How Reliable Are the Early Texts of the New Testament?

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Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 100 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Even though many textual scholars credited the Aland’s The Text of the New Testament with their description of the text as “free,” that was not the entire position of the Alands. They did describe different texts’ styles, such as “at least normal,” “normal,” “free,” and “strict,” seemingly to gauge or weigh the textual faithfulness of each manuscript. However, like Kenyon, they saw a need based on the evidence, which suggested a rethinking of how the evidence should be described,

We have inherited from the past generation the view that the early text was a ‘free’ text, and the discovery of the Chester Beatty papyri seemed to confirm this view. When P45 and P46 were joined by P66 sharing the same characteristics, this position seemed to be definitely established. P75 appeared in contrast to be a loner with its “strict” text anticipating Codex Vaticanus. Meanwhile the other witnesses of the early period had been ignored. It is their collations which have changed the picture so completely.[1]

While we have said this once, it bears repeating, as some of the earliest manuscripts that we now have evidence that a professional scribe copied them. Many of the other papyri confirm that a semiprofessional hand copied them, while most of these early papyri give evidence of being produced by a copyist who was literate and experienced. Therefore, either literate or semiprofessional copyist did the vast majority of the early extant papyri, with some being done by professionals. As it happened, the few poorly copied manuscripts became known first, establishing a precedent that was difficult for some to shake when the enormous amount of evidence emerged that showed just the opposite.

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After a detailed comparison of the papyri, Kurt and Barbara Aland concluded that these manuscripts from the second to the fourth centuries are of three kinds (at least normal, normal, free, and strict). “It is their collations which have changed the picture so completely.” (p. 93)

  1. Normal Texts: The normal text is a relatively faithful tradition (e.g., P52, which departs from its exemplar only occasionally, as do New Testament manuscripts of every century. It is further represented in P4, P5, P12(?), P16, P18, P20, P28, P47, P72 (1, 2 Peter) and P87.[2]
  2. Free Texts: This is a text dealing with the original text in a relatively free manner with no suggestion of a program of standardization (e.g., p45, p46 and p66), exhibiting the most diverse variants. It is further represented in P9 (?), P13(?), P29, P37, P40, P69, P72 (Jude) and P78.[3]
  3. Strict Texts: These manuscripts transmit the text of the exemplar with meticulous care (e.g., P75) and depart from it only rarely. It is further represented in P1, P23, P27, P35, P36, P64+67, P65(?), and P70.[4]
The P52 PROJECT THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS 4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS

Bruce M. Metzger (1914 – 2007) was an editor with Kurt and Barbara Aland of the United Bible Societies’ standard Greek New Testament and the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament. In his A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition (1971, 1994), and other works, we have his view of the Alexandrian text-type as follows.

The Alexandrian text, which Westcott and Hort called the Neutral text (a question-begging title), is usually considered to be the best text and the most faithful in preserving the original. Characteristics of the Alexandrian text are brevity and austerity. That is, it is generally shorter than the text of other forms, and it does not exhibit the degree of grammatical and stylistic polishing that is characteristic of the Byzantine type of text. Until recently, the two chief witnesses to the Alexandrian text were codex Vaticanus (B) and codex Sinaiticus (א), parchment manuscripts dating from about the middle of the fourth century. With the acquisition, however, of the Bodmer Papyri, particularly P66 and P75, both copied about the end of the second or the beginning of the third century, evidence is now available that the Alexandrian type of text goes back to an archetype that must be dated early in the second century. The Sahidic and Bohairic versions frequently contain typically Alexandrian readings.

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It is best if textual scholars focus their attention on the categories the Alands set out, as opposed to their over-generalization that the early period of copying was “uncontrolled” and “free.” The Alands’ rating system consisted of “at least normal,” “normal,” “strict,” and “free,” designed to evaluate the textual faithfulness of each manuscript. It seems that these terms were meant to gauge the level of control that the scribe showed in copying his exemplar. Manuscripts labeled “at least normal” referred to a copyist who at least gave some consideration to his task, namely, producing an accurate copy of the exemplar. “Normal,” on the other hand, referred to a copyist who permitted what was deemed a normal amount of variants within a copying of the exemplar. Therefore, “strict” referred to a scribe who allowed very few variants in his copy of the exemplar. Lastly, “free” would refer to a copyist who showed almost no regard for being faithful to the exemplar that he was copying.

