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Textual Variants — How Important Are They?

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The question of textual variants (or “variant readings”) cannot (or, at least, should not) be ignored. For an overview and explanation of the subject, I recommend consulting the three-part introductory article “Learning the Language” (see Parts 1, 2, and 3). But, just how important are these differences in the manuscripts? To give a simple answer, one might say that anything involving the text of Scripture is very important. If one hopes to understand properly, and to be guided by the Scriptures, it is vital to know what they actually say.

It is sometimes claimed that these textual differences do not affect Christian doctrine or theology. This may be intended to reassure believers, but the claim is, at best, misleading. To begin with, it is true that, of the many thousands of variant readings, most are negligible or insignificant—clear scribal errors or singular readings (I do not even count simple spelling differences as variants). Again, of the remaining substantive or significant variants, a large percentage do not fundamentally alter the sense of the passage. However, this rather depends on how much weight one places on individual words—their morphology and syntactical connections. If the basic sense is preserved, how much do the literal differences matter? Beyond this question, there still remain a fair number of substantive variants that are theologically or doctrinally significant.

Points of doctrine, of course, do not exist in a vacuum—from whence are they derived ultimately, if not from the text of Scripture? All of the standard tenets of orthodoxy (with the exception, perhaps, of Christ’s “descent” into Hell/Hades), are the result of centuries of theological reflection, and do not rest upon one or two individual verses. However, our understanding and insight may surely be altered or shaped, even slightly, by a careful analysis and understanding of the variant readings. One ought, I think, to recognize the following areas of emphasis:

  1. The nature of the variant. Especially to note are possible intentional or purposeful scribal changes—how or why were these made? In the New Testament, many of these are of Christological significance—which are certainly important indeed, and not to be ignored.
  2. The location of the variant. I would maintain that variant readings generally, when they occur in a passage of special doctrinal significance, become, by definition, significant. For more on this, see below.
  3. The application of the variant. Variant readings have been, and continue to be, a part of the living and ongoing formation of doctrine. This was perhaps more true in the early centuries of the Church—a careful perusal of the writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, for example, reveals the citation and reference to a good number of variants (as we regard them today) in the context of their disputes with “gnostics” and “heretics” on theological (and Christological) points. Even today, variants play a role in theological discussion. See below for at least one key example.

Let us take a look at some of the variant readings which occur in the so-called Prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18). It would be hard to find a more theologically significant (or influential) passage in the entire New Testament. Many thousands of pages have been written commenting and expounding upon these marvelous words. I will limit any points of wider interpretation to the variation-units being discussed. Unless otherwise indicated, the translations are my own.

John 1:3-4:

Here the variants themselves are not so important; but, rather, the variants reflect a particular difficulty in interpreting the passage. The problem involves the words o^ ge/gonen, “(that) which came to be”—how is one to parse this phrase? Does o^ ge/gonen belong properly to the previous or suceeding words? Below are the two ways vv. 3 and 4 may be divided; I translate with a period (full stop), but punctuation even in the Greek is not certain:

  1. kai xwri$ au)tou= e)ge/neto ou)de e%n o^ ge/gonen. e)n au)tw=| zwh h@n: “…and apart (from) him came to be not (even) one (thing) which has come to be. In him was life…”
  2. kai xwri$ au)tou= e)ge/neto ou)de e%n. o% ge/gonen e)n au)tw=| zwh h@n: “…and apart (from) him came to be not (even) one (thing). (That) which has come to be in him was life…”
    This second interpretation can again be understood several different ways:
    a) “That-which-has-come-to-be, in him, was life…”
    b) “That-which-has-come-to-be, was life in him…”
    c) “That-which-has-come-to-be-in-him was life…”

Each of these has had its proponents, from ancient through modern times. Arguments in favor of reading #1 are:

  • It seems to provide a clearer sense and structure: v.3—creation (“coming to be”), followed by v.4—life/light which “is” and shines in creation. What exactly does the alternate (“that which has come to be in him was life”) mean?
  • The simpler, more direct idea of “life in him” can be found elsewhere in the Gospel (e.g., John 5:26, 39; 6:53)
  • Johannine style: beginning a sentence (or clause) with the preposition e)n + a pronoun.
  • The alternate (o( gegonen as beginning v.4) may have arisen in the early centuries under “Gnostic” influence—i.e., a cosmogonic “coming to be” of the Ogdoad and the Aeons. Irenaeus cites this (Against Heresies I.8.5) as the Valentinian interpretation.

