Monday, December 16, 2019

Abner Kneeland, Forgotten American Translator (and Apostate)

Abner Kneeland

            In Bruce Metzger’s book The Text of the New Testament, which serves as an introduction to the field of New Testament textual criticism, readers will find the names of several pioneering textual critics and translators who conducted research in the period between the publication of the KJV (1611) and the Revised Version (1881):             
           ● There’s John Fell, who issued an edition of the Textus Receptus in 1675, ΤΗΣ ΚΑΙΝΗΣ ΔΙΑΘΗΚΗΣ ΑΠΑΝΤΑ, with a textual apparatus that supplied variants from over 100 manuscripts and other ancient sources.
            ● There’s John Mill, whose edition of the Textus Receptus (published in 1707, shortly before Mill’s death) was accompanied by an extensive introduction.  This was re-issued by Ludolph Küster in 1710, 1723, and 1746.
            ● And there’s John (or Johann) Bengel, who developed a method of grouping manuscripts into what would later be called text-types.  He also developed some basic guidelines for judging textual contests.   He issued a Greek New Testament in 1734, in which he expressed his views of what variant has the better claim to be regarded as original in many textual contests.  He also wrote Gnomon Novi Testamenti, a five-volume commentary (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) on the New Testament which includes many text-critical notes.  Bengel was known for his defense of the essential reliability of the New Testament text, and of the veracity of the gospel.     
            The contributions of several other scholars who made an impact on the field are briefly summarized – Bentley, Wettstein, Bowyer, Griesbach, Scholz, Lachmann – but one notable name does not appear:  Abner Kneeland (1774-1844). 
            Who was Abner Kneeland?  He was the last man convicted of blasphemy in the United States of America.  As a Unitarian preacher (ordained in 1805), Kneeland received some instruction from Hosea Ballou.  Kneeland demonstrated a visionary attitude regarding the rights of woman, and the equality of all ethnic groups.  He led congregations in New Hampshire, Massaachusetts, New York, and Philadelphia, before breaking away from Christianity altogether in 1829.  By 1830 he was openly advocating pantheism.      
            In 1833, Kneeland published an essay in which he stated, among other things, “Universalists believe in Christ, which I do not; but believe that the whole story concerning him is as much a fable and fiction as that of the god Prometheus.”  As a result, he was arrested in 1834 on the charge of blasphemy, and was found guilty; he appealed the decision, but it was affirmed by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1838, and, despite calls for clemency from individuals such as William Ellery Channing, Kneeland served 60 days in jail. 
            In 1839, Kneeland moved to Iowa, intending to start a sort of colony with some of his followers, called Salubria.  (One of Kneeland’s earlier associates, Frances Wright, had attempted something similar in Tennessee, the short-lived Nashoba Commune).  After Kneeland’s death there in 1844, the Salubria colony dissolved.
            And that is that.  But before all the controversy about Kneeland’s departure from Unitarianism, he made an English translation in 1823, based on the text compiled by Johann Jakob Griesbach.  Kneeland used as his model the “Improved Version” made by Thomas Belsham in 1808, which was largely dependent on the 1796 work of Anglican Archbishop William Newcome, An Attempt Toward Revising Our English Translation of the Greek Scriptures. 
            In this translation, Kneeland demonstrated how the adoption of specific variants, combined with his own translational preferences, could yield a New Testament with doctrinal content significantly different from the King James Version, so as to fit his denial of the virgin birth, his denial of the existence of demons and hell, and so forth.  In a brief preface, Kneeland relegated the books of Hebrews, James, Second Peter, Second John, Third John, Jude, and Revelation to a secondary status, calling them “Disputed Books” which are “not to be alleged as affording along sufficient proof of any doctrine.” 
            Theological liberalism was thriving in New England in the early 1800s; Kneeland’s translation shows that its progress occurred side-by-side with an embrace of text-critical revision.  Kneeland’s translation demonstrates this over and over; for example, his translation clearly departs from the Textus Receptus at the following passages:
            ● Matthew 5:44, 6:4, 17:21, 18:11, 19:16, 20:7, 21:44, 23:13-14, 24:26, 27:17 (In addition, Matthew 1:17-2:23 are italicized, on the basis of a theory that they are secondary)
            ● Mark 1:2, 3:29, 9:38, 9:44, 9:46, 14:24, 15:28, 16:9-20 (Kneeland included an erroneous note on Mark 16:9-20, stating, “Many copies omit the twelve verses of this last chapter.”)
            ● Luke 6:45, 9:23, 17:3, 17:36, 20:23, 22:43-44, 23:17, 24:51 (In addition, Luke 1:5-2:52 are italicized, on the basis of a theory that they are secondary)
            ● John 1:28, 3:13, 3:15, 5:3-4, 6:11, 7:53-8:11, 19:16
            ● Acts 3:21, 7:37, 8:37, 13:33, 13:42, 15:24, 15:34, 20:28, 21:25, 22:9, 24:6-8, 24:26.
            When one looks over the criticisms that some individuals have made against the NIV and other modern versions, one can very frequently interchange “NIV” and “Abner Kneeland’s 1823 translation” and the sentences will make perfect sense.  This ought to make it perfectly clear that the text-critical issues surrounding this cluster of 45 textual contests (and more in the Epistles) did not suddenly arise when Egyptian papyri were unearthed, or when Westcott and Hort produced their 1881 revision, or when Codex Sinaiticus was discovered.  All these changes to the text were already being proposed in Greek compilations, and were already adopted in Abner Kneeland’s translation in 1823.  
            Likewise, some criticisms made against the Watchtower Society’s New World Translation also apply to some of Kneeland’s renderings; most notably in John 1:1, which Kneeland rendered, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a God,” and in Hebrews 1:8a, which Kneeland rendered, “But to the Son he saith, “God is thy throne.”  When we look at Kneeland’s systematic avoidance of the term “hell” in his translation, we see in the New World Translation (and in the NIV to a large extent) the same avoidance.
            As a simple point of history, deviations from the Textus Receptus and deviations from orthodoxy have gone hand in hand; let anyone who says otherwise take a close look at the Unitarian texts, and Unitarian teachings, of the early 1800s in New England, as exemplified by Abner Kneeland’s translation, and his subsequent total apostasy.         
            This does not mean, however, that departures from the Textus Receptus require departures from orthodoxy.  Hundreds of readings, found in the majority of Greek manuscripts, diverge from the Textus Receptus, especially in Revelation (where Erasmus initially had only one Greek manuscript from which to work); it would be difficult to argue that the adoption of these readings – including the non-inclusion of the Comma Johanneum in First John 5:7-8 – elicits a departure from orthodoxy, inasmuch as they were already the normal readings in the Greek text throughout the Middle Ages. 
            But we should not let ourselves pretend that some textual variants cannot be used against orthodox doctrines.  Nor should we let ourselves be blindered by textbooks that fail to mention the Unitarian background of various text-critical scholars and translators in the late 1700s and 1800s (especially if an author of one of those textbooks, like Bruce Metzger, depended heavily on Principles of Textual Criticism written in 1848 by one of those Unitarian scholars, John Scott Porter). There was, and is, a spiritual battle going on.  As the history of Abner Kneeland’s apostasy shows, we would deceive ourselves if we were to imagine that the stakes in textual criticism are always low.

