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If you are only interested in the book recommendations at the end of this article, simply scroll down. However, it is better to have read the article. it will offer you the one sure, objective, trusted approach at getting at the original words of the original texts.
The approach of this author to New Testament Textual Studies is almost identical to Philip W. Comfort. I started my research and studies in NTTC in 1996. Metzger’s TEXT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT was the book to read. I have much respect for the textual scholars from the 1700s to the 21st century, some being J. J. Griesbach (1745–1812), Karl Lachmann (1793-1851), to Samuel Tregelles (1813–1875), to Constantin von Tischendorf (1815–1874), to Westcott (1825 – 1901) and Hort (1828 – 1892), to the Nestles and Alands of the Nestle Aland Text.
These had methods of deciding the original reading and literally worked with the manuscripts personally, making critical texts that make up our modern-day Bible translations.
Philip Comfort has maintained decades of consistency with his approach to New Testament Textual Criticism. The difference between him and most other textual scholars today is stated by Dr. Stanley E. Porter, “that Comfort is one of few that I know of who has actually examined and published a major work in which he contends that he has examined the entire range of early New Testament manuscripts.” Many modern-day textual scholars have the mental disposition described by Dr. Daniel Wallace in the Foreword of Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, modern evangelical scholars are “far more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty than previous generations.” (Page xii). (bold and underline mine) Let’s look at one paragraph from Comfort, notice his tone and view,
For my own part, my work with the significant textual variants leads me to conclude, with some degree of certainty, that for any given passage of scripture, the original text usually stands somewhere either in the critical edition produced by Westcott and Hort or that produced by Nestle, Aland, et al. Many of the papyri discoveries in the twentieth century affirm readings in Westcott and Hort, but these readings were not always accepted by Aland and the UBS committee. On the other hand, several of the readings in the early papyri show that the text of Westcott and Hort needed to be revised, and this was done in the Nestle-Aland/UBS edition. And there are still other readings (relatively few in number) which, in my estimation, are likely original but were not adopted by either edition. Finally, I must admit that there are several instances where one or more variant readings have equal qualifications to claim the right as being “the original wording.” Many textual critics would say the same—though probably about different textual-variant units than the ones I consider. But there is, by no means, a large number of such textual variants. And these few recalcitrant cases should not cause us to abandon the task of recovering the original wording of the Greek New Testament. New insights have come and will keep coming, in the form of actual documents, new methodologies, and new understandings. These will help us continue the valid and necessary task of seeking to reconstruct the original with a high degree of accuracy. (bold mine)
The most used and referred to is reasoned eclecticism, which is supposed to objectively view all the evidence internal and external. And maybe it mostly did up until about the 1990s. Now, reasoned eclecticism is almost entirely looking at internal evidence, not paying too much attention to the external manuscripts as for them, they are all equal. Comfort writes about textual methods after the days of Westcott and Hort, “Left without a solid methodology for making external judgments, textual critics turned more and more to internal evidence.”
This author’s approach and that of Comfort, Dr. Don Wilkins of the NASB is the Documentary Approach. Earlier manuscripts usually have better readings by this standard. However, for the modern-day textual scholars who have twisted reason eclecticism, textual mixture or contamination is always assumed, so in the minds of many or most textual critics, internal evidence should prevail over documentary when the two are in opposition. For Tregelles, Hort, Colwell, Comfort, myself (Edward Andrews), and Wilkins, as well as some others, we maintain that superior documentary evidence should prevail over internal unless internal evidence is extremely significant in overruling it. We believe in looking at both internal and external evidence but give a slight weightiness to the manuscripts that have earned it. When a manuscript is consistently presenting superior readings elsewhere, it should be preferred when its reading in a passage seems in some way inferior to that of lesser manuscripts.
