The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus (introduction)

This Advent series offers a study on key Old Testament passages which relate to the birth of Jesus—or, more precisely, to the Infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The notes and articles in this series cover three areas:

  1. Specific Scriptures cited by the Gospel writers (and/or traditions they inherited)
  2. Scriptures related to the Messianic background of the narrative, and
  3. Old Testament parallels consciously utilized by the author and/or the underlying Gospel tradition

We will begin with two famous passages from the book of Isaiah—7:14 and 9:5-6—understood by early Christians in a Messianic sense, applied specifically to Jesus as prophecies of his birth.

After this, we will undertake an exegetical survey of relevant verses in the Lukan and Matthean narratives, examining at each point the important Old Testament passages involved.

Along the way, we will touch on issues related to the interpretation of prophecy, and also consider briefly several important extra-biblical texts which help us to understand the cultural and religious background of the Infancy narratives.

NOTE: This series was originally posted on the previous Biblesoft Study Blog. It has been modified and reworked slightly here.

Saturday Series: John 1:18

This is the first installment of the the new Saturday Series on this site. Each Saturday I will focus on a specific Scripture passage or area of study, with the intention of providing guidance for those who wish to learn the value of an in-depth critical-exegetical approach to studying Scripture, and how one might begin to go about it. As previously mentioned in the introduction to this Series, it is necessary to begin with the original text of Scripture—in the case of the New Testament, this means the original Greek. However, before one can do that, one must first know just what that text is. As you may be aware, no two manuscripts (hand-copies) of the New Testament are exactly alike; the copies contain many differences between each other. Most of these differences are slight and rather insignificant—i.e., variations of spelling, obvious copying mistakes, etc. However, others are more substantial, and some genuinely affect the meaning of a passage. In such cases, it is necessary to determine, as far as one is able, what the most likely original form or version of the text is.

This part of Biblical study (criticism) is called Textual Criticism—analysis of the text, its variants (differences) and determination of the original form (when possible). I have devoted an introductory article, in three parts, to this subject, which I recommend you read; it is entitled “Learning the Language” (Parts 1, 2, 3). In most English Bible translations (the reputable ones), substantial differences, or variant readings in the text are indicated by footnotes. The most likely original reading (according to the translators) appears in the main portion, while other known readings are given in the footnotes. Unfortunately, people tend to ignore or gloss over these textual footnotes; but I would urge you to get in the habit of paying attention to them and examining them. This is one of the first steps toward an in-depth study of the Scriptures.

Occasionally a situation arises where the evidence in favor of certain textual variants (variant readings) is more evenly divided. In such cases, it can be most difficult to determine which form of the text is more likely to be original. Here the student and commentator of Scripture (let us begin with the New Testament) must proceed carefully, considering all of the possibilities. To demonstrate this, I will use two examples from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. I like to use the Gospel of John, and the first chapter especially, because it tends to make the theological significance of the textual variants more readily apparent. In addition, the Johannine Prologue is a fitting area of study for Advent season, with its theme of the incarnation of the Word/Son of God—i.e. the birth of Jesus.

John 1:18

The first example comes from the famous “Prologue” to the Gospel (1:1-18)—indeed, from the climactic final statement in it. Here is verse 18, in a literal rendering, followed by a more conventional English translation:

“No one has ever yet seen God; (but) the only <..> (who has) come to be—the (one) being in the lap of the Father—that (one) has brought Him out (to us).”

“No one has ever yet seen God; (but) the only[-born] <..>, who is in the lap of the father, he has revealed him (to us).”

The words in parentheses technically are not in the text, but have been added to fill out the passage to make it more readable and intelligible in English. The angle brackets represent the point where the key textual variant occurs. There are three versions of this textual unit (in italics above):

  • monogen¢s theos (monogenh\$ qeo/$)
  • monogen¢s huios (monogenh\$ ui(o/$)
  • monogen¢s (monogenh/$)

All three versions contain the word monogen¢s, which happens to be quite tricky to translate. Literally, it means something like “(the) only one (who has) come to be”. Sometimes this specifically refers to a person coming to be born (i.e. a child or son); but often it means simply “only one, unique, one-of-a-kind”, or the like. The second version above is the most straightforward, as it essentially means “only son”, i.e. the only son born (to a mother/parent). This is presumably also the meaning where monogen¢s is used alone—”only (son)”. The first version above is more difficult, and has been translated three different ways:

  • monogen¢s theos =
    • “(the) only/unique God”
    • “(the) only-born [or only-begotten] God”
    • “God the only(-born) Son”

Which reading more likely represents the original text? And is there any significant difference between them? Let us address the first question, considering the arguments in favor of each reading, in reverse order from how they are listed above.

