The Transmission of the Scriptures

John H. Skilton

 Part III

Due to the length of this article it has been divided into three parts. The divisions were done arbitrarily and thus do not reflect a natural division within the article itself. Further, the footnotes are "hot linked" for ease of access and use. After reading a footnote use your "Back" button to return to your former place in the text

 

It may be asked whether conservatives can rightly join with scholars of other schools in the adoption of certain principles of criticism. Conservatives, of course, have an all-embracing life- and world-view, a Christian philosophy, which renders all their conceptions and activities distinctive. Liberals and radicals likewise have distinctive philosophies, and, whether they are aware of it or not, make basic assumptions which color all their thinking. But even unbelievers, by reason of creation in the image of God and by reason of common grace, are enabled to recognize facts and principles of benefit to all. Their prejudices will naturally color those facts and principles, their interpretations of them may be quite faulty; but they are enabled to obtain knowledge of a formal sort which the Christian may adapt and interpret to his own good and to the glory of God. In exegetical work, for example (and sound exegesis is important to textual criticism), the basic viewpoint of the interpreter will be very important; but the Christian exegete can derive benefit from the grammatical and historical studies of non-Christian scholars. He will indeed transmute all that he finds: but he will make use of much that others employ. He will be able to express a formal agreement in various matters with those of other schools of thought, with whom he is in a thoroughgoing, fundamental disagreement.

In considering principles of criticism, Hort deals first with what he regards as the most rudimentary form of criticism of variants — that which concerns itself with each instance of variation separately and independently of all others, which seeks to weigh the internal evidence for each reading and adopts immediately the reading which appears most probable. The textual critic asks which of the variant readings the author would have been most likely to write and also — the entirely distinct question — which of the variants scribes would have been most likely to introduce. In dealing with the first of these questions, with what the author would have been most likely to write (with what is technically called “intrinsic probability”), we must endeavor to put ourselves, so far as possible, in the author’s place. We should make a careful study of the immediate and the broacher context, obtain a competent knowledge of our author’s thought, style, times, the circumstances of composition, and whatever other matters may have a significant bearing on the question. In attempts to answer this first question, there can be no substitutes for enlightened exegetical precision and for what Warfield calls “a fine candour and an incorruptible mental honesty.”70 In dealing with the second of these questions, we ask which of the variant readings scribes would have been most likely to introduce — we attempt to determine what is technically called “transcriptional probability.” We ask ourselves the question, “From which reading, if original, would the others have been most likely to have been derived by scribal error?” Much is known about the types of variation, unintentional and intentional, introduced by scribes, and the reasons why they introduced them, and on the basis of such knowledge it is possible to formulate some general rules that are, when applied judiciously, often helpful.71

When both intrinsic probability and transcriptional probability concur, we may form a judgment of no little importance as to the merit of rival readings. If a conflict between the two exists, we may be able to resolve it on further study or the voice of intrinsic probability may be so strong as to be decisive. But obviously in cases in which we can come to no decision as between conflicting intrinsic and transcriptional probability and in other cases in which we can arrive at no clear judgment as to which variant is favored by internal evidence of readings, we must look elsewhere for help. And even if we did feel clear about the internal evidence of readings, it would be advisable for us to gather as much other evidence as is available to aid us in arriving at our final decision. Too large an element of the subjective is liable to enter into our judgments regarding intrinsic and transcriptional probability — and in our textual criticism we should attempt to reduce the area of the subjective as much as possible. Greater security is to be sought than that which attaches to single, isolated judgments. We take a step in advance of internal evidence of readings when we enter the field of external evidence. In this field we deal with the merit of documents, of groups of documents, of classes or families of documents, and with the history of the text of the New Testament.

It is obviously important to consider the merit of the documents which furnish our variants. Hort is right in holding that “knowledge of documents should precede final judgment upon readings.”72 We shall wish to know something about the date of a manuscript and about other matters of an external sort with reference to it; we shall wish to know the date of the text furnished by the manuscript; but, above all, we will wish to ascertain the merit of that text. We shall have to consider the internal evidence offered by the documents themselves as to the value of their text. The texts of two manuscripts may be evaluated relatively by a study of the merits of their rival readings. It is therefore possible to form a conception of the relative value of all our witnesses to the text of the New Testament by a study of the variants which they contain.

