Different Words in Different Bibles?

 

by James May[1]

 

A careful student of the New Testament may notice, either through notes in a reference Bible,[2] through using different translations,[3] or by reading commentaries, that there are variations in the Greek text of the New Testament. That is to say, all of the manuscripts do not have the exact same wording at every point. These variants arose during the long period when the only way to produce a copy of any document was by hand (prior to the invention of the movable-type printing press by Johann Gutenberg in 1452). People are not capable of copying a lengthy document by hand without making mistakes, as witnessed by the fact that no two of the approximately 5,400 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that have survived are identical. They all have at least minor variants from all other manuscripts.

 

It is easy to get an entirely wrong idea when reading about such variants.  One might conclude that there are so many of them that no one today has any idea what the apostles wrote by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is not at all the case. The first person who made a copy of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans most certainly made errors in his copy; so did the second person; so did the third. The important point is that the second person did not make the same errors as the first person, and the third person did not make the same errors as the first two. The result of this phenomenon is that the text was entirely preserved, but not in any one particular manuscript.  The New Testament was copied and distributed very rapidly in the early centuries of the Church. Over a period of time, variants acquired a geographic aspect.  That is to say, groups of variants were preserved in particular locations. As a result, manuscripts of the New Testament are generally classified into three families that have geographic titles. They are the Alexandrian family, the Byzantine family, and the Western family. By studying variations in the individual manuscripts in light of their family relationships, scholars are able to determine the exact text of the New Testament with a high degree of accuracy.

 

While biblical scholars have been aware of transcriptional errors since the early days of the Church, most laymen have had scant knowledge of their existence. Recent controversies and modern translations have created a new awareness of these blemishes. Some Christians have become very distressed over the thought that there is anything less than perfect certainly about every single word in the Bible. They have often concluded that anyone who recognizes such uncertainly does not really believe the Bible is God’s Word. Such “unbelievers” are frequently attacked with the most intemperate language. We should note that no one living today created the variants, and that they present a certain challenge to any believer who will face them honestly. There are groups of Christians who attempt to remedy the problem by simply asserting that the King James Version of the Bible is the perfect Word of God without any flaws whatsoever. It is superior to all other versions, whether Greek or English. Although they would loudly deny this, people who take such an extreme position in essence deny that God has preserved the Bible.  Their position leads to the necessary conclusion that God rather restored His Word by re-inspiring[4] the translators of the King James Version. They cannot point to any text immediately prior to the publication of the KJV in 1611 and declare that text to be the perfect Word of God. The King James translators themselves provide an insurmountable obstacle to this position by the marginal notes which they placed in the Bible. They included notes which gave 2,156 alternative translations in the Old Testament and 582 in the New. Their New Testament notes also supplied 37 variant readings.[5] Few modern printings of the KJV include these notes. Many believers also do not realize that the KJV in use today differs in thousands of particulars from either of the two original printings of 1611 (which two printings differed from each other!).

 

In very general terms, two manuscript traditions are reflected in the body of the text of current popular printed editions of the Greek New Testament. The text which the vast majority of New Testament scholars, both conservative and liberal, believe to be the most accurate gives weight to the Alexandrian family of manuscripts. Almost all modern translations of the New Testament are based upon this form of the text. The King James was not translated from this text.  It was translated essentially from a form of the New Testament based upon the Byzantine family of manuscripts. King James Only advocates consistently proclaim that the Alexandrian manuscripts are vile corruptions of the Word of God. They are wrong.  This can be proven without deciding which manuscript tradition is the most accurate.[6] The Alexandrian manuscripts cannot be vile in the sense indicated by KJV Only people because the Alexandrian manuscripts are not very much different from the Byzantine manuscripts. The vast majority of differences consist of minutia.  The few differences that are more substantial have no impact upon the fundamental doctrinal teachings of the New Testament. All of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith are taught with equal clarity in both the Alexandrian and Byzantine families of manuscripts.

 

The best way to appreciate the differences between the two families is to read and compare two printed editions of the Greek New Testament, one based upon the Alexandrian family, and one based upon the Byzantine family. Obviously, most Christians are not able to do this. The second best approach is to compare two English translations, one based upon each of the two families. Unfortunately, there are not two English translations available that lend themselves to such a comparison. One would need two translations where the English text would only differ in places where the underlying Greek text differed.  English translations differ much more as a result of style and philosophy of translation than as a result of differences in the Greek texts from which they were translated. 

