People often get up-tight when they first learn of the existence of variations in the text of the Greek New Testament, but their concerns are baseless. The text of the New Testament is far-and-away the most attested and stable text of any ancient document. In fact, if you question the stability of the text of the New Testament, you probably ought to disregard just about everything you think you know about ancient history, since almost all the important historical manuscripts from which such history is derived are from copies that are far later and of far poorer quality than are our New Testament manuscripts.
I recently discovered a convenient way to demonstrate this!
For my birthday this past year my wife gave me the recently published: The UBS Greek New Testament: Reader’s Edition with Textual Notes. I was delighted to finally own a Greek Bible that included definitions of infrequently used Greek words alongside of textual notes (notes that display variations among Greek manuscripts and that list some of the important manuscripts that form the basis for the text we use for translating). But when I opened the book for the first time, I was surprised (and, I’ll be honest, somewhat disappointed) to find only a few textual notes—far fewer than I expected. It turns out that the editors made a conscious decision to only include variants that they deemed important for the meaning of a text. I’ll let them describe what they did in their own words:
“Compared to the NA27 and the UBS4, the edition at hand focuses on places where variants from the reading of the USB4 signifantly impact the meaning of the text” (p. 11*).”
Before I make my big point in this post, please allow the sentence I just cited to teach you something about textual criticism. Some of you think that I just made two scribal mistakes while typing in that quote. (Did you catch them?) No, those two mistakes are actually in the printed text of the volume—a volume published by text critics no less! (Ouch…) The two printed mistakes are “USB4” (instead of “UBS4”) and the spelling of the word “signifantly” (instead of “significantly”).
But to read that sentence, you yourself had to do a bit of impromptu textual criticism! So at this point let me ask you a question: How much did those two variants impact your understanding of the meaning of the sentence? You probably understood the sentence without difficulty (and perhaps didn’t even notice the UBS4/USB4 difference the first time you read it). The types of changes found in this English sentence are analogous to the vast majority of textual variants found among New Testament manuscripts.
Now to the main point of this post… The editors of the Greek New Testament my wife bought me for my birthday (and there are no better editors than this group!) claim that the only variants that they included are the ones that significantly impact the meaning of the text. In other words, they don’t think that other variants significantly impact the meaning of the text. So they have gathered together in this volume the ones they consider the important ones.
And what do you discover when you actually look at the “significant” differences? You discover how stable our text really is! Following is a list of every variant found in 1 Corinthians 1 that the editors of this volume deemed important for determining the meaning of the text. (I have translated them into English for you.)
1:14 “I give thanks to God that…” / “I give thanks to my God that…” / “I give thanks that…”
2:1 “while proclaiming to you the mystery of God” / “while proclaiming to you the testimony of God” (“mystery” and “testimony” look very similar in Greek)
5:5 “in the day of the Lord” / “in the day of the Lord Jesus” / “in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ” / “in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”
7:15 “God has called you in peace” / “God has called us in peace” (“you” and “us” are extremely close in Greek)
10:9 “Nor let us test Christ” / “Nor let us test the Lord” / “Nor let us test God”
11:24 “This is my body that is for you” / “This is my body that is broken for you” / “This is my body that is broken [different word] for you”
13:3 “And if I give my body that I might boast” / “And if I give my body that I will be burned” / “And if I give my body that I might be burned” (The difference between these three variants is a single letter.)
14:34-35 These two verses are sometimes included after verse 40 instead of in the position found in most manuscripts, but there is no significant change to it.
14:38 “But if anyone disregards, he is disregarded” / “But if anyone disregards, let him be disregarded” (same word, different tense)
15:49 “we will bear the image of the heavenly one” / “let us bear the image of the heavenly one” (one letter difference, and they sound almost identical)
That’s it! That’s every significant variant in 1 Corinthians. I remember my father coining the word “underwhelmed” when I was a child. Are you feeling underwhelmed at this moment? You should be. That’s the point.
