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Textual criticism is a discipline that aims to reconstruct the original wording of ancient texts by examining the available manuscript evidence. In biblical studies, textual criticism is particularly important because the Bible is a collection of ancient documents transmitted over time through handwritten copies. The two main parts of the Bible are the Old Testament and the New Testament, and each presents its own unique challenges and opportunities for textual criticism.
This essay will explore the similarities and differences between Old and New Testament textual criticism. Specifically, it will examine the goals, methods, challenges, and results of these two fields of study, highlighting their similarities and differences.
Before we delve into the specific similarities and differences between Old and New Testament textual criticism, it is worth noting that both fields share some common ground. Firstly, both the Old and New Testaments have undergone significant textual transmission over time, with numerous copies being produced by hand. This means that both Testaments are subject to the same challenges when it comes to reconstructing the original text. Secondly, both fields of study share the same ultimate goal: to reconstruct the original wording of the biblical text as closely as possible. This involves comparing the various available manuscripts and making educated guesses about which readings are likely closer to the original. Finally, both fields of study use similar methods to achieve their goals, including examining manuscripts, analyzing textual variants, and the comparison of different translations.
While there are some similarities between Old and New Testament textual criticism, there are also some key differences. The following sections will examine these differences in more detail.
One of the main differences between Old and New Testament textual criticism is their respective goals. In the case of the Old Testament, scholars are working with texts that were written in Hebrew and Aramaic, while the New Testament was originally written in Koine (common) Greek. The Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the Old Testament have a long and complicated history, with various versions and translations being produced over time. As a result, one of the primary goals of Old Testament textual criticism is to reconstruct the original Hebrew and Aramaic text as accurately as possible. This involves comparing the various manuscripts, translations, and versions that have been produced over time and making educated determinations about which readings are likely to be closer to the original.
In the case of the New Testament, the primary goal of textual criticism is to reconstruct the original Greek text. Like the Old Testament, the New Testament has a long and complicated history of textual transmission, with numerous copies being produced by hand over the centuries. However, unlike the Old Testament, there is relatively little variation in the underlying Greek text. This is because the New Testament was written in a common language that was widely spoken and understood in the ancient world. As a result, the manuscript tradition of the New Testament is much more uniform than that of the Old Testament. There is between 80-80% agreement between the Byzantine and the Alexandrian manuscript families.
The Byzantine text-type is one of the several text-types used in New Testament textual criticism to describe and group the manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. This text-type is characterized by its prevalence in the Byzantine Empire from the mid 5th century onwards, which explains its name. It is sometimes referred to as the Majority Text or the Constantinopolitan Text because of its widespread use in the Byzantine world, including Constantinople. The Byzantine text-type is notable for its consistency, with very few variations among its manuscripts. It also contains a number of unique readings that are not found in other text-types, suggesting that it may have had its own line of transmission separate from other text-types. However, the Byzantine text-type is generally regarded as a later development in the transmission history of the Greek New Testament, and many scholars believe that earlier readings are more likely to be preserved in the other text-types, such as the Alexandrian and Western text-types. As a result, the Byzantine text-type is often viewed as less valuable for reconstructing the original text of the New Testament.
The Alexandrian text-type is one of the three major text-types of the Greek New Testament, alongside the Western and Byzantine text-types. The Alexandrian text-type is named after Alexandria, Egypt, which was a center of learning and Christian scholarship in the early centuries of the Christian era. The Alexandrian text-type is generally considered to be the oldest and most reliable text-type of the New Testament, with many scholars believing that it represents the text closest to the original autographs. This text-type is characterized by its brevity, clarity, and often elegant Greek style. Alexandrian manuscripts tend to be earlier and more carefully copied than Byzantine manuscripts, and they often omit or harmonize difficult or redundant passages. Some of the oldest and most significant manuscripts that belong to the Alexandrian text-type include over 140 NT papyri manuscripts, Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, and Codex Alexandrinus. In addition to these early manuscripts, many later manuscripts also belong to the Alexandrian text-type, and this text-type is also represented in many ancient versions and patristic quotations.
In the world of textual criticism, there are different goals pursued by scholars of the Old Testament and the New Testament. Most New Testament textual critics seek to recover the original text of the New Testament to a large degree. On the other hand, some Old Testament textual critics generally avoid the phrase “original text” and believe that only a form of the text somewhat removed from the original (if there was one) is all that can be recovered and sought. Some Old Testament textual critics who pursue an “original text” understand the term nuancedly.
