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Methods of Criticism

Learning the Language, Part 2: The Maze of Textual Variants

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Establishing the Text (Continued):

 TEXTUAL VARIANTS:

In the prior article, the terms “Textual Variant” (or “Variant Reading”) and “Variation Unit” were defined. However, it is especially important to distinguish between different sorts of variants. The New Testament MSS contain thousands of variants—how are these to be analyzed? Are some more important than others? To begin with, there are three primary types of variants:
1. Add/omit: when a word or phrase is either added (or deleted) in the process of copying.
2. Substitution: when a word (or specific form of the word) is ‘substituted’ for another during copying. Instances of substitution involving an entire phrase or sentence are extremely rare.
3. Changes involving word order. To which I might add a fourth type of variant:
4. Conflation: when two different variants are combined together or side by side in the same MS.
These definitions, of course, assume that there was an original text, and that (all) variants are the result of textual corruption (see part one for a definition and explanation of this term). Whether, or to what extent, this original text is recoverable today, is a matter of some debate — see below under “Methods of Textual Criticism”

In order to sift through the enormous number of variants, it is common practice (indeed, a practical necessity) to distinguish between:

1) Substantive (or significant) variants, and
2) Negligible (or insignificant) variants

I prefer the term “substantive” to “significant”, as variants may have “significance”, but be essentially irrelevant for the purposes of establishing the text. It is easier to determine substantive variants by simply eliminating all negligible ones first. Negligible variants include:
a) Nonsense readings
b) Obvious scribal mistakes
c) Singular readings
The first two sorts are accidental, the third may or may not be. Scribal errors will be discussed separately below. “Nonsense readings” would seem to be self-explanatory, almost always the result of simple carelessness. However, the third needs to be defined further:
• Singular reading: Any reading which occurs in a single (one) Manuscript; the assumption being, that a reading which occurs in but a single MS would almost certainly not be original. Some critics would limit this definition to a single Greek Manuscript for the NT; this seems to me unnecessarily restrictive, although, in general, the proposition is valid. Occasionally a reading may be found in just one Greek MS, but have significant versional support: this occurs especially in the “Western” text (i.e., Codex D + Old Latin/Syriac versions); in such instances, I would still regard these as substantive variants (though rarely, if ever, representing the original text). The following terms are also used at times:
• Subsingular reading: This generally refers to a variant found in just two (or, perhaps several) otherwise unrelated MSS.
• “Nearly singular” reading: Similar to subsingular: any variant reading which occurs in just a few manuscripts.

Once negligible readings are discounted and/or eliminated from consideration, only substantive readings remain. It is these that are the basis of Textual Criticism—both in terms of defining manuscript relationships and of establishing the (original) text. However, it is at least worth outlining one further distinction, namely between variants which are (or may be):
a) Accidental, or
b) Intentional/Purposeful
I distinguish between “intentional” and “purposeful”, as a variant reading may be purposeful, but not necessarily the result of (conscious) intent by the scribe. Certain harmonizing additions, conflations, pious substitutions, and the like may often be done unconsciously. Here I define and provide some examples:

 Accidental Variants (= “Scribal Errors”):
These are the more common; for an exhaustive list, consult the standard textbooks.
Dittography: repeating a letter, word or phrase
Haplography: skipping over of a letter, word or phrase, resulting in an omission. Sometimes this is called “Parablepsis”.
Homoioarchton: skipping over a portion of text, from one word to another which has a similar beginning.
Homoioteleuton: skipping over a portion of text, from one word to another which has a similar ending.
Transposition: reversing two letters or words. Occasionally more than two words may be involved.
Substitution: accidentally substituting one letter or word for another, usually a mistake due to a trick of the eye.

 Purposeful Variants (possibly accidental):
Substitution and/or conflation: specifically, in the New Testament, with regard to the (sacred) names and titles, i.e., “God”, “Lord”, “Jesus”, “Christ”, “Son”, et al. It is often hard to tell when, or if, these are intentional, especially since it was visually easy to confuse them (almost always presented as two-letter abbreviations); on the other hand, they were often infused with tremendous theological import. I will discuss these nomina sacra (“sacred names”) in a later article.
Harmonization: that is, modifying the text to match another similar (and familiar) passage elsewhere in Scripture. In the NT, these are of two main kinds:
a) Gospel Harmonization: The manuscripts are rife with these sorts of changes, especially in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew-Mark-Luke); with so many similar narrative passages, sayings of Jesus, and the like, these could easily be blended together. It is often hard to tell for certain when they are intentional. A large part of textual criticism in the Gospels involves these sorts of variants.
b) Harmonization to the LXX: Quotations of the Old Testament in the Greek NT, are quite often modified to match the Septuagint (or Old Greek) version. More rarely they may be harmonized to match the underlying Hebrew, or another version.
One might also refer to harmonization to the lectionary and/or liturgical practice. Consider, for example, the so-called doxology to the Lord’s Prayer, which is likely not original to the text—was its insertion accidental or intentional? So familiar it must have been to early Christians, scribes might easily have inserted it unconsciously during copying.

