Criteria Used In Choosing Among Conflicting Readings In New Testament Witnesses

M S M Saifullah

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

First Composed: 23 April 2000

Last Updated: 23 April 2000


Assalamu-alaykum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:

1. Introduction

Contrary to the uneducated claims of some of the Christian missionaries that the New Testament in their hands is the "Word" of God, it was shown that the text of the modern day New Testament is based on the deliberations of a Committee. Frequently it had happened that the members of the Committee differed in their evaluation of the textual evidence, and thus many readings were adopted on the basis of majority vote. In other words, these readings were elected in a democratic fashion. In special cases, when a member holding a minority opinion had strong feelings that the majority had seriously gone astray, opportunity was given for him to express his own point of view.[1]

It was also added that the text of the modern day Greek New Testament is a working text (and the Nestle-Aland text is in its 27th edition) and that it is based on the relative degree of certainty in the mind of the Committee, i.e., the text itself is probabilistic in nature. What was not discussed was the actual criteria adopted by the Committee to reach the conclusion concerning the relative degree of certainty of the readings in the Greek New Testament. In this document we will discuss this issue. The material below is taken from Bruce Metzger's book A Textual Commentary On The New Testament.[2] It will be seen how deeply the human input is involved in selecting what could be the "Word" of God.

2. The Criteria

Of the approximately five thousand Greek manuscripts of all or part of the New Testament that are known today, no two agree exactly in all particulars. Confronted by a mass of conflicting readings, editors must decide which variants deserve to be included in the text and which should be relegated to the apparatus. Although at first it may seem to be a hopeless task amid so many thousands of variant readings to sort out those that should be regarded as original, textual scholars have developed certain generally acknowledged criteria of evaluation. These considerations depend, it will be seen, upon probabilities, and sometimes the textual critic must weight one set of probabilities against another. Furthermore, the reader should be advised at the outset that, although the following criteria have been drawn up in a more or less tidy outline form, their application can never be undertaken in a merely mechanical or stereotyped manner. The range and complexity of textual data are so great that no neatly arranged or mechanically contrived set of rules can be applied with mathematical precision. Each and every variant reading needs to be considered in itself, and not judged merely according to a rule of thumb. With these cautionary comments in mind, the reader will appreciate that the following outline of criteria is meant only as a convenient description of the more important considerations that the Committee took into account when choosing among the variant readings.

The chief catagories or kinds of criteria and considerations that assist one in evaluating the relative worth of variant readings are those which involve (I) External Evidence, having to do with the manuscripts themselves, and (II) Internal Evidence, having to do with two kinds of considerations, (A) those concerned with Transcriptional Probabilities (i.e., relating to the habits of scribes) and (B) those concerned with Intrinsic Probabilities (i.e. relating to the style of the author).

3. Outline Of Criteria

I. External Evidence, involving considerations bearing upon:

  1. The date and character of the witness. In general, earlier manuscripts are more likely to be free from those errors that arise from repeated copying. Of even greater importance, however, than the age of the document itself are the date and the character of the type of text that it embodies, as well as the degree of care taken by the copyist while producing the manuscript.

  2. The geographical distribution of the witnesses that support a variant. The concurrence of witnesses, for example, from Antioch, Alexandria, and Gaul in support of a given variant is, other things being equal, more significant than the testimony of witnesses representing but one locality or one ecclesiastical see. One the other hand, however, one must be certain that geographically remote witnesses are really independent of one another. Agreements, for example, between Old Latin and Old Syriac witnesses may sometimes be due to common influence from Tatian's Diatessaron.

  3. The genealogical relationship of the text and families of witnesses. Mere numbers of witnesses supporting a given variant reading do not necessarily prove the superiority of the reading. For example, if in a given sentence reading x is supported by twenty manuscripts and reading y by only one manuscript, the relative numerical support favoring x counts for nothing if all twenty manuscripts should be discovered to be the copies made from a single manuscript, no longer extant, whose scribe first introduced that particular variant reading. The comparison, in that case, ought to be made between the one manuscript containing reading y and the single ancestor of the twenty manuscripts containing reading x.

  4. Witnesses are to be weighed rather than counted. That is, the principle enunciated in the previous paragraph needs to be elaborated: those witnesses that are found to be generally trustworthy in clear-cut cases deserve to be accorded pre-dominant weight in cases when the textual problems are ambiguous and their resolution is uncertain. At the same time, however, since the relative weight of the several kinds of evidence differs for different kinds of variants, there should be no merely mechanical evaluation of the evidence.

