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The Critical Text

With ever increasing numbers of older manuscripts of the Greek New Testament coming to light in the Centuries after the TR was produced, scholars began to question whether the TR, based on a few, late Greek copies, was the best text of the Greek NT.

 Increasingly, scholars from the 1600s onwards made Greek texts of the NT based on newly discovered earlier Greek copies. Eventually the Textus Receptus was overthrown from the position it held as the foremost Greek text of our NT. The triumph was accomplished with the NT Greek Text of two English scholars, Westcott and Hort (WH), published in 1881, and the English Revised Version which was based upon this text, which included nearly 6 000 changes in the NT due solely to the underlying Greek text that it was based on.

Westcott and Hort

Westcott and Hort argued for the priority of two 4th Century Alexandrian manuscripts, Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, which they held to be descended from a yet earlier common ancestor that must have been yet closer in time to the original text. Their argument involved two steps.

Firstly, WH rejected as entirely worthless the 'Syrian' (i.e. Byzantine) manuscripts which make up 95% of all Greek manuscript witnesses to the NT. They argued that these later Byzantine manuscripts were the product of a 4th century Recension (an official edition of the NT text imposed with Church authority) that supplanted the earlier, purer forms of the text like Codex Vaticanus. We shall look at this 'recension' theory - the idea that someone 'doctored' the NT in the 4th century - in more detail under the heading of the Byzantine text.

WH also argued that the style of the Byzantine Text is inferior to the style of the Alexandrian Text-type. The Byzantine Text is generally a smoother, fuller, more sensible Greek text, whereas the Alexandrian Text was a shorter, harsher, more 'difficult' text. Thus, WH argued that there appears to have been more filling out, smoothing out and 'polishing up' of the Byzantine text by scribes over time whereas the Alexandrian Text had more rugged originality. Hort wrote: 'In themselves [Byzantine] readings hardly ever offend at first. With rare exceptions they run smoothly and easily in form, and yield at once to even a careless reader a passable sense, free from surprises and seemingly transparent. But when distinctively [Byzantine] readings are minutely compared one after the other with the rival variants, their claim to be regarded as the original readings is found gradually to diminish, and at last to disappear'.

After dismissing the mass of Byzantine manuscripts, the second stage of the argument was that the Alexandrian text found in Vaticanus and Sinaiticus was superior (on internal grounds) to the equally early but eccentric 'Western' text-form represented by Codex Bezae and early Latin manuscripts.

The WH theory left textual critics with a relatively easy task: out of all the thousands of NT manuscripts, only two (or three) were of special importance. It is hardly an oversimplification to say that, conveniently enough, examination of the readings of Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Bezae would be sufficient to find the original text (in the Gospels, that is). Where all three agreed, the text was almost absolutely certain. Where Vaticanus and Sinaiticus agreed, their reading was the original with a high degree of certainty. Where these two diverged (as they do about 3000 times in the gospels alone, ignoring spelling variations - see Hoskier's Codex B and its Allies), we should follow Codex Vaticanus, The end result, to desribe their method at its crudest, was that all one really had to do was to follow Codex Vaticanus at all times. This, as a rule, is what they did (with a few notable exceptions, like the 'Western non-interpolations' - lengthy Western omissions, chiefly towards the end of Luke's Gospel). 

The Papyri

The Westcott and Hort theory was not to retain its position as the newly-crowned 'Received Text' for very long. Beginning from about the time of the turn of the Twentieth Century a number of remarkable MS discoveries were made in Egypt. These were the discoveries of the very early papyri MSS. Some of these MSS were from the 2nd Century - a full 200 years older than the previous oldest MSS, the two 4th Century MSS that Westcott and Hort based their text on. These discoveries were to have a somewhat confusing effect.

On the one hand, some of them showed a sort of text that was similar to the text of the two MSS used by WH. Thus, in one way, these papyri MSS vindicated Westcott and Hort. They showed that WH were right about the Alexandrian text dating from the 2nd Century. However, what confused matters was that some papyri MSS contained a fair number of individual readings that were distinctively Byzantine. They therefore proved that many Byzantine readings were also very early readings.

