This post relates to my follow-up on my second session of studies on the Gospel of John. First, I’d like you to read my earlier Textual Criticism – Briefly. This dates from 2006, but I don’t see anything I need to correct. I would like to expand on a few points, however.
On the matter of older manuscripts, one of the key reasons this is less of a concern than it might be otherwise is that we have so many manuscripts available that we can afford to make a few mistakes. Really! I mean that! There are so many manuscripts, Lectionaries, quotations, and translations that the New Testament scholar can be overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of potential evidence. Having done most of my own work on the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures, I really notice this difference when I turn to NT passages.
Second, we try to avoid other potential problems by looking for a reading that shows up in different geographical areas. The point of this is that we are more likely to be finding manuscripts that reflect different exemplars if they were copied in places that are far apart. This again helps to correct for any other problems that a lack of a detailed history might cause. In modern textual criticism this is accomplished by looking for manuscripts in different families.
Most scholars would still hold that there are three major families of manuscripts, the Alexandrian, the Western, and the Byzantine. One of the current debates is over the value of the Byzantine manuscripts. Unless you get seriously into textual criticism, you will not likely need to engage with this particular debate. Just look for variety!
When you encounter a textual note in your English translation, you likely won’t have this kind of information. The best source for a person who does not know Greek and cannot resort to a good Greek edition is a commentary that discusses the available evidence. A brief explanation such as this might help you understand such discussions.
Finally, let me comment on what variants mean for the reliability of our text. The number of variants in the NT text is often cited as a reason to believe that the text is hopelessly uncertain, but that’s simply not the case. The more manuscripts you have, considering that they are copied by hand, the more variants you will have. But the more manuscripts you have, the better you are able to determine the original reading. In addition most variants are relatively insignificant.
Why do I say insignificant? Let me give an analogy from my publishing work. When I edit a manuscript the majority of issues I find will be very easily identified typographical or spelling errors. There is never any doubt what the author was trying to say, and correction is easy. In a much smaller number of cases a word will be wrong and the correction a bit more difficult, yet one can be fairly certain of the desired result. In a relatively small number of cases an author will have written something I simply can’t decipher, and I have to ask what he or she meant.
The vast majority of errors in the manuscripts belong to the first category. Sure, they are variants, but it’s obvious what the original text is. Of the remainder, a large percentage have an almost overwhelming consensus on what the correct reading is. The number on which there is a viable dispute is rather small.
The problem in debate is the meaning of the word “significant.” I mentioned the need for definition when we use this term the other day. Two people who disagree on the number of significant variants may only differ on the meaning of the word “significant.”