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difficilior lectio potior

Learning the Language, Part 3: Canons of Criticism

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In the first two parts (see part 1 & 2) of this article, I discussed and defined many of the key terms and concepts involved in Textual Criticism. Now it remains to examine something of how these work in practice.

To begin, it is worth taking a look at the origins of Textual Criticism:

In the early Church, we have very little evidence of this, although clearly manuscripts of the New Testament were continuously copied and collected—some evaluation of the accuracy of a manuscript must have been involved in establishing an “exemplar” for copying. Early Church Fathers occasionally mention variant readings of the NT in their writings. But it is only with Origen that we see anything like a critical concern for the text of Scripture. Alexandria (the site of Origen’s early career), in particular, had a strong tradition of scholarship and scribal practice, going back into the Hellenistic period. However, even Origen does not address variants and other textual issues as carefully or consistently as one might expect. The only other Church Father (we know of) who came close to Origen’s level of technical scholarship was Jerome.

In the Middle Ages, serious Criticism of any sort was largely absent in the Church. The situation was a little better in the Greek (Byzantine) East; while Jewish and Islamic scholars, much further ahead at the time, helped to preserve a certain level of scholarship for future generations in Western Europe. The Rabbinic scribes, in particular (the Masoretes), had established a traditional practice of evaluating and addressing variants and textual corruption in the Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament. However, Textual criticism, in something like the modern sense, only began following the Renaissance. After centuries of relying upon translations, scholars such as Lorenzo Valla, Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples, and Desiderius Erasmus began looking afresh at the text, publishing critical studies and editions. The hunt for manuscripts was also on, though at the time of Erasmus’ critical edition of the Greek NT, relatively few MSS were available for study.

The modern science (or art) of Textual Criticism begins in earnest in the 18th and 19th centuries, following many decades of adopting Critical methods and principles in the study of Scripture. The earlier Critical editions of the 16th and 17th centuries (the so-called “Textus Receptus”) no longer sufficed. Men such as Gerhard von Mastricht, Richard Bentley, Johann Albrecht Bengel, Johann Jakob Wettstein, Johann Jakob Griesbach, Karl Lachman, Samuel Tregelles, and Constantin von Tischendorf, all edited and published Critical editions of the Greek NT, sometimes prefacing these with detailed prolegomena or critical studies that included principles for establishing the text. Griesbach, in his second edition (1796-1806), was perhaps the first to enunciate clearly a set of rules, to be adopted and modified by future scholars. (See below on “Canons of Criticism”).

In 1881-2 came the publication by Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton J. A. Hort of their Critical edition (The New Testament in the Original Greek), and here, for the first time, was a decisive break with the Textus Receptus tradition. This proved to be momentous (and the subject of no small controversy!) for all subsequent Textual Criticism. In devaluing the Koine/Byzantine Text, they gave clear priority to the ‘earlier’ Text-types—particularly the Alexandrian Text, as represented by Codex Vaticanus (B), which they referred to as their “Neutral” Text. While future scholars were to abandon some of their premises and terminology, Westcott and Hort’s evaluation of Vaticanus and the Alexandrian Text has generally been confirmed—”a very pure line of very ancient text”.

CRITICAL EDITION: It is worth defining this here: Any Edition (see) which has been produced according to the methods and principles of Textual Criticism. That is to say, rather than simply publishing a single manuscript, multiple manuscripts are collated and analyzed, usually with the purpose of establishing (the most likely) form of the original text. Today the UBS (United Bible Societies) and Nestle-Aland critical editions are the most popular and widely used; the two editions are largely identical.

However, the question must be asked: How exactly does one determine the most likely original text?

 THE CANONS (RULES) OF TEXTUAL CRITICISM:

A “canon” (Greek kanw/n, kanœ¡n) is a rule or standard, a regulating formulation or principle. So, the “Canons of Criticism” are simply the rules or guiding principles used in (Textual) Criticism. Sometimes these are referred to as “Canons of Authenticity” or “Criteria for Authenticity”—that is, for attempting to determine the authentic (original) text. There are many different rules or principles that have been established or adopted over the years, but the most important of these, I think, can be reduced down to the following set of fundamental rules—an even half-dozen (to which, of course, there are exceptions!):