 

Discussions about variations between the Byzantine family of manuscripts and the Alexandrian family frequently focus upon the most significant variants. Such an approach is naturally biased in the direction of emphasizing their differences. A more balanced approach is obtained by simply choosing a passage at random and making a comparison of the passage in the two texts. The first chapter of the Book of Romans is reproduced in the following table.[7] The King James Version has been reproduced with bold type to indicate places where the Greek text used by the New American Standard Bible differs from that used by the KJV. The nature of the difference is indicated within brackets. In examining the following material, the reader should not only note the small extent of the differences between the “Byzantine” and “Alexandrian” texts in this chapter, but also the very high percentage of complete agreement.

 

1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ [Christ Jesus], called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, 2 (Which he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures,) 3 Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; 4 And declared  to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead:  5 By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience  to the faith among all nations, for his name:  6 Among whom are ye also the called of Jesus Christ: 7 To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for [synonym] you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world. 9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with  my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers;  10 Making request, if by any means now at length I might have a prosperous journey by the will of God to come unto you. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established; 12 That is, that I may be comforted together with  you by the mutual faith both of you and me.  13 Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, (but was let hitherto,) that I might have some fruit [same words, order reversed] among you also, even as among other Gentiles.  14 I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise. 15 So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ [absent]: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. 17 For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;

19 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.  20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even  his eternal power and Godhead; so  that they are without excuse:  21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, 23 And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. 24 Wherefore God also [absent] gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves [synonym]: 25 Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.  26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: 27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. 28 And even as they did not like to retain  God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;  29 Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication [absent], wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, 30 Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, 31 Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable [absent], unmerciful:  32 Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.

 

There are differences in the two Greek texts that are not reflected in the table. These consist mainly of differences in spelling.  They could be illustrated in English by the two possible spellings of “color” verses “colour”. The first is American, the second British. Such differences occur frequently in Greek, but have no impact on the meaning of the text. 

 

Romans 1:1. There is a variation of word order in the name “Christ Jesus” verses “Jesus Christ”. Obviously there is no difference in informational content.

 

Romans 1:8. There is a difference in the Greek text that is lost in translation. There are two Greek synonyms in different Greek manuscripts, either one of which can be translated “for”. The word that is not in the Greek text that was used by the King James translators occurs 333 times in other places in KJV Greek text, and is frequently translated “for” (as in Luke 4:28). Both prepositions are used so widely, with such a breadth of meaning, that it would be quite difficult to establish any significance of one over the other in this context.

 

Romans 1:16. The Alexandrian manuscripts do not contain the descriptive clause “of Christ” after the term “gospel”. King James Only advocates often assert that the people behind modern translations, including the people who copied the Alexandrian manuscripts, hated the Lord Jesus and often sought to remove His name and titles from the Bible. The evidence for this seems weak when one considers that the NASB contains the term “Christ” 521 times. The phrase “the gospel of Christ” occurs eight other times in the NASB. Most textual scholars believe that the Byzantine family represents a later form of the text, and that later copyists tended to smooth and clarify the text by adding explanatory wording. At any rate, the Alexandrian text of Romans is quite clear that the gospel is concerning Jesus Christ (1:1-4). Those who accuse modern translators of trying to rid the Bible of the name of Jesus never explain why the New American Standard Bible includes His name in numerous references where it is not included in the King James Version (see Luke 5:34, 7:15, John 12:1, Acts 3:16, 9:22, 10:48, 16:7, 18:25, 24:24, Romans 8:34, Galatians 5:24, Ephesians 3:6, Colossians 4:12, and Jude 25.)

 

Romans 1:24. There are two variants in this verse.  The Alexandrian text does not contain the word “also” as the third word. Two synonyms are found for “themselves” as the last word in the verse. The different words are different ways of saying the same thing.

 

Romans 1:29. The vice of “fornication” is not found in some Alexandrian manuscripts in this list. The printed edition of the Greek New Testament that became the basis for the King James Version was first prepared by the famous Roman Catholic scholar and priest, Desiderius Erasmus. Upon this verse he commented, “Whenever a catalog of nouns occurs, whether you consult the Greek or Latin exemplars, there are differences. This is due to the forgetfulness of the scribes, for it is difficult to remember these kinds of things.”[8] In the Greek text the word that precedes “fornication” is very similar to the word for fornication in both spelling and pronunciation.[9] In fact, each word has seven letters, and shares six of those letters with the other word.  The Scriptures were often copied by a group of scribes while someone read the text to them. It is easy to imagine some scribes writing the wrong word here, especially since either word makes good sense in the context. Later scribes, confronted with different words might well include them both to be safe. In the 25 other verses where this Greek word is present in the Greek text that underlies the KJV, it is also present in the Greek text that underlies the NASB. There is every reason to believe that either the addition or deletion of this word originally occurred by accident, with no evil intent. Both the Alexandrian and Byzantine manuscripts clearly condemn sexual immorality in many other verses where there is no dispute about the text.

