Wednesday, August 14, 2013

History of the New Testament Text

I had a great time last night in Colorado Springs with the Passages exhibit that Steve Green of Hobby Lobby has been putting together over the last few years. The exhibit is truly breathtaking if you’re someone who likes the history of the Bible.

New additions this time included the microfiche of the Bible that went to the moon on Apollo 14 (they tried to get it there with Apollo 13. But as you know, they never made it down to the surface). They also have the original scribbled text of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which the woman who wrote it jotted down in the dark in the middle of the night. That is in addition to all the manuscripts and early printed Bibles. Amazing stuff if you’re a person like me.

And I got to talk about manuscripts to a popular audience that loves manuscripts. That’s gold for someone like me. I have to think that, as ancient manuscripts go, I have to be one of the more entertaining speakers. Some people laughed at my jokes… others looked like that old man at the wedding in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

In any case, something coalesced in my mind as I prepared for last night that, for some reason, had never really clicked for me about the most likely scenario for how the early manuscript traditions developed in the first few centuries. I’ve always glazed over at the mention of “Alexandrian,” “Western,” “Caesarean,” and “Byzantine” textual traditions. But here is my current “coalesced” understanding.

1. The Original Texts (the “Alexandrian” tradition)
The NT books were written at varying places and times. After their authors began to pass from the scene, they were shared within the network of early believers. This copying immediately introduced not only normal types of errors in copying but the dynamic I mention in #2 below. However, one strand of copying, often associated with the Egyptian city of Alexandria, was apparently more meticulous about preserving the text as it stood.

The two most famous manuscripts of this sort are Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, which perhaps date from the early 300s. Nevertheless, the basic reading of these manuscripts have more or less been corroborated by even more ancient papyri that have surfaced in the last century. In my mind, what confirms the more likely originality of this “tradition” is the fact that its readings more consistently correspond to the readings that seem more original when you apply common sense to the variations among all manuscripts. If its readings are more original, it is generally easier to account for how the other readings might have arisen in copying.

2. The “Western” Texts
Ancient texts were “oral documents.” Most people were illiterate in the ancient world and we can easily suspect that the vast majority of Christian assemblies in the year AD100 did not have a written copy of the Bible. The books were read aloud and almost certainly more recited than read from a scroll in the earliest days in most house churches.

The evidence suggests that the message of the biblical texts was far more the point of bringing Scripture into worship times than reading the precise original wording. The result is what I like to think of as the “Eugene Peterson effect.” That is to say, the text was paraphrased in the interest of communicating the message as clearly as possible. Textual scholars, somewhat derogatively, sometimes call this period of textual transmission in the early second century the “wild” period, but this betrays anachronistic values. The purpose was clarity in the message, like Eugene Peterson’s famous translation, The Message.

3. The Byzantine Tradition
After Christianity became a legal religion there was a movement toward standardization in the 300s and early 400s. It is in this period that we get the Trinity, the New Testament canon, the Vulgate in Latin and, arguably, the origins of the Byzantine tradition in Greek. This is the clean, standardized text that Christians would use in worship all the way to the late twentieth century.

4. The Modern, Eclectic Text
Although the Greek text used in all modern translations but the New KJV roughly coincide with the "Alexandrian" text, it is really an "eclectic" text in which the translators and editors have gone verse by verse, making decisions variation by variation.  It thus would have readings from all of the so called traditions above.

So there you have it… much clearer than I remember hearing it from Bob Lyon in Textual Criticism class in seminary. But then again, I was probably dozing off.


Susan Moore said...

Thanks for explaining.
I should ask -is it ok to copy and paste some of your explanations onto a word document for reference? For instance, definitions/descriptions of 'church words' are still helpful to me, such as the different texts.

Ken Schenck said...

Sure :-)