I’ve been talking about some of the intriguing issues and problems with the King James translation.  The Biggest Problem is one that takes a bit of time to explain, and so will consume a couple of posts even before I explain the issue with the KJV.  The broader context involves Bible translation in general, and revolves around a rather basic and highly important question that very few people know the answer to:  What is it that Bible translators translate when they are translating?

Here I will focus on the New Testament, my main area of expertise.   When a translator wants to make an English version of, say, Mark (what I say about Mark will be true of all the books of the NT), what does she actually translate into English?

Obviously she cannot take Mark’s original manuscript and translate it, since we don’t have it.  Or the first copy of the original, or a copy of the copy of the original.   We have hundreds of copies of Mark.  Does she just choose one that seems good and translate that?

No, as it turns out, that’s not how it works at all.  She translates a critical edition of the Greek text of Mark as it has been reconstructed by textual scholars.  And here’s how *that* works:

From near the time in the fifteenth century when printing with moveable type was invented there have been scholars interested in producing printed versions of the Greek New Testament (and of the Hebrew Old Testament and of the Latin Vulgate version of both testaments etc.).  The scholars engaged in this endeavor were naturally in a difficult situation.  They knew that, before the invention of printing, books had circulated in hand-written copies (the definition of “manuscript”).  So they had to print the books of the New Testament based on manuscripts

But they realized as well that manuscripts had differences among themselves.  Most of the differences were not all that important for anything, but still, what was one to do if a verse was worded in different ways in different manuscripts, even if it was just slightly different ways?  One approach would be to

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pick a manuscript thought to be particularly good and print that.  This was almost never done.  Instead, textual scholars looked at (however) many manuscripts were available to them, and tried to decide at every point where the manuscripts differed, in large or small or even tiny ways, which of the variant ways of wording the text were probably what the author (in this case Mark) actually wrote and which of the variants were alterations to the original made by scribes.  The scholars would then print what they judged to be the original text.

Despite the evident superiority of that approach, it had, and continues to have, serious problems.  Here’s one you might not think of.  Say you have five manuscripts of Mark that you’re comparing in order to decide what to print (as opposed to the hundreds we have).  Call them A B C D and E.  In one verse you decide that manuscripts A D and E have the right wording but B and C have a scribal error.  Fair enough.  Then for that verse you print the text as you find it in A D and E.  But suppose in the next verse there’s another variant among the five manuscripts, but this time you judge that the reading in B and C appears to be more likely original, but the one in A D and E appears to be the scribal mistake.  Then you print for that verse the wording as found in B and C.  But in a later verse the configuration is all different.  A and C have one wording of the verse, D has a different wording, and B and E have a third reading.  So you decide which is original and you print that.

Now here’s the problem.  When you complete the task by making a decision for every passage, every verse, every word of the New Testament (as you can imagine, it’s a very difficult and labor-intensive task) you end up printing an edition of the New Testament that is NOT LIKE any one of the manuscripts.  You’ve invented a text of your own, a text that is not attested anywhere in the manuscript tradition (in other words, the wording is not what is found in any of the manuscripts).

For some scholars that is a problem.  For others, it’s just the way it is.  I’m one of the latter.  It’s just the way it is.  At every point you’re trying to determine what the author originally wrote, based on number of tried and true criteria of judgment.  What you want is to produce the text as the author wrote it, and the manuscripts help you to figure that out, even if no manuscript has it right every time.

Scholars call that kind of printed text – in which this manuscript will be followed for this variant but that manuscript for this other variant, throughout – an “eclectic” text.  The word “eclectic” comes from the Greek word for “to choose.”  Editors have chosen which manuscripts to follow at each and every point.

The matter is really complicated when you have five different manuscripts of, say, Mark.  But as I’ve pointed out, we have hundreds of manuscripts of Mark.  Thousands of manuscripts of the various books of the New Testament.  Some 5600 manuscripts, just in Greek (not counting the manuscripts of ancient translations of the New Testament into Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and a host of other languages).

So what does a translator do?  Does she look at hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts for every word of the New Testament in order to decide which word to translate?  No, not at all.  What she does is base her translation on a modern printed edition produced by textual scholars who have examined in detail all the most significant manuscripts and made decisions about how each verse was probably worded originally.

The short story is that there are several such editions available, and one in particular that is used by almost everyone.  If you read Greek and have studied the New Testament in Greek, you probably own it.  It comes in two different versions.  Both versions have exactly the same words in the Greek version of every book of the New Testament; the difference is not in the Greek wording but in the “apparatus” that accompanies the text telling the user which manuscripts attest which variant reading at all the crucial points.  I’ll explain more about that in the next post.  (For now: the two modern editions that have *identical* texts but that are set up differently in terms of presentation, which most translators use, are the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament, 5th ed. and the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece 28th ed.).