  • monogen¢s (monogenh/$)—”only (one) [born]”
    There is essentially no Greek manuscript support for this reading; it is attested in the writings of several early Church Fathers (commentators/theologians such as Origen, Epiphanius, and Cyril of Alexandria). However, it is attractive as a way to explain the other two readings (with “God” or “Son”). If the text originally read just monogen¢s, scribes (copyists) and commentators would have been inclined to explain it, expanding the text, more likely (and often) by adding “Son” as the natural meaning in context (“[the] only Son [born]”).
  • monogen¢s huios (monogenh\$ ui(o/$)—”only Son [born]”
    This is the most common and widespread reading, including that of some important early manuscripts (such Codex Alexandrinus [A]). It also happens to make the most sense. Jesus refers to himself (or is referred to) as “(the) Son [huios, ui(o/$]” quite often in the Gospel of John, and almost always in relation to (God) the Father. The word monogen¢s is used in this context earlier in the prologue (verse 14); moreover, elsewhere in the New Testament it is almost always used in combination with “son” (or “daughter”)—see Luke 7:12; 8:42; John 3:16, 18; Heb 11:17; 1 John 4:9.
  • monogen¢s theos (monogenh\$ qeo/$)—”only God [born]” or “God the only [born Son?]”
    This is the reading of some of “the earliest and best” manuscripts, including the early (Bodmer) papyri 66 and 75, Codex Vaticanus [B] and the original copyist of Codex Sinaiticus [a]. It must also be considered the most difficult reading—what exactly does the expression “only (born) God [theos, qeo/$]” mean? An important principle in textual criticism follows the saying difficilior lectio potior (“the more difficult reading is preferred”). The idea is that copyists would be more likely to change the text (whether intentionally or unintentionally) to a reading that was easier to understand or which made more sense. As noted above, “only (born) Son” is a much more natural expression.

I would ask you to consider and to meditate upon these three different readings, in the context of John 1:18 (and the Prologue as a whole—read through it carefully). Do you see any difference in meaning or emphasis, in terms of what the author may be trying to convey? If so, what are the differences? Next Saturday I will follow up on this discussion, by examining briefly certain details in verse 18 which I believe are essential to a proper understanding of the passage. At the same time, we will consider our second example from the Gospel of John.

Saturday Series (Introduction)

This post introduces the Saturday Series feature on this website. In it I will be taking a somewhat lighter, introductory approach to the study of Scripture. Readers who may find the level of (scholarly) detail in the notes and articles on this site a bit daunting, will, I think, appreciate the approach to be taken in this series—which will feature a new article each Saturday. Overall, the focus will be the same: biblical criticism and what has been called the grammatical-historical method. It may help to define both of these terms.

Biblical Criticism

The word “criticism” in modern English can be quite misleading, as it typically suggests something negative, even mean-spirited. But this is scarcely how the word should be understood here, in its proper sense. The word, ultimately derived from the Greek verb kri/nw (krínw), refers to judgment and discernment—i.e., the process of analysis, sorting, sifting, separating (the fundamental meaning of the verb). A person engaged in Biblical criticism is simply examining and analyzing the text of the Biblical passage in detail—separating out the words and phrases, the grammar, historical background, the purpose of the author, how the original audience would have understood it, how it has been understood and interpreted throughout the years, and so forth. Each element or aspect of the text is studied and analyzed in turn, so far as one is able, and to the extent that relevant information (for comparison, etc) is available.

