The Canon, Text, and Manuscripts of the New Testament

By Charles Fremont Sitterly


Its sources, its errors, and the methods, history, and results of its criticism

Chapter 2

The Necessity of Sifting and Criticizing the Evidence


Criticism from its very nature concerns itself entirely with the problems suggested by the errors of various kinds which it brings to light. In the writings of the New Testament the resources of textual evidence are so vast, exceeding, as we have seen, those of any other ancient literature, sacred or secular, that the area of actual error is relatively quite appreciable, though it must be remembered that this very abundance of textual variety ultimately makes for the integrity and doctrinal unity of the teaching of the New Testament books. Conjectural emendation, which has played so large a part in the restoration of other writings, has but slight place in the textual criticism of the New Testament, whose materials are so abundant that the difficulty is rather to select right readings than to invent them.

We have catalogued the principal sources of right readings, but on the most casual investigations of them discover large numbers of wrong readings mingled with the true, and must proceed to consider the sources of error, or various readings, as they are called, of which approximately some two hundred thousand are known to exist in the various manuscripts, versions, patristic citations, and other data for the text. "Not," as Dr. Warfield says, "that there are two hundred thousand places in the New Testament where various readings occur, but there are nearly two hundred thousand readings all told, and in many cases the documents so differ among themselves that many various readings are counted on a single word, for each document is compared in turn with one standard and the number of its divergencies ascertained; then these sums are themselves added together and the result given as the number of actually observed variations." Dr. Ezra Abbott was accustomed to remark that "about nineteen twentieths of the variations have so little support that, although they are various readings, no one would think of them as rival readings; and nineteen twentieths of the remainder are of so little importance that their adoption or rejection would cause no appreciable difference in the sense of the passages where they occur." Dr. Hort's view was, that "upon about one word in eight, various readings exist, supported by about sufficient evidence to bid us pause and look at it; about one word in sixty has various readings upon it, supported by such evidence as to render our decision nice and difficult, but so man}'' variations are trivial that about one word in every thousand has upon it substantial variation supported by such evidence as to call out the effort of the critic in deciding between the readings."

The oft-repeated dictum of Bentley is still valid, that "the real text of the sacred writers is competently exact, nor is one article of faith or moral precept either perverted or lost, choose awkwardly as you will, choose the worst by design out of the whole lump of readings."

Despite all this, the true scholar must be completely furnished rightly to discriminate in the matter of diverse readings. From the very nature of the case it is probable that errors should be frequent in the New Testament. Even printed works are not free from them, as is seen in the most carefully edited editions of the English Bible; but in manuscripts they are increased in direct proportion to the number of various copies still extant.

There are two classes of errors giving rise to various readings, unconscious or unintentional and conscious or intentional. Of the first class, that of unconscious errors, there are usually named five kinds:

1. Errors of the eye, where the sight of the copyist confuses letters or endings that are similar, writing, for example,

Ε for C; O for Ɵ; Α for Λ or Δ; Π for TI; ΠAN for TIAN; M for ΛΛ.

Here should be named homœoteleuton, which arises when two successive lines in a copy end with the same word or syllable, and the eye, catching the second line instead of the first, the copyist omits the intervening words, as in Codex C of John vi, 39.

2. Errors of the pen. Here are classed all that body of variations due to the miswriting by the penman of what lay correctly enough in his mind, but through carelessness he failed rightly to transfer to the new copy. Transpositions of similar letters has evidently occurred in Codices E, M, and H of Mark xiv, 65; also in Codex H 2 and Codex L 2 of Acts xiii, 23.

3. Errors of speech. Here are included those variations which have sprung from the habitual forms of speech to which the scribe in the particular case was accustomed, and which he, therefore, was inclined to write. Under this head comes itacism, arising from the confusion of vowels and diphthongs, especially in dictation. Thus: ι is constantly written for ει and vice versa; αι for ε; η and ι for ει; η and οι for υ; o for ω; ε for η. It is observed that in Codex א we have scribal preference for i alone, while in Codex B ει is preferred.

4. Errors of memory. These are explained as having arisen from "the copyist holding a clause or sequence in his somewhat treacherous memory between the glance at the manuscript to be copied and his writing down what he saw there." Here are classed the numerous petty changes in the order of the words and the substitution of synonyms; as, εἶπεν for ἔφη; ἐκ for ἀπό and, and vice versa.

5. Errors of judgment. Under this class Dr. Warfield cites "many misreadings of abbreviations, as also the adoption of marginal glosses into the text by which much of the most striking corruption which has ever entered the text has been produced." Notable instances of this type of error are found in John v, 1-4, explaining how it happened that the waters of Bethesda were healing; John vii, 53 to viii, 12, the passage concerning the adulteress, and the last twelve verses of Mark.

Turning to the second class, that of conscious or intentional errors, we may tabulate:

1. Linguistic or rhetorical corrections, no doubt often made in entire good faith under the impression that an error had previously crept into the text and needed correcting. Thus, second aorist terminations in α are changed to ο, and the like.

2. Historical corrections. Under this head is placed all that group of changes similar to the case in Mark i, 2, where the phrase "Isaiah, the prophet," is changed into "the prophets."

3. Harmonistic corrections. These are quite frequent in the Gospels; for example, the attempted assimilation of the Lord's Prayer in Luke to the fuller form in Matthew, and quite possibly the addition of the words "of sin" to the phrase in John viii, 34, "Every one that doeth sin is a slave." A certain group of harmonistic corruptions, where scribes allow the memory, perhaps unconsciously, to affect their writing, may rightly be classed under errors of memory, previously noted in paragraph No. 4, on page 45.

4. Doctrinal corrections. Of these it is difficult to assert any unquestioned cases unless it be the celebrated trinitarian passage, 1 John v, 7, 8a , or the several passages in which fasting is coupled with prayer, as in Matt, xvii, 21; Mark ix, 29; Acts x, 30; and 1 Cor. vii, 5.

5. Liturgical corrections. These are very common, especially in the Lectionaries, as at the beginning of lessons, and are even found in early uncials, for example, Luke viii, 31; x, 23, and elsewhere.