Textual Variants and Ancient Readers
In my essay that has just been published (mentioned in my post yesterday), my broader emphasis is that intentional textual variants in NT writings likely resulted from ancient readers. In the case of the variation-units I survey in that essay, I submit that readers were trying to judge the referents in statements that were somewhat ambiguous. I further propose that the variants likely resulted from readers perusing the context of each ambiguous statement to make their judgement, in short, doing just what serious readers and modern commentators do: exegesis based on context.
But, whereas modern commentators write a new text about the biblical text, these ancient readers (and we’re talking about the 2nd-3rd centuries likely) wrote what they judged to be the correct referent into their text of the NT writing. Ironically, out of their high regard for the text and its clear meaning, they felt free to alter the word to make clearer the referent.
This sort of close study of immediate context (reading not only backwards but also forward) isn’t likely what copyists did. Copyists basically copied the text before them. But readers/users of the copied text, they had the opportunity to note ambiguities and other problems, and the leisure-time to study carefully the context to see if they could clarify matters.
Then, when a reader’s copy was thereafter copied, the copyist likely assumed that what originated as a change in wording was the corrected wording, and so that change/variant entered subsequent textual transmission.
Copyists, to be sure, made oodles of accidental or unintentional changes, as is well documented. But the sort of exegetically-based intentional changes that I discuss were, I contend, made by readers/users of the texts. (I’m not the first to make this point. I refer to earlier publications by Michael Holmes and Ulrich Schmid in my essay.)
So, as I note in the essay, these and other such textual variants are fascinating “artefacts” of ancient reading/readers, and their exegetical efforts to understand more precisely the texts. Whereas in much earlier times NT textual critics tended to dismiss obviously secondary variants, seeking only the “original” reading, nowadays we are coming to regard all variants as in themselves valuable historical data. The field of NT textual criticism is now a much “sexier” discipline than it ever was!