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The Text of the New Testament The original text of the NT is the “published” text—that is, the text as it was in its final edited form and released for circulation in the Christian community. For some books of the NT, there is little difference between the original composition and the published text. After the author wrote or dictated his work, he (or an associate) made the final editorial corrections and then released it for distribution. As is the case for books published in modern times, so in ancient times, the original writing of the author is not always the same as what is published—due to the editorial process. Nonetheless, the author is credited with the final edited text, and the published book is attributed to the author and considered the autograph. This autograph is the original published text. Of course, in this case the autographs do not exist, so scholars have to rely on copies to recover or reconstruct the original wording.
Some scholars think it is impossible to recover the original text of the Greek NT because they have not been able to reconstruct the early history of textual transmission. Other modern scholars are less pessimistic but still quite guarded in affirming the possiblity. And yet others are optimistic because we possess many early manuscripts of excellent quality and because our view of the early period of textual transmission has been getting clearer and clearer.
When we speak of recovering the text of the NT, we are referring to individual books of the NT, not to the entire volume per se, because each book (or group of books—such as the Pauline Epistles) had its own unique history of textual transmission. The earliest extant copy of an entire NT text is the one preserved in Codex Sinaiticus (written about ad 375). (Codex Vaticanus lacks the Pastoral Epistles and Revelation.) Prior to the fourth century, the NT was circulated in its various parts: as a single book or a group of books (such as the four Gospels or the Pauline Epistles). Manuscripts from the late first century to the third century have been found with individual books such as Matthew (P1, P77), Mark (P88), Luke (P69), John (P5, 22, 52, 66), Acts (P91), Revelation (P18, 47), or containing groups of books, such as the four Gospels with Acts (P45), the Pauline Epistles (P30, P46, P92), the Petrine Epistles and Jude (P72). Each of the books of the NT has had its own textual history and has been preserved with varying degrees of accuracy. Nonetheless, all of the books were altered from the original state due to the process of manual copying decade after decade and century after century. And the text of each of the books needs to be recovered.
The NT text was affected with many variations in its early history. In the late first and early second century, the oral traditions and the written word existed side by side with equal status—especially with respect to the material of the Gospels. Often, the text was changed by scribes attempting to conform the written message to the oral tradition or attempting to conform one Gospel account to another. By the end of the second century and into the third century, many of the significant variant readings entered into the textual stream.
The early period of textual transmission, however, was not completely marred by textual infidelity and scribal liberty. There were those scribes who copied the text faithfully and reverently—that is, they recognized that they were copying a sacred text written by an apostle. The formalization of canonization did not ascribe this sacredness to the text. Canonization came about as the result of common, historical recognition of the sacredness of various NT books. Certain NT books, such as the four Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s epistles were considered inspired literature from the onset. As such, certain scribes copied them with reverential fidelity.
Other scribes, however, felt free to make “improvements” in the text—either in the interest of doctrine and harmonization or due to the influence of a competitive oral tradition. The manuscripts produced in such a manner created a kind of “popular text”—i.e., an uncontrolled text. (This text type used to be called the “Western text,” but scholars now recognize this as a misnomer.)
During the second century, there were a few men who produced recensions of the NT text. According to Eusebius, Theodotus (and his followers) altered the text for their own purposes. In the middle of the second century, Marcion expunged his copies of the Gospel according to Luke of all references to the Jewish background of Jesus, and Tatian’s harmony of the Gospels contains several textual alterations that gave support to ascetic views. And yet another recendor created the D-type text for the Gospels and Acts. This theologically minded redactor, living in the late second or third century, created a text that had short-lived popularity. Three third-century papyri, P29, P38, P48, each containing a portion from the book of Acts, may be precursors to the D-type text in Acts. But there are other papyri containing portions of Acts that provide even earlier testimony to a purer form of Acts—namely, P45 (c. 150) and P91 (c. 200), thereby showing that the D-type text of Acts did not necessarily antedate the purer form.
Besides these endeavors—which are all noted for creating textual impurities—there was no recension of the NT text in the second century. Rather, it was a period in which there were scribes who exercised freedom in copying and those who demonstrated acumen. The manuscripts produced by the latter are those that come closest to preserving the original text. A prime example of an accurate late-second-century manuscript is P75.
