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.

The Johannine Comma: 1John 5:7

It is not uncommon to come across strong adherents to certain translations, who hold such translations as inspired. I used to have Jehovah’s Witnesses who would come to my door and try to persuade me that the KJV is the best and only inspired translation to use. In the same way, we find quite a few Christians who have somehow been taught this and fell for it, line, hook, and sinker, without actually having understood the underlying facts of the matter. Usually, the views are so deeply entrenched, and they are so deeply invested in it (having perhaps espoused the view for a long time publicly), that they would rather not deal with the possibility that they have been long misled. This post isn’t intended to argue a case for or against the KJV but to show that it, like any other translation, is fraught with translational errors – that are certainly not “inspired by the Holy Spirit”.
1John 5:7 is sometimes referred to as the Johannine Comma. When we look at the various English translations, we immediately see marked differences that should make us wonder what’s going on.
KJV – For there are three that bear record in heaven; the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one
NKJV – For there are three that bear witness in heaven; the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one
NASB – For there are three that testify
NIV – For there are three that testify
NET – For there are three that testify
NRSV – For there are three that testify
ESV – For there are three that testify
Now, even without reading – the sheer difference in the length of the verse alone must have gotten your attention, pointing to the fact that there are two different translations. They can’t both be correct, can they? So what is really happening here, and why do we have such different readings? In order to understand this, you’ll have to know something about how our bibles came about. Speaking mainly for the NT text – this was originally written in Koine-Greek. Epistles such as 1John would have been hand copied (of course) widely onto parchments and so on, by believers. We do not possess any of the original Greek texts, only copies. Not only that, sometimes we don’t even have complete texts but many parchments or fragments that are pieced together to give us a more complete text. In some cases, we have fairly complete texts, and in other cases fragmented ones.
Historically, there have been compilations of these texts that have been handed down through various historical traditions. Very broadly speaking (because it would be impossible to speak of all the manuscripts individually) there are two main traditions, known as the Alexandrian and the Byzantine texts. The Codex Sinaiticus (compilation of Greek texts of the NT) discovered in a monastery on Mt. Sinai was written in the 4th century AD and is an example of the Alexandrian text. Likewise the Codex Vaticanus (so called because it is being kept in the Vatican library) is another Alexandrian compilation of the NT dating back to the 4th century. The Byzantine text, on the other hand, is called the Majority Text because it has the largest number of surviving manuscripts. And there there were also translations of the Greek into Syriac, Coptic, Latin and other languages of the day.
Translators have to consider the different texts, especially where there are variations. When Erasmus, the humanist scholar in the 16th century, worked on the compilation of a standardised Greek NT, he had to do the same thing – based on what manuscripts he had access to, he had to choose which texts he considered most reliable. He produced five versions of this Greek text that eventually came to be called the Textus Receptus (TR).
In the first two versions of his work, he didn’t include the bit that said “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit …” (the Johannine Comma, or Comma for short) because it wasn’t there in any of the Greek manuscripts. So how did Erasmus end up including the Comma into the later versions? It turns out that he relied the Latin Vulgate translation of the Greek for that bit, presumably under pressure from the Catholic church. So, firstly, it wasn’t based on the Greek text but on a translation. Secondly, the Comma does not appear in ANY of the Greek manuscripts pre-dating the 16th century, regardless of tradition.
So basically – the TR, in this case, got the text wrong. It wasn’t the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that put it there. It was the the innovation of man. And, as you might have guessed, the KJV when it was first published, relied on the TR in this case and that’s how the Comma ended up in the KJV and the NKJV translation (of a translation).
Now, I am sure the KJV fans will protest that the KJV translation is still inspired by God, even when here is a clear example of it’s imperfection – clearly an adding to the best available Greek text with man’s ideas. If people want to ignore truth because of vested interests, that’s their choice. All I’m saying is that, the KJV is not somehow more special than the other modern translations. There is no biblical basis, obviously, for making such a claim – it is a claim made by man, not by God, but idolised by many.

