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The Necessity of Evaluating the Evidence.
What Are Textual Variants [Errors] and How Many Are There?
From its very nature, New Testament textual criticism concerns itself entirely with the problems suggested by the errors of various kinds that it brings to light. In the writings of the New Testament, the resources of textual evidence are so vast, exceeding, as we have seen, those of any other ancient literature, sacred or secular, that the area of actual error is relatively quite appreciable. However, it must be remembered that this very abundance of textual variety ultimately makes for the integrity and doctrinal unity of the teaching of the New Testament books. Conjectural emendation, which has played so large a part in the restoration of other writings, has but a slight place in the textual criticism of the New Testament, whose materials are so abundant that the difficulty is instead to select the right renderings than to invent them. We have cataloged the principal sources of right readings, but on the most casual investigation of them, discover large numbers of wrong readings mingled with the true, and must proceed to consider the sources of error or various readings, as they are called, of which approximately well over 400,000 are known to exist in the various manuscripts, VSS, patristic citations and other data for the text. Agnostic New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman writes,
With this abundance of evidence, what can we say about the total number of variants known today? Scholars differ significantly in their estimates—some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more! We do not know for sure because, despite impressive developments in computer technology, no one has yet been able to count them all. Perhaps, as I indicated earlier, it is best simply to leave the matter in comparative terms. There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. (Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why 2005, 89-90)
From the very nature of the case, errors should probably be frequent in the New Testament; indeed, even printed works are not free from them, as is seen in the most carefully edited editions of the English Bible, but in manuscripts, the difficulty is increased in direct proportion to the number of various copies still extant. Two classes of errors give rise to various readings, unconscious or unintentional and conscious or intentional.
First Class Errors
Of the first class, that of unconscious errors, there are five sorts:
(1) Errors of the Eye
Errors of the eye, where the sight of the copyist confuses letters or endings that are similar, writing e.g., capital eta for capital sigma; capital omicron for capital theta; capital alpha for capital lambda or capital delta; capital pi (P) for capital tau and capital iota (written together, TI); PAN for TIAN; capital mu (M) for a double capital lambda (LL). Here should be named homoeoteleuton, which arises when two successive lines in a copy end in the same word or syllable and the eye catches the second line instead of the first, and the copyist omits the intervening words as in Codex Ephraemi of John 6:39.
(2) Errors of the Pen
Here is classed all that body of variation due to the miswriting by the penman of what is correctly enough in his mind, but through carelessness, he fails rightly to transfer to the new copy. Similar letters have evidently transposed in Codices E, M, and H of Mr 14:65, also in H2 L2 of Ac 13:23.
(3) Errors of Speech
Here are included those variations which have sprung from the habitual forms of speech to which the scribe in the particular case was accustomed and which he, therefore, was inclined to write. Under this head comes “itacism,” arising from the confusion of vowels and diphthongs, especially in dictation. Thus, iota (i) is constantly written as epsilon-iota (ei) and vice versa; alpha-iota (ai) for epsilon (e); eta (ee) and iota (i) for epsilon-iota (ei); eta (ee) and omicron-iota (oi) for upsilon (u); omicron (o) for omega (oo) and epsilon (e) for eta (ee). It is observed that in Codex Sinaiticus, we have scribal preference for iota (i) alone, while in Codex Vaticanus epsilon-iota (ei) is preferred.
(4) Errors of Memory
These are explained as having arisen from the “copyist holding a clause or sequence of letters in his somewhat treacherous memory between the glance at the manuscript to be copied and his writing down what he saw there.” Here are classed the numerous petty changes in the order of words and the substitution of synonyms, as eipen for ephee, ek for apo, and vice versa.
(5) Errors of Judgment
Under this class Dr. Warfield cites “many misreadings of abbreviations, as also the adoption of marginal glosses into the text by which much of the most striking corruption which has entered the text has been produced.” Notable instances of this type of error are found in John 5:1-4, explaining how it happened that the waters of Bethesda were healing; and in John 7:53 through John 8:11, the passage concerning the adulteress, and the last twelve verses of Mark 16:9-20.
NTTC Was the Woman Caught in Adultery John 7:53-8:11 In the Original and What Was Being Taught?
NTTC MARK 16:9-20: Were These Twelve Verses Written by Mark?
Second Class Errors
Turning to the second class that of conscious or intentional errors we may tabulate:
(1) Linguistic or Rhetorical Corrections
Linguistic or rhetorical corrections, no doubt, often made in entire good faith under the impression that an error had previously crept into the text and needed correcting. Thus, second aorist terminations in -a are changed to -o and the like.
