Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
An Introduction to Textual Criticism: Part 7--The Task of Textual Criticism: Weighing the Evidence
04/15/2008 - Colin Smith
When faced with the overwhelming task of evaluating the many New Testament manuscripts to determine the original reading of any passage, the textual critic must start with basic ground rules by which the various readings must be considered. These rules have developed over the last two hundred years, and are, more or less, adopted by textual scholars across the board. They take into consideration both internal factors (context and style, for example), and external factors (text type, age, and agreement with other versions or with early church fathers, for example). While textual scholars agree over the need for such canons, they differ over which canons should be use, or which carry the most weight.
There are three main factors that should be considered when assessing the external evidence for a reading. First, there is the date of the reading. This may not necessarily be the same as the date of the manuscript in which the reading is found. A manuscript might be relatively late, but contain a text that was copied from a very early manuscript. As Bruce Metzger notes, there are some late minuscule manuscripts that are now recognized as containing a text earlier than some of the later uncial texts. While the age of a reading is only one of many evidences that would contribute to its final assessment, a reading that cannot be traced back into the early days of the manuscript tradition is unlikely to be original.
We must be careful here because, as Dr. Maurice Robinson correctly points out, where there are only a few manuscripts, it makes sense that there will be fewer attestations to original readings. Hence, a lack of evidence for a reading in the earliest centuries of the manuscript tradition may simply be due to the lack of witnesses in that period of time (see Maurice Robinson's "The Case for Byzantine Priority," online paper available from http://rosetta.reltech.org/TC/vol06/Robinson2001.html). However, there should be witnesses to that reading at a reasonably early date.
Second, consideration should be given to the geographical spread of the manuscripts that agree with a given reading or variant. If manuscripts from distant and diverse locations support a particular variant, that variant may have a greater claim to authenticity, since it is unlikely that these manuscripts could have been copied from one another. It is possible, however, that the manuscripts in question share a common ancestor, which would significantly diminish their claim to independent testimony.
Finally, the manuscript in question must be assessed in terms of its genealogy. Manuscripts that originate from the same source and maintain a close affinity to their sister documents need not be considered independently. The recognition of such family groupings can help the textual critic to reduce the number of manuscripts that need to be examined, and recognizing family traits in a manuscript can alert the critic to the nature of the text. Textual critics of different viewpoints may have a tendency to apply this principle according to their particular persuasions. For example, the identification of a manuscript as Byzantine might indicate to a scholar who favors Byzantine manuscripts that this is one to trust. However, that same identification might make a scholar who does not share this view of the Byzantine text family very wary of the manuscript--indeed, some might dismiss the manuscript out-of-hand on this basis alone. Naturally, this tendency should be guarded against most strongly.
Hort divided internal evidence into two main types, transcriptional and intrinsic. Transcriptional evidence pertains to the habits of scribes: things scribes were prone to do in the course of transcribing manuscripts. This would also include the kind of scribal errors discussed in a previous article, as well as more the more deliberate acts of copyists. Intrinsic evidence refers to the consideration of the author's style and the context in which he wrote: of all the possible variants, which is the author most likely to have written given his character, his style, his environment, and his background, as far as these things can be ascertained? Numerous rules have been proposed and refined over the years based on these considerations. What follows is a brief presentation of some of the more significant of these rules.
The chosen reading must be able to explain the existence of the variant readings.
There can hardly be any dispute that of all the internal principles, this one is of paramount importance. Variant readings did not appear out of nowhere; they all originated as a result of misreading, misunderstanding, or not liking the original word. The reading that can be shown to have given rise to all the variants is clearly the original reading.
Preference is given to the more difficult reading.
This principle is based on the assumption that a scribe would not normally substitute a common word for a rare word, or a clear reading for an obscure one. While this principle is usually true, and it is highly regarded amongst textual critics, it can be argued that the term "difficult" is often applied subjectively. For example, Acts 20:28 speaks of the church of God, "which He purchased through His own blood" (NASB). Many manuscripts however have "Lord" instead of "God." One might assume that "God" is the more difficult reading since this might imply that God (assuming this refers only to the Father) has blood, and that it was He and not the Son that died on the cross--the ancient heresy of patripassionism. In this instance "Lord" would be more acceptable since it implies Jesus, who certainly did shed His own blood for the church. The problem of using the principle of the most difficult reading here is that it assumes that "God" was a difficult reading for the original author. Yet, for the person who understands Trinitarian doctrine, and the way words are used by the New Testament authors as a whole, neither "God" nor "Lord" really presents any great theological difficulty. In the midst of the Christological debates of the third and fourth century, this passage may well have found itself thrust into the spotlight. Under these circumstances, the fact that this reading persisted, and that it did so in a variety of locations, would be of significance. But notice at this point that other factors are being brought to bear upon the reading (i.e., history and transmission) to test the theory. In other words, it is clear that this principle should not stand alone when used to give testimony to the veracity of a particular reading.
Maurice Robinson further qualifies this principle by recognizing that scribes often wrote nonsense, but other scribes rarely copied nonsense. Hence, a legitimate difficult reading would be copied into successive generations, but mere nonsense would not last beyond a few generations.
Preference is given to the reading that fits the style of the author.
Each New Testament author exhibits a distinctive writing style that is evident from words or phrases they seem to favor. This principle simply states that of a given number of variants, the original is most likely to be the one that fits the authors style. Those variants that use words or phrases that the author has not used either in this work, or in other extant writings, are probably not original. There is some controversy over this principle since, once again, it is open to subjectivism, and it is also reliant upon incomplete sources. For example, it is clear that Mark uses the phrase kai. euvqu,j (and immediately) very regularly; it is one of the stylistic traits of Mark's Gospel. However, this principle might appear to ignore the fact that Mark could well choose to vary his style. For some reason, he may want to deviate from using this phrase at a certain point, and it is just as possible that a later scribe changed the reading to kai. euvqu,j assuming that this should be the original reading. It can also be argued that since Mark's Gospel is the only evidence of Mark's writing style extant, it is impossible to be certain of his style. Once again, this principle should not be the sole determining factor for the originality of a reading, but it should be one of the factors that are considered.
Readings that are clear attempts at harmonization are to be rejected.
The emphasis here needs to be placed on clear. There is debate over the extent toward which scribes tended to harmonize passages. It is argued that harmonization occurred with such inconsistency that one should be careful when using this principle as a deciding factor. Some scholars may see the mere hint of a harmonization as a reason to discredit a reading. Such tendencies ought to be resisted, and only the most obvious harmonization should be rejected on the grounds of this principle.
Scribal habits must be considered when evaluating a reading.
This principle states that the textual critic needs to examine the scribe's style from the point of view of common scribal habits, such as transcriptional errors, harmonization, or expanding names out of piety. Included in this last category is the expansion of Jesus to Jesus Christ, or the Lord Jesus Christ. If the manuscript in question appears to reflect one or more of such phenomena regularly throughout the text, then it is possible that many, or all, of these readings are not original.
Part 8: "Traditional Text" Positions: Textus Receptus and Majority Text Only--coming soon...