The existence of multiple literary editions of a text raises questions about which one is original, authoritative, and which should be the focus of the text-critical enterprise. The authority issue is not a text-critical question but a theological decision. The question of originality regarding literary editions is a question about the relative age of one edition in comparison with others. However, age is not the only issue, as the issue of canon is both a historical and a theological matter.
In textual criticism, a literary edition is a type of edition of a text that presents the text in a literary, rather than a diplomatic, form. A diplomatic edition is a type of edition that aims to reproduce the text as it appears in a particular manuscript or group of manuscripts, without emending or correcting errors, and typically includes detailed notes on variants and the state of the text in other manuscripts. A literary edition, on the other hand, presents the text in a form that is designed to be read and understood by modern readers rather than simply reproducing the text as it appears in a particular manuscript. This may involve making editorial emendations or corrections to the text to remove obvious errors or to harmonize apparent discrepancies, and typically includes fewer notes on textual variants than a diplomatic edition. In some cases, a single edition may attempt to strike a balance between diplomatic and literary forms, presenting the text in a form that is as close as possible to the original while still being readable and accessible to modern readers.
Determining which text is properly the focus of textual criticism is not strictly a matter of age, nor is it an issue that can be addressed solely by textual critics. It is just as valid to attempt to reconstruct each of the literary editions of the books that have more than one without regard for the question of the authority of one or the other. Other possible targets include the Hebrew text of 100 C.E., the original form of each of Jerome’s translations, and the predominant text of the NT in Egypt at the time of Athanasius.
Textual critics should treat groups of variants together within a particular edition and not in isolation. Text-critical judgments about a particular reading can be completely wrong if the proper literary edition to which the variants belong is not first determined. The best solution from a text-critical perspective would be to create separate texts and apparatuses for each literary edition.
While Old and New Testament textual criticism share some similar methods, there are also some important differences. One of the main differences is the extent to which manuscript evidence is available. In the case of the Old Testament, the manuscripts that have survived are relatively late in comparison to the original composition of the text. This means that scholars are often working with manuscripts that are hundreds or even thousands of years removed from the original writing. As a result, Old Testament textual criticism often involves the comparison of multiple manuscript traditions and versions and using other sources, such as ancient translations and commentaries.
In the case of the New Testament, there is a much larger number of surviving manuscripts, many of which are relatively early in comparison to the original writing. This means that New Testament textual criticism is often focused on comparing and analyzing the numerous early manuscripts that have survived. In some cases, the manuscript evidence is so extensive that scholars can reconstruct the text with high confidence. This is particularly true for the Gospels, which are the most extensively attested books in the New Testament.
There are significant differences in the terminology used by textual critics of the Old and New Testaments. Terms like group, family, text-type, and recension have different meanings in the two disciplines, and some technical terms used in one area may be largely unknown in the other. OT textual critics tend to use terms like text-type and family without any apparent distinction, while NT textual critics distinguish between text-type, sub-text-type, tribe, and family. Additionally, while NT textual critics use the term recension to refer to the result of deliberate critical work by an editor, OT textual critics tend to use family and recension interchangeably. The development of different extant witnesses for the OT and NT is a major reason for these differences, and the complex nature of the development of the Hebrew text has led some scholars to call for a stricter terminology for the grouping of MSS in OT textual criticism. Furthermore, terms used to classify textual variants differ in the two disciplines. NT textual critics distinguish between significant and insignificant variants, while OT textual critics classify all apparent variations from the MT that appear in the versions as either true variants, variants/non-variants, or pseudo-variants. Finally, the terms group profile and retroversion are more commonly used in NT and OT textual criticism, respectively.
Retroversion is a term used in textual criticism to refer to reversing a translation from a versional witness (such as a Greek or Latin translation) back into the text’s original language (such as Hebrew or Aramaic in the case of the Old Testament). Retroversion aims to determine what the original text might have looked like based on the translation in the versional witness. This process can be helpful in reconstructing the textual history of a particular work and identifying variant readings in the extant manuscript tradition. However, it is important to note that not all Hebrew reconstructions that appear to be equivalent to a reading in a version are necessarily reliable retroversions, and the process can be complicated by factors such as the nature of the translation and the conditions of the versional text.
