(This is the eighth post in a series. Reading the others would be helpful in understanding this one.)
So, in our modern English translations of the New Testament, we tend to have either an essentially Byzantine set of variants (King James and New King James) or an essentially Alexandrian set of variants (NIV, NASB, ESV, RSV, etc.). Remember that no essential Christian doctrine depends upon any of these variants. Indeed, if we were to eliminate every passage in which variants occur--and use only those passages in which all the relevant copies agree completely--what would be the result? We would have the very same picture of Jesus--a miracle-working, divine Son of God who died by crucifixion and three days later was raised in a glorified physical body.
But which is better, the Alexandrian set of variants or the Byzantine? Do both have their merits? What are the criteria that would help us decide?
Let's review the sorts of evidence available to textual critics and the principles involved in assessing that evidence, and then I'll discuss four approaches to using that evidence (identifying where the various editors seem to fall).
Textual criticism looks at two types of evidence, internal and external evidence. The primary principle of internal evidence is that we should prefer the reading that best explains how the other readings arose. This principle summarizes others (like prefer the more difficult reading or prefer the shorter reading). Here's an example...
Two variants are found in Mark 1:2. Some ancient manuscripts read "As it is written in Isaiah the prophet...", whereas others read "As it is written in the prophets..." The Scripture that is subsequently quoted is found in both Isaiah and Malachi. Considering the internal evidence, most scholars would agree that the autograph (what Mark wrote) was probably "in Isaiah the prophet" and that some early scribe 'improved' the verse by changing it to "in the prophets." It is more difficult to understand why any scribe would have changed it the other way--from "in the prophets" to "in Isaiah the prophet."
Consideration of external evidence involves looking at the number and date of the manuscripts associated with each variant. The two main principles here are 1) prefer the oldest reading and 2) prefer the more widespread reading.
In the case of Mark 1:2, the oldest manuscripts (Aleph and B and the early papyri) have "in Isaiah the prophet." Moreover, this is also a place where both the Alexandrian and the Western text types are characterized by that reading. Only the Byzantine type has "in the prophets." This case is thus a pretty clear-cut one: the internal evidence supports the reading "in Isaiah the prophet," and this reading is both the more widespread of the two variants and the one attested to by the earliest extant manuscripts.
Other cases are not so clear. For example, sometimes the internal evidence would lead to a different conclusion than the external evidence. In those cases, most scholars place more emphasis on the external evidence, since the internal evidence can often be subjective. More problematic are the cases where the external evidence itself is contradictory. That is, frequently the reading that has the oldest attestation is the less widespread one. While we can tell for certain (based on what is contained in, say, the Chester Beatty Papyri) that a particular variant dates to at least the third century, the evidence of the earliest Western and Byzantine manuscripts would suggest that Alexandria and its immediate surroundings may have been the only locale where that variant was found.
By and large, Wescott and Hort--and the many subsequent scholars who have followed them (somewhat uncritically, in my opinion)--allow the principle "prefer the oldest reading" to trump the principle "prefer the most widespread reading." This bias leads to instances where I believe that those translations (NIV, RSV, NASB, ESV) that accept the "oldest is best" thesis of Wescott and Hort have included in the main text the errant variant and have relegated to the margin or footnote the variant that was likely found in the autograph.
In the next post, I'll examine one such case, that of Matthew 5:22. Did Jesus say that "everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment" or did He qualify that anger with the phrase "without a cause"? In preparation for that discussion, look it up in your study Bible and see how its editors have chosen to treat this set of variants.