What is the basis for religious authority?

Moslems view the Arabic Koran as their authority, Jews the Hebrew Bible, Catholics the Latin Vulgate, and Protestants the Greek and Hebrew writings.

FLOWER MOUND, Texas, November 1, 2012 — Moslems look to the Koran for an authoritative guide for their religion; Jews rely on the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament); Roman Catholics seek guidance from the Latin Vulgate; and Protestants find God’s authoritative message in the original Greek and Hebrew writings.  

Moslems recognize the Koran in Arabic only. Any attempt to translate it into English or any other language is frowned upon. While Roman Catholics permit translation of the Latin Vulgate in English, their authority is based on Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, ratified by the Council of Trent in 1547. 

Traditional Protestantism has clung to the idea that the inspired Scriptures are the original Greek and Hebrew Bible. Since the original New Testament manuscripts were written in the language of the common person (Koine Greek), the Bible in the English language is authoritative, as long as the translation reflects the original message correctly, and its principles are to be obeyed. John Wycliffe, the translator of the first complete English Bible in 1382, states the protestant view when he wrote: “The Scriptures should be written and spoken … in all languages and … should rely on the perfection of truth confirming the truths of God”   

While there are concerns about the antiquated language of the King James Version, to many Protestants the major controversy is which original Greek New Testament text is authoritative. The King James Bible is based on Erasmus Greek New Testament (1516), and modern translations are based on the 20th/21st century Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament. How do these Greek Testaments differ? Which one is the best representative of the original revelation?

The first printed Greek New Testament reflected the efforts of an over-anxious printer named Johann Froben. Froben enlisted the Greek scholar Erasmus to edit a Greek New Testament. Erasmus based his work on a few manuscripts with incomplete texts. For the book of Revelation he borrowed a mutilated copy of a Latin manuscript from German humanist and scholar Johann Reuchlin. The result was an incomplete Greek text with a few readings translated from a Latin manuscript back into Greek (Revelation 22:16-21). Nevertheless, once Froben printed Erasmus’s imperfect New Testament, it became a standard for Greek New Testaments. 

Several other texts scattered throughout the New Testament appear to be translations from the Latin. This is probably the case in Acts 9:5–6, where Erasmus’s text is translated into English as, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks, and he, trembling and astonished, said, Lord, What wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him …” (KJV). This reading occurs in the Latin but not in the Greek manuscripts used by Erasmus. In his annotations accompanying the 1516 edition, Erasmus confessed this phrase is not in the Greek codex he used, and yet he included it entirely.

The succeeding editions of Stephanus - 1546, 1549, 1550 and 1551, and then popularized by Beza - are all based upon Erasmus. Erasmus’s text took precedence, and Stephanus’s popular 1550 folio quickly became the standard text for years to come.

In 1831, German professor Karl Lachmann took up the challenge when he published a small edition of the New Testament that dared to abandon the Textus Receptus. 

Two men influenced the church’s ultimate departure from Erasmus’ Greek text used by the King James translators. In 1881, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort published a two-volume work culminating a twenty-eight-year project. They produced a text using the sources and methodologies developed by their predecessors, Lachmann, Griesbach, and Tischendorf. Although Westcott and Hort’s text is considered a critical text, they did very little collating and editing of manuscripts, instead relying heavily on Codex Vaticanus (a Greek manuscript dated circa AD 325) 

Two basic Greek texts exist today, usually identified as (1) the critical text (Nestle-Aland) and (2) the Textus Receptus (Erasmus). The King James Version is based on the Textus Receptus (or Byzantine text). Most other modern translations (NIV, NASB, NEB, NRSV, ESV, etc.) are based on the critical text. 

Protestants will continue to use their English translations, but always with an eye to the original Greek and Hebrew texts. The modern reader will need to decide not only which translation is most accurate and readable, but which Greek text is best. Most Bibles will have an introduction to explain the text used and rationale for their choice. 




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Donald L. Brake, Sr.

Donald L. Brake, Ph.D., is Dean Emeritus of Multnomah Biblical Seminary, past president of Jerusalem University College, Israel; author of A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of The World’s Bestselling Book; Baker Books, 2008 (a 2009 ECPA Christian Book Award finalist), A Visual History of the King James Bible: The Dramatic Tale of the World’s Best-Known Translation, Baker Books, 2011, A Royal Monument of English Literature: The King James Bible 1611, Credo House Publishers, 2011; and antiquarian collector with his extensive collection of rare and significant Bibles and artifacts currently at the Dunham Bible Museum, Houston Baptist University, Houston, Texas.


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