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Kurt Aland (1979, 43) favors a type of textual criticism that he calls the local-genealogical method. He defines it 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 recensio 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 New Testament textual tradition.
History of the Transmission of the New Testament Text
The “local-genealogical” method assumes that for any given variation unit, any manuscript (or manuscripts) may have preserved the original text. The problem with doing textual criticism on the local-genealogical basis is that the editors must decide what the authors most likely wrote on a variant-unit by variant-unit basis, which leads to extensive eclecticism (despite Aland’s protest to the contrary). The eclecticism is striking when we examine the selection process for variant readings within a single verse, such as Mark 6:51. In Mark 6:51, the expression και λιαν εκ περισσου εν εαυτοις εξισταντο (“and they were exceedingly, extremely amazed in themselves”) is found in A f Maj and was adopted as the text for the NU edition. Perhaps this longer reading was accepted over the shorter text (which omits εκ περισσου, “extremely”), found in א B (L), on the supposition that the Alexandrian scribes of א, B, and L were pruning excessive modifiers. However, in the next part of the verse, the shorter reading εξισταντο (“they were amazed”), found in א B L, was adopted by NU, as opposed to the longer reading εξισταντο και εθαυμαζον (“they were amazed and marveled”), found in A D W f Maj. This is a prime example of atomistic eclecticism (i.e., eclecticism on a variant-unit basis). Within one verse, the reading of א B L was first rejected and then subsequently accepted. It is more consistent to judge that א B L present the original text in both instances and that both longer readings are scribal expansions intended to accentuate the disciples’ amazement over the miracle they just witnessed. This understanding is also consistent with what we know of the overall character of these manuscripts.
This kind of inconsistency is not uncommon. In Matthew 8:21, NU rejected the witness of א B 33: ετερος δε των μαθητων ειπεν αυτω, κυριε, επιτρεψον μοι πρωτον απελθειν και θαψαι τον πατερα μου (“Another of the disciples said to him, ‘Lord, let me first return and bury my father’ ”). Instead, NU favored the reading found in C L W Θ 0250, which adds αυτου (“his”) after μαθητων (“disciples”). Metzger’s comments in TCGNT reveal that most of the committee thought that αυτου was deleted by the scribes of א B 33 to help readers understand that the scribe mentioned in 8:19 was not one of Jesus’ disciples. The excellent documentary testimony of א B 33 was thus rejected because of internal considerations. Four verses later (in 8:25), the testimony of the same manuscripts is accepted for the exclusion of οι μαθηται αυτου at the beginning of the verse.
The Process of Attempting to Ascertain the Original Wording of the Original Texts of the New Testament
Another occurrence of atomistic eclecticism occurs in the NU text of John 9:4. In the first part of the verse, NU reads ημας δει (“it is necessary for us”), following the testimony of 𝔓66 𝔓75 א* B D L W 0124. In the second part of the verse, NU reads του πεμψαντος με (“the one having sent me”), following the testimony of אc A B C D 0124 and rejecting the testimony of 𝔓66 𝔓75 א* L W, which read του πεμψαντος ημας (“the one having sent us”). In the first part of this verse, the testimony of 𝔓66 𝔓75 א B L W is accepted, but in the next part of the very same clause, the testimony of the 𝔓66 𝔓75 א* L W was rejected. This is the result of eclecticism, wherein internal evidence is given more weight than documentary evidence (see TCGNT).
In another case, in Romans 8:11, the reading ο εγειρας χριστον εκ νεκρων (“the one having raised Christ from the dead”) is accepted into the NU text on the authority of B D2 F G. The only merit the NU reading has is that it is the shortest one. However, in general, the NU editors were categorically suspicious of a reading supported by B with D F G (see TCGNT on Rom 8:11b), so it seems inconsistent that this reading would be accepted on the basis of B D2 F G. But this is the result of the eclectic method.
NEW TESTAMENT TEXTUAL STUDIES The Acts of the Apostles
These few examples show that many modern textual critics attempt to operate according to a syncretism of two conflicting theories: one that says the best readings are preserved in the best manuscripts and another that says the best readings are simply those that best fit the text, no matter what manuscripts they come from. As far as I am concerned, the best approach is to first establish which manuscripts (or groups of manuscripts) are the best authorities for each particular book or section (e.g., Paul’s Epistles, General Epistles) of the New Testament. Once these are reckoned, the burden of proof for any textual variation is to show that these manuscripts do not have the original wording. As always, the critic must first look for transcriptional causes of error or variation. If transcriptional errors cannot account for the variation, then the critic has to look to the criteria for internal evidence. But one needs very strong arguments on internal grounds to overthrow strong documentary attestation. Of course, this means that the critic must know each manuscript well and have adequate knowledge about the workmanship and tendencies of the scribe who produced it.
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)
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