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In the earliest days of the Christian church, after an apostolic letter was sent to a congregation or an individual, or after a gospel was written to meet the needs of a particular reading public, copies would be made in order to extend its influence and to enable others to profit from it as well. It was inevitable that such handwritten copies would contain a greater or lesser number of differences in wording from the original. Most of the divergencies arose from quite accidental causes, such as mistaking a letter or a word for another that looked like it. If two neighboring lines of a manuscript began or ended with the same group of letters or if two similar words stood near each other in the same line, it was easy for the eye of the copyist to jump from the first group of letters to the second, and so for a portion of the text to be omitted (called homoeoarcton or homoeoteleuton, depending upon whether the similarity of letters occurred at the beginning or the ending of the words). Conversely the scribe might go back from the second to the first group and unwittingly copy one or more words twice (called dittography). Letters that were pronounced alike were sometimes confused (called itacism). Such accidental errors are almost unavoidable whenever lengthy passages are copied by hand, and would be especially likely to occur if the scribe had defective eyesight, or was interrupted while copying, or, because of fatigue, was less attentive to his task than he should have been.
Other divergencies in wording arose from deliberate attempts to smooth out grammatical or stylistic harshness, or to eliminate real or imagined obscurities of meaning in the text. Sometimes a copyist would substitute or would add what seemed to him to be a more appropriate word or form, perhaps derived from a parallel passage (called harmonization or assimilation). Thus, during the years immediately following the composition of the several documents that eventually were collected to form the New Testament, hundreds if not thousands of variant readings arose.
Still other kinds of divergencies originated when the New Testament documents were translated from Greek into other languages. During the second and third centuries, after Christianity had been introduced into Syria, into North Africa and Italy, into central and southern Egypt, both congregations and individual believers would naturally desire copies of the Scriptures in their own languages. And so versions in Syriac, in Latin, and in the several dialects of Coptic used in Egypt were produced. They were followed in the fourth and succeeding centuries by other versions in Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Nubian in the East, and in Gothic, Old Church Slavonic, and (much later) Anglo-Saxon in the West.
The accuracy of such translations was directly related to two factors: (a) the degree of familiarity possessed by the translator of both Greek and the language into which the translation was made, and (b) the amount of care he devoted to the task of making the translation. It is not surprising that very considerable divergencies in early versions developed, first, when different persons made different translations from what may have been slightly different forms of Greek text; and, second, when these renderings in one or another language were transmitted in handwritten copies by scribes who, familiar with a slightly different form of text (either a divergent Greek text or a divergent versional rendering), adjusted the new copies so as to accord with what they considered the preferable wording.
During the early centuries of the expansion of the Christian church, what are called “local texts” of the New Testament gradually developed. Newly established congregations in and near a large city, such as Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Carthage, or Rome, were provided with copies of the Scriptures in the form that was current in that area. As additional copies were made, the number of special readings and renderings would be both conserved and, to some extent, increased, so that eventually a type of text grew up that was more or less peculiar to that locality. Today it is possible to identify the type of text preserved in New Testament manuscripts by comparing their characteristic readings with the quotations of those passages in the writings of Church Fathers who lived in or near the chief ecclesiastical centers.
At the same time the distinctiveness of a local text tended to become diluted and mixed with other types of text. A manuscript of the Gospel of Mark copied in Alexandria, for example, and taken later to Rome would doubtless influence to some extent copyists transcribing the form of the text of Mark heretofore current at Rome. On the whole, however, during the earliest centuries the tendencies to develop and preserve a particular type of text prevailed over the tendencies leading to a mixture of texts. Thus there grew up several distinctive kinds of New Testament text, the most important of which are the following.
The Alexandrian text, which Westcott and Hort called the Neutral text (a question-begging title), is usually considered to be the best text and the most faithful in preserving the original. Characteristics of the Alexandrian text are brevity and austerity. That is, it is generally shorter than the text of other forms, and it does not exhibit the degree of grammatical and stylistic polishing that is characteristic of the Byzantine type of text. Until recently the two chief witnesses to the Alexandrian text were codex Vaticanus (B) and codex Sinaiticus (א), parchment manuscripts dating from about the middle of the fourth century. With the acquisition, however, of the Bodmer Papyri, particularly 𝔓66 and 𝔓75, both copied about the end of the second or the beginning of the third century, evidence is now available that the Alexandrian type of text goes back to an archetype that must be dated early in the second century. The Sahidic and Bohairic versions frequently contain typically Alexandrian readings.