Grammatical-Historical Method

This refers to a particular mode or orientation in the analysis and interpretation of Scripture. The first word (“grammatical“) means the language of the text, i.e. its syntax and grammar—the particular words and phrases, and how they are used. This really requires that the text be studied in its original language (Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament, Greek for the New). One cannot properly engage in Biblical criticism working from a translation. This presents a problem, since many Christians who earnestly desire to study the Scriptures at a deeper level do not know Hebrew and Greek, or have only a rudimentary familiarity with those languages, perhaps just beginning to learn them. One of the main purposes of this website is to help guide interested readers and students through those difficult first steps of Biblical study—the examination of the text in its original language. Here in the Saturday Series, I will refer to the Hebrew and Greek less often, focusing on specific verses in more detail, giving more explanation—through the use of both literal (glossed) translation and more conventional renderings—to the basic meaning of the words and phrases as they are used in context.

The second word (“historical“) can be taken several ways. Primarily it refers to the original historical context and setting of the passage (and the book) being studied. This means that attention must first be given toward, not what the text means to me, but what it meant to the author and (so far as it can be determined) to the original audience. Secondarily, “historical” refers to the historical background of certain words, phrases, images, and ideas in the text. Here it is important to consider, whenever possible, parallels in other writings contemporary with the Scriptures. It is also useful to examine how the meaning and significance of words and forms may have developed over time. This helps to highlight the specific and distinctive way the author makes use of them in a particular passage or setting. And, thirdly, some attention must be given to the process of composition of a text—how it has developed and taken shape over time. This is especially important because many of the books of Scripture are to be characterized as traditional literature;  that is to say, they are comprised of numerous traditions which have been passed down, in oral and/or written form, from person to person, generation to generation. This last aspect touches on a specific type of criticism, usually referred to as historical criticism.

This is not the only way to study and interpret the Scriptures. Other methods and approaches may be taken; however, it is best to begin with a thorough grammatical-historical approach to the text. From there, on that solid foundation, one may venture into more imaginative and creative modes of study.

The first study in this series will begin this Saturday (December 7th).

NOTE: The initial posts will reproduce articles from the earlier Biblesoft Study Blog, where the Saturday Series was introduced. If you missed these, it will be a good opportunity to find them again here, and to familiarize yourself with the study approach. After the start of the year, I will begin posting brand new articles in the Series.

Before you embark on this series with me, I strongly recommend that you read through the three-part article (“Learning the Language“). It covers all the main topics and terminology related to Biblical Criticism (and, in particular, Textual Criticism). It may help you to understand better the approach I am taking; and, if you have any fears or apprehensions about the idea of “Biblical Criticism”, that article may alleviate them.

Please consider joining me on this series, and I hope to see you here next Saturday.

Blessings, in Christ

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?

THE CANONS (RULES) OF TEXTUAL CRITICISM:

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:

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:

CONCLUDING NOTE:

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):
TEXTUAL VARIANTS:

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.

METHODS OF TEXTUAL CRITICISM:

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.

TEXTUAL EVIDENCE:

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.

PART 3…

Learning the Language, Part 1

Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows how rewarding and satisfying it can be, but also how difficult at times — it has been said it takes a lifetime truly to learn a language. Consider the student—the young scholar or minister—struggling in the first efforts to learn Biblical Hebrew or Greek. But there is another “language” that serious students of Scripture should learn: the language of Textual Criticism. Like any scientific (or artistic) discipline, Biblical Criticism (and Textual Criticism, in particular) has developed a kind of language, a technical terminology that is vital to understand, but which can seem most confusing at first. It takes patience and devotion to study, in order to gain experience and facility with this language, but the rewards are great: for it can result in a much better appreciation and understanding of the text of Scripture.

To begin with the very word criticism: from the Greek (kri/si$, noun; kritiko/$, adj.; kri/nw, vb.; and other related words). Kri/nw (krínœ) has the basic meaning “select”, “decide”, “judge”; kri/si$ (krísis) is usually translated “judgment”. Indeed, this word group has a similar range of meaning as “judge/judgment” in English; it can be understood: 1) in a positive sense, i.e., to use or offer good/sound judgment; 2) in a legal or neutral sense, i.e., to pass/render judgment on an issue; 3) in a negative sense, i.e., to judge harshly/unfairly. The words “criticism/critical” can also be understood in a similar way. Often it is meant in a negative sense (to criticize someone), but it also can have an objective or positive meaning (to think or analyze critically). When referring to Biblical Criticism, it is in this latter sense: to offer informed, sound analysis regarding different aspects of Scripture.

