Wisdom from Peter Williams on Textual Criticism

Mark Ward

Peter Williams is a treasure. These lectures contain some absolute gold, and they give me that lovely feeling of being right, of being validated by someone smarter than oneself. Indeed, some of his key points are things I have come to realize on my own—though he states them so much better, and he bases them on greater quantities of nerdy gumshoeing in primary sources. (For example, he went digging in Erasmus’ Annotations in order to show that he was aware of a huge number of textual variants that we know about.)

Here is a point that I have made, and one Randy Leedy has kind of made, too:

I would say, when we’re involved in the Greek New Testament at Tyndale House, we’re only editors. My job is not to restore a Greek text that God hasn’t chosen to give us. My job is to use the manuscripts that God has given us to do the best job of presenting [a printed text] to people. But when I present it to people, I say, “This is my editorial decision; I’m not saying that I’m infallible at this point.” And if you’re a translator or an interpreter, you’re explaining the Bible to people, it’s exactly the same. That’s all you are: your job is to do what a scribe does. A scribe tries to pass on as well he can; your job is to pass on as well as you can.

Here’s the related point Leedy made:

My own weaknesses as a reader expose me to far more significant misunderstanding than the manuscript differences do, so by far the greatest problems that God must overcome in order to talk to me are within me, not within the transmission process.

This is all a corollary of the overall viewpoint of those who use the critical text: the differences between the major options out there are not nearly as significant, doctrinally speaking (actually, they’re not doctrinally significant), as the fallenness and finiteness of interpreters. Leedy makes a positive point: Christians of every conceivable theological perspective write theological books in which they cite Scripture texts (John 3:16; Rom 5:8) without specifying which translation or text readers should look it up in. I could say it negatively: there were plenty of theological problems before 1881, the year of the release of the first critical text.

Williams then makes another comment that draws together threads in my own thinking. I’ve seen this, too:

It’s an interesting thing that people nowadays have more doubts about the text of the New Testament than they’ve ever had. And yet the gap between our earliest New Testament manuscripts and the time of writing is getting smaller and smaller. So, in other words, the amount of doubt is inversely proportionate to the amount of evidence!…

He makes then a wise comment that I hadn’t thought of, surrounding a thought I did have. What I did realize some time ago is that challenges to the Greek New Testament which claim that it suppressed other variants that didn’t support the “orthodox” party are asking today’s orthodox to prove a universal negative. There is simply no evidence that substantially different versions of the Greek New Testament ever existed. Check out how Williams responds to unbelieving critics. I found this very helpful:

There’s always going to be a gap. Even if I had a photo of Moses coming down the mountain with the tablets from God, you could always say, “What did he do before he came around the corner?” There’s always a gap. People can always say, “What happened before the earliest thing?” But what I want to say is, “Look, I cannot prove that there’s been no change. I don’t need to prove that there’s been no change, because that’s a proving a negative, and you can’t prove a negative like that. I can say that there’s absolutely no reason to believe that there has been change. And I can also say that based on everything we know about transmission, if we extrapolate that back—rather than say, “Before our earliest witnesses, everything was very different”—we see a huge amount of stability. What skeptics want us to do is say, “You’ve got all that evidence for centuries of stability, but just before your earliest witness, someone did something really mischievous.” And the thing about that is that they’d have to be really clever and really well financed in order to do something so mischievous that they could mess things up for future generations.

That last one is something I’ve thought, too—how exactly is someone supposed to change the Greek New Testament without leaving any evidence that another version existed? This party would have to have utterly immense money and power—and the faith of every last professing Christian who had any part of the Greek New Testament in his or her possession. Observe how angrily the ancient congregation responded when a Latin translation changed the word for “gourd.” There’s no way you could get away with large-scale changes of a sacred text used by people spread over a huge geographical area.

Listen for yourself.

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The Authorized Documentary

Mark Ward

The Authorized documentary ships today. It’s the culmination of a lot of work, and I pray that its message will be persuasive and spread widely.

