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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Twentieth-century Developments

John Rylands University Library of Manchester.

Hitherto, all new manuscripts had been found in libraries, either as uncatalogued volumes, or as palimpsests, or as materials used to stiffen binding. And all had been written either on parchment or on paper (first used in the thirteenth century). None in Greek was older than the second quarter of the fourth century. The decade that saw the publication of Westcott and Hort saw also a number of large-scale archaeological excavations in Egypt. Some of these began to turn up discarded papyrus copies of all manner of texts. Most were legal papers, letters, accounts, bills, surveys, school exercises, censuses. But many were literary texts: Greek and Latin authors, early Christian writings, and copies of the Greek scriptures. Most finds have been scraps of manuscripts, perhaps half a page, or even just a few lines. Others contain parts of a number of leaves. A few are more substantial, and a tiny number contain most of a New Testament writing. At the end of the nineteenth century, two scholars named Grenfell and Hunt chose a site which had every prospect of being a rich source of early Christian material—the town of Oxyrhynchus. Their success was spectacular: they reported that the craftsman making metal boxes to store the finds could not keep up with the excavators. Today, a century on, the Oxyrhynchus papyri are still being published. So far, 65 volumes, containing the text of 4,441 papyri, have been published. Of these, 33 contain a New Testament text. But it was not until the 1930s that the first substantial texts were found. The Chester Beatty papyri (so called after the collector who purchased them) contain three of particular interest, all of the third century. The first manuscript, which contains the four gospels and Acts (remnants of all five books survive), was produced in the third century. There is another of a similar date which contains Paul's letters, which is a particularly important witness to the text. The third contains the book of Revelation, and remains the oldest extensive copy. At a similar time there was found a scrap of half a dozen verses of John's Gospel which, dated to the period 125–50, is still the oldest surviving copy of any part of the New Testament. This find at once knocked on the head the theory that the fourth gospel might have been composed as late as 150, for here was a copy written before that date turning up in Egypt.

But the real significance of these finds was that they predated the fourth-century manuscripts which nineteenth-century scholarship, culminating in Westcott and Hort, had believed to contain a text closest to that of the authors of the New Testament text. Would the evidence of these older witnesses confirm this, and with it the theory of groupings of manuscripts which had been proposed? The evidence at first was inconclusive. It had been claimed in 1924 that some manuscripts contain a ‘Caesarean text’, that is, one which came from and was in use in Caesarea. The Chester Beatty gospel manuscript cast some doubt on this, for it appeared to have some of the features of the Caesarean text, but not all. Other papyri likewise showed some characteristics of the later texts, but not all, or showed characteristics of more than one later text. The theory began to emerge that there was a ‘Constantinian watershed’. The persecution by the Emperor Diocletian, lasting between the years 303 and 312, had seen the destruction of many Christian books. It seemed possible that, with the Peace of Constantine in 312, the church had used its comparatively small stock of surviving books to produce a number of ‘standards’. Churches whose books had been destroyed needed replacements, and in an era of growth many new copies were needed for new churches. As a result, much of the variety of earlier generations was lost. This theory also explained the peculiarities of the ‘Western Text’, and especially of Codex Bezae. Although this manuscript seemed, by comparison with the Codex Vaticanus, to preserve the text of the gospels rather imperfectly, it was noted that it had many readings in common with the two oldest versions, the Old Syriac and the Old Latin. These agreements had to come from a similar second-century base text. The degree of its difference from other post-Constantinian manuscripts was due to the fact that it is a reminder of an earlier age when texts differed much more from each other, and when there was less interest in control. It is true of many writings that the manuscript tradition was free in the earliest period of its copying, and that it stabilized thereafter. This, it was becoming clear, was the case with the New Testament. The study of other pre-Constantinian materials substantiated the case. Even before the impact of the discovery of extensive papyri, some scholars in the generation after Westcott and Hort were examining this problem. The name of F. C. Burkitt (1864–1935) stands pre-eminent among them. His studies encouraged him to examine the early Syriac and Latin versions, and to appreciate the significance of their agreements.

The quotations from the New Testament in the mid-second- century apologist and teacher Justin Martyr, who worked in Rome, and of other second- and third-century writers, added to the oldest Syriac and Latin evidence, suggested that the later text forms were developed after the Peace of Constantine. The Byzantine text was latest, emerging in the course of the fourth and fifth centuries. The Western Text, as we have seen, was formed from older materials. That left the Alexandrian text, to which the two codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus belonged. The problem was that there was clear evidence that the Western Text dated from the second century. But the Alexandrian Text seemed to be better. On the canons of criticism developed by earlier generations, it was generally agreed where the two texts differed, that the Alexandrian was the better. For example, scribes tended to harmonize the gospels; that is, to change the text of one to make it more like the others. This tendency is found far more strongly in Codex Bezae than in the Alexandrian Text.

