Thursday, June 09, 2011

Review of SBL Greek New Testament

The publication of The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition (hereafter SBLGNT) is indeed significant. It represents a considerable amount of work, and the editor, ETC blogger Michael Holmes, has clearly spent a lot of time on a large range of textual decisions.

Although it is hard to prove motivation, I am personally confident that the main reason for SBL’s support of this edition is the question of copyright and the desire to have a modern critical edition of the GNT which can circulate freely on the web. This is manifest not only from the second paragraph of the Preface, but also from the choice of base editions: Nestle-Aland, which, though under copyright, would have been an ideal edition to include, has been largely excluded, while the editions of Westcott and Hort (WH), Tregelles (Treg), Goodrich and Lukaszewski (NIV), and Robinson and Pierpont (RP) have formed the main basis for textual comparison.

What is therefore so striking to me is how much the SBLGNT actually resembles NA27 rather than differs from it. Where it differs the most is in text-critical decisions, where Holmes has obviously invested a lot of work. This is of course the most important area in which to differ. However, in most other matters it is very close to NA27.

The text was produced initially through conforming WH’s edition to the ‘orthographic standards of the SBLGNT’ (p. xi), which turn happen to be those of BDAG (p. xii). Now BDAG claims that its ‘principal New Testament textual base is Nestle-Aland27’ (BDAG, p. x), and affirms a relationship to Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch (Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 1988) edited by Kurt and Barbara Aland (BDAG, p. vii). So in essence the base text that was used was a version of WH with more or less NA27’s spelling, and of course we must remember that WH and NA27 do have a historical relationship, through the use of WH by Eberhard Nestle.

Another sign of the closeness of SBLGNT and NA27 is the use of Richard J. Goodrich and Albert L. Lukaszewski, A Reader’s Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003). This text is essentially that of NA27, altered in 231 places where it is believed that the NIV editors made a different decision.

Holmes gives a helpful table of agreements and disagreements on p. xii (adapted):

SBL-WH 6,049
SBL-Treg 5,701
SBL-NIV 6,312
SBL-RP 969

SBL-WH 879
SBL-Treg 1,227
SBL-RP 5,959

Thus the relationship between SBLGNT and ‘NIV’ (Goodrich and Lukaszewski) is especially close.

Verse division follows NA27; paragraphing follows NRSV. ‘Punctuation generally follows that of Westcott and Hort. Regular exceptions include instances where a textual decision of the adoption of NRSV paragraphing required a corresponding change in punctuation. … Conflicts between NRSV paragraphing and Westcott and Hort punctuation have been resolved on a contextual basis.’ (p. xiv).

What may not be so obvious here is yet another influence from the NA/UBS tradition. The NRSV claims to have followed UBS3 (with information available from the preparation of UBS4). ‘Only in very rare instances have we replaced the text or the punctuation of the Bible Societies’ edition by an alternative that seemed to us to be superior.’ (NRSV preface ‘To the Reader’).

These factors together explain the significant family resemblance which SBLGNT has to NA27.

This is not to say that independence of thought is not shown throughout in textual and paratextual decisions, but someone who has only used NA27 and then reads SBLGNT will encounter the largely familiar, whereas they would be more struck by differences in reading the more independently-minded editions of the 19th century.

One point of difference is the significant reduction in sigla used to point to variations. NA27 has special symbols for omissions (whether of a single word or multiple words), for insertions, and for reordering of words. These are all dropped and we are left with two basic sets of signs, one of which pertains to a single word and the other to multiple words. One has to look at the apparatus to find out whether there is a substitution, addition or omission.

The most frustrating siglum is probably ‘NIV’. It is, of course, not possible to tell from the English NIV whether it follows κρυφαίῳ or κρυπτῷ in Matthew 6:18 or whether it reads ἐκ or ἀπὸ in Matthew 7:4. Such instances could be multiplied. But of course ‘NIV’ does not mean the English NIV of 1984 (nor that of 2010), but Goodrich and Lukaszewski’s edition, itself based largely on NA27. No wonder the Introduction can say ‘NA is cited only when it differs from NIV’ (p. xv). It would be simpler if it simply said ‘NA27’, but the circuitous route of citation seems to be part of the plan to create a modern critical edition which can be circulated freely.