Here’s that message: we should all read the Bible in our English, not someone else’s. The “false friends” in the otherwise beautiful and valuable KJV—the words and syntax and punctuation that we still use today but use differently than they did in 1611—mean that modern readers simply cannot know what they’re missing if the KJV is their only Bible.

I’m not saying that anyone should throw the KJV away. I certainly haven’t. I use it every day. But I don’t insist that others use it, or use it exclusively. We have many good English Bible translations, all of which are useful for Bible study.

In the documentary I just say all this in funnier and more entertaining ways. You can watch for free during a 14-day free trial—and make sure to check out the other stuff on Faithlife TV. My kids enjoy Torchlighters, for example.

Click here to watch the 45-minute show!

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Is the KJV the Most Concordant English Bible Translation?

Mark Ward

A friend and reader who has good training in linguistics wrote to ask me to evaluate a claim she found in an article online. Here’s what the writer said (and I won’t link to it because I don’t want to seem to be critical of this writer in particular—hers is a very common viewpoint, and the rest of her post is really quite good):

TIP: The King James Version is a great one to use for this kind of studying! Though this version uses older English and can be a bit hard to understand if you are not used to it; when translating the Hebrew and Greek words the KJV is the most (though not entirely) consistent in using the same English word each time that Greek or Hebrew word is used. Thus, it is a lot easier to see patterns in word usages as you study! I love to see patterns and themes throughout God’s Word!

After reading this paragraph and sharing it with me, my friend asked me,

I don’t know Greek or Hebrew, so I have no idea how accurate this is, but I’m curious. What do you think of this? I thought I remembered that…friends in seminary used a different translation (NASB maybe??) in their Greek classes for glossing. In addition, from a basic linguistic point of view, I can imagine why it would not be a good idea to always translate a Greek/Hebrew word into the same English word throughout the Bible—lack of semantic equivalence across languages, of course, and the fact that languages and dialects each have unique semantic maps, etc.

Here’s my response:

What she’s talking about is “concordance.” It’s part of what causes the KJV to be considered generally among the more “literal” translations—although, as you know, “literal” is a very slippery term. And I would definitely not say that the KJV is the most concordant of the major English translations.

Here’s how I’d respond to someone who claims that the KJV is the most concordant English Bible translation:

1. You’re perfectly right that, from a linguistic point of view (and shouldn’t that be the main point of view of a translator?), perfect concordance is not a good idea. But she doesn’t say the KJV is entirely consistent in this regard. She recognizes implicitly that concordance can be useful for a certain angle of Bible study but is not utterly required.

2. And yet, how could she know the KJV is the most concordant translation? This is a question I find I repeatedly want to ask people (I rarely get to!). If you can’t read Greek and Hebrew, you have to take someone else’s word on this question. The NASB is indeed generally regarded (by the people the KJV translators would call “the judicious”) to be literal than the KJV, but we’re talking about thousands of words here in all kinds of contexts: it would be really hard to nail this one down. I doubt anyone has ever done the stats; how could they? It would be extremely detailed and lengthy work. People speak so confidently about the superiority of the KJV, making all kinds of claims, from the milder (like hers) to the extravagant. But not a few are unprovable. And they cite the ether. Really, they are repeating ecclesiastical legends.

3. And I can say that because the KJV translators themselves deny adhering to a concordance theory of translation. In their preface, “Translators to the Reader,” which is a goldmine for responding to all types of claims for KJV superiority, they write,

Another thing we think good to admonish thee of, gentle reader, that we have not tied ourselves to a uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe that some learned men somewhere have been as exact as they could that way. Truly, that we might not vary from the sense of that which we had translated before, if the word signified the same thing in both places (for there be some words that be not of the same sense everywhere), we were especially careful, and made a conscience, according to our duty. But that we should express the same notion in the same particular word, as for example, if we translate the Hebrew or Greek word once by “purpose,” never to call it “intent”; if one where “journeying,” never “travelling”; if one where “think,” never “suppose”; if one where “pain,” never “ache”; if one where “joy,” never “gladness,” etc.; thus to mince the matter, we thought to savour more of curiosity than wisdom, and that rather it would breed scorn in the atheist than bring profit to the godly reader. For is the kingdom of God become words or syllables? why should we be in bondage to them if we may be free? use one precisely when we may use another no less fit as commodiously? (xxxiv)

