It has been fashionable among textual scholars for nearly three hundred years to refer to “text-family” as a distinguishing characteristic of manuscripts. There are two primary text-families that get the most print:
- Alexandrian: best known by the three codices Westcott and Hort used in preparing their 1881 New Testament – Codices Vaticanus (The Vatican, Bibl. Vat., Vat. gr. 1209 or B), Alexandrinus* (London, British Library, MS Royal 1. D. V-VIII or A), and Sinaiticus (London, Brit. Libr., Additional Manuscripts 43725, or ?)
- Byzantine: easily the most attested manuscript text-family. Of the 500+ manuscripts that contain a complete General Epistles, more than 350 of them are Byzantine in character.
*Technically, A is both Alexandrian and Byzantine because most of the codex is Alexandrian but the Gospels are distinctly Byzantine.
In addition to these two text-families, Westcott and Hort pioneered the usage of two other text-family names:
- Caesarean: a very small group of Gospel manuscripts, usually accompanied by Byzantine epistles – Codex Koridethi (no shelfmark, ?)
- Western: for the most part, an inferred text type that underlies the Old Latin translation and appears as part of manuscripts that are overwhelmingly of another text-type – Codices Bezae Cantabrigensis (05) and Claromontanus (06)
It is important to remember that these distinctions were made by Westcott and Hort, based on the textual theories originated by German scholars of the previous generations like J.A. Bengel, J.S. Semler, and J.J. Griesbach. Griesbach particularly influenced Westcott and Hort. Although other scholars like Caspar Gregory and Kurt Aland have attempted to develop other classification systems, the Westcott-Hort system remains in common parlance.
(The Gregory-Aland system is much more comprehensive, but not as user-friendly. The BOLD letters, numbers and Hebrew or Greek letters used to refer to texts are Gregory-Aland signifiers.)
The reliance on this two-fold or four-fold category system is one of the biggest obstacles to open dialogue about the issue of Greek New Testament texts. It is generally (and incorrectly) assumed by most writers that the Received Text represents the Byzantine text-type family while the Critical Text represents the Alexandrian; and that one or the other represents the ‘original text’ of the New Testament. But what if this was not true in Westcott and Hort’s day and it is not true today?
Ask a proponent of the Received Text which Greek manuscripts are the Received Text and he will give some kind of broad answer. The reason is that the term Received Text does not apply to Greek manuscripts. It applies to printed Greek New Testaments. The first appearance of the phrase textus receptus (a Latin phrase, and the irony of that fact should not be lost on you) was in the Elzevir brothers edition of 1633:
textum ergo habes, nunc ab omnibus receptum, in quo nihil immulatum aut corruptum damus
literally “this text you hold, now by all received, in which no loss or corruption is given”*
*Strangely enough, almost everyone gives a translation of this phrase which ignores the word immulatum which I have translated as “loss” but I am not completely sure of the meaning.
The Elzevir edition was issued over a century after Desiderius Erasmus’ Greek New Testament which was the first to be printed (1516). In the time between Erasmus’ first edition and the Elzevir edition, there had been no less than two editions (1519, 1522) of Erasmus as well as one edition printed by Robert Estienne (1550) which included recently uncovered manuscripts such as 05 and a number of other fragments. There was also Theodore Beza’s New Testament, which included even more texts – two of his own discovery, namely 05 and 06, and Tremellius’ Syriac New Testament which had become available in 1569.
All of these, as well as the much later edition done by F.H.A Scrivener in 1894, are considered the Received Text by most advocates. They are also based very heavily on Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, usually his second or third editions.
There are two main problems with classifying these as Byzantine texts:
- Erasmus’ work was a by-product of producing a more accurate Latin New Testament. Although later he would develop his Greek text even more, he did his textual selections based on the Latin backward. This is why it was relatively easy for him to include 1 John 5:7-8 when he was presented with a late Greek manuscript that had it. He believed the Latin Vulgate was essentially correct; and if a Greek text could be found to ‘underly’ it, then it was accepted.
- These Received Text examples vary wildly among themselves, are the evidence of developing textual criticism themselves AND they vary greatly from the Byzantine texts that underlie the Greek used by the Orthodox Church at the time and now.
Open a Greek New Testament in an Orthodox Church today and you will be reading the 1904 edition prepared under the supervision of the Patriarch of Constantinople. In 2007, scholars began work on a new edition of the Majority Text for use in the Orthodox Church. Neither of these are Received Text. They are distinctly Byzantine, while the Received Text is distinctly European.
Read that last statement carefully, because we’re about to get into the real problem with the Westcott-Hort text types that are so popular in pop criticism.
The inherent flaw in the W-H text-type family argument is the assumptions that are made.
- Assumption #1 – The Western Church used a Greek New Testament.
- Assumption #2 – The Alexandrian Church was distinct from the rest of Eastern Christianity. (This assumption goes both ways. The Critical text people argue that it makes the texts more reliable. The Received Text people argue that Alexandria was influenced by Gnostics and thus was compromised.)
- Assumption #3 – There was some kind of standard text in the ancient church in the first place.
#1 – The Western Church did not use a Greek New Testament
Greek was never the lingua franca of the Western Roman Empire as it was in the East. The Western half of the Empire spoke and worshiped in Latin. What great scholars of Rome or Italy or Carthage wrote in Greek? None. The West was the Latin part of the Empire. It always was. It is pure conjecture then to say that the Church in the West used a Greek New Testament.
