Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
January 22, 1953

The Revised Standard Version In The Light Of Documentary Evidence

John T. Overbey, Tulsa, Oklahoma

One of the reasons given by the Revision Committee for undertaking the task of revising the English Bible is, "Scholars are better equipped today than they were sixty years ago, both to determine the original text of the Greek New Testament, and to understand its language. This is partly because of the evidence afforded by newly discovered manuscripts of the New Testament itself, but chiefly because of the amazing body of Greek papyri that has been unearthed in Egypt since the last decade of the nineteenth century."

The Old Testament, for the most part, was originally written in the Hebrew language. The parts that were not in Hebrew are, Ezra 4:8 - 6:18; 7:12-26; Jeremiah 10:11; Daniel 2:4 - 7:28. These passages were written in Aramaic, a related dialect, which, after the Babylonian Exile, gradually displaced the Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jews. The New Testament was written in the Greek (koine) language. The problem of establishing the correct Hebrew and Aramaic text of the Old Testament is very different from the corresponding problem in the New Testament. For the New Testament there are a large number of Greek manuscripts, preserving many variant forms of the text. Some of them were made only two or three centuries later than the original composition of the books. For the Old Testament, only late manuscripts survive, all, with the exception of the Dead Sea texts of Isaiah and Habakkuk and some fragments of other books, are based on a standardized form of the text established many centuries after the books were written. Notable among these is the Masoretic Text, which is a revision of the old consonantal Hebrew and Aramaic text. This work was done between the sixth and ninth centuries A. D. The REVISED STANDARD VERSION of the Old Testament is based on this Text.

Although the Masoretic Text is of great importance in translating the Old Testament into the English, very much of the work in translating must depend on the ancient versions (Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, and Latin), which were made before the time of the Masoretic revision and therefore reflect earlier forms of the text. By far the most important and fruitful source for the understanding and restoration of the Hebrew Bible when its text is not clear as it stands, is the Old Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint. This version was made by Alexandrian Jews during the third and second centuries B. C., to satisfy the needs of the Greek-speaking Jews of Egypt whose knowledge of Hebrew was too inadequate to read and understand the original.

Perhaps the greatest work that has been done in recent years is in the field of Archaeology. Biblical archaeology is a little more than a hundred years old. Many of the most important discoveries have been made since the end of the first World War, and during that period archaeological methods have become more scientific and objective than they had been previously.

Archaeology has contributed to the understanding of the Old Testament in various ways. It has greatly widened the horizons of ancient Near Eastern history, supplementing Biblical information on the history of the Hebrews and making it possible to set their history against the history of the ancient Near East in general. It has helpedscholars to fix a more accurate chronology. Archaeologists have dug out of the ground examples of many objects used by the people of Biblical times — tools, ceramic vessels, ornaments, furniture, objects used in religious worship, written documents, and the like. Archaeology has illuminated and made vivid many passages in the Old Testament.

The direct contributions of archaeology to the translation of the Old Testament have not been as numerous and as striking as in some other areas of scholarship, but they have served to make clear some words and phrases that were formerly misunderstood. Indeed, there are many interesting things that could be mentioned from the field of archaeology, but space will not permit my doing so. I must go on with the summary of the documentary evidence that is available in the translation of the New Testament.

In translating the New Testament from the original Greek language, the problem is not near so complex; for there are many ancient materials available. The first in significance are the ancient Manuscripts. These are of three types, viz., uncials, minuscules, and cursives. The uncials are those that were written in large letters (commonly called "caps"). For the most part, these are older than any of the others. The minuscules are those written in small letters (commonly called "lower case"). The cursives are those written in "long hand." These cursives belong to the later centuries, and for the most part have been copied from the unicals and minuscules.

The most important of the uncials are: (1) Codex Sinaiticus. This manuscript was found by Tichendorf at St. Catherine's Monastery on Mt. Sinai and is now in the Imperial Library at St. Petersburg. It belongs to the fourth century. This is the only uncial that contains the entire New Testament. (2) Codex Alexandrinus. This manuscript is supposed to have come from Alexandria, and was a gift of Cyril Lucar, at one time a Patriarch of that Province, though later of Constantinople, to Charles through the English ambassador at the Turkish court in 1627. In 1757 it was presented to the Royal Library and is now in the British Museum. It doubtless belongs to the fifth century. (3) Codex Vaticanus. This manuscript is owned and controlled by the Catholic hierarchy and is located in the Vatican Library in Rome. It is reputed to be the oldest manuscript of the Greek New Testament. It supposedly belongs to the fourth century. (4) Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus. This is the great palimpsest (twice written) manuscript of the uncial group, and originally contained the whole New Testament. Now, however, a part of every book is lacking, and 2 Thessalonians and 2 John are entirely gone. It belongs to the fifth century, and was brought to Italy from the East in the 16th century. It was brought to France with Catherine de Medici and is now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. (5) Codex Bezae. This is the manuscript which Theodore Beza obtained in 1562 from the monastery of St. Irenaeus at Lyons and which he gave in 1581 to the University of Cambridge, where it now is. It dates probably from the end of the fifth century. (6) Codex Washingtoniensis. The United States has now in the National Library (Smithsonian) at the capitol one of the foremost uncial manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. It is a complete codex of the Gospels, in a slightly sloping but very ancient hand, written upon good vellum, in one column of thirty lines to the page. By all the tests ordinarily given, it belongs to the period of the earliest codices, possibly of the fourth century. It has been published in facsimile by Mr. C. L. Freer of Detroit, who obtained the manuscript in Egypt in 1906, and was edited by Professor H. A. Sanders for the University of Michigan Press in 1911.