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It behooves the textual scholar to give much attention to the study of scribal habits, which really began with Ernest Colwell in 1969, who analyzed the scribal habits in P45, P66, and P75 by examining their singular readings.[5] Singular readings are variant readings that are found only in the manuscript being examined, not in any other extant documents. By studying these singular readings of a particular manuscript, we see into the habits of that scribe, namely, his pattern of textual variations, his interactions with the text. Colwell’s investigation was followed by a much more extensive study of singular readings by James Royse of the same manuscripts some twelve years later.[6] Then, we had Philip Comfort in his doctoral dissertation in 1997.[7] Comfort explains that his objective was “to determine what it was in the text that prompted the scribes of P45, P66, and P75 to make individual readings.” Comfort suggests that we forgo the categories of the Alands and “that textual critics could use the categories “reliable,” “fairly reliable,” and “unreliable” to describe the textual fidelity of any given manuscript.” This author would agree. Moreover, he shows “that many of the early papyri are ‘reliable,’ several ‘fairly reliable,’ and a few ‘unreliable.’” Comfort then logically explains, “One of the ways of establishing reliability (or lack thereof) is to test a manuscript against one that is generally proven for its textual fidelity. For example, since many scholars have acclaimed the textual fidelity of P75 (both for intrinsic and extrinsic reasons), it is fair to compare other manuscripts against it in order to determine their textual reliability.” (P. Comfort 2005, 268)

APOSTOLIC FATHERS APOSTOLIC FATHERS APOSTOLIC FATHERS

How do we know that the critical text NA28 and the UBS5 are reliable? In 1989, Eldon J. Epp noted that the papyri have added virtually no new substantial variants to the variants already known from our later manuscripts.[8] Even with the discovery of many other papyri over the last 25 years, the situation has remained the same. It can be said that after 135 years of early manuscript discoveries since Westcott and Hort of 1881, the above critical editions of the Greek New Testament have gone virtually unchanged. (Hill and Kruger 2012, 5) Hill and Kruger go on to say, “It also means that the fourth-century ‘best texts,’ the ‘Alexandrian’ codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, have roots extending throughout the entire third century and even into the second.” (p. 6)

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The most reliable of the earliest texts are P1, P4, 64, 67, P23, P27, P30, P32, P35, P39, P49, 65, P70, P75, P86, P87, P90, P91, P100, P101, P106, P108, P111, P114, and P115. The copyists of these manuscripts allowed very few variants in their copies of the exemplars.[9] They had the ability to make accurate judgments as they went about their copying, resulting in superior texts. Whether their skills in copying were a result of their belief that they were copying a sacred text, or from their training, cannot be known. It could have been a combination of both. These papyri are of great importance when considering textual problems and are considered by many textual scholars to be a good representation of the original wording of the text that was first published by the biblical author. Still, “many of these manuscripts contain singular readings and some ‘Alexandrian’ polishing, which needs to be sifted out.” (P. Comfort 2005, 269) Nevertheless, again, they are the best texts and the most faithful in preserving the original. While it is true that some of the papyri are mere fragments, some contain substantial portions of text. We should note too that text types really did not exist per se in the second century, and it is a mere convention to refer to the papyri as Alexandrian, since the best Alexandrian manuscript, Vaticanus, did exist in the second century by way of P75.[10] It is not that the Alexandrian text existed, but rather P75/Vaticanus evidence that some very strict copying with great care was taking place.[11] Manuscripts that were not of this caliber of strict and careful copying were the result of scribal errors and scribes taking liberties with the text. Therefore, even though P5 may be categorized as a Western text-type, it is more a matter of negligence in the copying process.

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The Aland Classification of Papyri as of 2002[12]

The Aland Classification of Papyri as of 2002

As Hill and Kruger put it, “if one accepts the Alands’ analyses, in 2002, forty out of fifty-five (or just under 73 percent) of the earliest NT manuscripts had Normal to Strict texts, and fifteen (or just over 27 percent) had Free to Like D texts. The single largest category, consisting of eighteen out of fifty-five (or nearly a third) of the earliest manuscripts, is the category of Strict text.” (Hill and Kruger 2012, 11) Therefore, it would be difficult to follow in the footsteps of previous authors who cite the Alands as their source in describing the early period of copying the Greek New Testament as “free,” or “wild,” “in a state of flux,” “chaotic,” “a turbid textual morass,” and so on.

