Explaining Textual Criticism and the Transmission of the New Testament Text

I realized after publishing my last post that some of the language I used in it would be found a bit too technical (perhaps) for the layperson, so I thought I’d put up a post explaining some of that language.

But before I can explain the language of textual criticism, I have to explain the discipline of textual criticism itself.

Textual criticism is the discipline that attempts to determine the original wording of any documents whose original (or autograph) no longer exists. This would be the classical definition of the discipline and its goals. This discipline is not just limited to the New Testament (or the Old Testament, for that matter) but for any and all classical documents where the originals cannot be found.

The reason that textual criticism is especially pertinent for the New Testament documents, beyond the fact that we don’t have the autographs, is because there would be several differences in wording per chapter even between the two closest early manuscripts of the New Testament. Since all of these early manuscripts were hand written, they are going to differ to some degree. We call these differences “variants”.

So how many variant readings are there, and what kind of variants are there?

In answer to the first part of the question, a best guess would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 or more. But it’s not the sheer tonnage of variants that matter; what matters where variants are concerned is whether or not the variant is meaningful and viable.

There are four types (broadly speaking) of variants:

  1. Spelling errors and non-sense readings.
  2. Synonyms and word order issues.
  3. Meaningful variants that aren’t viable.
  4. Meaningful variants that are viable.

An example of the first type of variant would be the presence (or lack thereof) of a moveable nu (ν in Greek) at the end of a word. In Koine Greek, a moveable ν is attached to the end of a word when the next word starts with a vowel. This sort of thing happens in English, too, when we use the indefinite article (for instance “a book”, or “an echo”). These spelling differences are quite easy to detect, and that don’t change a thing.

An example of the second type of variant would be whether or not the text reads “Christ Jesus” or “Jesus Christ”. Word order in Greek is very flexible. For the most part this difference would be one of emphasis, and wouldn’t affect the meaning at all.

The third type of difference, meaningful variants that aren’t viable, is a little harder to explain. What textual critics mean by “viable” is a variant that can make a good case for reflecting the wording of the original text. Luke 6:22 is a great example of this; the verse reads,

Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and cast insults at you, and spurn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man.

Codex 2882 (a manuscript from the 11th century) lacks the words “for the sake of the Son of Man” (“ἕνεκα τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου”). Now that is a meaningful variant, since it would seem to say that a person being persecuted is blessed regardless of their allegiance to Christ! But the variant isn’t viable, since it only appears in one manuscript, and one that’s pretty late at that. You see, it can’t reflect the original wording of this verse since all the other manuscripts are against it, including quite a few that are from a whole lot earlier.

The last last type of variant (#4 above) is by far the smallest, as they comprise less than 1% of all variants. A good example here would be Jude v. 5:

Now I desire to remind you, though you know all things once for all, that the Lord, after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe.

Υπομνῆσαι δὲ ὑμᾶς βούλομαι, εἰδότας [ὑμᾶς] πάντα ὅτι [] κύριος ἅπαξ λαὸν ἐκ γῆς Αἰγύπτου σώσας τὸ δεύτερον τοὺς μὴ πιστεύσαντας ἀπώλεσεν

There is a major variant here that is both meaningful and viable, which reads πάντα ὅτι Ιησους rather than κύριοςThe reading “Jesus” (instead of “the Lord”) has very good early attestation (making it viable), and the variant is meaningful as well. 

But it is important to note that even here, there is no cardinal belief at stake. These variants do affect what the Bible teaches in that particular place, but they don’t place any essential belief in jeopardy.

When I spoke before of the “upper level text” in my previous post, I was referring to the text as it appears in the photo above. The textual apparatus appears at the bottom of the page in the NA27, and looks like this:

The apparatus gives you all of the variant readings for a particular verse, making it possible for you to see the variants, and with the proper training, weigh them for yourself. In the case of Jude v. 5, I would take the position that Ιησους, rather than ὅ κύριος, is most likely the original reading.

I hope that this has helped explain the art of textual criticism; of course, if you have any further questions, feel free to comment below!

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2 thoughts on “Explaining Textual Criticism and the Transmission of the New Testament Text

  1. Pingback: Correcting an Error | Southern Reformation

"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve." (Romans 16:17-18) Please read "The Comments Policy."

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