Those who practice textual criticism know this all too well. The situation then becomes one of emphasis. Does one give more weight to documentary evidence or to internal consideration? Scholars such as Tregelles, Hort, and Colwell (see comments below) place more emphasis on the documents. I tend to follow their lead. Other scholars, such as Kilpatrick, Boismard, and Elliott, place more emphasis on internal criticism, such that they advocate “thorough-going eclecticism” (see a good article on this by Elliott 2002, 101–124). Other scholars practice reasoned eclecticism, as explained by Holmes. Among those are Aland and Metzger, though each has his own emphasis. (bold mine)
This method has given us the critical text of Westcott and Hort of 1881 that is still 99.5% reflective in our NA28 and UBS5 critical texts. So, let’s let Comfort give us an overview of this method.
Refining the Documentary Approach
All textual critics—including those working with the classics—implement both external and internal criticism in selecting the reading which is most likely original. And all textual critics must do this on a variant-unit by variant-unit basis. Some give priority of place to internal over external evidence; others do the opposite. The editors of NU demonstrate that they tried to do both; this can be seen in Metzger’s discussions in A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. However, it is my observation that the resultant eclectic text exhibits too much dependence on internal evidence, emphasizing the “local” aspect of the “local-genealogical” method, to use Aland’s language. This means that the decision making, on a variant-unit by variant-unit basis, produced a text with an uneven documentary presentation. Furthermore, the committee setting, with members voting on each significant textual variant, cannot help but produce a text with uneven documentation. All eclectic texts reconstruct a text that no ancient Christian actually read, even though they approach a close replication of the original writings. However, the NU edition’s eclecticism extends even to following different manuscripts within the same sentence.4
In my view, an eclectic approach that gives greater weight to external (documentary) evidence is best. Such an approach labors to select a premier group of manuscripts as the primary witnesses for certain books and/or sections of the New Testament, not for the entire New Testament, since each book of the New Testament was, in its earliest form, a separate publication. Once the best manuscripts for each book or group of books in the New Testament are established, these manuscripts need to be pruned of obvious errors and singular variants. Then these should be the manuscripts used for determining the most likely original wording. The burden of proof on textual critics is to demonstrate that the best manuscripts, when challenged by the testimony of other witnesses, do not contain the original wording. The part of this process that corresponds to Aland’s “localness” (internal evidence) is that the text must be determined on a variant-unit basis. However, my view of the “genealogical” (external evidence) aspect is that it must be preestablished for an entire book and not re-created verse by verse, which results in a very uneven documentary presentation. Of course, internal criticism will have to come into play when documentary evidence is evenly divided, or when some feature of the text strongly calls for it. And, on occasion, it must be admitted that two (or more) readings are equally good candidates for being deemed the original wording.
The Importance of the Documentary Considerations
“Reasoned eclecticism” or the “local-genealogical” method in actual practice tend to give priority to internal evidence over external evidence, resulting in the atomistic eclecticism. I agree with Westcott and Hort that it has to be the other way around if we are going to recover the original text. In their compilation of The New Testament in the Original Greek, Hort wrote, “Documentary evidence has been in most cases allowed to confer the place of honour against internal evidence” (1881, 17).
Colwell was of the same mind when he wrote “Hort Redivivus: A Plea and a Program.” In this article, Colwell decried the “growing tendency to rely entirely on the internal evidence of readings, without serious consideration of documentary evidence” (1969a, 152). Colwell called upon scholars to attempt a reconstruction of the history of the manuscript tradition. But very few scholars have followed Colwell’s urgings because they believe (in agreement with Aland as quoted in appendix B) that it is impossible to reconstruct a stemma (a sort of manuscript “family tree”) for the Greek New Testament. Perhaps they hold this line because they fear that some will attempt to make a stemma leading back to the original, and that such a reconstruction will involve a subjective determination of the best line of manuscripts. Westcott and Hort have been criticized for doing this when they posited the “Neutral” text, leading from B back to the original.
