. Why Pastors Should Use a Different Greek Text

Why Pastors Should Use a Different Greek Text

It’s the question that can derail the Sunday School class, make the pastor look poorly educated (i.e., “dumb”), and possibly even damage someone’s faith: Pastor, how come this footnote says that some manuscripts do not include the story of the woman caught in adultery?

Pastors need to know something about textual criticism.

But pastors are not generally called to dig deeply into the topic; it’s information overload. This is why I personally use the SBLGNT. I think it ought to be the main Greek text for pastors, because it can help pastors have the kinds of informed opinions they need when they get questions. The SBLGNT is a special critical edition whose apparatus carefully boils down all the complicated textual evidence to a simple, useful summary.

Basically—and as with all textual criticism it’s a mite more complicated than this—it polls the four New Testament texts of 1) Tregelles, 2) Westcott-Hort, 3) Robinson-Pierpont, and 4) Nestle-Aland* and lets you know at any given variant which editions have what. And it does so in an elegantly simple way.

The SBLGNT is not brand new; it’s been out for several years. And in that time I’ve had a chance to put it through its paces. You should use the SBLGNT, too, if you don’t already.

Here are three reasons why.

1. The SBLGNT hits a sweet spot for pastors and other non-specialists

It’s important that pastors maintain the ability to follow the kinds of textual-critical arguments commentaries bring up. But I can’t really say that very many of them should be “doing textual critical work.”

Textual criticism is one of the most complicated and demanding domains of biblical studies. I can and do use the apparatus in the Nestle-Aland text, but (full disclosure) I could never bring myself to buy the Nestle-Aland apparatus for Logos. I just don’t need that level of detail very often. When I do, I use my paper copy. (It’s okay, it’s okay.)

Michael Holmes, the editor of the SBLGNT, is a textual critic by trade; he trained under the legendary textual critic Bruce Metzger, whose Textual Commentary is a standard tool for NT studies. Holmes is right to be offended that “the exegetical habits of some scholars and students seem to reflect a belief that all the important text-critical work has already been completed, that one can more or less equate the standard Greek New Testament with the ‘original’ text.” And he’s particularly right to complain that “entire commentaries have been written that simply take the standard text as printed and scarcely discuss textual matters.”

I fully agree with Holmes that the work of textual criticism isn’t over—but that doesn’t mean I have to do it myself, or do it all the time (and I don’t think he’s saying I do). My exegetical work is more often pastoral than it is academic.

It’s good for pastors to read the occasional JETS article on developments in the field (like a recent article by Peter Gurry on the Coherence-Based Geneaological Method). I’ll even go so far as to say that pastors ought to make sure to look at the “Textual Variants” section in the Logos Exegetical Guide every time they preach a passage. It’s just due diligence. (You could cause some misunderstanding if someone is holding a Bible whose translators made a different textual-critical choice.) And, finally, I think pastors should sprinkle small textual-critical comments into their sermons and teach on the topic in Sunday school settings, mainly as an inoculation against one-version-onlyism.

But I think the SBLGNT hits a sweet spot for pastors who want to use their Greek New Testaments regularly and stay aware of textual critical questions without being overwhelmed by sigla (the little symbols which proliferate in all apparatuses).

When you need an explanation, go to a textual commentary (like Metzger’s or the Lexham Textual Notes on the Bible). But when you’re just checking out the Greek, you want the briefest summary of the textual evidence. It’s sufficient for me and my purposes, most of the time, to see just what the SBLGNT wants to show me: the “majority report” of the chief textual options.

(I want to go out on a limb here, too, and suggest that seminaries training pastors should hand their students SBLGNTs rather than NA28s. Doctoral students in biblical studies, or even those planning on doctoral study, can always get the standard critical editions. But I’m afraid the NA28 may scare pastors away from textual criticism by making them feel safe in assuming that the details are too arcane for their purposes, not worth wading through.)

2. The SBLGNT can give you an informed opinion when people ask you questions

Holmes told a critical reviewer, a scholar who could see no point in the SBLGNT,

For users such as yourself, the apparatus admittedly will not be of much interest. There’s basically no way to compete with the outstanding apparatus of the NA27 edition, and the SBL edition makes no pretense to do so. So instead it offers a different sort of apparatus, one that will serve other sorts of users in a range of differing circumstances—and perhaps become a bridge to the NA apparatus.

That’s me. Except I actually crossed the bridge going the other direction. The NA27 (and now NA28) is indeed a fantastic tool. Specialists should own it and I think pastors should be basically familiar with it.

