Associate Pastor, Agros Reformed Baptist Church
It has come to my attention that James White, elder at Apologia church has addressed the article on his program "The Dividing Line". I have no words other than I am praying for him and I genuinely hope for a time when this discussion can be handled in a more irenic manner.
Since the introduction of modern translations, pastors have had to navigate the reality that there will be a number of different Bibles in their pews each Sunday. Even within the English Standard Version, there are a number of editions that vary from printing to printing. Chances are that conversations about translations have been brought up in every church at least once, in some form or another. Sometimes this looks like the classic NASB vs. ESV debate, or even some lighthearted dissing of the Message paraphrase. In other cases this looks like a full-blown TR vs. Critical text debate. In an article posted on thegospelcoalition.org on April 11, 2019, Pastor Justin Dillehay handles the topic in a very pastoral way, which I found tasteful and helpful, though I disagree with the dear pastor. He brought up the valid point that an understanding of basic textual criticism has become a necessity for every Christian as a result of the number of available translations - and their differences in translation methodology - as well as Greek text used.
One specific example that he utilizes is the last line of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13, which modern translations omit, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen” (KJV) due to a textual variant. Dillehay points out that the decision is left to the expertise of textual scholars, which is unsettling for many. He offers four points of advice to pastors dealing with the same issue that he had to navigate at his church. In this article, I want to analyze Dellehay’s four points, and offer a response.
Original Article: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/4-ways-shepherd-flock-textual-variants/
First, I want to commend Dillehay for his care to accurately represent what a real congregation looks like, and the various sentiments that people share in regards to the text. He wisely takes the approach that in every view of the text available in a congregation, the solution is not to simply categorize those with different views on the text as “idiots” - some pastors go as far as to label those with certain views of the text as “traditionalists” or “ignorant,” - so the advice from Pastor Dillehay is well received and appreciated. As a pastor who has dealt with varying views of the text in his congregation, I resonate with and understand exactly where he is coming from, and agree that it is of no benefit to degrade the sheep entrusted to you.
Pastor Dellehay moves along to talk about the importance of teaching a congregation the basics of textual criticism, and compassionately connects with his audience at a pastoral level, which is a breath of fresh air in the often hostile environment in which this conversation typically takes place. While Dellehay and I clearly do not see eye to eye on issues of text, it is apparent that he is concerned with the spiritual welfare of his congregation. So while he recommends resources that I would not recommend, it is refreshing to see the pastoral approach taken. At the end of the day, a pastor needs to be concerned with feeding his flock, not winning debates. As far as resources that I would recommend as an alternative to Dellehay’s suggestions, see the bottom of this article.
Next, Dellehay presents some historical background which ultimately demonstrates that the Bible did not float down from on high, but rather was the result of a long process to arrive at the place we are now, with a multitude of printed editions available in every bookstore and even for free online. I am overwhelmingly grateful at the lack of polemics and bashing of the Reformation era Bibles. He finishes the article by highlighting that faithful preaching by faithful men of God who fear and love the Lord is a powerful tool to understanding the text of Scripture properly. It is difficult enough in this day and age to get church-goers to read their Bible, and so this conversation ultimately needs to be framed in such a way that encourages Christians to take up and read. As a pastor, if you can get your congregation to love, revere, and read God’s Word, you are doing something right.
A Difficult Reality
Throughout the whole article it is evident that Dellehay truly cares about his congregation and wants to see them thrive and love Jesus. It is in this context that I would like to offer another approach to dealing with textual variants. I believe I can help those that are having trouble understanding why their Bible is changing and to demonstrate that they can have assurance that they are not reading an “outdated” text.
First, it must be recognized that the majority of faithful Christians would not consider themselves theologians. Most Christians who go to church, read their Bible, and rely upon the strength of the Lord from day to day, are blissfully ignorant of the many ongoing controversies such as textual criticism, the Trinity, social justice, and more. They are simply concerned with pursuing the Lord on a daily basis. Unlike many theological issues, however, the issue of text inescapably affects everybody, even those who do not consider themselves theologians in the body of Christ. When Christians read their Bible, they are going to see footnotes and brackets, or will be asked why they are not reading a modern version, or the latest edition of the NASB or ESV.
