Chapter 10
The Position Today (1936)

In Chapter 7 the position reached in 1881 was described, which was crystallized in the Revised Version of the New Testament and Westcott and Hort's edition of the Greek text. How has this been affected by the discoveries of the last fifty years, described in the last two chapters, culminating in the Chester Beatty papyri?

As explained previously, the immediate result of the controversy of 1881 was to eliminate the 'received' or Byzantine text which had dominated Christianity for over a millennium. Scholars were agreed that this represented the results of a long process of revision, beginning about the end of the fourth century, and characterized by an attempt at uniformity of phrase, the removal of obscurities, the harmonization of alternative versions, and similar editorial handiwork. They were agreed that it was necessary to look farther back, to the earliest manuscripts and versions, and to such later authorities as might seem more or less to have escaped the prevalent tendency to revision. These earlier authorities fell, according to the views of 1881, into two main groups, labeled respectively 'Neutral', which meant the group headed by the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, and 'Western', which meant everything that was pre-Byzantine and non-Neutral, but of which the outstanding representatives (as showing the greatest amount of divergence from the other types of text) were the Codex Bezae and the Old Latin version. The great problem therefore was, which of these families comes nearest to the original form of the New Testament books? And every new discovery was scrutinized to see what bearing it had upon this problem.

At first, as indicated at the beginning of Chapter 8, the current ran rather in favour of the Westerners. When the Old Syriac version was brought to light, attention was concentrated on its divergences from the Neutral text; and as everything which was not Neutral was classed as Western, it was regarded as a reinforcement of the Western camp. Similarly a good deal of the Washington Codex could be claimed as non-Neutral; and Families 1 and 13 appeared to be associated with the Syriac versions. Further, the small discoveries of Biblical papyri which were made from time to time in Egypt before 1930 were certainly not all Neutral; and examination of the writings of the early Fathers tended to strengthen the proof that most of them used non-Neutral texts. In short, the general tendency was to weaken the position of exclusive superiority claimed by Westcott and Hort for the Neutral text, by showing that it was at any rate of restricted circulation, and that it had rivals of at least equal age.

But it was one thing to make some abatement in the claims of the Neutral text; it was quite another to put the Western in its place. The progress of discovery and examination showed that the problem was not so simple as this. The fact was that the more the number of non-Neutral authorities increased, the less possible it became to group them all together as a single family under the name of Western. They were not Western, for they were found in Syria and Egypt, indeed throughout the Christian world; and they were not a family, for they differed too much among themselves. People talked lightly of the Old Latin and Old Syriac as being Western authorities; but in point of fact they differ from one another more than they do from the Neutral. In 27 passages in which important various readings are found, the Sinaitic Syriac agrees 16 times with the Vaticanus and only 5 times with Codex Bezae; it agrees only 5 times with the Old Latin, while it disagrees 17 times. On balance, therefore, it would be more true to reckon the Old Syriac as an ally of the Neutral than of the text which can truly be described as Western. It may be added, moreover, that the Syriac and Latin witnesses do not even agree among themselves. In 7 cases the two Old Syriac manuscripts take different sides, and in 5 the Old Latin evidence is divided.

Similarly with the Old Coptic (Sahidic) version, which used to be regarded as, in part at least, an ally of the Western group. Discoveries in Egypt have greatly increased our knowledge of this version, and show that, while it contains a perceptible proportion of non-Neutral readings, it is far more a supporter of the Neutral text than of the true Western. Thus in 33 passages (substantially the same as those examined for the Old Syriac text), the Sahidic agrees 28 times with the Vaticanus and 24 times with the Sinaiticus, as against 7 times each with Codex Bezae and the Old Latin. In 7 other cases the Old Latin authorities are divided.

Next we have to take into account the emergence of the Caesarean family. Here discovery and study have co-operated to isolate a group of authorities who are neither Neutral nor Western, though they may at times agree with one or other of them. Their association with Origen proves that the text contained in them is of early date, which circulated, as we have good reason to believe, in Egypt, Palestine and Syria. If it is a proof that the Neutral text was not dominant in the East, it is equally a proof that not all non-Neutral early readings are to be classed as Western, and they do nothing to support the more characteristic variants of that type.

NOTE: The existence of a "Caesarean text" is doubtful. See the opinions of more recent scholars given here. --M.D.M.

