Acts 19:20: A Test Case for Translation Evaluation

NOTE:This article is reprinted with permission from As I See It, a monthly electronic magazine compiled and edited by Doug Kutilek. AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com.

by Doug Kutilek

Recognizing the precariousness of claiming inspiration, inerrancy or infallibility for an English translation, even the KJV, many in the KJV-only camp will declare that they believe in the perfect inspiration and preservation, not of the English version, but of the original language texts behind that version. In short, perfection in text is affirmed for the Greek “Textus Receptus” and the Hebrew “Masoretic Text” (now including vowel points and all). Of course, this view conveniently ignores the troubling questions: ”Which TR edition?” (since no two are identical) and “Which Masoretic text edition?” (no two being letter-perfect alike). But we will leave that matter aside in this discussion.

At any rate, accepting what these men affirm in principle, let us examine how it plays out in practice.

Two Biblical texts are tailor-made for our investigation, Acts 19:20 for the Greek and Isaiah 44:8 for the Hebrew. We shall address the former, and reserve the latter for another day.

In Acts 19:20, the Textus Receptus editions individually and collectively read “ho logos tou kuriou,” that is “the word of the Lord.” F. H. A. Scrivener, in his The New Testament in Greek According to the Text Adopted in the Authorized Version (Cambridge: University Press, 1881) provides indispensable assistance at this point. Scrivener’s work was a reconstruction of the presumptive Greek text followed by the KJV translators (which had never before been put in print). Scrivener made a meticulous examination of printed Greek texts extant as of 1611: the Complutensian Polyglott Greek text (1514), all 5 editions by Erasmus (1516, 1519, 1522, 1527, 1534), the texts of Aldus (1518), Colinaeus (1534), the four Stephanus editions (1546, 1549, 1550, 1551), the Antwerp Polyglott Greek (1572), and all five of Beza’s editions (1560, 1565, 1582, 1589, 1598) [of course, the Elzevir editions of 1624, 1633 and 1641 are irrelevant at this point, since they came after the KJV, though they apparently read the same at Acts 19:20 as all the other editions mentioned]. Scrivener’s labors led him to conclude that the 1598 Beza edition (5th) of the Greek NT was that most closely followed by the KJV men. However, Scrivener located some 250 places in the NT where that Greek text was not followed. In 190 of these, the reading of one of the other Textus Receptus editions was apparently followed. In an appendix, Scrivener notes the precise locations and editions where the KJV departs from Beza’s 1598 for some other TR edition (pp. 648-655). Acts 19:20 is not one of the places listed since all TR editions agreed in reading “the word of the Lord” like the Beza 1598 edition. That is established fact.

However, in an additional list, Scrivener gives 60 readings where the KJV followed NO printed Greek text available to them, and therefore departed from all TR editions. The KJV’s preferred authority in these places? The Latin Vulgate! And among these 60 non-TR readings is Acts 19:20, for here, the KJV, against all TR editions, presupposes a Greek reading “ho logos tou theou,” that is, “the word of God.” (Let it be noted, the Trinitarian Bible Society 1980 reprint of Scrivener’s text behind the KJV NT omits a number of features of Scrivener’s edition, including this important appendix showing KJV departs from the 1598, and from all TR editions. It does, however, read as Scrivener’s text, i.e. “the word of the Lord”).

The reading “the word of the Lord” found in all TR editions is also the reading of the great majority of extant Greek manuscripts (there is a minor question of word order that we may here bypass), and as a consequence it is the reading in The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text, edited by Zane C. Hodges and Arthur L. Farstad (Nelson, 1985. 2nd edition). Likewise reads The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform, edited by Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont (Chilton Book Publishing, 2005). Further, all the prominent textual critics of the 19th century agree that the Textus Receptus reading here is right—, Griesbach, Scholz, Lachman, Tischendorf, Tregelles, Alford, Wordsworth and even Westcott and Hort. So agree 20th century text-editors as well—Nestle, Aland, the UBS committees, et al.

The evidence supporting the Latin Vulgate reading adopted by the KJV at Acts 19:20 is exceedingly thin—reading “word of God” are Greek manuscripts E (which has a parallel Latin text; 6th century AD), 88 (12th), and 436 (11th). These alone are cited in the UBS Greek NT editions 2-4 (recent Nestle editions do not address the variant). Alford’s 19th century The Greek Testament (vol. II, p. 215) mentions also manuscripts 21 (13th), 73 (11th), and 106-2 (11th); with the late 19th century change in manuscript numbering schemes (after Alford’s time) there may be some overlap with the UBS listing, i.e., Alford’s numbers may refer to some of the same manuscripts as in the UBS text. At any rate, the Greek evidence in support is meager.