If you exclude from the wider discussion the two longer passages that seem to create the most discussion among my students (John 8 and the Mark 16), and a handful of other passages in the New Testament that are a bit more important, you have just gotten for yourself a glimpse into the kind and quality of the so-called “significant” New Testament variants.
So when maverick scholars attempt to convince you that the Greek text underlying the New Testament that you read, love, and strive to obey is unstable, you probably shouldn’t take them very seriously. God has marvelously preserved His Word. The UBS Greek New Testament: Readers Edition with Textual Notes offers us a convenient way to demonstrate that such a claim is true.
One of the qualifications for an overseer/elder/pastor (all the same office in the Bible) is that he be “free from the love of money” (1 Tim. 3:3). Now, suppose that you are on an elder board and seeking to know whether a new candidate for the office is, in fact, free from the love of money. How can you figure it out? Here are five useful diagnostic questions.
The most natural way to answer the question of whether an overseer or candidate for overseer is free from the love of money is to turn one page to the right in your Bible and observe what the Apostle Paul writes about a Christian’s relationship to money in 1 Timothy 6, including the all-too-common problem of money-loving. From that chapter, we can derive the following questions to use when we are trying to ascertain whether an overseer is or is not free from the love of money. Here are five useful questions:
1. Is contentment evident in his life? 1 Timothy 6:6–8 says, “But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content.”
2. Does he aspire to be rich? 1 Timothy 6:9–10 says, “But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
3. Does he evidence conceit? 1 Timothy 6:17 says, “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited …”
4. When in a difficult situation, does he seem to fix his hope on God or on his wealth to resolve his problem? 1 Timothy 6:17 says, “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to… fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.”
5. Is there evidence of generosity? 1 Timothy 6:18–19 says, “Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.”
These five diagnostic questions will help you ascertain whether an overseer or candidate for overseer is or is not free from the love of money.
Remember 7th grade, when your English teacher taught you how to diagram sentences? You know, “main clause,” “subordinate clause,” and all that other stuff you have likely forgotten long ago?
I still diagram sentences. And I teach my students how to diagram sentences, too—Greek sentences!
I value the discipline for several reasons. First of all, it holds our language students accountable “graphically” to demonstrate their understanding of Greek grammar. And for those who are visual learners, this is where all those crazy categories from intermediate grammar (i.e., Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics) finally come together. Secondly, diagramming sometimes reveals the priorities of the biblical author in a way that is otherwise hard to see.
To appreciate the value of this—and the payoff of Greek diagramming for life together in the local church—here is a mock-up of a PPT slide of Ephesians 4:16 that I showed to my congregation during a recent sermon. (Yes, I diagrammed a sentence in a sermon. It’s amazing what you can get away with in the pulpit when you sugar-coat it with a good bit of humor!) Check it out:
The above diagram essentially transfers into English a diagram of the Greek syntax of the verse. And it proves to be very revealing!
Apparently God’s primary GOAL in this Christian adventure is not my spiritual growth as an individual. It’s not about me, after all! It is about the growth of “the whole body” (qualitatively, not quantitatively, in this particular passage).
But then what about me?
Well, I told my congregation that Sunday, I don’t want to ruin your day, but the grammar here in Ephesians 4:16 is as clear as a bell: you as an individual are merely the utilitarian MEANS to God’s overarching GOAL of a healthy, mature local church body! I proceeded, of course, to qualify “utilitarian.” God doesn’t “use” people. But I think I got their attention. And I hope I’ve got yours, as well.
If that sentence from my sermon in the previous paragraph bothers you, it is probably because you and I are part of a Christian culture that almost invariably inverts God’s priorities, by viewing the body of Christ as the utilitarian MEANS to our GOAL of personal spiritual growth. How could we think otherwise? Most of us have been socialized from birth to view ourselves as consumers who attend church, first and foremost, “to get something out of it.”
God’s priorities are quite the opposite. As we become relationally connected with others in the community (MEANS #1, above) and begin serving with our gifts (MEANS #2), God’s GOAL—a relationally healthy, theological robust body of Christ—begins to become a reality in the local church.
