In the last post, we looked at a pretty clear-cut case (Mark 1:2) in which the Byzantine variant (the one found in the text of the KJV and NKJV but in the footnotes of the NIV, RSV, ESV, and NASB) was likely the scribal error and the Alexandrian variant (in the text of these other English versions but in the marginal notes of the KJV) was likely true to the autograph. But is it always this way, with the errant variant appearing in the KJV and the accurate one in these other translations? No. Almost no unbiased textual critic would say that any single Greek New Testament or any single English translation has with 100% accuracy made the correct determination with regard to every place where variants occur in the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament. Let me offer an example where--in my opinion--the evidence is pretty clear-cut in the opposite direction.
There is a significant variant found among the ancient copies surviving to today of what we call Matthew 5:22, a portion of Jesus' teaching known as the 'Sermon on the Mount.' The following translation, from the ESV, is representative of the translations that adopt the essentially Alexandrian text found in Wescott and Hort and in the more recent Aland et al. editions of the Greek New Testament.
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.After the word 'brother' my ESV Study Bible has a superscript directing me to a footnote that informs me that "Some manuscripts insert 'without cause.'" At this same place, a King James Study Bible has
But I say unto you that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of judgment.and the footnote informs us that "Some ancient manuscripts omit 'without a cause.'" So which is the original--inclusion or omission of this phrase--and which is the the result of an early scribe's having changed it (either accidentally or intentionally)? Let's consider the evidence, beginning with the external evidence.
The oldest manuscripts, including Aleph, B, and P67, do not include the phrase at issue. It is for this reason that most modern English translations (and the editors of the Greek New Testaments from which they were translated) leave the phrase out. The vast majority of ancient copies contain the phrase, but all of these are from later (many of them as late as the 9th century). For the editors and translators who leave the phrase out (as in the NIV, RSV, ESV, and NASB), the principle "prefer the oldest reading" wins out here. Before coming back and arguing why I believe this is wrong, let's first look at the internal evidence.
Most critics believe that this is a case of intentional error rather than that some scribe accidently omitted or inserted the phrase in question. But as I have mentioned, internal evidence can be subjective. Some argue that the autograph did not include the phrase and that some later scribe inserted it in order to soften Jesus' teaching on anger. Others argue that the autograph contained the phrase and that some later scribe--believing Jesus to have taken too soft a line--omitted it. I believe that several other considerations make the latter the much more likely scenario.
For one thing, the 2nd- and 3rd-century church tended to be more legalistic even than the church in Matthew's time. This argues against a scribe of that period desiring to soften Jesus' teaching.
Secondly, there are several other cases in this very same sermon of Jesus' in which He qualifies His statements in a similar manner (in 5:32, for example, an exception is made to Jesus' prohibition against divorce). In these other cases, all ancient manuscripts agree--that is, there are no variants, and we know that Jesus must, indeed, have so qualified His statements.
More importantly, we learn by comparison with other New Testament passages, that anger in itself is not always sinful. There is such a thing as righteous indignation, and Jesus Himself displays it (as with the money lenders at the Temple and with the pharisees and their hypocrisy). Indeed, we are commanded elsewhere in Scripture (Eph. 4:26) to "Be angry." These examples would seem to offer irreconcilable contradictions to the bald prohibition against anger in Matthew 5:22, unless the autograph there did in fact include the disputed, qualifying phrase.
For all of these reasons, I believe the internal evidence argues persuasively to the conclusion that the autograph contained the words translated "without a cause." Let's turn back now to the external evidence.
In my opinion, there is good reason--in this specific case and more generally--to question the uncritical acceptance of the principle 'prefer the oldest reading.' For one thing, in this and many other cases, both the Byzantine and the Western text types are united against the Alexandrian in having the other variant.* That is, while we can be certain that the Alexandrian variant existed at an early date, it may very well be that the region immediately surrounding Alexandria, Egypt was the only place in the world of that time where that variant could be found. In other words, everywhere else in the Christian world of the third century, a follower of Christ reading the text of Matthew's gospel would have found at this point the words 'without a cause.'
That this was the case is made very probable by the recognition--shared by almost all textual critics, if only they would stop to think about it--that virtually all of these variants arose prior to the late third century, by which time the process of discerning the canon of Scripture had begun. When this is considered, it becomes almost a moot point as to whether we have any manuscripts surviving from that early date.
Let me put it another way... The different variants are believed to have arisen prior to the end of the third century AD, and subsequent copying is believed to be true to the variant found generally in any given region. Thus, whatever variant existed by the turn of the fourth century in, say, Rome, would have been copied with great precision from then on in that region. The variant existing in Alexandria at that time would have been faithfully copied throughout that region by every subsequent Alexandrian scribe. B and Aleph date only to the early fourth century. The fact that they survived to the present while their contemporary Western and Byzantine manuscripts (with their unique variants) did not survive is an interesting artifact of climate, but would seem to have no bearing on the question of which variant preceeded the other. Both Aleph and B--the most complete and important early manuscripts--date from after the time at which the variants are believed to have been 'fixed' (as it were) in the respective areas of Christendom.
So this is a case (and not a unique one), where I believe that the evidence (internal and external) is overwhelmingly in favor of the variant that in most modern English translations is relegated to the marginal notes or foot notes. And the problem here is an unwillingness (on the part of the editor) to examine these significant variants on a case-by-case basis.
Fortunately, any serious student of the New Testament can fairly easily (and without knowing Greek) determine for herself (on a case-by-case basis) how persuasive is the textual evidence for and against the decision made by the editors of a particular version with regard to the choice among significant variants in the ancient manuscripts.
*In 1881, Wescott and Hort argued that the Byzantine text tradition was a conflation of the Western and Alexandrian. In support of this thesis, they identified 8 sets of variants in which the Alexandrian and Western texts were in agreement with one another and against the Byzantine. But this line of reasoning can be demonstrated to involve special pleading. A greater number of cases can be identified where it is the Alexandrian (Wescott and Hort's preferred text type) that stands alone against the Western and Byzantine traditions.