Textual Variants

Most serious readers of the New Testament know that there are thousands of minor textual variants among the hundreds of ancient manuscripts available to us. And most recognize that there are no make-or-break theological issues that hang solely on a variant reading.

My colleague Philip Comfort has written a scholarly (yet very readable) compendium of the major variants called New Testament Text and Translation Commentary (Tyndale House Publishers, 2008). If you have a question about any textual variant, Phil undoubtedly addresses it in this book.

An interesting textual variant is in 1 Cor 13:3. Which of these English translations reflects what Paul originally wrote?
NIV: If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
TNIV: If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship, that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

The difference between the two translations reflects a single letter within a single word in the Greek. The translators have to choose between kauthesomai (“that I may be burned”) and kauchesomai (“that I may boast”). Pretty big difference, though neither variant is central to Paul’s point, which is the need for love.

The Textus Receptus reads kauthesomai, which is followed by KJV, ASV, RSV, NASB, TLB, NEB, NIV, NKJV, ESV, and HCSB.

The UBS Greek text chooses kauchesomai as the more likely original reading. This variant is followed by NRSV, NAB, NLT, TNIV, and NET.

Note the movement within revisions of English translations:
RSV (“to be burned”) to NRSV (“I may boast”). But ESV, which is also a revision of the RSV, retains “to be burned.”
TLB (“burned alive”) to NLT (“I could boast”).
NIV (“to the flames”) to TNIV (“I may boast”).

For the most part, the newest generation of translators have chosen to follow the UBS text. I wouldn’t expect the NKJV to switch, because it is philosophically committed to following the Textus Receptus. But it will be interesting to watch over the next decade to see if NASB, ESV, or HCSB switches to the alternate reading.

Psalm 146:2

On a separate thread, Danielo asks whether the NLT is perhaps too dramatic in the way it translates the last phrase of this verse:

“I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God even with my dying breath.”

He points out that some other translations translate the last phrase “as long as I live.” The challenge for the translator, of course, is to convey in English (or any receptor language) the correct meaning and the full impact of the original text.

In this verse the psalmist presents a couplet that communicates essentially the same message in each of the two lines. The Hebrew text has two expressions to communicate the concept of “all my life,” so the translator must also find two expressions to communicate the concept of “all my life.” The NLT uses “as long as I live” in the first line–as do RSV, NRSV, NET Bible, and ESV. So a different phrase is needed for the second line. Look at the variety in translations:

KJV: while I have my being
ASV: while I have any being
NRSV: all my life long
NIV: as long as I live
NET: as long as I exist
NLT: even with my dying breath

The Hebrew idiom doesn’t literally translate into English as “even with my dying breath,” but neither is it literally “as long as I live” or “while I have my being.” All of the translations are striving to communicate the sense of the idiom, which might be translated literally “with as long as.” The psalmist is expressing the absolute limit of his praise for God. So various translations use various expressions to communicate that same sense of the ultimate.

Back to Danielo’s question: Is the NLT being too dramatic? I don’t think so, since it strives to communicate in English that same sense that “I will praise my God with everything I’ve got for as long as I’ve got anything in me.”