What is a Singular Reading?


There are over 5,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts1, but only about 1% of those manuscripts contain the entire New Testament. There are so many manuscripts, however, that almost every passage in the New Testament is represented in hundreds of Greek New Testament manuscripts, and there is a high percentage of agreement among the manuscripts for any given passage.

Handwriting any lengthy document is prone to errors, so it’s not surprising New Testament manuscripts don’t agree 100%. In many cases, changes to the text are unintentional mistakes, but in some cases a scribe will make an intentional change to the text, believing the change will be clearer to the reader.

Whether intentional or unintentional, changes may be recognized by later correctors and scribes as not being part of the original text, so the change is not copied into the succeeding generations of manuscripts. A singular reading is a textual variant that appears in only one manuscript.

There are exceptions to the rule that a singular reading can only appear in a single manuscript. Textual scholars may consider a variant a singular reading for a long time, then a second manuscript may be found with the same reading. In most cases, there’s evidence showing the two manuscripts are closely related; one might be a direct copy of the other. Because the variant was known as a singular reading for years, even decades or centuries, it may keep that status even if it’s found in another manuscript.

Singular readings are variants which may be meaningful and viable, but they’re rarely considered to be the original text. Textual scholars generally work on the assumption the original text has been passed down through some chain of manuscripts, even manuscripts with errors, and that a singular reading isn’t part of the transmission of the New Testament.

For example, in Luke 6:22, the ESV reads, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!” But one manuscript from the 10th/11th century [A.D. 900-1100] (codex 2882) lacks the words “on account of the Son of Man.” That’s a very meaningful variant since it seems to say that a person is blessed when he is persecuted, regardless of his allegiance to Christ. Yet it is only in one manuscript, and a relatively late one at that. It has no chance of reflecting the wording of the original text, since all the other manuscripts are against it, including quite a few that are much, much earlier.2

If a singular reading is both meaningful and viable, then it was most likely an intentional change by the scribe. Meaningful and viable changes can cause the most difficulty in determining the original readings, but if it appears in only one manuscript, it’s not likely to be original.

Endnotes

  1. How Many New Testament Manuscripts Exist?
  2. Wallace, Daniel B. Quoted in: Taylor, Justin. An Interview with Daniel B. Wallace on the New Testament Manuscripts (The Gospel Coalition, March 22, 2012; Blog) Accessed 22-Mar-2020.

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