The Apparatus of a Critical Text

Page from Tischendorf's 8th editionThe pages of a major critical edition of the Greek New Testament can be a daunting sight to students who are just beginning the study of textual criticism. The large amount of information given in the apparatus, which on most pages takes up more room than the text itself, may give the false impression that the text is hopelessly in doubt. But most of the variations indicated in the apparatus are so trivial that they can hardly be translated, and most of the significant differences are not well enough attested to warrant serious consideration. At left is a typical page from Tischendorf's eighth edition (see Tischendorf 1869), containing the text and apparatus for Matthew 1:18-20. Eight lines of text are accompanied by 36 lines of annotations in smaller type. For a much larger and legible image of the same page, click here.

Those who are unable to read Greek and Latin will not be able to see how unsubstantial nearly all of the variants are, but they may rest assured that when these variations are all sifted and weighed by scholars, it amounts to very little difference. Out of the abundance of information on the various readings of ancient witnesses in Matthew 1:18-20 that is presented on this page, only the following three minor variations from the Received Text (KJV) have been recommended by critical editors of the text:

The reason we have so many variations recorded in critical editions like Tischendorf's is that there is such an abundance of evidence for the text. Robert J. Dunzweiler reviews the total body of evidence thus:

We have about five thousand manuscripts of the Greek New Testament (either the whole New Testament or portions of it). These include approximately: (1) 80 papyrus manuscripts, dating as far back as the second century; (2) 260 parchment manuscripts (uncials), dating as far back as the third century; (3) 2700 cursive manuscripts, dating from the ninth to the sixteenth centuries; (4) 2100 lectionaries, containing selections from the New Testament for use in church services; and (5) a number of ostraca and amulets. In addition to these Greek manuscripts, we have many manuscripts of ancient versions; those of the Latin Vulgate alone exceed eight thousand. Besides manuscript evidence, we have the important connecting link of the early church fathers, a number of whom included citations of the New Testament in their writings. Let us note six of these writers, the first five of whom died before AD 255, and the sixth died in AD 340. The number of citations of the New Testament included in each of their writings is as follows: (1) Irenaeus, 1819; (2) Clement of Alexandria, 2406; (3) Origen, 17,922; (4) Tertullian, 7258; (5) Hippolytus, 1378; and (6) Eusebius, 5176.
—Robert J. Dunzweiler, Are the Bibles in Our Possession Inspired? Two Studies on the Inspiredness of the Apographs (Hatfield, PA: Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 1981).

All told, there are about 200,000 various readings to be found in all these manuscripts, versions, patristic citations and other witnesses to the text of the New Testament. But the following paragraphs explain that this large number is not at all indicative of significant corruption of the text:

"Not," as Dr. Warfield says, "that there are 200,000 places in the New Testament where various readings occur, but that there are nearly 200,000 readings all told, and in many cases the documents so differ among themselves that many various readings are counted on a single word, for each document is compared in turn with one standard and the number of its divergences ascertained, then these sums are themselves added together and the result given as the number of actually observed variations." * Dr. Ezra Abbott was accustomed to remark that "about nineteen-twentieths of the variations have so little support that, although there are various readings, no one would think of them as rival readings, and nineteen-twentieths of the remainder are of so little importance that their adoption or rejection would cause no appreciable difference in the sense of the passages in which they occur." Dr. Hort's view was that "upon about one word in eight, various readings exist supported by sufficient evidence to bid us pause and look at it; about one word in sixty has various readings upon it supported by such evidence as to render our decision nice and difficult, but that so many variations are trivial that only about one word in every thousand has upon it substantial variation supported by such evidence as to call out the efforts of the critic in deciding between the readings." The oft-repeated dictum of Bentley is still valid that "the real text of the sacred writings is competently exact, nor is one article of faith or moral precept either perverted or lost, choose as awkwardly as you will, choose the worst by design, out of the whole lump of readings."
—Charles Fremont Sitterly, "Text and Manuscripts of the New Testament," in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Chicago: Howard-Severance Co., 1915).

"The real text of the sacred writers does not now (since the originals have been so long lost) lie in any MS. or edition, but is dispersed in them all. 'Tis competently exact indeed in the worst MS. now extant; nor is one article of faith or moral precept either perverted or lost in them; choose as awkwardly as you will, choose the worst by design, out of the whole lump of readings ... Make your 30,000 [variations] as many more, if numbers of copies can ever reach that sum: all the better to a knowing and a serious reader, who is thereby more richly furnished to select what he sees genuine. But even put them into the hands of a knave or a fool, and yet with the most sinistrous and absurd choice, he shall not extinguish the light of any one chapter, nor so disguise Christianity, but that every feature of it will still be the same."
Richard Bentley, Remarks upon a Late Discourse of Free Thinking, in a Letter to F.H., D.D., by Phileleutherus Lipsiensis (London, 1713), Part I, Section 32.

"This received text contains undoubtedly all the essential facts and doctrines intended to be set down by the inspired writers; for if it were corrected with the severest hand, by the light of the most divergent various readings found in any ancient MS. or version, not a single doctrine of Christianity, nor a single cardinal fact would be thereby expunged. . . .If all the debated readings were surrendered by us, no fact or doctrine of Christianity would thereby be invalidated, and least of all would the doctrine of Christ's proper divinity be deprived of adequate scriptural support. Hence the interests of orthodoxy are entirely secure from and above the reach of all movements of modern criticism of the text whether made in a correct or incorrect method, and all such discussions in future are to the church of subordinate importance."
—Robert L. Dabney, "The Doctrinal Various Readings of the New Testament Greek," in Discussions by Robert L. Dabney: Volume I: Theological and Evangelical, edited by G. R. Vaughn (Richmond, Virginia: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1890), pp. 351, 389.

... in the more than 600 manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament there are about 284 million letters. Among these 600 plus manuscripts there are about 900 thousand variations in the text. At first blush 900 thousand variations certainly seem to indicate that the text has become hopelessly corrupt! However, of these 900 thousand variations, 750 thousand are the negligible variations between the similar-appearing Hebrew letters waw and yodh. The remaining 150 thousand do not affect any part of the system of doctrine discoverable in Scripture nor any individual teaching of the Bible as a whole. It should be pointed out that 900 thousand variations sounds like a great many, but 900 thousand variations distributed among 284 million letters amounts to one variation in 316 letters. And if the 750 thousand negligible variations between waw and yodh are discounted, the 150 thousand variations distributed among 284 million letters amounts to one variation in 1893 letters. Think of that level of accuracy for an ancient text, parts of which are anywhere from 2400 to almost 3400 years old!
—Robert J. Dunzweiler, Are the Bibles in Our Possession Inspired? Two Studies on the Inspiredness of the Apographs (Hatfield, PA: Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 1981). **

* Benjamin B. Warfield, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, 5th ed. (New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1898), p 14.

**For these statistics Dunzweiler cites John H. Skilton, "The Transmission of the Scriptures," The Infallible Word, ed. N. B. Stonehouse and Paul Wooley (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1946).