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 3

The Methods of Critical Procedure


Here, as in other disciplines, "necessity is the mother of invention," and the principles of critical procedure rest almost entirely on the data connected with the errors and discrepancies which have consciously or unconsciously crept into the text. The dictum of Dr. Salmon, that "God has at no time given his Church a text absolutely free from ambiguity" is true warrant for free and continued inquiry into this attractive field of study.

The process of textual criticism has gradually evolved certain rules based upon judgments formed after patiently classifying and taking into account all the documentary evidence available both internally and externally.

1. An older reading is preferable to one later, since it is presumed to be nearer the original. However, mere age is no sure proof of purity, as it is now clear that very many of the corruptions of the text became current at an early date, so that in some cases it is found that later copies really represent the more ancient reading.

2. A more difficult reading, if well supported, is preferable to one that is easier, since it is the tendency of copyists to substitute an easy, well-known, and smooth reading for one that was harsh, unusual, and ungrammatical. This was commonly done with the best of intentions, the scribe supposing he was rendering a real service to truth.

3. A shorter is preferable to a longer reading, since here again the common tendency of scribes is toward additions and insertions rather than omissions. Hence arose, in the first place, the marginal glosses and insertions between the lines which later transcribers incorporated into the text. Although this rule has been widely accepted, it must be applied with discrimination, in some cases a longer reading being clearly more in harmony with the style of the original, or the shorter having arisen from a case of homœoteleuton.

4. A reading is preferable, other things being equal, from which the origin of all alternative readings can most clearly be derived. This principle is at once of the utmost importance, and at the same time demands the most careful application. It is a sharp two-edged sword, dangerous alike to the user and his opponent.

5. A reading is preferable, says Scrivener, "which best suits the peculiar style, manner, and habits of thought of an author, it being the tendency of copyists to overlook the idiosyncrasies of the writer. Yet habit, or the love of critical correction, may sometimes lead the scribe to change the text to his author's more usual style, as well as to depart from it through inadvertence, so that we may clearly apply the rule where the external evidence is not unequally balanced."

6. A reading is preferable which reflects no doctrinal bias, whether orthodox, on the one side, or heretical on the other. This principle is so obvious that it is accepted on all sides, but in practice wide divergence arises, owing to the doctrinal bias of the critic himself.

These are the main canons of internal evidence. On the side of external evidence may be briefly summarized what has already been implied:

1. A more ancient reading is usually one that is supported by the more ancient manuscripts.

2. A reading which has the undoubted support of the earliest manuscripts, versions, and patristic writers is unquestionably original.

3. A disagreement of early authorities usually indicates the existence of a corruption prior to them all.

4. Mere numerical preponderance of witnesses to a reading of any one class, locality, or time, is of comparative insignificance.

5. Great significance must be granted to the testimony in favor of a reading by witnesses from localities, or times widely apart, and it can only be satisfactorily met by a balancing agreement of witnesses also from different times and localities.

These rules, though they are all excellent and each has been employed by different critics with good results, are now somewhat displaced, or, rather, supplemented by the application of a principle very widely used, though not discovered, by Westcott and Hort, known as the principle of genealogy of manuscripts. Inspection of the very broad range of witnesses to the New Testament text has led to their classification into groups and families, according to their prevailing errors, it being obvious that the greater the community of error the closer will be the relationship of witnesses.

Although some of the terms used by Westcott and Hort, as well as their content, have given rise to well-placed criticism, yet their grouping of manuscripts is so self-convincing that it bids fair, with but little modification, to hold, as it has done thus far, first place in the field.

Sir Frederick G. Kenyon1 has so admirably stated the method that the gist of his account will be given, largely using his identical words.

As in all scientific textual criticism, four steps are followed by Westcott and Hort: (1) The individual readings and the authorities for them are studied; (2) an estimate is formed of the character of the several authorities; (3) an effort is made to group these authorities as descendants of common ancestors; and (4) the individual readings are again taken up and the first provisional estimate of their comparative probability revised in the light of the knowledge gained as to the value and interrelation of the several authorities.

Applying these methods, four groups of texts emerge from the mass of early witnesses:

1. The Antiochian, or Syrian, the most popular of all, and that at the base of the Greek Textus Receptus and the English Authorized Versions. In the Gospels the great uncials A and C support it, as well as N Σ and Φ, most of the later uncials and almost all minuscules, the Peshitto Syrian Version, and the bulk of the Church Fathers from Chrysostom.

2. The Neutral, a term giving rise to criticism on all sides, and by some displaced by the term "Egyptian." This group is small, but of high antiquity, including א B L T Ξ, A and C, save in the Gospels, the Coptic Versions, especially the Bohairic, and some of the minuscules, notably 33 and 81.

3. The Alexandrian, closely akin to the Neutral group, not found wholly in any one manuscript, but traceable in such manuscripts as א C L X, 33, and the Bohairic Version when they differ from the other members headed by B.

4. The Western, another term considered ambiguous, since it includes some important manuscripts and Fathers very ancient and very Eastern. Here belong DD 2 E 2 F 2 G 2 among the uncials, 28, 235, 383, 565, 614, 700, and 876 among the minuscules, the Old Syriac and Old Latin and sometimes the Sahidic Versions.

Of these groups, by far the most superior, is the Neutral, though Westcott and Hort have made it so exclusively coincide with Codex B that they appear at times to have broken one of the great commandments of a philologist as quoted by Dr. Nestle from a German professor—"Thou shalt worship no Codices."

Now, the only serious dispute centers on the apparent slight which this system may have done to the so-called Western type of texts in group four. The variants to this family are extensive and important, and appear due to an extremely free handling of the text at some early date when scribes felt themselves at liberty to vary the language of the sacred books, and even to insert additional passages of considerable length. Although this type of text is of very early origin, and though prevalent in the East was very early carried to the West, and, being widely known there, has been called Western, yet because of the liberties above referred to, its critical value is not high save in the one field of omissions. In Egypt, however, and especially Alexandria, just as in the case of the Old Testament, the text of the New Testament was critically considered and conserved, and doubtless the family called Neutral, as well as the Alexandrian, springs up here, and through close association with Caesarea becomes prevalent in Palestine, and is destined to prevail everywhere.

The Westcott and Hort contention, that the Antiochian text arose as a formal attempt at repeated revision of the original text in Antioch, is not so convincing, but for want of a better theory still holds its place. Their objections, however, to its characteristic readings are well taken and everywhere accepted, even Von Soden practically agreeing here, though naming it the Κοινή text. It is also interesting to find that Von Soden's Hesychian text so closely parallels the Neutral- Alexandrian above and his Jerusalem family the Western. And thus we arrive at the present consensus of opinion as to the genealogical source of the text of the New Testament.



1) Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament. F. G. Kenyon.