Chances are that you’ve played the game “Telephone” some time in your life. “Telephone” is the game in which a group of people gather around in a circle. One person thinks up a message, and whispers it to the next person, who whispers it to the next person, and so on around the circle, until you reach the end and the final person repeats the message aloud. The first person then states the original message.
The two sentences often cannot be recognized as related.
Even if you haven’t played “Telephone,” you must have read a book or a magazine which was filled with typographical errors. And that’s in a case where the typesetter has the author’s original manuscript before him, and professional proofreaders were engaged to correct errors.
Now imagine what happens when a document is copied, by hand, tens of thousands of times, long after the original manuscript has been destroyed. Imagine it being copied by barely literate scribes standing (not sitting, standing) at cold desks in bad light for hours on end, trying to read some other scribe’s barely legible handwriting.
Imagine trying to do that when the words are written in all upper-case letters, with no spaces between words, and you’re writing on poor-quality paper with a scratchy reed pen using ink you made yourself.
Because that’s what happened with all ancient books, and with the New Testament in particular. Not all scribes were as bad as the secretary Chaucer poked such fun at in the quote above, but none were perfect — and few had the New Testament authors looking over their shoulders to make corrections.
After a few centuries of that, it’s easy to imagine that the text of the New Testament would no longer bear any relationship to the original. Human beings just aren’t equipped to be exact copyists. And the more human beings involved in the process, the worse the situation becomes.
Fortunately, the situation is not as grim as the above picture would suggest. Despite all those incompetent scribes making all those incompetent copies, the text of the New Testament is in relatively good shape. The fact that copies were being made constantly, by intent scribes under the supervision of careful proofreaders, meant that the text stayed fairly fixed. It is estimated that seven-eighths of the New Testament text is certain — all the major manuscripts agree, and scholars are satisfied that their agreement is correct. Most of the rest is tolerably certain — we probably know the original reading, and even if we aren’t sure, the variation does not significantly affect the sense of the passage. For a work so old, and existing in so many copies, this fact is at once amazing and comforting.
Still, there are variations in the manuscripts of the New Testament, and some of them are important. It is rare for such variants to affect a fundamental Christian doctrine, but they certainly can affect the course of our theological arguments. And in any case, we would like the most accurate text of the New Testament possible.
That is the purpose of textual criticism: Working with the materials available, to reconstruct the original text of an ancient document with as much accuracy as possible. It’s not always an easy job, and scholars do sometimes disagree. But we will try to outline some of the methods of New Testament textual criticism in this article, so that you too can understand the differences between Bibles, and all those odd little footnotes that read something like “Other ancient authorities read….”
Types of Manuscripts
If the task of reconstructing the text of the New Testament may be compared to a detective story, then our “witnesses” are the ancient manuscripts. Manuscripts fall into three basic categories: Greek manuscripts, ancient translations (generally called “versions”), and quotations in ancient authors.
The analogy to witnesses in court is apt. Some of our witnesses are fragmentary; they preserve only small parts of the story (though often important parts). Others are fairly complete, but are not very reliable. Each witness has its own peculiarities, which must be taken into account as we decide between readings. As one scholar put it, to be a successful textual critic, you must “know the personality of your witnesses.”
Of the three classes of witnesses mentioned — Greek manuscripts, versions, and quotations — the most important are the manuscripts, since they preserve the wording in the original language and in the original order. (Exception: the lectionary manuscripts, of course, do not preserve the order.) The oldest Greek manuscripts date from the second century; from that time on, the number of manuscripts grows ever greater until the thirteenth century, then comes to a fairly abrupt halt at the end of the fifteenth century (when first the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and then the printing of the first Greek Testament in 1516 reduced the need for manuscript copies). These manuscripts take various forms, and the form of the manuscript (arrangement of columns and lines, style of script used, etc.) can sometimes influence the sorts of readings we find in it.
The books of the New Testament were almost certainly originally written on scrolls. We see evidence of this in the texts of Matthew and Luke, both of which drastically compressed the material in Mark in order to make their books fit on the largest possible scroll. These scrolls were probably of papyrus, which was the cheapest and most important writing material in the ancient world.
But the urge to collect the writings that eventually made up the New Testament must have been very strong. It is generally believed that collections of Paul’s writings were in existence by 100 C.E. if not earlier. This posed a problem: A collection containing the writings of Paul, or the four gospels, was far too long for a single scroll. A complete New Testament would have been even more impossible.
The solution was the form of book known as the codex. This is, in fact, what moderns think of as a “book.” Instead of sheets being placed side to side to produce a immensely long single “page,” they were folded over each other, permitting books of any length — and, not insignificantly, saving expensive writing material (since codices could be written on both sides). The Christian church seems to have adopted codices with great enthusiasm; over 99% of known New Testament manuscripts are in codex form, and the few minor exceptions were already-written scrolls that Christians salvaged and reused.
The earliest manuscripts rarely if ever contained complete New Testaments (for one thing, the canon of the New Testament was not finally settled until about the fourth century). Most manuscripts contained only one section — Gospels, Paul, Acts and Catholic Epistles, Revelation. In addition, early manuscripts are often incomplete — pages have been lost, or parts of pages have become decayed or torn or simply illegible.
Part of the problem is the writing material. Our earliest surviving manuscripts are written on papyrus, which grows brittle with age and can be ruined by damp. Only in Egypt has the dry climate allowed a few papyrus manuscripts to endure, and even these are often damaged. (A few papyri buried, e.g., in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius are only a minor exception; these were not Christian writings. These papyri were in fact numerous, but badly damaged, very difficult to read — very many were destroyed in the attempt to open them — and not very valuable) With the exception of the papyrus nown as P72 (which contains the books of 1 and 2 Peter and Jude in their entirety, along with non-scriptural writings), not one papyrus contains the complete text of any book. A papyrus manuscript: a portion of one section of P13, containing part of Hebrews. Note the uncial (all-uppercase) letters and the lack of spaces between words, as well as the damage to the 1700-year-old material.
Papyrus was not the only writing material used in the ancient world, however. Parchment — the carefully prepared skins of animals — was also available. It was, in fact, a better material, at once stronger, smoother (which made attractive writing easier), and more durable. But it was also generally much more expensive. Papyrus is a plant, which grows quickly in Egypt. (There are some reports of papyrus being grown in Italy, but these are uncertain. It is likely that some papyrus sheets were finished in Rome, but this was probably based on imported materials. David Diringer, in The Book Before Printing, notes that the Latin papyri at Herculaneum were more brittle than those written in Greek, and speculates that this is due to the use of remanufactured papyri. Another possibility is that Italian papyrus, if it actually existed, was inferior.)
