Textual Criticism has a problem: It doesn't know what is and is not
true. There are no assured results. In the sciences, there are
some things so thoroughly verified that you don't have to re-re-reconfirm
the results. (The obvious examples are from physics: The first two
laws of thermodynamics -- the law of conservation of energy and the
law of entropy -- have been so thoroughly verified that there is no
need to further test them. At least until some strong counter-evidence
Why should textual critics care? Because assured results are so
useful! What we often see, in textual criticism, is that results which
are not assured are treated as assured. Very frequently, textual
critics act like medieval natural philosopher appealing to Aristotle:
"It's in Hort (or Streeter, or Lake, or Metzger); it must be true!"
The lack of assured results can also lead to skeptical attacks.
Just as one group of people may affirm results which have not been
verified, another may deny results which have been more than sufficiently
So the question becomes, can we declare any results in
textual criticism to be assured? (Note that, for something to be
assured, it must be experimentally verified. Universal agreement
is not sufficient. It must be supported by evidence.)
The answer is, Yes, but it's a short list. The following are the
items I am aware of:
- The Majority Text Exists. That is, there is a textual
grouping of manuscripts, quite closely related in terms of readings, to which the
majority of manuscripts belongs. Note that all we can say about it is
that it is the majority. We cannot call it Byzantine or
Syrian and consider that an assured result.
The final verification of this claim came only quite recently,
with the Munster "Thousand Readings" project. If one
examines the results of this project, which examines hundreds
of readings in almost all the manuscripts known at the time
(there are some exceptions), we find that almost all passages
do have a clear majority reading. This alone would not make
the existence of a Majority Text certain. (If most readings had
only 60% support, and the 60% shifted, there would be no majority
text.) But the fact that most readings see one variant supported
by 80% or more of the witnesses is significant. So is the fact
that the 80+% includes most of the same witnesses over time. It's
only a relatively small group which deviate more than a handful
Note that this does not tell us the nature of the Majority
Text. Whether it is good or bad, long or short, edited or
inedited is another question altogether.
- Textual Groupings exist. This is a very vague statement
as such, but the point is that we have examples of all sorts of
textual groupings: parent and child (Dp and Dabs),
siblings (many of the Kx Cl 74 manuscripts copied by
Theodore of Hagiopetros), families (the Lake Group; it appears
that the Ferrar Group and Family 2138 are superfamilies), text-types
(the Byzantine text). We do not have a clear definition of any
of these groupings, and we do not know how many levels of kinship
there may be (a typical proposal contains about four: Family,
Clan, Sub-Text-Type, Text-Type -- but this is a proposal based
on logic, not observation). Nonetheless, we can safely assume
that manuscripts can be grouped, and try to group them; we do
not have to assume that all manuscripts exist in isolation. This
may sound trivial; it is not. It is one of the crucial
points of textual criticism. Until it is certain, most of the
tools provided by classical textual criticism do not apply.
- Mixed Manuscripts exist. This is proved by a handful
of manuscripts: D and Dabs (the latter a mixed manuscript
derived from the former) and 424c. In
addition, manuscripts like 1881 can hardly be explained by any
means other than a Byzantine/1739 mixture.
Like the preceding, this may seem like a trivial point, but the existence of
mixture is a vital part of the theories, e.g., regarding the
"Cæsarean" text. It is good to be sure that
such manuscripts exist.
Note that this does not prove that such manuscripts
are common, or that any particular manuscript is mixed. This must
be proved on a case-by-case basis.
- Assimilation of Parallels occurs. Every manuscript tested
shows this phenomenon: Occasional adjustment of passages to match
their parallels in other gospels. It appears that all have at least
occasional singular assimilations. This demonstrates that the
phenomenon takes place.
Note that this does not prove that any particular
parallel reading is an assimilation. While it is surely more
common for manuscripts to produce harmonized rather than
disharmonized readings, scribes do make errors of the other
There is another side to this: Any result which is not assured
is just that: Not assured. It may be true, it may be likely,
but it is not certain. As new evidence accumulates, these non-assured
results need to be re-examined.
The following shows some non-assured results which have been
treated as assured:
- The Byzantine text is late and derivative. Almost
universally believed. But proved? No. (See the article on
Byzantine Priority.) Even if one
believes the evidence absolutely conclusive at present,
what happens if we find a second century Byzantine manuscript
- Most canons of criticism. We take a very high proportion
of these on faith, in some cases (e.g. "prefer the shortest
reading") rather in the face of the evidence. It's not easy
to see what we can do about this -- canons of criticism are
more nearly postulates than the result of study; in the absence
of autographs, they cannot be proved. But that's precisely the
point: they cannot be proved.
- That text-types other than the Byzantine exist. The
existence of the Alexandrian text is almost assured -- but its
boundaries are not assured. Are P46 and B
and 1739 Alexandrian in Paul? Yes, say some, scholars; no,
says Zuntz (and I think he's right). Until the boundaries of the
type are established, it's not all that useful.
The cases for the "Western" and "Cæsarean"
texts are still less certain. There is certainly a D-F-G text of
Paul. But is this the same as the text of Codex Bezae in the
Gospels and Acts? Is Codex Bezae a representative member of whatever
type it does belong to? The answers, to this point, are largely
assumptions; there is no proof. The evidence, if anything, says that
Bezae is edited (the obvious evidence being the use of Matthew's
genealogy of Jesus in Luke); great care must be used when trying
to prove anything from Bezae.
The doubts about the "Cæsarean" text are so
well-known that we will not document them here.
- The dates of most manuscripts. We tend to treat manuscript colophons
as a guarantee of dates, and paleography as nearly certain as well.
But colophons can be faked; Colwell, for instance, documented
the errors in the colophon of 1505.
For undated manuscripts, the situation is worse, because our only evidence
is based on the dated colophons we have. And even then, it is inaccurate.
It is not uncommon to see two scholars examine a manuscript independently
and offer dates two centuries apart. And that's for minuscules, where
dated samples are common! Take a manuscript like B. Everyone dates it to
the fourth century. Why? Based on documents with similar writing styles,
which we believe to be contemporary, and which we date based primarily on
their contents. In other words, we're making multiple assumptions here:
First, we're dating other writings based on their contents. Second, we're
assuming that the date of B corresponds to the dates of those documents.
This is a chancy assumption -- those other documents are mostly secular,
and generally official. Can it be assured that those scribes were trained
in the same way as the scribes of Christian manuscripts? It's quite possible
that Christian scribes would adopt an archaic style.
Chances are that our paleographic results are generally correct. But
they are not assured. One cannot treat them as a guarantee of anything.