Biblical Criticism can be divided into a number of specialized fields of study:

  • Textual Criticism: Analysis of the text of Scripture.
  • Historical Criticism: Analysis of the historical background of a book or passage, this may also include: a) an examination of the historicity of any events or details recorded; b) study of the historical development of the writing itself.
  • Literary Criticism: Analysis of the book or passage within its literary context (i.e., as a written work). This term can be understood narrowly, or broadly, touching upon the following related fields:
    • Form Criticism (Formgeschichte): Study of the form, function, and purpose of a passage, usually at the level of an individual section (pericope), including a determination as to the literary type (genre) and “life setting” (Sitz im Leben).
    • Source Criticism (Urgeschichte): Examination of the (possible or likely) sources used by the Biblical author/editor; these may be earlier documents, or other traditional (oral or written) material.
    • Redaction Criticism (Redaktionsgeschichte): Study and evaluation of the way the Scriptural text may have been put together, generally assuming the use of various (oral or written) sources, by the author/editor(s). This term is largely synonymous with “Composition Criticism” (Kompositionsgeschichte), which examines authorship more generally. See further below on “Redaction”.
    • Rhetorical Criticism: Analysis of a passage (or book as a whole), according to the standards and practices of ancient rhetoric. This ofter refers more narrowly to Greco-Roman practices shared by New Testament authors, but can also be used broadly to cover a wide range of literary devices (esp. figures of speech, and the like).
  • Canonical Criticism: Study of the passage (or book) within the context of the established, traditional Canon of Scripture. This looks specifically at: (a) a book in its final form, as it would have been transmitted through Church history, and (b) its role in the development of doctrine, liturgy, etc. within the wider Christian community.
  • Other specialized terms could be cited, but these are the most familiar and widely used.

In the past, one might occasionally refer to texual criticism as “Lower” (i.e., simply examining the text), and other types of study (especially historical and source criticism) as “Higher” (i.e., questions of authorship, date, historicity, etc.). However, this distinction was never very helpful, and has long since been abandoned. The label “Higher Criticism” has survived—largely as a term of derision—only within Traditional-Conservative circles.

It should be pointed out that a gulf still exists between Critical and Traditional-Conservative scholarship. This is less of a polarity than it is a continuum—scholars today would ‘fit’ somewhere between the extremes. This also applies to Evangelical Protestant scholars, who typically adopt and apply most basic Critical methods (if not always accepting their premises). It is in the area of Textual Criticism that there is most common ground, largely free from thorny (and often contentious) questions of authorship, historicity, nature/extent of inspiration, and so forth. And yet, for Protestants, at least, who accept the maxim Sola Scriptura, can there be a more vital, fundamental area of study than the text of Scripture?

What follows below is a kind of “Outline Introduction” to Textual Criticism.

THE TEXT OF SCRIPTURE:

An Outline Introduction to Textual Study and Textual Criticism
Basic Terms:
  • TEXT: Latin textus, from texere (“to weave”); the common word “text” can be defined as “the content of any written document”; or, perhaps better, “the written content of any document”, to distinguish text from accompanying visual illustrations, and so forth. A text is generally understood as a literary (written) product, but for ancient texts there is often an aspect of oral production and transmission as well (see below).
    • Document: Latin documentum (“lesson, instruction, proof”) from docere. Any written record of information. The “text” is the verbal, literary content of any specific document.
    • Text-form: The specific form or shape of any text, the (complete) content of any literary or written document. The term refers to any unique written product (e.g., an individual book such as the Gospel of John), or any smaller writing which makes up a larger work (i.e., a source used by the Gospel).
    • Original Text: Sometimes referred to as the “autograph” (see below): the original authored (or redacted) text, either in the sense of a documentary draft or original published version.
    • Final Text: This term sometimes means the same as “Original Text”, that is, the “final” authored or published form of a text, from which all copies and authorized versions would be made
    • Established Text: May mean the same as “Original Text” or “Final Text”, with the sense of having been “established” as correct by later scribes or scholars.
    • Authorized Text: An authoritative copy, sometimes referred to as a “Textual Archetype” or “Archetypal Text”; synonymous with the term “exemplar” (see below); careful scribes would normally make copies from an established authorized copy
  • RECENSION: From Latin recensere, recensio (“review, enumerate, enumeration”); “recension” is the common term to describe a significant or major revision of a text, generally in the sense of a secondary modification of an established text or literary work.
  • VERSION: From Latin vertere, versio (“to turn, turning”); “version” has a broad range of meaning; here it normally refers to a (secondary) description, adaptation, arrangement, or translation of a text. Generally speaking, a “recension” is closer to the original text than a secondary version; however, occasionally “version” is used to refer to a form of the original text. As indicated below (under “Textual Witness” and “Manuscript”), the term often has a specific technical sense of “Foreign Language Version” (translation).

