Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament (2005)

Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, 4th ed. (2005)

This book is a textbook on “both the science and the art of textual criticism as applied to the New Testament” (xv). It is organized in three parts. Part I, “The Materials for the Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” presents an overview of ancient bookmaking practices and gives a narrative catalogue of the chief witnesses to the text of the New Testament. Part II, “The History of New Testament Textual Criticism as Reflected in Printed Editions of the Greek Testament,” surveys the textual character of printed Greek New Testaments from the Textus Receptus to the NA27 and UBS4. Part III, “The Application of Textual Criticism to the Text of the New Testament,” describes the development of scientific text criticism from Hellenistic Alexandria to the digital age, lists the types of textual errors found in the witnesses to the NT, describes some scholarly uses of textual variants outside the realm of text criticism, and closes with worked examples of the text criticism of several NT passages.

Part I begins in chapter 1 with a brief overview of ancient bookmaking practices, highlighting various parts of the process that produced variants among the textual witnesses to the NT, namely:

  • types of handwriting
  • reusing the parchment a text is written on (palimpsests)
  • abbreviations and nomina sacra
  • the διορθωτής correcting manuscripts after they were produced
  • fatigue brought on by the typical scribe’s working conditions

This chapter also catalogues the various “helps for readers” (33) found in manuscripts of the NT, like chapter divisions (κεφάλαια), titles of chapters (τίτλοι), and introductory material appended to the beginnings of texts.

Chapter 2 describes the various witnesses to the NT’s text. For each of the Greek manuscripts (arranged from oldest type to youngest—papyri first, then majuscules, then minuscules), Metzger and Ehrman give the date it was copied, its current contents (and, sometimes, its original contents and pagination), its text-type (Western, Alexandrian, Byzantine, Caesarean, or an mixture of the above), and any special features of the manuscript worth noting. Next, they list and briefly describe the ancient versions (i.e., translations) of the NT, giving the dates of composition, text-type affinities, and significant manuscripts for each. Finally, they very briefly mention how patristic quotations of the NT are useful for text criticism.

Part II narrates the history of the rise of the Textus Receptus (TR), its reign as the most commonly used Greek NT (chapter 3), and its demise at the hands of the Greek New Testaments produced through scientific text criticism (chapter 4).

The first printed Greek NT was produced in Spain in 1514 as part of a multivolume Hebrew-Aramaic-Greek-Latin polyglot bible (the Complutensian Polyglot) that was completed in 1520 and began circulating in 1522. However, even though this was the first printed edition of the Greek NT, it was not the first edition to circulate publicly; Erasmus’ edition claimed this honor in 1516, though because Erasmus rushed his edition to press so that it would be published before the Complutensian Polyglot, he did not have time to consult good textual witnesses, so his text is faulty in a great many places.

Erasmus’ edition quickly became the most popular edition of the Greek NT, and it was widely accepted as the only authoritative edition of the Greek NT. Over the subsequent few centuries, many scholars produced editions of the Greek NT that differed from the TR in various readings; however, they all faced severe opposition, including excommunication or being forced from ecclesiastical positions.

In the late 1700s, Johann Jakob Griesbach, a German scholar, laid the groundwork for modern text criticism; he set forth 15 canons of text criticism, which he used to produce a Greek NT that differed quite substantially from the TR. Over the next half-century, many new manuscripts came to light, and several scholars produced critical editions of the Greek NT, culminating, roughly 60 years after Griesbach’s edition, with Karl Lachmann’s critical edition of the Greek NT. Lachmann’s edition broke totally with the TR; instead, it depended solely on the results of text criticism, and, although his edition itself is not very good—since it depends on a very small number of manuscripts—it is important for inaugurating the age of scientific text criticism of the Greek NT.

In addition to Griesbach and Lachmann, Westcott and Hort are two very important figures in the history of NT text criticism. In the second volume of their New Testament in the Original Greek, Hort details the methodology that he and Westcott followed in producing their edition of the text, and he discusses the different text-types into which he and Westcott categorized the various manuscript witnesses (Syrian [the latest and least reliable], Western, Alexandrian, and Neutral [the most reliable].

Finally, the fruits of modern text criticism may be found in the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, 4th rev. ed. (UBS4) and in the 26th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (NA26; now actually in a 27th and 28th edition [NA27 and NA28, respectively]). These texts were produced by committees of scholars working with all the available textual witnesses, from papyri on through the patristic citations.

Part III outlines the process of modern text criticism of the Greek NT. It begins with chapter 5, a brief overview of how the practice of text criticism developed, tracing it from Hellenistic Alexandria through Renaissance Europe—material that seems more at home at the beginning of Part II than Part III.

Next, in chapter 6, Metzger and Ehrman give an overview of different approaches to text criticism: the “classical method,” which follows Lachmann’s methodology (i.e., eclecticism, with readings weighted by the manuscript’s text-type), and reactions against Lachmannian text criticism from Joseph Bédier (who argued for pure eclecticism rather than using manuscript genealogies) and Albert C. Clark (who argued that scribal omissions were far more common than scribal interpolations); Streeter’s theory of “local texts” as the source of manuscript variation; diplomatic text criticism, using the Majority Text (which is Byzantine) as a base text; thoroughgoing eclecticism, which judges variant readings based not on text-type but on the book’s content and the author’s style; and, finally, conjectural emendation, which “classical” text criticism regularly employed when all of the readings of a text were equally bad. Chapter 6 ends with an overview of modern (= computer-based, mostly) tools for NT text criticism, and several ongoing projects (as of 2005), which make/made use of those tools. As with chapter 5, chapter 6 seems much better suited to Part II, since it largely covers the history of NT text criticism.

Chapter 7 is a partial catalogue of “the causes of error in the transmission of the text of the New Testament” (250), which I have condensed here.

Chapter 8 recounts the how the text of the NT was transmitted, tracing the development of the Alexandrian, Western, and Byzantine text-types and placing that process in the context of how other early Christian literature was disseminated. (Strangely, though the book makes frequent reference to the Caesarean text-type, it does not discuss the Caesarean along with the others, but instead discusses it on three pages in the next chapter.) Next, this chapter gives six ways in which textual data is useful for historians of early Christianity: 1) It gives information about early Christian doctrinal debates; 2) It provides data about Jewish-Christian relations; 3) It gives us information about gender roles in early Christianity; 4) It provides evidence of Christian apologia; 5) It provides information about early Christian asceticism; and 6) It provides data about the place of magic and fortune-telling in early Christianity.

The last chapter, chapter 9, gives an overview and several worked examples of how to perform text criticism on a particular NT text, the principles of which I have condensed here.

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