Does an Angel or Eagle Fly in Revelation 8:13?
Aug 20, 2010 by Craig Blomberg | 0 Comments
Recently a friend from my church sent me a question on Facebook. She had read Revelation 8:13 out of both the New King James Version (NKJV) and the NIV (New International Version). The NKJV said that in one of John’s visions he heard an angel flying through the middle of heaven crying out woes over the earth. But the NIV said it was an eagle that was flying, not an angel. She wanted to know how two such different English translations could come from the same Greek word.
Here’s what I wrote her in reply:
“Ah, the perils of using the KJV (or the NKJV)! :) The translators of the KJV did a marvelous job for their day with the couple dozen manuscripts available to them. But now we have rediscovered thousands, including dozens earlier and more reliable than what the KJV translators had access to. What is remarkable is how carefully preserved in general the Bible was, but there are differences.
The NKJV updated the language of the KJV but intentionally didn't change the manuscript base from which they worked (trying to appeal to the KJV only folks, but give them at least something they could read and understand). Some editions of the NKJV have footnotes alerting readers to the places where all other modern translations use a different textual basis but not all editions do this.
So, with that long-winded introduction, the short answer to your question is that ‘eagle’ and ‘angel’ DON'T both come from the same Greek word! The dozens of oldest and most reliable manuscripts have aetos, which means ‘eagle’. A handful of manuscripts, used by the KJV and NKJV, have angelos, which means angel. And a large number of very late manuscripts, reflecting scribal indecision and an attempt to harmonize the two readings, have henos angelos hos aetos, which means ‘one angel like an eagle’!”
I’ve had enough experience with instances where the KJV and NKJV alone have one reading and all other translations of any recent vintage have a different one that I was pretty sure of my answer before evening turning to my reference works. But for pastors and students used to working exclusively with the UBS (United Bible Societies’) Greek New Testament, you’ll find nothing at Revelation 8:13 to disclose any textual variants. Remember that the UBS includes only about 1400 of what they deem to be the very most important or interesting variants out of a much larger number that they could have used.) The NA (Nestle-Aland) Greek New Testament, on the other hand, gives many more variants but, to conserve space, offers only very selective manuscript evidence to go along with each. The Word Biblical Commentary series also tends to give more detailed textual-critical information than any other commentary series today do, in small print, right after the translation of each passage and before the actual commentary proper on a passage begins. David Aune’s 3-volume masterpiece in the WBC gives as full a collection of textual variants as any volume in the NT part of the series (David Clines wins the award for his work on Job in the OT WBC volumes). So Aune gave me the information I was able to provide for my friend in the above quoted paragraphs.
The NIV has way outsold other English translations of the Bible since it first appeared in 1978. Before the proliferation of several new translations that appeared in the last decade, it accounted for as many as 42% of all English Bibles purchased worldwide, though more recently it has dipped to closer to 30%. The KJV has frequently come in at about 20%, with the NKJV sometimes almost as high though usually in the mid-teens. The NLT has also often hovered around 20%, with no other translation even in double digits, percentagewise, of the “market share” in the last decade, though the ESV is starting to come close.
But why does the NKJV get this much attention? If you’re really in to the Elizabethan style of the KJV, it ruins it. If you can’t understand the KJV or simply value more modern English, there are a plethora of options for you. The only reason for retaining the NKJV is if you are among the less than one-tenth of one percent of all textual critics in the world who actually think the KJV and NKJV did use the better manuscripts. But lots more people than that have for some reason decided that the NKJV is for them. May I respectfully suggest they are misled.
Time to put the NKJV on the shelf if you own one and get a modern translation that uses an accurate textual base.
(Perceptive readers may recall previous blogs in which I argued that we should stop so much squabbling about the modern translations because they all have a place and something to contribute. I’m not contradicting myself in this blog, merely clarifying that, even though the English got updated in the NKJV, and even though it was published in the 1970s, it does not qualify as one of the truly “modern” translations that I was thinking about.)