Thus while the discoveries of the last fifty years have shaken the exclusive predominance which Westcott and Hort assigned to the Vaticanus-Sinaiticus text, they have shattered to pieces the unity of the so-called Western text. In place of these two families, with the somewhat shadowy 'Alexandrian' text, as envisaged by the two Cambridge scholars, we now seem to find our pre-Byzantine authorities falling into at least five categories; (1) the Vaticanus-Sinaiticus group, with its home in Egypt, and almost certainly in Alexandria, since it is difficult to imagine such splendid manuscripts being produced except in a great capital; it is a group obviously of great importance, being headed by these two outstanding manuscripts, supported by a number of early though fragmentary uncials and a few minuscules, and by the Bohairic and generally the Sahidic version, and to it the name Alexandrian may more appropriately, and with less appearance of begging the question, be applied than that of Neutral; (2) the true Western group, headed by Codex Bezae, the other Graeco-Latin uncials, and the Old Latin version, especially in that earliest form of it which appears to be associated with Africa and to have been used by Cyprian; (3) the Syriac group, represented mainly by the Old Syriac version and the other versions (Georgian, Armenian) which appear to have been derived from it; (4) the Caesarean group, as yet not fully worked out, but which may in part be extracted, as described above, from the Chester Beatty papyrus, the Washington and Koridethi codices, and Families 1 and 13, with the quotations in some of the works of Origen and Eusebius; and (5) a residue of unassorted readings, found in early authorities, but which it is quite inadmissible to claim as 'Western' now that we realize that not everything that is not Neutral is Western.

It is, I think, just this unassorted residue that gives us the clue to the early history of the text of the New Testament. It is not always realized how unique were the conditions under which these books circulated in the early centuries. The ordinary works of classical literature were freely copied by professional scribes, and it is probable that the tradition of their text has come down to us mainly through the great libraries and the book-producing firms of capital cities. Even the books of the Greek Old Testament must for the most part have descended through untrammeled channels, except so far as they may have become involved in the fortunes of Christian literature. But the Christian books, before the recognition of Christianity by Constantine, were produced and circulated without the assistance of great libraries or a regular trade. Scholars need to apply the increased knowledge which we now possess of this period to the problems of the New Testament text, and to use both imagination and common sense in interpreting them.

The New Testament was not produced as a single work issued by an authoritative Church for the instruction of its members. The four Gospels were composed in different times and places over perhaps a third of a century, and for a time circulated separately among a number of other narratives of our Lord's life (of which the newly discovered fragment of an unknown Gospel may have been one). The Epistles were letters, or treatises in the form of letters, addressed to different congregations and only gradually made known to other churches. The book of Revelation was an isolated production, which for a long time was not universally accepted. There was no central body to say what books were to be regarded as authoritative, or to supply certified copies of them. The apostles were scattered, and even the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem had neither the power nor the means to impose uniformity.

In these circumstances, we must imagine the literature of Christianity as spreading gradually, irregularly, and in a manner which made variations inevitable. In the earliest days, while the generation that had known our Lord on earth was alive, and while His second coming was expected in the immediate future, there would have been little demand for written records. But as the promise of His coming was delayed, and as the faith spread beyond the range of those who had known Him, the narratives which we now know came into being, together with many which have long ago disappeared. But not every congregation would have possessed a complete set of the books of their faith. One church might possess only one Gospel, another two or three or the complete four. A village or provincial town where there was a Christian congregation might hear that its neighbour had a copy of a book unknown to them, and might send and get a copy of it -- made, very likely, by a copyist of more zeal than skill. Exact verbal accuracy of transcription was, after all, of little account. The Gospels were not thought of as works of literature. People were not concerned with the literary reputation of Matthew or Mark, but with the substance of their records of our Lord's life. They did not have to respect their actual words, as they would if they were transcribing the works of Thucydides or Plato. Rather a scribe might have thought he was doing good service if he smoothed away difficulties of phrase, if he made the narrative of one Evangelist conform with that of another, if he inserted proper names or pronouns for the sake of greater clearness, if he used a conventional form of words instead of an unusual one, even if he inserted a new incident into the narrative. Edification was the object, not literary exactitude.

