What is a Critical Edition of the New Testament?

Spelling of "David" in Greek Matthew 1:1

As I’ve written before1, different scholars have different opinions about which Greek manuscripts most closely resemble the original texts written by the New Testament authors, and they use different sets of rules to determine the most appropriate readings2. When scholars put their beliefs into practice, a new critical text of the New Testament is created. The text may be published many times in different editions, just as the text of the King James Version of the Bible has been published in many editions. I’ll use Matthew 1:1 for some of my examples.

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: (Matthew 1:1 NIV)

Differences in Text

Some of the differences are relatively insignificant. For example, some words can be spelled different ways3, but that doesn’t affect the meaning of the text. In the genealogy in Matthew 1, the name “David” is spelled three different ways in different Greek manuscripts, and this is shown in different texts. (The Greek letters Δ and δ are similar to an English “D”, but upper-case and lower case, respectively.)

Spelling of "David" in Greek Matthew 1:1
Spelling of “David” in Greek Matthew 1:1
  • Δαβίδ (Apostolic Bible Polyglot, Textus Receptus)
  • Δαυεὶδ (Nestle, Tyndale House, Tischendorf)
  • Δαυίδ (Society of Biblical Literature, Byzantine text type, Orthodox Patriarchal Edition, Westcott-Hort/Nestle-Aland/United Bible Societies)

Other differences may simply clarify a point without changing the meaning. I’ve used Colossians 2:2 in some previous articles 4, so I’ll refer to the end of that verse again. Colossians 2:2 has 14 textual variants for the last few words. (Be aware the first part of my example has the same Greek words translated in different ways into English.) The NIV5 ends with “in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ“, while the KJV6 ends with “to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ“. The Greek text used for the KJV translation is longer and more specific, but I don’t think either conveys the wrong meaning.

Differences in Footnotes

Actually, the differences in the text is not what makes a critical edition. A critical edition of the Greek New Testament compares the text in different Greek editions, and the apparatus will show the alternate readings. The apparatus is usually found in footnotes on each page, but could be published at the end of the volume, or in a separate volume.

The amount of information in a critical apparatus can vary greatly. Often an apparatus will only show significant variants, and not show minor item like spelling differences. Some apparatuses only show the alternate readings, while others also show which manuscripts those readings are found in. Different scholars use different formats for their apparatus, so some are easy to read while others are very cryptic to the uninitiated.

The text of the Nestle-Aland editions 27 and 28 (NA27, NA28) is the same as the text in the United Bible Societies editions 4 and 5 (UBS4 and UBS5); the differences between these four editions are in the apparatuses. The Nestle-Aland editions have an extensive apparatus and are written for scholars who want to review all the plausible readings. The United Bible Societies editions are written for Bible translators, and have an apparatus that is much shorter and only shows readings which should seriously be considered by the translation teams.

Below are some screen shots of the beginning of the Gospel According to Matthew, chapter 1, verse 1, from different critical editions of the Greek New Testament. Some of these pictures are from first editions, but not all of them. If the edition considers the spelling of David to be a textual variant (and not all of them do), I’ve included the apparatus. Only a few of these editions have a footnote indicating this is a variant unit. The remaining editions don’t consider spelling differences to be significant enough to show in the apparatus.

Matthew 1:1, Johann Jakob Griesbach - 1809 edition
Matthew 1:1, Johann Jakob Griesbach – 1809 edition

Matthew 1:1, Samuel Prideaux Tregelles - 1857 editionMatthew 1:1, Samuel Prideaux Tregelles – 1857 edition


Matthew 1:1, Constantin von Tischendorf - 1869 edition
Matthew 1:1, Constantin von Tischendorf – 1869 edition

Matthew 1:1, Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort - 1881 edition
Matthew 1:1, Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort – 1881 edition

Matthew 1:1, Eberhard Nestle - 1904 edition
Matthew 1:1, Eberhard Nestle – 1904 edition

Matthew 1:1, Alexander Souter - 1910 edition
Matthew 1:1, Alexander Souter – 1910 edition

Matthew 1:1, United Bible Societies - 1983 edition
Matthew 1:1, United Bible Societies – 1983 edition

Matthew 1:1, Nestle-Aland - 1993 edition
Matthew 1:1, Nestle-Aland – 1993 edition

Matthew 1:1, Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont - 2005 edition
Matthew 1:1, Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont – 2005 edition

Some training is needed to read an apparatus, but with good resources the basics aren’t hard to learn. 

Resources

  • Elliot, Rich. Critical Editions of the New Testament (Simon Greenleaf University) Accessed 03-Oct-2020.
  • Holmes, Michael and David Parker, Harold Attridge, and Klaus Wachtel. The SBL Greek New Testament (TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, 2012; PDF) (Academia.edu) Accessed 01-Oct-2020.

Footnotes

  1. What are the Approaches to New Testament Textual Criticism?, What are New Testament Text Types?, How do New Testament Text Types Compare?
  2. How are the Best Textual Readings Determined?
  3. Are Spelling Differences Meaningful in New Testament Manuscripts?
  4. How Are Textual Variants and Variation Units Related?, What Text Types are the Variants in Colossians 2:2?
  5. My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ (Colossians 2:2 NIV)
  6. That their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ (Colossians 2:2 KJV)

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