Equitable Eclecticism by James Snapp Jr. (part 2)



The Future of New Testament Textual Criticism


Part two of a five part series. See the entire series here.

Competing Models of Transmission-History (continued)

In addition, discoveries about the texts in the papyri, in early versions, and in early parchment codices have contributed to the erosion of one of the most empirical aspects of Hort’s approach:  the proposal that conflations in the Byzantine Text demonstrate that it is later than the Alexandrian Text and the Western Text.  In 1897, Edward Miller objected that eight conflations cannot justify the rejection of the entire Byzantine Text.6 They may be comparable to recently minted coins dropped in an ancient well.

Dr. Walter Pickering, in Appendix D of his book The Identity of the New Testament Text, showed that an apparent conflation exists in ? at Jn. 13:24 (where the Alexandrian Text has ??? ????? ???? ???? ??? ?????, the Byzantine Text has ???????? ??? ?? ???, and ? has ???????? ??? ?? ??? ???? ?? ??????, ??? ????? ???? ???? ??? ?????).  A conflation appears to occur in B at Eph. 2:5 and at Col. 1:12 (where the Western Text has ?????????, the Byzantine Text has ??????????, and B has ????????? ??? ??????????).  In D, a conflation appears to occur at Acts 10:48 and John 5:37 (where the Alexandrian Text – supported by P75 – has ??????? ????????????, the Byzantine Text – supported by P66 – has ????? ????????????, and D has ??????? ????? ????????????), among other places.

The papyri have supplied direct evidence against Hort’s belief that apparent conflations imply that the text in which they are found must be late.  In P53, the text of Mt. 26:36 seems to read ?? ??, where the Byzantine text has ?? and the Alexandrian Text and Western Text have ??.  Papyrus 66 reads ?????? ??? ????? at Jn. 10:19 (agreeing with the Byzantine Text), where the Alexandrian Text has ?????? ????? and

the Western Text has ?????? ???.  Similarly, P66 reads ????????? ??? ????? at Jn. 10:31 (again agreeing with the Byzantine Text), where the Alexandrian Text has ????????? ????? and the Western Text has ????????? ???.  The appearance of such readings in very early MSS forces the concession that they do not imply that the text in which they appear is late; instead, they prove that an early text can appear to include conflations.  Nevertheless some modern-day textual critics still appeal to Hort’s list of eight Byzantine conflations as if it demonstrated that the entire Byzantine Text was secondary.7

Ironically, as the papyri-discoveries destroyed Hort’s transmission-model, they also tended to exonerate Hort’s favored text of the Gospels, the Alexandrian Text, by demonstrating the high antiquity of the Alexandrian text of Luke and John.  Papyrus 75, in particular, possesses a remarkably high rate of agreement with B, showing that the Alexandrian Text of Luke and John was carefully preserved in the 200’s, and thus alleviating the suspicions of some earlier scholars that the Alexandrian Text was the result of editorial activity in the 200’s.

The correspondence between Papyrus 75 and Codex B was interpreted by some textual critics as a demonstration of the antiquity and superiority of the entire Alexandrian Text.  Kurt Aland compared the situation to sampling a jar of jelly or jam:  a mere spoonful is enough to show what is in the rest of the jar.8

However, although the agreement between P75 and B proves that the Alexandrian Text of Luke and John is not the result of scribal editing conducted in the 200’s, it did not prove that Alexandrian readings are not results of earlier scribal editing.  Theoretically, if the Western Text could develop in the period prior to the production of P75, so could the Alexandrian Text.  Papyrus 75 proved that the Alexandrian Text of Luke and John is very early; it did not prove that Alexandrian readings are not the result of very early editorial activity.9

Nor did P75 prove that the Byzantine Text is less ancient than the Alexandrian Text.  As a surviving example of a text used in Egypt in the early 200’s, P75 does not constitute evidence about text-forms used elsewhere.  The most significant evidence for the absence of the Byzantine Text prior to the 300’s is the lack of patristic testimony for its use, but this is largely an argument from silence.  The natural destructive effects of humid climates upon papyrus-material, allied with Roman persecutors who sought to destroy Christian literature, silenced a large proportion of the Christian communities of the first three centuries of Christendom.  According to Hort’s theories, when these communities adopted the Byzantine Text in the 300’s and 400’s, they embraced a new, imported text of the Gospels, setting aside whatever they had used previously.  A plausible alternative is that they simply continued to use their own local texts which consisted primarily of Byzantine readings.

The discovery of the papyri led some textual critics to advocate an undue emphasis upon the ages of witnesses, resulting in a lack of equity toward non-Egyptian variants.  Because the Egyptian climate allowed the preservation of papyrus, the oldest copies will almost always be copies from Egypt.  To favor the variant with the oldest attestation is, in many cases, to favor the variant in the manuscript that was stored in the gentlest climate.  But this is no more reasonable than favoring the variants of a manuscript because it was found closer to the equator than other manuscripts.  Certainly when two rival variants are evaluated, and the first is uniformly attested in early witnesses, while the second is only found in late witnesses, the case for the first one is enhanced.  But to assign values to witnesses according to their ages without considering factors such as climate is to introduce a lack of equity into one’s analysis.

The papyri-discoveries elicited another interesting development.  Pioneering scholars such as Griesbach had organized witnesses into three main groups – Western, Byzantine, and Alexandrian.  Each group, characterized by consistent patterns of readings, was considered a text-type, and MSS sharing those special patterns of readings were viewed as relatives of one another.  (Hort had divided the Alexandrian group into two text-types, calling its earlier stratum the “Neutral” text, supported by ? B.)  Following analysis by Kirsopp Lake, the Caesarean text of the Gospels was added.  But the evidence from the papyri indicates that even in a single locale (Egypt), the text existed in forms other than those four.

One example is Papyrus 45, a fragmentary copy of the Gospels and Acts from the early 200’s (or slightly earlier).  In Mark 7:25-37, when P45 disagrees with either B or the Byzantine Text or both, P45 agrees with B 22% of the time, it agrees with the Byzantine Text 30% of the time, and 48% of the time it disagrees with them both.  Such departures from the usual profiles of text-types has led some textual critics to reconsider the existence of early text-types, arguing instead that the text in the 100’s and 200’s was in a state of fluctuation.10 A plausible alternative is that some of the papyri attest to the existence of some text-types which became extinct, without implying that the Western, Byzantine, and Caesarean text-types did not exist prior to the 300’s.

6 – See Miller’s comments about conflation in The Oxford Debate and the general assent given to them by his fellow debaters, including William Sanday.

7 – For example, Dr. Dan Wallace, in his 2010 online essay The Conspiracy Behind the New Bible Translations.

8 – See p. 58 of Aland & Aland’s The Text of the New Testament, English translation by Errol Rhodes.

9 – Bruce Metzger granted that most scholars “are still inclined to regard the Alexandrian text as on the whole the best ancient recension,” on p. 216, The Text of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (1992), emphasis added.

10 – The most famous textual critics to do so are Kurt and Barbara Aland, who proposed a new classification-system of MSS into Categories, listed by numbers, rather than by text-type names.

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.


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