The Process of Attempting to Ascertain the Original Wording of the Original Texts of the New Testament

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The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02
Bruce Manning Metzger was an American biblical scholar, Bible translator, and textual critic who was a longtime professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and Bible editor who served on the board of the American Bible Society and United Bible Societies.

In the preceding section, the reader will have seen how, during about fourteen centuries when the New Testament was transmitted in handwritten copies (See Link Below), numerous changes and accretions came into the text. Of the approximately five thousand Greek manuscripts of all or part of the New Testament that are known today [5,898 now know], no two agree exactly in all particulars. Confronted by a mass of conflicting readings, editors must decide which variants deserve to be included in the text and which should be relegated to the apparatus. Although at first, it may seem to be a hopeless task amid so many thousands of variant readings to sort out those that should be regarded as original, textual scholars have developed certain generally acknowledged criteria of evaluation. These considerations depend, it will be seen, upon probabilities, and sometimes the textual critic must weigh one set of probabilities against another. Furthermore, the reader should be advised at the outset that, although the following criteria have been drawn up in a more or less tidy outline form, their application can never be undertaken in a merely mechanical or stereotyped manner. The range and complexity of textual data are so great that no neatly arranged or mechanically contrived set of rules can be applied with mathematical precision. Each and every variant reading needs to be considered in itself, and not judged merely according to a rule of thumb. With these cautionary comments in mind, the reader will appreciate that the following outline of criteria is meant only as a convenient description of the more important considerations that the Committee took into account when choosing among variant readings.

History of the Transmission of the New Testament Text

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The chief categories or kinds of criteria and considerations that assist one in evaluating the relative worth of variant readings are those which involve (I) External Evidence, having to do with the manuscripts themselves, and (II) Internal Evidence, having to do with two kinds of considerations, (A) those concerned with Transcriptional Probabilities (i.e., relating to the habits of scribes) and (B) those concerned with Intrinsic Probabilities (i.e., relating to the style of the author).

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Outline of Criteria

External Evidence Involving Considerations Bearing Upon

  1. The date and character of the witnesses. In general, earlier manuscripts are more likely to be free from those errors that arise from repeated copying. Of even greater importance, however, than the age of the document itself are the date and character of the type of text that it embodies, as well as the degree of care taken by the copyist while producing the manuscript.
  2. The geographical distribution of the witnesses that support a variant. The concurrence of witnesses, for example, from Antioch, Alexandria, and Gaul in support of a given variant is, other things being equal, more significant than the testimony of witnesses representing but one locality or one ecclesiastical see. On the other hand, however, one must be certain that geographically remote witnesses are really independent of one another. Agreements, for example, between Old Latin and Old Syriac witnesses may sometimes be due to common influence from Tatian’s Diatessaron.
  3. The genealogical relationship of texts and families of witnesses. Mere numbers of witnesses supporting a given variant reading do not necessarily prove the superiority of that reading. For example, if in a given sentence reading x is supported by twenty manuscripts and reading y by only one manuscript, the relative numerical support favoring x counts for nothing if all twenty manuscripts should be discovered to be copies made from a single manuscript, no longer extant, whose scribe first introduced that particular variant reading. The comparison, in that case, ought to be made between the one manuscript containing reading y and the single ancestor of the twenty manuscripts containing reading x.
  4. Witnesses are to be weighed rather than counted. That is, the principle enunciated in the previous paragraph needs to be elaborated: those witnesses that are found to be generally trustworthy in clear-cut cases deserve to be accorded predominant weight in cases when the textual problems are ambiguous and their resolution is uncertain. At the same time, however, since the relative weight of the several kinds of evidence differs in different kinds of variants, there should be no merely mechanical evaluation of the evidence.
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Internal Evidence Involving two Kinds of Probabilities

  1. Transcriptional Probabilities depend upon considerations of the habits of scribes and upon palaeographical features in the manuscripts.
  2. In general, the more difficult reading is to be preferred, particularly when the sense appears on the surface to be erroneous but on more mature consideration proves itself to be correct. (Here “more difficult” means “more difficult to the scribe,” who would be tempted to make an emendation. The characteristic of most scribal emendations is their superficiality, often combining “the appearance of improvement with the absence of its reality.” Obviously, the category “more difficult reading” is relative, and sometimes a point is reached when a reading must be judged to be so difficult that it can have arisen only by accident in transcription.)
  3. In general, the shorter reading is to be preferred, except where
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(a). Parablepsis arising from homoeoarcton or homoeoteleuton may have occurred (i.e., where the eye of the copyist may have inadvertently passed from one word to another having a similar sequence of letters); or where

(b). The scribe may have omitted material that was deemed to be (i) superfluous, (ii) harsh, or (iii) contrary to pious belief, liturgical usage, or ascetical practice.

