Monday, March 25, 2013

Textual Criticism and the Preservation of the NT, Part 1

In discussions about the NT record of Jesus' life and ministry, especially with atheists and Muslims, one often hears the charge that the NT documents have been corrupted and so are not reliable witnesses to what Jesus actually said and did.  More often than not, those making these charges are unaware that NT textual criticism confirms that of all ancient texts, the NT text is the most well preserved and reliable of them all.  So in this article we will consider the nature and practice of NT textual criticism; what it tells us about the preservation and reliability of the NT text; and how that affects the trustworthiness and usefulness of the various Bible translations Christians use today.

Nature and Practice of NT Textual Criticism

Textual Criticism is the scientific study of various witnesses to an original text, following certain set principles of analysis, evaluation and categorization. By careful examination of these witnesses, and the consistent use of these set principles, textual critics, as nearly as is possible, reconstruct this original text from all the witnesses available. For the New Testament, the evidence for the original text is not only provided by the earliest manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, but also by the earliest ancient translations (e.g. Old Latin, Aramaic and Coptic), from the readings of which the underlying Greek can often be inferred. In addition, there are the quotations from the New Testament in the works of early Christian writers from the second to sixth centuries in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Coptic and Armenian that are also valuable in recovering the original text of the New Testament.

From the 1st century until the 15th century, all religious and secular books were copied by hand. As consequence, there were common copyist errors that led to variants, or differing readings, between manuscripts copied from a single archetype or primary text: Words were misspelled; word order was reversed; words that looked alike, though different in meaning, were confused and copied, etc. Then there are intentional errors, such as harmonization of all parallel passages when the copyist noted differences in the exemplar (i.e. the primary text being copied), correction of what the copyist perceived as poor grammar in the exemplar, or correcting what is perceived therein by the copyist as a theologically novel or unorthodox reading. And the manuscripts in all the Text-types, whether Western, Alexandrian, Caesarean or Byzantine, contain some variants of these kinds.

So in order to eliminate these copyist errors, and reconstruct the original text as much as possible, there is a four-stage process in a NT critic’s work, as F.F. Bruce explains:

There are four principle stages in the work of the textual critic. First,
he makes a study such individual manuscripts as are available to him,
correcting obvious [copyist] slips and taking cognizance of what appear to
be scribal alterations, whether accidental or deliberate. Next, he arranges
these manuscripts in groups. Those which share some peculiar features
of spelling, wording, or some common error, are probably related to one
another and have a common archetype. There are different ways of
grouping manuscripts, according as their evident relation to one another is
more or less close. Those whose mutual relation can be fairly precisely
established are said to constitute a family. But a number of families, while
they are diverse from one another in many respects, may have a sufficient
number of significant features in common to suggest that they all
represent one rather early textual type. In the third place, when the
arranging of the manuscripts in groups leads to the establishment of an
archetype for each of the groups which have been distinguished, these
archetypes themselves are subjected to comparative study in the hope
that it may be possible to reconstruct a provisional archetype from which
the archetypes themselves are descended; if this is achieved, then we
have arrived as closely as we can to the autographic text (F.F. Bruce, The Books
And the Parchments, 2nd Edtion (1981), p. 212).

As they carry out this four stage task, textual critics follow certain criteria that have to do with both the external and internal evidence we possess. And for any manuscript to be considered a trustworthy witness to the original Greek New Testament, it must pass all these criteria, which include the following:

1. Date of the Text-Type. Other things being equal, an older document may be more authoritative than a more recent one. This is not only true as regards the differences of the oldest manuscripts comprising the four text types, but also of the manuscripts comprising each individual text- type as well. Consider the so-called Textus Receptus, which underlies the KJV of 1611. While it is a member of the Byzantine Text-type, it is now regarded as a late and poor witness of that text-type. This edition of the Greek New Testament was produced and published in 1516 by Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536), a Roman Catholic biblical scholar and theologian. It was based on seven Greek manuscripts, none older than the eleventh century, and incomplete ones at that. "For the Book of Revelation he had but one manuscript, and it was lacking the final leaf, which contained the last six verses of the book. Therefore Erasmus translated the Latin Vulgate back into Greek and published that. Hence in the last six verses of Revelation in Erasmus's Greek New Testament, several words and phrases may be found that are attested in Greek manuscript whatsoever." When older manuscripts were discovered, between 1650 and 1850, study and comparison of the Textus Receptus with these texts soon revealed it as an inferior representative of the Byzantine Text-type. Hence calls for the revision of the KJV, in the light of these new discoveries, began as early as 1660. So for all their notoriety, Westcott and Hort were at the end of a long process that led to both the criticism and replacement of the Textus Receptus as the sole basis for English translations.