The so-called Western text, which was widely current in Italy and Gaul as well as in North Africa and elsewhere (including Egypt), can also be traced back to the second century. It was used by Marcion, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian. Its presence in Egypt is shown by the testimony of 𝔓38 (about a.d. 300) and 𝔓48 (about the end of the third century). The most important Greek manuscripts that present a Western type of text are codex Bezae (D) of the fifth century (containing the Gospels and Acts), codex Claromontanus (D) of the sixth century (containing the Pauline epistles), and, for Mark 1:1 to 5:30, codex Washingtonianus (W) of the fifth century. Likewise the Old Latin versions are noteworthy witnesses to a Western type of text; these fall into three main groups, the African, Italian, and Hispanic forms of Old Latin texts.
The chief characteristic of Western readings is fondness for paraphrase. Words, clauses, and even whole sentences are freely changed, omitted, or inserted. Sometimes the motive appears to have been harmonization, while at other times it was the enrichment of the narrative by the inclusion of traditional or apocryphal material. Some readings involve quite trivial alterations for which no special reason can be assigned. One of the puzzling features of the Western text (which generally is longer than the other forms of text) is that at the end of Luke and in a few other places in the New Testament certain Western witnesses omit words and passages that are present in other forms of text, including the Alexandrian. Although at the close of the last century certain scholars were disposed to regard these shorter readings as original (Westcott and Hort called them “Western non-interpolations”), since the acquisition of the Bodmer Papyri many scholars today are inclined to regard them as aberrant readings (see the Note on Western Non-Interpolations, pp. 164–166).
In the book of Acts the problems raised by the Western text become most acute, for the Western text of Acts is nearly ten percent longer than the form that is commonly regarded to be the original text of that book. For this reason the present volume devotes proportionately more space to variant readings in Acts than to those in any other New Testament book, and a special Introduction to the textual phenomena in Acts is provided (see pp. 222–236).
An Eastern form of text, which was formerly called the Caesarean text, is preserved, to a greater or lesser extent, in several Greek manuscripts (including Θ, 565, 700) and in the Armenian and Georgian versions. The text of these witnesses is characterized by a mixture of Western and Alexandrian readings. Although recent research has tended to question the existence of a specifically Caesarean text-type, the individual manuscripts formerly considered to be members of the group remain important witnesses in their own right.
Another Eastern type of text, current in and near Antioch, is preserved today chiefly in Old Syriac witnesses, namely the Sinaitic and the Curetonian manuscripts of the Gospels and in the quotations of Scripture contained in the works of Aphraates and Ephraem.
The Byzantine text, otherwise called the Syrian text (so Westcott and Hort), the Koine text (so von Soden), the Ecclesiastical text (so Lake), and the Antiochian text (so Ropes), is, on the whole, the latest of the several distinctive types of text of the New Testament. It is characterized chiefly by lucidity and completeness. The framers of this text sought to smooth away any harshness of language, to combine two or more divergent readings into one expanded reading (called conflation), and to harmonize divergent parallel passages. This conflated text, produced perhaps at Antioch in Syria, was taken to Constantinople, whence it was distributed widely throughout the Byzantine Empire. It is best represented today by codex Alexandrinus (in the Gospels; not in Acts, the Epistles, or Revelation), the later uncial manuscripts, and the great mass of minuscule manuscripts. Thus, except for an occasional manuscript that happened to preserve an earlier form of text, during the period from about the sixth or seventh century down to the invention of printing with moveable type (a.d. 1450–56), the Byzantine form of text was generally regarded as the authoritative form of text and was the one most widely circulated and accepted.
After Gutenberg’s press made the production of books more rapid and therefore cheaper than was possible through copying by hand, it was the debased Byzantine text that became the standard form of the New Testament in printed editions. This unfortunate situation was not altogether unexpected, for the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that were most readily available to early editors and printers were those that contained the corrupt Byzantine text.