However, a reconstruction of the early manuscript tradition does not necessarily mandate a genealogical lineage back to the original text—although that is the ultimate purpose of making a stemma. The reconstruction can help us understand the relationships between various manuscripts and provide insights into origin and associations. In the process, it might also be discovered that, out of all the extant manuscripts, some of the earliest ones are, in fact, the closest replications of the original text.
One of the most compelling reasons for returning to a documentary approach is the evidence that the second-century papyrus 𝔓75 provides. This is the gospel manuscript (containing Luke and John) that has changed—or should have changed—nearly everyone’s mind about abandoning a historical-documentary approach. It is a well-known fact that the text produced by the scribe of 𝔓75 is a very accurate manuscript. It is also well-known that a manuscript like 𝔓75 was the exemplar for Codex Vaticanus; the texts of 𝔓75 and B are remarkably similar, demonstrating 83-percent agreement (see Porter 1962, 363–376, a seminal article on this issue).
Prior to the discovery of 𝔓75 (which was published in 1961), many textual scholars were convinced that the second- and third-century papyri displayed a text in flux, a text characterized only by individual independence. The Chester Beatty Papyrus, 𝔓45, and the Bodmer Papyri, 𝔓66 (uncorrected) and 𝔓72 (in 2 Peter and Jude), show this kind of independence. Scholars thought that scribes at Alexandria must have used several such manuscripts to produce a good recension—as is exhibited in Codex Vaticanus. Kenyon conjectured:
During the second and third centuries, a great variety of readings came into existence throughout the Christian world. In some quarters, considerable license was shown in dealing with the sacred text; in others, more respect was shown to the tradition. In Egypt this variety of texts existed, as elsewhere; but Egypt (and especially Alexandria) was a country of strong scholarship and with a knowledge of textual criticism. Here, therefore, a relatively faithful tradition was preserved. About the beginning of the fourth century, a scholar may well have set himself to compare the best accessible representatives of this tradition, and so have produced a text of which B is an early descendant. (1940, 250)
Much of what Kenyon said is accurate, especially about Alexandria preserving a relatively pure tradition. But Kenyon was wrong in thinking that Codex Vaticanus was the result of a “scholarly recension,” resulting from “editorial selection” across the various textual histories (1949, 208). Kenyon cannot be faulted for this opinion, because 𝔓75 had not yet been discovered when he wrote. However, the discovery of 𝔓75 and Vaticanus’s close textual relationship to it have caused textual critics to look at things differently, for it is now quite clear that Codex Vaticanus was a copy (with some modifications) of a manuscript much like the second-century papyrus 𝔓75, not a copy of a fourth-century recension.
Zuntz held an opinion similar to Kenyon’s, positing an Alexandrian recension. After studying 𝔓46, Zuntz imagined that the Alexandrian scribes selected the best manuscripts and gradually produced a text that reflected what they considered to be the original. In other words, they functioned as the most ancient of the New Testament textual critics. Zuntz believed that, from at least the middle of the second century to the fourth century, the Alexandrian scribes worked to purify the text from textual corruption. Speaking of their efforts, Zuntz wrote:
The Alexander correctors strove, in ever repeated efforts, to keep the text current in their sphere free from the many faults that had infected it in the previous period and which tended to crop up again even after they had been obelized [i.e., marked as spurious]. These labours must time and again have been checked by persecutions and the confiscation of Christian books, and counteracted by the continuing currency of manuscripts of the older type. Nonetheless they resulted in the emergence of a type of text (as distinct from a definite edition) which served as a norm for the correctors in provincial Egyptian scriptoria. The final result was the survival of a text far superior to that of the second century, even though the revisers, being fallible human beings, rejected some of its own correct readings and introduced some faults of their own. (1953, 271–272)
The point behind Zuntz’s conjecture of a gradual Alexandrian recension was to prove that the Alexandrian text was the result of a process beginning in the second century and culminating in the fourth century with Codex Vaticanus. In this regard, Zuntz was incorrect. This, again, has been proven by the close textual affinity between 𝔓75 and B. The “Alexandrian” text already existed in the late second century; it was not the culmination of a recension. In this regard, Haenchen wrote:
In 𝔓75, which may have been written around 200 a.d., the “neutral” readings are already practically all present, without any need for a long process of purification to bring them together miro quodam modo out of a multitude of manuscripts.… 𝔓75 allows us rather to see the neutral text as already as good as finished, before that slow development could have started at all; it allows us the conclusion that such manuscripts as lay behind Vaticanus—even if not for all New Testament books—already existed for centuries. (1971, 59)
Kurt Aland’s thinking was also changed by 𝔓75. He used to speak of the second- and third-century manuscripts as exhibiting a text in flux or even a “mixed” text, but not after the discovery of 𝔓75. He wrote, “𝔓75 shows such a close affinity with the Codex Vaticanus that the supposition of a recension of the text at Alexandria, in the fourth century, can no longer be held” (1965, 336).