Both Old and New Testament textual criticism face a number of challenges. One of the main challenges is the sheer volume of manuscripts and variants that need to be analyzed. In the case of the Old Testament, there are thousands of manuscripts, many of which have significant differences in wording and content. This can make it difficult to determine which readings are original and which are later additions or modifications. In the case of the New Testament, while there are fewer manuscripts, the sheer volume of textual variants can make it challenging to determine which readings are original.
Another challenge faced by both fields of study is that many of the surviving manuscripts are incomplete or damaged. This can make it difficult to determine the text’s original wording, particularly in cases with significant textual variants.
Despite the challenges faced by both Old and New Testament textual criticism, significant progress has been made in reconstructing the original text of the Bible. In the case of the Old Testament, scholars have made significant strides in reconstructing the original Hebrew and Aramaic text, with many of the major textual issues having been resolved. In some cases, this has involved the reconstruction of the text based on other sources, such as the Septuagint or the Samaritan Pentateuch.
In the case of the New Testament, significant progress has also been made in reconstructing the original Greek text. While many textual variants still require careful analysis and consideration, the vast majority of the text is considered to be well-established. As a result, scholars can produce translations of the New Testament based on a highly reliable text.
One of the most significant differences is that Old Testament textual critics deal with texts that were written in Hebrew and Aramaic, while New Testament textual critics study texts that were originally written in Greek. The languages themselves present different challenges for textual criticism, with the Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the Old Testament having a long and complicated history of textual transmission, while the Greek texts of the New Testament are more uniform.
Another difference is the state of preservation of the texts. While over a hundred Greek New Testament manuscripts date from within a few centuries of the composition of the original texts, the vast majority of Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament are more than a thousand years younger than the date of composition. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has added manuscripts of immense importance and antiquity to the Old Testament textual critic’s repertoire, but even these are generally several hundred years younger than the earliest written texts of the books they contain.
The respective natures of the original language manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments differ as well. Early New Testament manuscripts vary greatly regarding the type of text they contain, while the vast majority of Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament are practically monolithic in character. This leads to quite different attitudes between the two camps with regard to three methodological issues: the use of versional evidence, the attitude toward textual emendations, and the issue of whether or not to attempt to reconstruct a Vorlage of extant witnesses.
The term Vorlage is a German word that means “original” or “underlying text.” Textual criticism refers to the hypothetical original text from which copies or translations were made. For example, in the context of Old Testament textual criticism, Vorlage refers to the original Hebrew or Aramaic text from which translations such as the Greek Septuagint or the Latin Vulgate were made. In New Testament textual criticism, the term is used to refer to the original Greek text of a biblical book from which later copies or translations were made. The term is used to differentiate between different text forms and reconstruct the original text to the best of the textual critic’s ability.
Additionally, there is an area of overlap between the two disciplines, specifically in the study of Old Testament citations present in the New Testament. However, while New Testament textual critics frequently quote the Old Testament from the Septuagint (LXX), Old Testament textual critics rarely make use of this data, despite its value as an ancient witness to both the LXX and pre-Masoretic Hebrew texts.
Finally, there are differences in the availability of manuscripts for scholarly examination. The vast majority of New Testament manuscripts are extant, while the Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament are generally much younger than the earliest written texts of the books they contain. The recent release of photographic images of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the work of organizations such as the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center and the Institute for New Testament Textual Research have made more manuscripts available for scholarly examination. Additionally, electronic and wide-area internet publications have opened up new possibilities for textual research.
In summary, while Old and New Testament textual criticism share some common goals and methods, there are significant differences in the data they use and the challenges they face. These differences include the languages of the original texts, the state of preservation of the texts, the respective natures of the manuscripts, the use of versional evidence, and the availability of manuscripts for scholarly examination.
In conclusion, Old and New Testament textual criticism share some similarities in terms of their goals, methods, and challenges, but there are also some key differences. While both fields of study aim to reconstruct the original wording of the biblical text, they face different challenges due to the nature of the languages in which the texts were written, the manuscript evidence available, and the degree of textual variation. Despite these challenges, significant progress has been made in reconstructing the original text of the Bible, and scholars continue to refine their methods and techniques to produce ever more accurate and reliable translations of the biblical text.