Introducing New Testament Textual Criticism

September 30, 2015

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.

Peter Head Reviews a Book on Mark 16:9-20

July 24, 2015

I came across Peter M. Head’s continuing blog review (here, here, here) of N. P. Lunn’s The Original Ending of Mark: A New Case for the Authenticity of Mark 16:9-20 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014). I have posted my views on the longer ending of Mark in The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century (pp. 257-264). I am currently convinced that it is a scribal addition in the first half of the second century (external references in Irenaeus, Tatian and possibly Justin Martyr) that compensates for the ending of Mark at 16:8 and has contact with singly attested details in the other New Testament Gospels (especially Luke and John). However, I could not go into the level of detail that a whole monograph devoted to the subject can so I will be interested both in what Lunn brings to the table and Head’s review as an expert text critic who graciously provided input on an earlier draft of my thesis.