Rethinking the Text of Acts
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.