Textual critics working with ancient literature universally acknowledge the supremacy of earlier manuscripts over later ones. Textual critics not working with the New Testament would love to have the same kind of early witnesses that biblical scholars possess. In fact, many of them work with manuscripts written one thousand years after the autographs were composed!
We all marvel that the Dead Sea Scrolls have provided a text that is nearly eight hundred years closer to the originals than the Masoretic manuscripts, and yet many of the Dead Sea manuscripts are still over six hundred to eight hundred years removed from the time of original composition!
New Testament textual critics have a great advantage! The nineteenth-century New Testament textual scholars—such as Lachmann, Tregelles, Tischendorf, and Westcott and Hort—worked on the basis that the earliest witnesses are the best witnesses.
We should continue this line of recovery using the testimony of the earlier witnesses. But textual scholars since the time of Westcott and Hort have been less inclined to produce editions based on the theory that the earliest reading is the best. Most present-day textual critics are more inclined to endorse this maxim: The reading that is most likely original is the one that best explains the variants.
This maxim (or “canon” as it is sometimes called), as good as it is, produces conflicting results. For example, two scholars, using this same principle to examine the same variant unit, will not agree. One will argue that one variant was produced by a copyist attempting to emulate the author’s style; the other will claim the same variant has to be original because it accords with the author’s style.
One will argue that one variant was produced by an orthodox scribe attempting to rid the text of a reading that could be used to promote heterodoxy or heresy; another will claim that the same variant has to be original because it is orthodox and accords with Christian doctrine (thus a heterodox or heretical scribe must have changed it). Furthermore, this principle allows for the possibility that the reading selected for the text can be taken from any manuscript of any date. This can lead to subjective eclecticism. Modern textual scholars have attempted to temper the subjectivism by employing a method called “reasoned eclecticism.” According
to Michael Holmes, “Reasoned eclecticism applies a combination of internal and external considerations, evaluating the character of the variants in light of the manuscript’s evidence and vice versa in order to obtain a balanced view of the matter and as a check upon purely subjective tendencies” (“New Testament Textual Criticism,” in Introducing New Testament Interpretation [ed. S. McKnight], 55).
The Alands favor the same kind of approach, calling it the local-genealogical method, which is defined as follows: It is impossible to proceed from the assumption of a manuscript stemma, and on the basis of a full review and analysis of the relationships obtained among the variety of interrelated branches in the manuscript tradition, to undertake a recension of the data as one would do with other Greek texts. Decisions must be made one by one, instance by instance. This method has been characterized as eclecticism, but wrongly so. After carefully establishing the variety of readings offered in a passage and the possibilities of their interpretation, it must always then be determined afresh on the basis of external and internal criteria which of these readings (and frequently they are quite numerous) is the original, from which the others may be regarded as derivative.
From the perspective of our present knowledge, this “local-genealogical” method (if it must be given a name) is the only one which meets the requirements of the New Testament textual tradition. (Introduction to Novum Testamentum Graece, 26th edition, 43)
The “local-genealogical” method assumes that for any given variation unit any manuscript (or manuscripts) may have preserved the original text. Applying this method produces an extremely uneven documentary presentation of the text. Anyone studying the critical apparatus of NA26 or NA27 will detect that there is not an even documentary presentation. The eclecticism is dispersed throughout the text.
“Reasoned eclecticism” or the “local-genealogical” method tends to give priority to internal evidence over external evidence. But it has to be the other way around if we are going to recover the original text. This was Westcott and Hort’s opinion. With respect to their compilation of The New Testament in the Original Greek, Hort wrote, “Documentary evidence has been in most cases allowed to confer the place of honour against internal evidence” (Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek, 17).
In this respect, Westcott and Hort need to be revived. Ernest Colwell was of the same mind when he wrote, “Hort Redivivus: A Plea and a Program.” Colwell decried the “growing tendency to rely entirely on the internal evidence of readings, without serious consideration of documentary evidence” (152). In this article he calls upon scholars to make an attempt to reconstruct a history of the manuscript tradition. The main thesis of this essay has been to do just that, and in so doing promote the value of the earliest manuscripts in the ongoing endeavor to recover the original text of the New Testament.
This is an excerpt from The Origin of the Bible by F. F. Bruce, J. I. Packer, Philip Comfort, and Carl F. H. Henry. To read more, you can purchase this book from many Christian bookstores and online retailers, including Tyndale.com: https://www.tyndale.com/p/the-origin-of-the-bible/9781414379326
Comfort, P. W., et al. The Origin of the Bible. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2020.