Note on Oral Production & Transmission: From ancient and prehistoric times, down to the present (in some parts of the world), much documentary and narrative content has been modified and transmitted orally, at least to a large extent. The public production or performance of oral material is, in many respects, tantamount to publishing a text. Many ancient texts (such as the Old and New Testament Scriptures) would have had a significant oral component to their transmission and publication, and may also have incorporated oral traditions in the authoring. In ancient times, letters (epistles) and other texts would have been dictated or recited to a secretary or scribe. It is a mistake to think of ancient texts as entirely written products, the way they would be created through writing (or typing) today.

Textual History:

See also the section below on “Establishing the Text”.

  • AUTHOR: Latin auctor, from auctere (“to increase”); here meaning the source or originator of a text. For ancient documents, it is often impossible to establish a single author; likewise, it is generally difficult to determine authorship, as many ancient texts are technically anonymous. Sometimes, scholars will use the term “author” in a broad or generic sense, as referring to any and all persons involved in creating the “original” (or “final”) form of a text.
    • Traditional Sources: In some instances, the original written form of a text may indicate a long or substantial development, involving the inclusion of earlier oral and/or written sources (which may no longer survive). Many ancient religious and narrative texts, in particular, likely contain much traditional material.
    • Transcription: Many ancient texts also were, or may have been, given their original written form by scribal transcription – that is, an oral recitation or production which is recorded by a private secretary or professional scribe. In such instances, the writing style and technique of the scribe can effect the form of the text, adapting an oral form to the conventions of writing.
  • EDITOR/REDACTOR: An “editor”, is one who “edits” – from Latin edere (“to bring forth”); here the term indicates one who prepares a text for public use or presentation (that is, to publish a text). If an ancient author were not a scribe, it would likely be given to a professional scribe for publication, involving corrections and other possible modifications. A “redactor” (or “redaction”), from Latin redigere (“to bring back, reduce, compress”), usually refers to more significant or substantial editing of a text. Sometimes, if an author has shaped previously existing traditional or written sources to form a new original text, such an author is considered a redactor. Occasionally later scribes or editors, may (either intentionally or unintentionally) produce an entirely new recension or version of the text (see below).
  • SCRIBE: A literate writing professional, specifically a copyist (see below), who may also be an “Editor”
  • COPYIST: Scribes throughout history would also be engaged in copying ancient texts; ideally the copies would be made from established authorized texts (or “exemplars”). Throughout the process of hand-copying, numerous changes – many, if not most, unintentional – may be introduced into the text. These hand copies are called “manuscripts” (see below).
Establishing the Text:

A fundamental aspect of studying ancient texts is the recognition and analysis of the textual history of a document or written work, looking at all surviving textual evidence – that is, all forms and versions of the text which exist today (see below on “textual evidence”) – and attempting to establish a reliable form of the text for study. The “established text” (see above on “authorized text”) will ideally be as close as possible to the “Original Text”. Texts surviving from ancient times will have gone through centuries (perhaps millennia) of copying, editing, correcting, and other modifications – over such a long time, with all work done by hand, numerous changes and corruptions naturally occur (see below on “textual variants” and “textual corruption”). A principal goal of textual study and criticism is to (try to) recover the original form of the text.

