Ipsissima Verba and Ipsissima Vox

Ipsissima verba is a Latin expression translated as “the actual words”, i.e. of a particular author or speaker. It has been used primarily in Gospel studies, applied to the sayings of Jesus (see below). It can also be applied to any of the narrative portions of Scripture (including most of Genesis through Esther, the four Gospels and Acts), as well as to the oracles and sayings of the Prophetic and Wisdom books, and even to the (superscriptions of the) Psalms. The expression can be understood or qualified two ways:

    1. In a strict sense—the exact words in the exact language
    2. In a looser sense—the actual words, but in translation, or modified/edited slightly in context

The first is a matter of linguistics and source-criticism. In fact, the words of the speakers in many of the Biblical narratives would not be considered their “actual words” (ipsissima verba) in the strict sense. For example, nearly all of the speakers in Genesis through Samuel would have spoken a language (or dialect) often very different from the Hebrew in which their words have come down to us—this is certainly true, say, for Abraham and Moses (the traditional author of the Pentateuch). In the New Testament, it is generally assumed that Jesus would have done most of his normal speaking and teaching in Aramaic; if so, then the Greek of the Gospels does not preserve Jesus’ “actual words” in the strict sense (except in the rare instances of transliterated Aramaic, Mark 5:41, etc). The same could be said for the words of Peter, James, etc (and even Paul, to some extent) in the book of Acts. Anyone who has attempted to translate Hebrew (or Greek) into a very different language (such as English) knows how difficult it can be to capture and transmit accurately the detail (and even the basic sense) of the original—a strict word-for-word, or otherwise ‘literal’, rendering can, at times, be almost impossible. The idea of ipsissima verba (in this strict sense) is, to a great extent, the result of an interest in trying to “recover” the original Aramaic of Jesus’ sayings; however, as I point out below, this has been rendered largely obsolete by modern trends in New Testament scholarship.

The second, looser, sense of the expression ipsissima verba is of far greater interest, from the standpoint of historical criticism. It has to do with the question of whether, or to what extent, the words of the speakers in the Scriptures are: (a) authentic and (b) (historically) accurate. Here it is worth mentioning the corollary expression ipsissima vox (“the actual voice“)—by this is meant that, though they may not represent the speakers “actual words” (in either a strict or loose sense), the words preserved in the Scripture do reflect the substance of what was actually said. In this regard, let us consider the two characteristics mentioned above:

    • Authenticity—i.e., the speaker really did say, in whole or in part, something similar to what is recorded. Again, this concept is most prevalent in Gospel studies, where scholars have sought to defend, disprove, or otherwise determine, whether sayings of Jesus are authentic. Critical scholars have developed a number of so-called “criteria of authenticity”, some of which are more useful (and convincing) than others.
    • Accuracy—i.e., on the whole, to a varying degree, the recorded words are reasonably close to what the speaker actually said (even if given in translation); to this may be added the qualification that the words may (or may not) have been spoken in the exact historical context (the place and position) indicated within the Scripture narrative.

A special difficulty arises with regard to the extended speeches in Biblical narrative—in the New Testament, most notably, the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John and the speeches in the book of Acts. As I discuss the latter in a study series (soon to be posted here), I will use the speeches of Acts as an example. Traditional-conservative scholars would tend to accept the speeches as representing the “actual” words of Peter, Stephen, Paul, etc, whereas many critical scholars believe the speeches are largely the product of the author (trad. Luke). A moderate critical position would see the end product as essentially Lukan, but built, to some extent, upon authentic tradition. Consider for the moment, the idea that the speeches do represent the ipsissima verba (as at least some tradition-conservative commentators would hold)—how exactly could this be? There are two possibilities: one natural, the other supernatural.

    • Natural—Luke (or the author of Acts) has access to a source (written or oral) of the speech, a stenographic record preserved by eye/ear-witnesses.
    • Supernatural—God (by the Holy Spirit) has somehow vouchsafed to the author a (perfect) stenographic record of the speech.

A “natural” word-for-word (or otherwise accurate) source for speeches (especially lengthy ones) given years prior can be extremely hard to obtain, as Thucydides clearly admits (cf. The Peloponnesian War I.22.1); to expect a record of the ipsissima verba of such speeches by entirely natural means would seem to be quite unrealistic. A “supernatural” source is often assumed simply on the basis of a belief of the divine inspiration of Scripture (for many believers, this includes the idea of verbal/plenary inerrancy). However, it is often unclear just how this works, especially in the case of historical speeches (as in Acts). Most of the clear examples of divine inspiration (or, more accurately, revelation) described in the Scriptures themselves refer either to: (a) God’s own original words (of instruction, prophecy, etc), or (b) foreknowledge of future events (including things people will say). It is hard to find many definite instances where inspiration functions by preserving a perfect record of what was done/said in the past. A “synergistic” theory, whereby the Spirit of God guides and superintends—enhancing, if you will—the natural process and development of historical tradition appears far more realistic. Along these lines, I might recommend a variation of the moderate critical view of the speeches in Acts: they accurately record a substantive tradition regarding what was said at the time (i.e. ipsissima vox), but are, to a significant degree, expressed by the author’s own (Spirit-guided) artistic style and wording. Clearly, the end result is not a mere stenographic record, but a powerful, dynamic work of literary art.

On the ipsissima verba of Jesus and Gospel Studies

As mentioned above, the expression ipsissima verba has been used primarily in terms of criticism and study related to the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels (primarily the Synoptic Gospels). In the late 19th-century through to the middle of the twentieth, there was a particular interest among many New Testament scholars in the relationship between the current Greek of the Gospels (and Acts) and the Aramaic with which many of the original sayings and traditions are assumed to have been expressed. This interest and emphasis can be seen in the work of scholars such as Gustav Dalman, Adolf Harnack, C. C. Torrey, Matthew Black, and many others. To a large extent, this involved an effort to ‘recover’ or re-establish the “original” Aramaic, by way of, e.g.—

(1) textual criticism, working back from textual variants and other details in the text to find examples where the Greek may translating (or mis-translating) an Aramaic original
(2) comparative analysis, working with the Syriac versions, the Targums, etc., sometimes involving attempts to convert (retrovert) the Greek into a possible Aramaic original
(3) historical and critical study regarding possible (original) Aramaic versions and/or sources of the Gospels and Acts

In more recent decades, New Testament scholars have largely abandoned such efforts, along with a growing recognition that theories involving Aramaic sources for the Gospels and Acts are highly speculative and questionable. Scholars with an Aramaic speciality (such as J. A. Fitzmyer) have offered incisive criticism of earlier methodology, such as the use of later Jewish Aramaic sources to establish the Aramaic of the first-century. A greater emphasis on form-, genre- and literary-critical approaches has also tended to focus scholars back to the Greek text (of the Gospels and Acts) as it has come down to us, and away from pursuing source-critical Aramaic theories.

Gospel: Meaning and Background of the word

I am beginning a series of daily notes dealing with the word eu)agge/lion (euangélion) and the eu)aggel- word group in the New Testament and early Christianity. This series will lead into various notes and articles dealing with the ministry of Jesus and the related Gospel Tradition, to be posted in the time prior to the Lenten/Easter season. The very word “gospel” is central to any study of this Tradition—it features prominently in Jesus’ first recorded words in the core Synoptic tradition, and, indeed, introduces the Markan Gospel itself:

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mk 1:1)
“The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near—repent and trust in the gospel” (Mk 1:13)

Let us begin with this English word “gospel”. It is a Germanic word, existing in Old English as gœdspel, meaning good (gœd) speech (spel), i.e. a good talk or telling (tale). As such, it corresponds reasonably well with the Greek word eu)agge/lion. The close correspondence between gœd and the word which came to express the idea of deity (god) was fortuitous, as it allowed for a bit of wordplay so that “godspel/gospel” could be understood as “talk/speech of/about God”.

