I’ve spent quite a bit of time describing what Textual Variants are, and now I want to write about how they can be used to identify manuscripts. The Gospel (Good News) spread rapidly across the Roman Empire after Jesus’ resurrection, but for years it was only spread verbally. Once the books of the New Testament were written, some textual variants became common in certain regions. By looking for common textual variants in manuscripts, textual scholars may be able to identify which region a manuscript was written in.
The Authors and Scribes
The New Testament books were copied and sent to other churches and cities. Once they arrived at their destinations, more copies were made and the copies of the copies were sent out. Although most people copying the a manuscript were careful1, changes (both unintentional2 and intentional3) got into the text.
Once a textual variant got into a text, it could then be copied into later manuscripts (unless someone noticed the variant and corrected it). When scholars can identify a large number of variants that consistently occur in a group of manuscripts, they call it a text type. This doesn’t mean all of the manuscripts have exactly the same variants and are completely identical, but rather there are enough similarities in the variants that scholars believe the manuscripts are related, possibly written in the same region.
…during the early centuries of the church, Christian texts were copied in whatever location they were written or taken to. Since texts were copied locally, it is no surprise that different localities developed different kinds of textual tradition. That is to say, the manuscripts in Rome had many of the same errors, because they were for the most part “in-house” documents, copied from one another; they were not influenced much by manuscripts being copied in Palestine; and those in Palestine took on their own characteristics, which were not the same as those found in a place like Alexandria, Egypt. Moreover, in the early centuries of the church, some locales had better scribes than others. Modern scholars have come to recognize that the scribes in Alexandria – which was a major intellectual center in the ancient world – were particularly scrupulous, even in these early centuries, and that there, in Alexandria, a very pure form of the text of the early Christian writings was preserved, decade after decade, by dedicated and relatively skilled Christian scribes.4
In 1881, Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort published The New Testament in the Original Greek, often called Westcott-Hort, or simply WH5, spending 28 years on the project. They had access to more Greek copies of the New Testament than any scholars that preceded them, and most modern translations of the New Testament reference the work Westcott and Hort did, even when there is disagreement with their conclusions. In their research, they identified four text types: Neutral, Alexandrian, Western and Syrian.
Scholars and archaeologists have found a vast number of manuscripts since Westcott and Hort published their edition of the Greek New Testament.6 The additional manuscripts have allowed scholars to refine the criteria Westcott and Hort used, and modern textual critics now uses five categories7. New Testament Textual Scholars Kurt Aland and Barbara Ashland (husband and wife), categorize the text types based on how close to the original texts they believe the manuscripts are. The modern categories are:
- Category I – Alexandrian text type (WH – Neutral and Alexandrian)
- Category II – Egyptian (WH – unidentified)
- Category III – Eclectic/Caesarean (WH – unidentified)
- Category IV – Western (WH – Unchanged)
- Category V – Byzantine (WH – Syrian)
The graph8 above only contains about 30% of the total number Greek New Testament manuscripts available, but I believe there’s enough data to be relevant9. The earliest manuscripts are predominately Alexandrian texts, but the majority of manuscripts are late Byzantine texts. When there is disagreement on what the original text may have been in a variation unit, there is vigorous debate whether the earliest text or the majority text should be used.
Blurring of Text Types
Textual critics are learning that the lines between text types are blurring. For example, Codex Alexandrinus (GA 02, A) is Alexandrian in most of the New Testament, but uses Byzantine in the Gospels. A manuscript may be predominately of one text type, but individual variation units may be of a different type. Some times the original scribe may use one text type, but a later corrector may use a different text type.
Computers are making the process of comparing manuscripts easier, by allowing more detailed analysis of individual manuscripts, and by allowing the comparison of large numbers of manuscripts. Both of these were impractical when a person had to read entire manuscripts and compare them with other manuscripts, often in different libraries and museums. What was once a time-consuming, expensive process requiring much travel, can now be done (comparatively) quickly and cheaply, and uses much larger sets of data to produce more accurate results.
Although categorizing manuscripts by text types has been an essential part of textual criticism for well over a century, and will continue to be used for the foreseeable future, modern textual critics are starting to downplay the need for it. The availability of new tools makes the categorization less useful, but increases the accuracy of the research.
- Brannan, Rick. New Testament Manuscript Explorer (Logos Bible Software, version 8.8; NTME 2015) (Logos)
- Wikipedia. Categories of New Testament manuscripts Accessed 18-Jul-2020.