To drive the point home, I added a final piece to my visual aid that Sunday, at the bottom of the slide:
For you Greek students who are tunneling through the dark reaches of epexegetical infinitives and attributive genitives in TTNT 503, be encouraged! It is all worthwhile. Hang in there and you will be better equipped to give your life away as one of the blessed MEANS to God’s great GOAL: “the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16)!
A frequently asked question from my graduate advisees is this: How do you keep up with the latest scholarship in your discipline? Or, how do you stay on the “cutting edge” in your academic field? There are at least five maintenance disciplines that come immediately to my mind.
My first suggestion is probably the most obvious: read, read, read. The best way to do this is to follow the leading journals in your interest areas. Personally, I have subscriptions to Journal of Biblical Literature, Review of Biblical Literature, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Near Eastern Archaeology, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society and Bulletin for Biblical Research. I also have subscriptions to popular magazines like Biblical Archaeology Review and Christianity Today. Besides subscriptions (some of which are included in society memberships), it is also a good idea to peruse additional journals at your closest university library. In my case, I periodically stroll through the reading room at the Biola Library and look at Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Vetus Testamentum, Israel Exploration Journal, Tel Aviv, etc. Of course, journals are only one way to keep up on reading. You should also keep an eye on the newest book arrivals at the websites of your favorite publishers. For my part, I regularly visit www.Eisenbrauns.com, which both publishes their own titles and also serves as a distributer for other scholarly publishers.
My second suggestion is to attend conferences or society meetings. Most fields of study have a society (or two or three) that meets on an annual basis. Some of them offer both regional and national gatherings. Personally, I really enjoy attending these for the purposes of networking. It is a chance to meet prominent scholars in your specialized field or to maintain old relationships or even to begin new relationships with colleagues. There are also plenty of presentations to attend and book displays to peruse, not to mention the deep discounts on new books! My annual conferences of choice are SBL, ASOR, ETS and IBR (i.e., Society of Biblical Literature, American Schools of Oriental Research, Evangelical Theological Society, and Institute for Biblical Research).
My third suggestion is to write and publish. This is perhaps the most important discipline for keeping up with your field because it is intimately related to the previous two points. When you network at conferences, you can exchange ideas with colleagues, talk to publishers, and assess the mainstream trends. Peer interaction is how your own ideas may be generated, presented, and refined. Colleagues may also invite you to collaborate with them or to contribute in some way to their own research projects. Also, when you are personally engaged in research and writing you will naturally want to keep up with the journal articles and books relating to your subject. In fact, I find that I can keep up with a greater number of journals and new books when I am focused on a single writing project. It helps me to read superficially/quickly about matters that are distant from my research and to read deeply/reflectively only about those matters that directly relate to my research.
My fourth suggestion is to follow some blogs that are managed by folks who are very connected in your discipline. For example, blogs are especially helpful for keeping up with the latest discoveries and discussions in Israeli archaeology. I personally track the blogs sponsored by ASOR (http://asorblog.org/), Aren Maeir (http://gath.wordpress.com) and Todd Bolen (http://blog.bibleplaces.com).
My fifth suggestion is to subscribe to a free “listserve” that is managed by an expert in your field. For example, I subscribe to the AGADE email list (managed by ancient Near East scholar Jack Sasson), which packs my inbox daily with a vast array of news in biblical, archaeological, and Near Eastern studies.
If these ideas are totally unappealing to you, then you should probably not pursue a career in academics. But if these kinds of practices sound mildly satisfying, perhaps you should consider pursuing a life of scholarship, research and writing.
Finally, I invite you all to comment on this post and to add your own suggestions to supplement my short list of how to keep up with your Bible-related discipline.
The Good Book Blog is the faculty blog of Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Representing the diverse areas of specialty within the seminary, but bound by a common commitment to biblical authority, the blog seeks to engage with important topics in biblical studies, theology, philosophy, spiritual formation and Christian education. The Good Book Blog is a resource for anyone seeking solid biblical scholarship that engages contemporary ideas from a decidedly evangelical perspective.
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