English godspel/gospel would have been used to translate the Greek eu)agge/lion, already in the Old English/Saxon versions. Let us now consider this Greek term. Actually, there are three closely related words (or forms): the feminine noun eu)aggeli/a (euangelía), the neuter noun eu)agge/lion (euangélion), and the plural form of the latter, eu)agge/lia (euangélia). There is also the related verb eu)aggeli/zw (euangelízœ). These form the primary eu)aggel- word group.

The noun eu)aggeli/a is made up of two components: the noun a)ggeli/a (angelía) and the prefixed eu@ (eu), an adverb meaning “good, well”. The noun a)ggeli/a and the related verb a)gge/llw are part of an a)ggel- word group with the fundamental meaning “tell, declare, proclaim” (TDNT 1:56-57ff). The word a)ggeli/a refers to what is told or proclaimed, i.e. the message. Thus, eu)aggeli/a essentially means a good message, often rendered in English as “good news”. The neuter eu)agge/lion refers primarily to the response to a good message, i.e. a reward or offering of thanks, etc; it is thus fundamentally tied to both the messenger and the content/effect of the message. The plural form of eu)agge/lion ([ta] eu)agge/lia) is rather more common in Greek (though not in the New Testament!). The messenger (a&ggelo$, ángelos) is primary, and the one who brings the good message or tidings is called eu)a/ggelo$ (“good messenger, messenger [of] good [news]”). Interestingly, this noun does not occur in the New Testament; instead, we find eu)aggelisth/$, from the verb eu)aggeli/zw, i.e. “one who brings/proclaims the good message”.

When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, the noun eu)aggeli/a was used to render hr*c)B= (b®´œrâ), which occurs 6 times in the Old Testament (2 Sam 4:10; 18:20, 22, 25, 27; 2 Kings 7:9); eu)aggeli/a renders it in all but one instance (2 Sam 4:10), where the neuter eu)agge/lion (plural) is used instead. The Hebrew noun is derived from the root rc^B*, a relatively common Semitic verb meaning “bring (good) news”. The verb is more frequent in the Old Testament (24 times), often used in a military context (reporting on the outcome of a battle, etc), or for other important events (such as the birth of a son). It is nearly always translated in Greek by eu)aggeli/zw (“give/bring a [good] message”), which occurs 23 times in the LXX (the middle form eu)aggeli/zomai being more common by the time of the New Testament). This Old Testament usage, and its influence on the New Testament and early Christian expression, will be discussed in the notes.

Largely due to the Christian usage, the Greek eu)agge/lion was borrowed in Latin as evangelium, and it is this Latinized form which made its way into English and our evangel word group, which has been used almost exclusively in a Christian context. The word “evangelism” is related to “evangelist” (properly from the Greek eu)aggelisth/$, euangelist¢¡s), and refers to preaching/proclaiming the Gospel. The word “evangelical” means “belonging, or related to, the Gospel”; unfortunately, this meaning has become somewhat distorted today, and often refers more to socio-political identity than to the Gospel message. The modern-day usage of “evangelical” ultimately stems from the Protestant Reformation, where it was essentially synonymous with “Protestant” and “Reformed”, and quickly took on partisan religious (and political) connotations. In the late-19th and 20th centuries, especially in America, it came to refer to a particular idea of mainstream (traditional-conservative) Protestant Christianity (and Christian identity). Currently, however, as noted above, it often connotes socio-political conservatism as much as anything to do with historical Christianity.

On the Interpretation of Prophecy

It may be helpful to outline various ways Christians have sought to deal with the (predictive) prophecies found in the Old Testament Scriptures—as these are still the primary methods for applying such passages today. A particular difficulty comes in regard to those Scriptures taken by early Christians (and even the New Testament authors themselves) to apply to Christ and the Church—events often centuries removed from the original historical context, and, not infrequently, with a meaning quite different from that of the original passage.

Bear in mind, these interpretive approaches only relate to those readers and commentators who wish to maintain the validity of both the original meaning of the Old Testament passage (according to the grammatical-historical sense) and the traditional (and/or New Testament) Christian interpretation.

  1. The grammatical-historical sense of the passage, focusing on the original context alone, is the (only) proper mode of interpretation as such (or is by far the most important, primary mode). All other ‘interpretations’ are secondary applications or adaptations (whether unconscious or intentional) to the circumstances of later readers. From a theologically conservative point of view, such interpretations in the New Testament are still valid, but in a qualified sense as “inspired applications” in light of subsequent revelation.
  2. There are two equally valid sets of meaning for the original passage: (1) one present, i.e. related to the circumstances and worldview of author and ancient audience, (2) the other future (primarily christological or eschatological) applicable to a far distant time (age of the New Testament or present day, etc).
  3. The original historical context is maintained as primary (and exclusive) for the ancient author and audience, but the inspired text contains ‘hidden’ within it a special meaning (which is, or becomes, primary) for future audiences. In this regard, some might debate whether: (a) the inspired prophet knew or glimpsed this future meaning, or (b) was essentially unaware of it, being the secret work of the Spirit (that is, he spoke ‘even better than he knew’).
  4. The primary meaning of at least certain passages is futuristic (that is, related to Christ, the Apostolic age, or the present day), and it is actually the ‘original’ historical context that is secondary or incidental to the circumstances, language and thought-world of ancient author and audience.
  5. One should also perhaps mention the so-called dispensational method—that each prophecy applies specifically (that is, exclusively, or at least primarily) to a particular period in time (or ‘dispensation’), sometimes identified with specific covenants established throughout biblical history.

One could perhaps delineate other kinds of approaches, however, I suspect they would end up being just slight variations on the five (particularly the first four) I have outlined here.

Approach #2, would, I think, be favored mainly by traditional-conservative commentators concerned with upholding the doctrinal view that all of Scripture (Old & New Testament) is equally inspired. As such, I would consider it valid, with a few possible exceptions, only in a terminological sense. Practically speaking, it can be extremely difficult to maintain, especially for instances where a New Testament author cites an Old Testament passage in a completely different (even opposite!) sense from its original meaning and context.

#4 was, effectively, favored by many theologians and commentators in the early (and medieval) Church, particularly those who gave emphasis to an allegorical-typological or spiritual-mystical mode of interpretation, virtually to the exclusion of the grammatical-historical sense (as we would seek to establish it). This sort of emphasis has largely been abandoned today—indeed, the pendulum, often enough and sadly, has swung overly far in the opposite direction!

#5 has been (and remains) popular in many circles, whether applied loosely or in a highly systematic fashion. However, in my view, the common modern “dispensational” approach, is highly flawed, and the attempt to fit prophecies into specified ‘dispensations’ (often in an eclectic manner) tends to create more problems than it solves.

In my estimation, #1 and #3 are much to be preferred, in every respect, both as a method of interpretation, and as an aid in treating the question of the nature and extent of inspiration. Approach #1, on the whole, is probably closer to being correct, as long as one emphasizes that the creative adaptation of Old Testament passages by New Testament authors (and other early Christians) is a vital aspect of the nature (and extent) of inspiration (in the theological and doctrinal sense). However, I must confess that aspects of #3 are most attractive and should not be ignored, as this approach is, I think, relatively close to the New Testament authors’ own understanding of the matter (3a moreso than 3b).

Pseudepigraphy and Pseudonymity

Pseudepigraphy refers to written works “falsely ascribed” to an author. Pseudonymity refers to works “falsely named” by an author. I prefer to regard pseudonymity as a type of pseudepigraphy. For works generally considered “pseudepigraphic”, one may distinguish several types, broadly speaking:

  1. Pseudonymous works—that is, works in which the (true) author has written under the guise of a more famous figure. Such writings today are often referred to as literary “forgeries”.
  2. Works which are anonymous, or where the authorship is otherwise unknown or uncertain. In the process of transmission and preservation, scribes and editors would occasionally ascribe such writings to a presumed author; sometimes the attribution simply developed as part of a wider tradition.
  3. Works which are written as representing the words of a main character (usually a central, and famous figure). This is distinct from pseudonymity, though related to it in some ways.
  4. Works which present additional events and exploits of a famous character as authentic historical or biographical material. In other words, these are narrated from the point of view of an eyewitness, as opposed to legendary accounts or “historical fiction” in the modern sense.