 Other Purposeful (Intentional) Variants:
These are more difficult to determine and define, but the following areas should be noted:
Attempts to clarify the text: primarily by means of
a) Substitution: replacing a word or form (with one that makes more sense), or
b) Addition: adding in words (sometimes referred to as “gap-filling”), especially within a narrative context. Commonly, for example, a name may be inserted to clarify the subject—who is speaking, etc. (e.g., “he said…” might be changed to “Jesus said…”)
Changes to safeguard doctrine: more often than not, these are Christological in nature, though sometimes it can be difficult to know for certain that they were intentional. For example, every time Joseph is referred to as Jesus’ “father” (or Joseph and Mary as his “parents”), the text was altered in a number of manuscripts, presumably to protect the doctrine of the virgin birth.
Interpolations: these represent typically larger additions—a phrase, sentence, or entire section. They are usually intentional, but occasionally may have been inserted accidentally (from a marginal comment, etc.). They are also among the most hotly disputed variants, affecting as they do a larger portion of the text. The “pericope of the Adulteress” (John 7:53-8:11) is probably the most famous major interpolation—critics and commentators are nearly unanimous in the opinion that the passage was not part of the original text.
Harmonizations: For these, see above. Many instances of harmonization are intentional, but it can be difficult to know for certain.

 METHODS OF TEXTUAL CRITICISM:

There are many techniques and principles used in textual criticism. In the third part of this article, I will discuss the so-called “Canons of Criticism”. I refer here to three fundamental methodological approaches:

• The Majority Method: The reading found in the majority of manuscripts is adopted, except in rare cases where the evidence is more or less evenly divided. Very few scholars today follow this approach in any meaningful sense—it is largely limited to extremely Traditional-Conservative circles. However, for most scholars, when the majority of manuscripts include many of the “earliest and best” witnesses, this does usually prove to be decisive.
MAJORITY TEXT: The text of the majority of manuscripts, often called “Byzantine”, as it stems from the time and region of the Byzantine Empire (prim. 9th-15th centuries), and is more or less synonymous with the so-called Byzantine Text (or Recension). The Textus Receptus (“Received Text”) of the Renaissance period is an off-shoot of the Majority Text.

• The Genealogical Method: So called because the genealogy of manuscripts is traced, by the grouping together of related manuscripts into a stemma (pl. stemmata)—that is, into clusters, families, and broader types. By tracing back the ancestors of these groups, one would, theoretically, end up with an approximation of the original text. Again, few scholars today will strictly follow such an approach; however, relationships between manuscripts are still studied intensively, and textual groups (or “types”) remain helpful in analyzing the text. The “Genealogical” method has been modified in recent decades; the most important to mention are:
1. The Local-Genealogical Method: As the term was meant when coined by Kurt Aland, the history of the text can be traced back (or forward) and established genealogically, but only at the level of each variation-unit.
2. Documentary-Historical Method: As practiced by many scholars today, this involves examining and grouping together manuscripts—in particular the early Papyri and Uncials—into related clusters. By comparing these, one attempts to determine the most reliable form of the (original) text. However, this can only be done from book to book (or for portions of a book), not for the NT as a whole.

• The Eclectic Method: This involves an objective analysis of each individual variant, examining both external and internal evidence (see below), and determining the most likely original reading on a case-by-case basis. This category is usually subdivided into:
1. Moderate or “Reasoned” Eclecticism: Here external and internal evidence is more or less evenly weighed and balanced, often with a priority given to external considerations (i.e., the age and quality of the manuscripts involved).
2. Strict or “Rigorous” (or “Consistent”) Eclecticism: Here consideration is given primarily (sometimes almost exclusively) to internal evidence. Rather few critics today follow this method.

Scholars generally utilize some combination of these approaches—most adopt a “moderate” eclectic method, but with a strong “documentary” emphasis on external evidence (the “earliest and best” manuscripts). As indicated above, when the best manuscript evidence coincides with the “majority” reading, this is almost always regarded as representing the original text.

 TEXTUAL EVIDENCE:

In the first part of this article, I discussed the different kinds of “Textual Witnesses”. These witnesses make up the “Textual Evidence”—that is, all the evidence scholars and students must examine when attempting to evaluate variant readings and establish the original text. This evidence is further grouped into two classes:

• External Evidence: That is to say, all of the material evidence of the textual witnesses: the Greek MSS, versional MSS, writings of the Church Fathers, and the lectionaries. When examining this external evidence, one must look at each particular textual witness that contains a variant reading, in terms of: the age, quality, and reliability of the witness; also if the reading is supported by other reliable witnesses.

• Internal Evidence: This involves everything intrinsic to the text itself: style of writing; grammar, vocabulary, and theology of the author; scribal tendencies during copying; and so forth. Internal evidence is admittedly of a more subjective nature than the external: questions of authorial style, and the like, can be very much open to debate. More reliable are points related to scribal tendencies and practice, which are a bit easier to determine.

Note: This article will conclude with the third part: “Canons of Criticism”

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Part 1  <> Part 3 coming soon