Concordance provides one useful tool for Bible study. But it can also obscure the meaning of the text, at least a little. Once again I’m driven back to recommending that people use multiple English Bible translations in their study. A combination of literal/concordant/formal and dynamic/functional and then paraphrastic translations are all helpful for understanding what God said.

At least the KJV translators thought so:

Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgement not to be so sound in this point. For though “whatsoever things are necessary are manifest,” as St Chrysostom saith, and as St Augustine, “In those things that are plainly set down in the Scriptures all such matters are found that concern faith, hope, and charity”: yet for all that it cannot be dissembled that partly to exercise and whet our wits, partly to wean the curious from loathing of them for their everywhere plainness, partly also to stir up our devotion to crave the assistance of God’s Spirit by prayer, and lastly, that we might be forward to seek aid of our brethren by conference, and never scorn those that be not in all respects so complete as they should be, being to seek in many things ourselves, it hath pleased God in his divine providence here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness, not in doctrinal points that concern salvation (for in such it hath been vouched that the Scriptures are plain), but in matters of less moment, that fearfulness would better beseem us than confidence, and if we will resolve, to resolve upon modesty…: it is better to make doubt of those things which are secret than to strive about those things that are uncertain. There be many words in the Scriptures which be never found there but once (having neither brother nor neighbour, as the Hebrews speak), so that we cannot be helped by conference of places. Again, there be many rare names of certain birds, beasts and precious stones, etc., concerning which the Hebrews themselves are so divided among themselves for judgement that they may seem to have defined this or that, rather because they would say something than because they were sure of that which they said, as St Jerome somewhere saith of the Septuagint. Now in such a case doth not a margin do well to admonish the reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatise upon this or that peremptorily? For as it is a fault of incredulity to doubt of those things that are evident: so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgement of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption. Therefore as St 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. (xxxii–xxxiii)

Does that help?

God bless your service for him.

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Review: Ember Rising

Mark Ward

Ember Rising (The Green Ember #3)Ember Rising by S.D. Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Loved it. So did the kids. (And the illustrations, by my respected friend Zach Franzen, were also excellent.)

For a good while I was thinking that this book is The Benedict Option for kids—and for adults who dutifully read Dreher’s hot-title-of-2017 but whose affections were not fully engaged by his more prosaic approach (which I did find helpful—this is not a criticism). Ember Rising, by contrast, engages the heart with a stirring story. In this story there is a real evil, real danger, real pain. And, more importantly, real hope and real joy. I felt the story showed respect to the feelings and thinking of kids: it avoided cloying, no-fall-ever-happened saccharinity; and yet it didn’t over-burden the kids with darkness. The characters are well drawn, with personalities the kids could draw from. Captain Moonlight, Weezie, Helmer, Picket, Emma, Heather, Jacks—with the minor, partial, possible exception of Captain Vitton and Dr. Zeigler, no one was cartoonish, a common flaw among kids’ books. And even those exceptions read as real within the overall narrative. By avoiding cartoonishness elsewhere, the book allows readers to enjoy its virtues.

My seven-year-old girl understood the cliffhanger ending, which also read as real: prices must be paid by the good guys, even when their cause is righteous. But the Mended Wood is coming, and they will be vindicated.

I said that for a good while I drew parallels between this book and the Benedict Option. And I think they are certainly present. The good citadels are enclaves of the preservation of good rabbit culture. But I came to think as I neared the end that the book’s sights are set on something higher and bigger than the future, post-dark-secular-age renaissance of the West. I think the Mended Wood is the New Earth.

