We’ll confine ourselves to the New Testament. All of the English translations of which I am aware use the Masoretic text, which is the traditional Jewish text, for translations of the Old Testament, so the only real issue there is the approach to translation used in each version, an issue I'll address in another article.
You are probably familiar with phrases found in many versions that read “This verse is not found in the oldest and best manuscripts”, “Some manuscripts include…”, or something to that effect. Just as an example, if we read Acts 8:36-38 in the King James Bible or the New King James Bible, we find all three verses. If, however, we read the same passage in the New International Version (NIV)--and I'm using that version simply as an example--we find that verse 37 has been completely removed from the text. In the copy I have in front of me, I find "b" in place of the verse. The lower case b directs you to a note at the bottom that informs the reader that “Some manuscripts include here...”, and then it quotes the verse. Here is how the verse reads in the New King James Bible:
“Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and
said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God’.” (NIV]
Now that verse is pretty important doctrinally. Verses 36 and 38 both speak of baptism (“Look here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”, and “Both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.” [NIV]) Baptism is commanded in scripture (e.g., see Mark 16:16 and Acts 2:38), and Philip had obviously explained the importance of baptism to the Ethiopian eunuch; however, we can’t ignore the words of Jesus in Mark 1:15: “The time has come,’ He said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news [i.e., gospel].” Consider also the following passage from Romans:
“If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God
raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you be-
lieve and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are
saved.” – Romans 10:9-10 [NIV]
Repentance and believing lead to justification--that is clearly evident--so it would seem to be an unwise thing to remove verse 37 from the text unless, of course, there is an unassailable reason to do so. If the verse is found only in “some” manuscripts, then perhaps there is a valid argument for its deletion.
That brings us to the heart of this series of articles. Why is the verse (and many other verses, I should add) found in some manuscripts but not in others? That seems like a fair question. Obviously it’s an important one.
The first thing of which we need to be aware is that not all English translations of the Bible rely on the same underlying Greek texts. If I begin with a different foundational document, then obviously I'm going to produce a different finished product. The first of what we will refer to as the modern versions was the Revised Version, or English Revised Version, which was published in England in the 1800s. It is considered to be the forerunner of nearly all of the more recent translations. (The American Standard Bible [ASV] was produced in the U.S. and was essentially identical to the Revised Version.) The stated intent was to produce a Bible which would be more readable to an English readership of the late 19th century. The King James Bible was approaching 300 years old by that time and the English language (idiom, syntax, etc.) had changed considerably in that time. The idea of updating the language makes sense, because language is constantly changing. (For example, I read somewhere that movies made in Quebec require subtitles so French-speaking people in France can understand the dialogue! I found that amusing, but I can understand the problem. The French spoken in Quebec is largely unchanged from the 16th century whereas the French used in France has undergone considerable change. Whoda thunk? The same is true of the Amish, who speak a 16th century German dialect which is unrecognizable to modern German speakers.)
There was a huge departure from the King James, however, in that a different underlying set of manuscripts were used. The King James Bible had been based on what is known as the Textus Receptus, or the Received Text, which had been compiled from fifteen Greek texts by Desiderious Erasmus, a priest and highly regarded Renaissance scholar, in the early 16th century. (Erasmus once wrote, "When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes." My kind of guy.) The translators of the Revised Version, however, relied on a New Testament manuscript that had been compiled by Edwin Palmer, an English cleric and scholar. The argument was that the Palmer manuscript was superior to the Received Text.
To be continued.