The information furnished us by a study of individual documents is very helpful. It may, for example, aid us in deciding cases in which the internal evidence of readings was not clear. But it by no means solves all our problems. If we were to find one particular document always right and all other documents invariably wrong when they disagree with it, we might satisfy ourselves with the adoption of the text of that document. But we find no such thing. The manuscript which contains the best text, the Codex Vaticanus, is not free from error. We may accord preeminent weight to its testimony among the manuscripts. To say that it favors a reading may, on the whole, be to state a presumption in favor of that reading; but it will not be to decide for that reading. When the best manuscripts favor the same reading, there will be a strong presumption in its favor, but when they favor different readings, decision will not be easy. Furthermore, some manuscripts vary in merit in different sections of the New Testament and within the sections themselves. Scribes did not always copy from one manuscript alone.

It will be helpful, as has been said, to ascertain the relative merit of individual manuscripts. We make progress when we do so. But still further progress is possible for us. We can attempt to isolate the various elements found within the documents. We can attempt to weigh the merits of groups of documents. Hort, it is true, for good reasons takes up the matter of internal evidence of groups of documents after he has dealt with classes or families of documents, with what he calls genealogical evidence; but he recognizes that in a sense it is intermediate between internal evidence of documents and genealogical evidence. Manuscripts group themselves in support of given readings. In so doing they bear witness, at least in general, to the readings of a common ancestor. Usually it is true that “community of reading implies community of origin.” if all the manuscripts of the New Testament agree on a certain reading, the presumption is that the reading is traceable to an ancestor common to them all, and was found in the original text. If the manuscripts of the New Testament divide into two camps at a given point, we may assume that those on one side bear witness to a reading found in one ancestor and those on the other side to a reading found in another. We must inquire as to the relative merits of the various groups formed by our documents. In doing so, we shall of course be attempting to ascertain the merit of the common ancestors to which they bear witness. We will be desirous of learning the value of the readings contained in the groups formed by our manuscripts in each section of the New Testament. By investigating internal evidence of groups, we shall obtain helpful information, sometimes of very great importance. We shall be able to discern and evaluate different elements of our documents.73

By considering the internal evidence of documents and of groups of documents, we have advanced beyond the internal evidence of readings. But there is yet an important, even a decisively important, step to take, a step which will make possible a large measure of assurance and objectivity in our solution of textual problems. The remaining step takes us to the heart of Hort’s principles of criticism. In dealing with groups of manuscripts, although we have considered strictly internal evidences, we have been required to anticipate the genealogical method. Agreement in readings has been held generally to represent community of origin. Two manuscripts unite in readings — at least generally — because some common ancestor contained those readings. It will be observed that the New Testament documents form certain marked combinations of different merit. What is the reason, we may ask, for these combinations? The explanation is to be found in the genealogy of the manuscripts. Each manuscript has a certain place on the family tree of the New Testament text. It is rightly maintained, therefore, by Westcott and Hort that “all trustworthy restoration of corrupted texts is founded on the study of their history, that is, of the relations of descent or affinity which connect the several documents.74 They maintain with good reason that “the importance of genealogy in textual criticism is at once shown by the considerations that no multiplication of copies, or of copies of copies, can give their joint testimony any higher authority than that of the single document from which they sprang, and that one early document may have left a single decendant, another a hundred or a thousand. Since then identical numerical relations among existing documents are compatible with the utmost dissimilarity in the numerical relations among their ancestors, and vice versa, no available presumptions whatever as to text can be obtained from number alone, that is, from number not as yet interpreted by descent.”75

It is possible, then, and indeed requisite, for us to arrange our New Testament witnesses in a genealogical scheme. On doing so, according to Westcott and Hort, we can distinguish four important classes or families, containing different types of text. One of the four types of text which they distinguished, which they called “Syrian” — the text found in the bulk of the manuscripts of the New Testament — they held, on very good grounds, to be the latest of the four and of inferior merit. They found no sure instances of the use of this type of text by any church writer before Chrysostom’s time; they observed in the Syrian text manifest combinations of conflicting readings in earlier types of text; and found that the distinctive Syrian readings characteristically bore marks of inferiority and posteriority. They regarded the Syrian type of text as the result of a revision which took place in two stages and they placed its emergence at Antioch. They believed that the Syrian revisers drew upon all of the three earlier texts and not infrequently introduced modifications of their own making. The goal of the Syrian revisers was apparently clarity, smoothness, and fullness. They tended to include, unless inclusion seemed to produce conflict.