Undoubtedly the real usefulness of this edition is that it is available freely electronically and will therefore be used in all sorts of apps and may be widely copied. This really is useful, and the nature of the mistakes made (see errata below) shows clearly that the SBLGNT was not created using electronic code from a commercial version of NA27, but was indeed produced on the basis of WH, even though it has come to resemble NA27 uncannily.

However, I cannot say that I find the hard copy at all useful. It is a full centimetre higher and wider than NA27 and weighs 94g more, and if it is indeed a millimetre thinner that isn’t much compensation.

[Vital statistics: NA27 190mm × 136mm × 24mm; 490g; SBLGNT 210mm × 146mm × 23mm; 584g]

Moreover, if one wants to do any kind of critical work, one really isn’t able to do so because we do not know what manuscripts lie behind this edition without consulting other editions. In fact, one has no easy way of knowing whether any manuscripts lie behind the edition (e.g. for book titles).

What may be said is that Holmes has been a thorough and bold editor, generally eschewing brackets as a poor substitute for decisiveness. One may wonder why the Pericope Adulterae and Romans 16:25-27 are relegated to footnotes, whereas the ‘Intermediate Ending’ of Mark is placed in a section in the main body of the work in a section entitled ‘Other Endings of Mark’. Perhaps at least Romans 16:25-27 ought to have merited a section entitled ‘Other Endings of Romans’, since it is far more widely attested than the ‘Intermediate Ending’ of Mark.

Harder to understand are cases where there are differences between the editions and yet no variant is recorded. Thus in Luke 3:32 the form Ἰωβὴλ occurs with no variations marked. How many more times have differences between the editions been passed over in silence?

Aside from its generous copyright arrangement, this edition could have additional merit if scholars became convinced that where it differs from NA27 it was right more than 50% of the time.

One might be able to find out a certain amount about the editorial process through considering typographical errors. Purely for illustration I note how on lines 11-12 of p. xix a different Greek font appears for no reason, but I have not counted such minutiae systematically, nor have I systematically checked the apparatus.

Matthew 15:14 ὁδηγοί τυφλῶν
Matthew 15:15 παραβολήν ταύτην
Matthew 21:15 Δαυίδ ἠγανάκτησαν
Matthew 26:36 Γεθσημανὶ,
Matthew 27:24 ἰδὼν (elsewhere paragraphs begin with a capital)
Mark 4:2 πολλά καὶ
Mark 7:27 γάρ καλόν
Mark 14:72 δίς ἀπαρνήσῃ (apparatus)
Mark 15:14 κακόν ἐποίησεν (apparatus)
Luke 1:21 αὐτόν ἐν (apparatus)
Luke 1:27 Δαυὶδ,
Luke 2:51 Ναζαρὲθ,
Luke 5:1 Γεννησαρὲτ,
Luke 8:20 ἰδεῖν σε θέλοντές.
Luke 18:5 αὐτήν ἵνα
John 6:71 αὐτόν παραδιδόναι (apparatus)
John 7:34 εὑρήσετέ,
John 7:36 εὑρήσετέ,
John 7:42 Δαυὶδ, (2×)
John 10:29 μεῖζων ἐστιν
John 21:24 ἐστίν ἡ (apparatus)
Acts 2:29 Δαυὶδ,
Acts 3:25 Ἀβραάμ Καὶ
Acts 10:29 μεταπεμφθείς πυνθάνομαι
Acts 13:43 ἔπειθον· αὐτοὺς
1 Cor 14:37 ἐστὶν·
1 Tim 6:19 αἰωνιόυ (apparatus)
Titus 3:13 ζηνᾶν τὸν νομικὸν
Hebrews 2:26 ὅς οἶκός ἐσμεν
Hebrews 7:28 υἱόν, εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα τετελειωμένον (I find it hard to see why the comma should be there)
James 2:11 εἰπών Μὴ ... καί Μὴ
2 Peter 2:10 Τολμηταὶ,
Rev 9:11 Ἀβαδδών καὶ

Further errata, generally of a different kind can be found at:

The real significance of this text is the electronic release of its text with an enlightened End-User License Agreement. For this many users will be grateful. However, the hard copy of the SBLGNT is not significantly cheaper than NA27 and offers no advantages whilst having a number of significant disadvantages.


