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Another Milestone in NT Textual Criticism

August 6, 2013

I’ve recently received (with gratitude) a copy of the newly-published second/revised edition of the two-volume work on the Catholic Epistles in the Novum Testamentum Graecum, Editio Critica Maior (ECM) project, which is based in the Institute for New Testament Textual Research (University of Muenster).  The aim of the ECM project is to produce (eventually) a critical text of the entire NT based on a careful use of all the text-critical data from the first 1000 years.  This includes Greek manuscripts, manuscripts of “versions” (early translations of NT writings), and quotations in the “Church Fathers” (Christian writers).

The first major component produced in this massive project was the first edition of the work on the Catholic Epistles (James, 1 Peter, 2Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude), which appeared in fascicles 1997-2005.  This second/revised edition (all the Catholic Epistles included in one volume) was deemed necessary to take account of further evidence and analysis produced through the application of the “Coherence-Based Genealogical Method” (CBGM) developed in the Muenster Institute, which you can read about here.  Essentially, the CBGM is intended to advance the analysis of textual variants with a view to judging the most likely earliest-attainable state of the text of NT writings, which the Institute people refer to as the “initial text” (German:  “Ausgangstext”).

Eventually, the ECM will comprise five volumes:  (1) the Gospels, (2) Acts, (3) Pauline Letters, (4) Catholic Letters, (5) Revelation.  The next component currently being worked toward is the volume on Acts.

The large-size pages of the ECM main volume give, in the upper register of the page, the critical text judged most likely to reflect the “initial text,” and in the lower register the variants and supporting witnesses laid out spaciously and fully.  The second, thinner volume in this set explains the many abbreviations and symbols used in the textual “apparatus” of variants, and gives further information on all the manuscripts, versions and early Church writers drawn upon.

Pp. 1-39 give (first in German and then English) an introduction to the ECM and then also helpful notes specific to this second edition of the Catholic Epistles.   These notes include a list of textual changes in decisions about variants in comparison with the text of the standard hand-edition of the Greek NT, the “Nestle-Aland” 27th edition.  (These changes are also incorporated into the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland which appeared in 2012.)  This list also includes 11 places where the judgments reflected in this second edition of the Catholic Epistles volume differ from those in the first edition.

I’ll note some of the larger conclusions mentioned in the Introduction.  Noting that the reconstructed “initial text” is not at every point to be presumed identical with the text as it came from the author, the editors nevertheless candidly state their aim to approximate that authorial text as closely as they can.  Moreover, they state, ” . . . we have not found evidence indicating that significant changes must have been introduced between the authorial texts and the archetype of the tradition” [i.e., the “initial text” from which subsequent copies were made] (p. 30).

The editors also came to the view that “the old text-type terminology is not useful for describing the evidence” (p. 32).  They refer to the traditional “text-types”:  e.g., “Alexandrian,” “Byzantine,” “Western”.  Scholars have long wondered whether these text-types, which were groupings of NT witnesses based on data from the Gospels, were valid for other NT texts.  But, if “text-type” categories are not appropriate for the Catholic Epistles, this doesn’t necessarily mean that these categories are altogether worthless.  It will be interesting to see what the Muenster people judge when they get to the Gospels.

The editors also describe as a “surprising” result of their analysis that “several witnesses containing the Byzantine text in pure form” (i.e., the kind of text that came to be favoured in the majority of later/medieval manuscripts) agree significantly with the reconstructed “initial text” (p. 34).  This they take to mean that “the Byzantine text” is likely “extremely reliable beyond its particular [distinguishing] variants.”  (BTW, note the continuing use of text-type language here, in referring to the “Byzantine text”!)

An interesting  wrinkle in the formatting of this edition of the “initial text” is how the editors have handled the 43 places where they were not able confidently to decide which variant was to be preferred.  In these instances, the competing variants are stacked one over the other in the “primary” line.  So, e.g., at James 1:22 (p. 18 of the vol.) we have both μονον ακροαται and ακροαται μονον printed in a stacked arrangement.  There is a list of these 43 places on pp. 37-38 (pp. 18-19 of the German introduction).

I congratulate our Muenster colleagues for another milestone publication in the grand ECM project.  Along with the many other publications and tools that have issued from the Muenster Institute over so many years (including particularly numerous successive editions of the Nestle-Aland hand edition of the Greek NT), for which one can only express profound gratitude, this set on the Catholic Epistles will be an indispensable resource for text-critics and also for all serious exegetes.

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  1. Tommy Wasserman permalink

    Thanks Larry, I found the volume in my mailbox today; a very pleasant surprise on my first work day after a long vacation.

  2. Jon D permalink

    Hi Larry,

    That seems like a bit of a shift towards the Byzantine text type from Muenster – interesting. Do you know if this is on a small number of variants or on quite a number?


    • Jon: As I understand it, the “surprise” was that some “pure Byzantine” witnesses also came up with a strong agreement (92+%) with what the editors judged the “initial” text. The editors note that these same witnesses also “support the Byzantine text in nearly all passages wehre it clearly differs from our reconstruction of the initial text” (p. 34). They go on to note that “This raises the question as to which variants which had previously been rejected because of their Byzantine attestation qualify as initial text. Consequently, all passages in which the Byzantine text differed from the primary line [i.e., the reconstructed “initial” text] had to be reconsidered.” So, it’s not apparently a case of tilting toward a “Byzantine text,” but instead noting that some Byzantine witnesses seem to have basically a “reliable” text aside from “its particular variants.”

      • Jon D permalink

        Ah, ok, thanks for the clarification Larry.

        Whatever the analysis comes out with, this is really positive news.

  3. Thank you for this helpful description, Larry. I continue to wish that we would use the German “Ausgangstext” instead of translating it to “initial text.” The two terms are similar but give a slightly different impression.

    • Yes, perhaps. But the editors of the ECM volume do say that they see “Ausgangstext” as the hypothetical “authorial” text.

    • I think both German and Denglish are terrible. Couldn’t they have written it in Latin? 😉

      But I am impressed at their ingenious solution to that irritating sort of minor variant that has no impact on either meaning or style, and where there is nothing to recommend one form over the other.

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