Continuing from last week’s research into NT textual criticism, this week we will examine the provenance of the NT manuscripts and the methods of NT textual criticism.
THE PRACTICE OF NT CRITICISM
Since the evidence for the New Testament is so vast, textual critics lay out the evidence for appraisal and research. Currently, what archaeology has unearthed, textual critics throughout the centuries have catalogued and rated. Before Wescott and Hort, the criticism of the NT was ad-hoc, but did happen. From Wescott and Hort came Text Families, critical apparatuses, an Eclectic text, and a methodology to do the work.
These early critics set down basic rules for doing the work of appraising texts. These rules come from an understanding of the history of textual transmission and from an understanding of the human element in copying. First rule, place readings according to their Text Family and age. This seems to be obvious now, however for many centuries it was not done. For that, many older critical editions lack the precision of new ones in weighing evidence more or less than appropriate. Second rule, determine the “weight” of the witness, not the volume. This is the same rule concept as the rule of independence of the witness used in ranking text families. The third rule, decide which reading would have influenced the others. This is a far more difficult rule in practice, because it may appear that the earliest would naturally influence the later. However, that is not always the case. Sometimes the later extant copy is a faithful copy of an earlier copy that influenced another text family or group.
These following rules are far more speculative in nature, so they act as tentative guidelines to sometimes follow. First of these, the more unique reading is preferred. The theory goes that the scribe is less likely to misprint a clunky line than he is to smooth it out to his liking. However, it should be applied loosely. Second, the shorter reading is preferred. This follows the line that the scribe would add words to make more sense than he would be inclined to take words out. Again like above, the circumstances could vary as to why a scribe may add or subtract words, so it is not a hard a fast rule. Third, the contextually appropriate is preferred. Of the three, this one has the most validity, however it still is speculative due to the nature of authorship. Many times in all writing of all ages, an author writes something that goes against his style either intentional or unintentional. Unless something is entirely out of the context of the passage, this rule should be applied loosely as well.
Textual critics examine evidence within two categories: external and internal. External evidence is the actual physical evidence of the manuscripts as seen above. External evidence asks, “what is going on out of the text?” Internal evidence examines the literary and grammatical issues in the text. It asks the questions, “what is going on in the text?”
ANSWERING THE QUESTIONS
Returning to the theme of an investigation, now that the evidence has been examined, it is time to answer the major questions of this study: did an autograph exist, is that autograph recoverable, and how can a Divine author be argued. First, the evidence suggests that there was an original. As stated above, the earliest, confirmed copy of a New Testament manuscript, P52, dates from 125 AD. of John 18.31-33. This puts the evidence within 50-75 years from the date of the writing of the original. That precludes multi-valence theory or a Johannine, writing community since there is not enough time for those to have flourished to any extent, and there is no great variance with the earliest copy and later copies. The next issue that suggests an original is the early work of canonization. The church began to recognize the inspired work of God as early as the Apostles, but extra-biblically, the earliest is Justin Martyr in the early 2nd century who began to exclude works from the canon as not from God. This work of recognition ended with the church councils in 367 and 397 AD. which only affords a short amount of time to any sort of multi-valence theory. Along those lines, if there had been a multivalent original, then the dispersion of variants would have been greater and far more dramatic. What exists is a fairly consistent text that has understandable scribal errors after 2,000 years of copying. Simply an amazing feat. With complete confidence, an autograph did exist.
The second question of the recovery of that autograph is more complicated. The evidence shows that 63% of the New Testament text contains no variant, which means that there is 63% complete agreement between manuscripts of the New Testament.1 Following that, the evidence suggests that the majority of variants within that 37% can be understood as scribal errors. However, there is sufficient question to a large number of variants that 100% accuracy is elusive. What can be said is that 93-96% of the text, as it appears in the UBS and Nestle-Aland critical texts, is what was penned by the author.
There was an original, but since that original is only at best 96% recoverable, how can one then argue a Divine author? First, the objection to Divine authorship is that, since errors exist, a perfect, Divine author is untenable. On the contrary, the errors suggest things were added, and that nothing was lost. This was the promise of Matthew 8. Second, just because 96% correspondence with the original is what is possible, that does not mean that the other 4% does not exist. Exactly 100% of the original is extant, the issue at hand is which is the correct variant from that 4%. It is this 4% which gives us the caution to state that the autograph is 96% recoverable. Third, the variants prove that the promise of Matthew 8 has been kept. Did scribes make mistakes and miss words? Yes. But fellow scribes there or in other locations and times did not miss words, and at this present time, the 5,800 + manuscripts speak for the existence of the autograph today.
An honest investigation would present the evidence of the New Testament to the court of opinion with absolute confidence. The evidence not only suggests, but demands that an autograph existed, that nothing of that autograph has been lost, that it is highly recoverable, and that a Divine author did oversee the writing of the New Testament. Cross examinations may attempt to over emphasize the variants, however they fail to properly place those variants in context. In context, those variants not only are explainable, but prove the promise stated in Scripture by Christ Himself. As for those who claim that one translation or text family is the approved or “authorized” text stream, they have no basis in fact, and are preying upon the ignorance of people rather than educating people about the truth that is so easily accessed. In brief, the critical texts of the UBS and the Nestle-Aland represent accurately the original writings of the New Testament, and provide a text for faith and practice that is the same as it was 2,000 years ago.
Those of you who know textual criticism well will see that this research barely scratches the surface of the study. My hope is that this acts as a general guide to what is to become the Replicant Project, a several year long study into the Textual Criticism of both the Old and New Testaments. Hopefully, this will be the first small step into that project. Please join me in the coming months!
1See Appendix B.