Wednesday, November 29, 2006

N.T Exegesis Step 4: Provisional translation

This is an exciting part of the exegetical process. When you get to actually translate the original Greek into your language. I say your language because you will be using English words that have a meaning to you slightly different to other English speakers. English Bible translations are normally either focused on American English speakers or British English speakers and there are differences in the nuances of each.
I enjoy reading the NET Bible, but there are times when a particular word has been used that appears to be more American than British. (Being married to an American is a big advantage in these situations).
So at this stage you will get to translate the Greek into your own receptor language.

Before you can do this however, you need to establish what the text of the passage is:

4a) Establish the text.

You probably know that there are around 5,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. As with all other ancient works of literature, no manuscripts are letter for letter the same. This is often shocking to those of us who were born after the printing press was invented, but before then no-one ever expected their copy of a book to be exactly the same as their neighbour's copy of the same book. This is because without the use of printing presses and computers, human beings made human mistakes when copying manuscripts. What this means is that we have around 5,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that more of less say exactly the same thing as one another, but there will be variations in spelling of some words, and sometimes a wrong word will be written in one manuscript, and sometimes a whole line will be missed out in another manuscript. Now this isn't really a big problem, because by looking at all the different manuscripts it becomes easy to see where mistakes were made. However there are a very small number of instances (we're talking about less than 5%) where scholars have been divided about which manuscripts have got it right, and which have got it wrong.

When doing exegesis it is important to know if you are exegeting one of these passages. For example, Romans 5:1 in some Greek manuscripts writes 'echomen' with a long 'o', but others write 'echomen' with a short 'o'. This might not look like a significant difference, but in actual fact its the difference between "Let us have peace with God" (short 'o') and "We have peace with God" (long 'o').
It's not easy to know which is the right one (B.T.W it's not a Byzantine verses Alexandrian matter).
So if you're exegeting that verse you need to know that there is a good chance it could mean either, and look at the textual evidence for both and be able to either be convinced in your own mind, or to be aware that you might not be able to be dogmatic about it. This is really important if you are going to teach on this passage. You don't want to dogmatically teach something that might be based on a scribes typo hundreds of years ago!

So how do you look this stuff up?
First off I would suggest the NET Bible. If you can't afford a leather version, then download it for free from, or use the NEXT Bible online on their website. This contains thousands of notes on Textual Criticism and is very helpful. B.T.W Textual Criticism doesn't mean criticising the Bible! It's a term that can be applied to any ancient work, and is the process of working out which textual variants are scribal errors (or margin notes) and which are correct renderings of the original autographs.

If you want something more in depth than the NET Bible notes, and with more discussion, then Bruce Metzger's commentary on the New Testament Text is excellent.

If you want to go further than that, then get Nestle- Aland's 26th or 27th edition of the Greek New Testament and learn to read the apparatus on that.

You can also use Esword to look up some of the major differences between the Alexandrian and Byzantine and the Textus receptus manuscript lines.

I have talked about this extensively on my Greek for the Street Series (DVD 3) where I demonstrate how to use Esword to look up these, and the class performs some textual criticism on some interesting variants.

To finish this post I should end with a word of warning. Textual criticism is a highly specialised field. Be careful about making assumptions that are not backed up by evangelical scholars. For the novice I would suggest merely using it as a way of understanding what commentators are talking about, and for seeing how sure you can be that your particular English translation is using the correct text.
if you want to progress above this level, be prepared to spend a lot of time studying this field so that you avoid committing pulpit crimes.


P.S I'll post the intro to my DVD on Textual criticism soon.


  1. Anonymous8:50 AM

    Since you mentioned e-Sword,I'll point out that The Original Languages Library at
    has links to most, if not all currently available e-Sword modules in the Biblical Languages.



  2. Thanks Jonathon,
    That's an excellent resource.
    God Bless you.