Thursday, May 31, 2007

New Testament Manuscripts

I'm wondering if it bothers anyone else that as historians (in order to illuminate the first and second centuries of Christianity) we are using an eclectic version of our manuscripts of the New Testament created by a modern committee?

The Nestle-Aland text not only doesn't exist in manuscript form, it certainly does not represent any version of NT texts from the first or second centuries. If you think about it, according to the manuscripts we do possess, a Christian living in Alexandria will have knowledge of different version of the texts from those Christians living in Syria, Asia Minor, Rome, or Gaul.

What does this mean for historians studying early Christianity and using the eclectic text as our foundation? Are we operating under false impressions? - that we know exactly what the Gospel of Mark read in the first century, and that this was the same everywhere geographically?

Certainly there is the critical apparatus to consult. But this doesn't give us an actual reading of the Alexandrian text, for instance.

What I'm asking is this, shouldn't we create a synopsis of our manuscript families, so that we can read the Alexandrian text side-by-side with the Western text, and so forth? I know that we still won't be able to know what the manuscript tradition actually looked like in the first century, but at least we can begin to talk about the text basis for variant forms of Christianity in different geographical locations.

If you know of a synopsis like this that already exists, please share that information with me. I am ignorant on this subject.

If not, are there any textual scholars among us who might be interested in producing such a synopsis? I think it would revolutionize our field.


Stephen C. Carlson said...

In one sense, the "Alexandria text" and the "Western text" are scholarly constructs just as artificial as the original text, currently based on eclectic principles. Ironically, with the exception of the Byzantine archetype, it may even be more difficult to reconstruct their archetypal texts (assuming it even exists) than the original. Moreover, even if we did reconstruct these text, they may only be valid for the third and fourth centuries because the usual text-types seem to dissolve when we go back to the second century into what Kurt Aland calls strict and free texts.

A less artificial approach can be found in Reuben Swanson's series of New Testament Greek Manuscripts (so far from Matthew through Galatians), which presents the text of about 30 or so of the earliest and/or most important manuscripts. His format is very easy to use and it has the theoretical benefit of presenting actual texts in use. Unfortunately, most of them are too late for the early Christianity and some textual criticism would be required to peer back into the earliest Christian periods.

Michael F. Bird said...

April, this issue has been raised over at the website "Evangelical Textual Criticism". Many commentators have reached the point that they are unsure about writing commentaries based on electic texts, since they are writing a commentary on a text that does not physically exist, at least not in manuscript form. The approach being undertaken in the Septuagint Commentary Series (eds. Stan Porter and Richard Hess [Brill]) is for commentators to use a single text like Vaticanus as the text for their commentary (see David A. deSilva's fine study on 4 Maccabees).

Patrick G. McCullough said...

I think a synopsis would be grand. Logos Bible software accomplishes this a little bit with their tool to compare parallel Bible versions along with Comfort & Barrett's Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts. You can check out their blog post about it here. I'm guessing a lot of Logos stuff, particularly on their blog, might be a little too chummy with the church for you, but it seems like a good tool nonetheless. I don't know if any other Bible programs have something similar. I'd be interested in hearing from others what flaws there may be in this tool.

I also appreciate both Stephen's and Michael's responses, by the way.

Rebecca said...

In a rather different area of ancient religious literature, the Hekhalot literature, Peter Schafer and his colleagues produced a synopsis of 7 important manuscripts of the Hekhalot texts - representing the medieval European textual tradition. His claim was that it is impossible to make a critical edition of the Hekhalot texts because there was no authority to impose a final redactional form on them. James Davila, on the other hand, argues that it is possible to create a critical edition of these texts, in particular of Hekhalot Rabbati, using normal text-critical methods.

Matteo Grosso said...

I am very concerned about the issue you rose. I think that to solve this fustrating problem it would require first of all an intensive training for historians about the right significance and the correct use of a NT critical edition. That would be already a step forward. Then a synopsis (at least including the most important manuscripts) would be very welcome by all us! In its absence we can take advantage of the Swanson's series of NT Greek Manuscripts, as prof. Carlson said.

Peter M. Head said...

Good question!
For one attempt see J.K. Elliott, C. Amphoux & J.-C. Haelewyck, ‘The Marc multilingue Project’ Fil. Neot. 15 (2002)3-17.
Summary: Problems of Markan text require a new approach: not a critical edition, but an edition that reproduces the texts of the major manuscripts and ‘text-forms’ objectively (but in their proposed order of development); e.g. six versions of Mark 1.40-45: D, W, Q, ), B, A. No reconstructed ‘original text’; but the earliest witnesses to Mark set out in full. Each language will have a volume of their own (ten volumes in all: Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Gothic, Georgian, Arabic, Christian-Palestinian Aramaic, Slavic).