Textual Criticism

The general goal of NT textual criticism is to establish what the original text of the NT was. The sin qua none of textual criticism, then, is reading and comparing ancient manuscripts of the text. Prior to recent times, the only way to do this was to have the right connections and be able to travel to various major libraries around the world which happen to have the manuscripts in their collections. This obviously rendered the ability to look at manuscripts out of reach of almost everyone who would even be interested in doing so. But, thanks to internet and high-quality digital imaging, things have changed!

Digital access to manuscripts

Dr. Peter Gentry, a textual critic and one of my professors commented on several occasions in class that it is actually better to look at a high-resolution image of a manuscript than to read the manuscript in person (you can zoom in, cameras can catch details difficult to see with the naked eye, etc.). Now, doubtless there is value in physically examining the manuscripts, but it is telling that practicing text-critical scholars prefer digital images to the originals. We live in unprecedented times regarding access to high-quality images of manuscripts. The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts is working on digitally imaging all the extant NT manuscripts with high-quality images freely available online. The important early Uncial manuscripts (“Uncial” means written in what we would call capital letters) are available in various places online. Most of the manuscripts of any age relevant for NT textual criticism can be viewed by anyone with an internet connection! What else could anyone want?

The coolest NT text critical project you might not have heard of

Well, I just found a truly fantastic NT text-critical project. Over at the Center for New Testament Restoration Alan Bunning has set up a really neat project. Here’s their introductory description:

Welcome to the Center for New Testament Restoration (CNTR): “Bringing scientific textual criticism to the masses”. The latest draft of the CNTR Project Description is regularly being updated to reflect the latest developments of the project and is becoming a must read in the field of textual criticism. With the completion its first major milestone, the CNTR has released digital transcriptions of almost every known extant Greek manuscript containing portions of the New Testament up to the year 400 AD. The CNTR database now contains over 1.5 million words featuring 196 early witnesses from extant manuscripts. The CNTR collation has already been used in the creation of two new critical texts – the Tyndale House Greek New Testament (THGNT) and the Bunning Heuristic Prototype (BHP) which serves as the basis for the unfoldingWord Greek New Testament (UGNT).

The useful features

This project enables the user to search the NT by verse and then see the readings of all the extant manuscripts up to approx. AD 400. It also shows the readings given in a variety of different critical Greek NT: Westcott and Hort, Nestle-Aland 28, SBL, Robinson-Pierpont, King James Textus Receptus, and Stephanus’ text. On the readout there are also links to collations of the manuscripts (that is, a type-out of the text on the manuscript) and many of these are then linked to online images of the manuscripts. How cool is that? Here is what the results for a verse look like:

The “famous” text critical issue of Romans 5.1

Anyone who has ever looked at the apparatus of a critical NT text can appreciate how much easier these entries are to read! They don’t cover as much material as those apparatuses, so they are obviously not replacements. They do, though, provide an easy way to view the early manuscript evidence and to see how various critical modern texts (with ‘modern’ covering from the 1500’s on) have handled each passage. It provides a really nice way to read manuscript text.

The site also allows searching by manuscript rather than verse. This allows reading the collations of various entire manuscripts as they are laid out on the page rather than isolated verses.

Other resources

Aside from the actual features on the site, there are a variety of downloadable documents and datasets. One really nice publication is a reference guide to Greek where the text is written in an uncial font. It is basically an overview of everything one learns in introductory Greek only all the Greek text is “capital letters” rather than the “lower case” letters we usually read that were developed in the Middle Ages. Given that all the texts in this project are written in uncials, this document can serve as a helpful primer on reading uncial texts. There is also a retroverted Greek New Testament of the Greek that lays behind the King James NT, a nice-looking uncial font that approximates actual written Greek for download, and some datasets.

A closing reflection on this project and on text-criticism

I really like this project and highly recommend it for other people who are interested in the academic study of the Greek NT. I am more skeptical of its “democratic” aim of “Bringing scientific textual criticism to the masses”. Quoting further from the page:

For so long, the early Greek New Testament has been obfuscated from the average Christian because of incomplete data, restricted access, biased scholarship, financial barriers, and educational obstacles. The mission of the CNTR is to provide free, accessible, accurate electronic Greek texts and materials to encourage people to directly interact with the words of the New Testament. Not merely for the sake of head knowledge, but that many would apply this knowledge and be born again of the Spirit (John 3:3) by repenting of their sins (Acts 2:38) and receiving Jesus Christ as Lord of their lives (Rom. 10:9-10).

To this I say both Yes and Amen! and Whoa, there, wait a minute. On the plus side, I like that this project gives easy access to data that is still otherwise difficult to find. This is very useful to those with an academic interest in the Greek NT. It is also a useful way to show that the variation in NT manuscripts which people like Bart Ehrman have trumpeted in modern times really is not that great. In that sense, someone without very much Greek knowledge could benefit from this resource. On the negative side, there is an inherent danger in access to information that one doesn’t have a meaningful framework within which to understand it. The great strength of this resource is its verse by verse display of the readings of extant texts. A verse by verse approach is, however, fraught with its own problems. I will discuss this more in one of my next couple posts, but in short, a variant reading in a particular manuscript for a particular verse may actually testify to a pattern of variation for a particular scribe, rather than indicating an actual variant reading. Treating isolated verses without considering the whole manuscript they are in (which is not a big deal with a good many of the manuscripts cited here, as they tend to be short and fragmentary) can be misleading. With that caveat in mind, I find this project to be really great and heartily recommend it to any and all with an interest in the Greek NT.

The featured image is a picture of GA P101, Leaf 1 Recto, of Matthew 3.10+ taken by The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, available here. Copyright: “Faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works are considered to be in the public domain in the United States (see Bridgeman Art Library, LTD. v. Corel Corp., 1999). Reproduction of this content may be restricted in other jurisdictions.”