  • AUTOGRAPH: As indicated above, the “autograph” (from the Greek, “writing from one’s own [hand]”) is basically synonymous with the “original” form of the text; a hand written (or transcribed) copy of the authored text. This may be a draft, by a first documentary hand, or a secondary edition for publication. Very few autographs of ancient texts have survived.
  • EXEMPLAR: Another term for an Authorized Text or Archetype (see above); a reliable and authoritative form of the text (identical with, or close to, the original), from which manuscript copies would be made. After centuries of copying, accurate exemplars would be harder to preserve.
  • MANUSCRIPTS: Hand-written copies of a text. Manuscripts (sometimes abbreviated MS[S]) can be divided into two basic categories:
    • Original Language Manuscripts: Copies of the text (or a recension) preserving the original language in which it was authored. For the New Testament scriptures, these are copies of the original Greek texts.
    • Versions and Translations: These generally refer to copies of the text translated into other languages. For the Old and New Testament scriptures, there are many foreign language manuscripts (translations), which are important for establishing the original text. For some texts, special versions of the original text, in the same language, may also exist.
  • EXTRACTS AND CITATIONS: Portions of a text may also be preserved in other sources, including other written texts. For example, ancient Christian authors quote or cite portions of the New Testament scriptures. In addition, extracts of ancient texts may be written or inscribed on stone, pottery, clay tablets, jewelry, amulets, paintings and works of art, and so forth.
  • PRINTED EDITIONS: Printed editions of texts do not appear, at least in Europe and the Near East, until the mid-15th century (c. 1450 A.D.). Most printed editions are, in some sense “Critical Editions” (see below). Of course, many printed translations of major texts have also been made. Early printed editions (from the Renaissance, 15th-17th centuries) of ancient texts have helped to preserve and transmit texts from ancient and medieval manuscripts which might otherwise have been lost.
Analyzing the Text (with the intent of establishing the text) — Textual criticism proper:

Below are the fundamental terms related to the work of analyzing and establishing the (original) text, which is the primary goal of Textual Criticism.

