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Chapter 2

The Noblest Monument of English Prose

 

It was not until the sixteenth century that the first English translation of the Scriptures from their original Greek and Hebrew was completed. It is true that John Wycliffe had, in the fourteenth century, translated the Bible into English from the Latin Vulgate. For this and other assaults on the excesses of Rome, Wycliffe’s bones were disinterred a decade after his death in 1384, and publicly burnt. He had written,

Cristen men and wymmen, olde and yonge, shuden studie fast in the Newe Testament, for it is of ful autorite, and opyn to understanding of simple men, as to the poyntis that be moost nedeful to salvacioun.1

This astounding assertion had rocked the ecclesiastical foundations of England. It was a frontal challenge to the papal teaching that the priests alone could interpret and present scriptural truth. This erroneous view of Catholicism is one reflected by the growing demands of modern theologians to invest them with the right to determine truth when matters of doctrine are in dispute. The domination of the church by theologians has ever led to darkness, never light. Little wonder that Wycliffe was later hailed by devout Protestants as the Morning Star of the Reformation.

In November 1983 we had the privilege of worshiping in the country church of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, England. It was to this pastorate that John Wycliffe was banished when his influence in Oxford was more than the church hierarchy could tolerate. It was here that he died, and it was here that his bones were ceremonially burned. How fortunate we are that our God’s actions are not subject to the whims and bigotry of man! In the stone church is preserved a copy of Wycliffe’s great contribution to truth, his translation of Holy Writ.

But bold as Wycliffe’s work was, and far-reaching as his efforts were—it was through contact with him that Reformation stirrings were witnessed as far away as Bohemia, culminating in the mighty witness of Huss and Jerome—Wycliffe was unable to introduce to his fellow citizens an uncorrupted translation of the New Testament.

The Latin Vulgate, from which Wycliffe translated his English version had been translated originally from these corrupted Greek manuscripts. William Tyndale in the sixteenth century had access to uncorrupted Greek and Hebrew manuscripts and it was from these that he prepared his English translation. The Roman Catholic prelates condemned Tyndale’s work as a willful perversion of the New Testament. His Bible was consigned to the flames and he himself was burnt at the stake in 1536 for daring to utilize Greek manuscripts uncorrupted by deliberate alterations. So dear was the purity of God’s Word to Tyndale that life itself was less precious. We do well to consider at what price the standard of purity of biblical manuscript was preserved.

Tyndale’s work was not extinguished by the flames which consumed his body and his translations. It lives on today in its worthy successor, the King James Version of Scripture. Unfortunately, the tradition of the corrupted manuscripts was not stayed by the success of the English Reformation. It still survives in most modern translations. Indeed in 1986, sales of one of these versions, the New International Version, exceeded that of the King James Version for the first time.

The great majority of Christians selecting a modern version of Scripture do so, believing that they are simply obtaining an authentic Bible translated in the English language of today rather than that of the seventeenth century. They would be astounded to learn that the most popular modern versions have been translated from a different Greek manuscript from that used in the King James Version.2 Few are aware that from the earliest times, two Greek manuscripts have competed for the right to be accepted as the original words written by the apostolic authors.

Many unsuspecting Christians accept the claim, that modern translations have a marked advantage over those of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries since more recent discoveries have revealed many more manuscripts. In some cases these are more ancient copies of the Greek manuscripts. It is claimed that these enable a more accurate basis for the evaluation of both minor and major discrepancies among the various manuscripts. But all the Greek manuscripts bear unmistakable testimony of having arisen from one of two sources—one preserved by the Eastern Christian Church in Constantinople and Syria and the other by the church of the West, centered in Rome and Alexandria. Modern discoveries have not altered this fact. The merits of these competing claims demand evaluation, for it is never safe to tamper with Holy Writ. God did not choose in a careless fashion the message He inspired His servants to record. Every sentence was inspired by God. While it is true that these privileged authors of the canonical writings used their own words and distinctive styles in writing, nevertheless every concept expressed, every fact related, was deemed by God as information vital to our salvation. So holy were these words that the most terrible anathema was threatened against those who dare to tamper with the Scripture’s content.