2. Geographical Distribution of the Text-Type. Readings found in manuscripts from widely separated geographical areas indicate it is less likely to be the idiosyncratic error of one local from which the manuscript may have come. So though the various text-types may have originated in Egypt, Asia Minor, Palestine, and Italy, they were not restricted to those locations. The evidence we possess indicates that prior to the Diocletian Persecution (303-310 A.D.) and the ascendancy of Byzantium under Constantine (306-337 A.D.), the other three Text Types (i.e. Western, Alexandrian, and Caesarean) were as widely spread geographically, as was the later Byzantine Text, even though fewer numbers of those earlier texts were preserved. The evidence also indicates that during the second century, a certain amount of "cross-pollination" among the text-types occurred as copies of the NT were being circulated and recopied in the various centers of Christianity; it was only in the third century that they became more fixed and identified with certain locals.

3. Genealogical Relationship. The relationship of the various witnesses to the text-types is important, for if a variety witnesses that support a particular reading from one text type, then this is an indication that they are all copies of copies of copies springing from one main, ancestral archetype. Therefore, manuscripts must be weighed, and not merely counted. This means that though 95% of the existing Greek manuscripts are of the Byzantine Text-type, all are copies of copies of copies of an ancestral archetype that cannot be traced beyond 250 A.D., and the majority of these Byzantine manuscripts date from the seventh century or later. And though it is disputed, a number of scholars, beginning with Westcott and Hort, have argued that the Byzantine text itself originated with a form of the Western text, known as Old Antiochian, brought to Constantinople by Lucian, the former Bishop of Antioch, just prior to the outbreak of the Diocletian Persecution. So, for these reasons, the Byzantine Text, though represented by a larger number of manuscripts, is not now regarded as being superior to the other text-types as a preserver of the original readings of the NT.

4. The shorter reading is preferable to the longer reading. If a scribe makes an intentional change in the NT text, he is more likely to add than to omit, such as a note of explanation, adding a phrase from a parallel passage, or conflating (i.e. combining) two or more readings. For example, consider Luke 11:2, where the good doctor gives us his version of "The Lord's Prayer." In Bible versions based on the critical NT text, it reads, "Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come," whereas some versions based primarily on the Byzantine text read, "Our Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come." A scribe, familiar with the Lord's Prayer in Matthew, might assume (incorrectly) that the version in Luke left out some words, and so would add words from Matthew to make the two versions more fully agree. The problem with this assumption by the scribe, of course, is that one form of the prayer was given while Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount and the second, as Luke plainly tells us (Luke 11:1), some time later, when Jesus and the disciples were alone for mediation and prayer, and his disciples asked for instruction on how to better pray. It was due to the fact that some scribes did not understand how Jesus could teach two different forms of this prayer, to different audiences on different occasions that tended to lead to their harmonization of these passages. Otherwise, if the longer reading was original, then there does not seem to be any good reason why it should have shortened. Therefore, in Luke 11:2, the shorter reading is preferable to the longer reading.

5. The harder reading is preferable to an easier reading. A scribe is more likely to change a word which is difficult to understand into a word which is easier to understand and is related in meaning. For example, consider John 1:18, for which there are these two readings: a) monogenes huios ("the One and Only Son"); and b) monogenes Theos ("the One and Only God"). The easiest reading is clearly monogenes huios, since it is the form found in John 3:16. Monogenes Theos is the more difficult or harder reading; yet it agrees with John's teaching elsewhere, in which he specifically identifies Jesus the Son as being God (e.g., John1:1). "It may make even surer sense, if we assume that the correct text omits the article before monogenes (as do W-H, Merk, Nestle, BFBS 2nd ed., on good mss. evidence), as the emphasis may then be upon Christ's nature: "No one has seen God...He who himself is deity...has set him forth" (J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction To New Testament Textual Criticism, p. 102).  And that is why the NRSV, for example, renders John 1:18 as follows: "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known."

6. The reading from which other readings in a variant could most easily have developed is preferable. This principle may overlap with the previous two principles, since either a short reading or a hard reading may give rise to alternate readings. In general, the various types of intentional and unintentional errors suggest the bases on which one reading may give rise to another. Again, consider the example of Luke 11:2 above. If the longer reading were original, there would be no apparent reason for its omission. On the other hand, if the shorter were original, it is more likely that a scribe, in order to harmonize this text with Matthew and with the common liturgy of the Church, would add words to harmonize the two texts.

7. The reading which is characteristic of the NT author is preferable. This principle is usually applied only after the previous principles have been rigorously applied, and there is still some doubt as which reading best reflects the original task. In the case of John 1:18, the principle is applied as follows: John characteristically uses the Greek word monogenes (“one and only, unique”) as a synonym for the Greek word agapetos, “beloved, most beloved” when applied to Jesus in 1:14; 3:16; and 1 John 3. Furthermore, in the other passages where it is used of other persons, the word clearly does not mean “only begotten.” In Hebrews 11:17, for example, Isaac is called Abraham’s “monogenes son.” Isaac was “the beloved son,” the son in whom the Abrahamic Covenant was to be initially realized (it has been fully realized in Jesus Christ, the Seed of Abraham, and all who are united to him by the Holy Spirit, cf. Gal. 3:15-4:7). But we know Abraham “begat” other sons in addition to Isaac, as Gen. 25:1-2 makes abundantly clear. So the translation of John 1:18 in the NLT, rather than that of the KJV, is a much better translation: “No one has ever seen God. But the Unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.”

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