There is some small support for the minority Greek in the ancient versions (but none from the fathers). As stated, the Vulgate reading is “God” (though some manuscripts, notably Amiatinus, often considered the best, read “Lord”). [It is worth noting here that Erasmus, who often altered his Greek text to conform it to the Latin Vulgate, did not do so at Acts 19:20].

Likewise most of the “Old Latin” manuscripts read “God”: ar (9th); c (12th/13th); e (6th); gig (13th); and p (13th), ph (12th), ro (10th), and w (14th/15th). It is almost certain that some at least of these are not pure “Old Latin” manuscripts, but mixtures of Old Latin and Vulgate readings. (Manuscript D [6th century], its parallel Old Latin version “d”, as well as the Peshitta Syriac (5th) read “he pistis tou theou,” i.e., “the faith of God,” so in a sense, they also support the reading “God,” while abandoning the reading “the word.”)

Elsewhere among the versions, besides the Latin, some Coptic manuscripts may read “God” (though the authorities differ—the 3rd and 4th UBS editions are at odds on this point). Similarly, the Armenian version may or may not read “God” (again the UBS editions differ on the evidence).

But wherever the Coptic and Armenian evidence actually falls, it is an unalloyed fact: the Textus Receptus, in all its editions, reads “the word of the Lord.” Yet, the KJV, following the Latin instead of the Greek, reads “the word of God.”

But, some will object—“the KJV wasn’t the first or the only English version to abandon the Greek for the Latin here.” Indeed, that assertion is correct. Wycliffe’s version, made from the Vulgate, naturally reads “God” with the Vulgate. But so too did Tyndale (in all three editions) and the Great Bible (1539), the Geneva (1557, 1560), the Bishops’ (1568) and the Rheims (1582—made from the Vulgate). Indeed, I could find no English translation before the KJV that read “Lord” instead of “God.” Yet, that does not acquit the KJV translators. As translators, they were to work from the original language texts, and to revise previous versions on the basis of the Greek. The very first rule given to them by the King was: “The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the Truth of the original will permit.” The standard, then, was the “truth of the original,” not previous English versions of whatever sort. The translators were under solemn obligation to revise any places where the Bishops Bible did not conform to the truth of the original, and here, indeed, they failed in their duty.

Furthermore, it was not as if the KJV translators had no good precedent to follow regarding Acts 19:20. Luther’s 1534 and 1545 editions followed the Greek, not the Latin, and read “Herrn” (Lord). Likewise, the Reina (1569) and Reina-Valera—both accessible to the KJV men—also read “Senor” (Lord). And Calvin, in his influential commentary on Acts also read “Lord.” So, the KJV men, had they followed the Greek and these guides, would have fulfilled the King’s requirement at Acts 19:20, but they abandoned the original Greek for the Vulgate Latin instead.

But, some will object further, “This is such a small point. The terms ’the word of the Lord’ and ‘the word of God’ are synonymous. The difference is insignificant.” And to this we readily agree. In actual form, if the words “Lord” and “God” were abbreviated in the Greek manuscripts (as they commonly were), the difference amounts to a single letter. Not only so, there is indeed no difference in meaning (as is true with most of the differences that exist between the TR and modern critical texts). But that is not the issue. The issue is: for those who profess the TR (whatever edition) as their perfectly preserved and final authority, why won’t they admit that the KJV here got it wrong??? The only explanation I can discover is that these who claim to believe the TR is the final authority, in reality believe that claim only as far as the TR agrees with the KJV, but where the two part company, it is the KJV and not the Greek text which is their real final authority. In essence, they agree with the absurd proposition of Peter S. Ruckman, Sr., that the Greek should be “corrected to conform to the English.” Professed TR-onlyism ultimately and all but invariably resolves itself into KJV-onlyism in practice.

In Romania, a zealous but mis-guided American missionary recently launched and carried through a project purporting to translate the Textus Receptus into Romanian, since, it was assumed, no such translation existed (actually, such has existed since 1648!). But in that new Romanian version, when faced with the dilemma of the readings at Acts 19:20, where the TR goes one way and the KJV goes the other, which do you suppose was followed? Right—the KJV. Here, and in numerous other places where the KJV departs from the TR, it is the Greek that is forced to yield place to the English (I am preparing an extended expose of this unfortunate enterprise for a later As I See It).

So then, judging from the treatment of Acts 19:20 at the hands of professed “TR-only” men, we must conclude that though they profess to believe in a perfect Greek text; in practice, they actually believe in a perfect English translation, superior to even the best Greek text. This is a very substantial and serious error.

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