Tuesday, August 12, 2008

More on Textual Criticism

(This is the fifth post of this series. Understanding this post will likely require reading the previous ones...)

Now, as you might imagine, the thousands of ancient copies of the New Testament vary in other ways, like age and distribution. The Alexandrian text type is represented by many of the oldest manuscripts, but this manuscript tradition is also deemed to be the most localized of the three. What goes this mean? Well, if at a particular place in Scripture we find only two variants, one represented exclusively in the Alexandrian text type and the other shared by the Western and the Byzantine, two conclusions follow. First, we can be certain that the variant found in the Alexandrian is a very old reading.

On the other hand, that variant may have been found (at that early date) only in a very small portion of the Christian world, the area immediately surrounding Alexandria. This is true because (as you'll remember from the last post) scholars believe that virtually all of the variants arose by the middle of the third century. (This paragraph foreshadows a point I'll argue a bit later.)

Now, in the process that leads to an English translation of the New Testament, most of the significant textual criticism--the wrestling with the issues we've been discussing--does not occur at the translation phase, but rather is done by those who have previously worked up an entire Greek New Testament. The translators, of course, are conversant with the issues, and have decisions to make about whether to include (as a footnote or marginal note) a particular alternate reading. But by and large, an editorial team will begin by choosing a Greek New Testament from which to translate, and will make very few (if any) amendments to the textual decisions made by that Greek NT's editors.

Two such Greek New Testaments far surpass in importance any others, and all of the major English translations are based upon one of the two. These are the Textus Receptus, published by Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1518 and another, The New Testament in the Original Greek, published by Wescott and Hort in 1881.

In the next post, we'll take a look at what textual evidence was available to these editors and the decisions they made in compiling their respective Greek New Testaments.

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