One of the most important discoveries of recent times is a manuscript of the Old Syriac version of the Gospels, found in the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai by Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson in 1892. The text of this version is older than the Curetonian Syriac, and probably dates from the second century. Thus it testifies to the state of the Greek text from which it was translated, perhaps around 150 A. D. Related to this is the remarkable discovery of a fragment of Tatian's Diatessaron in Greek, found at Dura on the Euphrates by the Yale Expedition in 1933, and edited by Professor Karl Kraeling.

Even more important was the discovery in 1931 of fragments of twelve manuscripts (eight Old Testament, three New Testament, and one containing part of Enoch), and their purchase by Mr. A. Chester Beatty, an American living in England. These fragments are of extraordinary importance, as the leading experts agree that they were copied for the most part in the third century — a hundred years, presumably, before Vaticanus and Sinaiticus! The Gospels and Acts probably come from the first half of the third century; the fragments of the pauline letters are certainly not later than 250 A. D. — which is almost unbelievably early. Perhaps of interest here is a statement from Sir Frederic Kenyon who gives a rather extensive study of the Chester Beatty Papyri in his book entitled, "The Story of the Bible." On page 116 he says, "It is noticeable that Hebrews is placed immediately after Romans (an almost unprecedented position) which shows that at the early date when this manuscript (Chester Beatty Papyri) was written no doubt was felt as to its Pauline authorship."

Perhaps the most important work that has been done in recent years is that of Adolf Deissmann, Berlin. Until recent years scholars thought of the Greek of the New Testament as a "Holy Ghost language." However, Mr. Deissmann, in his epoch-making volume, "Biblestudien," which appeared first in 1895 proves conclusively from the papyri and the inscriptions that many of the seeming "Hebraisms" in the Septuagint and the New Testament were common idioms in the vernacular koine. It is now clear that the Greek of the New Testament is not a jargon. In all essential respects it is just the vernacular koine of the first century A. D., the lingua franca of the Greek-Roman empire, the legacy of Alexander the Great's conquest of the East.

Another class of documentary evidence is that supplied by the writings of the Fathers. The literature of this period, although as a whole of only moderate intrinsic value, is of historical interest and importance. This is owing to the light which it throws back on apostolic times, and the testimony borne to Christian life, thought, worship, work and organization during an age when the church was under the guidance, mainly, of men who had been associated with the apostles and who might be supposed, therefore, to know their mind.

A large portion of the Ante-Nicene Christian literature is entirely lost, and some of the most interesting of the extant writings are of little use because of the scantiness and comparative vagueness of the textual materials contained in them. The only period for which we have anything like a sufficiency of representative knowledge consists roughly of three quarters of a century from about 175 to 250 A. D.; but the remains of four eminent Greek Fathers, which range through this period, cast a strong light on textual history — backward and forward. They are Irenaeus, of Asia Minor, Rome, and Lyons; his disciple Hippolytus, of Rome; Clement, of Athens and Alexandria; and his disciple Origen, of Alexandria and Palestine. To the same period belong the Latin representatives of North Africa, Turtullian and Cyprian, and Cyprian's Roman contemporary, Novatian.

In this article I have endeavored to give a summary of the documentary evidence that is now available to scholars in determining the original text of the Greek New Testament, and in understanding its language. I have by no means exhausted the supply of this evidence, but rather have attempted to give the reader information concerning the more important documents. Some of this material was not available to the committees that translated the ENGLISH REVISED VERSION and the AMERICAN STANDARD VERSION. And, judging from the statements given by the committee that made the REVISED STANDARD VERSION, it must have been used rather sparingly by it. In the main, the Old Testament is based on the Masoretic Text of the sixth to the ninth centuries A. D. The work done on the New Testament seems to have been based primarily on Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, and Chester Beatty.

It is not denied that scholars are better equipped today than they were sixty years ago, but it is denied that the REVISED STANDARD VERSION embodies the best results of Biblical scholarship. In my next article, I shall point out some of the objectionable features of the "new translation."