II. Internal Evidence, involving two kinds of probabilities:

  1. Transcriptional Probabilities depend upon considerations of the habits of scribes and upon palaeographical features in the manuscripts.

    1. In general, the more difficult reading is to be preferred, particularly when the sense appears on the surface to be erroneous but on more mature consideration proves itself to be correct. (Here "more difficult" means "more difficult to the scribe," who would be tempted to make an emendation. The characteristic of most scribal emendations is their superficiality, often combining "the appearance of improvement with the absence of reality." Obviously the catagory "more difficult reading" is relative, and sometimes a point is reached when a reading must be judged to be so difficult that it can have arisen only by accident in transcription.)

    2. In general the shorter reading is to be preferred, except where

      1. Parablepsis arising from homoeoarcton or homoeoteleuton may have occurred (i.e., where the eye of the copyist may have inadvertently passed from one word to another having a similar sequence of letters); or where

      2. The scribe may have omitted the material which he deemed to be (i) superfluous, (ii) harsh, or (iii) contrary to pious belief, liturgical usage, or ascetical practice.

    3. Since scribes would frequently bring the diverse passages into harmony with one another, in parallel passages (whether quoations from the Old Testament or different accounts in the Gospels of the same event or narrative) that reading which involves verbal dissidence is usually to be preferred to one which is verbally concordant.

    4. Scribes would sometimes

      1. Replace an unfamiliar word with a more familiar synonym;

      2. Alter a less refined grammatical form or a less elegant lexical expression in accord with contemporary. Atticizing preferences; or

      3. Add pronouns, conjunctions, and expletives to make smoother text.

  2. Intrinsic Probabilities depend upon considerations of what the author was more likely to have written. The textual critic takes into account

    1. In general:

      1. The style and vocabulary of the author throughout the book:

      2. The immediate context; and

      3. Harmony with the usage of the author elsewhere; and,

    2. Gospels:

      1. The Aramaic background of the teaching of Jesus;

      2. The priority of the Gospel according to Mark; and

      3. The influence of the Christian community upon the formulation and transmission of the passage in question.

It is obvious that not all of these criteria are applicable in every case. The textual critic must know when it is appropriate to give greater consideration to one kind of evidence and less to another. Since textual criticism in an art as well as a science, it is inevitable that in some cases different scholars would come to different evaluations of the significance of the evidence. This divergence is almost inevitable when, as sometimes happens, the evidence is so divided that, for example, the more difficult reading is found only in the later witnesses, or the longer reading is found only in the early witnesses.

In order to indicate the relative degree of certainty in the mind of the Committee for the reading adopted as the text, an identifying letter is included within braces at the beginning of each set of textual variants. The letter {A} signifies that the text is virtually certain, while {B} indicates that there is some degree of doubt concerning the readings selected for the text. The letter {C} means that there is a considerable degree of doubt whether the text or the apparatus contains the superior reading, while {D} shows that there is a very high degree of doubt concerning the readings selected for the text. In fact, among the {D} decisions sometimes none of the variant readings commend itself as original, and therefore theonly recourse was to print the least unsatisfactory reading.

4. Some Examples

We will now illustrate some examples to show the deliberations of the committee on various verses of the New Testament. We will deal with only a few examples. Interested reader is urged to go through the reference for many examples that deal with the gamut of the New Testament. Notice the use of alphabets A, B, C and D within braces to indicate the degree of certainty of the reading.

Examples from Gospel according to Mark

The above example discusses the Committee deliberations concerning the verses Mark 3:29 and 3:32.[3]

Examples from Gospel according to Luke

The above example discusses the Committee deliberations concerning the verses Luke 3:32 and 3:33.[4]

Examples from Gospel according to John

The above example discusses the Committee deliberations concerning the verses John 8:10 and 8:16.[5]

5. Our Comments

We have seen the true nature of the modern day Greek New Testament and the methodology involved in reaching its text. In conclusion, it is the work of humans whose decision lead to include or exclude the reading to which is attached a probability. And hence claiming it to be a "Word" of God is too far-fetched!


References

[1] B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary On The New Testament: A Companion Voume To The United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament, 1971, United Bible Societies, London & New York, pp. vi-vii for the discussion.

[2] Ibid., pp. xxiv-xxviii.

[3] Ibid., p. 82.

[4] Ibid., p. 136.

[5] Ibid., p. 223.

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