The other three types of text which Westcott and Hort distinguish may be evaluated by considering internal evidence of classes or families, by weighing the relative merits of their distinctive readings. They regard the text which they call “Neutral,” notably found at Alexandria, as preeminent, as representing the pure textual line, and as free from conspicuous defects. A second type of pre-Syrian text, according to their view, is the “Alexandrian.” Formed, apparently, they think, in Alexandria in the opening years of the third century or perhaps a long time before, it did not obtain a wide early distribution. It is marked by modifications designed to improve the language and style of the original, and at times engages in some paraphrase and what Hort calls “inventive interpolation.”

The most widely distributed of the pre-Syrian texts, according to Westcott and Hort, was that which they call “Western.” They believe that the “Western” text is marked by paraphrase, by alterations, additions, assimilation, and in general by striking freedom in dealing with the original text, but at times where it omits readings found elsewhere they would give it preference.

According, then, to the theory of Westcott and Hort, the true apostolic text in the second century was most securely established at Alexandria. But early in the second century the Western text strayed farther and farther from the original. At Alexandria, before the middle of the third century, changes were introduced into the apostolic text, changes not so serious as those introduced in the Western text. Not a great while after, it would seem, an effort was made at Antioch to correct the developing confusion in readings by a revision which united readings from the three main texts and by the introduction of further alterations. This Antiochian revision was itself later revised and became dominant.76

It would follow from Westcott and Hort’s theory of the history of the text that any reading found exclusively in the Syrian text may confidently be rejected. If there are two or more readings with pre-Syrian attestation, an effort must be made to determine to what specific types of text those readings belong. Since considered as wholes, the Western and Alexandrian texts are aberrant, Hort maintains, “where there are but two readings, the Non-Western approves itself to be more original than the Western, the Non-Alexandrian than the Alexandrian: where there are three readings, the neutral reading, if supported by such documents as stand most frequently on both the Non-Western and the Non-Alexandrian sides in the preceding cases, approves itself more original than either the Western or the Alexandrian.”77 Exceptions to these conclusions are to be observed in some readings, but in the main they hold.

In arriving at a final decision on readings Westcott and Hort do not wish to neglect any type of evidence, including internal evidence of readings. Hort writes:

The aim of sound textual criticism must always be to take account of every class of textual facts, and to assign to the evidence supplied by each class its proper use and rank. When once it is clearly understood that, by the very nature of textual transmission, all existing documents are more or less closely related to each other, and that these relations of descent and affinity have been the determining causes of nearly all their readings, the historical investigation of general and partial genealogy becomes the necessary starting-point of criticism. Genealogical results, taken in combination with the internal character of the chief ancient texts or of the texts of extant documentary groups, supply the presumptions, stronger or weaker as the case may be, which constitute the primary and often the virtually decisive evidence for one reading as against another. Before however the decision as to any variation is finally made, it is always prudent, and often necessary, to take into consideration the internal evidence specially affecting it, both intrinsic and transcriptional. If it points to a result different from that which the documentary evidence suggested, a second and closer inspection will Usually detect some hitherto overlooked characteristic of the best attested reading which might naturally lead to its alteration; while sometimes on the other hand reexamination brings to light an ambiguity in the attestation. No definite rule can be given in the comparatively few cases in which the apparent conflict remains, more especially where the documentary evidence is scanty on one side or obscure. The ultimate determination must evidently be here left to personal judgment on a comprehensive review of the whole evidence. But in a text so richly attested as that of the New Testament it is dangerous to reject a reading clearly commended by documentary evidence genealogically interpreted, though it is by no means always safe to reject the rival reading.78

This rather long quotation will give a clear impression of the way in which Westcott and Hort would apply their theories to the actual practice of textual criticism. And surely the consistent application of such principles as they advocate will make a good measure of justifiable assurance possible in many of our decisions.

