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Singular reading. A variant reading that is found in only one manuscript. As such, textual critics can be quite certain that the variant was the creation of the scribe who produced that manuscript.
Singular Reading: technically, a variant reading that occurs in only one Greek manuscript and is therefore immediately suspect. There is some quibbling over this because critics who reject the Westcott and Hort position on the combination of 01 (Sinaiticus) and 03 (Vaticanus) might call a reading “nearly singular” if it has only the support of these two manuscripts. Moreover, it is understood that not all manuscripts are comparable. Thus, for example, one would comfortably reject a reading found only in a single late manuscript, while many critics would not find it so easy to reject a reading supported uniquely by 03. Some also give more credit to singular readings that have additional support from versions. – Dr. Don Wilkins
In accord with Westcott and Hort’s mandate that “knowledge of documents must precede all judgments of readings,” Colwell devised a method wherein he could determine the peculiarities of each manuscript by studying the singular variants in that manuscript. Colwell believed that the singular readings of a manuscript were the textual creations of the scribe, and that an analysis of the patterns found within these singular readings would reveal the habits of the scribe.37 James Royse did an extensive study of the major early papyri focusing on the singular readings which was based on the same rationale that Colwell proposed. In a lengthy, thorough dissertation, entitled “Scribal Habits in Early New Testament Papyri,” Royse characterized the scribal habits exhibited in several early manuscripts (P45, P46, P47, P66, P72, P75) by studying each manuscript’s singular readings (i.e., readings found in that manuscript only, independent of all other extant documents).38 Students should make good use of the work of Colwell and Royse in their description of the papyrus manuscripts. They should also apply the reader-reception methodology explained in the previous chapter to ascertain the response of the scribe to the text as a reader, as opposed to a mere copier. In other words, students should attempt to explain the creation of certain singular variants as being the result of scribal interaction with the text.
Singular readings provide the best—and perhaps only—means of studying a scribe’s reception of the text because they are individualized readings. Other variation units cannot be used for this study because it is always possible that the scribe was simply copying a reading from a previous exemplar. Since we are fairly certain that singular readings were not copied from other manuscripts, they must have been prompted by the text itself—or, should I say, by the scribe’s interaction with the text as a real reader. This is where we see a confluence of Iser’s theories and those of Jauss.
According to Iser, the implied reader is a textual prerequisite because it is regarded as a role of the reader that is written into the text. And it is a prerequisite for the production of meaning in that it is the composite of all the textual clues that are provided for the guidance of the actual reader in his interpretation of the text. The implied reader is therefore a sign-like, text-immanent to which actual readers could react in many different ways. The actual reader’s reactions depend upon what horizon of expectations the reader brings to the text. This is Jauss’s position.39 When we combine these theories, it becomes clear that scribes who functioned as readers produced some very creative responses to the gaps (or lapses of meaning) they encountered in the text. These responses have been preserved for us in the form of singular variants.
Colwell and Tune defined a textual variation unit as that length of the text (1) where the Greek New Testament manuscripts present at least two variant forms and (2) where each variant form is supported by at least two Greek manuscripts.40 When there is a variant reading supported by only one Greek New Testament manuscript, this is called a singular variant—as understood by many textual critics today.41 It is important to note that the definition of a singular variant does not include any mention of versional or patristic support, only of Greek manuscripts. Versions (as translations) have their own history of textual appropriation and transformation, which may have coincidentally matched what occurred in a Greek textual alteration without having been directly influenced by that Greek manuscript. Patristic citations are also problematic and cannot be counted toward excluding a Greek reading from being a singular variant if they happen to line up with the singular variant.