Odds are (and yes, this is a hypothesis and not provable beyond reasonable doubt) that the Western Church translated the New Testament into Latin as soon as they could. It is true that their Latin translations were of wildly varied quality, which was the reason that Jerome was commissioned with creating a standard Latin text in 382 CE. It was probably also the reason that Constantine commissioned fifty Bibles as the standard Bibles of the Church. It is highly unlikely that Constantine even spoke Greek since he grew up in the Latin west and was crowned emperor in York in Britain.
It is true that Constantine came under the influence of two Greek-speaking Christian bishops, both named Eusebius. And it is also true that one Eusebius of Caesarea wrote extensively in Greek. But let’s consider what Eusebius’ Church History really was. Read Eusebius and you find a justification of Constantine and his reforms. You find references predominantly to church leaders in the East who supported Constantine’s regime.
We know the Church in the west was not very large before Constantine. Christianity had not really taken hold in Italy except among the poor and some slaves. It is possible that Constantine’s mother Helena had some Christian servants, but for the most part his ‘conversion’ was an elevation of a virtually unknown religion in the West.
Let’s consider the Council of Nicaea for a moment. Eusebius himself notes the composition of the Council.
In effect, the most distinguished of God’s ministers from all the churches which abounded in Europe, Lybia, and Asia were here assembled. And a single house of prayer, as though divinely enlarged, sufficed to contain at once Syrians and Cilicians,Phœnicians and Arabians, delegates from Palestine, and others from Egypt; Thebans and Libyans, with those who came from the region of Mesopotamia. A Persian bishop too was present at this conference, nor was even a Scythian found wanting to the number.
Pontus, Galatia, and Pamphylia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Phrygia, furnished their most distinguished prelates; while those who dwelt in the remotest districts of Thrace and Macedonia, of Achaia and Epirus, were notwithstanding in attendance. Even from Spain itself, one whose fame was widely spread took his seat as an individual in the great assembly.
The prelate of the imperial city was prevented from attending by extreme old age; but his presbyters were present, and supplied his place. Constantine is the first prince of any age who bound together such a garland as this with the bond of peace, and presented it to his Saviour as a thank-offering for the victories he had obtained over every foe, thus exhibiting in our own times a similitude of the apostolic company. (Eusebius, Life of Constantine III, 7)
A historian looks at the composition of this Council and notices that the overwhelming representation, with the exception of some presbyters from ‘the imperial city’ and a representative from Spain, were Greek-speakers from the Eastern part of the Empire.
Codex Vercellensis (c 350 CE) is the earliest known Latin manuscript of the Scriptures and it is Veta Latinus or Old Latin. Jerome’s Vulgate was translated soon after, but Vercellensis shows surprising affinity with the text of Codex Bezae, despite being separated by centuries in which the Vulgate was supposed to be prevalent.
Hopefully, this helps us understand that the Western Church was a Latin Church. The distinctives that would later tear the Western and Eastern Churches apart were primarily linguistic and only secondarily ecclesiastic.
#2 – The Alexandrian Christians Were Not Just Gnostics
Because the Nag Hammadi documents were found in Egypt and Origen shows some thoughts that might be related to Gnostic dualism, there is a very prevalent belief that the Alexandrian Christians became Gnostics and stayed that way.
Aside from the fact that were some Gnostics in Egypt who appeared to have adapted their unique mythology to Christianity, there really is no evidence for a Gnostic influence on the Church there. The Nag Hammadi documents date from the 4th century CE, and even the earliest attest Gnostic Christian, Plotinus, dates from the 3rd century CE.
Almost all of the Christian literature dealing with Gnosticism and even proto-Gnosticism comes not from Egypt but from Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). It is, in my opinion, quite a stretch to simply label Alexandrian Christians as gnostics based on such slim evidence.
#3 – Who Is To Say There Was a Standard Text of the Scriptures?
One of the most irritating things people do in the textual arguments is assume that Jesus commissioned a single copy of the New Testament from which all other copies were made. It is assumed, and generally confirmed by our knowledge of the cultures of Palestine and Asia Minor during the Early Church Period, that Christian Scriptures were originally passed along orally. Although Paul’s letters were obviously written, they were still read to the churches and probably transmitted orally.
Scribal writing was a very expensive proposition in the first century CE. It required vellum or papyrus; it also required durable inks; and of course it required having an original to work from.
Somehow we have this image in our minds of Paul sending out messengers with dozens of copies of his letters which were then copied and distributed throughout the entire Mediterranean world. More likely, one copy was sent to a central location and memorized by preachers who then went to all the churches of that region and gave Paul’s words. It is hard for us to imagine in our literary world, but that is most likely how it worked.
The idea that there was a standardized ‘edition’ of the New Testament in the early church is not only unlikely, it is also unnecessary. It is, again in opinion, a projection of Western Christianity on an essentially Asia movement. We project a requirement for a written standard; but it is likely that there was not one.
What Does This All Mean for Text-Families?
It could mean nothing. Maybe Westcott and Hort were right. Maybe there really were two or four centralized regions where texts were circulated, although the evidence that sometimes we find Western gospels with Byzantine epistles and Alexandrian epistles with Caesarean gospels seems to indicate that this was not the case at all. In fact, it appears that written texts were simply not important until Post-Nicene Church. If that is indeed the case, then the pursuit of an ‘original’ text is an empty pursuit. There is no way to recover something that did not exist. The pursuit of a text which meets the artificial standards of modern academic rigor is a waste of time. [Changed 5/8/10]