  1. (Preliminary:) Negligible or insignificant variants can be discounted. This includes all nonsense readings, obvious scribal errors, and true singular readings. Only substantive/significant variants are to be considered (See Part 2 on these)
  2. The earliest and “best” manuscripts are to be preferred. Readings which occur in the earliest manuscripts—i.e., the 2nd-4th century Papyri, and the 4th-6th century uncials (such as Codex Vaticanus [B] and Sinaiticus [a])—are to be given priority. Determining the “best” manuscripts is a bit more difficult: to be considered are both (1) individual “purity”, the accuracy of the copy (number of scribal errors); and (2) relative “purity”, the relation to other accurate/reliable manuscripts. Most scholars today tend to give priority to the “best” representatives of the so-called Alexandrian text (especially Vaticanus and the related early Papyri).
  3. Readings in early and (geographically) diverse witnesses are to be preferred. For example, if a reading occurs in early Alexandrian and “Western” manuscripts as well as (relatively) early versional (i.e., Old Latin, Syriac, Coptic, etc.) manuscripts, it is likely to be original.
  4. The more difficult reading is to be preferred. This was most famously stated by J. J. Griesbach by the Latin proclivi scriptioni praestat ardua, but usually formulated as the maxim difficilior lectio potior. It can be broken down under several categories:
    * The more obscure reading vs. the more “intelligible”
    * The rougher (harsher or ungrammatical) reading vs. the “smoother”
    * The more unusual expression or vocabulary vs. the more customary
    * The reading which more conforms to ecclesiastical or doctrinal norms vs. the more challenging
    The tacit assumption being that scribes are more likely, in the process of copying (which involves some degree of interpretation), to smooth over rough, difficult or challenging passages. Such changes, usually intentional, were typically made simply for the purpose of explaining or clarifying the text (not for mischievous or malicious reasons!)
  5. (Corollary:) The shorter reading is typically to be preferred. This is the maxim brevior lectio potior. Again, the assumption is that scribes were more likely to expand the text, than to shorten it. Some have questioned this assumption, but analysis of the manuscripts and ancient scribal practice seems to bear it out. This is one of the more difficult areas for evaluation, especially when manuscript evidence is evenly divided between a longer and shorter reading—which is original? Is the longer reading an expansion/interpolation, or is the shorter reading the result of a scribal mistake (parablepsis, homoioteleuton)?
  6. The reading is to be preferred which best explains the rise of all others. Griesbach worded it as the reading that “…lies midway between the others”. A most useful rule (often decisive) when the manuscript evidence is evenly balanced; unfortunately, it can be most difficult to determine which is, in fact, the “midway” reading. Here theories regarding scribal practice and transcriptional probability (see below) need to be examined most closely.

* TRANSCRIPTIONAL PROBABILITY: This refers to the probable (or likely) process by which variant readings arose in the copying (transcription) of the text. Arguments and theories in this area can be complicated, and subject to considerable dispute among scholars. However, a careful analysis of transcriptional probability is often necessary in evaluating variants where the manuscript evidence is evenly divided.

  THE CITING OF TEXTUAL WITNESSES:

The citing of Textual Witnesses is central to the science of Textual Criticism, but it can be a complicated and laborious process. Fortunately, professional scholars have already done most of the legwork in collating manuscripts, documenting and evaluating variant readings. The student is likely to encounter this information at first in two places:

1) In Textual Commentaries or Commentaries which contain specific textual notes.

2) In the “apparatus” (footnotes and appendices) to critical editions, such as the UBS or Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (or the BHS Hebrew Old Testament).

Textual witnesses are cited according to fixed conventions, which nearly all scholars have adopted. To avoid cumbersome citation of manuscripts, etc., a technical shorthand was developed, using a standard set of abbreviations, referenced in the following order (for the New Testament):