The early church was poor, and needed many books. Parchment was probably generally beyond its means. It was not until the church became legal in the reign of Constantine that parchment came to be widely used for church writings. Parchment and papyrus continued to be used side by side for many centuries. The heyday of papyrus manuscripts was the third and fourth centuries, but we have papyri from as late as the eighth century (by which time the Islamic conquest had largely suppressed Greek-speaking Christianity in Egypt). Parchment manuscripts first appear in the third century, and become common in the fourth; they remained dominant until the early part of the second millennium, when paper began to be used.
Both the papyri and the early parchments were written in a style of writing known as “uncial” (also sometimes called “majuscule”). This is, more or less, what we would call “upper-case letters.” The letters were large, and the various letterforms were not connected. For the most part, the letters fall between two lines. In the earliest manuscripts, there were no accents, no breathings, no punctuation, and no spaces between words. (This doubtless led to certain errors, as scribes misread undivided words and sentences. So, for example, in uncial script it would be easy to confuse ALLA and AMA.)
As the centuries passed, uncials grew more elaborate, with the letters sprouting serifs and other slow-to-write forms (the reader is invited to examine the chart of uncial letterforms). Manuscripts grew easier to read as scribes gradually started to add breathings, punctuation, etc., but these were slow to write and took up a great deal of writing material. What was needed was a cursive hand — but it was not until the ninth century that an appropriate script was developed (there were earlier Greek cursive hands, but they were not used for Biblical manuscripts, probably because they were not considered elegant enough). With the development of this script began the “age of the minuscule” — “minuscule” being the name given to both this cursive style and the manuscripts written in the style. The first minuscules were written in the ninth century, and by the end of the tenth century they had essentially driven the uncials out of use (uncials continued to be used in lectionaries for a few more years, but from the thirteenth century on we have no examples of the type except in a few marginal notes).
One of the best-known minuscule manuscripts: 1739, of the tenth century, with the run of the text in minuscule script and a colophon at the bottom in an uncial hand. (It is interesting to note that other languages followed a similar history. Early Latin manuscripts are written in Latin uncials, but as time passed, minuscules came into use. Unlike Greek minuscules, however, where the unity of the Byzantine Empire meant that the same general style was adopted throughout, different centers seem to have developed different minuscule styles; we see great variety in eighth and ninth century Latin manuscripts, until the Carolingian Minuscle became dominant.)
All told, there are somewhat more than 3000 continuous-text Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Between 85% and 90% of these are in minuscule script; the remaining 10-15% (uncials and papyri) are in uncial script.
It will be evident that some system is needed to keep track of all these assorted manuscripts. The present system, although somewhat imperfect, was adopted after centuries of trial and error and, frankly, confusion. In it, continuous-text manuscripts are divided into three classes: Papyri, Uncials, and Minuscules.
Papyri are written on (guess what) papyrus, in uncial script. As noted, the earliest papyri date from the second century, and the last date from the eighth. Papyri are designated by the letter P (often in a blackletter script) and a superscript letter. Thus P13, P45, P46, P47, P66, P72, P74, and P75 are among the most important papyri. As new papyri continue to be discovered, new numbers are added to the series (thus the lower the number, the earlier a papyrus was probably found). As of this writing, the number of known papyri is about one hundred. (Note that some papyri have more than one number, as different portions came to light at different times. So the actual number of manuscripts in a class will generally be slightly less than the nominal number.)
The second class of Greek manuscripts are the uncials. In a way, it is unfortunate that uncials are distinguished from papyri, since they are written in the same script and there is no great difference in age — the oldest uncials date from the third century; they continued to be written until the tenth/eleventh century. The difference lies only in the writing material: Uncials are written on parchment, papyri on papyrus. (It is true that most papyri are older than most uncials — the bulk of surviving papyri are from the third and fourth centuries, while uncials do not become common until the fourth century and the bulk of the surviving copies date from the sixth through ninth centuries. But it is important to remember that some of the best uncials are as old as or older than many of the papyri.)
Uncials were originally designated by letters, i.e. A, B, C, D. As the number of known uncials increased (the nominal number now stands at slightly over three hundred, but — as with the papyri — the same manuscript sometimes has multiple designations, meaning that the actual number is on the order of 270), it became necessary to use Greek letters, then Hebrew letters. Eventually scholars gave up and took to using a numbering scheme, with each uncial’s number preceded by a zero. Thus the manuscript A is now also called 02, B is 03, etc. However, most of the best-known manuscripts are still known by the letter designation they once had.
Beyond these are the minuscules, recognized by the script in which they are written (since they can be on either parchment or paper). The earliest minuscules date from the ninth century (overlapping the last uncials), and continued to be written up to, and even after, the appearance of the first printed New Testament in 1516. For the most part, minuscules are marked not only by their script but by the presence of accents, breathings, word spacing, paragraphs, punctuation — all the things whose absence made the early uncials so hard to read. Minuscules are given simple numbers, from 1 on up to the current total of about 2850.
There is a fourth class of Greek manuscripts, the lectionaries, which of course contain the lessons read in the Greek church in the order they are read. Lectionaries are quite numerous (about 2300 are now known), but most of them are late and fairly standardized. They may be written on parchment or paper, in uncial or minuscule script. Lectionaries are designated by a script letter followed by a number (e.g. 547 is the relatively well-known “Ferrar Lectionary,” so-called because its text resembles that found in the group of manuscripts called Family 13). To this point, they have not been very carefully studied, and they are rarely used in textual criticism. Since this article is intended to be short, we will say no more about them.
A list of some of the more important New Testament manuscripts is found elsewhere in this document.
In addition to the Greek manuscripts, we have the testimony of the “versions” — the ancient translations of the Greek New Testament. These are highly valuable in some ways — they are usually early (the oldest Latin, Syriac, and Coptic versions date from the second to fourth centuries, and the Armenian probably to the fifth), and we know what part of the world they come from. But they also have drawbacks: No translation, even if precise and literal (and not all these translations are) can exactly render the wording of the Greek original. Also, the versions have a textual history of their own, which means we have to reconstruct their readings. Finally, it is worth remembering that, although a version may exist in thousands of copies, it is usually translated from no more than a handful of Greek originals. Thus the versions are very important for determining the history of a variant reading, but sometimes less useful for determining the original text.
The final class of witnesses normally mentioned is the testimony of quotations in the Church Fathers. This is an amazingly rich resource — many, many authors quoted the New Testament over the centuries. And we usually know with fair precision both the date of the quotation and the place where the author wrote. Unfortunately, the authors often cited loosely, adding, paraphrasing, or omitting as they saw fit; they did not cite in order, they rarely cited long passages; and in any case, their works, just like the manuscripts themselves, have been subject to copying and corruption over the years. Hence the Fathers, like the versions, are best used to establish the history of the text.