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 P75 was the kind of manuscript used in formulating Codex Vaticanus—the readings of P75 and B are remarkably similar. Prior to the discovery of P75, certain scholars thought Codex Vaticanus was the work of a fourth-century recension; others (chiefly Hort) thought it must trace back to a very early and accurate copy. Hort said that Codex Vaticanus preserves “not only a very ancient text, but a very pure line of a very ancient text” (Westcott and Hort, The Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek, pp 250–51). P75 appears to have shown that Hort was right.
Prior to the discovery of P75, 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 and P72 (in 2 Peter and Jude), show this kind of independence. Scholars thought that scribes at Alexandria must have used several such texts to produce a good recension—as is exhibited in Codex Vaticanus. But we now know that Codex Vaticanus was not the result of a scholarly recension, resulting from editorial selection across the various textual histories. Rather, it is now quite clear that Codex Vaticanus was simply a copy (with some modifications) of a manuscript much like P75, not a fourth-century recension.
Some scholars may point out that this does not automatically mean that P75 and B represent 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. But various scholars have demonstrated that there was no Alexandrian recension before the time of P75 (late second century) and B (early fourth) and that both these manuscripts represent a relatively pure form of preservation of a relatively pure line of descent from the original text.
The current view about the early text is that certain scribes in Alexandria and/or scribes familiar with Alexandrian scriptoral practices (perhaps those in Oxyrhynchus) were probably responsible for maintaining a relatively pure text throughout the second, third, and fourth centuries. The Alexandrian scribes, associated with or actually employed by the scriptorium of the great Alexandrian library and/or members of the scriptorium associated with the catechetical school at Alexandria (called the Didaskelion), were trained philologists, grammarians, and textual critics. Their work on the NT was not recensional—that is, it was not an organized emendation of the text. Rather, the work of purification and preservation was probably done here and there by various individuals trained in text criticism. This is apparent in the production of P66, which contains the Gospel of John. This manuscript was probably produced in an Egyptian scriptorium by a novice scribe who made many blunders, which were subsequently corrected by another scribe working in the same scriptorium. The first text produced by the novice could be classified as being very “free,” but the corrected text is far more accurate. (See the discussion on this manuscript above.)
What appears to have happened with the copying of the NT text in the early period in Egypt has been poignantly characterized by Zuntz. He said that when a book was immensely popular (such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, or Plato’s writings), it was copied with wild enthusiasm by novice and scholar alike. But when grammarians and scribes got ahold of it, they tried to rid it of textual corruption. In the process, however, they may have obliterated some authentic readings, but not many. Thus, the popular text (also known as the “Western text”) could have preserved the original wording in some cases. The popular or free kind of text is displayed in several third-century manuscripts: P9, P37, P40, P45, P72, and P78.
In brief, this popular text is usually displayed in any kind of manuscript that was not produced by Alexandrian influences. This text, given to independence, is not as trustworthy as the Alexandrian text type. But because the Alexandrian text is known as a polished text, the popular text sometimes preserved the original wording. When a variant reading has the support of “Western” and Alexandrian texts, it is very likely original; but when the two are divided, the Alexandrian witnesses more often preserve the original wording.
One dilemma still remains for some textual critics. They cannot explain how a P75/B-type text coexisted with a Western-type text in the second century. All that can be said is that the Western text generally appears to be inferior to the P75/B-type text. Of course, this kind of judgment troubles certain scholars, who point out that the esteem given to B and P75 is based on a subjective appreciation of the kind of text they contain (as over against the Western text) rather than on any kind of theoretical reconstruction of the early transmission of the text. This same subjective estimation was at work when Westcott and Hort decided that B was intrinsically superior to D (see their Introduction, pp 32–42). Yet the praxis of textual criticism time and again demonstrates that the P75/B-type text is intrinsically superior to the Western text.
In the final analysis, the manuscripts that represent a pure preservation of the original text are usually those called “Alexandrian.” Some scholars, such as Bruce Metzger, have called the earlier manuscripts “protoAlexandrian,” for they (or manuscripts like them) are thought of as being used to compose an Alexandrian-type text. However, this is looking at things from the perspective of the fourth century. We should look at things from the second century onward and then compare fourth-century manuscripts to those of the second. The second-century manuscripts could still be called “Alexandrian” in the sense that they were produced under Alexandrian influences. Perhaps a distinguishing terminology could be “early Alexandrian” (pre-Constantine) and “later Alexandrian” (post-Constantine). Manuscripts designated as “early Alexandrian” would generally be purer, less editorialized. Manuscripts designated “later Alexandrian” would display editorialization, as well as the influence of other textual traditions.
