The Struggle for a More Accurate Bible Text
WHEN you pick up a Bible today, can you be confident that the words you are reading are the very words that were written by the apostles Matthew, John, Paul and the other Bible writers of nearly 2,000 years ago?
The eminent 19th-century Bible scholar Dr. F. J. A. Hort thought so. Concerning the Christian Greek Scriptures, he wrote: “The amount of what can in any sense be called substantial variation is but a small fraction . . . and can hardly form more than a thousandth part of the entire text.” Additional manuscript discoveries and continual research since then have confirmed the fact that we have a generally accurate Bible text.
However, were you aware that a long battle took place to obtain such an accurate text? One individual who was involved in this was John James Wetstein (1693-1754). Let us briefly consider his part in the struggle for a more accurate Bible text. No doubt it will help to sharpen our appreciation for the accuracy with which the Bible has come down to us.
Wetstein was born in Basel, Switzerland. He attended the university there and decided to study theology. He spent long hours in the university library, fascinated by its Bible manuscripts. But Wetstein noticed that the manuscripts contained different readings and so decided to base his thesis for appointment as a minister on this subject.
In the thesis, he attacked those who claimed that any alteration made to the existing text of the Christian Greek Scriptures (called the Received Text) was tampering with the Word of God. Wetstein argued that, from the different manuscripts in existence, to find the text closest to the original would increase the authority of God’s Word, not detract from it.
Wetstein asked for time to travel before taking up an appointment as a minister. In this way he hoped to examine as many Bible manuscripts as possible. So in 1714 he set out, visiting Zurich, Geneva, Paris, London, Oxford, Cambridge, Leiden and Heidelberg. He made full collations (that is, a critical comparison, recording the differences), often for the first time, of the most outstanding Greek and Latin manuscripts of the Bible.
Research Causes Problems
While he was examining the Alexandrine Manuscript in London (a Greek manuscript dating from the fifth century C.E., which contains most of the Bible), Wetstein made a startling discovery. Up till that time, according to the King James Version (1611), 1 Timothy 3:16 was rendered: “God was manifest in the flesh.” This rendering was reflected in most other Bibles in use.
However, Wetstein noticed that the Greek word translated “God,” which was abbreviated to ΘC, had originally looked like the Greek word OC, which means “who.” But a horizontal stroke showing through faintly from the other side of the vellum page, and the addition by a later hand of a line across the top, had turned the word OC (“who”) into the contraction ΘC (“God”). [For Greek orthography see bound volume]
With many other manuscripts now confirming Wetstein’s reading, accurate modern translations read: “He was made manifest in flesh,” or “He who . . . ,” referring to Jesus Christ. (American Standard, Moffatt, Weymouth, Spencer, The New English Bible) But Wetstein was charged with tampering with the text and speaking against the doctrine of the Trinity, and this was viewed as heretical.
Something else added to Wetstein’s being suspected of heresy. At 1 John 5:7, 8, some existing translations read: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.” (AV) But Wetstein confirmed that the Trinitarian words we have italicized had been added to later manuscripts; they were not contained in any of the early Greek manuscripts he had examined.
The suspicions of heresy were fanned by friends who were jealous of his rising fame and who soon became his enemies. Wetstein did not help matters by his forthright criticisms of those who had made mistakes in their work and by his often hasty and passionate defense of his own research.
Publication of New Text Hindered
Nevertheless, Wetstein proposed a new edition of the Christian Greek Scriptures with variant readings based on his research. News of this was greeted with considerable alarm. In 1729 complaints were put before the Diet of the Swiss Reformed Church concerning his proposal to issue a Greek text with “dangerous innovations.”
As a result, the Basel Town Council suspended Wetstein from his office of deacon at the parish of St. Leonhard’s and instructed the Ecclesiastical Committee to examine him. Rigid, narrow-minded attitudes and dogmatic prejudice prevailed, made worse by lack of tact and courtesy and short tempers on both sides. Wetstein argued that his new book could not be censured before it had been seen. Yet he flatly refused to supply proof sheets because he felt they would not be fairly considered.
Wetstein was also questioned by the Swiss authorities about his preaching and doctrine. Why? Well, his continual examination of Bible manuscripts had led him to conclusions that differed considerably from commonly accepted beliefs.
For example, he maintained that after death souls are insensible, sleeping until the resurrection. As to the commonly accepted doctrine of the Trinity, a witness recounted to the authorities that his nephew had received from Wetstein anti-Trinitarian instruction in the form of a “parable.” In it Wetstein had likened the relationship of God, Christ and the holy spirit to the “relation of master, son and servant in a household.” With the help of rough and often ambiguous notes made by some of his students, Wetstein was condemned by the Swiss authorities and deprived of his office of deacon.
Leaving Basel, Wetstein moved to Amsterdam where a relative of his had a printing firm. In 1730 Wetstein published anonymously his Prolegomena, which he had proposed would accompany his new edition of the Christian Greek Scriptures. But most scholars recognized that he alone could have been responsible for such an advanced scholarly work.
In his Prolegomena Wetstein presented evidence to support the following conclusions: The generally accepted Received Text was deficient, and the Alexandrine Manuscript should be the basis for a new one; the early Christian Bible writers used the language of the common people, and every means available should be utilized to make clear their words; such increased light would help forward the cause of true religion, not hinder it.
Wetstein then applied for a teaching post in the seminary of the Remonstrant Church at Amsterdam. He was found suitable on the condition that he clear his name of the charge of heresy. Returning to Basel in 1731, it took him 18 months to get the decision reversed. When he went back to Amsterdam, his prospective appointment caused quite a controversy. However, with care and tact this was settled by the town council, but Wetstein had to agree to several conditions, including abandoning the publication of his Greek text of the Scriptures.
Nevertheless, for 18 years Wetstein continued to gather material for his main goal in life—publishing that Greek text. Finally, despite the ban placed on him, he published his Greek text and notes in two large volumes in 1751/52. Two years later he died.
Wetstein’s work as a textual critic* has long been overtaken by continual progress, so that the accurate text he dreamed about is now a reality. It is not shaped by preconceived ideas and doctrines, but it is constructed on sound textual principles. So, today, when you pick up any Bible that makes use of that Greek text, you can be confident that it has as basis a text that truly presents Christian teachings. But only by studying it carefully will you come to have the same respect for it that Wetstein had, and be convinced that it is the ultimate authority, inspired by Jehovah God.
A textual critic is one who makes a comparison of early manuscripts of the Bible in order to determine the original reading; his work makes possible more accurate translations of the Bible.