In favor of reading #2 would be:

  • The step or “staircase” parallelism of the passage seems to require it. (Assuming a hymnic/poetic structure for the prologue)
  • It is the interpretation accepted by perhaps the majority of Church Fathers, including a number of early Greek Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria (see Paidagogos II.9), Origen (Commentary on John, Against Celsus VI.6, and many other references), Eusebius, Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine, Cyril, etc.
  • Even though this reading may seem awkward or obscure, many of the early (Greek speaking) Fathers seem to have had no trouble understanding it—that which came to be was “living”, i.e., had life in him (cf. Acts 17:28).
  • As, perhaps, the more “difficult” reading, it is to be preferred.
  • When Arians and so-called Macedonians began using this interpretation in support of the idea that the Holy Spirit was a created being, reading #1 may have developed as a way to avoid this.

Commentators today are divided, though most modern translations opt for #1. So does Bruce Metzger, in his dissenting opinion to the UBS Committee’s decision (see his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition, pp. 167-8). The UBS and Nestle-Aland critical texts use #2. I would, by a narrow margin, choose #1, though I find #2 most intriguing.

While here the original Greek text, as such, is more or less certain, the difficulty in interpreting the passage did give rise to at least one key variant:

  • Instead of “that which has come to be in him was (h@n) life”, assuming interpretation #2 above, a number of manuscripts instead read “…is (e)stin) life”, changing from an imperfect to a present form—i.e., “is living/alive”, instead of “was living/alive”.

No easy answers can be given to this rich and challenging passage.

John 1:9:

Here I mention in passing another question of pronunciation and interpretation in the prologue. This involves the phrase e)rxo/menon ei)$ ton ko/smon, “coming into the world”—does the phrase modify to fw=$ to a)lhqino/n (“the true/real light”) or pa/nta a&nqrwpon (“every man”)? In other words, is it the light or the (created) human being who is “coming into the world”? I think it almost certain that the reference is to the light.

John 1:13:

The original Greek text for this verse is all but certain, with some minor/insignificant variants. Here is the reading of virtually all Greek manuscripts (and most other textual witnesses as well)—for context, I include verse 12 as well:

12o%soi de e&labon au)to/n, e&dwken au)toi=$ e)cousi/an te/kna qeou= gene/sqai, toi=$ pisteu/ousin ei)$ to o&noma au)tou=, 13oi† ou)k e)c ai(ma/twn ou)de e)k qelh/mato$ sarko$ ou)de e)k qelh/mato$ a)ndro$ a)ll’ e)k qeou= e)gennh/qhsan.

12But as (many) as received him, to them he gave authority to become children of God, 13the (ones) who, not out of blood, not (even) out of (the) will of flesh, not (even) out of (the) will of man, but out of God, have come to be (born).

There is, however, one major (singular or nearly-singular) variant which must be noted. In one Old Latin manuscript (b), and in several of the early Latin Church Fathers, the singular (instead of the plural) is read in verse 13—the underlying Greek would be o^$ ou)k…e)gennh/qh, instead of oi^ ou)k…e)gennh/qhsan—i.e., “the (one) who…has come to be (born)”. A few Syriac manuscripts also read the verb in the singular. Interestingly, this variant is attested already by the middle of the 2nd century (in the so-called Epistle of the Apostles, §3); a bit later it is cited by Irenaeus (Against Heresies III.16.2, 19.2; V.1.3) and Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ, §19, 24) as an important proof-text in support of the (real) Virgin Birth of Jesus. Tertullian, especially, claims that the heretics have tampered with the passage, changing the singular to the plural—in his view, the singular (natus est) is the correct reading, which he cites both against the Ebionites and the Valentinians. In the transmission of the New Testament, corruption usually occurs toward a “higher” or more distinct Christological emphasis (adding or modifying details), and rarely in the opposite direction. In addition to the usefulness of this particular variant in Christological disputes, there may also have been some unease with the plural construction. Tertullian seems to reflect this (§19) when he claims that the Valentinians have taken what properly should be said of Christ and appropriated it to themselves. The Latin West was never especially comfortable with the doctrine of theosis—the deification of the believer, in Christ, as the end result of salvation and sanctification; John 1:13 has been one of the clearest passages in relation to this teaching.

