The Future of New Testament Textual Criticism
Part three of a five part series. See the entire series here.
Competing Greek New Testaments
In the late 1800’s, Westcott & Hort’s Greek text of the New Testament faced several obstacles. First was the popularity of the Textus Receptus, which, as the base-text of the King James Version, had the status of an ancient landmark in English-speaking countries, regardless of how carefully attempts were made to demonstrate that its Reformation-era compilers, or some stealthy editors in ancient times, were the real landmark-movers. This obstacle was cleverly surmounted by Eberhard Nestle. In 1898, the Würrtemburg Bible Society published the first edition of Novum Testamentum Graece, an inexpensive Greek New Testament which was designed to compete with the edition of the Textus Receptus which was being widely disseminated by the British and Foreign Bible Society. The leaders of BFBS apparently had not been fully convinced by Hort’s 1881 Introduction. The Greek text of Novum Testamentum Graece was based on the revised Greek New Testaments which had been compiled by Westcott & Hort, by Constantine von Tischendorf, and by Richard Weymouth.
Nestle wrote an enthusiastic recommendation of this handy Greek New Testament; his brief review appeared in the Expository Times in June of 1898. He pointed out how “disgraceful” it would be to continue to circulate Erasmus’ errors in Rev. 17:8 and Rev. 22:19-21. He invited the British and Foreign Bible Society to begin to circulate Novum Testamentum Graece instead of the Textus Receptus. In 1904 the British and Foreign Bible Society began circulating the fourth edition of Novum Testamentum Graece. By that time, it became known that the editor of the 1898 edition had been none other than Eberhard Nestle.
As that was happening, a scholar named Hermann von Soden was in the process of compiling a grand edition of the Greek New Testament which textual scholars expected to become definitive, superseding all previous editions. But when von Soden’s Greek New Testament was released in 1902-1911, it was found to be extremely cumbersome, and it was flawed in various ways. Nestle’s Novum Testamentum Graece was on hand to fill the vacuum, so to speak, and it has done so ever since.
But should it? According to Kurt and Barbara Aland, the 27th edition of NTG differs from the early text compiled by Eberhard Nestle “in merely 700 passages.”11 Considering the high number of variant-units involved, this implies that the text of the Gospels in NA-27 and UBS-4 is essentially the same text that was published by Eberhard Nestle in the early 1900’s. It is as if the papyri and the implications of their contents (not to mention the research into early versions, the revisions of patristic writings, and other significant discoveries and research undertaken in the 1900’s) have been treated as if they did little but confirm the revised text, whereas in reality they shook the foundational premises that had been used by Westcott and Hort.
The marketplace for Greek New Testaments in the early 1900’s rapidly became crowded: Bernard Weiss, Alexander Souter, and J. M. S. Baljon made compilations which rivaled Nestle’s.12 F. H. A. Scrivener’s editions of the Textus Receptus remained in circulation. Thomas Newberry’s 1870 Englishman’s Greek New Testament – a fine interlinear edition of the Textus Receptus which featured a presentation of variants adopted by textual critics prior to Westcott & Hort (Griesbach, Lachmann, Tregelles, Tischendorf, Alford, and Wordsworth) – also remained in print. The public generally had to choose between either a Greek text similar to the 1881 revision of Westcott & Hort, or the Textus Receptus. Greek New Testaments which were used as the base-texts for English translations tended to have the highest and longest-lasting popularity in English-speaking countries.
In 1982, Zane Hodges and Arthur Farstad published a compilation called The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text. As its name implies, this text was intended to consist of the readings shared by the majority of Greek MSS. Hodges and Farstad proposed that the Alexandrian Text is a heavily edited, pruned form of the text, while the Majority Text is much better, inasmuch as “In any tradition where there are not major disruptions in the transmissional history, the individual reading which has the earliest beginning is the one most likely to survive in a majority of documents.”13 The work of Hodges and Farstad was the basis for many text-critical footnotes in the New Testament in the New King James Version, which was published around the same time under Dr. Farstad’s supervision.