While these criteria can be applied to any writing, they relate specifically (and primarily) to discussions of ancient and medieval literature. Things are further complicated by the fact that the term “Pseudepigrapha” tends to be used in a very definite sense: referring to a collection of Jewish (and Christian) writings (c. 300 B.C. to 700 A.D.) which draw heavily upon the Old Testament (hence the qualifying label “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha”). These writings are centered on the Patriarchs of Israel, the Prophets, David and Solomon, and so forth, often purporting to be (or at least written as they are) their authentic words. Much of this literature can be classified as apocalyptic—as meant to convey special revelation of future events; in such instances the Old Testament personage is really a literary device to couch the prophecies within the context of biblical (and/or world) history.

However there is much pseudepigraphic material (Jewish and Christian) beyond the “Pseudepigrapha” proper, including: (a) portions of the so-called (Old Testament) “Apocrypha”; (b) a good number of Dead Sea texts from Qumran; (c) New Testament “Apocryphal” books, many written in imitation of Jewish pseudepigrapha; and (d) a number of prominent Rabbinic works.

Especially sensitive is the question as to whether, or to what extent, pseudepigraphy and pseudonymity occur in the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The traditional-conservative view is reluctant to admit any such occurrence, but many scholars (and most critical commentators) believe that it applies to a good many books. A few examples (the number indicates the type of pseudepigraphy, 1-4, listed above):

  • The Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy) is essentially anonymous, but authorship has been traditionally attributed to Moses (#2), and Moses is the speaker of nearly all of Deuteronomy (#3).
  • Again all the books of the Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi) are technically anonymous, but clearly claim to represent almost entirely the words of the Prophets whose names are indicated in the opening verses (#3, possibly #2 to a lesser degree).
  • The Psalms are attributed to various authors in the superscriptions, the accuracy (and even inspiration) of which is debated (#2).
  • The Proverbs (much of it), Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs are attributed to Solomon in the text (though the opening verse of the Song does not as clearly indicate authorship); nearly all critical scholars hold that Ecclesiastes and the Song, particularly, were written considerably later (#3, perhaps a bit of #4).
  • The four Gospels, Acts and the Johannine epistles are all anonymous, but the traditional authorship was ascribed to them very early on (early-mid 2nd century at the very latest in the case of the Gospels); it is impossible to judge objectively whether they were applied at the original publication (#2).
  • Critical scholars are nearly unanimous in the view that the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy, Titus) and 2 Peter are pseudonymous; many hold the same opinion regarding Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians (#1).

It remains an open question as to whether pseudonymity is, in fact, entirely incompatible with a sound, reaonable doctrine of inspiration. Early Church fathers and officials generally condemned the practice; but it certainly took place, for we have examples of both ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretical’ works from the early centuries which are almost certainly pseudonymous. A famous example from the early middle Ages is the writing of so-called Pseudo-Dionysius—a heady mixture of Christian mysticism and Greek ascetic philosophy, which many later Fathers viewed as authoritative to some degree, due to its apparent authorship by the Pauline disciple Dionysius the Areopagite. If they had ever thought it was a pseudonymous work (a “pious fraud”), orthodox theologians such as Thomas Aquinas would not have tried so hard to make it fit into their system of belief. Subsequent centuries have viewed pseudonymity even more harshly, as an attempt to deceive readers or appropriate another author’s prestige. If seen in this light, pseudonymity would seem to create an ethical problem for any writing purported to be divinely-inspired. However, it is worth asking, to what extent is the pejorative and negative value judgment attending such descriptions as “false”, “fraud”, “forgery”, etc., actually warranted? Should authorship be viewed in terms of literary device or historical fact? These are important questions as we seek to study carefully the text of Scripture with both clear mind and open heart.

“On objective grounds…”

This is a phrase (“on [purely] objective grounds”) I use rather frequently in the notes and articles posted here. The purpose of the phrase is to indicate when a saying, narrative, or other tradition recorded in Scripture may be considered as authentic on the grounds of critical scholarship, without resort to any doctrine regarding the inspiration or historical reliability of Scripture. Similarly, it is used to judge the greater likelihood of various (critical) theories related to the development of tradition and how the Scriptures (the Gospel narratives, especially) came to be composed. For more traditional-conservative commentators, and for many devout believers in general, the accuracy and authenticity of the Scriptures is self-evident—is assumed or taken for granted—and requires no (objective) critical analysis to confirm the matter. However, even for those who hold, or tend toward, the traditional-conservative position, the observations and insights of critical scholarship can be most beneficial: it is foolhardy (in the worst sense) to ignore or disparage them, and, I should say, unworthy of the believer who wishes to be a serious student of the Scriptures.

The qualifying term “objective” implies verifiable evidence, both internal and external to Scripture, which can be analyzed, agreed upon, and accepted, by all commentators—believer and non-believer alike—apart from what one personally believes or thinks about the Scripture. This is contrasted with (or, one may say, complemented by) interpretation on “subjective” grounds—that is, the personal (whether unique or shared by a wider community) opinion or belief of the commentator. Examples of “objective” evidence include: word usage, the development and particular meaning of a word or phrase, historical parallels to a word or passage, similarities of usage in other writings, signs of historical/literary development in a narrative, and so forth. Complete objectivity may or may not be possible for a scholar or commentator, but it remains a noble goal, and one which ought to be pursued in faith and humility.

“Tradition” and “Authentic Tradition”

The word “tradition” (from Latin traditio, tradere) means that which is “given over, delivered, transmitted, passed on”. In Greek, the corresponding term is para/dosi$ (parádosis), from paradi/domi (paradídœmi), lit. “give along”. A tradition is something which is passed along, i.e. from one generation to the next, within a specific cultural matrix or community. In particular, one may speak of religious traditions passed down within a community. So it is with much of the material which we find preserved in the Scriptures—lists, genealogies, narratives, words and speeches, and any number of related historical and/or tribal/community details. In many instances these traditions were passed down orally, perhaps for generations, taking on fixed or well-established forms, before ever being written; then, several written stages may have occurred before being given definitive shape in the Writings which have come down to us. Often the Scriptures themselves bear witness to a wider tradition (regarding, e.g., the Patriarchs, the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles, etc), of which only a small portion has been preserved.

Gospel Tradition(s)” is a term regularly used by critical scholars, especially, to refer to the various sayings and narratives (and occasional lists, etc) which have been preserved and recorded in the Gospels. “Jesus Tradition(s)” is a parallel term referring specifically to sayings of Jesus, narratives and historical details involving Jesus, which have been preserved—primarily in the four canonical Gospels, but also in other New Testament and extra-canonical writings.

“Authentic Tradition”

For those familiar with the notes and articles posted here, this is a qualified term I use quite frequently. By it I mean a tradition which has been transmitted from the time, and from within the cultural milieu, indicated. For example, an authentic Gospel (Jesus) tradition will have been passed down from Jesus’ own time, originally by his followers (and/or their close associates). An authentic tradition is not necessarily (strictly speaking) historical or factual in every detail—even though such traditions would (originally) stem from persons who may have been ear/eye-witnesses (or nearly so), the possibility of distortion and/or adaptation during the process of transmission must be taken into account. For many Christians, a doctrine of inspiration of Scripture presumes that the process of transmission would (or must) be completely accurate and reliable in (every) detail. However, this rather depends on how one understands the nature and extent of inspiration (a vital question, sadly neglected today), and the force of the claim could certainly be debated.

