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Rethinking the Text of Acts

April 13, 2011

I tend to focus my manuscript interests on the first three centuries, but a recently-published 5th-century manuscript of Acts holds an unusual significance:  P.Oxyrhynchus 74.4968 (Gregory-Aland P127), comprising portions of eight leaves preserving portions of Acts 10–12 and 15–17.   See the full discussion by David C. Parker and Stuart R. Pickering in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Volume LXXIV, ed. D. Leith, et al. (London:  Egypt Exploration Society, 2009), 1-45.

To set the context for the Parker/Pickering analysis, the dominant scholarly view is that there are two types of text of Acts:  the “Alexandrian” (or “Old Unical”) text (the kind of text we have in Codex Vaticanus, for example) and the “Western” text (for which Codex Bezae is the main witness, and which is a bit more than 6% larger).  Perhaps the most important point posited by Parker & Pickering is that P127 requires a re-thinking of this view.  Here are some snippets from their discussion:

“On the evidence presented here  . . ., it is hard to see how the bipolar concept of a two-text form of Acts can continue to be maintained.  At the very least, the history of the text of Acts will need extensive revision” (p. 8).

Essentially, P127 seems to reflect a somewhat “freer” handling of the text of Acts than we have in Vaticanus, and so somewhat like the text of Bezae, but it is not simply the text of Bezae either.  In fact, they judge that the form of text presented in P127 is “not particularly close” to the Greek or the Latin text of Bezae (p. 10).  Nevertheless, in light of the readings shared by P127 and Bezae against the readings of Vaticanus, they propose that P127 and Bezae “are descended from a similar form of text” (p. 11).

I underscore one further point from their study:  As a fifth-century manuscript, P127 gives further reason to re-think the common assumption that the NT writings “tended to be treated more freely in the early stages of their existence” (p. 14).  In P127 we have a distinctive kind of text of Acts being copied and used well past the point when, as often assumed, a “free” handling of the text of NT writings had ceased.

We don’t, however, have any variants that reflect any serious theological tendencies, nor  indications of an effort to re-fashion Acts to some particular point of view.  Instead, P127 essentially reflects a noteworthy readiness by some ancient readers (and/or copyists) to make numerous small expansions or abbreviations and stylistic changes.  But this fragmentary manuscript is now crucially important in scholarly study of the history of the text of Acts.

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  1. The current issue of Novum Testamentum has an article by Georg Gäbel, titled “The Text of P.Oxy. 4968 and Its Relationship with the Text of Codex Bezae.” Here is the abstract:

    “This essay discusses the text of the recently published P.Oxy. 4968, which contains parts of Acts 10-12, 15-17, and its relationship with the text of Codex Bezae (D05) and some other witnesses. The text of P.Oxy. 4968 is characterized by tendencies to add and to omit, by a high number of singular variants, and by a high number of variants agreeing with variants in D05. After close scrutiny of some of the latter, a model is sketched of the development of the particular strand of textual tradition (formerly called “Western” text) to which they belong. While some variants common to P.Oxy. 4968 and D05 clearly reveal theological interests, it is suggested that others might be more aptly described in terms of narrative criticism.”

  2. J.J. permalink

    Thank you for this important clarification.

    I’m curious… the additions to Bezae amount to ~6% beyond the Alexandrian text. With ~18,000+ words in Acts, that’s ~1,000+ words. I’m familiar with many of the more famous additions in Acts in Bezae, but is there one place where one can view all these additions at once? Thanks in advance.

  3. Larry, This can’t possibly be an original idea, but have you NT scholars discussed these “free” renditions of texts in terms either of contemporary paraphrases (such as The Living Bible or The Message) or of study Bibles (whether Scofield or any of the 1000s of more recent ones)? Are these “free renditions” kinda like one or the other or both of these contemporary genres?

    • Indeed, I suggested in my study of Codex W in Mark that the tendencies reflected in its text (“improving” or smoothing out perceived stylistic difficulties, removing ambiguities in the text, occasionally rephrasing readings that could be read in the “wrong” way) corresponded to the moves made often in translations. I don’t know that any of the ancient “free” versions of the Gospels amount to the liberties taken in some modern paraphrases, but in a more muted form there are similar likely motives and tactics. In the case of Codex Bezae in Acts, we seem to have a tendency to add narrative details or flourishes, which occasionally seem to resemble the sort of embroiderment on biblical narratives that story-tellers (or preachers) often add.

  4. C.J. O'Brien permalink

    “…a noteworthy readiness by some ancient readers (and/or copyists) to make numerous small expansions or abbreviations and stylistic changes.”

    Could you characterize these changes in contrast or comparison with the kind of manuscript variants we find in the gospels? Would you say there was more such readiness toward Acts than the gospels? Do the variants between gospel manuscripts reflect more of a tendency “to re-fashion…to some particular point of view”?

    • I think that broadly the tendencies are similar. When one takes into account the pericope of the adulterous woman (added most often to GJohn but sometimes to GLuke), the longer endings of Mark, and the preseence/absence of the “bloodly sweat” passage, we have textual variations that comprise significant amounts of material, which compare with the extra material in Bezae’s Acts.

  5. Pete permalink

    Check out the latest Novum Testamentum too.

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