A similar work was released in 1991 by Maurice Robinson and William Pierpont, called The New Testament in the Original Greek According to the Byzantine/Majority Textform. A second edition was published in 2005. Rejecting any notion of defending the Textus Receptus (which differs from the Byzantine Text at over 1,800 points, about 1,000 of which are translatable), Robinson and Pierpont regarded the Byzantine Text as virtually congruent to the original text. A disadvantage of the Byzantine Text is that its component readings are whatever the majority of Byzantine MSS support; almost no analytical attempts to reconstruct the relationships of variants within the Byzantine tradition are undertaken since the question is usually settled by a numerical count.
In some respects, Hodges & Farstad and Robinson & Pierpont have paved a trail that was blazed in the 1800’s by John Burgon, who opposed the text of Westcott & Hort. Burgon’s aggressive writing-style sometimes overshadowed his argumentation; nevertheless some of his views were vindicated by subsequent research. For example, Hort asserted that “even among the numerous unquestionably spurious readings of the New Testament there are no signs of deliberate falsification of the text for dogmatic purposes,”14 but Burgon insisted that the opposite was true. Burgon’s posthumously published Causes of Corruption (1896) even included a sub-chapter titled “Corruption by the Orthodox.” Almost a century later in 1993, a variation on Burgon’s theme was upheld by Bart Ehrman in the similarly titled book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. As a result, though Ehrman exaggerated his case in many respects, no textual critics now consider Hort’s assertion to be correct.
Many scholars and interested bystanders, noticing that the weaknesses of several of Hort’s key premises and assertions have been exposed, have been willing to consider the model of transmission-history proposed by the supporters of the Byzantine Textform – but not many have decided to embrace it. Some have irresponsibly associated it with the novel American fundamentalist doctrine of King James Onlyism. Others have rejected it because, despite detailed lists of principles of internal and external evidence in Dr. Robinson’s essay The Case for Byzantine Priority,15 the quality which usually determines the adoption of a variant in the approach advocated by Robinson is its attestation in over 80% of the Greek MSS. Patristic evidence and the testimony of early versions are not included in the equation of what constitutes the majority reading. Distinctive Alexandrian variants, Western variants, Caesarean variants, and even minority readings attested by the oldest Byzantine witnesses (such as parts of Codices A and W) have no chance of being adopted; generally, whenever a variant is supported by over 80% of the Greek MSS, it is adopted.
The validity of such an approach depends upon the validity of the premise that the transmission of the text of the Gospels was free from “major disruptions.” However, major disruptions have had enormous impacts upon the transmission of the text. Roman persecutions and Roman sponsorship, wartime and peacetime, dark ages and golden ages – all these things, plus innovations and inventions related to the copying of MSS, drastically changed the circumstances in which the text was transmitted, and while all text-types were affected by them, they were not all affected to
the same extent, as a review of history will show.16 Greek fell into relative disuse in Western Europe; Constantinople became the center of eastern Greek-speaking Christendom; Islamic conquests squelched the vitality of the transmission-streams in regions where Islamic rule was imposed; copyists in or near Constantinople invented more efficient ways to copy the text. Such historical events completely invalidate results that are based on a transmission-model that assumes the non-existence of such disruptions.
11 – p. 20, The Text of the New Testament: “In its 657 printed pages the early Nestle differs from the new text in merely seven hundred passages.” This is comparable to the difference between the 25th and 27th editions of NTG, which differ in the Gospels at over 400 places.
12 – After the publication of Weiss’ Greek text, Nestle used it instead of Weymouth’s to arbitrate between the texts of Westcott & Hort and Tischendorf.
13 – p. xi-xii, Hodges & Farstad’s Introduction, 2nd ed.
14 – p. 282, § 369, Hort’s Introduction.
15 – Robinson’s essay serves as an appendix in the second edition of the Robinson-Pierpont text.
16 – As Kirsopp Lake wrote in his little book The Text of the New Testament, the ideal textual critic must possess “a complete knowledge of all the bypaths of Church history.”
James Snapp, Jr. preaches and ministers at Curtisville Christian Church in central Indiana. The church’s website includes an introduction to textual criticism and links to other resources, including a detailed defense of Mark 16:9-20. A graduate of Cincinnati Christian University (B.A., 1990), where his professors included Lewis Foster, Tom Friskney, and Reuben Bullard, James has studied New Testament textual criticism for over 20 years.