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Chapter 28

The Defense of Modern Translations


One of the strongest defenses of modern translations, especially the New International Version (NIV), has been made by the Canadian, Dr. D.A.Carson, in his 1977 work, King James Version DebateóA Plea for Realism, Baker Book House. Even those who, like the authors, are firmly convinced that the King James Version is still the most reliable English translation of the Bible, are indebted to scholars like Dr. Carson for making them aware of the weakness of some arguments presented by overeager defenders of the King James Version.

Dr. Carson with detailed care points out that no two manuscripts are identical, and that the age of a manuscript is not final proof that it is more accurate (though later in his book he does seem to give great emphasis to the likely superiority of older manuscripts). Neither can we always trust the majority reading of any text or passage. Dr. Carson details the way intentional and unintentional errors have crept into the manuscripts. Usually substantial changes, such as the effort of Marcion in the second century to delete all references to Jesusí Jewish background, have not been difficult to detect. Marcion attempted to dissociate Christianity from the Jews, who were then under fearful persecution by the Roman Empire.

It is significant that when Erasmus put out his Diaglot (Greek and Latin translation) it varied significantly from the Catholic Vulgate of Jerome. Erasmusí second edition formed the basis of Lutherís German translation and it became the basis of almost all of the Protestant translations of Europe in the sixteenth century.

Unfortunately, Carson failed to acknowledge the tremendous thrust that translations based upon Erasmusí Greek text gave to the Reformation. Though Erasmus did not renounce the Roman Catholic Church, there is no doubt he hoped his text would foreshadow sweeping reforms within that church. Such reforms did not eventuate, and the Latin Vulgate continued to dominate Catholic thinking. Unfortunately, Carson spends considerable space detailing how Erasmus had to resort to the use of the Vulgate for the final six verses of Revelation since these verses were missing from the Greek manuscripts he was using. Carson also enters into lengthy arguments on Erasmusí inclusion of 1 John 5:7-8. While both these issues are worthy of review, they are presented in a way that casts unnecessary doubts upon the Textus Receptus. That term was coined in 1624 to express that it was the standard text of the era. In reality, it was almost identical to the Erasmus text of the previous century.

Though Carson does not indicate it, the leaders of the Protestant Reformation certainly saw in the Erasmus text, or the Textus Receptus, a presentation of scriptural purity that had been missing from the Latin Vulgate. Therefore all over Europe the translations of that text were used in the preparation of the Protestant Bibles, which differed markedly from the Catholic Bible of the Latin Vulgate and the later vernacular translations by Catholic scholars. It is only in recent years, with the rise of the ecumenical movement, that many Protestant scholars have sought the Alexandrian (Western) text in preference to the Byzantine (Eastern) text. We could not detect any substantive evidence presented by Carson to verify his claim that the Alexandrian text is superior to that of the Byzantine tradition, except that a few remaining manuscripts are earlier in origin. And on his own testimony, the age of a manuscript is not decisive in determining accuracy.

Carson presents fourteen theses to defend his viewpoint. His third thesis is that the Byzantine text type is demonstrably a secondary text. He bases this assertion upon the greater harmonization of the synoptic gospels (the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in the Byzantine text than in the Alexandrian-type text. We do not contest that there is harmony of the gospels in the Byzantine text, but we deny that his thesis is thereby strengthened. Yet this argument is set forth as one of the strongest. Of course, such an argument does nothing to injure the doctrinal truth of the gospels.

Another argument presented by Carson is that the famous Papyrus P75, dating from about A.D. 200, is very close to the Codex Sinaiticus. He claims that this correspondence suggests an early dating of the Alexandrian text.

The ultimate thesis set forth by Carson seems to develop in his chapter on nontextual questions. It is evident that he has a preference for the New International Version. He argues that the King James Version is too insensitive to English idiom. This insensitivity, he says, leads to awkward English. The King James Version, he further states, gets into difficulty trying to translate Greek imperfect verbs into English imperfect verbs, and is too literal at other points as well. This awkwardness he says is minimized in the New International Version. However, we are willing to accept a little awkwardness, if by so doing we have greater accuracy.

In his book Carson states:

Some modern translations tend toward the heretical by virtue of the fourth of the presuppositions that govern the translations. D.A. Carson, op. cit., 65

Perhaps Carson has not recognized that the New International Version is certainly guilty of this tendency, independent of the merits of the manuscripts used in its translation. Unwittingly he has attested to this fact when he says of the awkwardness of the King James translation:

This is one of the errors that the translators of the New International Version, all of whom were selected because of both their scholarship and their evangelical commitment, seek to minimize. Ibid., 89, emphasis supplied

This thesis we hold strongly. The New International Version reflects the biases of evangelical translators, just as the Douay reflects Catholic bias.

Perhaps most surprising is that Carson provides not one substantive doctrinal issue that is presented erroneously in the King James Version. If he is aware of them, he certainly chose to refrain from their presentation. Admittedly, he states that he is presenting only a few examples, but we wonder why he does not present such important defects if they exist. Carson asserts:

The onus of proof, in my view, still rests with the defenders of the Byzantine tradition. Ibid., 111

We wonder why. Surely any significant change from a 350-year Protestant tradition should rest on the one urging the change. We agree that tradition is meaningless in itself, but surely substantive evidence is required to support a case for change.

