greek editions and modern translations have punctuated a sentence differently. This ends up mattering in some places.  For example in Luke 13:34 (I just opened this passage up at random a minute ago) Jesus mourns over Jerusalem: “How often I have wished to gather your children as a hen gathers its young under its wings, but you were not willing.”  Is this a statement (to end with a period)?  A question (to end with a question mark; in that case it would be translated “How often have I…?)? An exclamation (to end with an exclamation point)?  Translators, of course have to decide. (The ancient manuscripts don’t have any punctuation at all, so they are of no almost no help in deciding the matter.)

The international team worked on their edition for some years (they all had day jobs, as professors who taught for a living), and their edition then came out in 1965.  It almost immediately became the form of the New Testament that every biblical scholar in the world used.  It is still that today.  It has been revised over the years, slightly, and is now in its fifth edition.  Everyone in the world who is a scholar or student of the Greek New Testament has one.  You can get one!  It’s simply called The Greek New Testament (by the United Bible Societies).

Serious scholars, however, do not actually use this particular edition.  They use a different edition called the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (now in the 28th edition).  It can be a bit confusing to explain, but the wording of the Greek text in this other edition is exactly the same as in the UBS Greek New Testament.  But the apparatus is radically different indeed, in ways that are particularly useful to anyone who is a serious scholar in the field.

In particular, it cites far, far more variant readings in our ancient witnesses, so textual-junkies like me can see what more and more manuscripts have as differences throughout the text.  But the apparatus is harder to use than the one in The Greek New Testament, so many students and modern translators (e.g., missionaries who are translating the New Testament into languages that don’t already have an English version of the Bible) tend to use the latter – then usually care more about the “most likely original” text of the NT, and the truly *major* variations from it, than the textual details professional textual scholars thrive on.

This form of the Greek text is not inerrant.  There are many passages for which the manuscripts provide alternative forms of the text (that is, the passages are worded differently) that scholars continue to debate; in many cases, informed judgments are split, with strong opinions on all sides.  Translators themselves have to make judgments about which of the wordings to translate — and sometimes they choose a variant reading that is different from the standard text widely used.  Most of these differences do not make an *enormous* difference, but some really are significant.  That’s pretty much what I talk about, if you’re interested in pursuing the matter further, in my book Misquoting Jesus.

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2023-01-16T19:05:26-05:00January 17th, 2023|History of Biblical Scholarship, New Testament Manuscripts|

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  1. GeoffClifton January 17, 2023 at 9:31 am

    Dr Ehrman, has anyone tried translating the Greek New Testament without religious preconceptions, in other words, in the way you would translate Plutarch, Dio Cassius or any other pagan Greek text from around the same period? If so, are their translations much different from the ones we are familiar with?

    • BDEhrman January 18, 2023 at 1:55 pm

      THere were people on the NRSV translation committee who were not believers; the translations actually don’t change much. When I translate passages as an atheist, they often sound pretty much like modern translations you can buy. But, of course, theology *can* affect things, expecially if theological views make one thing that there can’t be any contradictions.

  2. curtiswolf69 January 17, 2023 at 11:33 am

    On the ABCD scale mentioned above, how confident overall are scholars that they have the original text of the New Testament?

    • BDEhrman January 18, 2023 at 1:56 pm

      Depends which scholar you ask, and what you mean by “original text.” Some think we’re certainlyl amazingly close; others say it’s hopeless even to ask the question.

  3. trevortimpson January 17, 2023 at 1:45 pm

    not sure I know what is meant by “languages that don’t already have an English version of the Bible”

    • BDEhrman January 18, 2023 at 1:57 pm

      The Bible has not been translated into every language on earth.

      • trevortimpson January 19, 2023 at 1:50 pm


        • Ting January 28, 2023 at 3:29 am

          In some countries, the Bible is translated into the local dialect using an English bible as their source, instead of translating it directly from the Greek.

  4. AngeloB January 17, 2023 at 4:27 pm

    I can understand some words in the Greek NT as my cultural background is Greek!

  5. stevenpounders January 17, 2023 at 9:48 pm

    Is the Greek text preferred by fundamentalists for the King James version the Textus Receptus of Erasmus? It just seems strange to me that they would prefer a 16th century, error-ridden Greek text. Do fundamentalists believe Erasmus was inspired?

    • BDEhrman January 18, 2023 at 2:04 pm

      Some prefer that basic form of the text; others prefer a text that is based on the vast bulk of Greek manuscripts that come from the Middle Ages but are not identical to the Erasmus text (even though it is very much like it, rather than like the text found in our earlier, but far fewer, manuscripts.)

      • Osuaggiefan March 7, 2023 at 6:49 pm

        Here’s my only hangup with it being a slam dunk that NA 28 is decidedly a better representation of the *original* than TR is, and please correct me if i am wrong:

        Sinaticus, Vaticanus, and the early papyri were all, for some reason, left idle for centuries, only to be discovered in the 19th century by people finding them in closets, graves, trash dumps, the dark recesses of the Vatican etc (and i all that jokingly but you get my gist) and these early fragments are generally preferred by the critical text because they are demonstrably early in date and seem to represent the earliest form of the text according to our best scholarly efforts. I totally subscribe to this idea, and when i read the NT it’s NRSV or NRSVue unless i want to see an English rendering of TR and then i use the NKJV.