If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. Revelation 22:18-19

The two competing Greek texts3 of Scripture are typified by the Textus Receptus (Eastern tradition) and the Codex Vaticanus (Western tradition). No translator since early Reformation times has chosen these two forms of the Greek Scripture in a vacuum. Each has made a deliberate decision to choose one or the other. The translators who were chosen to undertake this important task in the days of King James I of England were well aware of the two basic manuscripts. The Textus Receptus had a history extending back to

the apostolic churches and reappearing at intervals down through the Christian era among enlightened believers. [It] was protected by the wisdom and scholarship of the pure church in her different phases; by such as the church in Pella in Palestine where Christians fled, when in A.D. 70 the Romans destroyed Jerusalem; by the Syrian Church of Antioch which produced eminent scholarship; by the Italic Church in northern Italy; also at the same time by the Gallic Church in southern France and the Celtic church in Great Britain; by the pre-Waldensian, the Waldensian, and the churches of the Reformation. Benjamin George Wilkinson, Our Authorized Bible Vindicated, p. 12, Washington, 1930.

This pedigree is impressive indeed, for all these churches strove for purity of faith in an age of rampant apostasy.

The competing stream is small by comparison, yet it seems that as in the Middle Ages, so at the end of time, it is poised to supersede the Textus Receptus. It is based upon two Greek manuscripts—The Codex Vaticanus, secreted in the Vatican Library for centuries, and the Codex Sinaiticus, discovered by a German theologian in the "waste-paper basket" of an ancient monastery at Sinai in 1844. One could rightly wonder if this discovery was not a satanic trump card reserved by the devil for the days of the preaching of the everlasting gospel. This corrupt form of the Greek manuscript has been represented in the Latin Vulgate, the 1582 Jesuit translation of Scripture into English (known as the Douay) and, since 1881, the vast majority of modern English translations.

Perhaps no man examined the evidence for the authenticity of the Greek text more carefully than John William Burgon, fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, vicar of St. Mary’s, the University of Oxford Church, professor of Divinity at Oxford University and later dean of Chichester. This great nineteenth century Christian held a fervent love for Scripture. He spared no effort to examine the claims of the two versions. In Rome in 1860, he visited the Vatican Library specifically to study the Codex Vaticanus. In 1862 he travelled to Sinai and inspected the treasures of St. Catherine’s Convent where the Codex Sinaiticus had been discovered. He also visited a large number of continental libraries, examining their ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.

At the conclusion of these investigations, Professor Burgon declared:

I am utterly disinclined to believe, so grossly improbable does it seem—that at the end of 1800 years, 995 copies out of every thousand, I suppose, will prove untrustworthy, and that one, two, three, four, or five which remain, whose contents were till yesterday as good as unknown, will be found to have the secret of what the Holy Spirit originally inspired. I am utterly unable to believe, in short, that God’s promise has so entirely failed, that at the end of 1800 years, much of the text of the Gospel had in point of fact to be picked by a German critic out of a waste paper basket in the convent of St. Catherine. David Otis Fuller, True of False?, p. 13, Grand Rapids International Publications, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Some have upheld the antiquity of the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus as evidence of their superiority over the manuscripts used in the translation during King James I’s reign. Burgon adopted an alternative view. He saw many years of preservation as evidence of their unreliability since any valuable document, he believed, would have long since been destroyed by constant usage.

Burgon’s references to the recentness of the knowledge of this Western stream should not be interpreted as evidence that it is of recent origin. It is simply a fact that these Greek manuscripts were unknown to the mass of scholars until the nineteenth century. But these manuscripts were soon found to be the basis for the perversions present in the long extant Latin Vulgate, so highly prized and promoted by the Roman Catholic Church.

That the Reformers, both English and Continental, eschewed this false set of biblical records, should not surprise us. The Eastern church had meticulously preserved the Word of God through numerous copyings, checking and rechecking each entry. Such care had not been demonstrated in the West where apostasy so rapidly overtook the purity of the faith that some sought to "improve" on the words of Holy Writ through means of alterations and deletions.

