Reading the Greek New Testament with the Highest Resolution: An Interview with Dr. Dirk Jongkind

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Dr. Dirk JongkindIn 2017, Crossway and Cambridge University Press released The Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge—a groundbreaking edition of the Greek New Testament reflecting a decade of research. One of the principal scholars behind the project has now written a short book to provide crucial information about the Tyndale House Edition in particular and the Greek New Testament in general, answering questions such as “What is a textual apparatus and why is one needed?” and “Is the New Testament reliable?” Dirk Jongkind gives guidance for understanding both the biblical text itself and this specific edition so that beginning Greek readers can have clarity and confidence as they engage with the New Testament in the original Greek.

In this interview, Dr. Dirk Jongkind (@DJngKnd) talks about An Introduction to the Greek New Testament: Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge (Crossway, 2019).

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What is the biggest question readers will have about The Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge that this book will help answer?

Dr. Dirk Jongkind: The book is written without assuming prior knowledge about manuscripts, Greek Bibles, or ‘textual criticism.’ So the starting point is this: “What’s all that about manuscripts and variants? Why can’t we simply read the original New Testament that the apostles wrote?”

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Greek New Testament Aims to be ‘World’s Most Accurate’]

Why can’t translators just copy the original Greek texts word for word?

Dr. Dirk Jongkind: One of the things the book does early on is draw a careful distinction between editors, translators, and copyists. A copyist copied—they simply had to get the same words from the mother manuscript onto the pages of the child. A translator takes the words and puts them into another language. However, a translator needs to start from a good and reliable text of the Greek New Testament (and that is where the Tyndale House Edition comes in). An editor (when we think about the Greek New Testament, at least) is someone who compares the old manuscripts, notes the differences between the wording of the texts, and presents the best possible version to people who want to read, study, or translate the Greek New Testament.

[Browse the Biblical Greek language section in the Bible Gateway Store]

Why is it important to have a precise text of the Greek New Testament? Why bother with differences that we can’t even translate into English?

Dr. Dirk Jongkind: The best way to understand this is by means of an analogy. If you have an old digital camera that takes pictures at a size of 2Mb, you’ll have no problem recognizing the faces of the people or the places you visited on your trip to London. But if you’d have taken the same image, the same scenery, with a 25Mb picture, you could zoom in on the details and see things you hadn’t seen before. The resolution would be much better. For detailed study of the text we want to have a text that allows us to see what the author wrote with the highest possible resolution.

[See the Greek New Testaments available for reading on Bible Gateway]

Describe how you and the team at Tyndale House went about making crucial textual decisions for this edition of the Greek text.

Dr. Dirk Jongkind: The first question is, “Do we have a good reason not to print the oldest attested reading?” Sometimes there is a good reason, sometimes there is not. A good reason is if the oldest reading is only found in very few manuscripts or is clearly the result of one of those things copyists habitually do wrong, such as being influenced by the same story in a parallel Gospel. Things get a bit more complicated when the earliest evidence disagrees with one another. We’ve found it very helpful to study the patterns of errors copyists tend to make.

How many manuscripts exist in the world today? Did you use all of them as you prepared the edition?

Dr. Dirk Jongkind: We didn’t use all 5000-plus Greek manuscripts that have been cataloged, but we did use all the early manuscripts and a good selection of the later ones. There are around 400 manuscripts from the ninth century and before, and of these less than 150 contain text from more than 25 verses. Manuscripts can be no more than a fragment, but some contain the whole New Testament. Clearly, just the number of manuscripts does not tell the whole story about the amount of text that’s available. In the actual Greek New Testament we only cite a small selection of the available material.

Because there are textual deviations, does that mean the New Testament of the Bible isn’t reliable?

Dr. Dirk Jongkind: Basic communication works like this. There’s a speaker who has something to say, speaks it out loud, a listener picks these words up, and then forms an idea of what the speaker has said. In the move from speaker to listener all sorts of things can go wrong. There’s ‘noise’ (like in a busy restaurant). Still the message comes across more often than not. We can cope with a bit of noise. Textual variation does not prevent us from listening to what the ‘speaker/author’ said; it’s just part of the noise. Of course, the better we have access to the exact wording, the more precisely we have access to the original intent.

What is a textual apparatus and why is one needed?

Dr. Dirk Jongkind: In a textual apparatus the editor gives the manuscript evidence for and against the wording that’s adopted in the text. It’s only part of the necessary information, as there’s the important bit about what reason the editor had to print a particular text. Since most choices are made simply on the basis of the manuscript evidence, a textual apparatus is a good way to justify many decisions.

What are the most important textual variants in the New Testament?

Dr. Dirk Jongkind: The most important textual variants are marked in the footnotes of our English Bibles. Three of them stand out, as they’re substantial or very important. There’s the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11) that’s found in later manuscripts in John 8, though it’s unlikely to have been part of what John wrote (see John 21:25 for where this story might come from). Then there’s the confusing situation around the end of the Gospel of Mark (16:8). And finally, perhaps even more important than these two, the words of Jesus on the cross (Luke 23:34): “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” These words are missing in quite a number of early manuscripts but are, as far as I can see, part of the original Gospel of Luke.

Is the New Testament reliable, even with the textual deviations found throughout the manuscripts?

Dr. Dirk Jongkind: Apart from some of the big textual variants, most problematic cases have only a limited impact. A different wording may affect the meaning or exegesis of a particular sentence, but once you start looking on the paragraph or chapter level, the textual variant has only limited or even no effect on the chain of thought or the truths taught (bearing in mind what we said about wanting a high resolution, of course). Our biggest problem in understanding the New Testament is not the existence of those pesky textual variants, rather it’s the problem that the sum total of what the New Testament teaches is so hard to grasp and absorb. Sometimes we have problems in understanding the grammar or the meaning of a word. And sometimes the ideas are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16).


Bio: Dirk Jongkind (PhD, Cambridge University) is the academic vice principal and senior research fellow in New Testament text and language at Tyndale House, Cambridge. He is one of the principal scholars behind An Introduction to the Greek New Testament: Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge and serves on the editorial board of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament.

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