Readers are invited to double-check the data in this post.


Timothy Joseph said...

These accusations against the NIV and text-critical work, of course not your own, are beneath you. To insinuate that since some who have departed from the faith used these methods makes the methods themselves suspect is ridiculous.


Daniel Buck said...

I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,
The reason why – I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.
--Written as a slightly corrupt translation of one of Martial's epigrams by Tom Brown, referencing his dean, John Fell of TC fame. The original:
Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare.
Hoc tantum possum dicere: non amo te.

Matthew M. Rose said...


I think the overall point here is that many individuals have allowed their beliefs and preconceptions to guide their judgment when dealing with variant readings. Principles, theories and methodologies which promote readings that suit specific sides of ideological and Theological debate are obviously going to be more attractive to those which hold such and such view.

Perhaps the rules of scholarship should never be given more authority than common sense. Speaking to myself as much as anyone else.

Wayne Mitchell said...

Concerning Lk 4:5, as noted by one recent textual commentary, the support for the omission is not good and the shorter text is awkward without the words. “Taking him up” to what? Copyist haplography often results in a text that doesn’t make sense. The minuscules 69 124 346 and those of f13 (cf. D) attempted to harmonize to Mt 4:8 with the addition of lian,while others attempted partial restorations of the lost text with reliance on Mt 4:8 (D 788 cf. Aleph(1) 700 1582 f1 lat(ff2.q)). But the manuscript evidence for a copyist two-letter homoioteleuton (on-on) is evident and explains the origin of the shorter reading with it’s problematic text.

“In comparison of the Mss of Lk 11:2-4 and the parallel at Mt 6:9-13, all Mss of the longer version of Lk 11:4 lack a doxology, which is strong evidence against a supposition of harmonization to Mt. The longer version also has strong support, which includes the early uncials A C D W. In comparison to other Mss, the locations where text is omitted in the shorter version suggests that it is a consequence of three separate instances of copyist haplography.” (SS 4th ed., 136 fn 14)

Matthew Rose has brought up questions on Genesis 1:6 and 1:8. Concerning the examples of haplography in chapter 1, it is evident to those who have looked at the structure of Genesis 1 that there are serious problems in the MT textual stream. For example, in MT wayehi-ken “And it was so” fell out of vv.6, 20 and 26 from two-letter copyist homoioarcton’s: wy-wy, and two (vv.6 and 26) were restored by MT at the wrong locations (at vv.7 and 30), while the one at v.20 was not restored. [E.A. Speiser, Genesis (Anchor Bible), 6; J. Cook, The text-critical and exegetical value of the Dead Sea Scrolls. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies (2016) 72(4), 3; D. N. Freedman and D. Miano, Slip of the Eye: Accidental Omission in the Masoretic Tradition,” in The Challenge of Bible Translation. G. G. Scorgie, M. L, Strauss, S. M. Voth, (eds.), 278-79]

Concerning Genesis 1:8, wayyar’ ‘elohim ki-tov “And God saw that it was good” fell out of v.8 in MT from a two-letter copyist homoioarcton: wy-wy. [J. Cook, The text-critical and exegetical value of the Dead Sea Scrolls. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies (2016) 72(4), 3; Freedman and Miano, Slip of the Eye, p.279]

What examination of all the manuscripts has taught us is that there is no manuscript or textual stream that is free of copyist mistakes. The manuscripts must be compared and the tools of textual criticism appropriately applied in order to restore the authentic text.