A fourth class of witnesses, not normally mentioned in New Testament criticism because they have so small a role, are imitations.
Printed Versions of the New Testament
The first complete New Testament to be published was the edition of Erasmus, now known as the Textus Receptus (“The text received [by all]” — a phrase derived from an advertising blurb in a later edition!). This was published, with great haste and on the basis of only a handful of late manuscripts, in 1516 (the printer wanted to beat a rival edition onto the market, and so hurried Erasmus and then pushed the edition through the press without proper oversight). Yet it formed the basis for all Greek editions for over three centuries; Luther’s German translation and the English King James Version (as well as most of the English editions preceding the KJV) were translated from editions of the Textus Receptus.
The Textus Receptus had a text that was fairly typical of the manuscripts of its time, and for the first century or so of its existence no one worried much about its text. But in the early seventeenth century the Codex Alexandrinus arrived in England from the Middle East. This produced a sensation, since it was a very old (fifth century) manuscript which often disagreed violently with the Textus Receptus. Suddenly scholars began to realize that there were different forms of the New Testament text.
It was not until 1831, however, that Karl Lachmann (1793-1851) published the first Greek testament not based on the Textus Receptus. Lachmann’s edition differed from the Textus Receptus at thousands of points, some of them significant. His text came under immediate and intense attack. Yet almost every Greek edition since Lachmann’s time has been closer to his text than the Textus Receptus. The reason was that textual criticism was beginning to come into its own, and the Textus Receptus no longer appeared adequate.
The Practice of Textual Criticism
But why was the Textus Receptus inadequate? Although it was based on late manuscripts, and Lachmann’s text on early manuscripts, both are based on actual readings. They simply adopted different readings at points of variations. So why is Lachmann right and Erasmus wrong? How do we decide which reading is original?
Scholars have given many names to their answers, and they apply them in different ways. But fundamentally they use two tools: “Internal Evidence” and “External Evidence.”
Internal evidence (sometimes called “Transcriptional Probability” or the like) is based on logic: “Which reading best explains the others?” It asks questions like, “Is there an easy way for this reading to have been converted into that one?”
External evidence is based on the manuscripts. It looks for the reading based on the “best,” earliest, or most manuscripts.
Let’s show what we mean by looking not at the Bible but at a famous passage from Shakespeare — Hamlet, I.ii.129 (approximately; in my Yale Shakespeare, it’s I.ii.133). This is one of the key soliloquies. You’ve probably heard the first line as
O that this too too solid flesh would melt
It so happens that there are three early witnesses to this passage, and none of them read it in the above form. The first quarto, the earliest published form of the passage, gives it as
Oh that this too much grieu’d and sallied flesh
Would melt to nothing….
The second quarto, the next form to appear, reads
O that this too too sallied flesh would melt
The First Folio of 1623, the only source to contain all of Shakespeare’s plays, reads
O that this too too sollid flesh would melt
It is believed that the “sallied” of the second quarto is to be understood as “sullied.” The folio reading is a divergent spelling of the common reading “solid.”
So which is it? Solid flesh? Sullied flesh? Grieved and sallied flesh (which might in this case mean something like “battered”)?
The first quarto reading can be ignored; it comes from a “bad quarto,” imperfectly remembered by one of the actors of the play. But the second quarto and the first folio are both fairly good texts. And both readings make good sense. If it is “solid flesh,” it is natural to ask that it would melt. But “sullied flesh” has its own aptness, as Hamlet would have inherited it from his mother, who in her weakness has turned to Claudius. In choosing between them, a critic must decide which one best explains the other.
There is no definitive answer to this one. The Yale Shakespeare, as noted, reads “solid.” The Riverside Shakespeare dodges the issue and prints “sallied.” I personally think “sullied” the slightly better reading; it’s in the second quarto, now considered the best witness, and the first quarto reading seems to presuppose it; even the folio reading uses a similar spelling. But we can’t be certain; there is no guaranteed way to choose between the texts. This is the general problem of textual criticism, of which New Testament TC is a (somewhat exceptional, and certainly very important) example.
Rather than dwell on non-Biblical examples, let’s take a handful of Biblical examples. By seeing how an actual apparatus criticus (table of information about variations) is constructed, we can probably make things a lot clearer.
For our first example, take part of 1 John 2:23. The King James version renders its Greek text “Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father.” After this, however, they add, in italics (meaning that it is not a correct part of their text) “[but] he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also.” Almost all modern version accept this longer reading as original — that is, as part of the correct and original text.
In the Greek, this variation involves only eight words. The table below shows the various words used here, along with the manuscripts supporting them (it is customary in such apparati to leave out accents and breathings. We list witnesses in the order papyri, uncials, minuscules, versions, church fathers). The name “” in the third item refers to an important uncial manuscript known by that symbol. If a manuscript’s symbol appears in parenthesis, it means that it generally supports a particular reading but with some minor variation. If a manuscript’s symbol is followed by an asterisk (e.g. 1739*), it means that this was the reading written by the original scribe of the manuscript, which some later owner altered. The “corrected” reading (we put “corrected” in quotes because such corrections often replace a good early reading with a bad late one) is noted with a superscript c (e.g. 1739c) or sometimes, in older manuals, with two asterisks (e.g. 1739**). If a manuscript is marked vid, it means that the manuscript is incomplete or damaged, but the surviving portion seems to support the reading in question. Obviously we cite only a handful of the three-thousand-plus known manuscripts (many of which have not even been collated yet, so we couldn’t cite them even if we wanted to). A very brief description of most of the manuscripts cited here, including age, contents, and how various scholars have classified them, is found in the Description of Manuscripts of the Catholic Epistles.
o omologwn ton uion kai ton patera ecei — “the one who confesses the son has the father also” A B C P Y 5 33 206 223 323 614 623 630 1243 1505 1611 1739 1799 2138 2412 2495 vg pesh hark sa bomss arm
omit phrase — K L 049 6 38 42 69 88 97 177 181 201 216 226 319 330 356 398 424 436 440 462 479 483 489 547 582 635 642 704 876 917 920 927 999 1175 1240 1241 1248 1311 1315 1319 1424 1518? 1522 1597 1610 1738 1827 1829 1835 1845 1854 1872 1873 1874 1876 1888 1889 1891 1898 2143 2423 z boms Hilary(?)
These are by no means all the manuscripts supporting either reading, but they give the general impression. Much the larger share of manuscripts support the short reading, though they are mostly minuscules, while the early uncials without exception have the longer reading (K, L, and 049 are uncials, but of late date — ninth century or so).
