NEW TESTAMENT TEXTUAL STUDIES: Bruce Metzger’s Judgment of Variant Readings According to Text-Types

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Because there are so many individual manuscripts, textual critics are hard-pressed to know the individual characteristics of each manuscript. Consequently, many textual critics categorize the manuscripts into text-types, which they then use in their evaluation of textual variants. One of the foremost textual critics of our era, Bruce Metzger, exhibits this kind of evaluation. He placed the extant manuscripts into one of four text-types, usually called Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean, and Byzantine. Each of these requires some explanation. (More detailed explanations can be found in Metzger 1992, 211–219).

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Alexandrian Manuscripts

The Alexandrian text is found in manuscripts produced by scribes trained in the Alexandrian scriptoral tradition, the best of its kind in Greco-Roman times. Such scribes were schooled in producing well-crafted, accurate copies. Among the New Testament manuscripts, it can be seen that there are several early Alexandrian manuscripts (sometimes called proto-Alexandrian) and later Alexandrian manuscripts. The earlier manuscripts are usually purer than the later ones in that the earlier are less polished and closer to the ruggedness of the original writings. In short, these manuscripts display the work of scribes who had the least creative interaction with the text; they were produced by scribes who stayed with their task of making faithful copies. Quite significantly, the text of several of the earlier or proto-Alexandrian manuscripts was transmitted quite faithfully. This is exemplified in the high percentage of textual agreement between 𝔓75 and B, thereby affirming Hort’s theory that Codex Vaticanus traces back to an early, pure text. This textual relationship and others are detailed in my book, The Quest for the Original Text of the New Testament (1992, 101–118).

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Metzger (1992, 216) lists the following Alexandrian witnesses in the categories “Proto-Alexandrian” and “Later Alexandrian.”

Proto-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

Later Alexandrian:

Gospels: (C) L T W (in Luke 1:1–8:12 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 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 𝔓47 א

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Western Manuscripts

The so-called “Western” text is a loose category. Actually, it is probably best to call it a kind of “popular” text inasmuch as most of the manuscripts that get put in this text-type share the common traits of scribal expansion, harmonization, and amelioration. Those who defend the cohesiveness of this text-type indicate that it seems to have developed at one point in history (mid-to late second century) and in a certain geographical region (Western Christendom). This form of the Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s Epistles circulated in North Africa, Italy, and Gaul (which are geographically Western), but so-called “Western” manuscripts have also come from Egypt and other locations in the East. It is represented in the Old Latin manuscripts, Syriac manuscripts, and in the D-text (a special brand of the Western text—see discussion at the beginning of Acts). The Western text also prevails in the writings of Marcion, Tatian, Irenaeus, and Tertullian.

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The “Western” witnesses listed by Metzger (1992, 214) are as follows:

Gospels: D W (in Mark 1:1–5:30) 0171 it syrs syrc (in part), early Latin fathers, Tatian’s Diatessaron

Acts: 𝔓29 𝔓38 𝔓48 D 383 614 syr, early Latin fathers

Paul’s Epistles: The Greek-Latin diglots D E F G; Greek Fathers to the end of the third century; it and early Latin Fathers; Syrian Fathers to about a.d. 450

The Western text is not apparent in the General Epistles and Revelation. The recently published papyrus, 𝔓112 (fifth century), is Western. And I would put a question mark next to 𝔓29 because its text is too small to determine its textual affinities.

History of the Transmission of the New Testament Text

Caesarean Manuscripts

Another small group of manuscripts constitute a group known as the Caesarean text. Various scholars such as Streeter and Lake demonstrated that Origen brought a text with him from Egypt to Caesarea, which was then transported to Jerusalem. This text, showing a mixture of Alexandrian and Western readings, is apparent in the following manuscripts—only in the Gospels: 𝔓45, W (in Mark 5:31–16:20), family 1 (f1), family 13 (f13), Θ, 565, and 700.

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Byzantine Manuscripts

The Byzantine manuscripts constitute the largest group and are the furthest removed from the original text in most sections of the New Testament. The one notable exception is the book of Revelation, where several Byzantine manuscripts preserve a purer form of the text.

The Byzantine manuscripts are as follows:

Gospels: A E F G H K P S V W (in Matthew 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 many minuscules

Metzger argues that usually a variant reading “which is supported by a combination of Alexandrian and Western witnesses is superior to any other reading” (1992, 218). The observant reader will see that this kind of statement appears repeatedly throughout Metzger’s textual commentary on the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, in support of the committee’s decisions about certain readings. Metzger also made the following important observation:

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

In the evaluation of readings which are supported by only one class of witnesses, the student will probably find that true readings survive frequently in the Alexandrian text alone, less frequently in the Western group alone, and very rarely only in Caesarean witnesses. As a rule of thumb, the beginner may ordinarily follow the Alexandrian text except in the case of readings contrary to the criteria which are responsible for its being given preference in general. Such a procedure, however, must not be allowed to degenerate into merely looking for the reading which is supported by B and א (or even by B alone, as Hort was accused of doing); in every instance a full and careful evaluation is to be made of all the variant readings in the light of both transcriptional and intrinsic probabilities. The possibility must always be kept open that the original reading has been preserved alone in any one group of manuscripts, even, in extremely rare instances, in the Koine or Byzantine text. (1992, 218–219)

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Metzger’s observations are important, for they evolved from years of working with textual variants. But I would add one qualifier to the notion that a reading is likely original if it has support from several text-types. I would stipulate that the documentary support must be early and diverse. Diverse testimony among many later manuscripts (i.e., not the earliest ones), in my mind, signals only that the reading had been copied frequently in various sectors of the church; it does not necessarily validate a reading’s originality.

Philip W. Comfort

New Testament Text and Translation Commentary: Commentary on the Variant Readings of the Ancient New Testament Manuscripts and How They Relate to the Major English Translations (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008)

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