Thus, Zuntz writes about alignments of P46 with the Byzantine text: 'No less noteworthy than the emergence of these ancient readings in a few late manuscripts are those instances where P46 agrees with the Byzantine standard text against the ancient Greek manuscripts. In isolated cases one might incline towards ascribing the coincidence to chance: one and the same error, it might be held, could be made twice independently and an ancient fault could have been removed by conjecture. The examination of a number of these instances disproves this assumption. P46 actually shows that readings (faulty as well as genuine) which so far had appeared to be late do in fact go back to the earliest times' (The Text of the Epistles, pp49-50). (Zuntz lists the following cases of readings in P46 with Byzantine alignment: 1 Cor. 7:5, 7:7, 9:7, 9:13, Heb. 2:8, 9:19, 9:20, 11:4, 11:13, 12:15)

What this meant is best summarised by R.V.G.Tasker in his Introduction to the Greek Text underlying the New English Bible of 1961:

'Perhaps the most significant feature of major manuscripts discovered during the last seventy years, such as the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript in 1892, the Freer manuscript in 1906, the Koridethi manuscript in 1913 and the Chester Beatty papyri in 1931 had been the mixed character of their texts... Evidence now in our possession which can be dated before the 4th Century, or represents texts of that earlier period, has shown that some readings hitherto assumed to be late because of their late attestation are in reality ancient. It is in consequence generally accepted today that there is no single witness, or group of witnesses, which can be regarded as always reliable - much less infallible; that all 'rule-of-thumb' methods of dealing with the evidence must be eschewed; that ancient readings cannot always be followed solely because of their antiquity; and that the possibility must be left open that in some cases the true reading may have been preserved in only a few witnesses - or even in a single, relatively late, witness'. (emphasis added)


What Tasker was saying was that it was now impossible to blindly follow one MS (like WH did) or to trust ourselves entirely to any MSS all the time. Instead, he argued that to find the original text of the NT, the correct reading could be found in any of the MSS and that other methods (rather than following certain MSS) had to be employed to choose which reading was the correct reading. Eclecticism (meaning to choose freely between the readings of different manuscripts) became the method of choice (so to speak) among early to mid-20th century textual critics:

  • Von Soden's Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments (1902-13)
  • Vogel's Novum Testamentum Graece et Latine (Dusseldorf, 1922)
  • Merk's Novum Testamentum Graece et Latine (Rome, 1933)
  • Bover's Novi Testamenti Biblia Graeca et Latina (Madrid, 1943)
  • Kilpatrick's Greek-English Diglot for the Use of Translators (London, 1961)
  • Tasker's The Greek New Testament (1964)

These Greek New Testaments all differed from each other , as well as from the dominant Nestle text which continued the tradition of a text similar to that of Westcott and Hort. Thus, von Soden's text was 600 words longer than Westcott and Hort's.

In addition to having different valuations of the manuscript evidence, the sorts of questions asked by Eclectic theorists to determine the correct reading included:

  • Which reading best accounts for the rise of the other variants?
  • Which reading is most likely to have suffered at the hand of copyists?
  • Which reading seems most in keeping with the author's style and thought?
  • Which reading makes best sense in the context?

Some scholars ('thorough-going eclecticists') reacted to the papyri discoveries by leaning more heavily on Internal Evidence (as seen in the questions listed above) than on External Evidence.

However, this eclectic method opened the door to a Greek NT based on subjectivism. Every different scholar deciding to construct a Greek NT would end up with a different NT based on their preferred variant readings. This was never going to result in any agreement as to what the original NT looked like. There had to be some standard guidelines that would produce a 'standard' text.