In these circumstances, is it surprising if in the first two centuries a large number of minor variations, and some of greater magnitude, found their way into the copies of the Scripture which circulated in the towns and villages of Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor, Italy, Africa, and even farther afield? Rather we have to be thankful that greater and more serious corruption did not creep in. It is indeed a striking proof of the essential soundness of the tradition that with all these thousands of copies, tracing their ancestry back to so many different parts of the earth and to conditions of such diverse kinds, the variations of text are so entirely questions of detail, not of essential substance. For the main substance we may be content even with the latest copies which have handed down to us the ecclesiastical text of the Middle Ages. But if we wish to read the sacred books of our religion in a form as like as can be to that in which they were originally composed, we must endeavour to realize the conditions under which they were produced, and which we have been trying to describe.

We see therefore at first an uncontrolled, or imperfectly controlled, welter of variants, due to the errors of scribes or to well-meant editorial efforts. But naturally, as time went on, the leaders of the Church in different localities, or scholars who seriously studied and expounded the Christian religion, would be led to try to introduce order into the confusion, to revise the texts current in their neighbourhood, and to select what seemed to be the preferable form among two or more variants that offered themselves. The period of editorial labour and of scholarly study gradually came into existence. But this would at first be a local effort and of limited effect. There was still no authoritative centre for the whole world, and Christianity was still at times a persecuted faith. There were times, no doubt, when the Christian books could be copied and read without serious hindrance. But there were also times when Christianity was actively persecuted and when, as we know from the records of the early Church, the sacred books were a special object of search and destruction. Official copies would at such times be especially exposed to danger.

It would therefore be natural if somewhat different forms of text came into existence in different parts of the Christian world, and if, along with them, there were a multitude of copies which conformed with no particular form. Scholars like Origen knew that there were great varieties of readings, and selected those which they regarded as the best. But it was not until Christianity was a recognized and authorized religion in the Roman Empire that editorial work could go on unimpeded. Even then there was no guarantee of uniformity. Different editors might work on different principles. Some would have as their main object the removal of difficulties in the way of ready comprehension by the ordinary reader. They would supply pronouns and names, they would use the phrases which by that time had become habitual, they would make slight grammatical alterations in accordance with current usage, they would avoid phrases which might give offence, and where alternative readings could be amalgamated they would be inclined to do so. Their object would be the edification of the reader by the presentation of an easily comprehensible text. On such principles such a text as the Byzantine text might be brought into being, and win its way to general acceptance in the Church at large.

Others, with bolder and more enterprising minds, might prefer to incorporate the more singular readings which they found in their authorities, and to handle the text more freely. Additions from various sources (such as the passages added in Codex Bezae at Matt. xx. 28 and Luke vi. 5, or in the Washington Codex at Mark xvi. 14) would be welcome, and the editor might even feel free (as in Codex Bezae in the Acts) to make extensive alterations due to his special knowledge. In such a way might arise that type of text which is found in Codex Bezae and the Old Latin, to which the name of Western may properly be given. Others, again, might simply do their best with the materials that lay to their hand, without any special principle either of exclusion or inclusion or harmonization, and so produce a text which would include readings that are found elsewhere in various types of text. Syria was a very definite province of the Christian Church, and might very naturally develop a local form of text; and so we find in the Old Syriac a text including many unquestionably early readings, some of which occur also in the Western group and others in the Neutral (or, as we prefer to call it, Alexandrian). It is a valuable witness, all the more because it incorporates elements of different types. Later, when Bishop Rabbula in the early fifth century undertook a revision of the texts then circulating in his diocese, he brought them more into conformity with the Byzantine type, then acquiring dominance in the Church, and so produced the Peshitta, which became the generally 'received text' of Syrian Christianity.

Then again there would be texts produced by scholars in accordance with such principles of textual criticism as they had acquired. Of these we have an outstanding example in St. Jerome's revision of the Latin Bible which produced what we know as the Vulgate. Jerome was a trained scholar, who about A.D. 382 was invited by Pope Damasus to undertake a revision of the Latin Bible, of which many discordant forms were then in circulation. He did so with reference to the oldest and best Greek manuscripts he could find, most of which seem to have belonged to what we have called the Alexandrian family. Indeed, the Codex Sinaiticus is the Greek manuscript which most conspicuously agrees with the Vulgate. Jerome, however, more cautious than our own Revisers, was sparing in his alterations; he tells us himself that he often left passages untouched which he might have corrected, in order to preserve the familiar form, and only made changes where he thought them material. On these lines he dealt with the Gospels. The Epistles (where the existing variations were fewer) he revised only very slightly; and for the Old Testament, instead of revising it from the Septuagint, as originally proposed by the Pope, he eventually made a fresh translation from the Hebrew.

