Bible Studies

Textual Criticism

Someone asked me, “I guess textual criticism is so complicated a field that . . . a man . . . finds it difficult to have settled views.”

To which I responded:

I don’t believe that the field of textual criticism is all that complicated in terms of its basic principles.  The problem is that each of the major schools of thought is based on some assumptions about the history of the text that are significantly conjectural, and those assumptions color how they deal with textual variants.  What do we know as over against what is an educated guess?

We know that Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman Empire in A.D. 313, under Constantine I, with what came to be known as the Edict of Milan.

We know that within a little over a decade, what had become recently tolerated began to be recognized as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

We know that the Church came to be a tool of the state and increasingly under the control of the state, in what is sometimes called Caesaropapism.

We know that the state was committed to enforcing unity in the Church as a foundation for the security of the state, and that out of this policy, the Ecumenical Creeds came into being, the influence of the state becoming progressively dominant.  Within a little over a century after the legalization of Christianity, the state’s role in the beliefs of the Church clearly had become the major driving force in establishing theological unity.  Without doubt, it was politics that gave us both the Third and Fourth Ecumenical Councils:  Ephesus in 431, and Chalcedon in 451.  The goal of the state was a monolithic Church, with uniform beliefs and uniform worship, subordinate to the state, reinforcing the idea of absolute submission to the state as a Christian duty.  (That’s why Henry VIII followed the Byzantine model when he founded the Anglican Church.  My Presbyterian, anti-Erastian bias is showing.)

When the western portion of the Empire began to implode, the roles of church and state became inverted in the West.  When the man who became Bishop of Rome in A.D. 440, became the first pope twelve years later, the Romans began increasingly to look to the church for authority and protection, rather than to the state.  In 476, shortly after the death of Pope Leo I, Romulus Augustus was removed as the last western Roman emperor.  The Church quickly filled the political vacuum, and a papacy, not unlike the modern United Nations, began to evolve, providing cohesion to the fragmented kingdoms and fiefdoms of Europe.  As the West detached itself more and more from the East, the result was two radically different visions for church and state:  the Byzantine model of Caesaropapism in the East; the Papal model in the West. 

Both the western and eastern versions of Christianity were interested in a standard biblical text.  The Latin speaking church in the West gradually adopted Jerome’s Vulgate; the Greek speaking Byzantines accepted the Greek New Testament and the Septuagint as their standards.  Of course, in the millennium before Gutenberg’s movable type, all three of these documents had multiple manuscripts supporting them, each with little differences here and there—such a thing as an absolutely pure copy of the originals did not exist.  Nevertheless, the Church, whether Eastern or Western, was interested in a standard text, especially for those portions used regularly in public worship.

What is conjectural is how much this interest led to the production of a significantly uniform text of the Greek New Testament, and, more importantly, assuming such a standard, ecclesiastic text was developed within the Eastern Church, how it went about determining which family of texts best represented the original autographs.  (One can also see that as the Church in the West evolved, its authority was vested more in politically powerful men than in the Scriptures.)

Those who favor the Byzantine Text Tradition believe that the older, more faithful manuscripts were worn out through use.  The reason why some old manuscripts survived is that they were rejected as less than faithful to the original biblical text, and these unfaithful texts were simply cast aside.  For example, the monks of the Convent of St. Catherine, near Mount Sinai, were getting ready to burn a late fourth century, animal hide copy of the Greek New Testament, when Konstantin von Tischendorf rescued it in 1844.  The reason why the overwhelming majority of surviving Greek texts have a fundamental agreement is that they represent an unbroken chain back to the original autographs.  This chain is not fundamentally due to an institutional, state enforced uniformity, but to the witness of the body of believers who read and wore out manuscripts as they hand copied them for others down through the early generations of Christians.

However, most modern scholars, including most Evangelical scholars, reject this view.  They would conjecture that the Eastern Church, in its zeal for uniformity, lacked the resources they needed accurately to produce a uniform text that was completely faithful to the original autographs.  The older the manuscript, the more likely it is to be faithful to the original autographs, and so a handful of old manuscripts came to have much heavier weight than the vast majority of the later, hand copied Greek texts. 

The Church of England underwent significant theological upheaval in the nineteenth century:  Tractarians sought to move High Churchmen toward Rome; critical scholars sought to distance the Low Church wing from its more conservative Calvinistic Evangelicalism and totally trustworthy Bible.  Perhaps one reason why mainstream Evangelical scholars were quick to accept the  theories of the science of textual criticism was because the early advocates of were not High Churchmen.  Anglicans B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort produced their The New Testament in the Original Greek in 1881.  Textual criticism moved out of the ivory tower and into the homes of Christians when the Church of England produced its Revised Version in 1885, using as Westcott and Hort’s work as the basis for their latest revision of the King James Version’s New Testament.  The English Revised Version was edited to produce the American Standard Version in 1901.

Both of these major schools of textual criticism have many subdivisions.  On the one hand, those who favor the Byzantine Text Tradition include people who favor the Textus Receptus, as well as those who do not, like Maurice Robinson and William Pierpont.   By the way, among the problems with the Textus Receptus is that it contains Greek not found in any ancient texts.  In 1516, with pressure to beat others into print and lacking a complete Greek manuscript of the book of Revelation, Christian humanist scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, simply made up his own Greek text by translating the Latin text that he had for the last six verses of his Greek New Testament. (Cf. Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (2d edition; New York and Oxford: Oxford University, 1968)  The Textus Receptus school also contains various subdivisions within it, such as the King James only people, but not all advocates of the TR are fanatical about the King James Version.

On the other hand, the critical school would also have subdivisions, and the earlier views of Bishop Westcott and others have come to be viewed with more skepticism over the last century and a quarter.  Rather than most modern textual scholars rigidly favoring one particular family of texts, such as the Western, the Alexandrian or the Byzantine, they tend toward a more eclectic text, weighing not only manuscript evidence, but internal things, such as, say, where a disputed reading in one gospel reflects an undisputed reading in another. 

For example, in Mark 13:32 there is no question that the phrase, “nor the Son,” is in the Greek text:  “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” (KJV.)  But in Matthew 24:36 (“But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” KJV.), the vast majority of Greek manuscripts do not contain “nor the Son.”

How does one go about dealing with that?  Did Matthew leave the phrase out in his original autograph, and a later scribe, remembering Mark’s wording, add it, either thoughtlessly or deliberately?  Did a heavy-handed, Byzantine scribe, troubled by a statement that might have seemed in his mind to lend weight to the followers of Arius, simply omit it?  These are the kinds of issues that retired Princeton New Testament scholar, Bruce M. Metzger addresses in his A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 

For example, Dr. Metzger writes in loc.

‘The words “neither the Son” are lacking in the majority of the witnesses of Matthew, including the later Byzantine text.  On the other hand, the best representatives of the Alexandrian, the Western, and the Caesarean types of text contain the phrase.  The omission of the words because of the doctrinal difficulty they present is more probable than their addition by assimilation to Mk 13.32.  Furthermore, the presence of MONOS and the cast of the sentence as a whole (OUDE . . . OUDE . . . belong together as a parenthesis, of EI MH hO PATHR MONOS goes with OUDEIS OIDEN) suggest the originality of the phrase.’ (p. 62.)

Nobody is ever free of his biases, and I believe that Dr. Metzger displays a prejudice against the Byzantine text in his comments.  Do you see it?  Or is this simply my prejudice coming out?

Of course, the above is overly simplistic, and many more issues enter into how textual scholars determine the best reading.  Some are very obvious; some are not, and many decisions can be made without one having decided which camp he is in.

Bob Vincent