The first published edition of the printed Greek Testament, issued at Basel in 1516, was prepared by Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch humanist scholar. Since Erasmus could find no manuscript that contained the entire Greek Testament, he utilized several for the various divisions of the New Testament. For the greater part of his text he relied on two rather inferior manuscripts now in the university library at Basel, one of the Gospels and one of the Acts and Epistles, both dating from about the twelfth century. Erasmus compared them with two or three others, and entered occasional corrections in the margins or between the lines of the copy given to the printer. For the book of Revelation he had but one manuscript, dating from the twelfth century, which he had borrowed from his friend Reuchlin. As it happened, this copy lacked the final leaf, which had contained the last six verses of the book. For these verses Erasmus depended upon Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, translating this version into Greek. As would be expected from such a procedure, here and there in Erasmus’s reconstruction of these verses there are several readings that have never been found in any Greek manuscript—but which are still perpetuated today in printings of the so-called Textus Receptus of the Greek New Testament (see the comment on Rev. 22.19). In other parts of the New Testament Erasmus also occasionally introduced into his Greek text material derived from the current form of the Latin Vulgate (see the comment on Acts 9.5–6).
So much in demand was Erasmus’s Greek Testament that the first edition was soon exhausted and a second was called for. It was this second edition of 1519, in which some (but not nearly all) of the many typographical blunders of the first edition had been corrected, that Martin Luther and William Tyndale used as the basis of their translations of the New Testament into German (1522) and into English (1525).
In the years following many other editors and printers issued a variety of editions of the Greek Testament, all of which reproduced more or less the same type of text, namely that preserved in the later Byzantine manuscripts. Even when it happened that an editor had access to older manuscripts—as when Theodore Beza, the friend and successor of Calvin at Geneva, acquired the fifth-century manuscript that goes under his name today, as well as the sixth-century codex Claromontanus—he made relatively little use of them, for they deviated too far from the form of text that had become standard in the later copies.
Noteworthy early editions of the Greek New Testament include two issued by Robert Etienne (commonly known under the Latin form of his name, Stephanus), the famous Parisian printer who later moved to Geneva and threw in his lot with the Protestants of that city. In 1550 Stephanus published at Paris his third edition, the editio Regia, a magnificent folio edition. It is the first printed Greek Testament to contain a critical apparatus; on the inner margins of its pages Stephanus entered variant readings from fourteen Greek manuscripts, as well as readings from another printed edition, the Complutensian Polyglot. Stephanus’s fourth edition (Geneva, 1551), which contains two Latin versions (the Vulgate and that of Erasmus), is noteworthy because in it for the first time the text of the New Testament was divided into numbered verses.
Theodore Beza published no fewer than nine editions of the Greek Testament between 1565 and 1604, and a tenth edition appeared posthumously in 1611. The importance of Beza’s work lies in the extent to which his editions tended to popularize and stereotype what came to be called the Textus Receptus. The translators of the Authorized or King James Bible of 1611 made large use of Beza’s editions of 1588–89 and 1598.
The term Textus Receptus, as applied to the text of the New Testament, originated in an expression used by Bonaventura and Abraham Elzevir (Elzevier), who were printers in Leiden. The preface to their second edition of the Greek Testament (1633) contains the sentence: Textum ergo habes, nunc ab omnibus receptum, in quo nihil immutatum aut corruptum damus (“Therefore you [dear reader] have the text now received by all, in which we give nothing changed or corrupted”). In one sense this proud claim of the Elzevirs on behalf of their edition seemed to be justified, for their edition was, in most respects, not different from the approximately 160 other editions of the printed Greek Testament that had been issued since Erasmus’s first published edition of 1516. In a more precise sense, however, the Byzantine form of the Greek text, reproduced in all early printed editions, was disfigured, as was mentioned above, by the accumulation over the centuries of myriads of scribal alterations, many of minor significance but some of considerable consequence.
It was the corrupt Byzantine form of text that provided the basis for almost all translations of the New Testament into modern languages down to the nineteenth century. During the eighteenth century scholars assembled a great amount of information from many Greek manuscripts, as well as from versional and patristic witnesses. But, except for three or four editors who timidly corrected some of the more blatant errors of the Textus Receptus, this debased form of the New Testament text was reprinted in edition after edition. It was only in the first part of the nineteenth century (1831) that a German classical scholar, Karl Lachmann, ventured to apply to the New Testament the criteria that he had used in editing texts of the classics. Subsequently other critical editions appeared, including those prepared by Constantin von Tischendorf, whose eighth edition (1869–72) remains a monumental thesaurus of variant readings, and the influential edition prepared by two Cambridge scholars, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort (1881). It is the latter edition that was taken as the basis for the present United Bible Societies’ edition. During the twentieth century, with the discovery of several New Testament manuscripts much older than any that had hitherto been available, it has become possible to produce editions of the New Testament that approximate ever more closely to what is regarded as the wording of the original documents.
United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994)