The Modern Critical Text: UBS

The approach that modern scholarship has taken since the start of the United Bible Societies' project (and particularly since the 3rd edition of the UBS Greek New Testament in 1975) has been called Reasoned Eclecticism; its product, the Modern Critical Text. Thus, NT Textual Criticism has been through four stages:

  1. The Textus Receptus' Reign (approx. 1500 - 1880)
  2. The Westcott-Hort Theory (approx. 1880 - 1925?)
  3. The Eclectic Theory (approx. 1925? - 1975)
  4. Reasoned Eclecticism (1975 onwards)

(Of course, some of these theories were in the process of development for quite a while before they attained the high-water mark of their influence and some devotees of these theories outlived the terminus dates of these various theories).

As we have seen, there were problems with each of the first three theories: 

  • The Textus Receptus was based on only a few, late copies.
  • With the Westcott and Hort theory, the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme: the WH text was based on only a few, early copies.  
  • The Eclectic theory, trying to provide some balance, ended up only with a pendulum swinging wildly all over the place.  

In many ways, the Modern Critical Text is not so much the result of a new theory, but rather a response to some of the problems highlighted above. That is, the Modern Critical Text has not arisen because of some new evidence that has substantially changed how we view the NT text. The Modern Criticial Text is basically a marriage of the WH theory and the Eclectic theory (with some accommodations on the part of both partners).  That is, the Modern Critical Text continues to reject the Textus Receptus and the text of the vast majority of Greek manuscripts. Instead, in practice it continues to champion the readings of Codex Vaticanus, the main manuscript favoured by the WH theory (albeit acknowledging some of the faults of the WH theory). In tandem with this, it adopts the Eclectic theory (with all its uncertainties). It is certainly not the worst of both worlds, but an attempt to ameliorate the problems with these two theories by having a committee decide upon a consensus text. The result of the committee approach was to prevent the adoption of extremist positions on either external evidence (the worth of certain manuscripts) or internal evidence.

The Modern Critical text has assumed the mantle of the modern 'Textus Receptus'; its text, published by the United Bible Societies (UBS3/4, the same as Nestle-Aland26/27) has established itself as the 'standard' text. This is the text underlying the some of the most popular modern English Bibles of today, like the NASB, NIV and ESV. It has achieved this result, however, in a curiously similar manner to the way that the original TR of Erasmus established its supremacy, because its Greek NT has claimed the highest credentialed scholars among its editors, and because it managed to out-sell any competitor texts and establish a near-monopoly over the publishing of the NT text. 

If we may continue with the metaphor, the crucial factor in the Modern Critical Text 'marriage' was neither the bride nor the groom, but the marriage celebrant (or more correctly, the marriage celebrants). The reason for the success of the Modern Critical Text is largely down to the personal prestige of the editors who have compiled it, the political connections of these editors and the collegiate authority of their decisions. The appropriateness of the marriage metaphor can be seen in the fact that the text of the United Bible Societies (note the name) has been an ecumenical effort, bringing together the top textual critics from each of the German Lutheran, American Protestant, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. It has thus achieved scholarly consensus as the text of the NT primarily for political reasons and because of the personalities involved, and by uniting all the different national Bible societies behind the one project.

The success of the UBS text is thus not due to the fact that the editorial decisions are correct. In point of fact, there have been over 500 textual changes over the four editions of the UBS text. If the editors were to change again and a fifth edition of the text were to be produced, there would doubtless be hundreds more textual changes. So, textual certainty has not been the reason for the success of the UBS.

Nor is it even the case that Reasoned Eclecticism is self-evidently the best method of textual criticism. In fact, Reasoned Eclecticism has many problems as a method, as we shall see.

