Questions regarding the Bible's authenticity and origins have been examined more closely since the development of new methods around the time of the Enlightenment. A critical edition of the New Testament waspublished by J.J.Griesbach in 1774-75, which took account of various criteria in laying out the most probable rendering of a text.1
Although there are thousands of manuscripts for the Bible, no two of these agree word for word, a fact that has been attributed to scribal errors, both unintentional and deliberate (Ehrman, 481). Despite the discrepancies, there is still around 90% agreement, and, what is more, virtually no controversy overfundamentalChristian doctrine has arisen due to textual variations (Throckmorton, xii).
Griesbach's method involved evaluating certain criteria, and has been adopted and modified as new research and discoveries emerged. The goal of these methods was to arrive at a reading of a text that most closely approximated the original, or autograph. Since none of the originals are known directly to modern scholarship, copies have to be sorted and weighed against one another in a systematic fashion.
Various parameters for evaluation have been identified, which may be separated into internal and external criteria (Shantz, personal communication). External criteria include the number and ages of manuscripts, their geographical distribution and some measure of their quality (Ehrman, 488). There is also a hierarchy of manuscript text types, with Alexandrian text at the top, followed by Western and Byzantine (Shantz, op cit). The Alexandrian family is thought to be free of “aberrations found in other groups” and is also believed to be the oldest of the uncial (capital-lettered) manuscripts (Throckmorton, xii-xiii). The Western text, though marked by various “omissions and insertions”, is believed to originate from the mid-second century, relatively early for a copy (ibid). The Byzantine text is considered to be the least reliable of the three, due to the presence of “conflations”, or harmonizations to other manuscripts “in the interest of... intelligibility” (ibid). It is thought that “smart scribes” would recognize variant readings in a text and make revisions whilst copying (Ehrman, 481).
The Greek texts are represented by various manuscripts, of varying origins. These include several codices: Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus and Vaticanus, among others. The concurrence of these manuscripts for any particular reading is thought to give a high degree of credibility.
Besides the codices, there are papyrii, some of which, though mere fragments, are thought to lend much gravity to a reading due to their greater age (Throckmorton, xviii-xix). Ancient manuscripts of translations into other languages, including Latin, Syriac and Coptic, among others, also serve in the science of text criticism (Throckmorton, xix), though these are not as important as the Greek.2 The letters of the early church fathers (e.g. Clement I) and other writings include quotations from the New Testament, which may be used to support a particular reading found, for example, in a manuscript.
Internal criteria factor in more esoteric considerations of the texts. Among these are: lectio difficilior, which favors readings which are more (theologically) challenging (Shantz, op cit);lectio brevior, which favors shorter readings (ibid); non-harmonisation, which addresses the issue of the “smart scribe”3 (ibid); and accordance with authorial style (ibid; Ehrman, 488). Though these may conflict at times, they identify possible sources of variation.
Together, these criteria assist in the process of creating a text that has the highest frequency of the most reliable manuscript witnesses with the greatest geographical distribution, in addition to readings that are shorter, yet more difficult, not harmonised and consistent with the author's style (Shantz, op cit).
To put these into practice, let's turn to one text in particular (Throckmorton, 117).
TEXT: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?” (P45 P75 B syssa)
VARIANT: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone, or if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?” (S A C D W Θ λ ф Ҝ it vgsycsypbo)
P45: papyrus, Alexandrian and Western, 3rd c.
P75 : papyrus, 200 A.D.
B: Codex Vaticanus, Alexandrian, 4th c.
sys : Sinaitic Syrian, late 2nd or early 3rd c.
sa: Coptic (Sahidic), Alexandrian or Western, 3rd c.
S: Codex Sinaiticus, Alexandrian, 4th c.
A: Codex Alexandrinus, Byzantine, 5th c.
C: Codex Ephraemi, Alexandrian(?), 5th c.
D: Codex Bezae, Western, late 5th or early 6th c.
W: Washington Codex, Byzantine, 5th or late 4th c.
Θ: Koridethi Codex, Byzantine, probably 9th, perhaps 7thc.
λ : The Lake Group, Basel, 10thto 12thc.
ф: The Ferrar Group, Caesarean (?), 12th, 13thor 15thc.
Ҝ: Koine, Byzantine, late uncial (8th-10thc.?) to early minuscule (9th-11thc.?)
it: Old Latin, Itala, 4th- 13thc.
vg: Vulgate, Alexandrian derivation (?), 4thc. (?)
syc : Syriac (Curetonian), 5th c.
syp : Syriac (Peshitta), 5th c.
bo: Coptic (Bohairic), Alexandrian, 12th c. (?)
The favored reading has fewer manuscript witnesses, but the papyrii seem to give it a greater weighting. The variant reading has a greater distribution, but it is possible that the variation was added later. Lectio breviorwould seem to support the favored reading, as well. Lectio difficiliordoes not seem to present a problem here as it appears the added text has no added theological value. One might conclude from Matthew 7:9, which includes the part about bread and stones, that a smart scribe tried to harmonize the passage in Luke with the passage in Matthew. Our guidelines would lead us away from the variant reading in this case.
Text criticism has become more widely accepted since Vatican II, and even encouraged.4 It is refreshing to search out the truth of the scriptures yet we must remind ourselves that our study carries the responsibility to remain faithful to the Spirit of the text, and not to stray from God for the disputation of the letter.
Abbot, Walter M., ed. “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” inThe Documents of Vatican II. Herder and Herer, 1966. pp. 120-21.
Ehrman, Bart D., ed. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writing.3rded. New York: Oxford, 2004.
"BIBLE."LoveToKnow 1911 Online Encyclopedia.© 2003, 2004 LoveToKnow. http://66.1911encyclopedia.org/B/BI/BIBLE.htm
"GRIESBACH."LoveToKnow 1911 Online Encyclopedia.© 2003, 2004 LoveToKnow. http://12.1911encyclopedia.org/G/GR/GRIESBACH.htm
Shantz, Colleen. Lecture Notes for “Introduction to the New Testament”. Toronto: St. Michael's College, 2004.
Throckmorton, Burton H., ed. Gospel Parallels: A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels, with Alernative Readings from the Manuscripts and Noncanonical Parallels. 5thed. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992.
1 "GRIESBACH." LoveToKnow 1911 Online Encyclopedia. © 2003, 2004 LoveToKnow.
2 "BIBLE." LoveToKnow 1911 Online Encyclopedia. © 2003, 2004 LoveToKnow.
3 Scribes were thought to make changes sometimes to rectify problems they perceived in a given reading, either due to divergence from another gospel or manuscript, or due to theological “discrepancies” (Ehrman, 481-85).
4 “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” in The Documents of Vatican II, edited by Walter M. Abbot, pp. 120-21.