The crucial matter, though, is the form of the reading. Note that both long and short readings end with the same set of letters: ton patera ecei. It would be very easy for a scribe’s eyes to skip from the first occurence to the second. This is the error known as homoioteleuton (“same ending”), and it is incredibly common. Almost all manuscripts display at least a few instances of it. We don’t as often see it affecting whole classes of manuscripts, but that is clearly the case here. The longer reading, despite being absent from the majority of manuscripts, is surely original.
A different sort of problem is illustrated by Matthew 19:20. Jesus is talking to the rich young man, and has just told him to keep the commandments. Does the young man say “I have kept all these” or “I have kept all these from my youth”? The evidence is as follows (f1 and f13 are small groups of closely related manuscripts; you can look up the manuscripts in the Description of Manuscripts of the Gospels):
ek neothtos mou — “from my youth” (c) C (D omits “my”) E F G H O W G D S f13 28 33 157 565 892 1006 1010 1071 1241 1243 1342 1424 1505 1506 a b c (d) e f ff2 h n q sy sa bo arm eth geo slav omit * B L Q f1 22 579 700* aur ff1 g1 l Cyprian
It is clear that the bulk of the manuscripts include the longer reading “from my youth.” On the other hand, the text without “from my youth” is supported by the two oldest manuscripts (* and B), and by several other manuscripts with what we shall learn are good or interesting texts. Most scholars would conclude, simply on the basis of the manuscripts, that the shorter reading is better.
But we have more evidence. This reading, of course, has parallels in Mark (10:20) and Luke (18:21). Both of the other gospels have the words “from my youth.” Now suppose you’re a scribe. You’ve heard the phrase “I have kept all these from my youth” a few zillion times in your life. Unless this is your first copy of the gospels, you’ve written it a few times in your life. If you encounter a copy without the words, wouldn’t you be tempted to add them? Certainly, if they were present already, you would have no tendency to delete them.
This process is known as “assimilation of parallels.” Scribes have a tendency to make texts read alike. If a text sounds familiar, the scribe tended to conform it exactly to the familiar form. (You may have done it yourself. Try reading this phrase: “To be, or not be, that is the question….” Did you notice the omission of the word “to” after “not”?)
So in all likelihood the original reading here is the one which omits “from my youth.”
You may have noticed that in both cases here we went against the reading supported by the majority of manuscripts. Does this mean that we are undemocratic?
In a word, yes. One of the great rules of textual criticism is that “manuscripts are to be weighed and not counted.” Some manuscripts are good, some are less good. (Though all are at least occasionally questionable; as Michael Holmes puts it, “none are perfect, not even one; all have flaws, and fall short of the glory of the autograph” — Michael Holmes in “A Case for Reasoned Eclecticism,” not yet published at the time of this writing.) So how do we decide?
This is a matter that scholars have been working on for centuries. When they began, the number of manuscripts known was much smaller than today, and old manuscripts were especially rare. Still, at about the turn of the nineteenth century a scholar named Griesbach (following the lead of Semler) discovered that the manuscripts known to him seemed to fall into three distinct groups. The largest of these groups, by far, he called the “Byzantine,” because most of the manuscripts it included were written in the late Byzantine period. The two smaller groups he labelled “Alexandrian” (because it agreed with the readings of such Alexandrian fathers as Origen and Cyril) and “Western” (because it was associated with the Latin versions used in the western Roman Empire). Thus arose the concept of “Text-types” — groups of manuscripts related at a stage more recent than the original.
This concept was refined in the second half of the nineteenth century by Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828-1892), who did most of his work in collaboration with Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901). Westcott and Hort adopted Griesbach’s Western and Byzantine types as given (although they called the Byzantine text “Syrian”); the Alexandrian text they split into two groups which they called “Neutral” and “Alexandrian.” (This latter distinction has been rejected by most scholars, who believe that the Neutral and Alexandrian text-types are just earlier and later forms of the same sort of text; they generally call it by the name “Alexandrian.”)
But Hort didn’t just affirm the identity of these types. The discovery that made Hort famous was that the Byzantine text was (in his view) late. Hort based this argument on a number of points (I have amplified some of these):
That none of the fathers before the fourth century preserve a characteristically Byzantine text (some have Byzantine readings, but not on a consistent basis).
That there are no early Byzantine manuscripts (in the Gospels, the earliest witness to the Byzantine text is A of the fifth century, and even it is not fully Byzantine; outside the gospels, there are no fully Byzantine witnesses prior to the ninth century)
That the Byzantine text is a consistently full, smooth text. Any difficult or disharmonious readings have been wiped away. This implies a gradual process of improvement over the years. Even if it came about suddenly (as a result of editing), the smooth readings must somehow have been before the editor.
That the Byzantine text shows many conflations — places where two earlier readings have been combined.
All of these points have problems. The first two remain true, but they are an argument from silence. The fourth point is weakened by the fact that conflations are not as common as Hort would imply, and occur in all types of manuscripts. The third point is the strongest by far, but has never been so fully tested as to satisfy everyone. (See the article on Byzantine priority.) Still, the overall thrust of Hort’s logic has convinced the majority of scholars. The Byzantine text-type — even though it contains nearly 90% of the witnesses, and has influenced most of the others — is regarded as a secondary product, derived from earlier text-types.
This left the field open to the earlier text-types, the Western and Alexandrian.
The Western text in the Gospels consisted of only one Greek witness (Codex Bezae, D/05, a well-known fifth or sixth century uncial), but it is supported by most of the Old Latin versions, and by quotations from many early writers such as Irenæus and Tertullian. The Old Syriac versions also seem to belong here, although they are not as pure and may have elements of other types. In the Acts, Bezae and the Old Latins are still the key elements of the type, although 614, the margin of the Harklean Syriac, and the other manuscripts of Family 2138 are believed by many to belong here. In Paul, the Old Latin still supports the type, as do the uncials D (here D is 06, Codex Claromontanus, of the sixth century, not Codex Bezae) and the closely-related ninth century pair F G. There are no known witnesses to the type in the Catholic Epistles or the Apocalypse.
The Alexandrian text, which includes the majority of the non-Byzantine witnesses, is more amorphous. It consists of both uncials and minuscules, as well as versions. In Hort’s time, the most important and basic witness to the type was the famous Codex Vaticanus, B/03, which contains the Gospels, Acts, and Catholic Epistles complete as well as most of the Pauline Epistles. It was also the earliest representative of the type, dating from the fourth century. Also from the fourth century, and nearly as important, is Codex Sinaiticus, /01, the only uncial to contain the entire New Testament. They are supported by the Coptic versions. In addition, they are supported in part by manuscripts such as the uncials C and L in the gospels and the uncials A and C in the Acts and Epistles, as well as by minuscules such as 33 579 892 1241 in the gospels and 33 81 1175 in the Acts and Epistles.
