The Future of New Testament Textual Criticism
Part one of a five part series. See the entire series here.
The Danger of Circular Analysis
The textual criticism of the Gospels is a scientific task which has two goals. The primary goal is the reconstruction of the text of each Gospel in its original form, that is, the form in which it was initially received by the church. The secondary goal is the reconstruction of the transmission-history of the text. In order to apply Hort’s axiom, “Knowledge of documents should precede final judgment upon readings,” these two goals should be pursued simultaneously. The consideration of individual variant-units should never be completely detached from the question of the relative values, or weights, of the witnesses, or from the question of how groups of variants became characteristic readings of text-types. Accurate text-critical judgments will assist in the estimation of the relative values of witnesses, and in the reconstruction of the text’s transmission-history. Likewise, accurate assignments of relative value to the witnesses, combined with accurate reconstructions of the text’s transmission-history, will assist specific text-critical decisions.
However, the textual critic who proceeds on such grounds must vigilantly avoid circularity. After observing, on analytical grounds, that certain witnesses seem to consistently contain the best readings, a textual critic might be tempted, from that point onward, to abandon the initial approach which led to that premise, and proceed to use the premise itself to justify a tendency to adopt the readings of those witnesses. Similarly, a textual critic who notices that a group of witnesses tends to contain the worst readings might be tempted to reject the remainder of the testimony of that group of witnesses. If a textual critic proceeds to build on both such premises, the premises will virtually determine the results of the rest of the analysis.
Competing Models of Transmission-History
The model of transmission-history adopted by a textual critic has a strong effect upon the values which a textual critic assigns to the testimony of groups, and therefore also upon the final evaluation of variants. In this respect, the approach which I advocate – Equitable Eclecticism – resembles the approach used by Hort. However, Equitable Eclecticism yields an archetype which is significantly different from the Revised Text produced by Westcott & Hort, and from the modern descendants of the Revised Text, chiefly the text of the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece. This is because research and discoveries subsequent to Westcott & Hort have required the adoption of a transmission-model significantly different from the one used by Hort.
Hort, building on foundational premises developed by previous investigators, reasoned that the Byzantine Text was essentially the result of a recension consisting of variants drawn from MSS with Alexandrian or Western readings; Byzantine variants were derived from the Alexandrian Text, or the Western Text, or both, or, in some cases, came into being during the recension. Hort therefore rejected all distinctive Byzantine variants. After the dismissal of the Western Text as the result of scribal creativity, embellishment, and a general lack of discipline (with the exception of a smattering of readings), the Alexandrian Text remained as the only text-type which could possibly be regarded as the depository of the original text of the Gospels.
Hort’s endorsement of the Alexandrian Text was not absolute, but it was so strong that he openly stated that variants shared by the Alexandrian Text’s two flagship codices (B and ?) “should be accepted as the true readings until strong internal evidence is found to the contrary,” and “No readings of ?B can safely be rejected absolutely,”1 while “All distinctively Syrian” – that is, Byzantine – “readings must be at once rejected.”2
Such exceptional favor given to the Alexandrian Text, and such categorical rejection of Byzantine readings, were natural implications of Hort’s model of transmission-history in which the Western Text was derived from the Alexandrian Text, and the Byzantine Text was derived from both the Alexandrian Text and the Western Text.
However, Hort acknowledged that such a clear-cut genealogical model would be out of place if a transmission-model persistently involved readings which all had some clearly ancient attestation.3 This very thing was subsequently proposed by textual critics in the 1900’s. Eminent scholars such as E. C. Colwell, G. D. Kilpatrick, and Kurt and Barbara Aland maintained, respectively, that “The overwhelming majority of readings,” “almost all variants,” and “practically all the substantive variants in the text of the New Testament” existed before the year 200.4 Nevertheless the Hortian text has not been overthrown. Only slightly changed, it has become entrenched in NA-27 and UBS-4 as the primary, and nearly exclusive, Greek New Testament used in seminaries.
With the discovery and publication of Egyptian New Testament papyri in the 1900’s – beginning with Grenfell and Hunt’s work at Oxyrhynchus, and continuing to the present day – Hort’s claim that the Alexandrian readings have a demonstrably greater antiquity than their rivals has eroded. Harry A. Sturz collected and categorized dozens of distinctive Byzantine variants which were supported by at least one early papyri.5 Sturz’s data does not vindicate the entire Byzantine Text (and we should not necessarily expect papyri found in one locale to attest to readings in a text from other locales), but he persuasively demonstrated that Hort’s main reason for rejecting distinctive Byzantine readings was unsound. According to Hort’s transmission-model, none of the early distinctive Byzantine readings listed by Sturz should exist. The fact that they obviously did exist, even in papyri found in Egypt, demonstrated that the Byzantine Text may, at any given point, attest to an ancient distinctive reading.
~continued in part 2
1 – Introduction, p. 225, § 303. Although Hort used the terms “Neutral” and “Syrian” I have adopted the normal, less tinted nomenclature.
2 – Introduction, p. 119, § 169.
3 – Introduction, p. 286, § 373.
4 – As cited by James Ronald Royse in Scribal Habits in Early Papyri, p. 20, from Colwell’s Method in Establishing the Nature of Text-Types, p. 55, and Kilpatrick’s The Bodmer and Mississippi Collection, p. 42, and Aland & Aland’s The Text of the New Testament, p. 295.
5 – See the lists in Sturz’s 1984 book The Byzantine Text-Type and New Testament Textual Criticism.
James Snapp, Jr. preaches and ministers at Curtisville Christian Church in central Indiana. The church’s website includes an introduction to textual criticism and links to other resources, including a detailed defense of Mark 16:9-20. A graduate of Cincinnati Christian University (B.A., 1990), where his professors included Lewis Foster, Tom Friskney, and Reuben Bullard, James has studied New Testament textual criticism for over 20 years.