The discovery of 𝔓75 shows that Hort was basically right in his assertion that Codex Vaticanus must trace back to a very early and accurate copy. Hort (1882, 250–251) had written that Codex Vaticanus preserves “not only a very ancient text, but a very pure line of a very ancient text.” But some scholars may point out that this does not automatically mean that 𝔓75 and B preserve the original text. What it does mean, they say, is that we have a second-century manuscript showing great affinity with a fourth-century manuscript whose quality has been highly esteemed. However, Gordon Fee (1974, 19–43) has demonstrated that there was no Alexandrian recension before the time of 𝔓75. In an article appropriately title “𝔓75, 𝔓66, and Origen: The Myth of Early Textual Recension in Alexandria,” Fee posits that there was no Alexandrian recension before the time of 𝔓75 (late second century) and Codex Vaticanus (early fourth) and that both these manuscripts “seem to represent a ‘relatively pure’ form of preservation of a ‘relatively pure’ line of descent from the original text.” In other words, the original text of Luke and John is virtually preserved in 𝔓75. Of course, 𝔓75 is not perfect, but it is closer to perfect than Codex Vaticanus, partially because it is 125–150 years closer to the original text.
Some textual critics, however, are not convinced that the 𝔓75/B type of text is superior to another type of early text, which has been called the “Western” text. The “Western” form of the text was early in that it appears to have been used by Marcion, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian—all of whom were alive in the second century. The name “Western” was given to this type of text because it circulated primarily in western regions like North Africa, Gaul, and Italy, but it was also present in Syria and even in Egypt. Thus, most scholars recognize that the “Western” text is not really a text-type; rather, it is a loose categorization of early texts that were not Alexandrian (which is why “Western” is often put in quotation marks in the literature). Some scholars see it as a complete misnomer. Colwell, for example, states, “The so-called Western text or Delta type text is the uncontrolled, popular edition of the second century. It has no unity and should not be referred to as the ‘Western text’ ” (1969b, 53). The Alands also see it to be nothing more than a loose association of manuscripts, arguing, “Wherever we look in the West, nowhere can we find a theological mind capable of developing and editing an independent ‘Western text.’ ” (1987, 54).
These observations aside, some scholars are still skeptical that the 𝔓75/B type of text is at all superior to the Western text. They argue that the preference given to B and 𝔓75 is based on a subjective appreciation of the kind of text they contain (generally terser than the “Western” text), rather than on any kind of theoretical reconstruction of the early transmission of the text (see Epp 1974, 390–394). It is argued that this same subjective estimation was at work when Westcott and Hort decided that B was intrinsically superior to D (Westcott and Hort 1882, 32–42). However, the notion that manuscripts like 𝔓75 and B represent the best of textual purity is persistent, particularly among textual critics who have worked with many actual manuscripts—both of the proto-Alexandrian type and the so-called Western type. In the task of compiling transcriptions and/or doing textual analysis these critics have seen firsthand the kind of errors, expansions, harmonizations, and interpolations that are far more present in Western manuscripts.