  1. Thanks for the review. I do wish the printed text was more convenient to carry around than the NA27, which is less convenient than its predecessors.

    I do have to quibble about one aspect of your review. There really isn't a "NA/UBS tradition" as far as the paragraphing is concerned. Although their text has been conformed to one another, their segmentation of that text into paragraphs and other units has not.

    As a result, it might better to substitute UBS4 for NA27 in your statement: "These factors together explain the significant family resemblance which SBLGNT has to NA27."

  2. PJW: "It is a full centimetre higher and wider than NA27 and weighs 94g more"

    As with his review of the RP 2005 edition, Dr Williams (and apparently Dr Carlson) simply doesn't like large size Greek New Testaments, presumably because they are not as handy or lightweight as the pocket-sized editions.

    However...some of us older people with trifocal eyesight really do need the larger print editions, and we are still capable of lifting a few pounds of Bible as need might require in order to reap this benefit....

    Apparently I am not alone: cf. the "I like big bibles" Music Video.

  3. Erratum:

    Hebrews 2:26 ὅς οἶκός ἐσμεν | Hebrews 3:6

  4. I'm with Maurice. Us old guys like big print. I love my big print NA27 (mind you I would like it even more if I hadn't left it on the window sill during a rain storm, but that is another story).

  5. I don't share Maurice's enthusiasm for big bibles, but I give him full credit for the video link!

  6. Has anyone compiled a list of agreements and disagreements between SBL and NA27/UBS4, as listed for the other editions? That would be helpful in seeing just how closely related it is to the NA27/UBS4 text.

  7. Thanks, Michael.

    Maurice, I wonder whether the video is more about promoting big Bibles as part of a mating ritual.

    I think that the 20th century probably witnessed a drift in descriptions of the Nestle editions from Taschenausgabe to Handausgabe (don't try to fit them in your pocket anymore!).

    The SBLGNT font is probably very marginally larger than that in NA27, but much of the extra space is taken up with larger interline spacing. Many words are actually the same length in mm in both editions, including, arguably the longest word in the GNT in Acts 10:41, where, ignoring the hyphen, both come out around 32mm (RP 36mm). SBLGNT has the edge on letter height.

    NA27 is (depending how you count) somewhat in excess of 920 pages against SBLGNT around 540 pages, but NA27 has detailed appendices and maps. Yet NA27 still manages to be lighter than SBLGNT because it's on thinner paper. My brief review of Amazon prices suggests that you could easily pay more for SBLGNT than for NA27, though you could probably get one of the former for a few dollars less if you chose wisely.

    So with SBLGNT you're getting far less for your money.

    RP is different, because it's not seeking to provide competition for NA27 while having a very similar text. I'm sure RP is a lot easier to read for those with visual impairments, though I doubt whether the font in the apparatus of RP is any bigger than that in NA27. For apparatus font SBLGNT is probably the most legible, but the content of the apparatus is the least interesting.

  8. The SBLGNT is very welcome, without it I would not have been able to include the Greek text in my NIV84/TNIV/NIV2011 comparison site.

  9. As many have noted, church and Bible study sessions can be a good place to meet future spouses....but I only cited the video as satire, and not to promote matchmaking (I met my wife on a blind date to the beach, so that point doesn't apply in my case anyway).

    My main point relates only to larger print readability (which simply doesn't exist for me in the Taschenbuch or Handausgabe formats, and I don't want to carry a magnifying sheet if I don't have to).

  10. I've converted the SBLGNT to the Kindle format. You can choose whatever font size you like.