More Manuscript Basics; Who, What, Where, and How Variant Readings are Evaluated and Rated

In More Manuscript Basics; Using a Textual Commentary, I discussed how the bible was transmitted up to the point where Greek New Testament editions were created, starting with Erasmus up until recent editions by the United Bible Society.  We finished by looking at an example of a textual variant in a textual commentary.

Next we will look the criteria that are used to determine which manuscript readings are preferable over others.

The most basic rule if we just had one simple series of copies would be that the oldest is the most reliable.  But that is not what actually pans out as scholars have discovered that sometimes a somewhat younger copy is actually a better choice if it is a reliable copy of an older copy than the oldest copy we have.  And as we saw in the last article, we have to account for the different families of texts, and how they have different tendencies that affect accuracy.  The Alexandrian is considered the most accurate, and the Byzantine is probably considered the least accurate family of text.  A younger Alexandrian text may be more reliable than an older Byzantine text because of the Byzantine family’s tendency to allow more scribal insertions.

Then there is the issue of early church father’s writings.  Sometimes they seem to be considered, and others, not.

So how are variant readings evaluated to get back to the original writing of the text?

The first thing you have to know is that is not an exact science. It is really based upon probabilities.  For example, since the Alexandrian family of texts have the least scribal additions, then it’s probable that an Alexandrian manuscript will be more accurate than a Byzantine text.  But it’s not guaranteed.  In the end, there is a certain amount of educated guessing on some variants.

Bruce Metzger includes the following observations about considering variants:

  • Every variant reading has to be considered by itself. In other words, just because other variants in the manuscript seem to be best served by using the Alexandrian reading does not mean that the one you are currently looking at does.
  • Manuscripts, in general, have less errors the older they are
    • besides the age of the document, the degree of care by this particular scribe, as well as the general condition of the type of text must be considered
    • Newer manuscripts can be more reliable than older ones if they are very good copies of even older manuscripts.
  • The more widespread the variant is in the different families of manuscripts, the greater the probability that it is accurate
    • The exception is that sometimes manuscripts in diverse geographical areas are really dependent on a common influence, for example, Tatian’s Diatesseron.
  • The total number of manuscripts supporting a variant does not count that much as it is possible that a great number of manuscripts may be copies of one single earlier manuscript.
  • Rather than use a count system, manuscripts are weighted in comparison.  For example, manuscripts that give a clearer reading should be weighted higher manuscripts with ambiguous or uncertain readings.
  • Generally more difficult to read variants are considered more accurate than variants with a smoother style as a known error made by scribes was to change the text to make it more readable. Obviously this would have exceptions, a single or relatively small number of difficult variants might be the result of a single scribal error in an earlier manuscript.
  • Shorter readings are probably more accurate than longer ones, except where homoeoarcton and homoeoteleution may have occurred or where the scribe may have deliberately omitted material that he considered objectionable. A scribe might object to something that looked to him that it had been added, changed, or was an obvious theological error in his mind.
  • Since it is a known, widespread scribal error to try to harmonize parallel passages, a variant in that situation that is the least harmonious should at least be considered as the most accurate.
  • The variant that is most consistent with the context of the text and the style of the author is likely to be given more weight.
  • The Gospels have a unique set of factors that must be considered:
    • the Aramaic background of Jesus’s teaching
    • the priority of the gospel of Mark
    • “the influence of the Christian community upon the formulation and transmission of the passage in question”[i]

Again, Metzger’s textual commentary, A TEXTUAL COMMENTARY ON THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT, goes into more detail on these factors in the Introduction and I highly recommend getting the book to get a better understanding.  This article just gives an overview of this tedious and complex process.

[i] A TEXTUAL COMMENTARY ON THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT, Bruce M Metzger, United Bible Societies, London New York, 1975 , p. xxviii

© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

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