The Text of the New Testament, of an Edition, and of a Manuscript

Lots of ink has been spilled and many pixels been lit up on the question of what we mean when we say ‘the text of the New Testament’. Is the only thing we are left with ‘texts of the NT’, in which every imperfectly copied manuscript constitutes a new and different text? How much can the text of a ‘work’ (that is here, the New Testament) be changed before the text of a particular manifestation of that work (a printed edition, a manuscript – the latter is also an ‘artefact’) is no longer that of the original ‘work’?1

In a sense this question is no different from what philosophers have been discussing since the days of Plato. Intuitively, or naively, most people who think for a moment about the text and the various forms in which it appears, solve the question the same way as Plato did. Different manuscripts with their slightly different wording, and even different translations of the text in a wild variety of languages, all constitute different instances of the same text, a perfect idea reflected in the wordings of the various manuscripts.
Relevance theorists would say that this is true because an utterance has no meaning in itself but only functions to point to the intention of the speaker, and listeners will interpret an utterance accordingly. When it comes to textual criticism, it may follow that the majority of differences we are talking about will hardly affect the listener’s (reader’s) construction of the speaker’s (writer’s) meaning. The same mental construction of the speaker’s meaning can be formed using an array of different utterances, and we can find evidence of this in that few, if any, of the various sub-strands of Christianity are based on particular manuscripts or depend on specific translations. If there were only ‘texts’ and not a single ‘text’, it is quite remarkable how few problems this has created in the course of history.
Perhaps a fresh way of doing Plato is found in linguistics, namely in prototype theory. Prototype theory says that often concepts are used in ways that are close to the mental prototype of that concept, but also allows for uses that are quite different. We all have the image of what a dog is, though many of us will have the experience to think about some actual dogs as more ‘dog’ than others; they conform more closely to the prototype we have formed. Perhaps it is possible to force an analogy with the ‘texts’ and ‘text’ discussion. There is the ‘prototypical text’ (perhaps better the archetypical text when we throw in chronology) and manuscripts, or again translations, conform more or less to the prototype yet still are all instances of that particular category / prototypical field. This is how we seem to organise concepts in our mind, and it works pretty well in the practice of doing textual criticism.

So what we have set out to do in the Tyndale House Edition is to present a text that approximates as closely as possible the oldest recoverable text since we hold that this is the best approximation and representation of the ‘ideal text’, the text of the ‘work’ as it was produced in the first place.

The theology of all this is of course quite a different matter.

1 Thanks to Michael Dormandy, who pointed me to this helpful distinction made by Driscoll: “Hamlet is a work. The New Swan Shakespeare Advanced Series edition of Hamlet by Bernard Lott, M.A. Ph.D., published by Longman in 1968, is, or presents, a text. My copy of Lott’s edition, bought from Blackwell’s in Oxford in 1979 and containing my copious annotations, is an artefact. (93)” I am quite conscious (and relaxed about this) that by talking about ‘original work’, I may be accused of misappropriation of the term as used by Driscoll.

Driscoll, M.J. “The Words on a Page: Thoughts on Philology Old and New.” In Creating the Medieval Saga: Versions, Variability, and Editorial Interpretations of Old Norse Saga Literature, edited by Judy Quinn and Emily Lethbridge, 85-102. Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2010.


The First Step: Digitising Tregelles

Where do you start when preparing a Greek New Testament? Of course you can start absolutely from scratch, by typing in each and every letter and accent manually, with all the associated risks, but somehow this did not appeal very much. So we needed an existing text that we could adjust towards the desired wording of our edition.

What we did was to settle on the text as prepared by Samuel Prideaux Tregelles as our point of departure. The actual procedure was that we started with an electronic edition of the Nestle-Aland 26 / UBS3 text and adapted every paragraph, word, punctuation, and accent to match the print edition of Tregelles. We even asked permission to start out with the Nestle-Aland / UBS text as we wanted to avoid any shade of doubt as to existing copyright arrangements, yet in reply we were told that no permission was needed to create a new text in this way.

