Textual Criticism – the evaluation of survived copies of a text in order to establish the most reliable reading – is a common tool in all disciplines of scholarship that concern ancient manuscripts, for example Assyriology, Egyptology, Ancient and Medieval History. This evaluation is necessary for the following reasons:
- In most cases the original text is lost and all we have is a number of copies.
- Copying was by no means exact, for instance no NT manuscripts agree 100% of the time.
- The more copies are made, the more errors in writing have a chance to be accumulated, especially as time goes by.
Therefore, textual criticism is a reasoned attempt to restore the text as near as possible to its original. This is done mostly by using two kinds of evidence, external and internal. Internal evidence is based on logic: “Which reading best explains the others?” “Is there an easy way for this reading to have been converted to that one?” If two different Greek words used in the same passage resemble each other considerably, the meaning in context usually is enough to settle the matter. For a hypothetical example let us take the English sentence: “Mary showed me her new coat.” And for a variant reading: “Mary showed me her new moat.” Unless from the full textual context we can infer that Mary is an owner of a medieval castle, the reading ‘coat’ is the more reasonable choice.
Other elements used in evaluating internal evidence are known scribal habits and the author’s style. Even early on, the question of style has been used to evaluate if a given text was written by its supposed author. Origen rejected the Pauline origin of the Letter to Hebrews (which does not give the name of its author) on this basis, as do most of the modern scholars. Similarly, if there’s a large corpus of texts by one author – a good example is the Pauline Letters – it can be inferred from the writer’s other texts which reading is the most fitting to his known style.
Human psychology also accounts for some variant readings. If a given familiar sentence appears elsewhere in an almost similar, but longer form, there is a marked tendency to include the missing words. This is known as “assimilation of parallels”.
Words can also be deleted for purely mechanical reasons. When there were two occurrences of the same word close together, ancient scribes could easily take the later word for the first word and delete everything in between. Lines were occasionally skipped.
External evidence is mostly based on common sense: the older the manuscript is, the less often it has been copied and re-copied. If the older manuscripts do not contain the longer readings, it is highly likely there has been an assimilation of parallels somewhere along the line.
Now, while the majority of the manuscripts may contain the longer variants, they can still be considered less reliable, for one of the major rules in Textual Criticism is: “Manuscripts are to be weighed, not counted.”
Manuscripts of the New Testament
The original texts of the NT were almost certainly written on scrolls of papyrus. This was the cheapest and the most available writing material in the 1st century Palestine. Scrolls, however, are very cumbersome to use after a certain length, and a scroll of the Pauline Letters would have been very difficult to use, especially if the reader was trying to locate a passage in one of the letters. The entire NT on a scroll would have been a near impossibility. The solution was the form of book known as the codex. Indeed, all of our modern books are in the form of codices. A codex can be of any length and all of its pages are equally accessible. Another important feature of the codex is that its pages can be written on both sides, thus conserving expensive writing material. The early Christian church took to codices with great eagerness, 99% of the known NT manuscripts are in codex form.
By 1989 there were 5488 manuscripts of the Greek NT catalogued by the Munster Institute for New Testament Textual Research. This amount of manuscripts, however, does not indicate that all of them are neat copies of the entire NT, indeed most of them are fragmentary, or contain only parts of the text. Only 59 of the manuscripts contain the entire NT text.
In addition to the actual NT manuscripts, other material, such as the NT quotes by the Church Fathers, are used in evaluation. This, however, has some inherent problems. First, we cannot tell whether the Church Father had a manuscript in front of him or was quoting from memory. Second, he rarely tells us which book he was quoting from. Third, none of the original manuscripts of Church Fathers have survived. Almost all of the copies of the early Church Fathers’ writings date from the Middle Ages. One interesting fact about the Church Fathers’ writings is that a good critical edition of a Father’s text or the discovery of an early manuscript always moves the Father’s quote of the NT away from the Textus Receptus and closer to the text of our modern critical editions of the Greek NT.