Most of these latter manuscripts, however, display a phenomenon known as “mixture.” This means that they contain readings from more than one text-type. Typically they will have some Alexandrian and some Byzantine readings, although there may be a few “Western” readings thrown in as well.
The reason for this is not hard to imagine. Unlike today, when books are cheap enough to simply be purchased and referred to only intermittently, old books were used. So the users were always writing notes, commentaries, and corrections in the margin. It was not unusual for a later copyist to assume these marginal remarks belonged in the text (or at least might belong in the text), and insert them into the manuscript he was writing.
Then, too, manuscripts were copied in a scriptorium, and corrected. A corrector (diorqwtes) would carefully read over the new copy, comparing it to some official, reputable copy. Often this reputable copy would not be of the same type as the manuscript used to make the original copy, meaning that the corrector would add readings of a second text-type to the once-pure text of the manuscript. We can actually see this happening in some manuscripts; 424 has a Byzantine text that has been corrected toward the readings of 1739, while many famous manuscripts (including and both Ds) have been corrected toward the Byzantine text. When new copies are made from these manuscripts, of course, the corrections go straight into the text of the copy, producing mixed manuscripts.
Mixture makes the task of textual criticism much harder. Since most manuscripts have more than one “parent,” it means that we cannot trace a simple genealogy. Although P75, B, and L are all related, L is not a child of B, which is not a child of P75. This means that we cannot simply go back up the generations to find the original reading of a text-type, let alone of the original text.
Still, by careful use of both internal and external evidence, it is usually possible to determine the readings of text-types. Hort, for instance, found that B preserved the readings of the Alexandrian/Neutral text in the large majority of cases.
But at this point Hort faced a problem. Both the Alexandrian and “Western” types were early, and went directly back to the original. How, then, did one decide between the two in cases where they disagreed?
Here Hort turned to internal evidence. The “Western” text, he found, was marked by paraphrase, expansion, and stylistic “improvements” of all sorts. The Alexandrian text, by contrast, was concise — even abrupt — and had more than its share of infelicitous readings.
On this basis, Hort concluded, the Neutral (Alexandrian) text was best and most reliable. Unlike the Western text, it was not rewritten; unlike the Byzantine text, it was not a mixture of older elements. The text printed by Westcott & Hort was largely that of the Alexandrian text, and of B in particular. And it was widely felt that the Westcott & Hort text was the best New Testament edition of the nineteenth century. Even today, our printed texts are strongly “Hortian.”
But the twentieth century has seen changes. New manuscripts — including all the papyri and many early uncial fragments — have been discovered. Our knowledge of the versions is much greater.
This has had many consequences. A new text-type — the “Cæsarean” — has been proposed (though its existence is not so widely accepted today as in the early part of the twentieth century). The various substantial papyri — particularly P46 and P75 — have altered our understanding of the early history of the text. Discoveries of new and better manuscripts of the Fathers have helped us understand all stages of that history. And new tools, some computer-aided, have allowed us to assess many manuscripts (especially minuscules) that had never previously been studied. We know of many manuscript groupings we had not previously been aware of. We have also learned that even the Byzantine text is not one great monolith; although it is the most coherent of the text-types, even it has phases and has undergone a certain amount of evolution.
List of New Testament Manuscripts
In the light of the complexity we now see in the relationships between manuscripts, we cannot do as Hort did and generally just follow the text of B. We need to be aware of all the non-Byzantine manuscripts, and keep their peculiarities in mind. We also must know and understand the Byzantine text. If we believe, with Sturz and others, that it is early, we must take its readings into account. Even if we accept the opinion of Hort in its entirety, and consider the Byzantine text late, we still must know its readings so that we can see how they have influenced other manuscripts.
The following list briefly describes some of the more important (generally non-Byzantine) New Testament manuscripts and their characteristics.
P45. Chester Beatty Papyrus I. Third century papyrus of the Gospels and Acts, now very defective. Thought for a time to have a “Cæsarean” text, but Hurtado has given strong evidence against this, and Colwell has shown that the text has been extensively rewritten and often shortened. The text as it stood before this editing may have been Alexandrian.
P46. Chester Beatty Papyrus II. Papyrus of the Pauline Epistles (with assorted lacunae; missing the beginning of Romans and all of 2 Thessalonians; includes Hebrews, but probably never contained the Pastoral Epistles). Usually dated c. 200, although much earlier dates have been suggested. The text is rather free, especially in Romans, and contains very many singular readings. It stands closer to B than any other manuscript, however, and the two probably form their own text-type or sub-text-type.
P47. Chester Beatty Papyrus III. Third century papyrus of the Apocalypse, containing (with lacunae) 9:10-17:2. The text is closest to ; it is considered to be more “wild” and less valuable than the mainstream Alexandrian witnesses A C.
P66. Bodmer Papyrus II. Second or third century papyrus containing most of the gospel of John. The manuscript was written in a beautiful hand, probably that of a professional scribe, but very carelessly; there are literally hundreds of casual errors corrected by the scribe himself, and in all likelihood many more that he did not catch. The resultant text is mostly Alexandrian, and closest to P75 and B, but with very many singular readings and readings associated with other types.
P72. Bodmer Papyri VII, VIII. Third or fourth century papyrus containing, along with assorted non-Biblical works, 1 and 2 Peter and Jude. As mentioned above, P72 is the only papyrus to contain biblical books without lacunae. In the Petrine Epistles its text appears good and early, being closest to B. In Jude the text has been regarded as “wild” — not unusual for manuscripts of Jude, which was not highly esteemed in the early church.
P75. Bodmer Papyri XIV, XV. Early third century papyrus of Luke and John, containing the majority of Luke 3-John 15. The text is regarded as extraordinarily good and carefully written. It is very close kin to B, although not a direct ancestor.
/01. Codex Sinaiticus. Uncial of the fourth century, and unique in many ways. It is the only uncial to contain the complete New Testament (along with large portions of the LXX and certain apocryphal books). It is the only New Testament manuscript written with four columns per page. The story of its “discovery” and transportation from Sinai to Europe is also unique and involved, and cannot be detailed here; although romantic, it’s not really significant for textual criticism.