John 1:18:

Here we have one of the most significant, disputed textual variants in the entire New Testament. The principal variant is as follows:

18Qeon ou)dei$ e(w/raken pw/pote:
No one has seen God (at) any time;”
[o(] monogenh$ qeo$            o( monogenh$ ui(o$
“[the] only God,”              “the only Son,”
o( w*n ei)$ ton ko/lpon tou= patro$ e)kei=no$ e)chgh/sato.
“the (one) being in(to) the bosom of the Father, that one has brought (him) out”

Note: The word monogenh$ is difficult to translate literally in English; typically it has been rendered “only-born/begotten”; however, in common Greek parlance, it is much like saying “one of a kind”, “unique”; perhaps a fair literal rendering would be “only one (of its) kind”. Also, while e)chge/omai is translated literally as “lead/bring out”, it would more commonly be rendered “declare, report, expound, narrate, reveal”—i.e., “has declared (him)”, or “has revealed (him)”.

I cited the textual evidence briefly in an earlier article. I include the diagram again here below:

MS_diagram1Clearly, o( monogenh$ ui(o$ is the majority reading, supported by an impressive range of early and diverse witnesses; this normally would be sufficient to confirm it as the original text. On the other hand, the “earliest and best” (Alexandrian) Greek MSS, along with other strong/diverse witnesses, read monogenh$ qeo$ (with or without the definite article). A few manuscripts also read simply o( monogenh$.

The reading with qeo$ (“God”) would seem to be the more difficult, and, on the principle of difficilior lectio potior, perhaps is to be preferred. Scribes may have altered it to the more familiar ui(o$ (“Son”). On the other hand, there was a marked tendency for scribes, consciously or unconsciously, to modify the text in favor of a stronger Christological emphasis. There can be no doubt that the reading [o(] monogenh$ qeo$ became a key text in support of the Deity of Christ. Even today, many theological and apologetic writings cite John 1:18 for this purpose—however, to do so, without any indication of the divided textual evidence, is really quite irresponsible.

What exactly is the meaning of [o(] monogenh$ qeo$? One ought to be cautious about reading later credal formulations (whether Nicene, Chalcedonian, or from the Westminster standards) back into the first-century text. Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, Christ is identified (or identifies himself) with the Father, but perhaps never so explicitly as this variant would indicate (especially if the definite article is original). The wording of John 1:1 (kai qeo$ h@n o( lo/go$, “and the Logos was God”) is most precise (and, one might almostg say, cautious)—note the anarthrous form (without the definite article), and the specific word order.

In terms of transcriptional probability, the evidence is likewise uncertain, though, I think, slightly in favor of ui(o$ as the original reading. In the early (Alexandrian) scribal tradition, both readings would be represented by nomina sacra (“sacred names”)—a convention of using marked abbreviations to represent various names and titles of God (and Christ). In these MSS, it is easy to see how ui(o$ (+u+s) and qeo$ (+q+s) might be confused. +u+s would have been much less common as a sacred name, and more likely to have been (accidentally?) modified to +q+s.

But was the change, in whichever direction it occurred, accidental or was it intentional? We may never know for sure. Likewise, we may never be absolutely certain which is the original reading—although this must always be a fundamental goal of Biblical Criticism: to determine, as far as possible, the original text. However, in this instance, I would recommend that believers study and meditate on this wondrous passage with both variant readings in mind.

 

Learning the Language

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Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows how rewarding and satisfying it can be, but also how difficult at times — it has been said it takes a lifetime truly to learn a language. Consider the student—the young scholar or minister—struggling in the first efforts to learn Biblical Hebrew or Greek. But there is another “language” that serious students of Scripture should learn: the language of Textual Criticism. Like any scientific (or artistic) discipline, Biblical Criticism (and Textual Criticism, in particular) has developed a kind of language, a technical terminology that is vital to understand, but which can seem most confusing at first. It takes patience and devotion to study, in order to gain experience and facility with this language, but the rewards are great: for it can result in a much better appreciation and understanding of the text of Scripture.

