Wednesday, December 19, 2018

James Ussher: Why Unsolved Variants Don’t Obscure the Faith (1649)

As time allows (and it doesn’t allow much these days), I continue to be interested in how theologians in the Reformation period and after dealt with the problems of textual criticism. Lately, that interest has taken me to historian Garnet Milne’s self-published book on the Westminster Confession and the doctrine of preservation. This book, which I may say more about another time, pointed me to a relevant portion of James Ussher’s famous Body of Divinity, a book originally published in 1649.

Ussher (1581–1656) may be best known today for his dating of creation, but he was far more than a chronologist. He is said, among other things, to have been a strong influence on the Westminster divines. It is in that role that he is sometimes cited in an effort to clarify what those divines meant in the Westminster Confession when they said that the Greek and Hebrew are “authentical” because they have been “kept pure in all ages” (sec. 1.8).

It is that issue that brings me to this particular quote from Ussher’s Body of Divinity where he is answering questions on the foundation of the Christian religion, namely, the Bible. I’ve updated only the spelling from a 1702 printing (pp. 20–21):
Why must the interpretation of words be had out of the original Languages?

Because in them only the Scriptures are, for the Letter, to be held authentical. And as the Water is most pure in the Fountain or Spring thereof: so the right understanding of the words of the Holy Scriptures is most certain in the Original Tongues of Hebrew and Greek, in which they were first written and delivered to the Church, out of which Languages they must be truly translated for the understanding of them that have not the knowledge of those Tongues.

What gather you from hence?

That all Translations are to be judged, examined, and reformed according to the Text of the Ancient Hebrew and Original Chaldee, in which the Old Testament was penned, and the Greek Text, in which the New Testament was written. And consequently that the vulgar Latin Translation, approved by the Tridentine Council for the only Authentical Text, is no further to be received of true Christians, than it agreeth with the Original of the Hebrew and Greek Text.

But what say you of the Greek Translation of the Old Testament commonly called the Septuagint approved by the Apostles themselves?

The same that we say of other Translations. For although the Apostles used that Translation, which was commonly received and read among the Gentiles and Jews that dwelt amongst them, where it differed not in sense from the true Hebrew : yet where it differed from it, they left it; as by many Examples may be confirmed, (Vide Hieronym. Prolog. in Mat.)

How can the certain understanding of the Scriptures be taken out of the Original Tongues, considering the difference of Reading, which is in divers Copies both of Hebrew and Greek; as also the difficulty of some Words and Phrases upon which the best Translators cannot agree?

Although in the Hebrew Copies there hath been observed by the Masorites some very few differences of Words, by similitude of Letters and Points; and by the Learned in the Greek Tongue there are like diversities of Reading noted in the Greek Text of the New Testament, which came by fault of Writers : yet in most by circumstance of the place, and conference of other places, the true reading may be discerned. And albeit in all it cannot, nor the Translator in all places determine the true Interpretation; yet this diversity or difficulty can make no difference or uncertainty in the sum and substance of Christian Religion; because the Ten Commandments, and the principal Texts of Scripture on which the Articles of our Faith are grounded, the Sacraments instituted, the Form of Prayer taught, (which contain the sum or substance of Christian Religion) are without all such diversity of Reading, or difficulty of Translating so plainly set down, and so precisely translate by consent of all Learned Men in the Tongues, that no Man can make any doubt of them, or pick any quarrel against them.
There are a couple of things I want to note from this. First, Ussher, like William Whitaker, uses the term “authentical” mainly to speak about the language in which authority resides rather than about the textual form. I have made this point before in my post on the appeal to the autographs in early Protestant theology and here we see the same phenomenon. The issue at hand was whether the Hebrew and Greek can—and must—take precedence over the Latin (Vulgate) in doctrinal disputes. Catholics were asserting the authority of the Vulgate on the grounds that the Greek and Hebrew were corrupt and Protestants had to respond. And so they did, by showing that the Greek and Hebrew texts were not corrupt in the way that the doctors of Rome asserted. Notably, there was far less interest in alternate textual forms within the Greek and Hebrew.

Second, it is very interesting that Ussher admits that in some places our understanding of Scripture may be obscured by variants or by the translators’ inability to understand. He even seems to say that in some cases the “true reading” may not be discerned. But he solves this problem by noting that this in no way threatens our certainty of the “sum and substance of Christian religion.” That’s because there are so many other places in Scripture where no such difficulty occurs.