But the SBLGNT is the tool that I think will actually most help the pastor who gets a textual-critical question about John 7:53–8:11 in Sunday school.

It’s one thing to recite the party line, what you were taught in seminary: “That is one of basically three significant differences between Greek manuscripts—the two others are 1 John 5:7 and the longer ending of Mark; all the rest of the differences are minor and, like the three big passages, have no bearing on any Christian doctrines.” And I do hope pastors can do at least that. (I happen to agree with the party line.)

It’s another thing, however, to be able to say, “I’ve looked at hundreds of these textual differences, and they’re just not something to be afraid of. The last one I saw was a variant between the star coming ‘to rest’ over baby Jesus or ‘to stand’ over him (Matt 2:9). And this is a difference of two letters in Greek. God never promised to save us from typos.”

A specialist needs to know all the details the NA28 provides (though even these are not exhaustive):

⸀ εστη K L W Γ Δ ƒ13 565. 579. 700. 892. 1241. l 844 ? ¦ txt א B C D ƒ1 33. l 2211

But a pastor typically just needs to know that the major critical texts go one way and the major Majority text goes the other way.

ἐστάθη WH Treg NA28 ] ἔστη RP

All the Bible translations I’m familiar with make some of their own textual-critical choices (that’s why the “NIV” Greek New Testament marked in the SBLGNT differs 231 times from its textual base), but practically speaking—and pastors simply have to keep their eye on the practical in a way scholars don’t—the two major options for all Bible readers in the world are Majority/Byzantine/Textus Receptus and various critical texts in the vein of Westcott and Hort. Every Bible on every Christian bookstore shelf uses one or the other. And the SBLGNT can help you gain an inductive picture of those differences.

3. The SBLGNT is a free critical text for the Internet era

It should actually matter to you that the SBLGNT is free, but not because it means you personally don’t have to pay for it, however nice that is. Instead Says Peter Williams (seconded by Michael Holmes):

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 means that companies like Faithlife can give it away for free and get special projects like the Cascadia Syntax Graphs of the New Testament out to users faster and with less expense; and hobbyists who want to do something cool and useful for the church can use it in their web apps without paying licensing fees that might otherwise kill the project. A scholar who understands the current state of the discipline of textual criticism—Michael W. Holmes—sat down and did the hard work of giving the whole world a solid critical text for the Internet era. (Print editions, which are not free, are also available.)

You should use the SBLGNT. (And for even more detail, check out Rick Brannan’s Bible Tech paper on the story behind this edition.)

*The SBLGNT doesn’t actually use the NA28 as a primary text but instead the Reader’s Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003). This edition “presents the Greek text behind the New International Version.” Hence that text is summarized with “NIV.” However, the 213 places where the NIV differs from the NA28 are marked with “NA28.”

Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.


If you don’t have it already, download the Society of Biblical Literature Greek New Testament for free. Then start studying with Logos 7 Basic, the free version of Logos Bible Software.

Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

View all articles
  • Thank you, Mark, for providing excellent food for thought. I have SBLGNT, both in print and in Logos, but have treated it as an occasional resource. I will take a new look at it.

    As a pastor, I must admit that I’ve basically ignored the apparatus in NA25 through NA28, although I have dutifully purchased each on the theory that I wanted the most up-to-date text. Perhaps the SBLGNT could have saved me even more money!

  • Interesting. I’ve always viewed the SBLGNT as a novelty project; something interesting but ultimately irrelevant to real ministry. Why bother with the SBLGNT’s decisions if you have the NA28 apparatus? If you have Metzger’s textual commentary? Or Comfort’s? Add to it, the SBLGNT doesn’t really have a detailed apparatus fort explaining its decisions.

    So, all told, I’ve always thought the SBLGNT was interesting, but odd. For instance, I hear Tyndale House (Cambridge) has its own original GNT coming out this Fall, to coincide with the Reformation anniversary. I had the same thought when I heard of that project; interesting but irrelevant.

    Your article is causing me to perhaps reconsider a bit. I’ll start taking a look at the SBLGNT every once and a while. I use the printed UBS-5, and have Bibleworks 10. I’m just not committed to Logos for languages, so the SBLGNT has limited value to me. But, your article does make me think.

    The SBLGNT could be a good shorthand reference, but I’m not sure I’ll actually use it. I’m already used to the UBS-5 apparatus, and have Metzger and Comfort, and the NA28 apparatus if I really want to know more.