In conclusion, my preference for emphasizing the documentary method in making text-critical choices is revealed in the fact that I decide against many choices made by the editors of the NU text. The reader may see these decisions in the following notes:
Matthew 3:16; 4:24; 5:28; 8:21; 9:14, 26; 12:47; 13:35b; 14:16, 27, 30; 15:6b, 14; 17:9; 18:15; 19:22; 21:44; 25:6; 27:49
Now, after that introduction to the preferred method of Documentary Approach, which I hope the reader had s chance to go over it meditatively, I offer a suggestion on approaching NEW TESTAMENT TEXTUAL STUDIES. I am going to suggest books that should be studied from the beginner to the intermediate to the advanced, as well as some tools. Again, some of these are not by Christian Publishing House but are a must-read. If you are a person who likes detective TV shows or movies, you will come to love New Testament Textual Studies. First, not that we have dozens upon dozens of articles that can be read right here on this blog.
NOTE: The books are recommended from left to right. So start each level with the book on your left and work your way to the right.
BEGINNING TEXTUAL STUDIES
BEGINNING TEXTUAL STUDIES APOLOGETICS
INTERMEDIATE TO TEXTUAL STUDIES
Note: Absorb ALL you can from Comfort’s Encountering the Manuscripts. Be a little Cautious of Hurtado’s book because he is if the modern view of being ambiguous and uncertain.
INTERMEDIATE TO ADVANCED TEXTUAL STUDIES
SOURCES FOR NEW TESTAMENT TEXTUAL STUDIES
CPH BLOG TOOLS
- (1) NT Textual Criticism Articles will explain and clarify more deeply what textual criticism is and all other related areas of this field of study.
- (2) NT Textual Commentary will comment on each of the variation units within the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation, establishing which variant for each issue is the original reading. (It is important to distinguish variation units from variant readings. Variation units are the places in the text where manuscripts disagree, and each variation unit has at least two variant readings.)
- (3) The Greek-English New Testament Interlinear (GENTI), which will be linked with symbols to textual commentaries (♣), exegetical commentaries (♦), Updated American Standard Version (♠), and Bible difficulties (♥). See NT example here.
- (4) NTTC Sources, which will help the reader be familiar with the manuscripts themselves, as well as the principles and practices of NTTC, not to mention some of the noted Hebrew Old Testament textual scholars as well.
- (5) NTTC Scholars will give you individual posts of textual scholars who have played a role in how our critical Greek New Testament texts have developed over the years since 1516.
AGNOSTIC DR. BART D. EHRMAN IS BLOG POSTS DEFENDING AGAINST THE BIGGEST CRITIC OF THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT.
SCROLL THROUGH DIFFERENT CATEGORIES BELOW
BIBLE TRANSLATION AND TEXTUAL CRITICISM
BIBLICAL STUDIES / INTERPRETATION
CHRISTIAN APOLOGETIC EVANGELISM
CHURCH ISSUES, GROWTH, AND HISTORY
 Stanley E. Porter, (2013) “Recent efforts to Reconstruct Early Christianity on the Basis of its Payrological Evidence” in Christian Origins and Graeco-Roman Culture, Eds Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts, Leiden, Brill, pp 76.
 Philip W. Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary: Commentary on the Variant Readings of the Ancient New Testament Manuscripts and How They Relate to the Major English Translations (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008), xi.
 Philip W. Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary: Commentary on the Variant Readings of the Ancient New Testament Manuscripts and How They Relate to the Major English Translations (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008), xiii.
 Philip W. Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary: Commentary on the Variant Readings of the Ancient New Testament Manuscripts and How They Relate to the Major English Translations (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008), xv.
 Philip W. Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary: Commentary on the Variant Readings of the Ancient New Testament Manuscripts and How They Relate to the Major English Translations (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008), xv–xvi.
 Philip W. Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary: Commentary on the Variant Readings of the Ancient New Testament Manuscripts and How They Relate to the Major English Translations (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008), 881–884.