Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
An Introduction to Textual Criticism: Part 4--The Role of Church History in Textual Criticism
03/29/2008 - Colin SmithOnce we understand the process by which the New Testament books were written and disseminated throughout the world, we are in a better position to understand the problem that faces anyone who wants to reconstruct the original New Testament text. The fact remains that the original manuscripts of the New Testament have long since perished, hence the modern textual scholar is left with thousands of manuscripts, some fragmentary, some nearly complete, in a variety of languages, from different ages of church history, and from different regions of the world from which to determine the original words of the New Testament writers. The process by which the textual scholar assesses variant readings and manuscripts to produce an approximation to the original text is known as Textual Criticism.
One of the most important aspects of textual criticism, too often overlooked in past years, is the way that history as a whole, and church history in particular, influenced the transmission of the New Testament. Scholars who study the various manuscripts identify trends and notice periods of time when certain types of manuscript dominated, and times they did not. Historical study can help the textual scholar figure out the reasons behind these trends, and these reasons may lead him to favor particular manuscripts or manuscript families over others, at least within particular time frames.
The first 250 years of church history were marked by fighting against early heresy (Gnosticism, Judaisers, Sabellianism, and Arianism), and fighting for existence under severe persecution. The extent to which heresy influenced the early copies of the New Testament is an oft-debated issue. Many of the earliest manuscripts extant today bear the textual hallmarks of originating in Alexandria (or being copies of manuscripts that originated in that region). During the first few centuries of the church, Alexandria had the reputation of being an intellectual center. The library at Alexandria was legendary, and it was certainly a melting pot of ideas and philosophies. It is easy to see how scribes in Alexandria might be tempted to re-write passages of the New Testament to fit their particular theological persuasion, and it is possible that this happened. It should be noticed, however, that the church at this time was not completely without discernment. There were many Gnostic-tinged (and Gnostic-immersed) Gospels written around the first few centuries that were rejected outright by the church. It is hard to imagine that a church would reject on the one hand The Gospel of Thomas, for example, and yet on the other hand receive versions of the canonical Gospels that had been altered to reflect the same essential message of the Gnostic Gospels.
The fact that the church underwent severe persecution during this time is very significant to the history of the text of the New Testament. First, as mentioned earlier, the threat of persecution meant that the demand for copies of the Scriptures was met hurriedly and under adverse conditions. Many texts produced in this way would be prone to spelling errors and the kinds of human error precipitated by speed. Secondly, during waves of intense persecution it was a common practice for copies of the Scriptures to be confiscated and burned. This left a paucity of copies of New Testament books in certain regions of the Roman Empire.
After Constantine became Emperor in A.D. 313, Christianity was no longer a persecuted religion but enjoyed the protection of the Roman Empire. As a result of this, scribes could more easily gather together and take more care over the reproduction and transmission of the New Testament text. It is impossible to say whether any kind of official text was produced under Constantine like the official text of the Old Testament created by the Massoretic scribes, but without the pressure of persecution it became much easier to copy and transmit the Scriptures with accuracy. In 330, Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the ancient Greek city of Byzantium (renamed Constantinople after his death) and the vast majority of the manuscripts around today bear the hallmarks of originating from this region.
As Latin surpassed Greek as the everyday language of the Roman Empire, demand increased for a Latin version of the Bible that would supercede the various Latin versions floating around at the time. Jerome was commissioned with the work of translating the Greek text into Latin, which he completed in A.D. 406. His Latin version of the Bible, known as the Vulgate, became the official version of the Roman Empire, and remained the official version of the Western church until the Reformation (and continued to be the official version of the Roman Catholic Church until relatively recently). The Eastern Church, however, did not succumb to Latin and continued to read the Scriptures and perform their liturgy in Greek. From the middle of the seventh century, Islam started to make incursions into the Eastern Empire (the West was largely saved thanks to the efforts of Charles Martel), eventually overwhelming most of the region except for the area around Byzantium. In 1453, Byzantium finally fell to the Ottoman Turks, and Christian scholars fled with their books to the relative safety of Europe. By the time of Byzantium's fall, the West was devoid of anyone with facility in the Greek language. The Byzantine scholars who fled to the West from Byzantium took with them their knowledge of Greek and their copies of classic works in Greek, including the New Testament. The exodus of Byzantine scholars to the West was an integral part of the rise of humanism and the Renaissance in Europe. Now people didn't have to rely upon Latin translations of classic Greek works--they could learn Greek from these eastern refugees and have access to their books. This included the Greek New Testament, which now became available to scholars who, until now, had largely only known the Scriptures in Latin.
