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Say a publisher or other organization creates "a new translation" of the Bible: What's the source text? Are they experts in ancient Aramaic? What exactly is the text being translated from in modern times?

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This is totally dependent on the translation, and is almost always described in the Preface. The best ones go to the original Koine and Masoretic texts - older ones rely on the "Textus Receptus" or later Greek manuscripts. –  Affable Geek Jan 7 '13 at 13:47
I think that it's important to note that the major versions of the Bible are translated by cross-discipline committees. –  swasheck Jan 7 '13 at 20:38
Hi Aerovistae and welcome to the site. This is a good, basic question (+1). I've removed some aspects of the question that confuse the issue a bit. Please feel free to edit the question again if I've dropped anything important. Thanks! –  Jon Ericson Jan 8 '13 at 19:18
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2 Answers

The Hebrew Bible is primarily in Biblical Hebrew (the term given to the Semitic language that the Bible was written in from which modern Hebrew descends) with some Aramaic in various places (Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; Jeremiah 10:11; Daniel 2:46-7:28; and two words in Genesis 31:47).

The New Testament is in Koine (common) 1st-century Greek. Koine Greek descends from Attic Greek. There are also some Aramaic words and expressions that are transliterated into Greek.

Concerning source texts, there are tons of copies of manuscripts and it is disputed which is the original (and even which language is the original). Several critical editions of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament have been produced which are used today by scholars for translation. The Hebrew Bible primarily relies on the Masoretic Text. As more manuscripts are discovered, these critical editions are updated to reflect current scholarly findings. Previous generations classified New Testament manuscripts based on text-types such as "Alexandrian," "Western," "Byzantine," and "Caesarean." However, modern scholars have proposed alternate approaches to manuscript evidence such as the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method.

Also important to translators are previous translations into other languages (such as the Latin Vulgate and the Greek Septuagint) which reveal what manuscripts older translators had access to which may not be available today. Also, quotes from the Bible by ancient authors in other works are important as it shows what texts they used. For instance, the infamous Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7-8) was never quoted by early Christian Church fathers in arguments concerning Trinitarian heresies, which supports the claim that it was a later addition to the text.

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Where did you get the idea that "Koine Greek descends from the Aeolic family of dialects" ? –  fdb Apr 8 at 11:40
@fdb good question. Technically, there is Koine Doric and Ionic Greek as well. I am taking the view that Roman era standardized Attic Greek is a distinct dialect from Classic Attic and that the 'vulgar' variety of Greek spoken in the NT is primarily a 'common' version of this standardized Attic intermingled with Semiticisms from non-native speakers (so-called 'Jewish Koine'). There is considerable disagreement about this, however. My answer presumes this distinction between Classic and standard Roman Attic and Koine as a vulgar form of standard Attic. –  Daи Apr 8 at 13:47
Correct: Attic, not Aeolic. Aeolic is the dialect that we know mainly from Sappho's poems. –  fdb Apr 8 at 14:06
@fdb yes, and I take Roman-standard Attic to be a descendant of Aeolic Greek, while classical Attic moreso descends from Ionic. I view Doric, Aeolic, & Ionic to be linguistic categories for sets of dialects tied to regional morphophonological features that overlap considerably. So in my mind they are not concrete linguistic categories (so Attic can descend from more than one 'set' and Koine can be an eclectic mix of numerous dialects converging with Aramaic (Mishnaic Hebrew?) speakers who use numerous neologisms from the LXX). I know that scholars argue about such things. –  Daи Apr 8 at 14:14
No, Roman-standard Attic is not "a descendant of Aeolic Greek". Can you cite any linguist who says this? –  fdb Apr 8 at 14:20
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The source texts for the NT include various Greek manuscripts and sometimes the Latin Vulgate.

The source texts for the OT include the Masoretic text (Aleppo Codex, Leningrad Codex), as well as the Latin Vulgate, Greek Septuagint, and Dead Sea Scrolls.

Translators of new English translations often use some or all of those source texts when producing a new English translation.

Hardly any Aramaic source texts are used, unless you include the Aramaic scriptures of Daniel and Ezra, but again, those are considered to be part of the Masoretic text. Other Aramaic source texts would be the targumim, but they would not be considered a greater witness than the Masoretic when producing an English translation of the Old Testament/ Hebrew Tanakh.

For example, here is an excerpt from the Lockman Foundation website describing the source texts used for the translation known as the "New American Standard Bible" (NASB):

HEBREW TEXT: The latest edition of Rudolf Kittel's BIBLIA HEBRAICA has been employed together with the most recent light from lexicography, cognate languages, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

GREEK TEXT: Consideration was given to the latest available manuscripts with a view to determining the best Greek text. In most instances the 26th edition of Eberhard Nestle's NOVUM TESTAMENTUM GRAECE was followed.

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So...modern translators are experts in 2-3 ancient languages besides English? –  Aerovistae Jan 6 '13 at 16:35
A modern translator may only be an expert in one of the aforementioned languages. The comittees are composed of numerous individuals, so a particular person may only need to assist in translating the OT, or the NT, but not both. You would need to research the biography or curriculum vitae of a particular translator to determine what language(s) they are an expert in. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Jan 6 '13 at 17:55
Competent translators are experts in about 6 languages, since evidence from cognate languates (e.g. Ugaritic) is critical.. –  bimargulies Jan 6 '13 at 19:29
OK, let me be more precise. You need to know a pile of languages to contribute any new thought to the translation of the Hebrew Bible. I have no idea what you need to be useful in greek. –  bimargulies Jan 6 '13 at 20:28
to be even more precise, major translations are developed by cross-functional committees with a wide variety of expertise and translation issues are deliberated upon by these teams. –  swasheck Jan 7 '13 at 20:55
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