    • Tyler, thanks for reading and writing. If you’re already using the UBS5 and the NA28 (and those textual commentaries), you likely have pulled yourself out of my target audience. It was Larry Armstrong, the other commenter so far, who is my target: someone who dutifully bought the latest Nestle-Aland volume (and good for him!) but basically ignored the apparatus. I don’t know Larry, so perhaps it’s his fault for not being diligent enough. (Larry, what would you say?) But in this post I’m suggesting that perhaps it’s not his fault: perhaps he was handed a tool by his teachers that, though the best available at the time, wasn’t really designed to meet his needs.

    • Another key to remember: the apparatus in the SBLGNT is not providing a rationale for textual critical choices. No rationale is provided. It is merely providing evidence from the major textual options, regardless of what Holmes chose.

      Like I said: I still use the NA28 myself (I actually don’t tend to use the UBS5; when I want text-critical information, I want everything the NA28 has to give me), but my main interest in textual criticism right now is seeing the Majority/TR/Byzantine “family” set against the eclectic texts. The SBLGNT gives me that in short space.

  • Thanks for the article. Just a couple of house-keeping matters and then a couple of questions.

    I think you flipped two digits (213 ~ 231) in your footnote about the NA28. The introduction of SBLGNT reads, “According to its editors, this edition differs from the United Bible Societies/Nestle-Aland editions of the Greek New Testament at 231 places.”

    Also, it looks like you’ve got a non-Unicode character at the beginning of the line:
    ⸀ εστη K L W Γ Δ ƒ13 565. 579. 700. 892. 1241. l 844 ? ¦ txt א B C D ƒ1 33. l 2211

    Finally, my questions are:
    1. is there any way to view the critical apparatus in a ‘footnote’ section? Or is ‘hovering’ over the sigla the only way to view the notes?
    2. is the “Cascadia Syntax Graphs of the New Testament” you mention pretty much the same as “The Lexham Syntactic Greek New Testament, SBL Edition: Sentence Analysis”?

    • Good call on the 213 ~ 231; fixed. Textual criticism is sometimes needed even on articles about textual criticism. That was a metathesis.

      (I’m not following the non-Unicode character problem, however… Am I missing something?)

      1. You can view the critical apparatus in a footnote section on the iPad as long as text is not set to scrolling mode. I do it all the time. You can also open up the apparatus in a separate tab or window in the desktop software. But because text in resources in the desktop software generally continuously scrolls, there’s no place to put the footnotes in a section. So you need to stop it from scrolling by putting in a column or reading mode:

      Then it will look like this:

      2. No. Take a look:

      • Thanks for fixing the metathetic error. The ‘unicode’ issue has to do with the leading sigla that looks like this ┌ (U+250C “Box drawings light down and right”) but is raised. On my browser (Firefox) it shows up as a square box… (which usually indicates a non-Unicode character; see https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2012/06/all-about-unicode-utf8-character-sets/).

        I don’t use iThings, but maybe that will help someone else. On my desktop version I had ‘Show footnotes on page’ selected, but not ‘1 column’–thanks for the tip.

        • Hi Paul. The “square box” doesn’t indicate a non-Unicode character; it indicates a character unknown by the current display font.

          On Cascadia and the Lexham Syntactic Greek NT (LSGNT), they are two different analyses. The Cascadia analysis is, loosely, an application of Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG) which provides good support for examining the whole of the Greek NT for particular structures. The LSGNT is two things, really. First it intends to apply categories like those found in Wallace’s “Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics” as well as provide a structural view of a passage that is compatible with terminology used in Reed-Kellogg (“stick”) sentence diagramming.

          Hope it helps.

  • Mark:

    I do think the SBLGNT is a very handy short reference. You don’t have to try and decipher the cryptic symbols in the UBS-5 and NA28. It gives you (1) what WH said, (2) what Tregelles said, (3) what the BYZ says, and (4) what the NA28 says. That seems to be a pretty solid spectrum of opinions, and tells you about what you need to know, honestly. It won’t tell you everything, but it tells you enough.

    To be honest, I usually don’t spend time pondering why a text is in Sinaiticus, but a variant was inserted by a later hand as a correction. You get that with the UBS-5 apparatus, but not with the SBLGNT. Does it make a difference? It guess it depends on how nerdy you want to be. The congregation probably doesn’t care, and you probably shouldn’t mention that level of detail in a sermon. I think it’s interesting to know, but most people aren’t like me!

    If I hadn’t already become used to the UBS-5 and NA28 apparatus, then I’d probably find the SBLGNT very useful. I think it can do a very good job of helping Pastors who use Greek have a broad idea of textual differences out there.

  • To give it more of a try-out, I tried prioritizing the SBLGNT. My intent was to have it as the mouse-over text for NT, and ESV for OT. But when I drag it to the Prioritize column, the Lexham Heb OT drags with it. Any way to separate the two?

