The publication this November of the Tyndale House Greek New Testament (THGNT) is a major development in the field of textual criticism. I find it quite interesting that this Fall also witnessed the publication of A New Approach to Textual Criticism (Wasserman and Gurry) a valuable volume that seeks to explain the theory behind the widely utilized Greek NT called the Nestle-Aland 28th ed. and its sister, the United Bible Society’s 5th ed. These GNTs will now vie for the attention in the academic world of NT studies.
So what is the big deal about “textual criticism” and why are there rivals for our attention? Just a little context to help us approach this subject that is a bit arcane to many, even including scholars.
The Roots of Textual Criticism
Modern textual criticism has its roots in the nineteenth century with the British scholar S.P. Tregelles, the Cambridge contemporaries BF Westcott and FJA Hort, and the German Constantine Tischendorf, who each published a GNT. Their work together effectively dethroned the supremacy of the Textus Receptus, the 16th century text drawn largely from Erasmus’ GNT, based on only a handful of late medieval manuscripts, and which served as the basis for the venerable King James Version.
These four scholars gave prominence to the great fourth century manuscripts, Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete copies of the GNT ever discovered (Vaticanus is missing a few books at the end). Every English translation, except for the New King James Version, has been based on an eclectic text drawn largely from those two codices, as well as from the recently discovered papyri and other “uncial” or majuscule manuscripts up to the eighth century AD.
The Evolution of Textual Criticism
Refinements to this approach to NT textual criticism were made in the twentieth century by such scholars as Bruce Metzger, who were responsible for a view called Reasoned Eclecticism, which based textual decisions on a combination of external evidence (the manuscripts) and internal evidence (canons which helped to determine which reading gave rise to the other variant readings). In other words, the variant reading which had the most ancient attestation and made more sense as the shorter or harder reading, was judged to be the original reading.
A theory of “text-types” also developed in the last century where text-clusters labeled as Alexandrian, Western and Byzantine were thought to group manuscripts that had similar readings, with the Alexandrian viewed as earliest and Byzantine viewed as later and inferior in quality. A valuable book by Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the GNT, sought to explain the reasons behind the textual choices in the critical texts, at least through NA27 and UBS4.
Concerns about the Reasoned Eclecticism approach were expressed centering on the “fuzziness” of the boundaries of those text-types mentioned above. Furthermore, the subjective element involved in judging what was the most probable original text caused scholars in the German Bible Society along with some British colleagues, to explore a “new way” as an alternative to this “traditional” approach.
The last decade has witnessed the rise to power of the Coherence Based Genealogical Method, an approach drawing heavily on computer analysis of a representative number of texts resulting in global stemmata of similar readings and determination of what its proponents call the “initial text.” An attempt to simplify this method can be found here.
The huge multi-volume project called the Editio Critica Maior has published their findings in the Catholic Epistles and the Book of Acts, although the NA28/UBS5 reflect the approximately 3 dozen changes in the Catholic Epistles only. Most of the changes are not radically different from the NA27/UBS4, except for the “Jesus” reading in Jude 5 and a conjectural emendation in 2 Peter 3:10 (in no Greek text but in two versions). Future versions of the NA/UBS will reflect further readings approved by the application of the CBGM to the other sections of the GNT.
The Latest Edition of the Greek New Testament
The Tyndale House GNT published by Crossway, which I call the THGNT, is an attempt to revive the “documentary approach” of Tregelles/Westcott-Hort, and Tischendorf. The editors state that primacy should be given to the earliest “documents,” the Greek manuscripts prior to the sixth century, in determining the most ancient reading. Tregelles’ approach and text is the basis for where they start. The further evidence of manuscripts discovered after Tregelles is also given due weight. I do not read anything about “text-types” in the Introduction to the THGNT. They also have studied closely the scribal habits of the early texts and reach conclusions on some spellings and book order that, in my opinion, are quite creative and on target.
While this article is not a review of the strengths and weaknesses of any of the above approaches, I find the resulting product of the Tyndale House scholars who put together the THGNT after ten years of hard labor, to be well worth your serious attention.
You may be surprised that the THGNT is not that different from the text of the NA27/UBS4, while mostly not agreeing with the changes in NA28 (except for Jude 5!). The textual footnotes are “lean and mean,” with the essential documentary evidence clearly listed. Not every textual unit containing a variant is mentioned, but the main ones affecting translation are. The layout is beautiful and helpful, often reflecting the scribal text divisions which moderns call “paragraphs.”
I hope that the THGNT will call us back to a documentary approach that is being lost among the well-intentioned but, in my opinion, confusing approach of the scholars committed to the CBGM. I fear that if we do not return to the documentary approach witnessed in the THGNT, textual criticism will become the provenance of a sophisticated textual analysis performed by computer software. I know those are strong words, and they bear no malice to those advocating the CBGM, but are intended to point out a return to the old paths, laid out by the admirable work titled The Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge.