Thoughts on NA28

—By Jeffrey Kloha

For the first time in a generation, pastors are confronted with a new edition of the Greek New Testament. Since 1975 the text of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament and, matching it in 1979, the text of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece have been identical. Subsequent editions updated the apparatuses of the respective editions, but the printed text remained unchanged in spite of new manuscripts discoveries, refined knowledge of patristic and versional witnesses, and significant shifts in methodology. The Nestle-Aland 28th edition (NA28) marks the beginning of a new era in the history of the printing of the Greek New Testament, for the handful of changes made in this edition signal more changes to come throughout the New Testament text over the next decades and a shift from print to digital formats.

Four items will be of immediate interest to pastors. First, the changes to the text: Fifty-one changes have been made to the printed text, all in the Catholic Epistles. These changes reflect decisions made in the production of the Novum Testamentum Graece: Editio Critica Maior (ECM) published 1995–2005. The Catholic Epistles, having by far the fewest numbers of manuscripts and the least complicated textual tradition, were selected as the starting point for this comprehensive critical edition of the entire New Testament. Rather than produce a hand edition with a text that differs from that of the comprehensive edition, the texts of the two editions were brought into parallel. Work continues on the ECM; projections are that John and Acts will be completed in the next couple of years, with work on the rest of the New Testament planned to last until 2030. Given the relative simplicity of the text of the Catholic Epistles and the complexity of the textual tradition of John and Acts, we might anticipate far more changes in those texts, and more substantive changes, than are presented in the Catholic Epistles.

Space allows mention of only one textual decision made in NA28 at Jude 5. In a passage with important Christological implications, NA28 prints Ἰησοῦς as the one who “delivered his people out of Egypt” in place of [ὁ] κύριος in NA27 or ὁ θεός in other witnesses. The ESV has already chosen to depart from the standard text and prints “Jesus” in this passage.

The second item of interest to pastors is the adoption of a new methodology. Previous generations learned to classify manuscripts based on “text-types,” such as “Alexandrian,” “Western,” and “Caesarean.” However, more comprehensive comparison of all readings in all manuscripts, now made possible by computer analysis, shows that these classic divisions (first identified in the early eighteenth century, before the discovery of any papyrus manuscripts) are not meaningful, especially in the period of the greatest variation, the second and third centuries. The method now employed has been labeled the “Coherence-Based Genealogical Method.” Using comprehensive computer databases, the “coherence” of witnesses in their relationships to each other is able to be discerned over an entire book or corpus, so that the researcher can determine rather quickly if decisions made about the “initial text” could have produced the resultant stemma of manuscripts. It is important to note that the databases and software do not determine the “initial text” readings; the researcher, using any method (Reasoned Eclecticism; Thoroughgoing Eclecticism; even Majority Text Theory) determines the “initial text” reading in each place. The software then compiles a stemma based on all those decisions to determine if an accurate stemma results. Individual textual decisions can then be altered, the program run again, and refinements to the text made until a “coherent” stemma of witnesses is produced. This is certainly very different from the “Local Text-Type” theory that most pastors learned in Greek class, a method which, it must be said, fell out of disuse decades ago. Hence the changes to the text.

Third, this edition reflects a shift in assumptions about what the evidence allows one to reconstruct. Where previous generations, emboldened by a confidence in science which was possible only in the Enlightenment, claimed to be able to reproduce the “New Testament in the Original Greek,” late twentieth century scholars have known that extant evidence reaches only back to the second century, and that for only a scattering of passages. There may be nearly 150 years between the original writing/delivery of a New Testament text and the now-preserved manuscripts. Given the strong dependence on a genealogical method, this edition claims only to to reconstruct the “Ausgangstext,” or the “Initial Text,” defined as follows:

“The initial text is the form of a text that stands at the beginning of a textual tradition. The constructed text of an edition represents the hypothetical reconstruction of the initial text.” (ECM 2 Peter, 23)

This edition helpfully acknowledges that reproducing an “autograph” of any New Testament writing is an impossible task, given available evidence. This also leads to a perhaps surprising move by the editors: the removal of any reference to a conjecture in the apparatus. Since the editors claim to reconstruct only the hypothetical text that stands at the head of the manuscript tradition (and not the “autograph”), conjectures are not part of their project. So, for example, the conjecture that 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 is a post-Pauline interpolation has been deleted from the apparatus.

The final item of interest to pastors is a new “bonus” feature: the online version of the NA28. Whereas the new edition somewhat simplifies the apparatus, in particular by removing strings of irrelevant manuscript numbers, the online edition will be comprehensive. Variants not noted in the NA28 apparatus will be available in electronic editions, and in many cases full transcriptions of the manuscripts will be available so that the readings of a given manuscript over a block of text can be easily read. Indeed, the day may soon come when bringing a tablet to class or the study will replace the little blue book that so easily carries about.

Over the next few weeks I will be providing more thorough discussions of the changes and features of the new edition on the Concordia Seminary faculty site. The official website of the Nestle-Aland text is now live, and the digital Nestle-Aland will soon be available here. Other features of the new edition, such as simplifying the apparatus, removing Latin (unfortunately), appendices, and so on, might be welcome and make the edition slightly more user friendly. However, they will likely not persuade a pastor to purchase the new edition. Since the Catholic Epistles are not often then basis of sermons and Bible studies, some pastors may wish to forego purchasing this edition, waiting for the updated texts of John and Acts. But consultation of the electronic edition (when it becomes available) will be a necessary task.

The Greek New Testament was born in the premodern period, copied by hand on papyrus, then on vellum in majuscule and minuscule script, a process which brought with it inevitable errors and alterations. It entered the industrial age in 1516 with production via movable type, followed by lithograph printing methods. This gave the text, for 500 years, an appearance of fixedness and certainty it could not granted in previous generations. Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the Greek New Testament has entered the computer era, with all the benefits and drawbacks of transient, erasable, and alterable dots on screen. Much like our modern translations are changed every few years, in some cases (like the ESV) virtually silently, now our Greek New Testament will enter the realm of instability. For careful students of the New Testament, this is a welcome development, for new discoveries and refinements in methodology can be incorporated immediately, rather than waiting for 35 years for a new edition. For pastors who serve people concerned “about changes to the Bible,” it is time to reacquaint yourself with your little blue texts so that you can point people to the locus of confidence, the Word.


The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Kloha is associate professor of exegetical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.