In some few cases recourse may be had to conjectural emendation to remove what would seem to be errors in the best text at which we can otherwise arrive. Some errors entered the stream of transmission at a very early date and are found or reflected in all our extant documents. Such conjectural corrections as are made should be able to claim strong support from intrinsic and transcriptional evidence.79

The views of Westcott and Hort met with strong opposition from John William Burgon, dean of Chichester, and Edward Miller, Wykehamical prebendary of Chichester, who argued, on unsatisfactory grounds, for the received text.80 Some modifications of their views of the pre-Syrian types of text have been suggested by later scholars in the light of new information, but the text which they considered best is highly esteemed today. The scope of this paper prohibits any extensive treatment of the developments in the textual criticism of the New Testament since their time. It should be remarked, however, that advances have been made in the discovery of manuscripts, the publication and study of texts, and that much attention has been given by scholars to the theory of textual criticism. Among manuscripts discovered or brought to the attention of the world of scholarship since Hort’s day are the Sinaitic Manuscript of the Old Syriac Version, the Washington Manuscript of the Gospels, the Washington Manuscript of the Pauline Epistles, the Koredethi Codex, and the papyri manuscripts, among them the Chester Beatty and the Bodmer Papyri, which have previously been mentioned. Much attention has been given to the text, which Hort called Western; the question of its merit as compared with the Neutral text has been debated, and its claim to homogeneousness has been tested. Professor Kirsopp Lake has done much in the distinguishing of an important family, to which Canon B. H. Streeter, who has also made a valuable contribution to the study of the subject, gave the name “Caesarean.”81 Streeter has given a clear statement of his views on the text in The Four Gospels. He holds that at an early time distinctive texts were to be found in various localities, texts which later gave way to the Byzantine standard text (Hort’s Syrian). He believes that the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus are representatives of the text of Alexandria. He would apply the term “Alexandrian” to that local text and drop the term “Neutral.” He breaks up the Western family of Hort into an Eastern class and a Western class with subdivisions in each, with the Caesarean text forming a subdivision of the Eastern class. In some points of theory he is not in full agreement with Hort, as when he asserts that the “eclectic principle of deciding in each separate case on grounds of ‘internal probability’ what appears to be the best reading is, in spite of its subjectivity, theoretically sounder than the almost slavish following of a single text which Hort preferred.”82 and when he maintains that “the authorities available for determining the text are more numerous and more independent of one another” than Hort realized and that “though on minor points of reading absolute certainty may often be unobtainable, a text of the Gospels can be reached, the freedom of which from serious modification or interpolation is guaranteed by the concurrence of different lines of ancient and independent evidence.”83 But despite his differences with Hort, Streeter believes that a critical text of the Gospels (though not of Acts) will be based in the main on his Alexandrian type of text as found in the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, that the Alexandrian text (which is similar, of course, to Hort’s Neutral) is the best of the local texts, and that the textus receptus is to be rejected. He acknowledges that “due weight must be given to Hort’s principle that the authority of a MS., which in a majority of cases supports what is clearly the right reading, counts for more than that of others in cases where decision is more difficult,”84 and believes that the text of Westcott and Hort is satisfactory for most purposes.

Streeter’s endorsement of an eclectic principle in textual criticism by no means stands alone in the period since Westcott and Hort. G. D. Kilpatrick for one has called for a “rigorous eclecticism.”85 Those who chose the basic text for the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament followed an eclectic method.86 The Greek text which underlies the New English Bible: New Testament was likewise eclectically determined.87 The employment of eclectic or “rational” criticism will naturally differ with different scholars, but fundamentally it would give more weight to what Westcott and Hort called “internal evidence of readings” than to external evidence. In its most extreme form it would ignore external evidence completely.88

The eclectic method, although still vulnerable to such criticism as Westcott and Hort leveled against it, need not, when carefully employed, yield results radically different from those which Westcott and Hort themselves obtained. Thus Frederick C. Grant, a member of the revision committee which prepared the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament says:

... it is really extraordinary how often, with the fuller apparatus of variant readings at our disposal, and with the eclectic principle now more widely accepted, we have concurred in following Westcott and Hort. Not that we agreed in advance in favor of Hort — quite the contrary, there was no such unanimity; our agreement is really a tribute to Westcott-Hort, which is still the great classical edition of modern times.”89 Indeed the general reliability of much in the approach of Westcott and Hort has not been lacking in support and recognition since their time.90

We have occupied ourselves in the main with illustrating principles of textual criticism in their application to the text of the New Testament. The same principles valid in the criticism of the New Testament text will be valid in the criticism of the text of any other ancient work, the Old Testament included. Of course, in the case of the Old Testament it is not very difficult to ascertain the text used by the Masoretes. A major problem, however, has to do with the extent to which the Septuagint is to be followed in the reconstruction of the original text. Dr. Green, would accept the reading of the Septuagint when it differs from the received Hebrew text only if the Hebrew text were subject to doubt on other grounds.91

It should be apparent that with the aid of textual criticism we can obtain a text nearer to the original than that preserved in any one manuscript. In God’s providence men may glorify him by textual studies and may aid in the preservation of his Word in a form of exceptional purity. Warfield expressed the conviction that in the Greek Testament of Westcott and Hort we have “substantially the autographic text” and that probably future criticism would not cast doubt on more than one word of it in a thousand.92 Further advances in the field of textual criticism should, of course, be made whether one accepts Warfield’s judgment completely or not; but we may take a considerable amount of satisfaction in the results that have already been achieved and in the promise which future studies offer. Warfield has rightly said: “If, then, we undertake the textual criticism of the New Testament under a sense of duty, we may bring it to a conclusion under the inspiration of hope. The autographic text of the New Testament is distinctly within the reach of criticism in so immensely the greater part of the volume, that we cannot despair of restoring to ourselves and the Church of God, His Book, word for word, as He gave it by inspiration to men.”93

In view of the reasonable assurance that we may have with regard to the reliability and purity of the text of the Scriptures at which we are able to arrive, the statement made by Dr. Briggs which was quoted at the beginning of this chapter seems strange indeed: “If the external words of the original were inspired, it does not profit us. We are cut off from them forever. Interposed between us and them is the tradition of centuries and even millenniums.” God in his singular care and providence has manifestly caused his Word to triumph over the hazards of time. Even if further progress is possible for us in textual criticism, even if at present some very small proportion of the words of the original may yet have to be established, words which affect no doctrine of the Scriptures, we should neither ignore nor despise the results which, in the providence of God, have been achieved. It is a matter of first importance that words of preeminent value, words inspired by God, have survived the ages and can address themselves to us today as they did to men centuries or even millenniums ago.


 Notes

  1. Op. cit., p. 85.
  2. See ibid., pp. 93-108.
  3. Hort, op. cit., Introduction, p. 31.
  4. Ibid., pp. 61f. Hort says, “The value of Internal Evidence of Groups in cases of mixture depends, it will be seen, on the fact that by its very nature it enables us to deal separately with the different elements of a document of mixed ancestry.” (p. 61)
  5. Ibid., Text volume, p. 544.
  6. Ibid.
  7. See ibid., Introduction, pp. 145f., for Westcott and Hort’s recapitulation of the history of the text.
  8. Ibid., Text volume, p. 553.
  9. Ibid., pp. 559f. See also the Introduction, pp. 62-66, for Hort’s “Recapitulation of Methods in Relation to Each Other.”
  10. See ibid., pp. 66-72; A. T. Robertson, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (2nd edition, Garden City and New York, 1928), pp. 237-241; Warfield, op. cit., pp. 205-210; and for the Old Testament, Green, op. cit., p. 177. Warfield states two sensible rules for conjectural emendation:

    “(1) Critical conjecture is not to be employed in settling the text of the New Testament until all the methods of criticism have been exhausted, and unless clear occasion for its use can be shown in each instance. (2) No conjecture can be accepted unless it perfectly fulfil all the requirements of the passage as they are interpreted by intrinsic evidence, and also perfectly fulfil all the requirements of transcriptional evidence in accounting for the actual reading, and if variants exist also for them (either directly or mediately through one of their number). The dangers of the process are so great that these rules are entirely reasonable, and indeed necessary. The only test of a successful conjecture is that it shall approve itself as inevitable. Lacking inevitableness, it remains doubtful” (p. 209).