Light was shed on this problem with the publication in 1956 and 1961 of the most extensive papyri of all. P75 (all the papyri are listed in a numerical sequence, each prefaced with P for papyrus) contains Luke and over half of John, and is dated to about 200. In a thorough investigation of its text of Luke, C. M. Martini showed that it contained substantially an earlier form of the text found in Codex Vaticanus: the same careful spelling, the same tendency to restraint, many of the same readings. Each is written in a quality hand of its time. Thus, it is now clear, what was to develop into the Alexandrian Text was already in existence by the year 200. The pressing question whether it is older still has yet to be answered. Was it a careful product of a late second-century scholar, tidying up a hopelessly confused text as well as he could, or was it derived from copies which avoided at least some of the second-century freedom? A degree of editing is indisputable: there are a number of places where the Hellenistic Greek of the evangelists has been ‘Atticized’, that is, improved to the literary taste of a later age, where classical Greek was the writer's model.

The origins of the Alexandrian Text is one of the biggest questions in New Testament studies. All that can be said at present is that there were no tight controls by anyone on the second-century text. Phrases and sayings were altered, brought into the text (like the story of the woman taken in adultery in John 7: 53–8: 11 , or the Long Ending of Mark, 16: 9–20 ) or—less often—dropped out of it, like the saying at Luke 23: 34 . It seems probable that Christian copyists simply left out Jesus' saying at his crucifixion, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ The text was copied to make sense to the communities who used it, not to preserve the precise words of the author.

Bibliotheca Bodmeriana.

P66, found at the same time as P75, is a manuscript of John which contains some of the materials from which later recensions emerged. There are frequent corrections by the scribe, mostly of mistakes which he had made, but a few changing the text, so that it shows two readings found later in different manuscripts.

The list of papyri is now past the hundred mark. Not all are ancient or significant—some are comparatively insignificant copies written as late as the seventh century. But many have dramatically changed the course of modern research. Unfortunately, few are extensive. Often, we have just a tantalizing glimpse of a text last read 1,700 years or more ago. It is partly for this reason that the changes to printed texts in their wake has been less dramatic than the abandonment of the Received Text. P75, which could have had a huge influence, has on the whole encouraged editors and translators to stay with Westcott and Hort, whose Codex Vaticanus the papyrus so closely anticipates. However, the fact that they have cast some doubt on the age of the later texts has caused one school of criticism to abandon the significance of manuscripts entirely.

No editor of the New Testament follows a single manuscript. In any place where manuscripts vary, he will adopt the reading here of one manuscript, there of another, selecting in each place the reading which he considers to be that written by the author. In fact, his approach is eclectic. But most editors come to rely on one manuscript rather than another, and where there is nothing to choose between readings, will follow a trusted guide. Against this, one approach is altogether to reject the value of manuscripts as trusted bearers of good readings, and instead to evaluate the variant readings solely on the basis of the question ‘What is this author most likely to have written?’ This approach, known as ‘thoroughgoing eclecticism’, has proved particularly valuable in matters of style. The names C. H. Turner, G. D. Kilpatrick, and J. K. Elliott are associated with the recovery of many shades of meaning, by studying an author's usage where the manuscripts agree, and extrapolating the evidence to find the reading consonant with his style where they differ.

It is but a short step to find out the author's theological ideas, and to reject those readings which bear the mark of later debate or more advanced Christian thought. This has not been such a primary concern of the thoroughgoing eclecticists, nor indeed until recently of any textual critics. In previous centuries, their battles were with defenders of the textus receptus, who regarded even the critical apparatus as an evil to be resisted. It is thus no surprise to find the textual critics taking the line that no readings in the manuscripts affect any point of doctrine, and rarely touch on matters of substance. A little reflection on the degree of theological debate, usually text-centred, in most periods of Christian history, may lead one to question this. And indeed the degree to which variations between manuscripts came into being as a result of theological controversy has come to be more fully appreciated. A good example appears in the very first verse of Mark's Gospel, with the later addition of the words ‘Son of God’ to ‘The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ’. If the beginning of Mark is read without these words, one comes to verse 12 and the proclamation ‘This my beloved son’ rather differently. It might appear that Jesus only became son of God at his baptism. This adoptionist position was fiercely argued at a later date. One can see how Mark, who was innocent of the later question, wrote a rather heretical-seeming beginning, which a later copyist corrected, since he did not believe that the evangelist could have meant to imply such a dreadful thing.

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