Interestingly, when Tregelles prepared his text, he started off with a Textus Receptus and adapted this text so that it matched his own. Especially in cases where Tregelles did not make an explicit decision or weighed the evidence, his text still reflects the TR. I assume that changing the TR to Tregelles included more changes than the NA26 / UBS3 to Tregelles.

It is surprisingly difficult, though, to get everything right. Even though two people worked independently on creating the digital Tregelles, and every difference between the two versions was resolved by reference to the printed Tregelles, a considerable number of errors remained. The whole exercise was a valuable lesson in the psychology of textual work. When starting from the same base text two transcribers of a second text may make at times the same error.

It is our digital Tregelles that functioned as a point of comparison for the SBL Greek New Testament project, and its editor, Mike Holmes, notified us of a good few errors in our transcription that came up in comparing Tregelles with a number of other editions. It is often impossible to see if you have typed a Greek ‘ο’ or a Latin script ‘o’.

There are a number of reasons why Tregelles was chosen as our starting text. One is that by starting from Tregelles we go back beyond Westcott-Hort and their influential and lucid textual theories, but not as far back as the Textus Receptus. We could have opted for the text of Lachmann too, but I think that Tregelles is more explicit, and certainly more accessible, in justifying his methodology and theoretical approach. Another reason is that Tregelles is the most recent critical text that was not included in the triad of texts used to create Nestle’s first edition (Westcott-Hort; Tischendorf 8th; Weymouth [in itself the result of a comparison of editions]) or fourth (Weymouth replaced with Weiss).

Whilst working on the digital Tregelles, we were hoping / expecting that this would lead to a full-scale, fresh edition of the GNT, and this is reflected this in the abbreviations used for the Tregelles New Testament: TNT1 for the text that reflects the print as accurately as possible, TNT2 for the text in which obvious print errors are corrected. The next edition could then be TNT3 (Tyndale New Testament), which gives an instant ‘editional’ pedigree, but it turned out this name was never going to work. Regardless, there is some history behind our text.

For Tregelles see:

S.P. Tregelles, An Account of the Printed Text of the Greek New Testament: with Remarks on its Revision upon Critical Principles. Together with a Collation of the Critical Texts of Griesbach, Scholz, Lachmann, and Tischendorf, with that in Common Use (London: S. Bagster and Sons, 1854).

———. The Greek New Testament, edited from ancient authorities, with their various readings in full, and the Latin version of Jerome (London: S. Bagster & Sons, 1857-79).

———. Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament. Vol. 4 of An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, edited by Thomas Hartwell Horne and John Ayre, 12th ed. (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1856 [1869]).


Introduction: The Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge

To have the opportunity to produce an edition of the Greek New Testament is a rare privilege, especially in the context of scholarship where regular publications take precedence over single long-term projects, and collaborative efforts do not give the same kudos as the rugged, individual, (and big!) monographs do.

It is thanks to the vision of Peter J. Williams, the Principal of Tyndale House, that he set me free for many years now to work on this project, and has chipped in by giving months and months of his own precious research time. Over the years many people have contributed to this project, either conceptually, financially, by means of encouragement or giving advice, or in any other way. Some made big contributions, others small, and all of them appreciated. But this is not yet the time to acknowledge these precious folk—this is just an introduction to this blog, a blog that will discuss topics and issues relating to the Greek New Testament as produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge.

In the Tyndale House edition we aim to provide a text of the Greek New Testament that reflects as closely as possible its earliest recoverable wording. It is unashamedly a documentary text (based on the documents), with a strong bias to using knowledge of scribal behaviour (scribal habits) as the primary way to explain the rise of textual variants.

In coming posts we will explore what such method means in practice at the hand of examples, and also probe the boundaries of such approach. However, in practice the emphasis on scribal behaviour implies that if, in the past, exegetical and theological arguments have been used to address a particular variant unit, we happily ignore these arguments if there is also a perfectly adequate transcriptional explanation.

There is no denying that there is a theological and ecclesiastical context to copying the New Testament, but the way how this context interacts with and affects the copying process may, in most cases, be best explained as mere additions to the pool of risk factors that can interrupt the cognitive copying processes of reading, remembering, and writing rather than as a motivation for incorrect copying.