The classes of manuscripts are from oldest to youngest: papyri, uncials, minuscules and lectionares. I will give a brief description of each of the categories below.
The earliest of the NT manuscript finds, the papyri, are found only in Egypt and by 1989 there were 96 of them catalogued. The climate in Egypt is dry enough to preserve even the fragile papyri, given that they were discarded above the inundation line. Despite that, most of the papyri are fragmentary; some consist of only one or two leaves. Only a few of the papyri, for example P72 and P46 contain complete texts. Most of the others are incomplete. The oldest papyrus contains 5 verses from John 18 and is dated 100-150 CE. Most papyri date from the 3rd and 4th centuries.
The uncials, of which there are 299 samples catalogued, derive their name from the writing style used in them. In fact, papyri are also written in uncials, and the difference between papyri and uncials lie in the writing material: they are written on parchment instead of papyrus. Uncials become common in the 4th century, and the bulk of surviving uncials are from 6th to 9th centuries. Being in the codical form, several of them contain the full NT texts. The best known uncial manuscripts are the Codex Sinaiticus (Aleph) 4th century, Codex Alexandrinus (A) 5th century, and Codex Vaticanus (B) 4th century.
Minuscules, which also derive their name from the writing used in them, become the major form of manuscripts from 9th century onwards and some of them were even written after the invention of printing. 2182 of them are catalogued. The most important innovation in minuscules is the appearance of accents, breathings, word spacing, paragraphs and punctuation.
The lectionares contain the lessons read in the Greek Church in the order they are read. They are the most numerous of all the manuscript types, 2281 of them are catalogued. Most lectionares are written with minuscules, but the oldest of them are written with uncials. Most of them are late and fairly standardized, and therefore not much used in evaluation.
The NT manuscripts can be classified according to their readings into three textual types: Alexandrian, Western and Byzantine. This classification is the work of a 19th century scholar, Griesbach, who realized the manuscripts known to him seemed to fall into three distinct groups. The largest, by far, he named the “Byzantine”, because most of the manuscripts it included were written in the Byzantine era. “Alexandrian” gained its name from the fact that its readings agreed with the NT quotes used by such Alexandrian Fathers as Origen, and “Western” because it was associated with the Latin versions used in the Western Roman Empire.
This concept of the text-types was refined in the latter half of the 19th century by Westcott and Hort, who adopted Griesbach’s Western and Byzantine types as given, the Alexandrian they split into two groups “Neutral” and “Alexandrian” (these new groups are largely abandoned by modern scholars).
What is more important, however, is that Hort discovered that the Byzantine text is of late origin. There are many indicators in the texts that led to this conclusion:
- There are no Byzantine manuscripts from the first three centuries, and the earliest translation that uses Byzantine text is Wulfila’s Gothic translation, which was produced in the end of the 4th century. Other early translations, pre-Vulgate Old Latin, Coptic and Syriac do not use the Byzantine text-type. Outside the Gospels, there are no fully Byzantine manuscripts before the 9th century. While there are isolated Byzantine readings, the earliest Church Father who used the Byzantine text was Asterius in the 4th century, and he was considered a heretic.
- The Byzantine text is a consistently full, smooth text. Any difficult or disharmonious readings have been smoothed away. This implies a gradual process of improvement over the years. Of course, we can postulate a single editor working to smooth the texts and to harmonize the difficult readings, but in that early period Textual Criticism had not been developed yet. Such an editor would have been forced to invent single-handedly a technique that would not exist till hundreds of years from his era.
- The Byzantine text shows many conflations - places where two earlier readings have been combined.
All this served to demonstrate that the two other text-types, the Western and the Alexandrian must be of earlier origin than the Byzantine.