/01 is textually very good (although only one of the three scribes was an accurate speller, and this one wrote only a handful of leaves in the New Testament). In the Gospels it is generally Alexandrian (although the text is something else — perhaps “Western” — in the first third of John). It is considered second only to P75 and B as a representative of this type. The same is true in Acts and the Catholic Epistles. In Paul, where the textual character of B changes somewhat, is actually the best Alexandrian witness. In the Apocalypse it is somewhat different; it belongs with P47, with a text considered inferior to A C.
A/02. Codex Alexandrinus. Uncial of the fifth century. The first of the great uncials to come to the attention of European scholars. It once contained the entire Old and New Testaments; in its current state, most of Matthew and smaller portions of John and 2 Corinthians are missing. In the Gospels the manuscript goes primarily with the Byzantine text, although it has a number of non-Byzantine readings, most of which are also found in good manuscripts such as B. In the Acts and Epistles the text is much better, mostly Alexandrian with only a few Byzantine and mixed readings. In the Apocalypse it (along with C) is considered the best surviving witness.
B/03. Codex Vaticanus. Uncial of the fourth century, and widely regarded as the most important surviving Biblical manuscript. Originally probably contained the entire Greek Bible (except the books of Maccabees). However, the final pages of the manuscript have been lost, taking with them Hebrews 9:14-end, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and probably the Apocalypse (although it is possible that the latter was never part of the manuscript).
In the gospels in particular, B is considered almost to define the Alexandrian text, and — since the Alexandrian is considered the best text-type — by implication the original text. Both the Westcott & Hort and United Bible Societies editions are strongly dependent on it.
B retains its high quality in the Acts and Catholic Epistles. Its nature in Paul is more uncertain. Hort viewed it as mostly Alexandrian with some Western mixture. However, it appears that it actually belongs in its own group with P46. (Interestingly, B is the closest uncial to all the substantial early papyri — to P66 and especially P75 in the Gospels, to P46 in Paul, and to P72 in the Catholics.)
C/04. Uncial of the fifth century, and the most important New Testament palimpsest. It originally contained the whole Greek Bible; about three-fifths of the New Testament, and fragments of the Old, survive. The upper writing is a series of sermons by Ephraem.
The text-type of C varies. In the Gospels it is a mixture of Alexandrian and Byzantine elements, though some parts are more Byzantine than others. In Acts it is somewhat more Alexandrian. In Paul it is almost purely Alexandrian, being very nearly as good as A although perhaps not quite as pure as or 33. In the Catholics it seems to show a mixture of Alexandrian and Family 1739 readings, with more of the latter than the former. In the Apocalypse it stands close to A, and is one of the best manuscripts of the book.
D/05. Codex Bezae. The most controversial of all New Testament manuscripts. It is a Greek/Latin diglot, with the versions on facing pages. The manuscript is usually dated to the fifth or sixth century. It now contains most of the Gospels and Acts, but many pages have been lost. The lost pages contained the Johannine Epistles, but there were probably other writings as well, and it is not certain what they were.
On the above scholars agree. On all other things there is debate. For instance, the Greek and Latin sides of D (denoted D and d respectively) are very similar, and have obviously been edited so as to agree. But was D conformed to d, or d to D, or both? There is no consensus. Nor is there agreement about the peculiar nature of D’s text. It clearly falls closest to the so-called “Western” witnesses such as the Old Latin versions and fathers such as Irenæus. But it also has important differences — e.g. D is the only manuscript to transfer Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus into Luke 3:23f. This transfer is obviously the result of rewriting. Is the rest of D’s text rewritten, or is this an abberation? Again, scholars do not agree.
This is a particularly serious problem in that D is the only substantial Greek witness to the “Western” text of the gospels. Assessing its readings is a perennial problem of textual criticism. All we can say here is that its readings should be used with caution, especially when they do not have support from a large number of Latin witnesses.
D/06. Codex Claromontanus. Uncial of the sixth century, containing almost all of the Pauline Epistles (the first few verses of Romans are missing). Like Codex Bezae, it is a Greek/Latin diglot, with the two texts on facing pages. Also like Bezae, it is “Western.” The “Western” text of Paul, however, does not diverge as far from the Alexandrian text as does the text in the Gospels. Also, in Paul there are other Greek witnesses to the type, F and G.
E/07. Uncial of the ninth century, containing the gospels with minor defects. Noteworthy only as the earliest full-blown witness to the Byzantine text (other Byzantine witnesses will not be listed; see the entry on the Byzantine Text).
E/08. Codex Laudianus. Sixth century uncial of Acts. Greek/Latin diglot, with the two languages in very narrow parallel columns on the same page. This manuscript was almost certainly consulted by Bede in his commentary on Acts. It is largely Byzantine, but also has many “Western” readings (some perhaps from the Latin, but not all) and some Alexandrian readings.
F/010 and G/012. Ninth century uncials of Paul. Both are Latin diglots; F has the Latin (a mixed Old Latin/Vulgate text) in a facing column; G has a Latin interlinear that appears based on an Old Latin text but which has been conformed to the Greek. Both appear to derive from a common ancestor at a distance of no more than two generations. This common ancestor lacked Hebrews and probably had some other gaps that appear in both manuscripts. The text of the two sister uncials is “Western,” with perhaps more minor alterations in the text than even D/06. Of the two, F is the more attractive and legible, but G is more complete and seems to have preserved the ancestral text better.
L/019. Codex Regius. Eighth century uncial of the Gospels, with some slight gaps. The most Alexandrian of the late uncials, falling closer to B than to . The combination B L was considered very strong by Hort. L is mostly Byzantine in the early parts of Matthew, but Byzantine readings are rare in Mark through John.
P/025. Ninth century uncial palimpsest of the Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypse. P is more noteworthy for its relative completeness than its text; it is everywhere more Byzantine than anything else. P is almost purely Byzantine in Acts, and has the “Andreas” text in the Apocalypse; in Paul and the Catholic Epistles, however, it has many Alexandrian readings among the Byzantine.
W/032. Fifth century uncial of the Gospels, with some slight lacunae. W is unusual in that its text is heavily “block mixed”: Byzantine in Matthew, “Western” and/or “Cæsarean” in Mark; Byzantine and Alexandrian in Luke, mostly Alexandrian in John. Its early date makes it important, but the student should always be sure to know what to expect from it in any particular passage.
Q/038. The Koridethi codex. Uncial of the gospels, missing parts of the first five chapters of Matthew. Its date is uncertain (there are no other manuscripts which use the same writing style; it seems to have been written by a scribe who had very little Greek), but the ninth century is often suggested. The earliest and most important witness to the so-called “Cæsarean” text, although in fact it has many Byzantine readings as well.