The “early Alexandrian” text is reflected in many second- and third-century manuscripts. On the top of the list is P75 (c. 175), the work of a competent and careful scribe. Not far behind in quality is P4+P64+P67 (c. 150), the work of an excellent copyist. Other extremely good copies are P1 (c. 200), P20 (early third century), P23 (c. 200), P27 (third century), P28 (third century), P32 (c. 150), P39 (third century), P46 (c. 125), P65 (third century), P66 (in its corrected form—P66c; c. 150), P70 (third century), P77 (c. 150), P87 (c. 125), P90 (c. 175), and P91 (c. 200). Several of these manuscripts have been placed in the “strict” category by textual critics Kurt and Barbara Aland—that is, they exhibit “strict” scribal control and therefore are accurate copies of an exemplar, if not the original. These manuscripts are P1, P23, P35, P37, P39, P64/67, P65, P70, and P75.
The “later Alexandrian” text, which displays editorial polishing, is exhibited in a few manuscripts, such as א (fourth century), T (fifth century), ע (seventh century), L (eighth century), 33 (ninth century), 1739 (a tenth- century manuscript copied from a fourth-century Alexandrian manuscript much like P46), and 579 (13th century). Beginning in the fifth century, Byzantine-type manuscripts began to make their influence in Egypt. Some manuscripts dated around 400 that came from Egypt clearly reflect this influence; Codex Alexandrinus (A) is probably the best example. Other Egyptian manuscripts of this era, such as Codex Sinaiticus (א) and Codex Washingtonianus (W) display large-scale harmonization, which cannot be directly linked to any kind of recension.
At the end of the third century, another kind of Greek text came into being and then grew in popularity until it became the dominant text-type throughout Christendom. This is the text-type first instigated by Lucian of Antioch, according to Jerome (in his introduction to his Latin translation of the Gospels). Lucian’s text was a definite recension (i.e., a purposely created edition)—as opposed to the Alexandrian text-type that came about as the result of a process wherein the Alexandrian scribes, upon comparing many manuscripts, attempted to preserve the best text—thereby serving more as textual critics than editors. Of course, the Alexandrians did do some editing—such as we would call copy-editing. The Lucianic text is the outgrowth and culmination of the popular text; it is characterized by smoothness of language, which is achieved by the removal of obscurities and awkward grammatical constructions and by the conflation of variant readings. Lucian (and/or his associates) must have used many different kinds of manuscripts of varying qualities to produce a harmonized, edited NT text. The kind of editorial work that went into the Lucianic text is what we would call substantive editing.
Lucian’s text was produced prior to the Diocletian persecution (c. 303), during which time many copies of the NT were confiscated and destroyed. Not long after this period of devastation, Constantine came to power and then recognized Christianity as the state religion. There was, of course, a great need for copies of the NT to be made and distributed to churches throughout the Mediterranean world. It was at this time that Lucian’s text began to be propagated by bishops going out from the Antiochan school to churches throughout the East, taking the text with them. Lucian’s text soon became the standard text of the Eastern church and formed the basis for the Byzantine text—and is thus the ultimate authority for the Textus Receptus.
While Lucian was forming his recension of the NT text, the Alexandrian text was taking on its final shape. As was mentioned earlier, the formation of the Alexandrian text-type was the result of a process (as opposed to a single editorial recension). The formation of the Alexandrian text involved minor textual criticism (i.e., selecting variant readings among various manuscripts) and copyediting (i.e., producing a readable text). There was far less tampering with the text in the Alexandrian text-type than in the Lucian, and the underlying manuscripts for the Alexandrian text-type were superior to those used by Lucian. Perhaps Hesychius was responsible for giving the Alexandrian text its final shape, and Athanasius of Alexandria may have been the one who made this text the archetypal text for Egypt.
As the years went by, there were fewer and fewer Alexandrian manuscripts produced, and more and more Byzantine manuscripts manufactured. Very few Egyptians continued to read Greek (with the exception of those in St Catherine’s Monastery, the site of the discovery of Codex Sinaiticus), and the rest of the Mediterranean world turned to Latin. It was only those in the Greek-speaking churches in Greece and Byzantium that continued to make copies of the Greek text. For century after century—from the 6th to the 14th—the great majority of NT manuscripts were produced in Byzantium, all bearing the same kind of text. When the first Greek NT was printed (c. 1525), it was based on a Greek text that Erasmus had compiled, using a few late Byzantine manuscripts. This printed text, with minor revisions, became the Textus Receptus.
Beginning in the 17th century, earlier manuscripts began to be discovered—manuscripts with a text that differed from that found in the Textus Receptus. Around 1630, Codex Alexandrinus was brought to England. An early fifth-century manuscript, containing the entire NT, it provided a good, early witness to the NT text (it is an especially good witness to the original text of Revelation). Two hundred years later, a German scholar named Constantin von Tischendorf discovered Codex Sinaiticus in St Catherine’s Monastery (located near Mt Sinai). The manuscript, dated around ad 360, is one of the two oldest vellum (treated animal hide) manuscripts of the Greek NT. The earliest vellum manuscript, Codex Vaticanus, had been in the Vatican’s library since at least 1481, but it had not been made available to scholars until the middle of the 19th century. This manuscript, dated slightly earlier (ad 350) than Codex Sinaiticus, had both the OT and NT in Greek, excluding the last part of the NT (Hebrews 9:15 to Revelation 22:21 and the Pastoral Epistles). A hundred years of textual criticism has determined that this manuscript is one of the most accurate and reliable witnesses to the original text.
Other early and important manuscripts were discovered in the 19th century. Through the tireless labors of men like Constantin von Tischendorf, Samuel Tregelles, and F. H. A. Scrivener, manuscripts such as Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, Codex Zacynthius, and Codex Augiensis were deciphered, collated, and published.
As the various manuscripts were discovered and made public, certain scholars labored to compile a Greek text that would more closely represent the original text than did the Textus Receptus. Around 1700 John Mill produced an improved Textus Receptus, and in the 1730s Johannes Albert Bengel (known as the father of modern textual and philological studies in the NT) published a text that deviated from the Textus Receptus according to the evidence of earlier manuscripts.
In the 1800s certain scholars began to abandon the Textus Receptus. Karl Lachman, a classical philologist, produced a fresh text (in 1831) that represented the fourth-century manuscripts. Samuel Tregelles (self-taught in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek), laboring throughout his entire lifetime, concentrated all of his efforts in publishing one Greek text (which came out in six parts, from 1857 to 1872). As is stated in the introduction to this work, Tregelles’s goal was “to exhibit the text of the NT in the very words in which it has been transmitted on the evidence of ancient authority.” Henry Alford also compiled a Greek text based upon the best and earliest manuscripts. In his preface to The Greek New Testament (a multivolume commentary on the Greek NT, published in 1849), Alford said he labored for the “demolition of the unworthy and pedantic reverence for the received text, which stood in the way of all chance of discovering the genuine word of God.”
During this same era, Tischendorf was devoting a lifetime of labor to discovering manuscripts and producing accurate editions of the Greek NT. In a letter to his fiancé he wrote, “I am confronted with a sacred task, the struggle to regain the original form of the NT.” In fulfillment of his desire, he discovered Codex Sinaiticus, deciphered the palimpsest Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, collated countless manuscripts, and produced several editions of the Greek NT (the eighth edition is considered the best).
Aided by the work of the previous scholars, two British men, Brooke Westcott and Fenton Hort, worked together for 28 years to produce a volume entitled The New Testament in the Original Greek (1881). Along with this publication, they made known their theory (which was chiefly Hort’s) that Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus (along with a few other early manuscripts) represented a text that most closely replicated the original writing. They called this text the Neutral Text. (According to their studies, the Neutral Text described certain manuscripts that had the least amount of textual corruption.) This is the text that Westcott and Hort relied upon for compiling their volume.
The 19th century was a fruitful era for the recovery of the Greek NT; the 20th century, no less so. Those living in the 20th century have witnessed the discovery of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, the Chester Beatty Papyri, and the Bodmer Papyri. To date, there are nearly 100 papyri containing portions of the NT—several of which date from the late first century to the early fourth century. These significant discoveries, providing scholars with many ancient manuscripts, have greatly enhanced the effort to recover the original wording of the NT.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Eberhard Nestle used the best editions of the Greek NT produced in the 19th century to compile a text that represented the majority consensus. The work of making new editions was carried on by his son for several years, and then came under the care of Kurt Aland. The latest edition (the 27th) of Nestle-Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece appeared in 1993. The same Greek text appears in another popular volume published by the United Bible Societies, called the Greek New Testament (fourth edition). Aland has argued that the Nestle-Aland text, 27th edition (NA27), comes closer to the original text of the NT than did Tischendorf or Westcott and Hort. And in several writings he intimates that NA27 may very well be the original text. Though few, if any, scholars would agree with this, the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland text is regarded by many as representing the latest and best in textual scholarship.
New Testament Textual Criticism Textual critics working with ancient literature universally acknowledge the supremacy of earlier manuscripts over later ones. Textual critics not working with the NT would love to have the same kind of early witnesses that biblical scholars possess. In fact, many of them work with manuscripts written 1,000 years after the autographs were composed! We all marvel that the Dead Sea Scrolls have provided a text that is nearly 800 years closer to the originals than the Masoretic manuscripts, and yet many of the Dead Sea manuscripts are still over 600 to 800 years removed from the time of original composition. NT textual critics have a great advantage!
The 19th-century NT textual scholars—such as Lachmann, Tregelles, Tischendorf, Westcott and Hort—worked on the basis that the earliest witnesses are the best witnesses. Some textual scholars have continued this line of recovery using the testimony of the earlier witnesses. But many textual scholars since the time of Westcott and Hort have been less inclined to produce editions based on the theory that the earliest reading is the best. Most present-day textual critics are more inclined to endorse the maxim: the reading that is most likely original is the one that best explains the variants.
This maxim (or “canon” as it is sometimes called), as good as it is, produces conflicting results. For example, two scholars, using this same principle to examine the same variant unit, will not agree. One will argue that one variant was produced by a copyist attempting to emulate the author’s style; the other will claim the same variant has to be original because it accords with the author’s style. One will argue that one variant was produced by an orthodox scribe attempting to rid the text of a reading that could be used to promote heterodoxy or heresy; another will claim that the same variant has to be original because it is orthodox and accords with Christian doctrine (thus a heterodox or heretical scribe must have changed it). Furthermore, this principle allows for the possibility that the reading selected for the text can be taken from any manuscript of any date. This can lead to subjective eclecticism.
Modern textual scholars have attempted to temper the subjectivism by employing a method called “reasoned eclecticism.” This kind of eclecticism applies a combination of internal and external considerations, whereby the character of the variants is evaluated in light of the manuscripts’ evidence and vice versa. This is supposed to produce a balanced view and serve as a check against purely subjective tendencies.
The Alands favor the same kind of approach, calling it the local-genealogical method, which is defined as follows:
It is impossible to proceed from the assumption of a manuscript stemma, and on the basis of a full review and analysis of the relationships obtaining among the variety of interrelated branches in the manuscript tradition, to undertake a recension of the data as one would do with other Greek texts. Decisions must be made one by one, instance by instance. This method has been characterized as eclecticism, but wrongly so. After carefully establishing the variety of readings offered in a passage and the possibilities of their interpretation, it must always then be determined afresh on the basis of external and internal criteria which of these readings (and frequently they are quite numerous) is the original, from which the others may be regarded as derivative. From the perspective of our present knowledge, this “local-genealogical” method (if it must be given a name) is the only one that meets the requirements of the NT textual tradition. (Introduction to Novum Testamentum Graece, 26th edition)
The “local-genealogical” method assumes that for any given variation unit any manuscript (or manuscripts) may have preserved the original text. Applying this method produces an extremely uneven documentary presentation of the text. Anyone studying the critical apparatus of NA27 will detect that there is not an even documentary presentation. The eclecticism is dispersed throughout the text.
“Reasoned eclecticism” and/or the “local-genealogical” method tend to give priority to internal evidence over external evidence. But it has to be the other way around if we are going to recover the original text. This was Westcott and Hort’s opinion. With respect to 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” (The Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek, p 17).
In this respect, Westcott and Hort need to be revived. Earnest Colwell was of the same mind when he wrote “Hort Redivivus: A Plea and a Program.” Colwell decried the growing tendency to rely entirely on the internal evidence of readings, without serious consideration of documentary evidence. He called upon scholars to make an attempt to reconstruct a history of the manuscript tradition. The abundance of manuscripts—several of which are very early—will aid scholars in this ongoing task.
By Philip Wesley Comfort