        But the later manuscripts didnt just come out of nowhere. They were copied from something earlier, which is no longer extant. Many textual variants have early roots like alexandrinus and bazae, although these particular scripts are slightly newer. Why dont you feel that alexandrinus and bazae represent the *origninals*? Pericope adulteri, ending of mark etc?

        • BDEhrman March 10, 2023 at 7:33 pm

          I wrote my masters thesis on this question (the view you laid out here was advanced at greatest length by a fellow named H. Sturz) and argued it was wrong. But I won’t reprdocued my thesis here. One VERY big problem is that we have quotations of the NT in earlier church fathers, well before Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, and NONE of them suppor thte TR kind of text; nor do the early versions; and nor do any of the fragmentary early papyri. There are other problems! But since the 1880s, it’s been seen as a slam dunk outside of TR folk who have strong theological commitments to a certain kind of text. (And sometimes Bezae and Alexandrinus certainly DO represent the original text)

        • DavidFord April 24, 2023 at 10:58 am

          “Why dont you feel that alexandrinus and bazae represent the *origninals*?”
          Because I believe the originals were in Aramaic, not Greek.
          There are mistranslations in the Greek.

  6. Lucretius January 17, 2023 at 10:54 pm

    I enjoy Sharon Roberts’ readings of your blog posts. But the audio quality seems to be poor by typical podcast standards. Can you please provide her with sufficient technical support?

    • BDEhrman January 18, 2023 at 2:04 pm

      She just got a new microphone! So look forward to even better things ahead.

    • SR January 18, 2023 at 4:45 pm

      Thank you for your comment. I do appreciate the feedback.
      I have been frustrated by the quality of my recordings as well. Being technically “challenged” it escaped me as to what to do as despite upgrading my microphone the quality did not improve. The good news is that I have found technical support just this week, purchased more equipment, and changed recording locations. Since I don’t have a professional recording “studio” I’m hoping the upgrades and changes I’ve made will help. I uploaded 2 recordings with my new system that should be posted the first week or so of February. Let me know, what you think! Sharon

  7. blsdaniel January 17, 2023 at 11:32 pm

    If Nestle Aland is the general go-to while fundamentalists prefer KJV (presumably textus receptus), where does that leave Westcott and Hort? Has it been abandoned?

    • BDEhrman January 18, 2023 at 2:06 pm

      Westcott-and-Hort is VERY similar to the Nestle Aland. (Even though the editors of the Nestle Aland insist it’s not. The differences are almost entirely minor or ones which scholars going back to W-H and before have debated…)

  8. RD January 18, 2023 at 10:49 am

    Did anyone from Greece participate in the development of the Greek New Testament? I’m a little surprised that no one on the committee was Greek. One would think a Greek would have a better handle on any nuances in the language.

    • BDEhrman January 18, 2023 at 2:14 pm

      Yes, the original committee of the UBS text included Johannes Karaviopoulos. But it would be a mistake to think that someone who is fluent in modern Greek and embedded in modern Greek culture has an advantage in understanding ancient Greek philology. It may *seem* like it should be an advantage, but it’s really not. I’ve had dozens of Greek speakers tell me what an ancient word “means” and they think it means what they think becuase that’s how it’s always used today; but it never gets used that way in texts 2000 years ago. So it can create a problem as well as a benefit.

      • Duke12 January 20, 2023 at 1:45 pm

        Don’t get into an argument with an ethnic Greek Orthodox on the proper pronunciation of Ancient Greek! Whenever I’m tempted to take their side I think of American Southerner pronunciation of King James English — and that’s only a 400 year separation!

        • BDEhrman January 22, 2023 at 11:45 am

          Ah, I know. But the issue is deeper than pronunciation — it’s what the words actually mean. (More arguments!)

  9. quadell January 18, 2023 at 11:48 am

    Do you know of any translations that are designed to feel like the KJV (with thees and thous and so forth), but based on a modern UBS Greek text, and that only differ from the KJV when it’s clearly wrong? It seems like there could be a market: people who like that old-time religious feel, but who recognize that accuracy is important.

  10. KeitaTakahata January 18, 2023 at 4:16 pm

    1. How did Paul send his letters to his churches? Did he send someone close to him, or was there some type of postal service? (I honestly have no idea, I would assume the first option).

    2. In 1 Cor 11, Paul talks on gender-based head coverings but in verse 13, he says “Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?”. Is Paul saying people should decide for themselves on the matter rather than just follow his own opinion?

    • BDEhrman January 19, 2023 at 5:39 pm

      1. Ah. No postal service in angiquity. In teh ancient world letters were normally sent by people going toe the location in question (or being sent there); 2. It’s a rhetorical question: in his context he’s expecting the answer “Obviously not!”

  11. UnityGrace January 28, 2023 at 6:09 pm

    I watched Jesus of Montreal in French, then English, not because I speak French but curious about the impact of subtitles on my involvement in the film (didnt care for it much when having to track subtitles and liked it in English). However I know enough French to have detected that some people addressed Jesus with the familiar “toi” form of you. It is not the same as “thou” and in French, I found it very tender and touching – that one word sent a message about how people felt about him that “you” and “thou” just don’t. How do translators handle gendered languages in general when translating the Bible? Would “tu” have any analog in Greek? And how would they decide to use that form in French rather than the formal “you”?

    • BDEhrman January 29, 2023 at 2:41 pm

      Greek doesn’t have the same more intimate form of the second person pronoun as French. Using it in French was meant to make a point about intimacy with Jesus rather than formality.

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