I recently read Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Kregal, 2006). This book was written by J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace. A significant part of the book deals with textual criticism. There are a large number of manuscripts of New Testament writings, yet we do not have an original text. How can we know which manuscripts are faithful to what the original text said? This book offers solutions.
I've blogged about textual criticism in the past. See here, here, and here for examples. Yet, I did learn some things in reading Reinventing Jesus, particularly when the book was talking about external criteria in terms of evaluating manuscripts. Here are three issues:
In debates against King James Version-Only advocates, defenders of the
Alexandria manuscripts hold that they are reliable because they are
early. But are earlier manuscripts necessarily better? The book offers
reasons that earlier could be better, on page 84:
preferred variant or reading normally is the one found in the earliest
manuscripts. Less time has elapsed between those manuscripts and the
originals and fewer intermediary copies have introduced errors. The
more direct pipeline a manuscript has to the original, the better are
its chances of getting the wording right."
But the book does not
treat "earlier is better" (my words) as an absolute. For one, a later
scribe who is more meticulous may produce a text that's more reliable
than one from an earlier scribe who is not particularly meticulous.
Moreover, a later manuscript can have old material. For example, on
page 78, the book says that Vaticanus is similar to a papyrus from a
century earlier. It was argued that Vaticanus copied from the papyrus,
but now it's believed that they both used a common ancient source, for
"the wording in Vaticanus is certainly more primitive than that of P75
in several places."
2. Another external criterion that the book
discusses is "genealogical solidarity". A point that I get out of this
discussion is that a particular version is more reliable than a
manuscript that has a mixture of versions. For example, the Alexandrian
and the Western text-types came from the second century, and church
fathers quoted them. But the Byzantine text-type came later, as one can
see from how it draws from Alexandrian and Western text-types.
Consequently, I'm gathering, the book considers the Alexandrian and
Western text-types to be more reliable. Moreover, in trying to
determine which Alexandrian manuscript is better, one should prefer the
text that does not contain Western and Byzantine readings. When
Alexandrian manuscripts agree on a reading, "then scholars can be
relatively assured that the Alexandrian local original had that reading"
(page 86). The Alexandrian manuscripts had to get their common reading
from somewhere, after all.
This makes sense to me, but I have to
confess that I have not extensively read the KJV-Only side of the
debate, which is rather critical of the Alexandrian manuscripts.
The third external criterion is "geographical distribution". The idea
here is that, if a reading is widely distributed geographically, then
the reading is probably from an earlier source. On page 88, the book
says: "Collusion of witnesses is much less probable when these witnesses
are distributed in Rome and Alexandria and Caesarea than when they are
all in Jerusalem or Antioch."
I have some difficulty understanding
this criterion, to tell you the truth. First of all, what is the
"Collusion of witnesses" that the book thinks would be so bad (if it
existed)? Second, couldn't a reading have emerged in one place and then
spread out to other places?
(UPDATE: Bart Ehrman in Lost Christianities says that the
rationale behind the geographical distribution criterion is that, if a
reading is found in a variety of places, there's less of a likelihood
that it is merely a local variant, and local variants are not
Despite my cloudiness on this
criterion, it does make a degree of sense to me: if texts in vastly
different places agree on a reading, then they are probably getting
their reading from an earlier source.
The book also discusses
internal criteria----looking at the content of the manuscripts
themselves to determine which reading is earlier and which is later.
The book also discusses an example in which internal criteria conflicted
with external criteria! But I won't get into that in this post. But
feel free to read the book if you are interested!