To begin with the very word criticism: from the Greek (kri/si$, noun; kritiko/$, adj.; kri/nw, vb.; and other related words). Kri/nw (krínœ) has the basic meaning “select”, “decide”, “judge”; kri/si$ (krísis) is usually translated “judgment”. Indeed, this word group has a similar range of meaning as “judge/judgment” in English; it can be understood: 1) in a positive sense, i.e., to use or offer good/sound judgment; 2) in a legal or neutral sense, i.e., to pass/render judgment on an issue; 3) in a negative sense, i.e., to judge harshly/unfairly. The words “criticism/critical” can also be understood in a similar way. Often it is meant in a negative sense (to criticize someone), but it also can have an objective or positive meaning (to think or analyze critically). When referring to Biblical Criticism, it is in this latter sense: to offer informed, sound analysis regarding different aspects of Scripture.

Biblical Criticism can be divided into a number of specialized fields of study:

* Textual Criticism: Analysis of the text of Scripture.
* Historical Criticism: Analysis of the historical background of a book or passage, this may also include: a) an examination of the historicity of any events or details recorded; b) study of the historical development of the writing itself.
* Literary Criticism: Analysis of the book or passage within its literary context (i.e., as a written work). This term can be understood narrowly, or broadly, touching upon the following related fields:
Form Criticism (Formgeschichte): Study of the form, function, and purpose of a passage, usually at the level of an individual section (pericope), including a determination as to the literary type (genre) and “life setting” (Sitz im Leben).
Source Criticism (Urgeschichte): Examination of the (possible or likely) sources used by the Biblical author/editor; these may be earlier documents, or other traditional (oral or written) material.
Redaction Criticism (Redaktionsgeschichte): Study and evaluation of the way the Scriptural text may have been put together, generally assuming the use of various (oral or written) sources, by the author/editor(s). This term is largely synonymous with “Composition Criticism” (Kompositionsgeschichte), which examines authorship more generally. See further below on “Redaction”.
Rhetorical Criticism: Analysis of a passage (or book as a whole), according to the standards and practices of ancient rhetoric. This ofter refers more narrowly to Greco-Roman practices shared by New Testament authors, but can also be used broadly to cover a wide range of literary devices (esp. figures of speech, and the like).
* Canonical Criticism: Study of the passage (or book) within the context of the established, traditional Canon of Scripture. This looks specifically at: (a) a book in its final form, as it would have been transmitted through Church history, and (b) its role in the development of doctrine, liturgy, etc. within the wider Christian community.
* Other specialized terms could be cited, but these are the most familiar and widely used.

In the past, one might occasionally refer to texual criticism as “Lower” (i.e., simply examining the text), and other types of study (especially historical and source criticism) as “Higher” (i.e., questions of authorship, date, historicity, etc.). However, this distinction was never very helpful, and has long since been abandoned. The label “Higher Criticism” has survived—largely as a term of derision—only within Traditional-Conservative circles.

It should be pointed out that a gulf still exists between Critical and Traditional-Conservative scholarship. This is less of a polarity than it is a continuum—scholars today would ‘fit’ somewhere between the extremes. This also applies to Evangelical Protestant scholars, who typically adopt and apply most basic Critical methods (if not always accepting their premises). It is in the area of Textual Criticism that there is most common ground, largely free from thorny (and often contentious) questions of authorship, historicity, nature/extent of inspiration, and so forth. And yet, for Protestants, at least, who accept the maxim Sola Scriptura, can there be a more vital, fundamental area of study than the text of Scripture?

What follows below is a kind of “Outline Introduction” to Textual Criticism.

 

THE TEXT OF SCRIPTURE:

An Outline Introduction to Textual Study and Textual Criticism

Basic Terms:

  • TEXT: Latin textus, from texere (“to weave”); the common word “text” can be defined as “the content of any written document”; or, perhaps better, “the written content of any document”, to distinguish text from accompanying visual illustrations, and so forth. A text is generally understood as a literary (written) product, but for ancient texts there is often an aspect of oral production and transmission as well (see below).
  • Document: Latin documentum (“lesson, instruction, proof”) from docere. Any written record of information. The “text” is the verbal, literary content of any specific document.
  • Text-form: The specific form or shape of any text, the (complete) content of any literary or written document. The term refers to any unique written product (e.g., an individual book such as the Gospel of John), or any smaller writing which makes up a larger work (i.e., a source used by the Gospel).
  • Original Text: Sometimes referred to as the “autograph” (see below): the original authored (or redacted) text, either in the sense of a documentary draft or original published version.
  • Final Text: This term sometimes means the same as “Original Text”, that is, the “final” authored or published form of a text, from which all copies and authorized versions would be made
  • Established Text: May mean the same as “Original Text” or “Final Text”, with the sense of having been “established” as correct by later scribes or scholars.
  • Authorized Text: An authoritative copy, sometimes referred to as a “Textual Archetype” or “Archetypal Text”; synonymous with the term “exemplar” (see below); careful scribes would normally make copies from an established authorized copy
  • RECENSION: From Latin recensere, recensio (“review, enumerate, enumeration”); “recension” is the common term to describe a significant or major revision of a text, generally in the sense of a secondary modification of an established text or literary work.
  • VERSION: From Latin vertere, versio (“to turn, turning”); “version” has a broad range of meaning; here it normally refers to a (secondary) description, adaptation, arrangement, or translation of a text. Generally speaking, a “recension” is closer to the original text than a secondary version; however, occasionally “version” is used to refer to a form of the original text. As indicated below (under “Textual Witness” and “Manuscript”), the term often has a specific technical sense of “Foreign Language Version” (translation).

Note on Oral Production & Transmission: From ancient and prehistoric times, down to the present (in some parts of the world), much documentary and narrative content has been modified and transmitted orally, at least to a large extent. The public production or performance of oral material is, in many respects, tantamount to publishing a text. Many ancient texts (such as the Old and New Testament Scriptures) would have had a significant oral component to their transmission and publication, and may also have incorporated oral traditions in the authoring. In ancient times, letters (epistles) and other texts would have been dictated or recited to a secretary or scribe. It is a mistake to think of ancient texts as entirely written products, the way they would be created through writing (or typing) today.

Textual History:

See also the section below on “Establishing the Text”.

  • AUTHOR: Latin auctor, from auctere (“to increase”); here meaning the source or originator of a text. For ancient documents, it is often impossible to establish a single author; likewise, it is generally difficult to determine authorship, as many ancient texts are technically anonymous. Sometimes, scholars will use the term “author” in a broad or generic sense, as referring to any and all persons involved in creating the “original” (or “final”) form of a text.
  • Traditional Sources: In some instances, the original written form of a text may indicate a long or substantial development, involving the inclusion of earlier oral and/or written sources (which may no longer survive). Many ancient religious and narrative texts, in particular, likely contain much traditional material.
  • Transcription: Many ancient texts also were, or may have been, given their original written form by scribal transcription – that is, an oral recitation or production which is recorded by a private secretary or professional scribe. In such instances, the writing style and technique of the scribe can effect the form of the text, adapting an oral form to the conventions of writing.
  • EDITOR/REDACTOR: An “editor”, is one who “edits” – from Latin edere (“to bring forth”); here the term indicates one who prepares a text for public use or presentation (that is, to publish a text). If an ancient author were not a scribe, it would likely be given to a professional scribe for publication, involving corrections and other possible modifications. A “redactor” (or “redaction”), from Latin redigere (“to bring back, reduce, compress”), usually refers to more significant or substantial editing of a text. Sometimes, if an author has shaped previously existing traditional or written sources to form a new original text, such an author is considered a redactor. Occasionally later scribes or editors, may (either intentionally or unintentionally) produce an entirely new recension or version of the text (see below).
  • SCRIBE: A literate writing professional, specifically a copyist (see below), who may also be an “Editor”
  • COPYIST: Scribes throughout history would also be engaged in copying ancient texts; ideally the copies would be made from established authorized texts (or “exemplars”). Throughout the process of hand-copying, numerous changes – many, if not most, unintentional – may be introduced into the text. These hand copies are called “manuscripts” (see below).

Establishing the Text:

A fundamental aspect of studying ancient texts is the recognition and analysis of the textual history of a document or written work, looking at all surviving textual evidence – that is, all forms and versions of the text which exist today (see below on “textual evidence”) – and attempting to establish a reliable form of the text for study. The “established text” (see above on “authorized text”) will ideally be as close as possible to the “Original Text”. Texts surviving from ancient times will have gone through centuries (perhaps millennia) of copying, editing, correcting, and other modifications – over such a long time, with all work done by hand, numerous changes and corruptions naturally occur (see below on “textual variants” and “textual corruption”). A principal goal of textual study and criticism is to (try to) recover the original form of the text.

