What are the Approaches to New Testament Textual Criticism?


I’ve mentioned in my last few articles that textual critics use different sets of rules when trying to select the best readings. Often the rules are compatible with each other, but sometimes the rules by different scholars conflict. This is one of the reasons there are so many versions of the English Bible available.

There are several approaches critics use to evaluate the evidence. On one extreme, critics look only at the internal evidence and ignore the external evidence1. The other extreme is to look only at the external evidence and ignore the internal evidence. A balance of the two is more likely to produce a better text.

Radical Eclecticism / Thorough-Going Eclecticism

Proponents: George D. Kilpatrick (1910-1989), J. Keith Elliott

Texts should be determined based only on internal evidence, even when there is little external support for the reading. The reading which best fits the theology, style and thought of the context is the most likely to be original. Since only internal evidence is examined, a variant reading from any manuscript may be seriously considered as original, even if the reading only appears once in the thousands of available manuscripts.

Reasoned Eclecticism

Proponents: Bruce M. Metzger (1914-2007), Kurt Aland (1915-1994), Michael Holmes, Eldon Epp

New Testament texts should be evaluated based on both internal and external evidence. When the internal and external evidence don’t agree, priority is given to the internal evidence. When they do agree, the Alexandrian text type2, which is found in some of the oldest manuscripts, is most often selected.

This method has produced the most commonly used versions of the Greek New Testament since the late 1800’s: Nestle-Aland (NA), United Bible Societies (UBS) and Society of Biblical Literature (SBL).

…the resultant eclectic text exhibits too much dependence on internal evidence…. All eclectic texts reconstruct a text that no ancient Christian actually read, even though they approach a close replication of the original writings. However, the NU [Nestle-Aland/United Bible Societies] edition’s eclecticism extends even to following different manuscripts within the same sentence.3

Documentary Approach

Proponents: Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1813-1875), F. J. A. Hort (1828-1892), Victor Dearing, E. C. Colwell (1901-1974), Phillip W. Comfort, Edward D. Andrews, Don Wilkins

Both internal and external evidence is evaluated. When the evidence doesn’t agree, more weight is placed on the manuscripts which have been shown to be reliable. Early Axexandrian manuscripts are often given priority. The Westcott-Hort Greek New Testament published in 1881 has become the basis for most New versions of the Greek New Testament.

For Tregelles, Hort, Colwell, Comfort, myself [Edward Andrews], and Wilkins, as well as some others, we maintain that superior documentary evidence should prevail over internal unless internal evidence is extremely significant in overruling it. We believe in looking at both internal and external evidence but give a slight weightiness to the manuscripts that have earned it. When a manuscript is consistently presenting superior readings elsewhere, it should be preferred when its reading in a passage seems in some way inferior to that of lesser manuscripts.4

Reasoned Conservatism

Proponents: Maurice Robinson (1947-), Harry A. Sturz

Both internal and external evidence is evaluated. When the evidence doesn’t agree, more weight is placed on the manuscripts of Byzantine text types, but other text types may occasionally be used.

Radical Conservatism

Proponents: Zane Hodges (1932-2008), Arthur Farstad

The text is based on external evidence alone, using the reading of the Byzantine text type5. Most of the existing Greek manuscripts are of late Byzantine text, and called the Majority Text. The Greek Textus Receptus, first published in 1516, is based on the Byzantine text.

Once the best manuscripts for each book or group of books in the New Testament are established, these manuscripts need to be pruned of obvious errors and singular variants. Then these should be the manuscripts used for determining the most likely original wording. The burden of proof on textual critics is to demonstrate that the best manuscripts, when challenged by the testimony of other witnesses, do not contain the original wording.6

Effects on English Bible Versions

Reasoned Eclecticism and Documentary Approach both have tendencies to use Alexandrian text types in their versions. Some English Bible translations based on these Greek editions  are New International Version, Christian Standard Bible, New English Translation and Lexham English Bible.

Reasoned Conservatism and Radial conservatism lean towards the Byzantine text type Greek New Testament as the base text. The King James Version, New King James Version, Revised Standard Version, New American Standard Version and many other English Bible translations are descendants of the Textus Receptus.

Resources

Footnotes

  1. What Evidence do Textual Critics Evaluate?
  2. How do New Testament Text Types Compare?
  3. Comfort, Philip W. New Testament Text and Translation Commentary: Commentary on the Variant Readings of the Ancient New Testament Manuscripts and How They Relate to the Major English Translations (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008) XV. Quoted in: Andrews, Edward D. From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts: Introduction-Intermediate to New Testament Textual Studies (Cambridge, Ohio: Christian Publishing House, 2020; Kindle) Location 3745. (Amazon)
  4. Andrews, Edward D. THE DOCUMENTARY APPROACH in New Testament Textual Studies (Christian Publishing House: November 25, 2019; blog) Accessed 16-Sep-2020.
  5. How do New Testament Text Types Compare?
  6. Comfort, Philip W. New Testament Text and Translation Commentary: Commentary on the Variant Readings of the Ancient New Testament Manuscripts and How They Relate to the Major English Translations (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008), xv–xvi. Quotes in: Andrews, Edward D. THE DOCUMENTARY APPROACH in New Testament Textual Studies (Christian Publishing House: November 25, 2019; blog) Accessed 16-Sep-2020.

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