For the purposes of these notes and articles, I use the term “authentic tradition” in the sense indicated above. It should be pointed out, however, that many (critical) scholars also use the term “authentic saying” (that is, of Jesus) in a specific technical sense. This has been a significant area of Gospel Criticism in the past two centuries, tied to the idea of the “historical Jesus”—authentic (i.e., actual, genuine) sayings and actions of Jesus are often contrasted with sayings and narrative events viewed as (in whole or in part) the product of the early Church. To this end, critical scholars have developed a number of “criteria for authenticity”, several of the most important are:

  • Multiple Attestation: Sayings or episodes which are attested in multiple, unrelated sources (i.e., Synoptics, Gospel of John, Pauline epistles, extra-canonical sources) are more likely to be authentic.
  • Dissimilarity: Sayings/episodes which are significantly different from the language, style, theology, etc. found elsewhere in the early Church (or Judaism of the period) are more likely to be authentic. A subcategory of this criterion is that of embarrassment—i.e., sayings which proved difficult or ’embarrassing’ to the early Church are more likely to be authentic.
  • Coherence: Sayings/episodes which cohere or conform to other material judged to be authentic (on other grounds).

While such analysis has led to many useful insights, I find the search for “genuine” vs. “inauthentic” sayings and actions of Jesus to be, on the whole, exaggerated and overextended, with critical scholars often engaged in considerable speculation. However, in presenting something of the critical approach and viewpoint in these articles, I feel it both it both necessary and helpful to point out when a narrative or tradition can, on objective, critical grounds, be judged as authentic, and where, by contrast (or complement), an early interpretation may be attached to a tradition within the text of Scripture.

“Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative”

I have regularly used the labels “Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative” as a short-hand description for two general approaches to handling and interpreting Scripture. The reality is more complex than the labels would suggest, and, of course, there is a wide middle ground of opinion and analysis; however, fundamental differences exist which are distinct enough to warrant some basic form of demarcation.


For the term “criticism” in general, I would recommend the three-part article Learning the Language, introducing the subjects of Biblical Criticism and, in particular, Textual Criticism. “Criticism” of Scripture simply means informed judgment and analysis of the sacred Writings, in terms of: Text, History (and Historicity), Literary Form and Genre, Composition (and Redaction), Authorial Purpose/Intent, Development and Transmission, etc.—that is, everything meaningful which one could study and analyze about a particular literary document. All commentators engage in “criticism” at some level. What distinguishes a specific “Critical” approach, as such, to Scripture, is the willingness to apply to sacred Writings the same methods and techniques one might apply to any other writing from the ancient world. In so doing, there is no doctrinal presumption, no resort to supernatural agency in explaining how the text came to be—for the most part, entirely ordinary, natural means of production and development are assumed. On the one hand, this allows the commentator freedom in analyzing the text—every aspect (authorship, historical accuracy, theology, etc) can be examined apart from any religious doctrine regarding the text. On the other hand, this detachment can blind the commentator to the very religious and spiritual dimension which caused the text to be preserved and treated as sacred in the first place. Indeed, it is unfortunate that one can read page after page of critical commentary without any suggestion of unique, Divine inspiration (however one understands this precisely) at work in the text of Scripture.


As the label indicates, there are two aspects which I emphasize:

“Traditional”—This implies that the Christian tradition regarding the Scriptures is generally accepted, unless there is strong reason to reject it. This is opposed to the “Critical” approach, which tends to be skeptical, willing to question and examine every tradition (before accepting it outright). In particular, traditions regarding authorship (Moses for the Pentateuch, Matthew/Mark/Luke/John for the Gospels, etc), are assumed. See also the separate article on “Tradition”.

“Conservative”—Because of the highly polemical, partisan nature of this term in many circles, I use it somewhat reluctantly. I mean by it the tendency to accept—to take at face value—everything one finds in the Scriptures. This may be driven by a theological/doctrinal viewpoint, a religious/credal viewpoint, or both. Especially, when authorship is indicated in the Scriptures (e.g., Isaiah, Daniel; Paul in the “disputed” epistles [Pastorals, Ephesians]; 2 Peter), it is accepted more or less without reservation. Most controversial are questions regarding the historicity/factuality of the Old Testament and Gospel narratives; much of modern-day “apologetics” is devoted to defending the details of the Scriptural narratives against critical-skeptical ‘attacks’.

The Traditional-Critical view, at its best, demonstrates a sensitivity to the value of tradition, and to the religious/spiritual environment which produced the Scriptures (with recognition of the reality of inspiration); at its worst, however, it tends to close off important paths of inquiry, and risks distorting and misrepresenting the very sacred text it seeks to defend.

To demonstrate a basic difference between the two approaches, consider the concept of Gospel tradition in relation to the canonical Gospels which have come down to us. The Critical approach generally assumes multiple layers of development in the Gospel tradition, during which many modifications, accretions, interpretive expansions, etc. have occurred:

  • Stage 1: The words and actions of the historical Jesus and his contemporaries
  • Stage 2: These words and actions as described and transmitted orally among the earliest believers
  • Stage 3: Early collections of sayings and narratives (oral or written, perhaps translated into Greek)
  • Stage 4: Early Gospels (or Gospel fragments)—sayings and narratives connected within a larger framework
  • Stage 5: The sayings and narratives as recorded in the four canonical Gospels

The Traditional-Critical view, by comparison, would tend to compress these layers so that Stage 5 is more or less equivalent to Stage 1—i.e., the Gospels as we have them preserve (with minimal modification) the words and actions of Jesus just as they originally took place.

The thoughtful and sensitive student of Scripture will recognize the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches—by holding them in balance, in true humility, and under the guidance of the Spirit, we may faithfully explore and expound God’s Word in the Scriptures (and the Scriptures as God’s Word).

Textual Variants: How Important Are They?

The question of textual variants (or “variant readings”) cannot (or, at least, should not) be ignored. For an overview and explanation of the subject, I recommend consulting the three-part introductory article “Learning the Language” (see Parts 1, 2, and 3). But, just how important are these differences in the manuscripts? To give a simple answer, one might say that anything involving the text of Scripture is very important. If one hopes to understand properly, and to be guided by the Scriptures, it is vital to know what they actually say.

It is sometimes claimed that these textual differences do not affect Christian doctrine or theology. This may be intended to reassure believers, but the claim is, at best, misleading. To begin with, it is true that, of the many thousands of variant readings, most are negligible or insignificant—clear scribal errors or singular readings (I do not even count simple spelling differences as variants). Again, of the remaining substantive or significant variants, a large percentage do not fundamentally alter the sense of the passage. However, this rather depends on how much weight one places on individual words—their morphology and syntactical connections. If the basic sense is preserved, how much do the literal differences matter? Beyond this question, there still remain a fair number of substantive variants that are theologically or doctrinally significant.

Points of doctrine, of course, do not exist in a vacuum—from whence are they derived ultimately, if not from the text of Scripture? All of the standard tenets of orthodoxy (with the exception, perhaps, of Christ’s “descent” into Hell/Hades), are the result of centuries of theological reflection, and do not rest upon one or two individual verses. However, our understanding and insight may surely be altered or shaped, even slightly, by a careful analysis and understanding of the variant readings. One ought, I think, to recognize the following areas of emphasis:

  1. The nature of the variant. Especially to note are possible intentional or purposeful scribal changes—how or why were these made? In the New Testament, many of these are of Christological significance—which are certainly important indeed, and not to be ignored.
  2. The location of the variant. I would maintain that variant readings generally, when they occur in a passage of special doctrinal significance, become, by definition, significant. For more on this, see below.
  3. The application of the variant. Variant readings have been, and continue to be, a part of the living and ongoing formation of doctrine. This was perhaps more true in the early centuries of the Church—a careful perusal of the writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, for example, reveals the citation and reference to a good number of variants (as we regard them today) in the context of their disputes with “gnostics” and “heretics” on theological (and Christological) points. Even today, variants play a role in theological discussion. See below for at least one key example.

Let us take a look at some of the variant readings which occur in the so-called Prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18). It would be hard to find a more theologically significant (or influential) passage in the entire New Testament. Many thousands of pages have been written commenting and expounding upon these marvelous words. I will limit any points of wider interpretation to the variation-units being discussed. Unless otherwise indicated, the translations are my own.

John 1:3-4:

Here the variants themselves are not so important; but, rather, the variants reflect a particular difficulty in interpreting the passage. The problem involves the words o^ ge/gonen, “(that) which came to be”—how is one to parse this phrase? Does o^ ge/gonen belong properly to the previous or suceeding words? Below are the two ways vv. 3 and 4 may be divided; I translate with a period (full stop), but punctuation even in the Greek is not certain:

  1. kai xwri$ au)tou= e)ge/neto ou)de e%n o^ ge/gonen. e)n au)tw=| zwh h@n: “…and apart (from) him came to be not (even) one (thing) which has come to be. In him was life…”
  2. kai xwri$ au)tou= e)ge/neto ou)de e%n. o% ge/gonen e)n au)tw=| zwh h@n: “…and apart (from) him came to be not (even) one (thing). (That) which has come to be in him was life…”
    This second interpretation can again be understood several different ways:
    a) “That-which-has-come-to-be, in him, was life…”
    b) “That-which-has-come-to-be, was life in him…”
    c) “That-which-has-come-to-be-in-him was life…”

Each of these has had its proponents, from ancient through modern times. Arguments in favor of reading #1 are:

  • It seems to provide a clearer sense and structure: v.3—creation (“coming to be”), followed by v.4—life/light which “is” and shines in creation. What exactly does the alternate (“that which has come to be in him was life”) mean?
  • The simpler, more direct idea of “life in him” can be found elsewhere in the Gospel (e.g., John 5:26, 39; 6:53)
  • Johannine style: beginning a sentence (or clause) with the preposition e)n + a pronoun.
  • The alternate (o( gegonen as beginning v.4) may have arisen in the early centuries under “Gnostic” influence—i.e., a cosmogonic “coming to be” of the Ogdoad and the Aeons. Irenaeus cites this (Against Heresies I.8.5) as the Valentinian interpretation.

In favor of reading #2 would be:

  • The step or “staircase” parallelism of the passage seems to require it. (Assuming a hymnic/poetic structure for the prologue)
  • It is the interpretation accepted by perhaps the majority of Church Fathers, including a number of early Greek Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria (see Paidagogos II.9), Origen (Commentary on John, Against Celsus VI.6, and many other references), Eusebius, Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine, Cyril, etc.
  • Even though this reading may seem awkward or obscure, many of the early (Greek speaking) Fathers seem to have had no trouble understanding it—that which came to be was “living”, i.e., had life in him (cf. Acts 17:28).
  • As, perhaps, the more “difficult” reading, it is to be preferred.
  • When Arians and so-called Macedonians began using this interpretation in support of the idea that the Holy Spirit was a created being, reading #1 may have developed as a way to avoid this.

Commentators today are divided, though most modern translations opt for #1. So does Bruce Metzger, in his dissenting opinion to the UBS Committee’s decision (see his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition, pp. 167-8). The UBS and Nestle-Aland critical texts use #2. I would, by a narrow margin, choose #1, though I find #2 most intriguing.

While here the original Greek text, as such, is more or less certain, the difficulty in interpreting the passage did give rise to at least one key variant:

  • Instead of “that which has come to be in him was (h@n) life”, assuming interpretation #2 above, a number of manuscripts instead read “…is (e)stin) life”, changing from an imperfect to a present form—i.e., “is living/alive”, instead of “was living/alive”.

No easy answers can be given to this rich and challenging passage.

John 1:9:

Here I mention in passing another question of pronunciation and interpretation in the prologue. This involves the phrase e)rxo/menon ei)$ ton ko/smon, “coming into the world” (v. 9)—does the phrase modify to fw=$ to a)lhqino/n (“the true/real light”) or pa/nta a&nqrwpon (“every man”)? In other words, is it the light or the (created) human being who is “coming into the world”? I think it almost certain that the reference is to the light.

John 1:13:

The original Greek text for this verse (13) is all but certain, with some minor/insignificant variants. Here is the reading of virtually all Greek manuscripts (and most other textual witnesses as well)—for context, I include verse 12 as well:

12o%soi de e&labon au)to/n, e&dwken au)toi=$ e)cousi/an te/kna qeou= gene/sqai, toi=$ pisteu/ousin ei)$ to o&noma au)tou=, 13oi† ou)k e)c ai(ma/twn ou)de e)k qelh/mato$ sarko$ ou)de e)k qelh/mato$ a)ndro$ a)ll’ e)k qeou= e)gennh/qhsan.

12But as (many) as received him, to them he gave authority to become children of God, 13the (ones) who, not out of blood, not (even) out of (the) will of flesh, not (even) out of (the) will of man, but out of God, have come to be (born).

There is, however, one major (singular or nearly-singular) variant which must be noted. In one Old Latin manuscript (b), and in several of the early Latin Church Fathers, the singular (instead of the plural) is read in verse 13—the underlying Greek would be o^$ ou)k…e)gennh/qh, instead of oi^ ou)ke)gennh/qhsan—i.e., “the (one) who…has come to be (born)”. A few Syriac manuscripts also read the verb in the singular. Interestingly, this variant is attested already by the middle of the 2nd century (in the so-called Epistle of the Apostles, §3); a bit later it is cited by Irenaeus (Against Heresies III.16.2, 19.2; V.1.3) and Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ, §19, 24) as an important proof-text in support of the (real) Virgin Birth of Jesus. Tertullian, especially, claims that the heretics have tampered with the passage, changing the singular to the plural—in his view, the singular (natus est) is the correct reading, which he cites both against the Ebionites and the Valentinians. In the transmission of the New Testament, corruption usually occurs toward a “higher” or more distinct Christological emphasis (adding or modifying details), and rarely in the opposite direction. In addition to the usefulness of this particular variant in Christological disputes, there may also have been some unease with the plural construction. Tertullian seems to reflect this (§19) when he claims that the Valentinians have taken what properly should be said of Christ and appropriated it to themselves. The Latin West was never especially comfortable with the doctrine of theosis—the deification of the believer, in Christ, as the end result of salvation and sanctification; John 1:13 has been one of the clearest passages in relation to this teaching.

John 1:18:

Here we have one of the most significant, disputed textual variants in the entire New Testament. The principal variant is as follows:

18Qeon ou)dei$ e(w/raken pw/pote:
“No one has seen God (at) any time;”
[o(] monogenh$ qeo$            o( monogenh$ ui(o$
“[the] only God,”              “the only Son,”
o( w*n ei)$ ton ko/lpon tou= patro$ e)kei=no$ e)chgh/sato.
“the (one) being in(to) the bosom of the Father, that one has brought (him) out”

Note: The word monogenh$ is difficult to translate literally in English; typically it has been rendered “only-born/begotten”; however, in common Greek parlance, it is much like saying “one of a kind”, “unique”; perhaps a fair literal rendering would be “only one (of its) kind”. Also, while e)chge/omai is translated literally as “lead/bring out”, it would more commonly be rendered “declare, report, expound, narrate, reveal”—i.e., “has declared (him)”, or “has revealed (him)”.

I cited the textual evidence briefly in an earlier article. I include the diagram again here below:

Clearly, o( monogenh$ ui(o$ is the majority reading, supported by an impressive range of early and diverse witnesses; this normally would be sufficient to confirm it as the original text. On the other hand, the “earliest and best” (Alexandrian) Greek MSS, along with other strong/diverse witnesses, read monogenh$ qeo$ (with or without the definite article). A few manuscripts also read simply o( monogenh$.

The reading with qeo$ (“God”) would seem to be the more difficult, and, on the principle of difficilior lectio potior, perhaps is to be preferred. Scribes may have altered it to the more familiar ui(o$ (“Son”). On the other hand, there was a marked tendency for scribes, consciously or unconsciously, to modify the text in favor of a stronger Christological emphasis. There can be no doubt that the reading [o(] monogenh$ qeo$ became a key text in support of the Deity of Christ. Even today, many theological and apologetic writings cite John 1:18 for this purpose—however, to do so, without any indication of the divided textual evidence, is really quite irresponsible.

What exactly is the meaning of [o(] monogenh$ qeo$? One ought to be cautious about reading later credal formulations (whether Nicene, Chalcedonian, or from the Westminster standards) back into the first-century text. Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, Christ is identified (or identifies himself) with the Father, but perhaps never so explicitly as this variant would indicate (especially if the definite article is original). The wording of John 1:1 (kai qeo$ h@n o( lo/go$, “and the Logos was God”) is most precise (and, one might almost say, cautious)—note the anarthrous form (without the definite article), and the specific word order.