while the complexities in recovering the original text need to be acknowledged, that is a separate question from whether the concept of an original text is incoherent and should, therefore, be abandoned as a goal of the discipline. Unfortunately, these two questions are often mingled together without distinction. Although recovering the original text faces substantial obstacles (and therefore the results should be qualified), there is little to suggest that it is an illegitimate enterprise. If it were illegitimate, then we would expect the same would be true for Greek and Roman literature outside the New Testament. The Early Text of the New Testament. OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

It is true that the Jewish copyists, as well as the later Christian copyists, were not led along by the Holy Spirit, and therefore their manuscripts were not inerrant, infallible. Errors (textual variants) crept into the manuscripts unintentionally and intentionally. However, the vast majority of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament has not been infected with textual errors. For the portions impacted with textual errors, it is the many tens of thousands of copies that we have to help us to weed out the errors. How? Well, not every copyist made the same textual errors. Hence, by comparing the work of different copyists and different manuscripts, textual scholars, we can identify the textual variants (errors), remove those, which leaves us with the original content.

Yes, it would be the greatest discovery of all time if we found the actual original five books that were penned by Moses himself, Genesis through Deuteronomy. However, first, there would be no way of establishing that they were the originals. Second, truth be told, we do not need the originals. We do not need those original documents. What is so important about the documents? Nothing, it is the content on the original documents that we are after. And truly miraculously, we have more copies than needed to do just that. We do not need miraculous preservation because we have miraculous restoration. We now know beyond a reasonable doubt that the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament critical texts are a 99% reflection of the content that was in those ancient original manuscripts.

Is It the Original or the Earliest Text of the New Testament?

What Are Textual Variants [Errors] and How Many Are There?

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[1] (Aland and Aland, The Text of the New Testament 1995, 93-5)

[2] Ibid., 95

[3] Ibid., 59, 64, 93

[4] Ibid., 64, 95

[5] Ernest C. Colwell, “Method in Evaluating Scribal Habits: A Study of P45, P66, P75,” in Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the New Testament, New Testament Tools and Studies 9 (Leiden: Brill, 1969).

[6] James Ronald Royse, “Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri” (Ph.D. diss., Graduate Theological Union, 1981). According to Royse, this investigation of singular readings does not apply to lectionaries, patristic sources, and versions, just New Testament papyri, uncials, and minuscules.

[7] Philip Comfort, “The Scribe as Interpreter: A New Look at New Testament Textual Criticism according to Reader Reception Theory,” D. Litt. et Phil, dissertation, University of South Africa (1997).

[8] E. J. Epp, ‘The Significance of the Papyri for Determining the Nature of the New Testament Text in the Second Century: A Dynamic View of Textual Transmission’, in W. L. Petersen, ed., The Gospel Traditions in the Second Century (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 101.

[9] In 1988, the Alands, in the second edition of The Text of the New Testament (93-95), categorized thirty of the forty-four earliest manuscripts (40 papyri and 4 parchment) as “at least normal,” “normal,” and “strict,” with the other fourteen being categorized as “free” or “like Codex Bezae (D).” At that time, the Alands did not rate P90 [2nd], P92, [3rd/4th] and P95 [3rd], likely because they had only recently been discovered. However, we now have the Aland classification of “strict.”

[10] The Coherence Based Genealogical Method, which was developed by Gerd Mink and assists scholars in developing genealogical trees of manuscripts, will be discussed in far greater detail in Chapter XIII by Wilkins; but we should note here that it has no relation to the traditional text-type model. It is for this reason that scholars such as Holger Strutwolf have suggested that we abandon any references to the manuscripts by the tradition text-types.

[11] “What we do know, from the manuscript evidence, is that several of the earliest Christian scribes were well-trained scribes who applied their training to making reliable texts, both of the Old Testament and the New Testament. We know that they were conscientious to make a reliable text in the process of transcription (as can been seen in manuscripts like P4+64+67 and P75), and we know that others worked to rid the manuscript of textual corruption. This is nowhere better manifested than in P66, where the scribe himself and the diorthotes (official corrector) made over 450 corrections to the text of John. As is explained in the next chapter, the diorthotes of P66 probably consulted other exemplars (one whose text was much like that of P75) in making his corrections. This shows a standard Alexandrian scriptoral practice at work in the reproduction of a New Testament manuscript.” (P. Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography and Textual Criticism 2005, 264)

[12] The table is copied from (Hill and Kruger 2012, 11)

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