When the text is unclear: 1Sam 13:1

Translating ancient texts isn’t always an easy thing to do. Sometimes, the text itself can be so difficult you just don’t know what to do with it. A case in point is 1Sam 13:1 where the Hebrew text (R-to-L) says:-
בֶּן־שָׁנָ֖ה שָׁא֣וּל בְּמָלְכ֑וֹ וּשְׁתֵּ֣י שָׁנִ֔ים מָלַ֖ךְ עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
transliteration and word-for-word translation:-
ben_shanah Shaul b-malekh-o  v-shetei  shanim malakh   al_Israel
son-of_year  Saul    he-ruled       and-two years    (as)king  over_Israel
This text is difficult in several ways. First of all, the words “ben_shanah Shaul” seems to be incomplete and doesn’t really make sense. It seems to be saying “the year/age of Saul was …” but that’s where it just stops making sense. Secondly, the text says that Saul reigned for two years over Israel. [Acts 13:21 says that Saul reigned for 40-years] We know that the ark was lost to the Philistines (1Sam 4:1-18) before Saul started reigning as king, and it had ended up in Kirjath Jearim for 20-years (1Sam 7:2) before David brought it back to Jerusalem (2Sam 6:2). Therefore, by inference, Saul’s reign would have to have been less than 20-years. So now we have 2-years, 40-years, 42-years, and 20-years, plus the ambiguity in the text. What would you do?
Well, usually scholars would check the LXX at this point. The LXX (Roman numerals for 70), also known as the Septuagint (meaning 70 in Latin), was the (probably first proper) Greek translation for the OT that was made around the 3rd century BC. As the Greek empire expanded under Alexander the Great, Greek became a widely used language and eventually there were Jews who were more familiar with Greek than with Hebrew – just like how we have Singaporean Chinese who are more at home with English than Mandarin. So a translation was commissioned and because it was so early – it is sometimes useful as a way to reverse-engineering what their early copy of the Hebrew text might have said. Of course, you’d have to understand Koine-Greek to read it.
So what did the LXX say about 1Sam 13:1? Well, haha – they left it out completely! The translators probably had so much difficulty with it, they simply left it out. So there is no 1Sam 13:1 in the LXX, just 1Sam 13:2 onwards. Great. That’s not really helpful to us. It also doesn’t help that the DSS (Dead Sea Scrolls) 4Q51 parchments are missing the whole of 1Sam 13 so that’s another dead-end.
So what did our modern translators do with this text? Let’s see:-
NKJV – Saul reigned one year, and when he had reigned two years over Israel …
NASB – Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign and he reigned forty-two years over Israel.
NIV – Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years.
JPSS – Saul was … years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel two years.
NET – Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign; he ruled over Israel for forty years.
NRSV – Saul was … years old when he began to reign; and he reigned … and two years over Israel.
ESV – Saul lived for one year and then became king, and when he had reigned for two years over Israel …
It’s amazing how many translators felt the need to inject information into the text – the difficulty of the text not-withstanding. You can also see how the different translators struggled to make sense of the text. I guess sometimes you just can’t win! At least in this case, it didn’t result in deeply held doctrinal positions as in the previous two examples.
Happy National Day Singapore!