  1. The early Papyri: Indicated by capital P, usually in script (Ë), followed by the number (according to a standard list),  typically in superscript—for example, Ë45, Ë 46, Ë 47 (Chesty Beatty Papyri); Ë66, Ë75 (Bodmer Papyri)
  2. Greek Majusucules (Uncials): These are numbered (standard list), prefixed with “0” (to distinguish them from the Minuscules)—i.e., 01, 02, 03, etc. However, up to manuscript 045, it is more common to use a letter to indicate the MS. Hebrew aleph (a), followed by English A-Z, followed by select Greek letters up through 045. Here are some of the most commonly cited manuscripts in the list:
    a [01] — Codex Sinaiticus
    A [02] — Codex Alexandrinus
    B [03] — Codex Vaticanus
    C [04] — Codex Ephraem Syri Rescripti
    D [05] — Codex Bezae (Codex Claromontanus [06] also indicated by D)
    W [032] — Codex Freerianus
    Q [038] — Codex Coridenthianus
    Y [044] — Codex Athous Lavrensis
    (The name of the codex is, by convention, a latinized version related to its provenance—where it was discovered or where it is being housed)
  3. Greek Minuscules: These are simply referred to by number (1, 2, 3, etc.) according to a standard list. f1 (“Family 1”) and f13 (“Family 13”) are commonly cited groups of related minuscules.
  4. The broader Greek MS evidence: Following the citation of specific MSS, the following abbreviations are sometimes used to indicate further support of a reading:
    Byz — the majority of (Byzantine) manuscripts (generally synonymous with the Majority text)
    Koine — also synonymous with the majority (Byzantine) reading, commonly indicated by K in decorated script (Š)
    ª — M in script, to indicate the Majority text; this has somewhat replaced Koine/Š.
    pc — (pauci), a few manuscripts
    al — (alii), some manuscripts
    pm — (permulti), a large number of manuscripts
    rell — (reliqui), the rest of the manuscript tradition (includes the Majority text)
  5. Versional Manuscripts: that is, the important early translations.
    Latin Versions
    it — (Itala), the Old Latin versions (sometimes also indicated by “OL”);
    individual manuscripts are represented by lower case letters and abbreviations (a, b, d, ff, gig, etc.)
    vg — the Latin Vulgate
    lat — part of the wider Latin MS tradition (including the vulgate)
    latt — the entire Latin MS tradition (possibly with exceptions)
    Syriac Versions — indicated by “sy” or “syr”; individual Syriac versions are indicated by superscript, or with separate abbreviations:
    s (or c) = Old Syriac [Sinai or Curetonian] p = Peshitta; ph = Philoxenian; h = Harklean
    Coptic Versions — indicated by “co” or “copt”; individual (dialect) versions are indicated by superscript, or, more often, with separate abbreviations, such as:
    ac (or ach) = Akhmimic
    bo (or boh) = Bohairic
    sa (or sah) = Sahidic
    Other Versions — aeth (or eth) = Ethiopic; arm = Armenian; geo = Georgian; arab = Arabic; goth = Gothic; slav = Old Church Slavonic.
    Typically Latin witnesses are cited first, then Syriac, Coptic, and so forth, generally as indicated above.
  6. Church Fathers (as textual witness): These leading figures and authors of the early and early-medieval Church, who cite/quote Scripture in their writings, are indicated (along with a few anonymous works), by a set of abbreviations. For example, Or = Origen, Aug = Augustine, Chr (or Chrysost) = Chrysostom, Cyr (or CyrAl) = Cyril of Alexandria, and so forth.
  7. Lectionaries: Usually indicated by a cursive “l” (Û) followed by a number, again from a standard list. Lectionaries are only rarely cited.

In addition, there are some superscript notations which may be applied (primarily with the Papyri and Uncials):

* — an asterisk indicates the original hand of a manuscript (when it has been corrected)
c — when the manuscript has been corrected
1, 2, 3, — a first, second, third, etc., hand which has corrected a manuscript
mg — textual evidence in the margin of a manuscript
v.l. — (varia lectio) when a variant reading has been recorded as such in a manuscript
txt — the text of the manuscript when a variant reading (above) has also been recorded
vid — (ut videtur) = apparent support for a reading when the condition of the MS makes it impossible to be certain how it reads
supp (or s) — when a portion of the manuscript is missing, and the text has been supplied by a later hand

I will now provide a couple of specific examples, to demonstrate how these textual witnesses are cited in practice:

Example 1: John 1:18monogenh$ qeo$ (monogen¢s theos) vs. monogenh$ ui(o$ (monogen¢s huios)
The textual evidence is fairly evenly balanced, and the question remains disputed among scholars, though the majority would accept the reading qeo$ (God) rather than ui(o$ (Son). The diagrams below show the evidence as it is cited in the critical apparatus of the UBS and Nestle-Aland (27th ed.) Greek texts (with some modification and simplification); first the evidence for qeo$, then that for ui(o$:

MS_diagram1

Example 2: Luke 23:34a — addition (interpolation) vs. omission
Here again the evidence is divided, between witnesses which include Jesus’ famous prayer (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”) and those which do not. The diagram first indicates the witnesses which either do not have this portion (or have it marked with asterisks); then those which include it:

MS_diagram2

CONCLUDING NOTE:

The information in this three-part article relates specifically to New Testament Textual Criticism; however, many of the terms and concepts apply to analysis of the text of the Old Testament as well. By comparison to the NT, Old Testament Textual Criticism is still, one might say, in its infancy, having really begun in earnest only in recent decades (with publication of all the Dead Sea Scrolls). In a future post, I hope to explore some of the issues relating to the Text of the Old Testament.