1. Minuscule of the twelfth century, containing the entire New Testament except the Apocalypse. In the Acts and Epistles the text is mostly Byzantine, but in the Gospels it is the head of the family known as the Lake Group (usually symbolized l or f1), which also contains 118, 131, 205 (a probable descendent of 209), 209, and 1582 (the closest relative of 1). The Lake Group is usually listed as “Cæsarean,” although the group seems slightly closer to the Alexandrian text than the other witnesses to this type.
13. Minuscule of the thirteenth century, containing the Gospels with some lacunae. It is the best-known (though not the best) member of the family known as the Ferrar Group (usually symbolized f or f13), which also contains 69, 124, 174, 230, 346, 543, 788, 826, 828, 983, 1689, and 1709. Like the Lake Group, the Ferrar Group is listed as “Cæsarean,” though it has more Byzantine readings than the Koridethi Codex or Family 1.
33. Minuscule of the ninth century, containing the entire New Testament except the Apocalypse (with some small gaps in the gospels and many places where damp has made the manuscript difficult to read). Called “the Queen of the Minuscules,” and generally worthy of the title. In the Gospels it is Alexandrian, though with much Byzantine mixture. The Byzantine mixture is less in the rest of the New Testament; in Paul it is second only to as an Alexandrian witness (except in Romans, which has a Byzantine text written by another hand).
81. Minuscule of the year 1044, containing the Acts (with lacunae) and Epistles. Often, and with some justice, regarded as having the best text of Acts among the minuscules. It agrees generally with the Alexandrian text, although with somewhat more Byzantine mixture and a few more late readings than the Alexandrian uncials.
579. Minuscule of the thirteenth century, containing the Gospels with lacunae. One of the more strongly Alexandrian minuscule witnesses in the Gospels, although it also has many Byzantine readings (especially in Matthew, where the Byzantine element is stronger than the Alexandrian).
892. Minuscule of the ninth century, containing the Gospels with some insertions from a later hand. Although 892 is a minuscule, it was copied from an uncial, and still displays some of the characteristics of its parent (e.g. the same page breaks). 892 is probably the most Alexandrian of all the minuscules of the Gospels, although there is (as always) a significant Byzantine element. The supplements (which occupy most of the second half of John) are almost purely Byzantine.
1175. Minuscule of the eleventh century, containing the Acts and Epistles (with significant lacunae in the final part of Paul). Considered one of the best and most Alexandrian minuscules, but with a curiously mixed text. Romans and the Johannine Epistles are Byzantine. The rest of the Epistles are Alexandrian with some Byzantine readings. Acts is mostly pre-Byzantine, but the amount of “Western” influence seems to vary from insignificant to rather large.
1241. Minuscule of the twelfth century, containing the entire New Testament except the Apocalypse, but with some lacunae and assorted supplements. Carelessly copied and with many peculiar readings as a result. A curiously mixed text, mostly Byzantine though with some Alexandrian readings in Matthew and Mark; perhaps the most Alexandrian minuscule witness to Luke; Alexandrian and Byzantine mixed in John; mostly Byzantine in Acts; mostly Byzantine in Paul, but with supplements containing some earlier readings; highly valuable in the Catholics, where it goes with 1739.
1506. Minuscule of the year 1320, now containing only the gospels (with some lacunae) plus the beginning of Paul (Romans and the first three and a fraction chapters of 1 Corinthians). It is of no value at all in the Gospels, but in Paul its text is strongly Alexandrian. 1506 is most noteworthy in that, alone among New Testament manuscripts, it omits Chapter 16 of Romans.
1739. Tenth century minuscule of the Acts and Epistles, complete except that the first chapter and a fraction of Acts come from a later hand. The single most important minuscule known. Space does not permit us to describe it in detail here; see the link. Suffice it to say that 1739 and its allies contain a very old text — which, however, is not part of the Alexandrian text and so has great value in its own right.
2138. Minuscule of the year 1072, containing the Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypse. 2138 is of value only in the Acts and Catholic Epistles. It is, however, the earliest member of a fairly large group of manuscripts (e.g. 614 in the Acts and Catholics, 630 in the Catholics, and 1505 in the Acts, Paul, and Catholics) which contain a text neither Alexandrian nor Byzantine (some have called it “Western”; this is open to debate. For more on the matter, follow the link to 2138).
The above list shows that we know quite a bit about certain manuscripts. Even so, the matter of manuscript classification remains highly uncertain. The reader interested in a discussion of contemporary issues is referred to the article on Text-Types and Textual Kinship.
Perhaps as a result of this uncertainty, textual criticism in the twentieth century has placed increased emphasis on internal evidence. All textual critics balance internal and external evidence to some degree, but the twentieth century has seen a new class of critics. Often called “Radical” or “Thoroughgoing Eclectics,” they decide readings almost entirely on the basis of internal evidence; manuscripts are simply the sources of the readings to be examined. Foremost among these scholars are G. D. Kilpatrick and J. Keith Elliot.
The “documentary” methods of Hort, meanwhile, have been almost completely abandoned. The most common method today is “Reasoned Eclecticism,” which attempts to give both internal and external evidence full voice. The interested reader is therefore advised to study the list of Canons of Criticism, examining both the rules for internal and external evidence.
Let us conclude this far-too-brief survey with a handful of addition examples that demonstrate both internal and external rules. A handful of additional Examples are available in the Encyclopedia, but many of these stress the use of text-types and external evidence, and so are perhaps not ideal for beginning students.
In the examples below, where the “lemma” (the Greek text to be examined) contains the notation [add], it means that some manuscripts add words, to be specified in the list of variants which follows the main text. James 5:7 o gewrgos… labh [add] proimon kai oyimon: the farmer… receives… early and late [add]
add ueton, “rain” A K L P Y 049 056 0142 33 81 88 104 181 322 323 330 (436) 451 614 629 1243 1505 1611 1735 1852 2138 2344 2412 2464 2492 2495 Byz pesh harktext geoms slav add karpon, “fruit” (*) 398 1175 ff harkmarg (bo) Faustus Cassiodorus
[no addition] P74 B 048 (69) 945 1241 1739 2298 vgam,colb,dem,dubl,ful,(harl) sa arm geomss
This reading can be resolved using either internal or external evidence. Internally, it is clear that the original reading is the short one. If the text originally said “the farmer waits to receive early and late,” this could easily have confused scribes, who would feel that the verb needs an object. A forerunner of the Byzantine text added “rain,” while a few scribes added “fruit” instead. Thus the reading without either noun easily explains the others. Whereas if either “rain” or “fruit” were original, there would be no reason to omit it, and even less reason to change the one to the other.