  1. Since scribes would frequently bring divergent passages into harmony with one another, in parallel passages (whether quotations from the Old Testament or different accounts in the Gospels of the same event or narrative) that reading which involves verbal dissidence is usually to be preferred to one which is verbally concordant.
  2. Scribes would sometimes
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(a). Replace an unfamiliar word with a more familiar synonym;

(b). Alter a less refined grammatical form or less elegant lexical expression, in accord with contemporary Atticizing preferences; or

(c). Add pronouns, conjunctions, and expletives to make a smoother text.

  1. Intrinsic Probabilities depend upon considerations of what the author was more likely to have written. The textual critic takes into account
  2. In general:
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(a). The style and vocabulary of the author throughout the book:

(b). The immediate context; and

(c). Harmony with the usage of the author elsewhere; and,

  1. In the Gospels:

(a). The Aramaic background of the teaching of Jesus;

(b). The priority of the Gospel according to Mark; and

(c). The influence of the Christian community upon the formulation and transmission of the passage in question.

It is obvious that not all of these criteria are applicable in every case. The textual critic must know when it is appropriate to give greater consideration to one kind of evidence and less to another. Since textual criticism is an art as well as a science, it is inevitable that in some cases different scholars will come to different evaluations of the significance of the evidence. This divergence is almost inevitable when, as sometimes happens, the evidence is so divided that, for example, the more difficult reading is found only in the later witnesses, or the longer reading is found only in the earlier witnesses.

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In order to indicate the relative degree of certainty in the mind of the Committee for the reading adopted as the text, an identifying letter is included within braces at the beginning of each set of textual variants. The letter {A} signifies that the text is certain, while {B} indicates that the text is almost certain. The letter {C}, however, indicates that the Committee had difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text. The letter {D}, which occurs only rarely, indicates that the Committee had great difficulty in arriving at a decision. In fact, among the {D} decisions sometimes none of the variant readings commended itself as original, and therefore the only recourse was to print the least unsatisfactory reading.

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III. Lists of Witnesses According to Type of Text

The following are some of the more important witnesses to the text of the New Testament arranged in lists according to the predominant type of text exhibited by each witness. It will be observed that in some cases different sections of the New Testament within the same witness belong to different text-types.

Alexandrian Witnesses

(1) Primary Alexandrian:

  • 𝔓45 (in Acts) 𝔓46 𝔓66 𝔓75 א B Sahidic (in part), Clement of Alexandria, Origen (in part), and most of the papyrus fragments with Pauline text.

(2) Secondary Alexandrian:

  • Gospels: (C)11 L T W (in Luke 1:1 to 8:12 and John) (X) Z Δ (in Mark) Ξ Ψ (in Mark; partially in Luke and John) 33 579 892 1241 Bohairic.
  • Acts: 𝔓50 A (C) Ψ 33 (11:26–28:31) 81 104 326.
  • Pauline Epistles: A (C) H I Ψ 33 81 104 326 1739.
  • Catholic Epistles: 𝔓20 𝔓23 A (C) Ψ 33 81 104 326 1739.
  • Revelation: A (C) 1006 1611 1854 2053 2344; less good, 𝔓 א.

Western Witnesses

  • Gospels: 𝔓69 א (in John 1:1–8:38) D W (in Mark 1:1–5:30) 0171, the Old Latin, (syr and syr in part), early Latin Fathers.
  • Acts: 𝔓29 𝔓38 𝔓48 D E 383 614 1739 syr syr ms copG67 early Latin Fathers, Ephraem.
  • Epistles: the Greek-Latin bilinguals D F G, Greek Fathers to the end of the third century, Old Latin MSS, and early Latin Fathers.
  • It will be observed that for the book of Revelation no specifically Western witnesses have been identified.
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Byzantine Witnesses

  • Gospels: A E F G H K P S V W (in Matt. and Luke 8:13–24:53) Π Ψ (partially in Luke and John) Ω and most minuscules.
  • Acts: H L P 049 and most minuscules.
  • Epistles: L 049 and most minuscules.
  • Revelation: 046 051 052 and most minuscules.

In assessing the preceding lists of witnesses two comments are appropriate. (a) The tables include only those witnesses that are more or less generally acknowledged to be the chief representatives of the several textual types. Additional witnesses have at times been assigned to one or another category.

(b) While the reader is encouraged to refer from time to time from the commentary to the above lists of witnesses, it must never be supposed that parity of external support for two separate sets of variant readings requires identical judgments concerning the original text. Although the external evidence for two sets of variant readings may be exactly the same, considerations of transcriptional and/or intrinsic probabilities of readings may lead to quite diverse judgments concerning the original text. This is, of course, only another way of saying that textual criticism is an art as well as a science, and demands that each set of variants be evaluated in the light of the fullest consideration of both external evidence and internal probabilities.

Bruce Manning Metzger

United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994)

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