I don’t necessarily accept the work of the 1881 Revision Committee that produced the English Revised Version of the Scriptures. I think there was a lot of faddish academics involved and the text that was produced was not of a high caliber at all, setting aside for a moment the Greek text used. I wanted to open this article with that disclaimer.
I was more or less surfing through Google Books and I happened upon this book by Philip Schaff, the author of the multi-volume History of the Christian Church that most pastors got on discount to fill their bookshelves and haven’t cracked since. From 1870 until his death, Schaff was a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and he served as the president of the committee that oversaw the American Standard Version (although he died before it was finished).
The book is titled A Companion to the Greek Testament and the English Version, published in 1883. This was two years after the publication of the RV New Testament, and two years before the Old Testament was published. The book is, in fact, dedicated to the members of the American committee. He wrote:
I dedicate this book to my brother-Revisers as a memorial of the many happy days we spent together, from month to month and year to year, in the noble work of improving the English version of the Word of God.
It is truly a fascinating book because it is published at the same time as John William Burgon was publishing Revision Revised but shows a very different perspective on the entire process of revision. But that is a topic for another post.
What struck me as intriguing about A Companion to the Greek Testament and the English Version was that Schaff demonstrates at great length that, in his words:
It may well be said, without the least disparagement of the merits of the Revising Committees, that the great majority of the changes of text and version (probably more than four fifths) which they finally adopted had been anticipated by previous translators and commentators, and had become the common property of biblical scholars before the year 1870. But these improvements were scattered among many books, and lacked public recognition. They had literary worth, but no ecclesiastical authority. They were the work of individuals, not of the Church. (p 368)
Schaff goes on to say that essentially the Revision Committee felt they were under obligation to the Church at large to consider and evaluate not only the King James Version but also all of the many efforts to do translation since. They felt it was necessary because:
The subject of an authoritative revision was discussed with great ability by W. Selwyn (1856), Trench (1858), Alford, Ellicott, Lightfoot, and many others. Different opinions prevailed as to the extent of the changes, but the vast majority deprecated a new version, and desired simply such a revision of the time-honored old version as would purge it of acknowledged errors and blemishes, conform it more fully to the original Greek and Hebrew, adapt it to the language and scholarship of the present age, and be a new bond of union and strength among all English-speaking churches. (p 369)
We could argue endlessly about whether and to what extent the revision committee accomplished any of the three goals that Schaff outlines, but notice how he keeps talking about all the difference work that preceded the Revision Committee. It is a much bigger picture than just Westcott and Hort gathering a committee to carry out a translation of their Greek text. Here is the list that Schaff provides:
The number of English versions is much larger, and began as early as the last century with Campbell (the Gospels, 1788), Macknight (the Epistles, 1795), Archbishop Newcome (1796). From the present century we have several translations of widely differing merits, by Charles Thomson (1808), John Bellamy (1818), Noah Webster (New Haven, 1833), Nathan Hale (Boston, 1836, from Griesbaeh’s text), Granville Penn (London, 1836), Edgar Taylor (London, 1840), Andrews Norton (the Gospels, Boston, 1855), Robert Young (Edinburgh, 1863, very literal), Samuel Sharpe (1840, 6th ed..London, 1870, from Griesbaeh’s text), L. A. Sawyer (Boston, 1858), J. Nelson Darby (published anonymously, London,2d ed. 1S72),T.S.Green (London, 1865), G. R. Noyes (Professor in Harvard University, Boston, 1869; 4th ed. 1S70, published by the American Unitarian Association; a very good translation from the eighth edition of Tischendorf in Matthew, Mark, and part of Luke; Dr. Ezra Abbot added a list of Tischendorf’s readings from Luke xviii. 10 to John vi. 2, 3, and critically revised the proofs), Alford (London, 1869), Joseph B.Rotherham (London, 1872, text of Tregelles), Samuel Davidson (prepared at the suggestion of Tischendorf from his last Greek text, London, 1875), John Brown McClellan (the Gospels, London, 1875, on the basis of the Authorized Version, but with a “critically revised” text), the “Revised English Bible,” prepared by four English divines (London, 1877), the Gospel of John and the Pauline Epistles, by Five Anglican Clergymen (Dean Henry Alford, Bishop George Moberly, Rev. William Gh Humphry, Bishop Chas. J. Ellicott, and Dr. John Barrow, 1857,1S61).
Nor were these attempts confined to individuals. “The American Bible Union,” a Baptist association in America, spent for nearly twenty years a vast amount of money, zeal, and labor on an improved version, and published the New Testament in full (second revision, New York and London, 1869, with “immerse,” “immersion,” and “John the Immerser”), and the Old Testament in part (with learned comments, the best of them by Dr. Conant, on Job, Psalms, and Proverbs). Last, though not least, we must mention The Variorum Bible for Bible Teachers, prepared by five Anglican scholars (T. K. Cheyne, E. L. Clarke, S. R. Driver, Alfred Goodwin, and W. Sanday), and pnblished by Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, 1880 (in very small print); it contains a judicious selection of various readings and renderings from the best critical and exegetical authorities—we may say a full apparatus for the reader of the English Version. (pp 366-367)
I can honestly say that I have not heard of most of these translations. There are a few (such as Daniel Webster’s) which I have heard of, but I was blown away. It never occurred to me that the Baptists might have spent twenty years attempting to develop a superior translation more in keeping with their own doctrines. (I looked into this and it seems that the Bible Union was frustrated with using a Bible translated by Anglicans and which did not translate terms like baptize and congregation more literally.)
Why present all of this?
I think that it is interesting that most of the people who write for or against the work of Westcott and Hort zone in on a few writers. Usually we talk about John William Burgon or F.H.A. Scrivener, and occasionally people read a biography or a commentary that deals with Bishop Westcott.
Just how much do we know about the other people involved? Philip Schaff was no slouch. After all, he was born in Sweden, studied all over Europe and taught in the United States (learning English as a third language) for nearly fifty years. How was it then that I had to happen upon a book like this? I’ve never encountered his name in any reading on the issue. Maybe I just missed it.
More than anything, I’m thinking that perhaps we should expand our reading a bit and look beyond the big names of the debate. Burgon, Scrivener, Westcott and Hort get thrown around an awful lot but my opinion is that these kinds of things don’t occur in a vacuum. There were other intelligent, spiritually discerning individuals in the mix. Did they necessarily make the right decisions or have the right beliefs? I leave that for you to think about.