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Textual Issue: Deuteronomy 32:43

Textual Issue: Deuteronomy 32:43

Previously I listed a couple of doubtful translation choices
in the Hebrew Bible and gave my preferences on them. Here are a couple more that I regard as much more certain. I also gave an extremely brief introduction to textual criticism in Textual Criticism – Briefly.

Praise, oh heavens, his people*,
Worship him, all you gods.
For he will avenge his servants’ blood . . .

*his people also has a variant reading with him. The change is only to the vowel pointing and is quite likely. I did not consider this variant in listing the versions supporting each reading for “oh heavens.”

There are two textual problems in this passage, and they tend to distinguish the most recent set of translations from those that went before. The key element in both variants is that the reading accepted by these versions is supported by the LXX along with a reading from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In the first line the Masoretic text reads “oh nations” rather than “oh heavens.” Modern versions that show each reading include:

  • Omit – JPS, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NCV, NIV, NKJV, TEV
    In support of omitting the line, we have the MT, supported by the Syriac and also the Vulgate. It is to be expected normally that those two versions will support the MT.
  • Worship him, all you gods – NRSV, REB, CEV, ESV, NLT (angels)
    In support of including this line we again have the LXX and 4QDt32. The LXX varies from 4QDt32 by reading sons of God rather than gods.

(Note that the English text cited for each variant is mine. I include any translation in support of that text that translated the Hebrew text behind that variant. Each translation may still vary in its English rendering.)

4QDt32 is a fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) that include this verse. The number of modern versions that have included this verse, from across the spectrum theologically, indicates the strength of the combination of any witness from the DSS with the LXX. There is still a certain conservatism, however, as indicated by those few versions that do not include the added line especially.

In favor of including the added line is this strong testimony of the Greek LXX translation, along with a DSS fragment. In addition, it is plausible to suspect the removal of the line for theological reasons, though as the LXX shows, it is not necessary to interpret it as polytheistic. A scribe might nonetheless have intentionally dropped it.

For more information on Bible translations see:

Examples of Textual Issues in Translation

Examples of Textual Issues in Translation

One issue that is commonly neglected in comparing Bible translations is the text used. Translators are well aware that differences in translation can be the result of differences in the text used, but in modern times, the approach to the text used by most translations has been very similar, and thus tends to be ignored by non-professionals. One major distinction is between those translations that follow the Textus Receptus, and those that use a more modern, eclectic text in the New Testament. The NKJV is a good example of a modern translation that follows that text.

But in discussing the RSV, ESV, and NRSV, I was reminded of another textual difference that is less well known: The attitude of the translators toward conjectural readings and readings in supported only by an ancient version or one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Typically, in translating the Hebrew scriptures, Christian translators have followed the Masoretic Text, the text printed in the vast majority of Hebrew Bibles, unless they find it impossible to translate the MT intelligibly. In that case they will look to the versions, the scrolls, or even to a conjectural emendation in some translations. The tendency in New Testament textual criticism, because a large amount of external evidence is available, is to study each variant and determine the best text, but this procedure has not yet carried over into Old Testament studies.

(More conservative translations tend to produce more of a “conjectural translation” as opposed to a conjectural emendation. By “conjectural translation” I mean a translation that is simply one’s best guess at what a text may mean. In many cases, I find these translations no less questionable than a conjectural emendation. I will try to write a blog entry sometime soon on some examples of difficult texts in the Hebrew scriptures and how they are handled by various versions.)

So a significant difference between translations may be their handling of the text, in particular the text of the Hebrew scriptures. I’m going to look at two examples, from two different translations. In each case, the particular text accepted is accepted only by the version cited amongst modern versions.

The first is an added paragraph between 1 Samuel 10:27 and 11:1. In this case we have an explanatory paragraph that comes between Saul becoming king and the situation in Jabesh Gilead which is Saul’s first problem as the leader of Israel. The NRSV alone among the modern translations includes this paragraph as part of the text. It is noted in a footnote in both the NLT and the CEV.

The paragraph reads:

Now Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had been grievously oppressing the Gadites and the Reubenites. He would gouge out the right eye of each of them and would not grant Israel a deliverer. No one was left of the Israelites across the Jordan whose right eye Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had not gouged out. But there were seven thousand men who had escaped from the Ammonites and had entered Jabesh-gilead. (NRSV)

In favor of adding this paragraph to our current text are the following:

  1. It is contained in 4QSama
  2. It could easily have been left out by haplography, with the scribe’s eye scanning from the first Nahash here to the second at the beginning of 11:1
  3. Its use by Josephus indicates that it was likely in the Greek text he was using
  4. Compared to 4QSama the MT is very short. Using both the LXX and this evidence, it is likely that there has been a considerable amount of haplography in the MT.

Against adding this paragraph are the following:

  1. The external evidence for this reading is extremely weak
  2. The explanatory paragraph could well have been a marginal comment that was later incorporated into the text.
  3. The MT is generally the more carefully copied text type. (But note that it was probably not under that type of control when 4QSama was created.

The NRSV shows its tendency here to be nearer the leading edge of modern scholarship than are other versions. I think in this case they made the correct choice, though I’m sympathetic to the considerations that probably led the NLT and CEV teams to place this additional text as a footnote.

A second case involves the text of Isaiah in the Revised English Bible (REB) and the New American Bible (NAB). Isaiah 41:6-7 are transposed in that version to follow Isaiah 40:20. This is a correction supported by no external textual evidence at all. Presumably the change is based on a copying error involving miscopying part of a column, but the mechanism by which the change could occur is a bit obscure. It would have had to occur very early in the text.

In favor of this change:

  1. The apparent logical structure of both chapters is corrected
  2. The presumption that an early error might have been made in copying columns

Against the change:

  1. Complete absence of external evidence to support it
  2. Though the chapter logic is made smoother, it is a common style in Isaiah 40 and following chapters to intrude diatribes against idols into the flow. Following the author’s style, then, would seem to suggest that the passage would be acceptable in its current location.
  3. The process of copying that would result in the present text when starting with the presumed text is somewhat obscure.

Here, though I like the REB generally, I think that the translators’ choice was not the best one.