In terms of transcriptional probability, the evidence is likewise uncertain, though, I think, slightly in favor of ui(o$ as the original reading. In the early (Alexandrian) scribal tradition, both readings would be represented by nomina sacra (“sacred names”)—a convention of using marked abbreviations to represent various names and titles of God (and Christ). In these MSS, it is easy to see how ui(o$ (+u+s) and qeo$ (+q+s) might be confused. +u+s would have been much less common as a sacred name, and more likely to have been (accidentally?) modified to +q+s.

But was the change, in whichever direction it occurred, accidental or was it intentional? We may never know for sure. Likewise, we may never be absolutely certain which is the original reading—although this must always be a fundamental goal of Biblical Criticism: to determine, as far as possible, the original text. However, in this instance, I would recommend that believers study and meditate on this wondrous passage with both variant readings in mind.

Learning the Language, Part 3: Canons of Criticism

In the first two parts (see part 1 & 2) of this article, I discussed and defined many of the key terms and concepts involved in Textual Criticism. Now it remains to examine something of how these work in practice.

To begin, it is worth taking a look at the origins of Textual Criticism:

In the early Church, we have very little evidence of this, although clearly manuscripts of the New Testament were continuously copied and collected—some evaluation of the accuracy of a manuscript must have been involved in establishing an “exemplar” for copying. Early Church Fathers occasionally mention variant readings of the NT in their writings. But it is only with Origen that we see anything like a critical concern for the text of Scripture. Alexandria (the site of Origen’s early career), in particular, had a strong tradition of scholarship and scribal practice, going back into the Hellenistic period. However, even Origen does not address variants and other textual issues as carefully or consistently as one might expect. The only other Church Father (we know of) who came close to Origen’s level of technical scholarship was Jerome.

In the Middle Ages, serious Criticism of any sort was largely absent in the Church. The situation was a little better in the Greek (Byzantine) East; while Jewish and Islamic scholars, much further ahead at the time, helped to preserve a certain level of scholarship for future generations in Western Europe. The Rabbinic scribes, in particular (the Masoretes), had established a traditional practice of evaluating and addressing variants and textual corruption in the Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament. However, Textual criticism, in something like the modern sense, only began following the Renaissance. After centuries of relying upon translations, scholars such as Lorenzo Valla, Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples, and Desiderius Erasmus began looking afresh at the text, publishing critical studies and editions. The hunt for manuscripts was also on, though at the time of Erasmus’ critical edition of the Greek NT, relatively few MSS were available for study.

The modern science (or art) of Textual Criticism begins in earnest in the 18th and 19th centuries, following many decades of adopting Critical methods and principles in the study of Scripture. The earlier Critical editions of the 16th and 17th centuries (the so-called “Textus Receptus”) no longer sufficed. Men such as Gerhard von Mastricht, Richard Bentley, Johann Albrecht Bengel, Johann Jakob Wettstein, Johann Jakob Griesbach, Karl Lachman, Samuel Tregelles, and Constantin von Tischendorf, all edited and published Critical editions of the Greek NT, sometimes prefacing these with detailed prolegomena or critical studies that included principles for establishing the text. Griesbach, in his second edition (1796-1806), was perhaps the first to enunciate clearly a set of rules, to be adopted and modified by future scholars. (See below on “Canons of Criticism”).

In 1881-2 came the publication by Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton J. A. Hort of their Critical edition (The New Testament in the Original Greek), and here, for the first time, was a decisive break with the Textus Receptus tradition. This proved to be momentous (and the subject of no small controversy!) for all subsequent Textual Criticism. In devaluing the Koine/Byzantine Text, they gave clear priority to the ‘earlier’ Text-types—particularly the Alexandrian Text, as represented by Codex Vaticanus (B), which they referred to as their “Neutral” Text. While future scholars were to abandon some of their premises and terminology, Westcott and Hort’s evaluation of Vaticanus and the Alexandrian Text has generally been confirmed—”a very pure line of very ancient text”.

CRITICAL EDITION: It is worth defining this here: Any Edition (see) which has been produced according to the methods and principles of Textual Criticism. That is to say, rather than simply publishing a single manuscript, multiple manuscripts are collated and analyzed, usually with the purpose of establishing (the most likely) form of the original text. Today the UBS (United Bible Societies) and Nestle-Aland critical editions are the most popular and widely used; the two editions are largely identical.

However, the question must be asked: How exactly does one determine the most likely original text?


A “canon” (Greek kanw/n, kanœ¡n) is a rule or standard, a regulating formulation or principle. So, the “Canons of Criticism” are simply the rules or guiding principles used in (Textual) Criticism. Sometimes these are referred to as “Canons of Authenticity” or “Criteria for Authenticity”—that is, for attempting to determine the authentic (original) text. There are many different rules or principles that have been established or adopted over the years, but the most important of these, I think, can be reduced down to the following set of fundamental rules—an even half-dozen (to which, of course, there are exceptions!):

  1. (Preliminary:) Negligible or insignificant variants can be discounted. This includes all nonsense readings, obvious scribal errors, and true singular readings. Only substantive/significant variants are to be considered (See Part 2 on these)
  2. The earliest and “best” manuscripts are to be preferred. Readings which occur in the earliest manuscripts—i.e., the 2nd-4th century Papyri, and the 4th-6th century uncials (such as Codex Vaticanus [B] and Sinaiticus [a])—are to be given priority. Determining the “best” manuscripts is a bit more difficult: to be considered are both (1) individual “purity”, the accuracy of the copy (number of scribal errors); and (2) relative “purity”, the relation to other accurate/reliable manuscripts. Most scholars today tend to give priority to the “best” representatives of the so-called Alexandrian text (especially Vaticanus and the related early Papyri).
  3. Readings in early and (geographically) diverse witnesses are to be preferred. For example, if a reading occurs in early Alexandrian and “Western” manuscripts as well as (relatively) early versional (i.e., Old Latin, Syriac, Coptic, etc.) manuscripts, it is likely to be original.
  4. The more difficult reading is to be preferred. This was most famously stated by J. J. Griesbach by the Latin proclivi scriptioni praestat ardua, but usually formulated as the maxim difficilior lectio potior. It can be broken down under several categories:
    * The more obscure reading vs. the more “intelligible”
    * The rougher (harsher or ungrammatical) reading vs. the “smoother”
    * The more unusual expression or vocabulary vs. the more customary
    * The reading which more conforms to ecclesiastical or doctrinal norms vs. the more challenging
    The tacit assumption being that scribes are more likely, in the process of copying (which involves some degree of interpretation), to smooth over rough, difficult or challenging passages. Such changes, usually intentional, were typically made simply for the purpose of explaining or clarifying the text (not for mischievous or malicious reasons!)
  5. (Corollary:) The shorter reading is typically to be preferred. This is the maxim brevior lectio potior. Again, the assumption is that scribes were more likely to expand the text, than to shorten it. Some have questioned this assumption, but analysis of the manuscripts and ancient scribal practice seems to bear it out. This is one of the more difficult areas for evaluation, especially when manuscript evidence is evenly divided between a longer and shorter reading—which is original? Is the longer reading an expansion/interpolation, or is the shorter reading the result of a scribal mistake (parablepsis, homoioteleuton)?
  6. The reading is to be preferred which best explains the rise of all others. Griesbach worded it as the reading that “…lies midway between the others”. A most useful rule (often decisive) when the manuscript evidence is evenly balanced; unfortunately, it can be most difficult to determine which is, in fact, the “midway” reading. Here theories regarding scribal practice and transcriptional probability (see below) need to be examined most closely.

TRANSCRIPTIONAL PROBABILITY: This refers to the probable (or likely) process by which variant readings arose in the copying (transcription) of the text. Arguments and theories in this area can be complicated, and subject to considerable dispute among scholars. However, a careful analysis of transcriptional probability is often necessary in evaluating variants where the manuscript evidence is evenly divided.