My criteria for a singular variant accords with Royse’s, who said that a singular reading is any variant reading which is found in only one of the continuous-text Greek manuscripts—that is, it is a reading found in one of the New Testament papyri, uncials, or minuscules.42 This categorization excludes lectionaries, patristic sources, and ancient versions because of the well-known difficulties of studying the evidence of such witnesses. Exclusion of this material not only facilitates the task of constructing a list of singulars easier; it also helps to enhance the objectivity of the list. My criteria for a singular variant also includes Colwell’s observation that there are such things as identical singular readings—that is, two scribes of two completely different eras and regions may have created the same reading coincidentally. Colwell said, “Since corruption was universal, identical singular readings with only minor scattered support elsewhere should be assumed to be coincidental in these agreements—unless other external evidence establishes relationship.”43
Not all singular readings are significant. Some must be categorically eliminated from a study of scribal reception. These include obvious transcriptional errors, meaningless transpositions, itacisms, and nonsense readings. A few other kinds of singular readings may or may not be noteworthy; these are minor lexical substitutions and grammatical adjustments. Of course, both of these changes could have been prompted by some kind of perceived lack in the text, but not in the Iserian sense of a blank. A student needs to be judicial in dealing with such variants. Most of the other singular readings are worthy of analysis.
It is important to note that Colwell and Royse describe only the habits of particular scribes as copyists; they do not describe the receptions of scribes as readers. Thus, Colwell and Royse primarily analyze the results of their copying and attempt to explain all singular variants in the traditional terms of textual criticism. They both speak of spelling errors and grammatical emendations or flaws. They both speak of homoeoteleuton and homoeoarchton causing parablepsis or scribal leaps. They both speak of harmonization to the immediate context and harmonization to remote parallels. However, neither of them focus on the activity of the scribe as a reader, who brings his own horizon of expectations to the text and who is also impelled by various textual constructs to produce individualized interpolations or ingenious modifications. Such singular readings are not a display of aberrant copying as much as they are a reflection of how the scribe became involved with the reading process. True, many singular variants can be identified as having been created by the immediate context, which is a traditional canon in textual criticism. So, admittedly, there will be some overlap between internal criticism based on immediate context and an analysis of reader reception because both look to the context as providing the textual clues for reader reception. However, Colwell and Royse did not analyze what structured act in the text (in the Iserian sense) prompted the scribes as readers to make various changes. Nor did Colwell and Royse consider the scribe’s horizon of expectation as a motivating factor in stimulating some textual change. I think students analyzing singular variants should also attempt to see how the scribes, functioning as readers, reacted to the network of response-inviting structures in the text and filled in various blanks by drawing upon their repository of reading experience and life experience (Lebenswelt).
When Colwell asks the question, “why singular variants?” he furnishes the answer from a textual transmission perspective,44 not necessarily from a reader-text interaction perspective. Thus, his characterizations of individual scribes is based on his observation of them as copyists, not as interactive readers. This is evident in the following comment: “One scribe is liable to dittography; another to omission of lines of text; one reads well; another remembers poorly.”45 In context, Colwell’s definition of “reading” describes nothing more than the act of rote reading for the sake of copying. In Royse’s final analysis of the scribal tendencies of P45, P66, and P75, he provides an illuminating profile of each of the scribes.46 However, not one of these profiles describes the scribes as individualized, interactive readers. I do not say these things to criticize Colwell’s methodology or Royse’s analysis, for both scholars presented solid results that were consistent with what they set out to do. And the student is encouraged to follow their guidelines. But I would also urge students to analyze what Colwell and Royse did not analyze—namely, the interactive process of reading and how this was responsible for the creation of several significant variant readings.47
By Philip Comfort
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37 Colwell, op. cit., 106–24.
38 James Royse, “Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri.”
39 Jauss, “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory,” 7–37.
40 Colwell and Tune, “Variant Readings: Classification and Use,” 259–61.
41 Epp and Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, 50–57.
42 Royse, “Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri,” 45–46.
43 Colwell, Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the New Testament, 123.
44 Ibid., 108.
45 Ibid., 114.
46 Royse, op. cit., 156–57, 423, 560.
47 This was the goal of my dissertation, specifically for P45, P66, and P75 (Gospel papyri). See Comfort, “The Scribe as Interpreter: A New Look at New Testament Textual Criticism according to Reader Response Theory” (1997).
 Philip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 306–308.