Around 1439, Johannes Gutenberg introduced printing by means of movable type to the world, revolutionizing both the way people communicated, and enabling the mass production of books for a fraction of the cost of hand-copying. (In Jerome's time, a copy of a book could take up to a year to produce, depending on the size, and cost a year's wages.) Naturally, the Latin Vulgate was the first book from Guttenberg's press, and many more were to follow. It was not until 1514, however, that the Greek New Testament was first published. Bruce Metzger, an expert in the study of textual criticism, suggested two reasons for this delay: first, the fact that a new font had to be created, and type blocks had to be made to represent each individual letter and letter variation. Also, the Latin Vulgate enjoyed unchallenged authority as the official version of the Bible. While Greek was an unknown language to most people, and Greek New Testaments scarce in the West, the Vulgate's position was secure. However, once people could learn Greek grammar and obtain a Greek New Testament, they may be emboldened to challenge the official translation of the church, striking a blow at the church's authority.
Part 5: The Received Text--coming soon...
An Introduction to Textual Criticism: Part 3--Textual Errors
03/25/2008 - Colin SmithDue to the hasty nature by which the early New Testament manuscripts were transmitted, it is only to be expected that errors were introduced from the earliest time. Especially in the first two centuries A. D., when there was great pressure to make copies of the various New Testament books in a short period of time, it was easy for hurried scribes to introduce many typographical errors into the text that would perpetuate with subsequent copying. Even after the establishment of Christianity under Constantine, when reproduction of the Scriptures could be conducted under more peaceful and stable circumstances, scribes were prone to err. Most works on the subject of textual criticism explore the various ways in which New Testament manuscripts were corrupted. These are just a few of the more important types of scribal error.
Faulty Vision or Hearing
Often errors crept into copies of the New Testament manuscripts simply as a result of human frailty. The person copying would see or hear (if copying by dictation) the next word, but mistake a crucial letter form or sound, replacing the original word with what he thinks it is. This would present a problem for future copyists who, without having access to the original document, would be left wondering whether the word in the manuscript in front of him was the original word. For example, in Acts 15:40, did Paul choose Silas or receive Silas before leaving? Some uncial manuscripts have the Greek word EPILEXAMENOS while others have the Greek word EPIDEXAMENOS. The former word means having chosen and the latter having received. It is evident from a careful examination of these two words how a short-sighted scribe, who would not have had the modern aid of precise glasses or contacts, could confuse one word for the other, especially when either could fit the context of the sentence. The scribe's poor eyesight would not have been helped by the fact that the natural horizontal lines on the papyrus could affect the writing, possibly suggesting a line at the bottom of the lambda (L) making it into a delta (D), where the original scribe may not have actually written such a line.
Students learning classical or koine(New Testament) Greek today are at a disadvantage with regard to pronunciation, since the native speakers of the language did not leave a written account of the letter or word sounds. Most of the time, modern New Testament Greek instructors will present a pronunciation system that approximates the original and can help the student with learning vocabulary. For many, this is adequate since neither classical nor koine Greek function as a spoken language today. Interestingly, manuscripts from the first few centuries of the church give some indication of how koine Greek might have sounded by reasoning from some of the spelling variations. For example, the Greek words h`min (hêmin) and u`min (humin) often appear in different manuscripts in place of one another. This indicates that, at least in some regions if not generally, the Greek letters eta (h) and upsilon (u) were pronounced the same way. Since it was a common practice, especially post-Constantine, for copies of the New Testament to be made by a group of scribes writing to dictation, a scribe lacking precise enough hearing to distinguish h and u would be left making an educated guess.
Parablepsis and Homoeoteleuton
These two Greek terms refer to two similar scribal errors that are certainly not peculiar to ancient writers. Parablepsis, or looking to the side, occurs when a scribe's eye falls on a group of words further down the page that resemble (or are identical) to the words he has just written, and continues copying from that point, skipping over the intervening line or lines. Homoeoteleuton (similar ending) is a related phenomenon where the scribe's eye alights on a word or a line whose ending is similar to, or the same as, the ending of the word or line he has just written and he continues writing from that point. Again, the result is the omission of any text in the middle of the two similar-ending lines. Many of the differences between manuscripts due to omission of words or phrases have been ascribed to parablepsis or homoeoteleuton.