When Translators Theologise: Gen 14:20b

Following my previous rant on Mal 2:16, there were people who asked which translation would be best. While there are no perfect translations, I tend to use both NKJV and the NASB as they tend to be generally quite faithful to the Hebrew text. I avoid dynamic translations such as The Message, NIV, NLT, GNB due to their limited value for study purposes. One example of this would be in the translation of Gen 14:20b:-
NKJV – … and he gave him a tithe of all
NASB – … he gave him a tenth of all
but the other translations say:-
NIV – … Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything
JPSS – … And Abram gave him a tenth of everything
NET – … Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything
NRSV – … And Abram gave him one tenth of everything
ESV – … And Abram gave him a tenth of everything
The Hebrew text for this bit actually reads (from right to left):-
וַיִּתֶּן־ל֥וֹ מַעֲשֵׂ֖ר מִכֹּֽל
the transliteration and word for word translation:-
v-yitten_l-o                  ma’aser  me-kol
and-he-gave_to-him  tenth       of-all
The first problem you can already see is that there are no names in the text. No “Abram” and certainly no “Melchizedek”. The translators of NIV, JPSS, NET, NRSV, ESV took the liberty of inserting those names in order to make the text say things a certain way. But did they get it wrong in spite of their good (theological) intentions?
Secondly. If you read Gen 14:18-20 to get the full context, you will discover that this entire section was about Melchizedek doing things to Abram.
v.18 – we see that Melchizedek was the main actor – bringing out bread and wine.
v.19 – we see that he (Melchizedek) blessed him (Abram) with words that are contextually incontrovertible
v.20 – is a continuation of v.19 with Melchizedek as the main actor.
v.20b – this should simply be a continuation of everything else with Melchizedek giving Abram a tenth of all
If all you had was this text, this would be how you would have read it. There would be no way you would suddenly turn around and say that Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything just as you wouldn’t interpret v.19 as Abram blessing Melchizedek. What is going here is that the translators were looking at Hebrew 7:2 which said that Abraham gave a tenth to Melchizedek, and then decided to alter the translation of Gen 14:20b to make the text agree with Hebrew 7:2. In other words, they’re no longer translating here, but theologising because the plain text was inconvenient and disturbing in its implications. At the very least, if the context wasn’t clear – just leave it the way NKJV and NASB did, without taking the liberty to inject an interpretation that isn’t found in the original text.
So the question is – what do you do when the text says something inconvenient? Should translators smooth it out by injecting their own interpretation to avoid any textual difficulties? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that word for word translations are the way to go. Far from it. All good translations require contextual understanding. The problem with this and other examples is that the translators were authoring stuff that did not exist in the text, nor was what the text meant. They probably represented the prevailing theology of the day and/or desired to avoid theologically difficult translations.
Once again, I’m not addressing the question of Hebrew 7:2. I’m simply pointing out examples of where translators go amuck, and why I tend to stick to NKJV and NASB. Why two versions? That’s a story for another post if anyone’s interested.

Midnight Linguistic Rant: Malachi 2:16

One of the problems with English translations is that you have to take the word of the translators for what the Hebrew (or Greek) text of the bible says, and sometimes they get it so so so wrong. Worse yet, they get it wrong in ways that result in entrenched doctrinal positions. The case in point here is the text of Malachi 2:16
NKJV says “For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce …”
NASB and NRSV says “For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel …”
NET bible says “I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel …”
JPS says “For I detest divorce – said the LORD, the God of Israel …”
Now, if you looked at all these versions – you’d pretty much come to the conclusion that God hates divorce, and who can blame you for it. All the English translations here seem to be saying exactly that.
But when you look at the Hebrew text, this is what it actually says:-
כִּֽי־שָׂנֵ֣א שַׁלַּ֗ח אָמַ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
[Note that Hebrew reads right to left.] Translated literally and word for word, it actually reads as follows:-
ki_sane               shalach  amar  YHWH elohei     Israel
“for_he-hates divorce” says   YHWH God (of) Israel
The operative word here is “sane” which is the third-person masculine verb for “hate”, ie. “he hates”. It is significant that while this was God speaking in the first person, he does not use a first person verb such as “seneti” which would have been correctly translated “I hate”. This means that God wasn’t referring to himself hating divorce here, but was referring to someone else who hated divorce.
Who was this person? If you look at the context of Malachi 2 as a whole, you will notice that God was addressing errant priests who had corrupted the covenant of Levi. They misled the people. This person dealt treacherously with the wife of his youth, a wife by covenant.
Even though he has gone off gallivanting with other women, he had not released his wife properly through divorce. It was this refusal to release his wife. Judah had run off with the daughter of a foreign God even though he was in covenant with God not to do so. Yet he pretends to still be “married” to God. This was the “treachery” of Judah (Mal 2:11 NKJV). So when the narrative comes to Mal 2:16, God was referring to this person saying that “he refused/hated divorce” even though that was the right thing to do for his wife given his treachery.
Why doesn’t he want to divorce his wife by covenant? Because he would be obliged to ensure that she is properly compensated if he divorced her. By not divorcing the wife, the poor woman is left neither here nor there, unloved by the husband and yet bound to an unfaithful man.
Now, I am not trying to make a case about divorce here. I’m just pointing out how bad some of the English translations can be – leading to completely different (and distorted) readings of the original text. Why can’t the translators just translate the text directly????!!!
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