    • Dan, any chance you snuck into my computer and read one of my upcoming posts? I suspect that you may have put the SBLGNT and the LHB into a series. And that’s a good thing to do, because it helps in the Text Comparison window. So I suggest you either split that series (go to Library, then to info for each book) or create a different series. Make sense?

  • I’ve put the Nestle’s and SBL apparatus (and Metzger’s commentary) in a parallel view on my machine. I’ll make a practice of looking at this to see what it does for my thinking as I go along.

    Is there a way to make the Nestle’s apparatus show also? It isn’t obvious to me. (PC running Windows 10)

    • Don, did you see the reply I made to Paul? Did that not work? Are you certain you have Nestle’s apparatus? You may have the text and not the apparatus (like me).

      • Yes, I saw that and it is quite likely I don’t have the apparatus. I don’t see a command like the one you posted above. I was just wondering if there was a secret code that I was missing!

  • Good post, thank you Dr. Ward. I feel a bit better having started to slip into the use of SBLGNT since it is the only copy I have in a digital form, and I can’t justify the expenditure of a digital version of my UBS. I tend to have my UBS apparatus open too, and I have picked up on some of the differences. On an aside I also appreciate (theoretically) your comments about the place textual criticism should play in the pulpit and in Sunday School. Perhaps this could be done in the area of Greek syntax and Greek words to some degree too. Anyway, I like your overall approach to the SBLGNT and description of it. Thank you!

    • Thanks for the kind word. That’s what I found: I just kind of slipped into using the SBLGNT. I wanted some kind of apparatus, and I was pleased to find over time that this one actually met my needs better than I anticipated. It was then that I started to realize why it was put together in the first place. FWIW, I wrote this post on my own and then checked with one of the two “fathers” of the SBLGNT, Rick Brannan, to see whether I’d accurately divined his motivation in putting this together with Michael Holmes. The answer was a resounding yes.

  • When I read the first paragraph I was expecting an example answer to the question, “Pastor, how come this footnote says that some manuscripts do not include the story of the woman caught in adultery?” I think the article answers how a pastor can access information much easier and than wading through the NA28 critical apparatus. The SBLGNT provides a great overview of the textual differences and provies a segue into the more heavy stuff. So, this article was helpful in pointing us toward the SBLGNT as more than a free GNT platform. However, I think the article assumed that a pastor would know how to answer the textual question about John 7:53–8:11 as long as he had the information in front of him. And I don’t think that’s usually the case. Saying that variants are usually minor and briefly explaining the concept of text families does not answer the sure follow-up question, “Then which variant is right?” The way to handle this pastoral question, I think, is as important as the first. To that end, I’d like to see a follow up article to this one.

    • The general answer was well supplied by my dissertation adviser, Randy Leedy. Have you seen this article?

      Perhaps a follow-up could offer a pastoral way to answer that specific question, however. Good idea—thanks for reading and for writing in!

  • Dr. Leedy’s article was helpful in easing one’s nervousness, especially a layman’s, about the subjects of variants and translational differences. I think that is important, and the article did what it was intended to do. But I know that if I were a layman asking the question, I would not be 100% satisfied. I would still want to know what the pastor himself thought about the specific verse(s) in question. That’s more along the lines of what I’m getting at. Your articles do touch on real life scenarios in the pulpit and pew. I appreciate the attention you devote to such things.

  • Thanks for pointing out the apparatus in the SBLGNT.

    In regards to your quest regarding a desire to get an overview, I have found using the wonderfully affordable Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text with included apparatus helpful from the Majority perspective and useful in giving a summarized view of several manuscripts (not specific to NA vs Majority, but Majority vs various manuscripts. I find it helpful to add this one and the one you have mentioned along with Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament to get an overview in summary form.

    • I’ll have to take a closer look at the GNT you mention. I can’t say I’ve ever really sat down and *used* it. It’s always been only a comparison text. Good call. Thanks!

      • I should have clarified in my earlier that that I too have not really “used” the SBLGNT before in the apparatus form (unless Logos was collecting it for me in a Guide). I was using the other two I mentioned and those only on rare occasions. Thanks again for bringing up the free resource and the summarized benefits!

  • UBS-5 is a handy item as well – providing significant (yes, yes) textual witnesses at important places – more pastor-friendly than the NA-28 apparatus – but the same text. I will also explore the SBLGNT.
    Great article. Thank you.

  • Mark, thank you! As a pastor who strives to stay in the languages this is a time helper. Anything similar for the Hebrew Bible?

Written by Mark Ward