Jerome's revision of the Gospels is thus a good example of how a scholar in the fourth century might set to work, and in the case of the Greek Old Testament we know of no less than three scholars who in the third century undertook a similar task. The first of these was Origen, who produced his colossal edition of the Septuagint in six parallel columns (and hence known as the Hexapla) containing the Hebrew text as then accepted by Jewish scholars, the same in Greek characters, the translations of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, and his own revision of the Septuagint, in which he endeavoured to bring it into conformity with the Hebrew. Origen's edition was separately issued by his disciples, Eusebius and Pamphilus, and has had a great, but rather unfortunate, effect on the history of the Septuagint text, since the original Greek has been somewhat obscured by his conformation of it to the Hebrew. Other editions of the Septuagint were produced by Lucian of Antioch and Hesychius of Alexandria; and these three editions seem to have circulated respectively in Palestine, in Syria and Constantinople, and in Egypt. The practice, therefore, of scholarly revision and of local texts is well evidenced in the case of the Greek Old Testament, and it is perfectly natural to suppose that the same was the case with the New. Some scholars have indeed, on the strength of an observation of Jerome which does not serve to authorize so far-reaching a deduction, supposed that Lucian and Hesychius also produced editions of the New Testament, and that these are reflected in our Byzantine and Alexandrian families. Whether they, or other scholars unknown to us, did so is immaterial for our present purpose. The point is that the early dissemination of various readings and scholarly revision of them are proved facts in relation to the Latin Bible and the Greek Old Testament, and may fairly be presumed in the case of the Greek New Testament.

To such revision it seems reasonable to attribute our Caesarean and Alexandrian families. The aim of the scholarly editor is not to produce the easiest text for the reader, but to get as near as he can to the original text of the author. Where alternative readings exist he will therefore tend to choose the harder rather than the easier, the shorter rather than the longer, the reading that differs from that in another Gospel rather than one which coincides; because, if alteration has taken place, it is likely to have been in the direction of the longer, and harmonized readings. Such seems particularly to be the character of the Alexandrian text. It is, on the whole, a shorter and more austere text than the others. The Caesarean text has not yet been fully established, and it is too soon to draw final conclusions about it; but it also seems to show signs of scholarly method rather than of general inclusiveness or colourless handling in the interests of the reader. We may not always agree with the editor's choice; but it has to be remembered that he was working with manuscripts earlier than any which we now possess.

The general conclusion to which we seem to be led is that there is no royal road to the recovery of the original text of the New Testament. Fifty years ago it seemed as if Westcott and Hort had found such a road, and that we should depart from the Codex Vaticanus (except in the case of obvious scribal blunders) at our peril. The course both of discoveries and of critical study has made it increasingly difficult to believe that the Vaticanus and its allies represent a stream of tradition that has come down practically uncontaminated from the original sources. Based as they must have been on a multitude of different rolls, it would have been a singularly happy accident if all had been of the same character, and all deriving without contamination from the originals. The uniformity of character which on the whole marks the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus is better to be explained as the result of skilled editing of well-selected authorities on a definite principle. Therefore, while respecting the authority due to the age and character of this recension, we shall be disposed to give more consideration than Westcott and Hort did to other early readings which found a home in the Western, Syriac, or Caesarean texts, but we may still believe (though here personal predilections come into play, and others may take different views) that the Alexandrian text gives us on the whole the nearest approximation to the original form of the sacred books.

In this short survey of a great subject, we have endeavoured to give in simple language an outline of the general history of the Bible text, an account of the many discoveries which have modified and extended our knowledge of it, and an indication of the conclusions to which scholarly opinion seems to be tending. It is a fascinating story to those who care for their Bible. It is the life-history of the greatest of books, diversified by interesting episodes which appeal to our human sympathies; and we venture to think that the result is reassuring. It may be disturbing to some to part with the conception of a Bible handed down through the ages without alteration and in unchallenged authority; but it is a higher ideal to face the facts, to apply the best powers with which God has endowed us to the solution of the problems which they present to us; and it is reassuring at the end to find that the general result of all these discoveries and all this study is to strengthen the proof of the authenticity of the Scriptures, and our conviction that we have in our hands, in substantial integrity, the veritable Word of God.