I agree with Dellehay in that modern Christians need to be informed at a basic level of how they got their Bible. My approach, however, is slightly different than the position offered by Dellehay. I am on the other side of the discussion. I do not advocate that adopting the modern critical method is the only way to defend against Bart Ehrman - in fact, adopting this view is one of the primary motivating factors which Ehrman claims caused him to leave the faith (on top of his problem with evil). He was unable to reconcile all that he had believed about the text of Scripture. The supposed evidence that the Bible had been preserved was not sufficient to give him confidence that God had preserved the words He inspired. There are many Christians who also have come to problematic conclusions regarding the text as a result of modern textual criticism, and are unsure how to proceed, other than to just trust that the footnotes and brackets aren’t important. That’s what I did shortly before adopting the position I hold now. I held tightly onto the belief that the ending of Mark, the woman caught in adultery, 1 John 5:7, and many other passages did not affect doctrine, so I was fine with them being cast into doubt. I held firmly onto Jesus through my struggle, and He carried me through.
The alternative system to the one presented by Dellehay is that the believer does not need to just trust the scholars who tell them that the bracketed and footnoted texts do not belong in their Bible. Christians can be confident that God has providentially preserved every line of Scripture, and that every line is available to them now. Throughout the history of the transmission, or copying process of the New Testament, God ensured that the variants and corruptions introduced were not so total that the original text would not be found. In every step of the copying process, God preserved His Word. This culminated to a point when the revolutionary technology of the printing press was introduced into the transmission process. Instead of hand copying each manuscript, Christians had the ability to typeset the readings that had been handed down year after year.
In the 16th century, faithful men of God engaged in some of the finest textual criticism ever performed. The fact that these men did not work in a totally unified process is a testimony to the providence of God during this time period. Despite what you may have heard about Erasmus, Stephanus, and Beza, they were extremely sophisticated when it came to the Greek language, and they had access to many more manuscripts than is commonly stated. They were not slaves to lexicons and Bible tools like modern scholars. Even Bart Ehrman admits their Greek was far better than anybody alive today working in the field. There was no eccumenical council that popishly declared this to be the text Christians used; it was simply accepted by all (as the preface to the Elzevir brothers' edition of the Greek New Testament in 1633 reads: "Textum ergo habes, nunc ab omnibus receptum" You therefore have the text, now received by all). What this means, is that the form of the Greek text of the Reformation was used in every church and was the cornerstone for theology and commentaries for the years to come.
It was because of this overwhelming reception that the text became known as the Received Text. This is the text that all of the Reformation era translations were made from - the KJV, the Dutch Statenvertaling 1637, the Spanish Reina-Valera 1602, the German Luther Bible 1534, the Hungarian Bible 1590, as well as a handful of modern translations such as the Modern English Version and the New King James Version. Christians can look back at the 16th and 17th centuries and trust that the work done then was yet another step in the process of preservation. It isn’t as though the work they did was absolutely without blemish or inspired like the apostles, but they compiled what Christians had received as the authentic Word of God throughout the history of the church.
You do not need to buy into modern textual story in order to believe that God has preserved His Word - the Reformed heroes of our faith certainly did not. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the work of the premier 16th century text critics was again called into question - largely due to the discovery of two manuscripts, Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. No, it was not the papyri, it was two uncial manuscripts. There were less than five papyri even published prior to the first modern critical translation being released. These two codices are exalted by modern text critics and pastors as representing the earliest and best form of the New Testament. Any change in the Greek text from earlier textual criticism is based on the data of these two manuscripts - primarily just Vaticanus. Up until the 19th century, textual scholars considered Vaticanus to follow Latin readings. Erasmus, John Owen, and Francis Turretin all comment on the evident corruption of this manuscript that we now call Vaticanus. The ongoing effort of text critics has caused a shift away from this theory, but the initial impact of it still lingers in the modern evangelical methodology and pages of modern Bibles.
My point is simple - Christians can believe that the last line of the Lord’s prayer truly is Scripture along with the longer ending of Mark. The average Christian does not need to be worried that Scripture is going to change with each new edition of the NASB or ESV. One of the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith is that God has preserved His Word in all ages, and that His Word is profitable for all matters of faith and practice (Mat. 5:18; 2 Tim. 3:16). Rather than accept the theory of the text critics in Münster Germany, the majority of which don’t believe in the preservation of God’s Word, the Christian has every right to reject it. What brought me out of the position that I had to read the ESV and NASB was the reality that the reason for the many footnotes and brackets in my Bible were two manuscripts out of the thousands.
This conversation, of course is far more nuanced than I can cover in the scope of one article, but here is the bottom line: If you like the KJV, read it. If you like the NKJV, read it. If you like the ESV, or the NASB, read it. Just read your Bible. And if you, like me, are losing confidence in the direction of modern translations, know that there are translations which point back to a time in history where text critics believed they truly had God’s unchanging, authentic Word. Regardless of which translation you read, cherish it. It is the means that God is using to speak to His church. It is the means that God has ordained to speak to you.