(2) Historical Corrections
Under this head is placed all that group of changes similar to the case in Mr 1:2, where the phrase “Isaiah the prophet” is changed into “the prophets.”
(3) Harmonistic Corrections
These are quite frequent in the Gospels, e.g. the attempted assimilation of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke to the fuller form in Matthew, and quite possibly the addition of the words “of sin” to the phrase in Joh 8:34, “Every one that doeth sin is a slave.” A certain group of harmonistic corruptions where scribes allow the memory, perhaps unconsciously, to affect the writing may rightly be classed under (4) above.
(4) Doctrinal Corrections.
Of these, it is difficult to assert any unquestioned cases unless it be the celebrated Trinitarian passages (King James Version, 1 John 5:7-8a; 1 Timothy 3:16) or the several passages in which fasting is coupled with prayer, as in Matthew 17:21; Mark 9:29; Acts 10:30; 1 Corinthians 7:5.
NTTC 1 JOHN 5:7-8: The Bible Has Survived Attempts to Change the Word of God
NTTC 1 TIMOTHY 3:16: “God was manifest in the flesh” or “He was manifested in the flesh”?
(5) Liturgical Corrections
These are very common, especially in the lectionaries, as in the beginning of lessons, and are even found in early uncials, e.g. Lu 8:31; 10:23, etc.
HOW THE BIBLE SURVIVED Careless and Even Deceitful Bible Copyists?
Determine the Original Reading
Note: The following are critical texts: the TR stands for Textus Receptus text (1550), WH stands for Westcott and Hort text (1881), and NU stands for the Nestle-Aland text (28th ed. 2012) and the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament (5th ed. 2014). WHNU is applicable to all three texts.
Collecting the manuscript evidence is laborious, but it is a little more straightforward than the evaluation process. In the collection process, the goal is to gather as much evidence as possible concerning various readings of a specific text. The evaluation process aims to determine which reading has the best evidence for being the original reading. The evaluation process is complicated by the fact that not all scholars agree on which evaluation principles are to be used or the relative importance of each of them.
- There can only be one reading, which is the original reading.
- Manuscripts are to be weighed not counted. Certain families of manuscripts are more trustworthy (e.g. Alexandrian over Byzantine, Western, or Caesarean). In addition, certain manuscripts within a family are more faithful than others (e.g. P66 P75 01 03)
- Generally, the reading that is weighty from both internal and external evidence is preferred.
- The external evidence of the manuscript witnesses are to be evaluated first; thereafter, will the internal evidence be considered.
- The primary weight of external evidence goes to the original language manuscripts. If the weight is so evenly distributed, it is difficult to make a decision; the versions and Church Fathers may serve to tip the scales.
- Probability is determined based on paleographical details and the habits of scribes.
The Internal Textual Criticism Process
- The reading that the other reading(s) most likely came from is likely the original. This is the fundamental principle of textual criticism
- The more difficult or awkward reading is often preferable. The reading at first will seem to be more difficult or awkward to understand, but after further investigation, it will be discovered that a scribe deliberately or mistakenly changed the text to an easier reading.
- The shorter reading is generally preferred if the change is intended. This is a reflection of scribal tendency, as a scribe is far more likely to make an addition to a text in his efforts at clarification. Very rarely will a scribe intentionally add to his text by mistake.
- The longer reading is generally preferred if the change is unintended. This again is a reflection of scribal activity, in that a scribe is far more likely to omit a word or phrase mistakenly, as to intentionally adding.
- The longer reading is preferred if there is clear reason(s) internally as to why the scribe omitted a word or phrase, like difficulties (perceived contradictions) or awkwardness. For example, a scribe may willfully remove or alter a verse that is repeating one of the previous verses.
- Within the synoptic gospels especially, a less identical reading is preferred as scribes had a tendency to harmonize readings.
- An author-style reading is preferred. If a reading matches the style of the author, it is preferred, and the variants that are foreign to that style are questionable.
- An author-vocabulary reading is preferred. If a reading matches the vocabulary of the author, it is preferred, and the variants that are foreign to that vocabulary are questionable.
- An author-doctrine reading is preferred. If a reading matches the doctrine of the author, it is preferred, and the variants that are foreign to that doctrine are questionable, especially if they are of a later period in Christian history, anachronistic.
- The reading that is deemed immediately at odds with the context is preferred if deemed intentional because a scribe is more likely to have smoothed the reading out.
The External Textual Criticism Process
- The Alexandrian text-type is generally preferred (especially P66 P75 01 03), unless it appears to be a “learned” correction.
- A represented reading from more than one geographical area may be preferred to even an Alexandrian text-type reading. The reason is that the odds are increased greatly against a reading being changed from the original in such a wide geographical and family spectrum.