Of course most of the New Testament is already textually certain; and as I have already argued, the remaining variations may affect the interpretation of various passages, but they do not affect a single doctrine. Ibid., 119

In this assertion, Carson is demonstrably in error. In various passages the disputed readings do weaken the testimony of Scripture in defense of the divinity of Christ, the investigative judgment, the state of the dead, the doctrine of the Lordís supper, and the mediatorial work of Christ. In view of this fact, we question Carsonís strong support of the New International Version, which seeks, by interpretive translation, to support the evangelical concept in such areas as Augustineís doctrine of original sin (Psalm 51:5), and immediate life after death (2 Peter 2:9), and in the other various doctrines (see chapter 17, Subtle Catholicism). These are substantial doctrinal aberrations that have their roots in the infiltration of pagan doctrines into the early Christian church.

Our major disappointment is that Carson either fails to address, or addresses with only passing reference, many important issues. He does not address, for example, the well over 3,000 differences between the Codex Vaticanus, and the Codex Sinaiticus upon which so much of the Westcott-Hort Greek text is established. Neither does Carson address the numerous missing words, phrases, and passages in the Codex Vaticanus. Neither does he address the numerous "corrections" and changes made by twenty or thirty scribes over a period of half a millennium within the Codex Sinaiticus.

Carson emphasizes that no Byzantine-type text has been discovered which can be dated before A.D. 350. We are sure he does not believe that it had no origin before this date; it must have come from somewhere. There are also very, very few Western and Alexandrian texts from before this time, and for the next three or four centuries there are few of the Byzantine texts that are now known. Why not acknowledge that there may be some earlier Byzantine texts that are waiting to be discovered? Surely we have not found all that are hidden in some remote building, or archeological area, yet to be uncovered.

Carson makes much of the invalidity of arguments as to why we have no Byzantine texts earlier than A.D. 350. Let us suggest a probability. Carson correctly points out that after the fourth century, Greek almost vanished as a spoken (or read) language in the Western Roman Empire. Therefore it would be logical to assume that with Jeromeís Latin Vulgate dominating the educational institutions, this translation was copied over and over again by copyists. Thus the Greek manuscripts in the West all but disappeared. Given this reality, demonstrated by the very few Greek manuscripts discovered in the West from later periods of history, we would logically expect that Western scholars would be more likely to preserve the tattered and torn copies of the earlier Greek New Testament, since preparation of new copies had fallen into abeyance. Further, since the Latin Vulgate became the standard Scripture of the West, older copies of the Greek manuscripts held there were less likely to be read and thus destroyed by constant use. However, in the Eastern Roman Empire, the situation was entirely different. For a half millennium after the fourth century, Greek continued to be a strongly active language. Thus, Greek New Testament manuscripts continued to be copied in significant numbers in the East. We can logically assume, with the much larger numbers of manuscripts available in the East, as is attested by the number that have been recovered, that old, tattered, and worn copies of the manuscripts would be far more likely to be discarded and destroyed. Also their constant use would ensure their rapid deterioration.

Carson asserts that the earlier church fathers quoted from the Western Alexandrian texts in their writings rather than from the Byzantine. We point out that those church fathers resided in the Western empire, not the Eastern. Further, there is increasing evidence now that the Byzantine text was very frequently used in the writings of the ante-Nicene period (before 340). This evidence is quite remarkable, since these men almost all resided in the West. Such a finding is powerful evidence for the validity of the Byzantine text.

Another strong concern expressed over the last century is the evidence of the Anglo-Catholic commitment of Westcott and Hort. This bias is confirmed in their own writings, and naturally leads to suspicion of the motives behind the translation of the Revised Version, which is the forerunner of virtually all modern English translations, and not a few in other languages. Faithful Protestants are hardly comforted by the reported statements of the distaste of Westcott and Hort for the King James Version. Carson surprisingly does not address this issue.

We are also disappointed that Carson does not seriously compare exact equivalence, versus dynamic equivalence, in translation. We assume that he does not believe the King James Version or any other translations use exact equivalence, for he says it ought to be obvious that to some extent every translation, from anywhere on the spectrum, was necessarily involved again and again with finding the "dynamic equivalent." In the perspective from which he was writing, his statement is true; but it sidesteps the real issue. The Hebrew language has been judged to be one of the most "concrete" languages in the world, and even the writers of the New Testament, though writing in Greek, were writing with the mind-set of Hebrews. Therefore, many Hebrew phrases needed to be translated from the concrete to the abstract. Thus, the translators of the King James Version attempted to give the exact meaning of the original languages in an altogether different way from the liberties taken by most modern translators in the name of "dynamic equivalence."

As an attempt to discredit the King James Version of Scripture, Carsonís book falls far short of its aim. He uses selective evidence, ignores difficult questions, fails to give weight to more substantial explanations of proven facts, and altogether provides no sound basis for his preference for the New International Version of the Bible.


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