The citing of Textual Witnesses is central to the science of Textual Criticism, but it can be a complicated and laborious process. Fortunately, professional scholars have already done most of the legwork in collating manuscripts, documenting and evaluating variant readings. The student is likely to encounter this information at first in two places:

1) In Textual Commentaries or Commentaries which contain specific textual notes.

2) In the “apparatus” (footnotes and appendices) to critical editions, such as the UBS or Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (or the BHS Hebrew Old Testament).

Textual witnesses are cited according to fixed conventions, which nearly all scholars have adopted. To avoid cumbersome citation of manuscripts, etc., a technical shorthand was developed, using a standard set of abbreviations, referenced in the following order (for the New Testament):

  1. The early Papyri: Indicated by capital P, usually in script (Ë), followed by the number (according to a standard list),  typically in superscript—for example, Ë45, Ë 46, Ë 47 (Chesty Beatty Papyri); Ë66, Ë75 (Bodmer Papyri)
  2. Greek Majusucules (Uncials): These are numbered (standard list), prefixed with “0” (to distinguish them from the Minuscules)—i.e., 01, 02, 03, etc. However, up to manuscript 045, it is more common to use a letter to indicate the MS. Hebrew aleph (a), followed by English A-Z, followed by select Greek letters up through 045. Here are some of the most commonly cited manuscripts in the list:
    a [01] — Codex Sinaiticus
    A [02] — Codex Alexandrinus
    B [03] — Codex Vaticanus
    C [04] — Codex Ephraem Syri Rescripti
    D [05] — Codex Bezae (Codex Claromontanus [06] also indicated by D)
    W [032] — Codex Freerianus
    Q [038] — Codex Coridenthianus
    Y [044] — Codex Athous Lavrensis
    (The name of the codex is, by convention, a latinized version related to its provenance—where it was discovered or where it is being housed)
  3. Greek Minuscules: These are simply referred to by number (1, 2, 3, etc.) according to a standard list. f1 (“Family 1”) and f13 (“Family 13”) are commonly cited groups of related minuscules.
  4. The broader Greek MS evidence: Following the citation of specific MSS, the following abbreviations are sometimes used to indicate further support of a reading:
    Byz — the majority of (Byzantine) manuscripts (generally synonymous with the Majority text)
    Koine — also synonymous with the majority (Byzantine) reading, commonly indicated by K in decorated script (Š)
    ª — M in script, to indicate the Majority text; this has somewhat replaced Koine/Š.
    pc — (pauci), a few manuscripts
    al — (alii), some manuscripts
    pm — (permulti), a large number of manuscripts
    rell — (reliqui), the rest of the manuscript tradition (includes the Majority text)
  5. Versional Manuscripts: that is, the important early translations.
    Latin Versions
    it — (Itala), the Old Latin versions (sometimes also indicated by “OL”);
    individual manuscripts are represented by lower case letters and abbreviations (a, b, d, ff, gig, etc.)
    vg — the Latin Vulgate
    lat — part of the wider Latin MS tradition (including the vulgate)
    latt — the entire Latin MS tradition (possibly with exceptions)
    Syriac Versions — indicated by “sy” or “syr”; individual Syriac versions are indicated by superscript, or with separate abbreviations:
    s (or c) = Old Syriac [Sinai or Curetonian]
    p = Peshitta; ph = Philoxenian; h = Harklean
    Coptic Versions — indicated by “co” or “copt”; individual (dialect) versions are indicated by superscript, or, more often, with separate abbreviations, such as:
    ac (or ach) = Akhmimic
    bo (or boh) = Bohairic
    sa (or sah) = Sahidic
    Other Versions — aeth (or eth) = Ethiopic; arm = Armenian; geo = Georgian; arab = Arabic; goth = Gothic; slav = Old Church Slavonic.
    Typically Latin witnesses are cited first, then Syriac, Coptic, and so forth, generally as indicated above.
  6. Church Fathers (as textual witness): These leading figures and authors of the early and early-medieval Church, who cite/quote Scripture in their writings, are indicated (along with a few anonymous works), by a set of abbreviations. For example, Or = Origen, Aug = Augustine, Chr (or Chrysost) = Chrysostom, Cyr (or CyrAl) = Cyril of Alexandria, and so forth.
  7. Lectionaries: Usually indicated by a cursive “l” (Û) followed by a number, again from a standard list. Lectionaries are only rarely cited.

In addition, there are some superscript notations which may be applied (primarily with the Papyri and Uncials):

* — an asterisk indicates the original hand of a manuscript (when it has been corrected)
c — when the manuscript has been corrected
1, 2, 3, — a first, second, third, etc., hand which has corrected a manuscript
mg — textual evidence in the margin of a manuscript
v.l. — (varia lectio) when a variant reading has been recorded as such in a manuscript
txt — the text of the manuscript when a variant reading (above) has also been recorded
vid — (ut videtur) = apparent support for a reading when the condition of the MS makes it impossible to be certain how it reads
supp (or s) — when a portion of the manuscript is missing, and the text has been supplied by a later hand

I will now provide a couple of specific examples, to demonstrate how these textual witnesses are cited in practice:

Example 1: John 1:18monogenh$ qeo$ (monogen¢s theos) vs. monogenh$ ui(o$ (monogen¢s huios)
The textual evidence is fairly evenly balanced, and the question remains disputed among scholars, though the majority would accept the reading qeo$ (God) rather than ui(o$ (Son). The diagrams below show the evidence as it is cited in the critical apparatus of the UBS and Nestle-Aland (27th ed.) Greek texts (with some modification and simplification); first the evidence for qeo$, then that for ui(o$:

Example 2: Luke 23:34a — addition (interpolation) vs. omission
Here again the evidence is divided, between witnesses which include Jesus’ famous prayer (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”) and those which do not. The diagram first indicates the witnesses which either do not have this portion (or have it marked with asterisks); then those which include it:


The information in this three-part article relates specifically to New Testament Textual Criticism; however, many of the terms and concepts apply to analysis of the text of the Old Testament as well. By comparison to the NT, Old Testament Textual Criticism is still, one might say, in its infancy, having really begun in earnest only in recent decades (with publication of all the Dead Sea Scrolls). In a future post, I hope to explore some of the issues relating to the Text of the Old Testament.

Learning the Language, Part 2: The Maze of Textual Variants

Establishing the Text (Continued):

In Part 1, the terms “Textual Variant” (or “Variant Reading”) and “Variation Unit” were defined. However, it is especially important to distinguish between different sorts of variants. The New Testament MSS contain thousands of variants—how are these to be analyzed? Are some more important than others? To begin with, there are three primary types of variants:

  1. Add/omit: when a word or phrase is either added (or deleted) in the process of copying.
  2. Substitution: when a word (or specific form of the word) is ‘substituted’ for another during copying. Instances of substitution involving an entire phrase or sentence are extremely rare.
  3. Changes involving word order. To which I might add a fourth type of variant:
  4. Conflation: when two different variants are combined together or side by side in the same MS. 

These definitions, of course, assume that there was an original text, and that (all) variants are the result of textual corruption (see part one for a definition and explanation of this term). Whether, or to what extent, this original text is recoverable today, is a matter of some debate — see below under “Methods of Textual Criticism”

In order to sift through the enormous number of variants, it is common practice (indeed, a practical necessity) to distinguish between:

1) Substantive (or significant) variants, and
2) Negligible (or insignificant) variants

I prefer the term “substantive” to “significant”, as variants may have “significance”, but be essentially irrelevant for the purposes of establishing the text. It is easier to determine substantive variants by simply eliminating all negligible ones first. Negligible variants include:
a) Nonsense readings
b) Obvious scribal mistakes
c) Singular readings
The first two sorts are accidental, the third may or may not be. Scribal errors will be discussed separately below. “Nonsense readings” would seem to be self-explanatory, almost always the result of simple carelessness. However, the third needs to be defined further:

  • Singular reading: Any reading which occurs in a single (one) Manuscript; the assumption being, that a reading which occurs in but a single MS would almost certainly not be original. Some critics would limit this definition to a single Greek Manuscript for the NT; this seems to me unnecessarily restrictive, although, in general, the proposition is valid. Occasionally a reading may be found in just one Greek MS, but have significant versional support: this occurs especially in the “Western” text (i.e., Codex D + Old Latin/Syriac versions); in such instances, I would still regard these as substantive variants (though rarely, if ever, representing the original text). The following terms are also used at times:
  • Subsingular reading: This generally refers to a variant found in just two (or, perhaps several) otherwise unrelated MSS.
  • “Nearly singular” reading: Similar to subsingular: any variant reading which occurs in just a few manuscripts.