  • AUTOGRAPH: As indicated above, the “autograph” (from the Greek, “writing from one’s own [hand]”) is basically synonymous with the “original” form of the text; a hand written (or transcribed) copy of the authored text. This may be a draft, by a first documentary hand, or a secondary edition for publication. Very few autographs of ancient texts have survived.
  • EXEMPLAR: Another term for an Authorized Text or Archetype (see above); a reliable and authoritative form of the text (identical with, or close to, the original), from which manuscript copies would be made. After centuries of copying, accurate exemplars would be harder to preserve.
  • MANUSCRIPTS: Hand-written copies of a text. Manuscripts (sometimes abbreviated MS[S]) can be divided into two basic categories:
  • Original Language Manuscripts: Copies of the text (or a recension) preserving the original language in which it was authored. For the New Testament scriptures, these are copies of the original Greek texts.
  • Versions and Translations: These generally refer to copies of the text translated into other languages. For the Old and New Testament scriptures, there are many foreign language manuscripts (translations), which are important for establishing the original text. For some texts, special versions of the original text, in the same language, may also exist.
  • EXTRACTS AND CITATIONS: Portions of a text may also be preserved in other sources, including other written texts. For example, ancient Christian authors quote or cite portions of the New Testament scriptures. In addition, extracts of ancient texts may be written or inscribed on stone, pottery, clay tablets, jewelry, amulets, paintings and works of art, and so forth.
  • PRINTED EDITIONS: Printed editions of texts do not appear, at least in Europe and the Near East, until the mid-15th century (c. 1450 A.D.). Most printed editions are, in some sense “Critical Editions” (see below). Of course, many printed translations of major texts have also been made. Early printed editions (from the Renaissance, 15th-17th centuries) of ancient texts have helped to preserve and transmit texts from ancient and medieval manuscripts which might otherwise have been lost.

Analyzing the Text (with the intent of establishing the text) — Textual criticism proper:

Below are the fundamental terms related to the work of analyzing and establishing the (original) text, which is the primary goal of Textual Criticism.