Eusebius, an early church father, admitted that in his day

corrupted manuscripts were so prevalent that agreement between the copies was hopeless. B.G.Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 15

Men such as Justin Martyr in the second century of the Christian Era, together with Tatian, who espoused Gnosticism, had deliberately "corrected" Scripture. In the following century, Clement of Alexandria, a man who espoused many pagan concepts, took the process even further. Dean Burgon, The Revision Revised, p. 336

But men like Origen and his follower, Jerome, who was the editor of the Latin Vulgate, contributed most to the debasing of Holy Writ. The situation has been well summarized by Scrivener:

It is no less true to fact than paradoxical in sound, that the worst corruptions to which the New Testament has ever been subjected, originated within a hundred years after it was composed; that Irenaeus (A.D. 150), and the African Fathers, and the whole Western, with a portion of the Syrian Church, used far inferior manuscripts to those employed by Stunica, or Erasmus, or Stephens thirteen centuries later, when moulding the Textus Receptus (Scrivener, Introduction to New Testament Criticism, 3rd Edition, p. 511, quoted in Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 18

The history of the recent change of thinking in Protestant circles is not clouded in mystery. It was successfully engineered by two prominent professors of Theology at Cambridge University: Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort. These men have been recognized as the most brilliant and erudite Bible scholars of the second half of the nineteenth century, but they were brilliantly wrong. They were in error, for they were not lovers of truth, but rather leaned toward the rising Anglo-Catholic tide in their church. We illustrate by citing a quotation from one of Professor Hort’s letters.

I have been persuaded for many years, he wrote in a letter to Dr. Westcott dated October 17, 1865, that Mary-worship and Jesus-worship have very much in common in their causes and their results (quoted in D.O.Fuller, op. cit., p. 17).

With such Catholic sentiments in his heart, we need not experience surprise that this man, ignoring the hard-won gains of his spiritual forefathers in the Anglican Church, turned once more to the manuscripts so valued by Rome. Thus when in the 1870s both Westcott and Hort were included among those entrusted with a revision of the King James Version, they persuaded their fellow translators to exceed their commission. This commission had confined the work of the committee to alterations of expressions which the passage of time had rendered archaic. Many readers of the modern translations imagine that here the translators halted. But tragically, the Revised Version of 1881 was based upon, not the Greek of the Textus Receptus, but that of the corrupted Western manuscripts. What the consequences of this departure from their commission produced, we shall subsequently examine.

Some assume that in most instances there is such a small difference between the Textus Receptus and the Codex Vaticanus as to make all protests trivial. Such should study the evidence more closely. Philip Mauro, a diligent Greek scholar, has recorded no fewer than 7,578 verbal divergences in the gospels alone. These consist of the omission of 2,877 words, the addition of 536 words, the substitution of 935 words, the transposition of 2,098 words and the modification of 1,132 words (Philip Mauro, Which Version? Authorized or Revised?, quoted in D.O.Fuller, op. cit., p. 78). Such wholesale destruction of the original text, resultant upon both willful changes and carelessness in copying, indicates the magnitude of the problem.

The beauty of the King James Version English has never been matched. Even the translators of the Revised Standard Version were constrained to admit this fact. They quoted from the assessment of those involved in the 1881 revision. These men had stated that the King James Version was marked by

its simplicity, its dignity, its power, its happy turns of expression . . . the music of its cadences, and the felicities of its rhythm. The Preface of the Revised Standard Version of Scripture

It is sometimes asserted that the English language reached its peak around the seventeenth century. This view is a matter of personal judgment, but it must be said that the works of William Shakespeare and John Milton, contemporaries of the 1611 translation, offer evidence to support this opinion. One analysis of the superiority of seventeenth-century English to that of the present day concluded:

Each word was broad, simple and generic. That is to say, words were capable of containing in themselves different shades of meaning which were attached to that central thought. B.G.Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 74

Whatever the reason, few could rightly refute the claim that the language of the King James Version has not been equalled by later translators. It is indeed the noblest monument of English prose. How proper that the sacred Word of God should be thus expressed!

1 Christian men and women, old and young, should study diligently the New Testament, for it is of full authority, and open to the understanding of simple men, as to the points that are most needful for salvation.

2 Among these versions are the Revised Standard Version, the American Standard Version, the New International Version, Today’s English Version, the Jerusalem Bible, and the New English Bible.

3 There is little dispute over the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. The Masoretic Text is almost universally accepted.


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