Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Text of the New Testament (Part 1 of 2)

     Since none of the original autographs of the New Testament is extant, and the thousands of ancient copies (manuscripts, fragments, versions, etc.) differ among themselves with regard to certain words or sentences, textual criticism seeks to reconstruct as closely as possible the original Greek text (see Changes in the Bible? Part 1 and Part 2). When the documentary evidence is thoroughly evaluated and copyist errors are identified and eliminated, an amended text is then available.
     The earliest printed (yet unpublished) edition of the Greek New Testament was the fifth volume of Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros’ Complutensian Polyglot Bible in 1514, but it was not circulated until 1522. The first Greek New Testament to be printed and published, of which nearly all other early editions were copies or adaptations, was that of Desiderius Erasmus in 1516. Erasmus made use of no more than six late Greek manuscripts, relying heavily on two twelfth-century texts and also readings from the Latin Vulgate. Robert Estienne (a.k.a. Stephanus) published four editions (1546-1551), based on fourteen or fifteen Greek manuscripts and readings from Erasmus and the Complutensian. Théodore de Bèze (Beza) published nine editions (1565-1604), which were practically the same as the third and fourth editions of Stephanus and the fourth and fifth editions of Erasmus.
     The Textus Receptus is a label applied to multiple Greek texts. In 1624 the brothers Bonaventure and Abraham Elzevir published a Greek New Testament based largely on Beza’s first edition. The Elzevirs’ second edition (1633) contained these words in the preface: Textum ergo habes, nun cab omnibus receptum: in quo nihil immutatum aut corruptum damus, meaning "You have therefore the text now received by all: in which we give nothing altered or corrupt," i.e. the textus receptus ("received text") or standard text. Seeing that the works of Erasmus (1516), Stephanus (1550), Beza (1598), and Elzevir (1633) are essentially the same (with only slight variations), they have all been lumped together and labeled Textus Receptus. While this is the basic text that stands behind all English translations of the New Testament until 1881, the earliest and what many consider the better manuscripts had not yet been discovered.
     Over the past two centuries large numbers of manuscripts, many of which are much older than those previously available (and thus closer in time to the original writings), have been unearthed and utilized by text critics. In time more critical editions were produced by Lachmann (1831) and Tischendorf (1869-72), followed by Westcott and Hort (1881), paving the way for modern textual criticism. The critical approach classifies manuscripts into groups or families of texts that reflect agreement among themselves in a large number of variant readings, indicating that they stem from a common source. The available documentary evidence is generally grouped into at least three text-types,1 designated according to the geographical region(?) where each tradition is believed to have originated.
     The Byzantine text-type (a.k.a. Syrian, Koine, Ecclesiastical, Antiochian, A-text) was largely preserved in the Eastern or Byzantine Empire and represents the vast majority of surviving manuscripts. It is generally found in later copies and is believed to have stemmed from Syrian Antioch and then taken to Constantinople where it spread throughout the Byzantine Empire.
     The Alexandrian text-type (a.k.a. B-text) was largely preserved in the regions of Alexandria, Egypt and generally represents the earlier extant manuscripts. While Westcott and Hort improperly labeled it the "neutral text," the Alexandrian text-type is actually much more diverse than the Byzantine text-type. It is typically shorter by comparison and characterized by a larger number of abrupt endings, more variations between parallel synoptic passages, and has a greater number of difficult readings.2
     The Western text-type (a.k.a. D-text) is a less-than-consistent text characterized by what is often viewed as careless and undisciplined scribal activity. Traced back to the second century, it was used by Marcion, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian. It is generally longer than other text-types, and its rough form is regarded by some as indicative of an earlier stage of transmission rather than a later, corrupted form. The challenge is determining which of the variant readings is the earliest, since the manuscripts differ from each other almost as much as they differ from the other text-types.
     An eclectic text is the result of analyzing each reading on its own merits without exclusively relying on a single text-type, i.e., the quest for quality over quantity. The value of this approach notwithstanding, how one evaluates "quality" is admittedly somewhat subjective, as evidenced by the ongoing debates among text critics. It seems that most modern eclectic texts (and critical scholars) show a significant bias toward the Alexandrian text-type due to its comparative antiquity.
–Kevin L. Moore

      1 While the Caesarean (a.k.a. Eastern or C-text) is a potential fourth, in recent years it is being questioned as a separate text-type and simply regarded as a mixture of other forms (see E. J. Epp, "Issues in NT Textual Criticism," in Rethinking NT Textual Criticism [ed. D. A. Black] 38-39; also B. M. Metzger, Textual Commentary [2nd ed.] 6-7). 
      2 This raises the question of whether these distinctions evince the earliest form of the text that was later modified (the majority opinion among text critics) or a corrupted form of the text not replicated in other manuscripts in different areas (to be considered in the next post).

Related PostsThe Text of the NT (Part 2)

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