Introducing New Testament Textual Criticism

This is part of my handouts for undergraduate students

Introducing New Testament Textual Criticism

Textual Criticism: critically examining and comparing the New Testament manuscript witnesses to try to determine the earliest reading of a text on the basis of external and internal evidence.

External Evidence:

  • None of the original manuscripts or “autographs” survived.
  • There are over 5800 Greek manuscripts that are extant and catalogued. The oldest Greek fragmentary texts date from the second and third centuries CE, while the first complete copies of the New Testament are in the Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus in the fourth century.
  • The NT texts were copied on papyrus or vellum and bound together in codices (note: the Christian use of the codex to preserve their sacred texts, as opposed to the general use of scrolls for refined literary works, paved the way for the book format). The earliest Greek manuscripts are on papyri, followed by “uncials” (a type of Greek script in all capitals and written on parchment), “minuscules” (a type of Greek cursive script), and “lectionaries” (church readings for catechetical purposes). There is further evidence in the “versions” translated in different language and in Christian citations of NT writings in the Patristic period.
  • Hypothetical Textual Families: the Alexandrian, Western, Byzantine, and Caesarean Text Types.

Internal Evidence

  • Dittography (dittos and graphos): a scribe unintentionally repeats a word/words twice.
  • Haplography (haplos and graphos) a scribe unintentionally skipped over a word/words.
  • Homoioteleuton (homoi and telos): a scribe unintentionally skips over a word/words due to similar endings.
  • Homoioarcton (homoi and archē): a scribe unintentionally skips from a word/words to other words on the page that begin in a similar way.
  • Other accidental errors: spelling mistakes, confusing two similar sounding words, confusing similar looking letters, accidentally substituting a closely related synonym for the original word, etc.
  • Shorter reading (lectio brevior): scribes tended to expand upon passages, so the shorter reading is to be preferred.
  • More difficult reading (lectio difficilior): scribes tended to eliminate inconsistencies (i.e. harmonization) and correct perceived grammatical, stylistic, historical, or theological problems than create further problems, so the more difficult reading is to be preferred.

Example

Mark 1:1 “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ [Son of God]”

  • The longer reading is supported by the majority of the textual and Patristic witnesses, including texts from all four traditional textual families, though there are some important and diverse early witnesses for the shorter reading as well.
  • The Greek reads archē tou euangeliou iēsou christou huiou theou. You may notice all of the “genitive” ou endings, so it is possible that the last two words (huiou theou or “Son of God”) were accidentally omitted through the phenomenon of homoioteleuton. That such a mistake could happen may be evident in the correction of Codex Sinaiticus which initially omitted the last two words.
  • It is possible that a scribe was not satisfied that Mark introduced Jesus solely as the “Christ” and chose to elaborate that Jesus is also the “Son of God”, perhaps even to counter rival adoptionist interpretations of Mark’s baptism narrative.
  • Since Jesus’ divine sonship is central to Mark’s understanding of Jesus’ identity (see Mark 1:11; 3:11; 5:7; 9:7; 12:6; 15:39), the shorter reading may be the more difficult one.
  • Tommy Wasserman has created an online handout that summarizes the evidence in greater detail and leans towards the longer reading. Added note: Tommy Wasserman has written a larger article on this entitled “The Son of God was in the Beginning (Mark 1:1)” The Journal of Theological Studies 62 (2011): 20-50.

6 Responses to Introducing New Testament Textual Criticism

  1. Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
    Awesome post!

  2. Hello, I have also written a full-length article on this passage in JTS 62 (2011), pp. 20-50.

  3. Thanks Dr. Wasserman, I knew you had written this article and had interacted with you, Head, and Ehrman in my book on the reception of Mark. I should have mentioned in the post that this handout actually summarizes the extensive case you made in your article and I will add a note to that effect.

  4. Tommy says:

    Thanks, in fact, the handout was produced for a conference in 2010. The article was published later in 2011.

    The lectio brevior potior criterion has been debated and is useless if not qualified.

  5. Thanks for these additional comments. This is why I depend on http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.ca/ to try to stay up to speed on the latest from the textual criticism world.🙂

  6. […] Micahel J. Kok shares a handout about New Testament Textual Criticism for his undergraduate class. […]

%d bloggers like this: