More Manuscript Basics; Using a Textual Commentary

In There are Numerous Variations in the Texts From Which We Get The Bible; Using an Interlinear Text To See Them, I give a very simple overview of the problems of transmission of Bible text over the ages.  The process of biblical textual study is actually more complex.  The Introduction to Bruce M. Metzger’s A TEXTUAL COMMENTARY ON THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT gives a wonderful overview of this process and a substantial part of this article comes from that source. Anyone interested in really looking at this process should consider getting Metzger’s book as it gives much more detail, and offers great insight into the variant readings of verses of the New Testament.[i]

The books of the Bible were originally written on scrolls (rolled sheets) made of papyrus and parchment, and then copied by hand.  Manuscripts written around the time of Christ were in Uncial form characterized by large block letters. Later texts were written in a more cursive mostly lowercase form called miniscule.

Compared to other ancient writings the number of manuscripts with portions of the bible is huge.  There are over 5000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament alone.  Many of these manuscripts are fragments.

While having so many manuscripts is a wonderful affirmation of the availability of evidence regarding the Bible and what it says, it also brings its own set of challenges.

The first challenge is what I like to call the chain phone call effect. There’s an interesting game you can play with a group of people where you whisper a story in one person’s ear, and then that person whispers the story to another person, and so on. After this process is done, say 10 times, the last person that heard the story repeats it for the group. Then the original story is read. I was seen this done a number of times and it has never failed to bring a lot of laughs as people are amazed at how far the story changes in that short line of transmission.

Of course the above process is one where things are orally transmitted and so because of it being oral it dramatically increases the amount of error from person-to-person. But the same effect is seen to a small degree when things are copied many times over a long period of time.

There are a number of very innocent errors that can happen in the process:

  • These are hand written documents, sometimes the reader mistakes one letter for another
  • Homoeoarcton and homoeoteleution are errors caused when two lines begin or end with the same group of letters and the person skips from one line to the next thus omitting some letters.
  • Dittography is when some letters are copied twice
  • Itacism is when some letters are written for others that sound just like them.[ii]

Still innocent, but more problematic, are errors caused when the scribe deliberately re-words some text to improve its grammar, meaning, or style.  An error that borders on forgery if it isn’t downright fraud is when the scribe rewords a passage to conform to a parallel passage from another book of the bible, or reasons that he can provide a better wording for a verse.  In my opinion, it is forgery when a scribe inserts words or changes words that were not in the original text either to add some material that he thought was missing or to promote a theological viewpoint.  In the words of Jerome:

Odd though it may seem, scribes who thought were more dangerous than those who wished merely to be faithful in copying what lay before them.[iii]

If copying caused some problems, then translating caused even more variations, especially when there became multiple translations from different translators translating from different manuscripts.

Names of Manuscripts

Some manuscripts are named after places or person associated with them.  For example,  Codex Sinaiticus was named after the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai and Codex Bezae was named after Theodore Beza, who gave it to the University of Cambridge in 1581.

Manuscripts all have a letter designation and/or number based on different numbering systems.  Siglum, Wettstein, Von Soden, and Gregory-Aland are all cataloging systems giving different designations to manuscripts.  The Codex Bezae is designated by siglum Dea or 05 (in the Gregory-Aland numbering).[iv]

Families of Texts

As manuscripts began being studied in greater detail it was discovered that manuscripts from different areas displayed different tendencies according to the area they came from.  These groups of texts are called families.  Especially interesting are the texts that are a mix of family styles when a scribe in one area gets a text from another area and combines variants from another region into the text from his area.  Following are major families of texts.

The Alexandrian texts (texts originating around Alexandria, Egypt) are considered the most faithful in preserving the original. They are briefer and more to the point with less polishing of style and grammar than other families of texts. Codex Vaticanus,  Codex Sinaiticus, and the Bodmer Papyri are examples of this family.

The Western text (texts originating around Italy, Gaul, and north Africa) are known for their paraphrasing.

“Words, clauses, and even whole senses are freely change, omitted, or inserted. Sometimes the motive appears to have been harmonization, while at other times it was the enrichment of the narrative by the inclusion of traditional or apocryphal material.”[v]

Some parts of the Western text are longer than other texts while other parts are shorter. For example the Western text of the book of Acts is nearly 10% longer than text from other families.   Codex Bezae, Codex Claromantanus, Codex Washingtonianus are examples

The Caesarean Text (originating in Caesarea and migrating to Jerusalem) is an Eastern text that is a mix of Alexandrian and Western wordings.  Elegance of expression is one of its features, something shared with the Byzantine family.

The Byzantine Text (originating in Antioch, Syria, and migrating to Constantinople) family is characterized by its smooth style.  Variant readings are rendered into expanded readings.  There are obvious attempts to harmonize parallel passages, making it less accurate.  It is represented in a large number of manuscripts, especially the later miniscules.  It is the basis to a large degree of the Greek Text (Textus Receptus) that is the Greek behind the KJV and most other translations before the twentieth century because at that time it was considered the authoritative form of the Greek texts.   Codex Alexandrinus is an example.

Editions of the Greek Text

The original Greek text for the first English translations came from the work of Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus was a Catholic priest, humanist, and a follower of Augustine’s tradition that saw a need to make an attempt to use critical methods to resolve variants in the text to get back to the original texts of the books of the bible as the word of God.  He had begun working with the Latin Vulgate texts and realized that they contained inadequate translations of the original Greek and so turned his attention to creating a more accurate Greek version.  Additionally he wanted to be part of the process that would result in a more readable version of the bible.  He was a proponent of reading Greek philosophers and poets to strengthen the mind, avoiding what he called the obscene passages.  He challenged believers to read the “Holy Writ” to be “prepared for any attack of the enemy.”[vi]

Erasmus’ first edition was really a hodge-podge where Erasmus compared several texts he borrowed and reconstructed what he thought was the original text.  Also Erasmus had to translate some verses from the Latin Vulgate because he didn’t have any text for the last six verses of Revelation. While in the end Erasmus’ product was unique because it contained influences from his Latin work, the Greek texts upon which it was based were primarily of the Byzantine family.  Erasmus continued to create new editions that correctly typos and refined the text.  Tyndale, Martin Luther and others based their translations on Erasmus’ work.

Robert Etienne (aka Stephanus, which is the Latin form of his name) was signicant in being the first to do a couple of things.  In 1550 he was the first to have a critical apparatus that itemized significant variants in the texts for verses.  In 1551 he was the first to print an edition with numbered verses in the New Testament.[vii]

Theodore Beza published 10 editions between 1565 and 1611.  His editions were so well received they started the concept of Textus Receptus, or received text, the idea being that this was the best Greek edition received by all.[viii]

Bonaventura and Abraham Elzevir were the printers who actually introduced the term “Textus Receptus” when they printed it in their 1633 second edition of the Greek New Testament.  Unfortunately, their assessment was misleading as it elevated the accuracy of the Byzantine family of texts over all the others while in reality this family and the resultant Greek editions had perhaps the most scribal insertions, some of which were significant.[ix]

Textus Receptus formed the basis of Greek Editions and biblical translation until Karl Lachmann applied textual criticism to the variants from all available manuscripts to produce a more accurate Greek New Testament in 1831.  This was refined by Constantin von Tischendorf “whose eighth edition (1869-1872) remains a monumental thesaurus of variant readings.”[x] This work was further refined by Westcott and Hort in 1881.

Westcott and Hort’s work became the basis for United Bible Society editions up until the present time. The latest UBS Greek New Testament edition is called UBS4 (for the 4th edition) published in 1994.

The United Bible Society states their mission to be a non denomination association of bible societies dedicated to the translation, publication, and distribution of bibles worldwide.  Besides Bibles they produce new editions of the Greek New Testament, as well as aids such as textual commentaries, atlases, and lexicons.

Using a Textual Commentary

Most people are familiar with the concept of a biblical commentary where you can read elements in a passage of scripture and how they relate other parts of the Bible.  A textual commentary is a book where you can find a discussion of how the variant manuscript renderings of a verse were considered.

The above example shows variant information about Matthew 1:16[xi].

and Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.  (Matthew 1:16 ASV)

In looking at the example, we find the following information:

Item Description
1.16 Refers to the verse
Greek Shows the text in the Greek New Testament about which we have the commentary.  In this case we are looking at the United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament, 1975 edition.  If you don’t read Greek you can still use a Greek Lexicon and find the meaning of the words.  You can also find a translation of the verse at[xii]
{B} Indicates the degree of certainty about the reading selected.  A – certain, B – some doubt, C – considerable doubt, D – very high doubt, no satisfactory readings, the reading selected represents the least unsatisfactory reading
Comments The text underneath the Greek discusses the variant readings, which manuscript (families) have the reading, and why the selected reading was chosen.  In the example above, as it says. there were three principal variant readings.  The discussion of this verse takes over four pages in the commentary.

The issue about this verse is whether the verse says that Jesus is the progeny of Mary or Joseph.  In the case of this verse, the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, which the commentary lists as variant (3) translates as “Joseph, to whom was betrothed Mary the virgin, begot Jesus who is called Christ.”   As this makes it appear that Joseph was the natural father, this is problematic.  However, the selected reading of the Greek New Testament for this verse does not indicate that Joseph is the father of Jesus, and the comments for this verse in the commentary explains why this reading is preferable, with some doubt.

[i] A TEXTUAL COMMENTARY ON THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT, Bruce M Metzger, United Bible Societies, London New York, 1975
[ii] ibid., p. xv-xvi
[iii] THE MAKING OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, Origin, Collection, Text & Canon, Arthur G. Patzia, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1995. p. 141
[iv] Wikipedia,
[v] A TEXTUAL COMMENTARY.,  p. xviii
[vi] A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO HERMENEUTICS, David Jasper, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2004, p. 52-56
[viii] ibid.
[ix] ibid. p. 23
[x] ibid., p. xxiii
[xii] The translation for this verse is at A interlinear translation is at

© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

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