The Future of New Testament Textual Criticism
Part five of a five part series. See the entire series here.
Equitable Eclecticism, besides rejecting the theory that the Byzantine Text was formed entirely via a consultation of MSS containing Alexandrian and Western readings, utilizes some additional principles which set it apart from the kinds of textual criticism which produced the revised text and its modern-day representatives:
1. Textual criticism is a science, not an art.
2. The text of the New Testament should be reconstructed in its component-parts: Gospels and Acts and Pauline Epistles and General Epistles and Revelation. Relationships shown by patterns of readings in one part should not be assumed to exist in the others.
3. The genealogical descent of a group of MSS from an ancestor-MS other than the autograph is not assumed without actual evidence that establishes links among specific MSS (such as shared formats, shared marginalia, shared miniatures, or readings which conclusively show stemmatic links).
4. Variants involving nomina sacra are placed in a special class, and receive special attention.
5. The assumption of preference for the shorter reading is rejected.
6. If a variant has very sporadic support from witnesses greatly separated by age and textual character, this possibly indicates that the variant was liable to be spontaneously created by copyists, rather than that it was transmitted by distant transmission-streams.
7. Exceptional intrinsic merit is required for the adoption of variants attested exclusively or nearly exclusively by bilingual MSS in which a Greek variant may have originated via retro-translation.
8. Conjectural emendations are not to be placed in the text.
Equitable Eclecticism also utilizes principles shared by other approaches. These principles are all superseded by Principle Zero: no principle should be applied mechanically.
1. A variant which explains its rivals with greater elegance and force than it is explained by any of them is more likely to be original.
2. A variant supported by witnesses representing two or more locales of early Christendom is more likely to be original than a variant supported by witnesses representing only one locale.
3. A variant which can be shown to have had, in the course of the transmission of the text, the appearance of difficulty (either real or imagined), and which is rivaled by variants without such difficulty, is more likely than its rivals to be original.
4. A variant supported by early attestation is more likely to be original than a rival variant supported exclusively by late attestation.
5. A variant which conforms a statement to the form of a similar statement in a similar document, or in the same document, is less likely to be original than a rival variant that does not exhibit conformity.
6. A variant which involves a rare, obscure, or ambiguous term or expression is more likely to be original than a rival variant which involves an ordinary term or expression.
7. A variant which is consistent with the author’s discernible style and vocabulary is more likely to be original than a rival variant which deviates from the author’s usual style and vocabulary and the vocabulary which he may naturally be expected to have been capable of using.
8. A variant which is fully explained as a liturgical adjustment is less likely to be original than a rival variant which cannot be thus explained.
9. A variant which is capable of expressing anti-Judaic sentiment is less likely to be original than a rival variant which is less capable of such expression.
10. A variant which can be explained as an easy transcriptional error is less likely to be original than a rival variant which cannot be explained as an easy transcriptional error or as one which would be less easily made.
11. A variant which appears to have originated as a deliberate alteration is less likely to be original than a rival variant which is less capable of originating in the same way.
12. Ceteris paribus, a variant which does not result in a Minor Agreement is more likely to be original than a rival variant which results in a Minor Agreement.
Christian readers may feel intimidated or exasperated at the realization that the original text of the New Testament can only be fully reconstructed by a careful analysis of the witnesses – a massive and intricate task which currently involves no less than 130 papyri, about 320 uncials, about 2,870 minuscules, and about 2,430 lectionaries,18 plus versional and patristic materials. The feeling may be increased when one also realizes that even the most erudite textual critics have reached divergent conclusions, and that all conclusions must be subject to the implications of future discoveries.
This may lead some readers to decline to investigate the text, deciding instead to hopefully adhere to whatever text (or texts) they already use. Such an expedient response is understandable, especially in light of the often-repeated (but false) claim that textual variants have no significant doctrinal impact. Nevertheless, for those few who are not content to place blind confidence in textual critics, or to posit providential favor upon a particular set of variants on account of its popularity or for other reasons, the best option is to become textual critics themselves, becoming acquainted with the contents of the manuscripts and other witnesses like a traveler who must know his maps. Such acquaintance will yield a different kind of confidence than untested assumptions can produce.
Yet the comparison to a map is insufficient to describe the Christian researcher’s text of the New Testament. After we have done our best to conduct research with scientific detachment, the text will be to us not only a map from which additions have been erased and damage has been repaired, but also a pure light, illuminating the path and enlightening the traveler. With that thought I leave the reader to consider the words of J. A. Bengel, one of the pioneers of New Testament textual criticism:
Te totum applica ad textum:
rem totam applica ad te.
Apply all of yourself to the text,
Apply it all to yourself.
Yours in Christ,
James Snapp, Jr.
October 15, 2010
18 – Exact numbers would misimpress, because some items in the lists are no longer extant, and some have been found to be parts of other items also listed.
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.