  •  TEXTUAL WITNESS: A witness to a particular text(form). Any document which contains (any portion of) the text. For New Testament, the main categories of Textual witness are as follows:
  • Greek Manuscripts — Manuscript copies of the New Testament writings. Which can be divided into:
  1. PAPYRI: The early papyrus copies (codex or scroll), found in Egypt, but representing substantially the text as it would have been known in various locations throughout the Roman world. There have been discovered more than 120 such manuscripts (indicated by the symbol Ë), most of which date between 200-600 A.D., though a few are (or may be) from the 2nd century. Among the earliest and most important of these are:
    The Chesty Beatty Papyri: Ë45 (four Gospels and Acts), Ë 46 (Pauline epistles), and Ë 47 (Revelation)
    The Bodmer Papyri: esp. Ë66 (John), and Ë75 (Luke-John)
  2. UNCIALS: Manuscripts (Codices) written in Uncial letters — large, rounded (“majuscule”) letters, something akin to writing with capital letters in English. This handwriting style dominated codex production 200-800 A.D. More than 300 Uncials have been found, including many of the earliest and best MSS:
    a (Codex Sinaiticus, 4th cent.), A (Codex Alexandrinus, 5th cent.), B (Codex Vaticanus, 4th cent., the earliest complete NT), etc.
    These MSS are numbered “01”, “02”, and so forth, with common letter designations up to “045”.
  3. MINUSCULES: Manuscripts written in a smaller, cursive-style script, which became the dominant style after 900 A.D. The majority of New Testament MSS (more than 2800) are minuscules.
  • Versional Manuscripts — Manuscripts of early translations (i.e., foreign-language versions). For New Testament studies, the most important of these are the (Old) Latin, (Old) Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Georgian. Occasionally Arabic and Gothic versions are also cited.
  • Patristic Citations— The text of the New Testament as it appears in the writings of the so-called Church “Fathers” (i.e., “patristic”), the prominent Christian leaders and writers (bishops, apologists, theologians, monastic figures) of the ancient and medieval periods. The early Church Fathers (c. 150-450 A.D.) especially are a valuable witness for the text; however, analyzing them can be a very tricky business. Older scholarship is rife with unreliable or inaccurate citations. New critical editions of writings of key Fathers, as well as solid studies on their use of Scripture, have helped greatly — but much work remains to be done.
  • Lectionaries — These are the books with lessons (“lections”, i.e., Scripture passages) for liturgical use — that is, for public reading in the churches and monasteries. The lessons are arranged in order, according to the Church calendar. More than 2,000 lectionaries have been catalogued, nearly all from the Byzantine period proper (10th-15th cent. A.D.), but they may often preserve much older liturgical information. The synaxarion portion covers the “regular” holy days of the year, the menologion portion, the days specifically related to the lives of Mary, the Apostles, and other Saints.
  • TEXT TYPE or TEXT FAMILY: Groupings of Manuscripts which are closely related. “Text Type” especially implies a broad grouping, extending back many centuries, and including a large number of MSS. “Text Family” is the more general term to discuss any significant grouping of related MSS. Typically four major Text Types have been defined:
    1) Koine (or Byzantine): Representing the majority of MSS, dating primarily from the Medieval period (10th-15th centuries), from the region of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire. Some scholars today would refer to this properly as a “Recension”.  In older parlance, it was sometimes called the “Syrian” text.
    2) Egyptian (Alexandrian): An early and widespread Type, represented by a number of important Papyri and Uncials (such Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus). It is especially in connection with Vaticanus (B), that this text was called “Neutral” by Westcott and Hort (meaning an especially reliable, “pure” form of the text). With some misgivings, this opinion has been generally confirmed by scholars today.
    3) “Western”: The label is something of a misnomer, and is almost never used without quote marks today. However, this does seem to represent an early and discernible form of the text, most notably in the important (and somewhat peculiar) Beza Codex (D), but also in a number of other MSS, including some of the Old Latin and Syriac versions.
    4) “Caesarean”: Many scholars today are unwilling or reluctant to refer to this as a meaningful Type, as it seems to be represented by a relatively small number of MSS, and even then often of a mixed character.The entire terminology of “Text types” has been, to some extent, abandoned today, in favor of more localized “textual clusters” or “textual groups”. The discovery and detailed study of the Papyri has led to a shift in methodology—instead of starting with later manuscripts (with the assumption of established “types”) and working backward, there is an increased tendency to begin with the Papyri and important uncials, with clusters grouped around these key early MSS. These relationships also must be determined from book to book, rather than for the entire NT. For example, a primary early textual group (at least for the Gospel of Luke & John) would be Ë75-B-Ë66.
    In recent decades, especially following the pioneering work of E. C. Colwell and E. W. Tune in the 1960s, there has also been an increase in quantitative methods (such as the Claremont Profile Method) for analyzing these Manuscript relationships. A basic thumbnail for textual affinity is about 70% agreement between MSS, with a gap of 10% between their neighbors (see Colwell, Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the NT [Leiden: Brill] 1969, p. 59).
    Such relationships are determined by the differences (“variant readings”) which exist between manuscripts.
  • TEXTUAL VARIANT(S): or, “Variant Reading(s)”. Any variation in how the text reads — that is to say, differences between the text, at any given point, between two (or more) textual witnesses. In the case of the New Testament, of course, this refers almost exclusively to differences between the Greek Manuscripts. This topic will be discussed in much more detail in the next part (follow-up article). However, at least one important term will be defined here:
  • Variation Unit: This is a term coined by E. C. Colwell & E. W. Tune (see their 1964 article “Variant Readings: Classification and Use”, reprinted in Colwell, Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the NT [Leiden: Brill] 1969, p. 96-105). A variation-unit is any portion of text, delimited according to the natural (grammatical-syntactical) “elements of expression”, where the Greek MSS present at least two variant forms. These “elements” of expression would typically entail (connected) parts of speech, or a specific phrase. Larger units of variation, such as entire sentences or sections, in instances of major add/omit variants and interpolations, do not as readily apply.
    NOTE on the term “Textual Corruption“: Believers may find the term “corruption” unsettling in relation to the Scriptures; for those unfamiliar with the terminology, some explanation is warranted. Certainly no sense of moral or doctrinal corruption is intended—it is entirely an objective, neutral term. Anytime changes (accidental or intentional) are introduced into the text during the process of copying: that constitutes textual “corruption”. This assumes that there was, in fact, a specific original text which was “pure”, and that all variants are evidence of scribal corruption. The primary goal of Textual Criticism is, and should be, to establish the original text; though there is much debate as to how far it is possible to achieve this goal.

PART 2…

Welcome!

This site is a continuation of the Biblesoft Study Blog, with some exciting new features being added to the mix. During the month of December, many of the notes and articles previously posted on that site will be transferred over, including the Advent and Christmas posts. If you missed any of those at the time, you will want to explore them as they appear here. The site is being designed so that it will be easier to access and browse this material, both by category and topic (key-tag). For more on the nature and purpose of this site, check out the introductory page. If you are interested in a deeper study of the text of Scripture, and are perhaps ready to take that next step yourself, this site is for you!