But, in a way, the Mended Wood can be both the restored West and the restored planet. The glory and honor of the nations will enter the New Jerusalem. That includes the West, right? Maybe the Green Ember series will be some of the literary glory entering that future city. I’m that excited about it.

Highly recommended.

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Find the False Friends!

Mark Ward

I’m editing some Puritan prayers for a new Lexham Press project, and I’m really enjoying the edification provided by these wonderfully eloquent, godly Christians of yore. But I am most certainly keeping my thinking cap on as I read (that’s my job), because the project includes a slight modernization—which basically means a translation from one form of English to another, an overlapping one. The key concept of Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, “false friends,” has come in handy multiple times.

A “false friend,” as I define the term, needs to meet two of three criteria: it’s a word (or piece of syntax or punctuation, etc.) that is 1) still used today but 2) could or did mean something different in 1611, and 3) that has “changed in such a way that modern readers are unlikely to notice” (119). That last point is a little fuzzy, because modern readers differ. Some are more perceptive than others. Some are more experienced with the words and patterns of Elizabethan English than others. I don’t know how many people, or what people, a given “false friend” has to trip up before it counts as a full false friend. It’s a judgment call every time. I still want to call a word a false friend if I notice it but don’t know what the author meant by it; if I only know our modern use of the word and not his Early Modern use of the word.

I wonder, can you spot the false friends in the following prayer from Puritan luminary Joseph Alleine? I’ll update later with the answer(s).

O my Lord, bring me where you feed, let me live in your face, let me feel your smiles upon my heart, let me love you, tell me you love me. Remember, accept, pity, and take care of me, and then choose my condition, my dwelling, and entertainment for me.

Update with answers (12/27/2018):

It’s not always easy or possible to figure out false friends, particularly when they are phrases and not words.

• I think “where you feed” is probably a pastoral metaphor: bring me where you feed the sheep such as myself. If it’s a true false friend, I couldn’t establish this with the OED. But I do think the word strikes modern English speakers as talking about where God feeds himself. It’s certainly awkward in a way it probably (apparently?) wasn’t in Joseph Alleine’s day.

• “In your face” I’m not certain about either, and the OED isn’t helping me. But I think it means “before your presence.” In today’s English it does sound oppositional, I think.

• The OED did help me substantially with “entertaintment.” It gives this sense, which fits perfectly: “Provision for the material or financial needs of a person, animal, place, etc.; maintenance, support; sustenance. Obsolete.”

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Review: Educated, by Tara Westover

Mark Ward

My heart goes out to Tara Westover. I rooted for her and felt defensive for her during 100% of the story. Other people’s epistemological sins harmed her. Precisely because of her love for her parents, those sins maintained a hold on her far, far into a life that, on the outside, looked “normal.” Obviously, hare-brained conspiracy theories are not harmless fun; they can radically stunt human lives and break vital relationships. And yet this refugee from turmoil managed to write a truly beautiful and insightful book that is, in addition, a page-turning story. (I heard her say in an interview that she listened to the New Yorker Fiction podcast to learn how to write. I signed up myself, hoping for the same boost to my literary abilities.) Well, well done, Tara.

But I’d like to point something out to my fellow Goodreaders [for whom I first wrote this review] that I fear will get lost in our collective rush to see Tara’s story as a confirmation of mainstream Western values: Tara’s story is a conversion story, not a de-conversion story. She didn’t merely de-convert from a hare-brained worldview; she actively converted to a different worldview. That latter worldview is not described in her book in any detail. But it means, among other things, that her story isn’t over. Which view of the world will she live out? If she adopted (as one would naturally expect?) the worldview of the people who educated her at Cambridge and Harvard, I would point out that this view is not a natural default, a neutral and objective place to be, a direct view of the world. It, too, is based on assumptions and beliefs that not everyone shares. It views the world through lenses worn by a minority of humanity, especially historically. It, too, contains suppressions of the truth.