    Westcott and Hort think that “the history of the text of the New Testament shows the meeting-point of the extant lines of transmission to have been so near the autographs that complete freedom from primitive corruption would not be antecedently improbable. As far as we are able to judge, the purity of the best transmitted text does in all essential points receive satisfactory confirmation from internal evidence” (op. cit., Text volume, p. 560).
  11. For criticisms of their arguments see Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, pp. 315-23; Warfield, Critical Reviews (New York, 1932), pp. 36f.; Metzger, op. cit., pp. 135f. For a recent defense of the Syrian or Byzantine text, see Edward F. Hills, The King James Version Defended! (Des Moines, 1956) and in John W. Burgon, op. cit., pp. 17-67.
  12. On the Caesarean text of the Gospels, see Bruce M. Metzger, Chapters in the History of New Testament Textual Criticism (New Testament Tools and Studies, IV) (Grand Rapids, 1963), pp. 42-72.
  13. Op. cit., p. 145.
  14. Ibid., p. 148.
  15. Ibid., p. 146.
  16. See “Western Text and Original Text in the Gospels and Acts,” The Journal of Theological Studies, XLIV (1943), 24-36, and “Western Text and Original Text in the Epistles,” ibid., XLV (1944), 60-65.
  17. See Frederick C. Grant, “The Greek Text of the New Testament,” in An Introduction to the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament (The International Council of Religious Education, [1946]), pp. 37-43.
  18. R. V. G. Tasker, The Greek New Testament (Oxford University Press; Cambridge University Press, 1964), pp. vii ff.; The New English Bible: New Testament (Oxford University Press; Cambridge University Press, 1961), pp. vii f.
  19. On eclecticism and its advocates see Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, pp. 175-79.
  20. Op. cit., p. 41.
  21. See Vincent Taylor, The Text of the New Testament (2nd ed.; London, 1963), p. 54; Metzger, op. cit., pp. 135, 137, and Ernest Cadman Colwell, “Scribal Habits in Early Papyri: A Study in the Corruption of the Text,” The Bible in Modern Scholarship, ed. J. Philip Hyatt (Nashville; New York, [1965]), pp. 370ff. See also Colwell’s critique of the genealogical method in “Genealogical Method: Its Achievements and its Limitations,” Journal of Biblical Literature, LXVI (1947), 109-33. On the subject of the light shed by the papyri on the date and character of the Neutral type of text, see Calvin L. Porter, “Papyrus Bodmer XV (P 75) and the Text of Codex Vaticanus,” Journal of Biblical Literature, LXXXI (1962), 363-76, and Carlo M. Martini, Il problema della recensionalità del codice B alla luce del papiro Bodmer XIV (“Analecta Biblica,” 26) (Rome, 1966).
  22. Op. cit., p. 174. Dr. Green holds that “there is a general agreement among careful scholars that, while this version is to be highly esteemed for its antiquity, and the general testimony which it renders to the integrity of the existing text, and the aid which it furnishes in the rendering of obscure and doubtful passages, the Masoretic text is on the whole vastly superior to it, and should not be corrected by it, except where there are stringent reasons for so doing; and that in the great majority of cases where a divergence exists, the presumption is strongly in favor of the Hebrew and against the Septuagint. Neither the original character of the latter, nor the history of its preservation, nor the present state of its text entitles it to the precedence. Only in cases where there are independent reasons for suspecting the accuracy of the Hebrew, can emendations by the Septuagint be reasonably admitted.” On the textual criticism of the Old Testament, see Archer, op. cit., pp. 47-58; Ernst Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, tr. Peter R. Ackroyd (Oxford, 1957); Eissfeldt, op. cit., pp. 669-721.
  23. “The Greek Testament of Westcott and Hort,” The Presbyterian Review, III (1882) , 356.
  24. An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, pp. 14f.

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 Author

Dr. John H. Skilton, Th.B, Ph.D., was professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has written many articles and is the General Editor of Scripture and Confession: A book about Confessions Old and New (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973). This article is taken from The Infallible Word: a Symposium written by the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1946), pp. 141-195.



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