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    February 11, 1930

    Bible Revision in the Nineteenth Century


    W. W. Prescott

    [Signs of the Times, February 11, 1930, The Story of Our Bible, Part 8, pp. 13, 14]

    The defects of any version of the Scriptures may be due to a poor text (even though the translation may be good), or to a poor translation (even. though the text may be good). Every Biblical scholar will freely bear testimony that the text in the hands of King James’ translators was, in general, conscientiously rendered into the English of the early part of the seventeenth century, and that they are deserving of the gratitude of all English-speaking people for the painstaking work they did. But it does not follow that the Authorized Version must be regarded as the last, word in the translation of the Scriptures. It would have meant a serious loss to Biblical knowledge if all effort to produce a more exact reproduction of the thoughts of the original writers had ceased in the first half of the seventeenth century. We may well be thankful that there have been earnest Christian scholars who have been willing to devote their time and talents to the worthy purpose of bringing us into the closest possible fellowship with the very thoughts of the writers of the manuscripts of the Holy Word.SITI February 11, 1930, page 13.1

    In order that my readers may have a clear understanding of the steps which led up to the latest revision of the Bible, and of the many changes of rendering which are found in it, I must make a statement of the facts relating to the discovery of manuscripts not available in 1611, and of the progress of textual criticism. While this recital may possibly be regarded as uninteresting to the average reader, yet it is certainly of supreme importance to those who wish to have the unqualified assurance that we are thinking God’s thoughts after Him when we read the latest versions of the Bible, the result of the combined efforts of the best English and American scholars of the nineteenth century.SITI February 11, 1930, page 13.2


    I must here state again that all the original manuscripts of the Biblical writers disappeared long ago, and that there is no hope of recovering any of them. Written upon perishable material and freely circulated from hand to hand, they would soon wear out, even if they were not purposely destroyed, as in the case of the burning of the Alexandrian Library by the Moslems in their zeal to establish the religion of Islam. The purpose of textual criticism is to provide a text which will approach as near as possible to the original autographs, by the collation of as many manuscripts as can be secured, and then testing them as to their reliability by the application of those principles of criticism which have been tried and tested by critical scholars who have had long experience in dealing with manuscripts of different authors in various languages. This is a field of work which was practically unentered when the Authorized Version was translated, and the assured results of which have been wrought out in the last one hundred years.SITI February 11, 1930, page 13.3

    The designation of the Greek text from which the Authorized Version was translated, as the Textus Receptus, although it was due to the desire of an enterprising publisher to secure a large sale for his edition of the New Testament, seemed to have a remarkable influence over the minds of the students of that period, and for more than two hundred years no attempt to produce a better text extended any further than to a recension of the then received text.SITI February 11, 1930, page 13.4

    In 1831, however, Lachmann broke away from this well-trodden path, and attempted to construct a text based upon the evidence of such manuscripts as he could secure, regardless of the consequences. This was the first step in the development of real textual criticism. But the material then available was comparatively limited, as will plainly appear in dealing with the manuscripts which have come to hand within the last century, and he did not attempt to deal with any text which was earlier than the last half of the fourth century.SITI February 11, 1930, page 13.5

    A worthy successor of Lachmann was Tischendorf (1815-1874), who made a notable contribution to textual criticism by the discovery of the Sinaitic manuscript in a monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, from which location it derived its name, and who also made some use of the Vatican manuscript, then carefully guarded in the Vatican Library at Rome.SITI February 11, 1930, page 13.6

    The other uncial manuscripts which were in the hands of textual critics after Lachmann were the Alexandrian, probably written at Alexandria, generally assigned to the fifth century; the Codex Ephraem, also of the fifth century, usually designated as a palimpsest because it was partially erased on account of the scarcity of vellum and another manuscript written over it, but it was quite largely restored; and the Codex Bezae, assigned by Dr. Philip Schaff to the sixth century.SITI February 11, 1930, page 13.7

    These five great uncial manuscripts, the Sinaitic being the most complete, together with very many later cursives and various fragments, constitute a wealth of material for textual criticism not available to the translators of the Bible in previous years, and furnish a good basis for a revised translation of the Bible.SITI February 11, 1930, page 13.8

    The two uncial manuscripts which have been accorded the most critical study are the Vatican and the Sinaitic. The estimate of their value by representative scholars is set forth in the following quotations:SITI February 11, 1930, page 13.9


    “Codex Aleph [the Sinaitic manuscript] is the most complete, and also (with the exception, perhaps, of the Vatican MS.) the oldest, or, at all events, one of the two oldest MSS., although it was the last found and used. Tischendorf calls it ‘omnium codicum uncialum solus integer omniumque antiquissimus.’ [The only complete codex of all the uncial codices and the most ancient of all.]...It has contributed very much towards the settlement of the text, and stimulated the progress of the revision movement in England, in connection with Tischendorf’s Tauchnitz edition of King James’s Version (1869).” - “Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek,” Philip Schaff, D. D., pages xx, xxi.SITI February 11, 1930, page 13.10

    “While we accord to Cod B [the Vatican Manuscript] at least as much weight as to any single document in existence, we ought never to forget that it is but one out of many, several of them being nearly (and one [the Sinaitic] quite) as old, and in other respects not less worthy of confidence than itself.”-“A Plain Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament,” F.H. A. Scrivener, M. A., D. C. L., LL. D., Fourth Edition by Rev. Edward Miller, M. A., vol. 1, page 120. (This statement by a scholar who was, generally speaking, opposed to the Revised Version, may certainly be accepted as unprejudiced.)SITI February 11, 1930, page 13.11

