Modern Bible Translations (& Ellen G. White)
In the course of researching Bible translations, I’ve frequently been confronted by the claim that two men, Brook Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort, produced a critical Greek New Testament that was designed to discredit the Textus Receptus and the King James Version (KJV), as well as to corrupt all subsequent translations.
My research into this subject thus far has led to nothing definitive to confirm this claim; on the contrary, the evidence compels me to write a few words in response. Though there’s legitimate reason to be cautious of many newer translations, the sweeping charges sometimes brought against Westcott and Hort seem (often) to be borrowed from Protestant groups without properly accounting for the Spirit of Prophecy example. Hence, I believe there’s need for Adventists to reflect carefully upon the example of Mrs. White before condemning wholesale any Bible simply because it is associated with Westcott and Hort.
W. C. White testified that his mother, Ellen G. White, owned and read widely from the translations available up until her death in 1915.[i] Indeed, she made extensive use of new translations in her writings; for example, following the publication of the complete English Revised Version (RV) in 1885, the RV was widely quoted in her writings.[ii]
What many Adventists are overlooking is the fact that the RV was the first of the modern critical translations published following the publication of Westcott’s and Hort’s The New Testament in the Original Greek in 1881. The RV was translated by a committee of scholars who, rather than relying upon the Textus Receptus used by the KJV, chose to consult widely from the then-available Greek manuscripts and critical New Testament texts.[iii] They didn’t rely upon any single text, but rather discussed discrepancies in the manuscripts as they came up and voted corporately upon which text to follow in each case.[iv]
Both Westcott and Hort were members of the NT translation committee that produced the RV.[v] Their participation in the project, along with their experience in textual criticism, was heralded in a republished article in the Adventist publication Review and Herald.[vi] Early manuscripts of their critical NT were circulated among the RV committee members for consultation during the translation process.[vii] The RV committee certainly didn’t base their translation of the NT upon the text of Westcott and Hort alone; the decisions were corporately made after general discussion,[viii] and not a few of the other committee members, though respectful of the NT produced by Westcott and Hort, disagreed with it on numerous points.[ix] However, the text and recommendations of Westcott and Hort,[x] along with critical text of Samuel Prideaux Tregelles,[xi] are generally considered to be central to the translation of the RV.
Mrs. White received her first copy of the Revised Version as a gift from her son W. C. White, and she began to use the new Bible in her writings.[xii] The RV is quoted throughout the Testimonies, the Conflict of the Ages series, Steps to Christ, and countless other classic Spirit of Prophecy works. W. C. White wrote, “I do not know of anything in the E. G. White writings, nor can I remember of anything in Sister White’s conversations, that would intimate that she felt that there was any evil in the use of the Revised Version. . .”[xiii]
The American Revised Version (ARV) was similarly accepted. Published in 1901, the ARV differed only subtly from the RV; in general it follows the textual form of the RV, albeit with occasional alterations. Westcott and Hort did not serve on the ARV committee, but the ARV was based upon the same critical texts as the RV with only minor variations.[xiv] Mrs. White quoted the ARV in preference to the old KJV no fewer than 55 times in the book Ministry of Healing alone. Again W. C. White affirmed that he could not recall his mother ever speaking ill of the ARV.[xv]
In the book Education, Mrs. White used a quotation from the 1902 Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible.[xvi] Rotherham chose to adopt the text of Westcott and Hort as the foundation for his New Testament translation.[xvii] This quotation, while unique among Mrs. White’s writings, is nonetheless significant because it is based as directly as is possible upon the critical text of Westcott and Hort. Very few Bibles published were based solely upon the Westcott and Hort text; generally the Bibles that have employed it did so in conjunction with at least one other critical NT text. That the Rotherham Bible is quoted at all in the Spirit of Prophecy is a significant point, revealing that Mrs. White was certainly not opposed to reading and quoting from such Bibles.
Mrs. White did urge caution in preaching from newer versions from the pulpit, but it was because “the use of different wording brought perplexity to the older members of the congregation.”[xviii] She never urged that the new versions should be avoided due to theological error.
On the contrary, even following the publication of the controversial Westcott and Hort critical NT in 1881 and the RV in 1885, she wrote in 1899, “God had faithful witnesses to whom He committed the truth, and who preserved the Word of God. The manuscripts of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures have been preserved through the ages by a miracle of God.”[xix] Until the day of her death in 1915, Mrs. White never uttered a word of condemnation toward any Biblical text, whether based upon the Textus Receptus or more recent critical texts.
Much more could be said upon this subject, but even this brief treatment highlights several practical principles for Seventh-day Adventists:
- First, Mrs. White made regular use of Bible translations that utilized critical texts based upon a wide range of manuscripts, including those of Western and Alexandrian origin.
- Second, Mrs White used Bibles influenced by Westcott and Hort without comment.
- Third, Mrs. White was very sensitive to how her use of a specific translation would be received, and used versions that would be most familiar and effective in reaching her audience.
- Finally, Mrs. White made use of multiple Bible translations in her ministry, selecting the appropriate Bible to most clearly communicated the truth
In sum, Mrs. White didn’t seem as concerned with the text of Westcott and Hort as many Adventists are today. Her personal example was to make judicious use of the Bibles available in her day. Today, however, many Adventists are challenging that position and condemning any version based on manuscripts other than the Textus Receptus. Their concern is understandable; translator bias and the generally liberal atmosphere of modern Christianity have exerted an influence upon modern translation that must be carefully guarded against. However, there does not seem to be any basis within the Spirit of Prophecy for the frequent aversion of anything associated with Westcott and Hort. That they were theologically liberal is undeniable; that their text was flawed is certain, and clearly attested to by scholarship in their day and ours. Nonetheless, Mrs. White did not see their work to be so flawed as to warrant censure, and she adopted and used it as a tool in her ministry.
[i] Arthur L. White, The E. G. White Counsel on Versions of the Bible, p. 6
[ii] One example of many is found in The Great Controversy p. 269
[iii] Matthew Brown Riddle, The Story of the Revised New Testament, American Standard Edition, p. 29-30
[iv] Charles John Ellicott, Addresses on the Revised Version of the Holy Scripture, p. 27
[v] Review and Herald, June 28, 1881, p. 9
[vi] Charles John Ellicott, Addresses on the Revised Version of the Holy Scripture, p. 27
[vii] Ibid, p. 56-57, 63
[viii] Ibid, p. 61, 64
[ix] Matthew Brown Riddle, The Story of the Revised New Testament, American Standard Edition, p. 30, 31
[x] Ibid, p. 30
[xi] A. Westcott, preface to The Gospel According to St. John Vol I, by Brook Foss Westcott, p. vii-viii
[xii] Arthur L. White, The E. G. White Counsel on Versions of the Bible, p. 7
[xiii] Ibid, p. 7
[xiv] Matthew Brown Riddle, The Story of the Revised New Testament, American Standard Edition, p. 29-31
[xv] Arthur L. White, The E. G. White Counsel on Versions of the Bible, p. 7
[xvi] Ellen G. White, Education, p. 69
[xvii] Joseph Bryant Rotherham, Introduction to The Emphasized Bible, p. 21
[xviii] Arthur L. White, The E. G. White Counsel on Versions of the Bible, p. 7
[xix] Ellen G. White, Letter 32, 1899