  •  TEXTUAL WITNESS: A witness to a particular text(form). Any document which contains (any portion of) the text. For New Testament, the main categories of Textual witness are as follows:
  • Greek Manuscripts — Manuscript copies of the New Testament writings. Which can be divided into:
  1. PAPYRI: The early papyrus copies (codex or scroll), found in Egypt, but representing substantially the text as it would have been known in various locations throughout the Roman world. There have been discovered more than 120 such manuscripts (indicated by the symbol Ë), most of which date between 200-600 A.D., though a few are (or may be) from the 2nd century. Among the earliest and most important of these are:
    The Chesty Beatty Papyri: Ë45 (four Gospels and Acts), Ë 46 (Pauline epistles), and Ë 47 (Revelation)
    The Bodmer Papyri: esp. Ë66 (John), and Ë75 (Luke-John)
  2. UNCIALS: Manuscripts (Codices) written in Uncial letters — large, rounded (“majuscule”) letters, something akin to writing with capital letters in English. This handwriting style dominated codex production 200-800 A.D. More than 300 Uncials have been found, including many of the earliest and best MSS:
    a (Codex Sinaiticus, 4th cent.), A (Codex Alexandrinus, 5th cent.), B (Codex Vaticanus, 4th cent., the earliest complete NT), etc.
    These MSS are numbered “01”, “02”, and so forth, with common letter designations up to “045”.
  3. MINUSCULES: Manuscripts written in a smaller, cursive-style script, which became the dominant style after 900 A.D. The majority of New Testament MSS (more than 2800) are minuscules.
  • Versional Manuscripts — Manuscripts of early translations (i.e., foreign-language versions). For New Testament studies, the most important of these are the (Old) Latin, (Old) Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Georgian. Occasionally Arabic and Gothic versions are also cited.
  • Patristic Citations— The text of the New Testament as it appears in the writings of the so-called Church “Fathers” (i.e., “patristic”), the prominent Christian leaders and writers (bishops, apologists, theologians, monastic figures) of the ancient and medieval periods. The early Church Fathers (c. 150-450 A.D.) especially are a valuable witness for the text; however, analyzing them can be a very tricky business. Older scholarship is rife with unreliable or inaccurate citations. New critical editions of writings of key Fathers, as well as solid studies on their use of Scripture, have helped greatly — but much work remains to be done.
  • Lectionaries — These are the books with lessons (“lections”, i.e., Scripture passages) for liturgical use — that is, for public reading in the churches and monasteries. The lessons are arranged in order, according to the Church calendar. More than 2,000 lectionaries have been catalogued, nearly all from the Byzantine period proper (10th-15th cent. A.D.), but they may often preserve much older liturgical information. The synaxarion portion covers the “regular” holy days of the year, the menologion portion, the days specifically related to the lives of Mary, the Apostles, and other Saints.
  • TEXT TYPE or TEXT FAMILY: Groupings of Manuscripts which are closely related. “Text Type” especially implies a broad grouping, extending back many centuries, and including a large number of MSS. “Text Family” is the more general term to discuss any significant grouping of related MSS. Typically four major Text Types have been defined:
    1) Koine (or Byzantine): Representing the majority of MSS, dating primarily from the Medieval period (10th-15th centuries), from the region of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire. Some scholars today would refer to this properly as a “Recension”.  In older parlance, it was sometimes called the “Syrian” text.
    2) Egyptian (Alexandrian): An early and widespread Type, represented by a number of important Papyri and Uncials (such Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus). It is especially in connection with Vaticanus (B), that this text was called “Neutral” by Westcott and Hort (meaning an especially reliable, “pure” form of the text). With some misgivings, this opinion has been generally confirmed by scholars today.
    3) “Western”: The label is something of a misnomer, and is almost never used without quote marks today. However, this does seem to represent an early and discernible form of the text, most notably in the important (and somewhat peculiar) Beza Codex (D), but also in a number of other MSS, including some of the Old Latin and Syriac versions.
    4) “Caesarean”: Many scholars today are unwilling or reluctant to refer to this as a meaningful Type, as it seems to be represented by a relatively small number of MSS, and even then often of a mixed character.The entire terminology of “Text types” has been, to some extent, abandoned today, in favor of more localized “textual clusters” or “textual groups”. The discovery and detailed study of the Papyri has led to a shift in methodology—instead of starting with later manuscripts (with the assumption of established “types”) and working backward, there is an increased tendency to begin with the Papyri and important uncials, with clusters grouped around these key early MSS. These relationships also must be determined from book to book, rather than for the entire NT. For example, a primary early textual group (at least for the Gospel of Luke & John) would be Ë75-B-Ë66.
    In recent decades, especially following the pioneering work of E. C. Colwell and E. W. Tune in the 1960s, there has also been an increase in quantitative methods (such as the Claremont Profile Method) for analyzing these Manuscript relationships. A basic thumbnail for textual affinity is about 70% agreement between MSS, with a gap of 10% between their neighbors (see Colwell, Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the NT [Leiden: Brill] 1969, p. 59).
    Such relationships are determined by the differences (“variant readings”) which exist between manuscripts.
  • TEXTUAL VARIANT(S): or, “Variant Reading(s)”. Any variation in how the text reads — that is to say, differences between the text, at any given point, between two (or more) textual witnesses. In the case of the New Testament, of course, this refers almost exclusively to differences between the Greek Manuscripts. This topic will be discussed in much more detail in the next part (follow-up article). However, at least one important term will be defined here:
  • Variation Unit: This is a term coined by E. C. Colwell & E. W. Tune (see their 1964 article “Variant Readings: Classification and Use”, reprinted in Colwell, Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the NT [Leiden: Brill] 1969, p. 96-105). A variation-unit is any portion of text, delimited according to the natural (grammatical-syntactical) “elements of expression”, where the Greek MSS present at least two variant forms. These “elements” of expression would typically entail (connected) parts of speech, or a specific phrase. Larger units of variation, such as entire sentences or sections, in instances of major add/omit variants and interpolations, do not as readily apply.
    NOTE on the term “Textual Corruption: Believers may find the term “corruption” unsettling in relation to the Scriptures; for those unfamiliar with the terminology, some explanation is warranted. Certainly no sense of moral or doctrinal corruption is intended—it is entirely an objective, neutral term. Anytime changes (accidental or intentional) are introduced into the text during the process of copying: that constitutes textual “corruption”. This assumes that there was, in fact, a specific original text which was “pure”, and that all variants are evidence of scribal corruption. The primary goal of Textual Criticism is, and should be, to establish the original text; though there is much debate as to how far it is possible to achieve this goal.

 

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