 

Romans 1:31. The Kings James contains the vice “implacable,” which is not listed in the New American Standard. Once again, two words that are similar in both appearance and pronunciation occur next to each other in the Greek text.[10] The two words are identical in three of their four first letters, and in their last three letters. The letters that differ in the first four letters are tau verses pi. These two letters are very similar in Greek, and it is easy to see how confusion arose.

 

The variants found throughout the New Testament are generally similar to the ones contained in Romans 1. They give no indication of a grand conspiracy to corrupt the Word of God, as alleged by members of the King James Only movement. Rarely is there a variant where any devious theological motive can even be imagined, let alone proved.[11]  There are frequently hints in the passage as to how the different readings may have arisen, and the suggested circumstances are almost always benign. There is no question but that the Bible has been transmitted accurately. There exists 100% certainty about the exact wording of most of the text, and there is a clear limitation on the uncertainty that remains.  God has preserved His word so that the possibilities are clear.  For example, in Romans 1:16, the correct reading is either, “the gospel,” or “the gospel of Christ.” There is no doubt but that one of these readings is the correct one. 

 

Finally, it should be noted that the variants have a much greater impact upon the “inspiredness” of the text than they do upon the inerrancy of the text. For example, if Paul included “fornication” in the vice list in Romans 1:29, it is part of the inspired Word of God and it should be included in all copies of the New Testament, both Greek and English. But what if someone made a mistake and did not include it in a particular copy of Romans? Would that copy of Romans cease to be the Word of God? If that were the only change, would that copy of the book cease to be without error? The answer to both questions is no. The copy would contain less information, and in that sense would have lost some of its “inspiredness”, but it would still be true in all that it said, and all of the words that remained would have indeed been inspired. The point here is that it is easy to find variants that change the informational content of a passage in some minor way, but it is quite difficult to find a variant that would clearly introduce error into the text, especially in regard to doctrinal content. Ultimately our confidence in the preserved Word of God is based upon our faith in the working of God, but we also find that our faith is not contradicted by the facts of history.

 

Conservative, Bible believing scholars consistently recommend the King James Version as a reliable translation of God’s Holy Word. It contains some wording that is obsolete and difficult for contemporary readers to understand without help. It also contains certain words easy to misunderstand. Three more modern translations, the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, and the New King James Version, are widely recommended for those who desire more current language. The NASB is excellent for careful study, while the NIV is smooth and easy to read. Although the NIV is conservative, the functional equivalence approach to translation makes it difficult to use for careful word studies. The NKJV retains much of the KJV in modern language. Christians should be aware that many of the other translations range from mediocre to heretical.

 

 


[1] Copyright 1998, 2006, James Richard May.  This article may be reproduced in its entirety for free distribution.  All other rights are retained. 

[2] In the New Scofield Reference Bible such notes appear, for example, at Matthew 6:13, Mark 9:44, 16:9, John 5:3, 7:53, Acts 8:37, and I John 5:7.

[3] Those who believe that Christians should not consider alternative translations are at variance with the translators of the King James Version.  The preface to the original printing of the KJV contained their opinion, “Therefore as S. Augustine saith, that variety of Translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good, yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded.”

[4] There are many who would deny a re-inspiration for the KJV, but whose position demands some such supernatural act.

[5] F.H.A Scrivener, The Authorized Edition of the English Bible (1611) (Cambridge: 1884), p. 41.

[6] Anyone with a reading knowledge of Greek can form a reasonable opinion about the extent of the differences between printed editions of the Greek New Testament.  It is a much more arduous task to form a well-founded opinion about which family of manuscripts is superior.  Many people who are all too willing to express an opinion have no qualifications to do so.

[7] I collated the first eight chapters of Romans in preparation for this paper, but decided that including that much material would make the paper too tiresome for its intended purpose and would over-do the illustration.   The pattern of variants in chapters 2-8 is similar to what is shown in chapter 1.  I did not actually choose these chapters at random, but did so because of their doctrinal content. I was not influenced by any consideration of the sampling of variants contained in the chapters.

[8] Quoted by White, p. 58.

[9] “poneria” = “unrighteousness” confused with “porneia” = “fornication”

[10] “astorgos"” = “without natural affection” confused with “aspondos"” = “implacable”

[11] See Gordon D. Fee,  “A Critique of W.N. Pickering’s The Identity of The New Testament Text”, Westminster Theological Journal, 41 (1979), pp. 404-09.

 

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