Because Tara did not directly describe her current worldview, I cannot and will not critique it. Again, my primary feeling for her is appreciation and defensiveness. But I would encourage readers to reflect on their own views. Friends, do not to make Tara’s life-thus-far a feel-good story for mainstream Westerners. It’s unsettling to realize that, given an alternate environment, you might be capable of believing as the Westovers do (indeed, their view of essential oils is at least half-accepted by a disturbingly large number of college-educated American women). But I’d encourage you, reader, not to assume that because they are wrong you are right. Put yourself in the shoes of people—like myself—who regard the predominant Western view, the secular and materialist view, as itself hare-brained. The ideas that something could come from nothing, that life could come from non-life, that mind could arise out of non-mind—I regard these as ludicrous in the extreme. The idea that religion can and should be moved to the margins of society I regard as impossible and therefore, in a very real way, self-delusional. Some non-empirical “vision of the good” is going to rule every culture. And it is not clear to me that the West has escaped delusions within its own vision.

I regard the prevailing worldview among Western educated people as having similar overall effects on Western society to the ones that survivalist, conspiracy-theory delusions allegedly (though I do believe Tara, I feel I have to use that word to maintain a modicum of fairness!) had on the Westover family. Yes, I think it’s quite literally crazy to believe that the Illuminati are secretly running the world, that the Holocaust was bankrolled by greedy Jews, that the medical establishment is wicked and ineffective, and that consulting or balancing (or whatever it is) one’s chakras is God’s means of bringing health. I found it revealing that Tara’s mom had previously ascribed such beliefs to the desperation of the ill—and that certain injuries did land Westovers in the hospital despite their disbelief. And I’m not persuaded of the truth of Mr. Westover’s worldview by the fact that he was willing to suffer for it. In fact, it is his willingness to let his own children suffer for it—keeping them out of school, making them work physically dangerous jobs in which they were indeed seriously injured—that confirms what he ought to have known: he was living inside a set of delusions.

But is that so far from what Western materialism is doing to its youth? Direct cause and effect on such a large scale is impossible to prove; people will resort to their worldviews, their presuppositions, to explain even cause and effect. But from where I stand, inside (by God’s grace, but still with many human limitations) a biblical worldview, it looks like sexual promiscuity, the erosion of a coherent moral framework more generally and its replacement with self-actualization, and the combination of over-confidence in the deliverances of science and the under-confidence in the possibility of binding *moral* truth—all these things, fruits of a materialist worldview, are hurting our culture profoundly. Ironically enough, the next audiobook in my Libby app playlist is Our Kids, by Robert Putnam. I expect to see once again that the West’s values are not serving our kids much better than the Westovers’ values served theirs.

Tara had to fight hard—and I admire her so much for this—to reconcile her love for her family with her growing awareness that they lived on their own epistemological spirit-planet. This was most evident in their refusal (allegedly) to protect her from a physically abusive and emotionally manipulative brother. But it was evident in many other ways: I’m glad she escaped. I’m sad that reconciling her familial love with her education had to mean distancing herself from parents who (allegedly) chose extremist beliefs—and a very troubled son—over their gifted daughter. But I think she did right. I think, ultimately, that people who demand that you believe overt untruths (the biggest one being, “My sins against you are all in the past”) in order to have a relationship with you are best served, best loved, by refusal. “Honor your father and mother” does not mean, “Join them in their delusions.”

But you’re going to have to join somebody; there are no truly independent thinkers. How can we avoid group delusions? The Bible says—and if you bristle at that phrase, you especially need to read on—that the creation itself testifies clearly to the “eternal power and divine nature” of God. Acknowledging this truth is the only way to truly escape the rough and tumble, the push and pull of merely human perspectives. All humans are on the same plane. If some are “taller” than others, and see farther (I think Tara is such a one), still none of us enjoys a God’s-eye view. None of us is truly above the fray. We need divine grace to reach down and tell us what he sees from his perspective. This is the only way to avoid the delusions we all stumble into—too often willingly—on this sin-cursed earth.

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