Five Things You Need to Know About Modern Textual Criticism
1. Modern Textual Critics Are Not Trying to Find the Original
DC Parker, the foremost textual scholar in the UK, who is on the Nestle Aland editorial team, which is the text that modern Bibles are translated from, says this about the modern Greek text:
“The text is changing. Every time that I make an edition of the Greek New Testament, or anybody does, we change the wording. We are maybe trying to get back to the oldest possible form but, paradoxically, we are creating a new one. Every translation is different, every reading is different, and although there’s been a tradition in parts of Protestant Christianity to say there is a definitive single form of the text, the fact is you can never find it. There is never ever a final form of the text.” ( As heard on the BBC program, “The Oldest Bible,” broadcast October 6, 2008. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/theoldestbible/ )
If you are one of the many Christians who is raising an eyebrow to the increasing amount of changes being made to modern Bibles, this may resonate with you. It is not unreasonable to distrust the process that had caused so much change in the text of Scripture over the decades. Despite popular opinion, you do not have to be okay with this. It is perfectly reasonable to expect a higher standard. It is not blind tradition to believe that something is awry here. Even if you do not want to cast aside your ESV or NASB, you can read many of those bracketed and footnoted passages and recognize that they have only been cast into doubt recently in history.
2. The Earliest and Best Manuscripts Are Not Earliest, and Not Best
When the footnotes at the bottom of your Bible explain that “some of the earliest manuscripts exclude” a passage, know that the footnote is talking about two Egyptian manuscripts - Codex Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. These two manuscripts are the earliest surviving manuscripts, but just because they are surviving does not mean that they are better than later manuscripts. In fact, recent textual criticism has acknowledged that manuscripts dating to the middle ages actually represent manuscripts that date back as early as you can go in the surviving manuscript tradition. This has been uncovered by the most recent efforts of modern textual criticism:
“We should not be surprised if the Byzantine witnesses attest initial readings against earlier witnesses even if it remains true that their distinctive text as a whole is not attested until much later. The reason is that our Byzantine manuscripts have early roots, and this has put them in a position in some cases to preserve the earliest readings in isolation from the rest of the tradition” (Wasserman, Gurry. A New Approach to Textual Criticism. 2017. P. 107).
This is because they were copied from another, older manuscript. Just because a manuscript was copied in the Middle Ages does not mean it was invented in the Middle Ages.
Further, there were no apostolic missions to Alexandria in the first century, so we can safely say that manuscripts originating from this region are certainly not the oldest. They are simply the oldest we have access to today. Just because a manuscript survived fires, war, and the elements, does not necessarily make it more valuable. Modern scholarship has placed tremendous weight on these manuscripts because of a 200-year old theory that has been proven to be false on a number of accounts. These two aforementioned manuscripts fell into disuse shortly after they were copied, and are not a part of any text family because they are so different from the rest of the thousands of surviving manuscripts. If you grew up believing that the ending of Mark and the woman caught in adultery were scripture, these two manuscripts are the reason those passages were removed. The bottom line is this: you do not have to ignore texts found in brackets just because a scholar or pastor told you that that was the only option.
3. Modern Bibles Will Continue Changing
Many of the early adopters of the NASB and ESV absolutely love these translations. They are easy to read, and do a great job of translating the text without doing too much interpretation for the reader. There are many Christians, however, that are confused as to why the new editions of these translations have changed so frequently. God’s Word is supposed to be preserved, right? The ESV alone, since its release in 2001, has gone through a handful of revisions. In the 2016 “permanent text edition,” the ESV had 52 word changes in 29 verses. These verses were updated due to “textual discoveries or changes in English over time.” Yet, English hasn’t changed in any significant way since 2011, so this really means that the result of modern textual critics changing the Greek text is the primary cause for these revisions. Many Christians, like myself when I bought the 2016 ESV, did not stop to pause at this. Yet, there are serious implications to the doctrine of preservation if 52 changes were made from the time the previous edition was released in 2011. Shortly after it was sent to market, Crossway announced that the 2016 edition would not be permanent, because there were more revisions that would need to be made as the Greek text changes. Recall D.C. Parker, an authority of the highest caliber, announcing that the text is changing. The uncertainty of modern editions does not stop with the ESV.
The NASB, which is known for its strict formal equivalence and conservative translation methodology, is not immune to these same kinds of changes. In the 2020 NASB, the translation team has decided to opt for more gender neutral language, and do something unprecedented in the history of translation methodology: combine two textual variants into one reading to create a reading absent in any manuscript. The two hotly contested variants at John 1:18 will be combined into one reading to create, “No one has seen God at any time; God the only Son [the only begotten God].” A quick search on Puritan Board confirms that many NASB loyalists are considering jumping ship over these translation issues. If you are one of the Christians that is raising their eyebrow to the direction of these modern translations, you are not crazy. You do not need to be a wide-eyed conspiracy theorist to know that something is wrong about all of this. It is time to hold these Bible publishers to a higher standard.
