My weekend series of hermeneutical biography. It started with...
1. My early realizations about context...
and continued with last weekend's start of discussing issues of the biblical text:
2.1 Issues of the Biblical Text
2.2 Manuscripts, Manuscripts
We now join that show in progress...
In the end, it was not the so called "external evidence" of the manuscripts that convinced me to switch sides on matters of the biblical text. I was nowhere near knowledgeable enough to know whether the majority model about manuscript traditions was correct when I took the course in textual criticism at Asbury with Bob Lyon. I still don't know all the details. The consensus model is basically that at Alexandria, as especially embodied by manuscripts like Sinaiticus and Vaticanus and even earlier papyri, there was a fairly conservative copying tradition, the Alexandrian tradition. This is the most reliable manuscript tradition.
Then there is the Byzantine tradition, which generally corresponds to the Majority Text and what would become the Textus Receptus, the "received text" first put together when Erasmus first set the Greek New Testament to type. There was also the "Western" tradition of the Italic manuscripts and a few key Greek manuscripts like D, Codex Bezae. From time to time other textual traditions are also suggested.
This was all a fine story but I had no clue whether it was true or not when I went to seminary. I remember Dr. Lyon asking me after class once if I was a closet textus receptus guy. ;-) It made sense to me in general that an older manuscript was closer to the original than a later one. But in the end, it was common sense that prevailed. The basic rules of textual criticism, collected and perfected by Westcott and Hort, but originated in the years before them, made consummate sense. "Manuscripts must be weighed, not counted," because a thousand copies can be made of a bad manuscript.
Here's the mother of all rules: That reading is most likely to be original that best explains how the other variations would have arisen. There it is, so simple, so commonsensical. If one manuscript is missing a line other manuscripts have, and you can see that the same word would have been located about a line apart, then it's reasonable to assume that some copyist's eye skipped, from the end of one line to the end of the next, leaving out a line.
What this implies is that the "more difficult reading" is more likely to be original, because it is more likely that a copyist would smooth out roughness of some sort rather than mess it up. So, ironically, the Byzantine tradition is a smoother, more harmonized text than the Alexandrian. The majority of manuscripts at Colossians 1:14 read, "in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins." The fact that modern translations omit the italicized phrase is no conspiracy, some lack of faith in the blood (after all, the blood is mentioned in 1:20). Rather, the earliest manuscripts lack the phrase and some scribe likely added it accidentally because he was thinking of Ephesians 1:7 where all manuscripts, including the earliest ones, have the phrase.
Conspiracy theories about modern translators are thus pure nonsense, based on ignorance of the manuscript situation. Disagree with textual scholars you may, but don't vilify them.
Let me use as an example the most famous of manuscript issues, the longer ending of Mark, Mark 16:9-20. The words of this text are attested early in some church fathers. However, it is not clear that those earliest church fathers were quoting Mark. They could have been drawing from something else. The earliest Greek manuscripts we have of Mark don't have these verses, and a couple key church fathers from the 300s and 400s indicate it was a minority reading at the time. The earliest manuscripts have nothing after 16:8 and there is another shorter ending in some manuscripts.
It was not the preceding paragraph that convinced me that 16:9-20 were not in the original. It was simply reading the flow. In Mark 16:1-8 the women, including Mary Magdalene, come to the tomb and find the stone rolled away. A young man appears to them, announces Jesus' resurrection, and instructs the women to go tell Peter to go to Galilee to meet him. But they don't. They tell know one because they were afraid...
And then it begins all over again: "Now after he had risen early on the first day of the week..." Now he is appearing to Mary Magdalene (with no mention of the earlier scene), who did you know he had cast seven demons out of? She goes and tells the disciples. Wait, what about the earlier statement that the women told no one? The verses that follow read like a summary of stories from other gospels (e.g., the men on the road to Emmaus from Luke 24 are in Mark 16:12. The Great Commission from Matthew 28 is in 16:15).
In short, Mark 16:9-20 know nothing about Mark 1:1-8. It reads like someone has inserted this summary of resurrection appearances from somewhere else. It is thus the "internal evidence" that convinced me that the vast majority of textual scholars were right on this issue. And it was the consistent alliance of the internal evidence with the textual traditions of the so called Alexandrian tradition that brought my secondary confidence in the prevailing sense of the external evidence. If you apply the commonsense model to the variations in the text, it consistently aligns with the manuscript tradition Westcott and Hort considered most reliable.
So in the case of Mark, the best explanation of the situation, in my opinion, is that the original ending of Mark was lost very, very early. It's possible Mark originally ended at 16:8 but I suspect there was originally more here. Two endings were added over time to try to make up for the abrupt sense of ending. The longer ending was taken from some early second century synopsis of the gospels, but a shorter one was created as well.
Since the longer ending is a more pleasing ending than an abrupt ending with the women telling no one, it was the reading that gained currency in worship and in copying. Thus the majority of manuscripts--mostly medieval since the older ones wore out--have the longer ending. But the older and more reliable ones don't. There's no conspiracy to take words out. There's no fiendishness to try to end the gospel on a dubious note. There is simply the following of the evidence to its most likely conclusion...