In my previous post I indicated that the King James Version includes verses in some places that are almost certainly not “original” – that is, passages that were not written by the original authors but were added by later scribes. I chose three of the most outstanding and famous examples: the explicit reference to the Trinity in 1 John 5:7-8; the story of the woman taken in adultery in John 7:53-8:11; and Jesus’ resurrection appearance in the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel, Mark 16:9-20.
What about more recent translations? how are these three passages presented there? I won’t discuss all the translations here, of course (the 29 million of them) but the one that I and most other historical scholars I know, prefer, the New Revised Standard Version, recently updated in the NRSVue (= updated edition. Catchy, huh?). Since virtually all scholars (including the translators of this edition) agree these three passages were not original to the New Testament, are they printed there?
As it turns out, the three passages are handled differently. The first, which affirms the doctrine of the Trinity (1 John 5:7-8), is not in any of our most ancient manuscripts at all. It shows up in one manuscript of the fourteenth century, one of the fifteenth, another of the sixteenth, and finally one of the eighteenth. Yes, that’s right, the eighteenth. Scribes were producing manuscripts long after the invention of printing (just as my students today take notes with pen and paper, even though they all own laptops). It can be found in the margins of four other, equally late, manuscripts, as a possible variant reading. The result, though, is that no one except the most avid fundamentalist thinks that the verses have any claim to belong to the “original” text of the New Testament.
And so how does the NRSV (and the ue) present the text at this point? It leaves the verses out, but adds a footnote (no one reads the footnotes, but it’s there anyway) which says “A few other authorities read (with variations) There are three that testify in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one.”
Why does the note say that the verses are found in other “authorities” instead of in other “manuscripts”? This is the standard way of referring to textual variants in the notes of the NRSV. The reason behind it is this: the translators are considering not only variant readings found in Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, but also variant readings as they occur in ancient translations (the “early versions”) of the New Testament, in such ancient languages as Latin, Syriac, and Coptic. Some variant readings are strongly attested in these translations, and the editors of the NRSV thought it was most prudent then not to confuse things by saying that the “authorities” were always (Greek) manuscripts. So they simply called them authorities.
I think it is rather unfortunate that the footnote does not make a stronger statement than it does. The editors thought that by saying the verse was found in (only) “a few other” authorities, they had made their point, that the verses are certainly not original. But I think they could have helped readers out a bit more by making the point more emphatic.
They handle the other two passages differently, and in a way that can be (far) more confusing. They have actually kept the passage of the woman taken in adultery in John 7:53-8:11, printing it in the text. But they put it in double brackets [[ … ]]. That is to be an indication to the reader that the passage can be found in some ancient witnesses but that it almost certainly is not original to the Gospel of John. They add a footnote at the end of the passage that says “The most ancient authorities lack 7:53-811; other authorities add the passage here or after 7.36 or after 21.25 or after Luke 21:38, with variations of text; some mark the passage as doubtful.”
The editors think they have done their job by handling the passage in this way. Surely readers will know the score, no? Surely they’ll realize that the passage is not original. Right?
My sense is that most readers never notice the double brackets, and if they do notice the brackets, they don’t have any idea what they mean. And the vast majority of readers will not bother to try to find out, for example, by reading the Preface to the NRSV to see if it says anything about them. It does say something about them, as it turns out, but the comment is not easy to find unless you read through the entire Preface, which few people are willing or eager to do.
Hidden away in that Preface (really: unless you read the whole thing you won’t find it), the reader is told “double brackets are used to enclose a few passages that are generally regarded to be later additions to the text, but that we have retained because of their evident antiquity and their importance in the textual tradition.” Again, I don’t think this is nearly strong enough. Why not just tell readers that the passage is almost certainly not original but was added by scribes?
There’s actually an answer to the question. It’s because the translators did not want to offend the religious sensibilities of their readers (wanting individuals and churches to adopt their translation, for example!) and because some of the translators (including my teacher Bruce Metzger, the chair of the committee who wrote the Preface) thought that even though this story was not originally found in the Gospel of John, it undoubtedly actually happened in the life of Jesus.
The ending of Mark (16:9-20) is handled in an analogous way. Here the matter is a bit complicated by the fact that some manuscripts have a *different* ending that was tacked on to v. 9 (consisting of a single verse); some manuscripts have the longer ending – the twelve last verses known from the King James (vv. 9-20); and some have *both* of these endings (the one verse and the twelve verses). The oldest and best manuscripts, though, end with v. 8.
The NRSV prints the shorter additional ending (of one verse) then the longer additional ending (of twelve verses) but places both endings in double brackets. The note explaining the messy situation again does not strike me as completely satisfactory: “Some of the most ancient authorities bring the book to a close at the end of verse 8…..” It goes on to explain the two additions found in some manuscripts.
Again, I think a stronger statement would be in order. They should just say that neither of these other endings is at all likely to be original, but that both were tacked on by scribes. Readers simply don’t see double brackets and then think: “Oh, so this isn’t original.” If they see the brackets at all – and often they don’t even see them – they ask “Hmm… I wonder what brackets mean.” And go no further than that. And the note really doesn’t tell them what they want to know.
So the NRSV is superior in all these passages to the KJV. But in my judgement it’s not as helpful as it could be.