“Begin at the beginning,” was the King’s suggestion to Alice. “Go on to the end. Then stop.” Kurt and Barbara Aland of the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster, Westphalia, Germany, begin their book on the New Testament with Erasmus’ editio princeps of 1516, the first printed edition. They then survey the printed editions since, attaining such detail and intricacy that by page 43 even they have misgivings.

“Much of the above discussion has been rather complicated—perhaps too complicated for the beginning reader of this book—because many of the things mentioned and many of the terms used are new and unfamiliar. . . . The reader should not be unduly concerned for the moment with the details and the difficulties—at least a first impression and a general appreciation have been gained. Later, after completing this book and gaining familiarity with the Greek New Testament, the reader may return to these pages and reread them.”

Those familiar with the preface to the first edition may remember that the Alands told them, “The purpose of this book is to introduce readers (including beginners with no previous experience) step by step to the difficulties of the material, if they will read it straight through from the beginning.” Intelligent beginners will proceed to get a copy of Bruce Manning Metzger’s The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration (Second Edition, Oxford, 1968), which begins with the ancient book, then discusses ancient copies and other ancient evidence for the New Testament, and only then presents a summary of the history of the New Testament as a printed text, followed by examples of specific textual difficulties.

The beginner with no previous experience will be befuddled by an introduction that proceeds in medias res, but will probably leave his half-read copy of the Alands’ book with the vague notion that textual criticism is too complicated a matter for ordinary mortals—especially hardworking ministers of the Gospel—and that work on the text of the New Testament has been done by brilliant, hardworking, if erring giants whose productions are safely in the hands of less brilliant but much more methodical and careful scholars (mainly at the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster).

Despite its failure as an introduction to New Testament studies. The Text of the New Testament is an important book: it records openly and with disarming frankness one of the most important events in recent scholarly and cultural history. Throughout the late 19th century and most of this century as well, there were available many different texts of the original Greek of the New Testament, texts that differed in thousands of readings. This is not so awesome a statement as it might seem. Most of the variants, as the differing readings are known, were quite minor and unimportant. Some of the variation was due to differences in scholarly methods or in competence, some to denominational diversity, some to the war between religious liberals and religious conservatives. In the course of the past generation, however, a coup took place. There are now two standard and easily available texts of the Greek New Testament, one of them aimed at scholars, the other at translators. The first gives some information on many passages, the second rather detailed information on many fewer passages. These texts are accepted by both the Protestant United Bible Societies and the corresponding offices of the Roman Catholic Church—”an inconceivable situation until quite recently,” as the authors rightly say. These texts are almost exacdy similar, word for word, letter for letter. The key figures in creating this nearly unheard of agreement have been the Alands.

Some may object that although the scholarly edition; Nestle-Aland, is Kurt Aland’s, the translators’ edition—the Greek New Testament, or GNT—is edited by an international board of scholars who vote on every issue and among whom, in practice, there is almost no dissent. When Bruce Metzger compiled a volume of textual notes on the GNT using the minutes of the board’s meetings, there were only 30 dissensions from the hundreds of decisions recorded in the volume. Twenty-seven of these were by Metzger himself, eight of them shared with another scholar who had two additional dissensions. Metzger shared one dissension each with two other scholars and Kurt Aland wrote one by himself in addition to another he shared with Metzger. The board’s decisions were typically made on the narrowest of grounds, and many important passages are not even discussed.

This consensus might seem to be an encouraging sign: after nearly five hundred years of research, the science of textual criticism has finally, it appears, given us a New Testament text on which we can all agree. I am doubtful, however. Where scholars have access to an author’s own copy or proofs corrected by the author, substantial consent may be expected, although not always achieved. The evidence for the New Testament is, at closest, generations from the original copies, and for many passages, hundreds of years from them. On the other hand, we have a great deal of relevant evidence. There are many issues on which scholars can and do disagree, yet this valid disagreement is not reflected in the commentary based on the notes of their meetings. Furthermore, important decisions are made on the basis of a scholarly consensus that is not textual, but theological.

Let me give two examples of very different types. The first involves the nature of the kinds of texts that have preserved the New Testament. In the early centuries of the Christian era there were a number of distinctive texts, one partially identified with Italy and Latin translations, some with other connections. Eventually a vulgate was created, which is found in most later manuscripts and was the basis of the Erasmus text and the King James Bible. Much of the early history of modern Bible scholarship involved freeing the text of the New Testament of inferior readings from the late and poor manuscripts that Erasmus used for his edition. The tradition represented by the King James Bible, now called the Byzantine or Majority tradition, is, however, found in better manuscripts than Erasmus used and contains a number of readings that have been discovered in early papyri and so cannot be due solely to a late edition. The common text of Nestle-Aland and GNT tends to give short shrift to this tradition, and the Alands make no bones about their contempt for competing older editions that paid more attention to Majority readings, not to mention the recent Farstad-Hodges Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text (“an anachronism in every respect”). One does not have to believe that the Majority text is always right to know that it has been proven to contain good, old readings, as the important classicist Günther Zunzt pointed out. The Aland-inspired consensus on this issue is old-fashioned and needs to be rethought.

Let us leave general considerations and take a specific passage: Paul’s Letter to the Romans 9:4-5. There are no significant variant readings here, but punctuation can change the text profoundly. Paul is lamenting the alienation of his brothers according to the flesh from Jesus. “They are Israelites. The sonship and the glory and the commandments and the giving of the law and service in the temple and God’s promises belong to them. The Fathers belong to them and from them according to the flesh comes the Messiah.” And now, depending on the punctuation, one may read: a) “May God who is over all be blessed forever!” or b) “the Messiah, who is God over all, blessed forever.” The committee opted for the former and so the joint text is punctuated. Their reasoning was straightforward. Nineteenth-century New Testament scholars have proven that Paul did not believe that Jesus was God, therefore he could not have said that He was. In response, Metzger showed that when Paul or anybody else in the Bible in Greek or Hebrew says “Glory be to God!” or “God be blessed!”—what is technically called a doxology—such doxologies are always different in structure from Romans 9:5. Anyhow, it is extremely inappropriate to end a serious, even tragic, passage such as this one with a “Hallelujah!” The committee ignored the objective philological evidence in order to import into the text a theological view disguised as the result of historical-critical research.

I am not denying that the two editions with one text are fine works of scholarship. They are. Monopoly, however, is never beneficial, least of all in scholarship. In economics, monopoly at least makes some people rich. In scholarship, it impoverishes even those in control by denying them the active debate necessary to stimulate research. It gives the nonexpert a false idea of the state of the art. There are now many translations pouring out of various presses. They seem to indicate a great diversity and richness in our understanding of the Bible. In the case of the New Testament, this appearance is an illusion. Behind this superficial diversity lies a suffocating uniformity that does not represent the real, and very lively, possibilities of the text of the New Testament. Until the day that “Bible-believing” Christians care enough to master sufficient Greek to understand the key issues in translating the Bible—issues that are not beyond the grasp of the average intelligence—that richness will have little effect on Christianity in America.


[The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, by Kurt and Barbara Aland, Translated by Errol F. Rhodes, Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans) 368 pp., $32.50]