Once negligible readings are discounted and/or eliminated from consideration, only substantive readings remain. It is these that are the basis of Textual Criticism—both in terms of defining manuscript relationships and of establishing the (original) text. However, it is at least worth outlining one further distinction, namely between variants which are (or may be):
a) Accidental, or
b) Intentional/Purposeful
I distinguish between “intentional” and “purposeful”, as a variant reading may be purposeful, but not necessarily the result of (conscious) intent by the scribe. Certain harmonizing additions, conflations, pious substitutions, and the like may often be done unconsciously. Here I define and provide some examples:

Accidental Variants (= “Scribal Errors”):
These are the more common; for an exhaustive list, consult the standard textbooks.
Dittography: repeating a letter, word or phrase
Haplography: skipping over of a letter, word or phrase, resulting in an omission. Sometimes this is called “Parablepsis”.
Homoioarchton: skipping over a portion of text, from one word to another which has a similar beginning.
Homoioteleuton: skipping over a portion of text, from one word to another which has a similar ending.
Transposition: reversing two letters or words. Occasionally more than two words may be involved.
Substitution: accidentally substituting one letter or word for another, usually a mistake due to a trick of the eye.

Purposeful Variants (possibly accidental):
Substitution and/or conflation: specifically, in the New Testament, with regard to the (sacred) names and titles, i.e., “God”, “Lord”, “Jesus”, “Christ”, “Son”, et al. It is often hard to tell when, or if, these are intentional, especially since it was visually easy to confuse them (almost always presented as two-letter abbreviations); on the other hand, they were often infused with tremendous theological import. I will discuss these nomina sacra (“sacred names”) in a later article.
Harmonization: that is, modifying the text to match another similar (and familiar) passage elsewhere in Scripture. In the NT, these are of two main kinds:
a) Gospel Harmonization: The manuscripts are rife with these sorts of changes, especially in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew-Mark-Luke); with so many similar narrative passages, sayings of Jesus, and the like, these could easily be blended together. It is often hard to tell for certain when they are intentional. A large part of textual criticism in the Gospels involves these sorts of variants.
b) Harmonization to the LXX: Quotations of the Old Testament in the Greek NT, are quite often modified to match the Septuagint (or Old Greek) version. More rarely they may be harmonized to match the underlying Hebrew, or another version.
One might also refer to harmonization to the lectionary and/or liturgical practice. Consider, for example, the so-called doxology to the Lord’s Prayer, which is likely not original to the text—was its insertion accidental or intentional? So familiar it must have been to early Christians, scribes might easily have inserted it unconsciously during copying.

Other Purposeful (Intentional) Variants:
These are more difficult to determine and define, but the following areas should be noted:
Attempts to clarify the text: primarily by means of
a) Substitution: replacing a word or form (with one that makes more sense), or
b) Addition: adding in words (sometimes referred to as “gap-filling”), especially within a narrative context. Commonly, for example, a name may be inserted to clarify the subject—who is speaking, etc. (e.g., “he said…” might be changed to “Jesus said…”)
Changes to safeguard doctrine: more often than not, these are Christological in nature, though sometimes it can be difficult to know for certain that they were intentional. For example, every time Joseph is referred to as Jesus’ “father” (or Joseph and Mary as his “parents”), the text was altered in a number of manuscripts, presumably to protect the doctrine of the virgin birth.
Interpolations: these represent typically larger additions—a phrase, sentence, or entire section. They are usually intentional, but occasionally may have been inserted accidentally (from a marginal comment, etc.). They are also among the most hotly disputed variants, affecting as they do a larger portion of the text. The “pericope of the Adulteress” (John 7:53-8:11) is probably the most famous major interpolation—critics and commentators are nearly unanimous in the opinion that the passage was not part of the original text.
Harmonizations: For these, see above. Many instances of harmonization are intentional, but it can be difficult to know for certain.


There are many techniques and principles used in textual criticism. In the third part of this article, I will discuss the so-called “Canons of Criticism”. I refer here to three fundamental methodological approaches:

The Majority Method: The reading found in the majority of manuscripts is adopted, except in rare cases where the evidence is more or less evenly divided. Very few scholars today follow this approach in any meaningful sense—it is largely limited to extremely Traditional-Conservative circles. However, for most scholars, when the majority of manuscripts include many of the “earliest and best” witnesses, this does usually prove to be decisive.
MAJORITY TEXT: The text of the majority of manuscripts, often called “Byzantine”, as it stems from the time and region of the Byzantine Empire (prim. 9th-15th centuries), and is more or less synonymous with the so-called Byzantine Text (or Recension). The Textus Receptus (“Received Text”) of the Renaissance period is an off-shoot of the Majority Text.

The Genealogical Method: So called because the genealogy of manuscripts is traced, by the grouping together of related manuscripts into a stemma (pl. stemmata)—that is, into clusters, families, and broader types. By tracing back the ancestors of these groups, one would, theoretically, end up with an approximation of the original text. Again, few scholars today will strictly follow such an approach; however, relationships between manuscripts are still studied intensively, and textual groups (or “types”) remain helpful in analyzing the text. The “Genealogical” method has been modified in recent decades; the most important to mention are:

  1. The Local-Genealogical Method: As the term was meant when coined by Kurt Aland, the history of the text can be traced back (or forward) and established genealogically, but only at the level of each variation-unit.
  2. Documentary-Historical Method: As practiced by many scholars today, this involves examining and grouping together manuscripts—in particular the early Papyri and Uncials—into related clusters. By comparing these, one attempts to determine the most reliable form of the (original) text. However, this can only be done from book to book (or for portions of a book), not for the NT as a whole.

The Eclectic Method: This involves an objective analysis of each individual variant, examining both external and internal evidence (see below), and determining the most likely original reading on a case-by-case basis. This category is usually subdivided into:

  1. Moderate or “Reasoned” Eclecticism: Here external and internal evidence is more or less evenly weighed and balanced, often with a priority given to external considerations (i.e., the age and quality of the manuscripts involved).
  2. Strict or “Rigorous” (or “Consistent”) Eclecticism: Here consideration is given primarily (sometimes almost exclusively) to internal evidence. Rather few critics today follow this method.

Scholars generally utilize some combination of these approaches—most adopt a “moderate” eclectic method, but with a strong “documentary” emphasis on external evidence (the “earliest and best” manuscripts). As indicated above, when the best manuscript evidence coincides with the “majority” reading, this is almost always regarded as representing the original text.


In the first part of this article, I discussed the different kinds of “Textual Witnesses”. These witnesses make up the “Textual Evidence”—that is, all the evidence scholars and students must examine when attempting to evaluate variant readings and establish the original text. This evidence is further grouped into two classes:

External Evidence: That is to say, all of the material evidence of the textual witnesses: the Greek MSS, versional MSS, writings of the Church Fathers, and the lectionaries. When examining this external evidence, one must look at each particular textual witness that contains a variant reading, in terms of: the age, quality, and reliability of the witness; also if the reading is supported by other reliable witnesses.

Internal Evidence: This involves everything intrinsic to the text itself: style of writing; grammar, vocabulary, and theology of the author; scribal tendencies during copying; and so forth. Internal evidence is admittedly of a more subjective nature than the external: questions of authorial style, and the like, can be very much open to debate. More reliable are points related to scribal tendencies and practice, which are a bit easier to determine.