Some Specific Problems with the UBS text

The following readings are found in the modern UBS 'standard' Modern Critical text:

  1. In Mark 6:20, the UBS Text reads 'for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he kept him, and when he heard him he was GREATLY PUZZLED AND HEARD HIM GLADLY'. What accounts for John saying deeply puzzling things - had he suddenly gone mad? Further, we know Herod came from a crazy family, but how does Herod listen to someone with pleasure if Herod is greatly puzzled by what is being said? The correct reading is 'he (Herod) DID MANY THINGS (i.e. obeyed John's advice) and heard him gladly'.
  2. In Mark 6:22, the UBS text also says that it was HEROD'S daughter who danced, rather than the daughter of Herodias'.
  3. In Mark 7:31, instead of reading 'Jesus departed from the region of Tyre and Sidon and came to the sea of Galilee', the UBS text instead reads that 'Jesus departed from the region of Tyre and came to the sea of Galilee through Sidon'. This is despite (a) the fact that this involved a detour of an additional 50 miles in exactly the wrong direction, (b) there being no reason or explanation given for why Jesus needed to make a trip further away from Galilee on his way back there, and (c) the fact that 'the region of Tyre and Sidon' is common phraseology (the two go together like 'Pharisees and Scribes'). Some Bible critics have used this textual variant to argue that the Bible is geographically illiterate; whereas in reality they should be complaining about the editors who decided to follow such a reading.
  4. In Luke 2:36-37, the UBS text tells us that Anna was of a great age, and had lived with a husband seven years from her virginity, and was a widow until she was 84 years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. The Byzantine text instead says, that she was a widow of about 84 years. Firstly, we have the problem that we are told that an old woman, notable for her piety and complete devotion to God, had decided to get married at the age of 84. Such romantic excitement seems at variance with the fact that she spends her days and nights in single-minded devotion to God in fastings and prayers (pity her husband if he was still alive). Secondly, what is the point of telling us that she had lived seven years with a husband from her virginity? If her 7-year marriage at age 77 was her first marriage, why do we need to know about all the years of her spinsterhood before this? So what? If her marriage at age 77 was her second marriage, and she had originally been married much earlier in life (as would be more natural, seeing it mentions her virginity, which is how a teenager's marriage is described), again, why do we have to be told about her first marriage many years before? What relevance has this to her seeing Christ as he was being presented in the temple? Why is her whole confused marital history given more column space than her interview with Christ which is described in the briefest of terms? Thirdly, the whole chronological sequence makes much more sense if we read, with the Byzantine text, that she had married early in life, lived for seven years with her husband, and had now been a widow for about 84 years, making her (as the text says) 'of a great age' (approx. 20+7+84 = over 110). If we read the UBS text, she was either 84 or 91 years old, neither of which are astonishingly remarkable nor worthy of note. The UBS text is therefore confused and the matter of her age seems hardly worth mentioning in the first place.
  5. In 1 Corinthians 13:3 the UBS text reads 'though I give my body to BOAST and have not love, it profits me nothing' (instead of 'if I give my body to be BURNED ...'). This reading begs the question: 'how is it possible to boast of your martyrdom after you are dead?
  6. Christ's prayer of forgiveness for those who crucified him ('Father, forgive them, they know not what they do') is placed in double brackets [[to indicate that it was not originally part of the New Testament text]] despite the facts that (a) Christ's words are in keeping with his non-retaliatory ethic, his personal sinlessness, his genius for words and his grace towards sinners, (b) the fact that the overwhelming evidence from Fathers (25 Fathers from the second century onwards) and Versions side with the phrase. The evidence against the phrase is largely of Egyptian provenance (10 Alexandrian manuscripts from the 2nd to 5th centuries). Textual critics try to convince themselves that the words were not original by arguing that the phrase was copied from Stephen's words of forgiveness for those who put him to death in Acts 7, despite Stephen's wording being completely different.
  7. In Acts 12:25 the UBS text reads that Barnabus and Saul 'returned TO Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their ministry' (instead of 'returned FROM Jerusalem' back to Antioch). They were already IN Jerusalem with their famine-relief ministry, not returning there! Furthermore, the very next verse (Acts 13:1) shows them back in Antioch again. This is a nonsensical blunder that is adopted because of the excessive veneration that is given to WH's two MSS, Vaticanus and Sinaiticus.
  8. In Matthew 19:17, the UBS text reads 'Why do you ask me about what is good - there is one who is good' (instead of 'Why do you call me good - there is One who is good - God'). There are two obvious problems with the UBS reading: Firstly, Why should Christ be UNABLE to say what sort of behaviour is good and leads to eternal life? Is that not what Christ had come to do? In fact, Christ goes on to do just that by telling the young man about what sort of behaviour leads to everlasting life in the latter part of the verse ('but, if you would enter into life, keep the commandments'). Secondly, the UBS reading introduces a non-sequitur. The second part of Christ's reply does not follow from his first. What connection has God's unique goodness got to do with the question of how we enter into eternal life? Thus, the UBS introduces into the text a plodding, illogical alternative.
  9. In John 1:18, the UBS text reads that Jesus is the 'only-begotten (or unique) God', despite the fact that everywhere else Jesus is referred to using the word monogenes ('only-begotten' or 'unique') in John's writings it is associated with sonship, either directly (John 3:16, 3:18 and 1 John 4:9) or implicitly in John 1:14 and even in John 1:18 ('the only-begotten Son/God who is in the bosom of the Father'). Other references to monogenes in the NT refer to the special love of an earthly parent for a child (Luke 3 7:12, 8:42, 9:38, Hebrews 11:17).  

