Book Review: Early Manuscripts & Modern Translations Of The New Testament

Early Manuscripts & Modern Translations Of The New Testament, by Philip Wesley Comfort

It would be of greater comfort and enjoyment for the reader of this book (mercifully only about 220 pages long), if the writer actually had a clue about what he was talking about instead of making a biased and intellectually dishonest attempt to promote gnostic-influenced Greek manuscripts on account of Egypt’s dry climate. Unfortunately, this book is not really about Greek manuscripts or modern translations in general, or it would be a vastly better book. Instead, it is about a select group of “Alexandrian” and “Western” texts that form the basis of a small group of translations, like the ASV, RSV, NASB, NIV, TEV, NRSV, NEB, and NJB, with the authors falsely states are the most significant 20th century translations (how about the NKJV?).

The book is organized in four parts, and it does not take the reader long to be disappointed if they are interested in manuscripts that are not Alexandrine or “Western” in nature, as these are the only subjects deemed worthy by the author’s biased interest. First is an introduction to the early New Testament Papyrus Manuscripts, where the author basically disclaims any interest in non-Egyptian manuscripts (making his book’s title rather dishonest). A description of the early (and almost entirely Egyptian) NT manuscripts follows, which is the most interesting part of the book. Then comes a lengthy and rather tedious examination of the effect (or lack thereof) of the Gnostic-influenced Egyptian papyrus manuscripts on a selected set of Alexandrian text-based translations. Far too much attention is paid in these pages to one particular manuscript, p46, of the Chester Beatty collection. Finally there are some tedious closing observations, when the author makes some unworthy requests of what kind of Bible translation he would like to see in light of his favorite gnostic manuscripts.

This book is offensive on an intellectual level, in the fact that it completely lacks intellectual honesty. There are at least four valuable sources for New Testament textual studies, and this book ignores two of the. The fact that the book praises the Alexandrian texts while knowing that they were influenced by Gnostic groups (of which the author says, idiotically, that the Gnostics had great fidelity for the texts, and so the fact that the Egyptian texts were found often from gnostic groups ought to make no difference), and that the book occasionally credits the even less faithful “Western” texts that show massive amounts of scribal freedom with the biblical word, is marked contrast with how the author shabbily treats the other two sources of biblical knowledge.

For one, the author pretty much ignores the KJV, completely ignores the NKJV, and largely ignores the Byzantine Majority text on which these translations are based, and while the author occasionally makes sound criticisms of the Textus Receptus, the fact that the author’s approach is basically to insult the Byzantine text’s scribes for tampering with the Bible while praising gnostic scribes is hardly praiseworthy or remotely balanced. One could have done justice to the basic worthiness of the Majority text while also fairly reflecting on the limitations and weaknesses of the Textus Receptus, especially regarding the bogus Johannine pericope of 1 John 5:7. The author, though, takes no sensible approach, and basically decided to ignore the Majority-text completely.

His treatment of the Aramaic is worse. Like most so-called ‘scholars’ of the Greek New Testament, his knowledge of the Aramaic is very slight. He conflates the Syriac (a later translation from Alexandrian Greek) with the Peshitta, completely ignores its longevity from the textual record, and then libels the Aramaic by blaming it for the existence of another so-called Johannine pericope within most Bibles, the incident of the adulteress caught in the act [1]. In fact, I have a copy of the Aramaic-English New Testament on my lap as I write this, and the translator notes that the incident is entirely lacking from either the Peshitta or the Khabouris Codex, the earliest Aramaic records of scripture. Instead, the story itself came from later Greek manuscripts, for whatever reasons [2]. By blaming the Aramaic authors for the story of the woman in adultery, the author libels an Aramaic textual tradition of great antiquity and faithfulness that he really does not understand even in a superficial way.

This book is a major disappointment. Its extreme bias in the Greek manuscripts it considers worthwhile, its shabby treatment of those it does not, and its often bogus and highly slanted emendations of the text (usually shortening) that result from its unwarranted and mistaken conclusions make this book valuable only to those members of Comfort’s echo chamber who already regard the Alexandrian texts as a new textus receptus. For those who do not consider the gnostic-influenced papyrus manuscripts touted by Comfort as anything really all that special, or any reason to trump other, more reliable witnesses to scripture (like the Aramaic or the Majority Text), this book has almost nothing to offer except a reminder that even scholars can be really stupid when it comes to understanding biblical texts. This book is proof of that in spades.


[2] I myself, as in note [1] above, see no doctrinal issues with the story as being present, except that it tends to support antinomian feelings about not being tough on adulterers, though there are reasonable textual reasons for not including the story within the Bible and relegating them, with an explanatory story of how they came to be present in most Bibles, to a footnote. The AENT, in the appendix on the “Woman of John 8” on pages 1050-1052, has a very potent pro-law standard that states the “setup” described in John 8, blaming the story for a great deal of lax Christian morals as well as anti-Semitic feeling for being hostile to moralistic and “legalistic” Pharisees. Again, my article cited in [1] presents an alternate view.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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