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 4

The History and Results of the Process


Abundant evidence exists, and is constantly growing, to show that critical opinion and methods were known at least from the very days of the formation of the New Testament canon. But we shall sketch the history only in modern times. The era of printing necessarily marked a new epoch here.

Among available manuscripts choice must be made and a standard set, and, in view of the material at hand, it is remarkable how ably the work was done. It began in Spain under Cardinal Ximenes of Toledo, who printed at Alcala (Complutum) in 1514 the New Testament volume of his great Polyglot, though it was not actually issued until 1522. Meanwhile the great Erasmus, under patronage of Froben the printer, of Basel, had been preparing a Greek New Testament, and it was published early in 1516 in a single volume and at low cost and had reached its third edition by 1522. His fourth edition of 1527 contains Erasmus's Definitive Text, and besides using Cardinal Ximenes's, had the advantage of minuscule manuscripts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

The next important step was taken by Robert Estienne (Stephanus), whose third edition, Regia, a folio published in Paris in 1550, was a distinct advance, and, though based distinctly upon the work of Ximenes and Erasmus, had marginal readings from fifteen new manuscripts, one of which was Codex Bezse (D). The learned Theodore Beza himself worked with Stephanus's son Henri and brought out no less than nine editions of the New Testament, but no great critical advance was made in them. The same may be said of the seven Elzevir editions brought out at Leyden and Amsterdam between 1624 and 1678, the second, that of 1633, in the preface of which occurs the phrase "Textum ergo habes nunc, ab omnibus receptum," becoming the continental standard as the 1550 edition of Stephanus has for England. Thus we arrive at the Textus Receptus and the period of preparation is closed.

The second period, or that of discovery and research, was ushered in by the great London Polyglot of 1657, edited by Brian Walton (later Bishop of Chester), with collations by Archbishop Ussher, of fifteen fresh manuscripts, including Codex A and Codex 59. But Dr. John Mill, of Oxford, was the Erasmus of this period, and in 1707, after thirty years of labor, brought out the Greek Textus Receptus with fresh collations of seventy-eight manuscripts, many versions, and quotations from the early Fathers. His manuscripts included A, B, D, E, K, 28, 33, 59, 69, 71, the Peshitto, the Old Latin, the Vulgate, and his Prolegomena set a new standard for textual criticism. This apparatus was rightly appreciated by Richard Bentley, of Cambridge, and a revised text of the Greek and of the Vulgate New Testament was projected along lines which have prevailed until this day. The work and wide correspondence of Bentley had stirred up continental scholars, and J. A. Bengel published, in 1734, at Tübingen, a Greek New Testament with the first suggestion as to genealogical classification of manuscripts. J. J. Wetstein, of Basle and Amsterdam, though a very great collector of data and the author of the system of manuscript notation which has continued ever since, made little critical advance. J. S. Semler, taking Wetstein's material, began rightly to interpret it, and his pupil, J. J. Griesbach, carried the work still further, clearly distinguishing for the first time a Western, an Alexandrian, and a Constantinopolitan recension. With Carl Laehmann began the last epoch in New Testament criticism, which has succeeded in going behind the Textus Receptus and establishing an authentic text based on the most ancient sources. He applied the critical methods with which he was familiar in editing the classics, and with the help of P. Buttmann produced an edition in 1842-50 which led the way directly toward the goal. But they were limited in materials and Teschendorf soon furnished these. G. F. C. Teschendorf, both as collector and editor, is the foremost man thus far in the field. His eighth edition, 1872, of the Greek New Testament, together with his Prolegomena, completed and published by C. R. Gregory, set a new standard. Dr. Gregory's German edition of the Prolegomena (1900-09) supplemented by his Die Griechischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments (1908), marks the further advances of the master through his master pupil. Meanwhile S. P. Tregelles was doing almost as prodigious and valuable a work in England, and thus preparing for the final advances at Cambridge. F. H. A. Scrivener also ranks high, and did extremely valuable though somewhat conservative work in the same direction.

In 1881 "the greatest edition ever published," according to Professor Souter, was brought out in England coincident with the Revised Version of the English New Testament. This, together with their introduction, which the same writer characterizes as "an achievement never surpassed in the scholarship of any country," was the joint product of B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, friends and coworkers for many years in the University of Cambridge. Thus with the end of the nineteenth century the history of the process may be said to close, though both process and progress still advance with ever-increasing triumph. The present century has already received the earnest of what is destined to follow in this great field in the monumental work (Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments in ihrer altesten erreichbaren Textgestalt hergestellt, auf Grund ihrer Textgeschichte. Berlin, 1900-1912) of Dr. Freiherr Von Soden, whose passing so recently has sorely bereft the New Testament world. Part I (Untersuchungen) of two thousand pages has already deeply influenced both thought and method in the entire world of criticism. His fruitful life while Professor in the University of Berlin is only paralleled by that of Professor Dr. Caspar René Gregory, of the University of Leipzig, to whom we look with high expectation for what will probably be the definitive text of the Greek New Testament for generations to come.