Note of the Day – June 5

No survey or study of the references to the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts is complete without some mention of the unique passages in the so-called ‘Western’ text of Acts. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, in New Testament textual criticism, ‘Western’ refers to manuscripts and versions which share a specific set of textual readings (or tendencies), distinct from other text-groupings (Alexandrian) and/or the ‘Majority’ text (the reading of the majority of manuscripts). In particular, it refers primarily to the readings common to the Codex Bezae [D] and a good number of Old Latin manuscripts. However the term “Western” is something of a misnomer, since ‘Western’ readings are also shared by various Greek MSS presumably covering a relatively wide/disparate geographical range, as well as by Syriac, Coptic (Egyptian), Georgian, etc, versions. While ‘Western’ readings are attested in the Gospels and other New Testament books, the distinctive readings in the book of Acts are extensive (and different) enough to constitute an entirely separate recension, or version, of the book. The relation of this recension to the Alexandrian/Majority text has been the topic of discussion and debate among commentators and textual scholars for decades. The ‘Western’ version is longer and more extensive, containing more (and more verbose) literary/historical detail, especially in the introductory and summary portions of the narrative episodes. Of the many theories scholars have put forward, the most noteworthy (and interesting) are:

  • The Alexandrian/Majority text is the original (or more closely so), while the ‘Western’ text represents a secondary expansion by scribes or an author/editor
  • The ‘Western’ text is closer to the original, while the Alexandrian/Majority text is a truncated or redacted version (by a later scribe or author/editor)
  • The original author (trad. Luke) produced two versions or drafts of the book, each of which (somehow) was published or came into circulation
  • The original work was incomplete, surviving in a draft form which included notes/annotations by the author; subsequent scribes/editors created the two versions working from this draft text

The last theory is especially intriguing and offers an attractive explanation for several especially difficult passages; however, it remains highly speculative. Most scholars today would opt for the first theory, that the ‘Western’ text is a secondary expansion. Generally, this would seem to be correct, since the scribal tendency was to expand/add to the text rather than reduce/omit from it—hence the text-critical rule of thumb lectio brevior potior (“the shorter reading is preferred”). Also, many of the longer narrative sections seem to have the purpose of clarifying the context in detail, to the point of becoming excessively redundant and pedantic.

Some scholars have also thought that the ‘Western’ version shows distinctive doctrinal/theological tendencies (including an anti-Jewish bias); this has been discussed in a number of studies, most notably in Eldon J. Epp, The Theological Tendency of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis in Acts (Cambridge: 1966). One feature of the ‘Western’ version of Acts is an increased emphasis on the Holy Spirit—including at least 10 distinct references, in addition to the 50+ in the Alexandrian/Majority text. It has been argued that this difference is theological as well—e.g., (a) the ‘Western’ author/editor wished to give greater prominence to the role of the Spirit (perhaps under Montanist influence), or (b) the Alexandrian/Majority text may have wished to reduce the role of the Spirit due to an anti-charismatic (or anti-Montanist) tendency. Matthew Black expounds this latter point in his article “The Holy Spirit in the Western Text of Acts” (in New Testament Textual Criticism: Its Significance for Exegesis. Essays in Honor of Bruce M. Metzger, eds. Eldon J. Epp & Gordon D. Fee [Oxford: 1981], pp. 159-70). I find such theories to be rather unlikely. Most of what I see in the ‘Western’ version can be explained simply as the result of a tendency to clarify and (over)explain the narrative context. If anything, there may have been a pious interest to enhance the role and prestige of the apostles by including reference to the Holy Spirit whenever possible.

Below I summarize the unique/distinctive passages in the ‘Western’ text which mention the Holy Spirit. I have made use of Black’s study as it provides a convenient compilation of the passages (the Western ‘additions’ are in italics):

  • Acts 6:10 (of Stephen)—”and they did not have strength to stand against the wisdom th(at) was in him and the holy Spirit in which he spoke” (D et al). The shorter text could be taken to mean “the wisdom and spirit“, but the Western version makes clear that this is a reference to the (Holy) Spirit; also the phrase “that was in him” likely is meant to emphasize the divine inspiration which resides within the early believers through the presence of the Spirit. There is a similar variant involving the specific adjective “holy” in Acts 8:18.
  • Acts 8:38—”and when they stepped up out of the water, the holy Spirit fell upon the chamber-official, and the Messenger of the Lord snatched up Philip” (Ac 1739 [and other minuscules] p w, the Harclean Syriac, and other versions/witnesses). It is perhaps incorrect to categorize this as a ‘Western’ reading, since it covers a rather wide and diverse range of textual witnesses. As noted previously, baptism in the book of Acts is always connected with believers receiving the Spirit, so the lack of any such reference in the Majority text of 8:38 is somewhat unusual. This could easily be the reason why a scribe or editor might have added it here; but it also could be an argument in favor of the longer text.
  • Acts 11:17 (Peter speaking)—”who was I powerful (enough) to [i.e. how could I possibly] cut off [i.e. block/prevent] God (so as) not to give (the) holy Spirit to them, the (one)s trusting in Him?” (D p vgms syrh etc). The longer text is curious in that it seems to misunderstand the context and central issue of the narrative in Acts 10-11—the inclusion of Gentile believers as part of the Christian Community. I.e., since the Holy Spirit came upon them miraculously (as a work of God), they certainly should be allowed admission to baptism and entry into the Community. Possibly the sense of Peter’s words underlying the longer reading is, “If I could not prevent God from giving them His Spirit, how could we (other Jewish Christians) dare to prevent them from being baptized?”
  • Acts 15:7—”Peter, standing up in the [holy] Spirit, said…” (D et al)
    Acts 15:29 (The decree)—”…from which [i.e. the things prohibited in the decree] watching (over) yourselves carefully, you (will) perform well carrying (yourselves) in the holy Spirit” (D etc)
    Acts 15:32 (of Judas/Silas)—”…and they, being Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] full of (the) holy Spirit, called the brothers along [i.e. encouraged them] with many words” (D)
    These additions (if such they be) presumably were intended to enhance the status and Spirit-inspired character of the Jerusalem Council, so central to the book of Acts and the account of the early mission to the Gentiles.
  • Acts 19:1—”Paul was wishing to travel unto Jerusalem according to his own plan/counsel (but) the Spirit said to him to turn back into Asia, and coming through…” (Ë38 D syrh mg etc). This is an example of the more expansive narrative introductions typical of the Western text; here it emphasizes the Spirit’s direction (and intervention) in Paul’s travels.
  • Acts 20:3 (of Paul)—”he wished to take up sail into Syria but the Spirit said to him to turn back through Macedonia…” (D syrh mg etc). A similar expanded introduction emphasizing the guiding direction of the Spirit.
  • Acts 26:1—”then Paul stretched out the hand, giving an account of himself, {confident and receiving help/encouragement in/by the holy Spirit}…” (syrh mg [the underlying Greek text is uncertain])

For more on the ‘Western’ version of Acts, consult any reputable critical Commentary. One of the earliest (and best) is The Beginnings of Christianity (5 vols), eds. F. J. Foakes-Jackson and Kirsopp Lake (1920-33), also available from Biblesoft in electronic form. A popular, compact and very readable modern Commentary is that of J. A. Fitzmyer in the Anchor Bible [AB] series (Vol. 31, 1998). Cf. also the commentaries by E. Haenchen (Westminster/Oxford: 1971) and F. F. Bruce (Tyndale: 1951, and in the NICNT series, 1954/1988), among others. There is a convenient summary of the topic in the Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition), pp. 222-36.

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