    “This Vatican manuscript is considered by a great many scholars to be the best of all the New Testament manuscripts. The Sinaitic and the Vatican are, from the standpoint of the history of the texts as thus far known, by far the two best witnesses for the oldest text. Wherever they were written and at whatever date, they represent, it would appear, as both Tischendorf and Westcott and Hort thought, good manuscripts of the second century.”-“The Canon and Text of the New Testament,” Caspar Rene Gregory, page 347.SITI February 11, 1930, page 14.1

    “The Sinaitic and the Vatican MSS. are by far the most important for antiquity, completeness, and value.”-“Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek,” Philip Schaff, D.D., page xviii.SITI February 11, 1930, page 14.2

    In the face of such testimony as this from the leading textual scholars I will submit without comment the reason given by Dean John W. Burgon for admitting that these manuscripts, although, as he claimed, corrupted far beyond many others, had been preserved in a remarkably good condition. I will use the statement of the case as made by Dr. Salmon:SITI February 11, 1930, page 14.3

    “Burgon gives an amusing explanation of how it comes to pass that the most ancient MSS. are among the worst. Their antiquity is due to their badness; they were known to be so bad that they were little used, and consequently remained untouched on their shelf, and so have survived when their betters have perished.”-“Some Thoughts on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” George Salmon, D. D., page 4.SITI February 11, 1930, page 14.4


    The strictly Protestant character of the Westcott and Hort text, which was not adopted by the revisers but which doubtless had much weight with them, is attested by the last-named author in these words:SITI February 11, 1930, page 14.5

    “With one exception, to be presently mentioned, Hort never follows mere Western authority, so that his may be pronounced to be a thoroughly Protestant New Testament, the fact that a reading is Roman being regarded as enough to condemn it.”-Id., pages 86, 87.SITI February 11, 1930, page 14.6

    After this rather lengthy digression I must return to the simple story of the revision of the Authorized Version. This work was undertaken and carried forward under the leadership of the best Biblical scholars of the Church of England, with whom were associated a goodly number of distinguished American scholars. The first proposal was for the revision of the New Testament only, but this was immediately changed to include the Old Testament. Nearly all the evangelical denominations were represented on the Revision Committee, but no Roman Catholics accepted the invitation.SITI February 11, 1930, page 14.7

    The work was entered upon in May, 1870, by the adoption of the rules to be followed, among which I may mention: “To introduce as few alterations as possible into the text of the Authorized Version consistently with faithfulness; to limit, as far as possible, the expression of such alterations to the language of the Authorized and earlier English Versions; ...that the text to be adopted be that for which the evidence is decidedly preponderating; and that when the text so adopted differs from that from which the Authorized Version was made, the alteration be indicated in the margin; to revise the headings of the chapters and pages, paragraphs, italics, and punctuation.”SITI February 11, 1930, page 14.8

    The different companies were organized, and the actual study and translation were commenced by both the Old and the New Testament companies in June, 1870. The American scholars began their coöperation with the English Committee in 1872.SITI February 11, 1930, page 14.9

    After eleven years of faithful and conscientious labor the Revised New Testament was published and offered for sale in May, 1881. The demand was unprecedented. “It is estimated that almost three million copies of the Revised New Testament were sold in England and America in all editions within less than one year after its publication.” “The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Times published the book entire in their issues of May 22, 1881. The Gospels, Acts, and Romans, containing about 118,000 words, were telegraphed from New York, and the remainder of the book was set up from copies received in Chicago on the evening of May 21.”SITI February 11, 1930, page 14.10

    It naturally required more time and labor to revise the Old Testament, and this work was not completed until 1884. The entire Revised Version in one volume appeared in May, 1885. It is not surprising that the demand for this book was not as great as for the New Testament alone, but it met with a steady sale.SITI February 11, 1930, page 14.11

    The English Committee was disbanded at the close of their labors, but the American Committee decided to continue their sessions, although they had agreed not to publish the results of their further study for a period of fourteen years after the complete English Revision appeared. At the close of this period there was offered to the public, as the result of their continued study, the American Standard Version of the Scriptures, a version which differs in some respects from the English revision, although in the main it agrees with it.SITI February 11, 1930, page 14.12


    Some one may now ask, Which translation ought I to use, the Authorized, or the English Revised, or the American Revised? I hope I have made it clear that each one can safely follow his own choice without any fear of missing the saving truth of the gospel. On account of the beauty of its stately language and the tender associations connected with it, many will prefer the Authorized Version. Those who are inclined to avail themselves of the result of the labors of conservative scholars who have sought to incorporate into the two Revised Versions the most exact meaning of the most primitive text may with equal certainty adopt either the English or the American Version. Still others may find it both interesting and helpful to use an edition now available in which the differences in the renderings are clearly shown by printing such differences in parallel lines. I only urge that one of these versions, or some other vernacular version, should be constantly and prayerfully read, with the definite purpose to translate its message into a life of daily devotion to the service of God. He who speaks to the heart through any and all of the hundreds of translations now in circulation throughout the world will reveal His forgiving mercy and His saving grace to every seeking soul irrespective of versions.SITI February 11, 1930, page 14.13

    A comprehensive review of the story of the Bible would hardly be complete without some reference to the contribution which the spade of the archaeologist has made in confirmation of the historicity and the authenticity of the Scriptures. I do not mean that apart from these modern discoveries we should be in doubt as to the reliability of the revelation made to us, but they provide a convincing answer to the unwarranted charges made by the unbelieving scientist, the atheistic rationalist, and the iconoclastic modernist who live in a materialistic atmosphere. I shall therefore venture into the archæological field in my next article.SITI February 11, 1930, page 14.14

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