Harmonization and Conflation
From a study of the ancient manuscripts, it is clear that scribes often felt at liberty to alter the text of the New Testament from which they were copying, not out of malicious intent, but because the scribe sincerely felt that the scribe whose work he was copying had erred in his work. Perhaps he spotted what he considered to be a scribal error in the text and he sought to correct it; or perhaps he was familiar with the passage and wanted to "correct" the version in front of him according to the more familiar version. From this it can be deduced that most of these copyists were not reading these works for the first time. The fact of their familiarity with the New Testament text, along with the sense of freedom the scribe felt to correct the work of his predecessor, sheds light on the common practice of harmonization. Especially in the case of the Gospels, scribes would often feel free (maybe even obliged) to bring accounts recorded in more than one of the Gospels into line with one other. Naturally, not all scribes would feel this compulsion, and even those who did would not necessarily harmonize in the same place and in the same way. This would, therefore, generate more variations between manuscripts.
If a scribe is working from more than one manuscript, he may come across a detail in one that appears to be missing in the other, or may be different in the other. Since the scribe would probably not know the original reading, he would face the dilemma of either including or changing the original word for something else, or leaving out the original wording. Often the resolution to the dilemma was to include both readings; this way he could be sure that he was preserving the original, even if he had no way of determining which one it is. This practice is known as "conflation," or "a conflation of readings."
There are many more examples of scribal errors, and the reader is referred to standard works on textual criticism for more details.
Part 4: The Role of Church History in Textual Criticism--coming soon!
An Introduction to Textual Criticism: Part 2--The Writing and Transmission of Ancient Documents
03/20/2008 - Colin SmithThis is a large and fascinating area of study that can only be dealt briefly within the scope of a blog article. My purpose is to give an idea of how ancient manuscripts were written and distributed to help aid your understanding of the way the New Testament, under the Holy Spirit's providential guidance, came together.
The majority of ancient biblical manuscripts were written on either papyrus or parchment. Papyrus was an early form of paper (as you can guess, the English word "paper" is derived from the word "papyrus") made from the leaves of the papyrus plant that grows predominantly in Egypt and the Nile delta region. The leaves of this plant were arranged horizontally, and then a vertical arrangement of leaves placed on top. These were then moistened and pressed together to form the paper. When papyrus was first made, it was almost as strong as good-quality paper, so it was a very popular medium. Also, compared to parchment, it was relatively inexpensive. Parchment, or vellum as the higher-grade version is called, was made out of animal skins, usually either from goats, cattle, sheep, or antelope. The skins were first scraped to remove hair, and then washed and prepared for writing. Sometimes special dyes were applied to color the parchment to create deluxe versions of books. Due to the nature of the material, parchment manuscripts have lasted much better than papyrus, although the dry sands of Egypt have proven a good atmosphere for the preservation of papyrus manuscripts. ...
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An Introduction to Textual Criticism: Part 1--Introduction
03/18/2008 - Colin SmithThe study of the various manuscript witnesses to the New Testament, commonly referred to as New Testament Textual Criticism, is, without doubt, of the most critical importance for the Christian church. For the non-Christian academic, the precise wording of the original Greek language texts is of scholarly interest, but nothing more. For the Christian, however, the text under examination is God's Word communicated through men to men. If these words are inspired by God, then it is of paramount importance that the Christian know exactly which words God intended the inspired authors to write. Indeed, the question of what the pastor is going to preach to his congregation in terms of the Biblical text should drive the Christian textual critic to pursue excellence in this field of study.
There is almost unanimous certainty that, given the quantity of New Testament manuscripts that have been preserved throughout the world--whether entire Bibles, or small fragments, within all of these manuscripts the exact wording of the original New Testament text has been preserved. The work of the textual critic is to sift through the manuscripts and determine to the best of his ability, given the evidence available, which ones contain the original words. Are they all contained in one manuscript, a family of related manuscripts, or perhaps a lot of extremely diverse manuscripts?
There are many different theories and approaches to the discipline, art, and science of textual criticism, and it is easy for the layperson to hear two or three and think either that they are all the same, or that they are all at odds. Moreover, these views are not often articulated clearly enough for most laypeople to understand and apply them when choosing Bible translations or evaluating the opinions of commentators. The purpose of this series is to guide the layperson through the most common text critical positions, and provide some analysis of their weak and strong points. This is not an exhaustive study, and the reader is directed to books in the field by authors such as Bruce Metzger and Kurt Aland for further reading. Dr. White's book The King James Only Controversy is also a very helpful introduction to the art and science of textual criticism.