What is Textual Criticism? (36 articles)
- Why are there Variations in Different Translations of the New Testament? (1 of 36)
- What are Textual Variants? (2 of 36)
- How Many Textual Variants Exist in the New Testament Manuscripts? (3 of 36)
- Are Spelling Differences Meaningful in New Testament Manuscripts? (4 of 36)
- What are Variant Units? (5 of 36)
- How Are Textual Variants and Variation Units Related? (6 of 36)
- Why did God Allow Variants in the New Testament Manuscripts? (7 of 36)
- Do Textual Variants Show Christianity is False? (8 of 36)
- How Careful were Scribes when Copying the Bible? (9 of 36)
- What are Unintentional Textual Variants? (10 of 36)
- What are Intentional Textual Variants? (11 of 36)
- Is a Textual Variant Both Meaningful and Viable? (12 of 36)
- What is a Singular Reading? (13 of 36)
- Were the Church Fathers Aware of Variations in the New Testament Manuscripts? (14 of 36)
- Are Textual Variants Motivated By Theology? (15 of 36)
- What are New Testament Text Types? (16 of 36)
- How do New Testament Text Types Compare? (17 of 36)
- What Text Types are the Variants in Colossians 2:2? (18 of 36)
- What are the Most Important New Testament Manuscripts? (19 of 36)
- Do I Need a Dictionary to Study Textual Criticism? (20 of 36)
- What is New Testament Textual Criticism? (21 of 36)
- How are the Best Textual Readings Determined? (22 of 36)
- What Evidence do Textual Critics Evaluate? (23 of 36)
- Is Textual Criticism an Art or a Science? (24 of 36)
- What are the Approaches to New Testament Textual Criticism? (25 of 36)
- What is a Critical Edition of the New Testament? (26 of 36)
- What do the Sigla in a New Testament Apparatus Mean? UBS Edition (27 of 36)
- What do the Sigla in a New Testament Apparatus Mean? NA Edition (28 of 36)
- What do the Sigla in a New Testament Mean? Swanson Edition (29 of 36)
- What do the Sigla in a New Testament Mean? CNTR Edition (30 of 36)
- How do English Versions of the Bible Identify the Variant Reading in Matthew 1:7-8? (31 of 36)
- What is the Correct Wording In 1 John 5:7-8? (32 of 36)
- Why are Some Verses in Square Brackets? (33 of 36)
- What is the Purpose of Textual Criticism? (34 of 36)
- Do We Have What The New Testament Authors Wrote? (35 of 36)
- Is New Testament Textual Criticism Important? (36 of 36)
- How Careful were Scribes when Copying the Bible?
- What are Unintentional Textual Variants?
- What are Intentional Textual Variants?
- Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005) Pg. 72.
- Westcott, Brooke Foss and Hort, Fenton John Anthony. The New Testament in the Original Greek: Text (Cambridge and London: McMillan and Co., Ltd.: 1881) (Archive.org); Westcott, Brooke Foss and Hort, Fenton John Anthony. The New Testament in the Original Greek: Introduction and Appendix (London: McMillan and Co., Ltd.: 1896) (Archive.org)
- How Many New Testament Manuscripts Exist?
- Aland, Kurt, and Aland, Barbara. The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism Translated by Erroll F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: 1987) Pages 105-106, 155-159. (Amazon – newer edition)
Century (Years) Alexandrian Egyptian Eclectic Western Byzantine Total 2nd (100-199) 5 5 3rd (200-299) 37 1 2 1 41 4th (300-399) 5 14 17 2 38 5th (400-499) 3 19 24 1 2 49 6th (500-599) 19 32 12 63 7th (600-699) 3 9 17 4 33 8th (700-799) 5 12 3 20 9th (800-899) 1 9 15 36 61 10th (900-999) 2 8 23 90 123 11th (1000-1099) 2 6 19 261 288 12th (1100-1199) 1 5 31 272 309 13th (1200-1299) 2 3 23 230 258 14th (1300-1399) 4 13 233 250 15th (1400-1499) 1 10 92 103 16th (1500-1599) 7 46 53 17th (1600-1699) 1 14 15 18th (1700-1799) 3 3 19th (1800-1899) 1 1 Total 61 102 245 5 1300 1713 BibleQuestions.info, 08-Aug-2020
Resource: Brannan, Rick. New Testament Manuscript Explorer (Logos Bible Software, version 8.8; NTME 2015)
- Most of the manuscripts not represented in the graph are Byzantine.
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