Digging deeper into the text: Rev 22:14

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that I tend to use both the NASB and the NKJV bibles and people were interested to know why. Well, they’re not the most perfect, for starters – I still read the Hebrew and Greek to check and make sure nothing fishy is going on in the translations. The two versions are quite good and reliable for the most part but the real reason I rely on them is because they represent the two major traditions of Greek manuscripts that are most commonly in use.
The NASB comes from the Wescott-Hort critical text that depends on the Alexandrian texts. The NKJV, on the other hand, comes from the Textus-Receptus that draws from the Byzantine texts. If you read Greek, you will likely use even more modern critical texts such as the Nestle-Aland or the Greek New Testament (UBS) which tends to combine both traditions. My purpose is not to discuss the different critical texts but to show you an example of why having two versions can be useful. The example I am using comes from Rev 22:14. If you look at Rev 22:14, you will find very different readings between the two traditions:-
NKJV – Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life …
NASB – Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life …
I think it doesn’t take a scholar to recognize that we have a problem here with texts that mean completely different things. To be sure, most of the verse are the same. It is only a very little portion where it says “do His commandments” vs. “wash their robes” that are different. So which is the correct version in this case? To appreciate how this problem came about, we will have to do a little CSI on the Greek text. The oldest Greek manuscripts were all written in uncials (all upper case letters). I am going to put the Greek versions side by side. TR is the Textus Receptus Greek that gave us the NKJV and TIS is the Tischendorf Greek (basically Alexandrian text) from which we get the NASB:-
TR – μακάριοι οἱ ποιοῦντες τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ, ἵνα ἔσται ἡ ἐξουσία αὐτῶν ἐπὶ τὸ ξύλον τῆς ζωῆς …
TIS – μακάριοι οἱ πλύνοντες τὰς στολὰς αὐτῶν, ἵνα ἔσται ἡ ἐξουσία αὐτῶν ἐπὶ τὸ ξύλον τῆς ζωῆς …
I want you to notice that apart from the emboldened words, the verse is actually identical in the Greek. The problem of the variation comes only from the bracketed segments so we will look at this in a bit more detail. I reproduce just those words here in uncials, just as they would have been written in the earliest Greek manuscripts, along with the literal translation.
TR – ΠΟΙΟΥ͂ΝΤΕΣ ΤᾺΣ ἘΝΤΟΛᾺΣ ΑΥ̓ΤΟΥ͂ – do the commandments of his
TIS – ΠΛΎΝΟΝΤΕΣ ΤᾺΣ ΣΤΟΛᾺΣ ΑΥ̓ΤΩ͂Ν – wash the robes of theirs
Now, even if you may not understand Greek, I want you to see that the writing of those two sets of words are physically very similar. ΠΟΙΟΥ͂ΝΤΕΣ (do/perform) looks like ΠΛΎΝΟΝΤΕΣ (wash), and ἘΝΤΟΛᾺΣ (commands) looks like ΣΤΟΛᾺΣ (robes). You can probably guess where I am going with this now. Somebody either had really bad handwriting or bad eye-sight. Perhaps there was some damage to the original parchment at some point of the textual transmission that resulted in a corrupted copy. Some of the copyists couldn’t actually read – they simply copied the shapes as they saw it. The real question now is, “Which was the original reading?”
Well, Rev 7:14 has a similar phrase “washed their robes” which is rendered as ἔπλυναν τὰς στολὰς αὐτῶν in the Greek (literal: washed the robes of-theirs). Notice how apart from the word στολὰς (stolas = robes), the word used for “washed” is completely different. Also Rev 22:14 was missing the 3rd person genitive pronoun αὐτῶν (of-theirs). In other words, the author was certainly capable of correctly rendering this text as he did in Rev 7:14. Somehow, he writes a much lower quality Greek in Rev 22:14. This sounds a tad suspicious but I can imagine a copyist trying to use 7:14 to make sense of 22:14 if the text was illegible or unclear in parts.
Textually, it is more likely for a longer text to be corrupted to a shorter text due to illegibility or damage. Between the two readings, the TR is longer and seems more likely to be corrupted towards a shortened version. From ἘΝΤΟΛᾺΣ to ΣΤΟΛᾺΣ requires the loss of the “N” alphabet and it is more likely for this to happen than for an “N” to be added accidentally.
The TR’s “do the commandments” seems to make more sense, especially given the reference in v.11 to the practice of righteousness and holiness. Two other times in the book of Revelations are there mention of “keep the commandments” and albeit a little different from “do the commandments”, still makes more sense than “wash the robes”. Without going into extensive CSI, my gut feeling is that the TR got this one right and the Alexandrian text (used in NASB, NIV, NET, NRSV, ESV, among others). In the previous post, we saw where the NKJV was wrong in the insertion of the Johannine Comma. In short – you win some and lose some. Sometimes NKJV wins, sometimes NASB wins, most of the time it’s a draw.
This is the reason for me to refer to both the NASB and the NKJV versions for study, as a way of checking the two major textual traditions for any discrepancies. By the way, the OT text has fewer such problems because it draws mainly from very complete and consistent texts – the Masoretic texts of the Leningrad Codex and the Aleppo Codex agree for the most part.
At this point, I’m not sure if you guys are sick of all the linguistic stuff. I can write more if you like but if you guys have had enough, I’ll stop here. If I do write, I think I’ll write something that involves the LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch. Let me know if you’re interested.