- An overwhelming Alexandrian representation (P66 P75 01 03), numerous Alexandrian manuscripts of great quality and trustworthiness can overrule a widely represented reading from all geographical areas and families.
- The Byzantine reading is always questionable until proven otherwise.
- The most faithful to a text-type is preferred if they are divided in support.
Different Approaches to New Testament Textual Criticism
Thoroughgoing Eclecticism (G. D. Kilpatrick, J. K. Elliott)
Under this method, the evidence is one-sided, coming primarily from internal evidence. Those who side with this method view the textual evidence as unreliable, giving no preference to any text type. These textual scholars will argue that any variant could be original because no manuscript in their eyes is “best” or “better” than another. Therefore, the reading that fits the internal context, such as the style or thought of the author is deemed original. This is a minority view, and this position is criticized for not recognizing the value of the textual evidence.
Reasoned Eclecticism (B. M. Metzger, K. Aland, B. Ehrman)
Under this method, both internal and external evidence is allegedly given equal weight. Allegedly because many of those who profess this method tend to lean toward the internal evidence of what a copyist would most likely have done, as opposed to consistently trusting manuscripts, which are considered reliable. Eclecticism means to pick and choose. It refers to those textual scholars who lean toward selecting elements from both internal and external evidence. This is the method of those on the committees of the Nestle-Aland 28th edition and United Bible Societies 4th edition of the Greek New Testament. These scholars also prefer the manuscripts of the Alexandrian family of texts as being the best and most faithful in preserving the original reading. They view the Western family of texts, while early, as paraphrases, adding and removing words, clauses, and whole sentences. The Byzantine family is later than the Alexandrian and Western families and is known for smoothing out rough readings, combining two or more readings, and harmonizing parallel passages. Finally, there is the Caesarean family that is known for its mixture of Western and Alexandrian readings.
Reasoned Conservatism (H. A. Sturz)
Under this method, each of the four text types, Alexandria, Western, Byzantine, and Caesarean, are considered as early as the second century. The scholars that prefer this method also consider both internal and external evidence. However, they differ in that they give all four-manuscript families equal weight as to evidence toward the original reading, emphasizing the geographical distribution of the manuscripts.
Byzantine Priority (M. Robinson, Z. Hodges, A. Farstad)
Under this method, the Byzantine text family is given priority over the other three and is considered the best and most faithful in preserving the original reading. The textual scholars that prefer this method favor the reading from the majority of the manuscripts, which happens to be the Byzantine text. Several of the scholars that worked on the New King James Version committee, which is based on the Textus Receptus (i.e., Byzantine), are of this position. Of course, this method violates one of the pinnacle rules of textual criticism; manuscripts are to be weighed not counted. In other words, the majority does not equal that you have an original reading; it is the weight of the manuscripts involved. “For example, if ten manuscripts are copies of a single parent manuscript, then an error appearing in the parent will appear ten times in ten copies. But these ten copies are equal to a single authority, not to ten.”
Documentary Approach (F. J. A Hort, E. C. Colwell, Philip W. Comfort, Edward D. Andrews, and Don Wilkins, to mention a few)
Under this method, greater weight is given to the documentary evidence. This method is the position of this writer. As was stated in the above, the Reasoned Eclecticism method attempts to depend on both internal and external evidence equally in their determination as to what is the original reading. However, this has proven not to be the case. A textual scholar must make these determinations on a variant-by-variant basis. The NU has tended to favor the internal evidence at times, resulting in a critical text that is out of balance in their documentary evidence.
The approach here is to select a manuscript(s) that is deemed the best for each book of the New Testament. It must be remembered that for hundreds of years in the early manuscript copying, books and sections (e.g., Gospels and Paul’s letters) were produced, not the whole New Testament. For example, for the Gospel of Luke, we would use P4, P45, and P75, as well as B. P4 and P75 are preferred and make up the B text. Thus, the original text of the Gospel of Luke is retained in P4, P75, and B while we get further support from P45.
Now that we have established the best manuscripts for establishing the original for the Gospel of Luke, they need to be scrutinized, removing any clear errors or variants. When we have established a semi-critical text for the Gospel of Luke from this process, it would then be used as our standard text from which we establish the original wording, making certain by standing it up against other witnesses. If there were any places where the other witnesses seem to compete with this standard text, internal evidence would then be considered.
In the above, we have given the reader, a brief outline of the rules and principles for carrying out the practice of New Testament textual criticism, as well as different approaches to implementing those rules and principles.
Charles Fremont Sitterly and Edward D. Andrews
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