The manuscript evidence is also clear. “Fruit” is simply inadequately supported. The support for “rain” is somewhat better, consisting of the Byzantine text, Family 2138, and an assortment of late Alexandrian manuscripts. The omission, however, has the support of Family 1739, of the earliest Alexandrian witness (B, supported by P74 and the Sahidic), and a wide variety of versions. While this is not as decisive as the internal evidence, it is strong. Combined, the internal and external evidence make it all but certain that the short reading is original. Matthew 13:9
wta [add] akouetw: with ears [add] let that one hear
add akouein, “to hear” c C D E F G K N O W X Z G D Q P S f1 f13 28 33 157 565 579 700 892 1010 1071 1241 1243 1342 1424 1505 Byz aur b c d f ff2 g1 h l q vg cur pesh hark sa bo arm eth geo slav [no addition] * B L a e ff1 k sin
This reading will usually be decided based on internal evidence, since the external evidence is somewhat spilt. The earliest Alexandrians omit “to hear,” as do several of the best Old Latins. On the other hand, the majority of both Alexandrian and “Western” witnesses, along with the entire “Cæsarean” and Byzantine families, add the infinitive. On the basis of the external evidence, most scholars would probably prefer the short reading, but would be open to counter-suggestion.
The internal evidence is quite decisive, however. In Mark we find the phrase “ears to hear” three times (4:9, 23, 7:16), supported in two instances by Luke. In Matthew, however, all three instances of the phrase are marked by variation. In each case, the Byzantine text reads “ears to hear,” and at least some early witnesses omit “to hear.” Now we know that Matthew abbreviated Mark wherever possible, and we know that scribes were always harmonizing one gospel to another (that is, making both gospels sound alike — usually by grafting the longer reading of one gospel onto the shorter reading of another). Therefore there is every likelihood that the reading without “to hear” is original (here and in 11:15, 13:43), and the longer readings are assimilations to Mark.
Several Final notes….
First, critical editions use many different formats to present data. The system above is by no means typical. A good critical edition will explain how it is to be read, but you can also find information in the article on Critical Editions — which also briefly describes the nature and history of several of the major editions.
Second, it should be stressed that textual criticism, unlike any other Biblical discipline, should not be faith-based. The goal must always be the highest possible degree of scientific objectivity. This is simply a logical necessity. The Bible is one of the basic pillars of Christian theology (most Protestant sects would say the basic pillar). Therefore it follows that we want to reconstruct it as accurately as possible. But as soon as one allows personal preference (whether it be called that or “the voice of the Holy Spirit” or the like) to determine the text, where does one stop? I will offer myself as an example. I personally find the doctrine of predestination to be simply abhorrent. It’s boring for God and utterly unfair for humans. If I were to allow my own opinions (which feel just as much like the voice of the Holy Spirit as the next person’s opinion) to control me, I would always be tempted to delete or soften pro-predestination references. We will all have such prejudices. The only possible solution is to follow objective rules. Your rules may differ from mine, and so may produce different results — but at least the result will not suffer from theological bias. Treat textual criticism as a science (using logic in the application of internal evidence and text-types and mathematical data in the evaluation of the external), and you should do well.
Third, I’ve had people come to me saying, in effect, “Help! This textual criticism stuff is undermining my faith.” I would stress that this is no concern of the textual critic, who has a job to perform. (Yet another advantage of textual critics with no religious axe to grind.) But I suppose we should speak to this point.
First, it should be noted that every ancient writing extant in multiple copies shows variations — often much more significant variations than we find in the New Testament text. If 6,000 New Testament manuscripts showed no variation at all, it would be clear and direct evidence of supernatural influence (note that such influence need not have been God’s; it could theoretically be the work of a being opposed to God). But God presents no other such explicit evidence; why offer it only in a strange and obscure form that no one could appreciate until recently when we have at last been able to study enough manuscripts to prove the point? Even if you have some sort of inerrantist belief, it makes no sense. And there is a faith issue the other way, too: What sort of God would keep the Bible inviolate but allow wars and rape and murder and child abuse? A God who simply takes a “hands off” attitude is one thing, a capricious God is another.
As to how the textual critic can answer the doubts of laypeople confronted with the alleged issue of textual criticism, I would suggest simply having the doubter consult one of the modern English translations. The New Revised Standard Version, for instance, records textual variations with the words “other ancient authorities read….” Have the person read some of these footnotes. Do any of them really affect the person’s beliefs? Does it really matter if the Greek transliteration of the name of the Hebrew King Amon was “Amon” or “Amos”? Does it matter if people in Alexandria spelled their verbs in a way modern writers consider uncouth? Variation in the text is real and is widespread. Few if any scholars believe that we have recovered the original text with absolute certainty — but I know of none who regard the difference as so substantial as to be actually capable of producing heresy. Scholars such as Burgon and Pickering have been intemperate (and, in the latter case at least, demonstrably inaccurate) in their attacks on scholars’ methods. But even they have not shown any instance of modern (as opposed to ancient) editors producing any readings which affect Christian doctrine; doctrine is a unity and does not rest on a particular passage.
Though I would strongly argue, personally, that if such a reading does exist, it is still the textual critic’s duty to adopt that reading if the evidence supports it. “kai gnwsesqe thn alhqeian kai h alhqeia eleuqerwsei umas” (John 8:32, a verse with no significant variants).
There is an interesting analogy in Karen H. Jobes and Moisés Silva’s Introduction to the Septuagint (page 124): Consider purifying our water supplies (or anything else involving sanitation, e.g. washing hands or pasteurizing milk): No matter how hard you try, none of these activities will eliminate all contamination. Does that mean that it’s not worth purifying water — that we should drink dirty water and assume it’s clean? Only if you like typhoid fever. We can’t reconstruct the original text perfectly, because we are human and it is a text copied by humans. But we can produce better and purer text. We can — but only if we’re willing to concede the need. Textual criticism does not threaten the Bible. Refusing to engage in TC is the threat.
There are only two extant pre-critical texts of this poem: Cambridge MS. Trinity College R.3.20 and the text of Stowe’s 1561 edition, seemingly from a lost manuscript. There are no variants in the text listed by Benson in the third edition of The Riverside Chaucer (text on p. 250, textual notes on p. 1188; the second edition of this work, by Robinson, notes some variant spellings and several conjectures by other editors), but the titles are different: The Cambridge ms. calls the poem “Chaucer’s Wordes Unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn,” while Stowe’s edition uses the title “Chaucers Woordes vnto his own Scriuener.” Nonetheless there are differences between modern authorities. The text at the top of this page, reprinted below, is from Benson. There follows a collation showing the variants (mostly trivial, real variants shown in bold) in James J. Wilhelm’s Medieval Song.