Those who perform New Testament (NT) textual criticism face a very different situation from those who seek to ascertain the veracity of Old Testament texts.
In 1896, a pair of archaeologists conducted a dig in the garbage dump of the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Looking for evidence of the Roman occupation, instead they found the largest cache of papyri ever discovered.
These included fragments of personal letters, business documents, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, apocryphal works, and the NT.
Since then, over five thousand Greek manuscripts, including these papyrii, have been unearthed, dating back to AD 200.
New Testament textual criticism involves dating and determining the text style, the geographical distribution, and the relative quality of each manuscript. This enables us to reconstruct what most likely reflects the original writing.
Once again, we’ll walk through the process.
We will examine a single word from Rom 8:21. Our question is whether Paul wrote “that” (hoti) or “because” (dihoti), a difference of only two letters. As with many disputed NT texts, the meanings are quite similar.
Each of these two words requires its own worksheet. With one exception discussed below, only one manuscript is represented by each symbol, such as P46.
At first glance, many people would automatically choose the first table since it contains many more manuscripts. However, in textual criticism, quantity can never replace quality.
Every column signifies a different century, while the rows refer to the style of manuscript.
Alexandrian readings tend to be shorter and less clear in terms of their meaning. Scholars consider the Primary Alexandrian text style most faithful to the original writings. Secondary Alexandrian texts are more recent.
Western texts tend to paraphrase, and the Byzantine manuscripts merge multiple variants into one document.
Checking whether early church fathers cited one form or another can also assist us. They appear below the worksheet, along with the date of the citation.
While noting which modern translations have chosen each option can help us decide what Bible to study, that has no impact upon the outcome of the exercise.
The symbol M requires special attention. It signifies a compilation of nearly identical medieval manuscripts called the Majority Text. As of 1983, these documents represented 80–90% of all known NT manuscripts.
However, as one text critical scholar has noted, “Ten thousand copies of a mistake do not make it any less a mistake.”
Now let’s take a closer look at the tables. The most reliable text types are listed in descending order from top to bottom.
In general, an earlier manuscript is more likely to reflect the original writing.
So, where there are manuscripts concentrated in the upper left corner of one of the two tables, we have our most likely candidate for the original reading.
|Century >||2||3||4||5||6||7||8||9||10||11 +|
|Other Greek witnesses (including lectionaries):|
|Modern Translations (of no evidentiary value for external evidence):||DRA, KJ21, KJV, NKJV|
Table 1. Manuscript Evidence for Dihoti (because) in Rom 8:21.
|Century >||2||3||4||5||6||7||8||9||10||11 ff|
|Other Greek witnesses (including lectionaries):||Ψ (9th-10th century), 0289 (7th-8th century)|
|Church Fathers:||Clement ex Theodoto (ca 215), Origen (254)|
|Modern Translations (of no evidentiary value for external evidence):|
|ASV, AMP, CEB, CJB, CEV, ESV, GNT, HCSB, MOUNCE, NASB, NCV, NET, NIV, NRSV|
Table 2. Manuscript Evidence for Hoti (that) in Rom 8:21.
Based upon this exercise, do you think that Paul wrote “that” (hoti) or “because” (dihoti)?
While our example is fairly clear, there are times when this technique fails to yield a conclusive answer. When that occurs, we seek to determine which reading best explains the origin of the other.
Scribes tended to add to, rather than subtract from, the Scriptures, making the best candidate the shorter version. Additionally, the original reading should fit with the author’s normal style and vocabulary, make sense in context, and—in the case of the gospels—not match parallel passages.
Counter-intuitively, the most difficult reading—the one that seems less probable—is likely the original.
Most likely, a scribe would see that Paul had written “we were infants among you” and think that a previous copyist had made an error when writing “we were gentle among you.” After all, the apostle would never call himself an infant!
Therefore, the variant which best explains the emergence of the other is “we were infants among you.”
As a result, entire verses are “missing” from some modern translations (e.g. Matt 18:10–12 skips verse 11). Text critical scholars have confidence that 97–99% of the NA28 reflects the original document.
Most English Bibles contain two larger passages which do not appear in the earliest NT manuscripts. Consequently, editors mark them with a footnote, in brackets, or in a smaller font.
The earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel do not include the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11). It first appears in the fifth century Codex Bezae (D) and in the Latin translation by Jerome (ca. 405 AD).
But if thou receive not him who repents, because thou art without mercy, thou shalt sin against the Lord God; for thou obeyest not our Savior and our God, to do as He also did with her that had sinned, whom the elders set before Him, and leaving the judgment in His hands, departed.
But He, the Searcher of hearts, asked her and said to her, “Have the elders condemned thee, my daughter?”
She saith to him, “Nay, Lord.”
And he said unto her, “Go thy way. Neither do I condemn thee.”
In Him therefore, our Savior and King and God, be your pattern, O bishops.
The additional verses read like a composite of materials from the gospels and Acts (e.g. Acts 27:42–28:8). Given the abruptness of finishing at Mark 16:8, it appears that scribes formulated the two alternatives to provide a more satisfying ending.
Unless you are into handling snakes (Mark 16:18), no major point of doctrine is in jeopardy.
Where manuscripts do differ, the vast majority of variants are insignificant. Nevertheless, our methodology can differentiate between versions which are original and those derived from them. Thus we have assurance that the NA28 reflects the original writings.
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Aaron C. Fenlason, “Oxyrhynchus,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary. John D. Barry et al.Eds. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), no pages.
Arthur G. Patzia and Anthony G. Petrotta, “Oxyrhynchus Papyrii” in Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 87–88.
Peter van Minnen, “Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts,” http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/scriptorium/papyrus/texts/manuscripts.html.
Eldon J. Epp, “Textual Criticism: New Testament,” ABD 6:412–35, 421.
Michael W. Holmes, “New Testament Textual Criticism,” in Introducing New Testament Interpretation (ed. Scott McKnight; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1989), 57–58.
David Alan Black, New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994), 32–3.
Holmes, “New Testament Textual Criticism,” 59.
Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd. Ed. (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1994), *5–*7.
Michael W. Holmes, “The ‘Majority Text Debate’: New Form of an Old Issue,” Them 8, no. 2: 15, http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/themelios/majority-text_holmes.pdf.
Holmes, “New Testament Textual Criticism,” 55.
David Alan Black, New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994), 25–6.
Eberhard Nestle and Erwin Nestle, Nestle-Aland: NTG Apparatus Criticus, 28. Revidierte Auflage. Edited by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlos M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), 322.
Craig Blomberg, Making Sense of the New Testament: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 22–3.
Gary M. Burge, John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 237.
Nestle and Nestle. Nestle-Aland: NTG Apparatus Criticus, 28. Revidierte Auflage, 322.
Margaret Dunlop Gibson, trans., The Didascalia Apostolorum in English (HSem; London; Cambridge: Clay; Cambridge University Press, 1903), 39–40, https://archive.org/stream/didascaliaaposto00gibsuoft#page/38/mode/2up.
George R. Beasley-Murray, John, 2nd Ed. (WBC; Dallas: Word, 2002), 143.
Burge, John, 239.
Nestle and Nestle, Nestle-Aland: NTG Apparatus Criticus, 28. Revidierte Auflage, 175–6.
Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 2001), 545
David E. Garland, Mark (NAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 616–7.
Andreas J. Köstenberger and Michael F. Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 231.