4. You Do Not Need to Feel Crazy for Reading an Older Bible
You may be one of the brave souls who reads the KJV or NKJV (Or even the Geneva!) in a church full of ESVs and NASBs. If you’re like me, who reads these two translations, I know for a fact you have probably been confronted for simply quoting a verse from it. You might even have an NASB from 1995 or an ESV from 2001 that reads differently than the latest and greatest version. You might even be carrying around a Bible with pages falling out simply because you do not want a Bible that has changed since you bought the one you currently own! I can assure you that you are not the crazy one for resisting the change. You do not need to feel like a second class citizen in church because you prefer an older version. If your pastor, or fellow church members make fun of you for carrying around “an old dusty tome,” the problem is not you, it is your church. The most important factor in owning a Bible is that you actually read it, and if people at your church mock you for that, it says more about them than about you. The truth is, that the KJV and NKJV are great translations. They are accurate to the text they are translated from. You will hear the voice of your Shepherd in them. Some people do not like the style of English created for the KJV, and that is their preference, but it shouldn’t stop you from reading and enjoying it.
5. You Do Not Need to Adopt the Modern Textual Criticism Models to Defend Scripture
Many pastors, apologists, scholars, and seminary professors have recently adopted and propagated the view that the older translations are unsuitable for modern use. In a popular textbook on New Testament hermeneutics endorsed by nearly every major seminary, the following idea can be found:
“I can’t think of a compelling reason to use either the KJV or the NKJV as your primary translation for personal study or for preaching and teaching.” (Naselli, David Andrew. How to Understand and Apply the New Testament. P&R Publishing. 2017. P. 42.)
This textbook endorses the NLT and Living Bible, as well as the Message paraphrase. As Christians, we should be concerned with this view deeply. If the Message paraphrase serves a purpose, but the KJV and NKJV should not be read, what does that mean for those that read these translations? Are we not reading Scripture? Are we truly better off reading the Message? As a pastor, I can hardly stomach the idea of actually encouraging a member to pick up a MSG in place of their NKJV.
The simple truth is that the KJV and NKJV can be used to defend the faith. In fact, the Muslum and Mormon constantly point to the fact that the modern Bibles are changing to demonstrate that Christians do not have God’s Word at all (MuslimByChoice, FairMormon.org, etc.). I know of a pastor that has actually switched over to a traditional view of the text of Scripture because of the reality that he could not defend the doctrine of preservation with a changing text. Traditional Bibles can be used to preach the Gospel. They can be used for pastoral ministry and private devotions. In order for the claim to be true that these translations are not suitable to be read or to defend the faith, the claim must also be made that these texts are not Scripture at all. There are serious implications to the doctrine of Scripture if this is the case. One would have to say that the great men of faith prior to the mid 1800’s simply did not have Scripture, or that they had a corrupted version of it. Many Christians would feel compelled to toss their commentaries produced by these theologians in the trash because they were using a Bible that was not Scripture!
A Word of Comfort
As a pastor, I deeply respect what Pastor Dellehay wrote in his article. I understand that the people of God need to trust in the words on the pages of their Bibles. My goal is the same as Dellehay, to ensure the Christians in my church that they have the Word of God. My goal is also to show that Christians do not need to buy into the model that says that “the text is changing.” This is not the only way we can defend against the attacks of Bart Erhman. In fact, in adopting the view put forth in the recommended reading of Dellehay’s article, you will find that the authors agree in many ways with Bart Ehrman on his method of textual criticism (https://youtu.be/_8nqibqfhKw). It is an important reminder that he co-authored one of the most popular textbooks used in nearly every Seminary curriculum on textual criticism (though Metzger produced most of the content).
If you are one of the Christians who has been seriously rocked by the changes occurring in modern Bibles, know that you are not alone, and know that the solutions being offered aren’t the only solutions. You do not need to be okay with passages of Scripture being removed like the ending of Mark and the woman caught in adultery. You do not need to be okay with the constant stream of revisions in modern Bibles. If you are in the same position that I was in, tired of having to buy a brand new Bible every five years, know that modern textual criticism isn’t the only option. Take some time to listen to Word Magazine by Dr. Jeff Riddle on SermonAudio, and you will find that there are plenty of ways to answer the questions of variants without buying into the model that requires a new Bible every five years.
The most important factor in this whole discussion is that Christians are reading their Bible. Do not let opponents of the traditional translations discourage you from doing so.
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