Late Alexandrian manuscripts, however, display a phenomenon known as “mixture”. This means they contain readings from more than one text-type. Usually there are some Byzantine readings included, also occasional Western readings are found as well. There is a simple explanation for this: books were expensive, and they were used as long as possible. The users were always writing notes, commentaries and corrections in the margin. It was not unusual for a later copyist to assume these marginal remarks belonged to the text - or might belong to it – and insert them into the copy he was writing. And when the manuscript was re-copied, the mixture would follow to the next copy and so forth. This does not exactly make the task of Textual Criticism any easier.
The Textus Receptus
Now, how does all this apply to the Textus Receptus (hereafter ‘TR’)? The TR can be studied as any Greek manuscript and evaluated using the same methods. Doing so has revealed interesting facts about its origin and contents. The TR belongs to the Byzantine text-type. It was the first published Greek text of the NT. But at the same time, it is not a single edition, but actually a text-type of its own, consisting of hundreds of very similar, but not identical editions.
John Froben of Basle had heard of Cardinal Ximenes’ attempt to publish a Greek text of the NT. It was actually printed in 1514 - but not published until 1520, thus leaving time to get a competing edition to the market – if an enterprising printer acted quickly. And this is exactly what Froben did. He contacted Desiderius Erasmus, the foremost scholar of his era, and proposed Erasmus should compile a full Greek text of the NT. This was in April 17, 1515. Work started in the fall of that year, and the work was printed hurriedly in February of 1516. It is very easy to guess what such haste meant to accuracy. Moreover, Erasmus was known to hate the task of proofing and correcting his own work. Soon enough the first printing was sold out and by 1519 a new edition was required. There were three others to come, and improvements and corrections were made to each. Not all of the changes to his new editions were improvements, however. In his 1522 edition Erasmus was forced to add the most unfortunate addition of them all: the Comma Johanneum. This spurious addition speaks of the “Three Heavenly Witnesses” in 1 John 5:7-8. These were taken from a recently-written Codex 61, and have been infesting almost every TR edition ever since. They appear only in a few very late Greek manuscripts.
After Erasmus, others followed, and none too accurately. Different editions of the TR typically vary between 100 and 200 places, though it must be admitted most of these variants are orthographic. It wasn’t until 1550 that the next important edition of the TR was published by Robert Estienne, whose 3rd edition became one of the two standard texts of the TR. Estienne included the variants of over a dozen manuscripts, including Codices Bezae and Regius in the margin. This became the standard TR edition used in the Great Britain and is in part the one underlying the KJV translation.
The matter of the KJV is more complicated than that, though. What was used is a mixed text, close to Beza, with Estienne in the second place, but not clearly affiliated with either edition. Theodore de Beza published several editions between 1565 an 1611, and a few of his readings have been accused of theological bias, as he was a Protestant Reformer.
The Continental standard is the Elzevir edition. It was first published in 1624, and was the last version to be significant to its text. All the subsequent editions were marked more to their marginal material, not variants in the text.
The influence of Erasmus’ TR to the other TR texts cannot be overestimated. It is a sad fact that he had such a limited number of manuscripts to use, and all of them were of late origin. Only one of them was non-Byzantine, and he used it relatively little.
To make things worse, he completely lacked the last six verses of Revelation in Greek, and so he back-translated them into Greek from Latin. He admitted what he had done, but the result was a Greek text containing readings not found in any Greek manuscripts. This included even readings which were not correct Greek, but which were faithfully retained in subsequent editions of the TR. A classical case is the “Book of Life”, which in all of the other manuscripts is the “Tree of Life”, in Rev 22:19. This particular confusion due to misreading is possible only in Latin, where the words for ‘book’ and ‘tree’ are ‘libro‘ and ‘ligno‘, respectively. Their Greek equivalents are ‘xylou‘ and ‘biblou‘.
Due to these facts, the TR has no textual authority whatsoever. While it is true that most of its readings correspond to other readings some 90% of the time, the inclusion of clearly spurious material makes its readings invalid whenever they differ from the Greek manuscripts.
- Coogan and Metzger (eds): The Oxford Companion to the Bible