Third, there is a noticeable similarity between Ussher’s answer to the problem of textual variants and that still given by modern Evangelicals. Like many today, Ussher asserts that where the Scriptures remain obscure because of difficult textual problems (or translation), other texts provide enough clarity about the “sum and substance” of our faith so as not to pose a doctrinal problem. Today we know of far more differences and some of those are in places like the Lord’s Prayer and the words of institution, but it remains true that variants do not unseat the “sum and substance” of the Christian faith.

There are other things we might observe from this quote (like how Ussher resolves variants), but these points stood out given my current interests.


  1. According to Bellarmin, the absence of the PA, Mark's LE and the CJ in Greek codices prove the corruption in Greek manuscripts.
    William Ames, in his "Bellarminus enervatus", first published in Franeker, 1625, answered (1) that this does not prove that all Greek copies are corrupt; and (2) that the passages are not absent in the Greek codices "quos nos pro authenticis habemus." (See, reprint Amsterdam, 1638, p. 20: )
    In this case, TC is a tool to discover the authentical words, so Ames.

    But see also Ames about authenticity on p. 22, about the Vulgate: Authenticity = "vulgo dicto originale". Authentical is that from the original "sine errore transumptum fuit."

    1. Thanks, Teunis. I really need to read Bellarmine.

    2. Yes, Ames, Ussher and others are responding to Bellarminus' (and Mariana's, etc.) writings.
      "In multis magnisque beneficiis ..." are the first words of the preface to the Roman Vulgate of 1592, usually attributed to Bellarminus.
      It is not a coincidence, I suppose, that the incipit of the King James version of 1661 sounds: "Great and manyfold were the blessings ...".

  2. Ussher was quite a scholar. I appreciate this post.

  3. Am I right in suspecting that "Hieronym. Prolog. in Mat." refers to Jerome's Matthew' commentary?

    1. Probably not. I don't have it near me, but I would check Weber Gryson Vulgate to see if it refers to a Preface/Prologue before Matthew or the Gospels.

    2. Alas I don't have it nearby either (it's on a boat on the Atlantic). You're taking "Hieronym." to refer to Vulgate?

    3. Will, Hieronymus is Jerome. He wrote a number of prefaces or Prologi before several of the books of scripture he translated.

      Here's a link to an English translation of the Prologus to the Four Gospels:

      I assume this is what Ussher had in mind, for Jerome mentions numerous textual/translational issues in this prologue. I still want to see Weber Gryson edition but this seems as good a place as any to see Jerome's reasoning on textual/translational differences.

      Let me know what you think.

    4. Wordsworth/White is still most comprehensive for the prefaces before Matthew in the Vulgate in mss and early printed editions: NT, vol. 1, p. 1-4 (Ad Damasum), 11-14 (Prologus … ex commentario … in Matth.) Available: ( ).

    5. Thanks, Teunis. Very helpful.

    6. Just circling back to this. What I'm not seeing is anywhere in these possible sources that Jerome gives "many examples" of what Ussher is discussing, which seems to be the point of his reference.

  4. I've enjoyed these posts at the intersection of theologies of Scripture and TC, Peter - keep them coming.

    1. Thanks, Nathan. I hope to blog about your article at some point too.

  5. Yeah, that is perhaps the only way I'm willing to countenance the "variants don't actually make a difference" claim. While they frequently make significant differences possible in local readings, and can even make the difference between this or that major theological position, they do not change what the scriptural texts are; none of them unmake the witness of scripture to the God in whom we are to trust.

    Which is to say that while variants can make a significant difference to what we take to be the content of the faith, they do not stand in the way of that faith, much less in opposition to it.

    (But then, you'd expect a Lutheran to boil it down to fides quae vs fides qua, wouldn't you?)

  6. Peter, thanks for sharing this. I'd look forward to hearing your views on Milne's book.

    1. Jeffrey,

      Sorry I'm late to the party here, but I am very interested to know: How do you (and other TR advocates) relate Ussher's statements to your views?

      Grace and peace,

  7. Almost a year late:

    An interesting side observation. Us(s)her was responsible for compiling the lists of variant readings (or various lections as they were known back then) for the appendix of Brian Walton's Biblia Polyglotta (aka. The London Polyglot). They were the most extensive lists of variants recorded for the NT until that time.