Bizarre Readings of Vaticanus and Sinaiticus

The WH theory depended heavily upon two Alexandrian MSS, Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. These MSS are still the bedrock of the UBS text today, despite their peculiar readings in some places. Some of the absurd readings found in the two MSS favoured by the UBS text are:

  1. Sinaiticus (01) reads 'for the SHEEP have passed away' in Revelation 21:4 instead of 'for the FORMER THINGS have passed away'. We all knew there would be no pets in Heaven, but why single out the sheep for special treatment?
  2. In Luke 1:26, MS (01) reads that the angel Gabriel was sent to a city of JUDEA named Nazareth (instead of a city of GALILEE).
  3. MS (01) also tells us that Emmaus was 160 stadia from Jerusalem (20 miles) instead of 60 stadia (7 miles) in Luke 24:13. Pity the poor disciples if they had to run a marathon to get back to Jerusalem after Christ had appeared to them on the road!
  4. In John 18:5, Jesus answers those sent to arrest him with the Divine Title 'I AM'. However, in Vaticanus (03), Jesus answers woodenly 'I am Jesus'.
  5. Vaticanus (03) has the Holy Spirit telling Peter on the housetop after his vision in Acts 10:19, 'Behold, TWO men are seeking you' - despite all other MSS (and verse 7 of the same passage) clearly stating that THREE men were sent from Cornelius.
  6. In Revelation 4:8, MS 01 has the angels saying 'Holy' NINE times (rather than the normal THREE times).
  7. In Matthew 27:49, MSS (01) and (03) include the piercing of the Saviour's side. This verse is only found in John's account of the Crucifixion, but these two manuscripts include it in Matthew as well.
  8. Mark 1:1 reads 'The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God'. However, in MS (01), Mark 1:1 reads 'The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ', omitting the words 'THE SON OF GOD'.
  9. When Paul was preaching to the Greeks in Athens in Acts 17:28 he quoted one of the Greek poets, saying 'as certain of YOUR prophets have said'. However, in MS (03) Paul says 'as certain of OUR poets have said'.
  10. In Romans 5:1, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus read 'Being therefore justified by faith LET US have peace with God' (instead of 'WE HAVE peace with God').
  11. In Luke 23:45 the UBS text reads that the sun was in eclipse at the time of Christ's death. An alternative rendering of the Greek word used here could be 'obscured'. However, neither of these terms are adequate to describe what actually happened during the three hours of darkness. The sun was not in eclipse (this is scientifically impossible for 3 hours - as well as during full moon), nor was it obscured by some other object. This was clearly an attempt on the part of Alexandrian scribes to provide a bit of a scientific explanation for what happened.
  12. Sinaiticus (01) attributes a quote from the Psalms to the prophet Isaiah in Matthew 13:35. 
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