Skip to content

Wasserman on an “Alexandrian Recension” of the Gospels

March 1, 2019

Included in a set of papers given at a NT textual criticism conference held in Birmingham (UK) is an essay by Tommy Wasserman that merits attention of all interested in the question of what the earliest manuscript evidence tells us about the textual transmission of the Gospels in the second century:  “Was There an Alexandrian Recension of the Living Text?,” in Liturgy and the Living Text of the New Testament, ed. Hugh Houghton (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2018), 1-22.

Noting recent challenges by Brent Nongbri to the previously-accepted dates for P66 and P75 (two more substantially preserved papyri of the Gospels), Wasserman focuses on the data of P4, P64, P67, whose dates (ca. 175-250) remain commonly accepted.[1]  These papyri show a very carefully copied text, with very few harmonizations or other indications of a “loose” handling.[2]  Moreover, there is an impressive agreement with the text of Codex Vaticanus (the primary witness to the “Alexandrian” or “strict” text).

Wasserman’s conclusions include the judgement that irrespective of the dates of P66 or P75, the kind of text that we have in Vaticanus is not the product of a 4th century recension, but much more likely the continuation of an attitude toward copying that we see already in P4, P64, and P67–a “strict” or careful copying.  As these early papyri likely aren’t the initiating instances of the copying practice, but likely a continuation of still earlier copying, this means that this copyist practice must be pushed back well into the second century if not earlier.

He grants, as have others (including me), that we also see evidence of a somewhat freer or less careful copying that could produce more frequent copyist errors and also other kinds of variants (such as harmonization of the text of one Gospel to a parallel account in another).[3]  The mistake is to think that there was one monolithic approach to copying the Gospels.  Instead, there appears to have been a certain diversity of copyist practices, as we would expect in an early setting in which there was no ecclesiastical control over the process.  But the key point is that among this early diversity there was a careful or “strict” copying of NT texts that we see represented later in Vaticanus.  There was no fourth-century recension, and it is even less plausible to posit one in the second century.

[1] Brent Nongbri, “The Limits of Palaeographic Dating of Literary Papyri:  Some Observations on the Date and Provenance of P. Bodmer II (P66),” Museum Helveticum 71 (2014): 1-35; id., “Reconsidering the Place of Papyrus Bodmer XIV-XV (P75) in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 135.2 (2016):  405-37.  For my earlier postings on Nongbri’s challenges see here, and the ensuing dialogue over the issues here, and also here.

[2] This essay draws upon Wasserman’s earlier studies of these papyri and related issues:  “A Comparative Textual Analysis of P4 and P64+67,” TC 15 (2010): 1-26; “The Implications of Textual Criticism for Understanding the ‘Original Text’,” in Mark and Matthew I, Comparative Readings:  Understanding the Earliest Gospels in Their First-Century Settings, ed. Eve-Marie Becker and Anders Runesson (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 77-96.

[3] E.g., Larry W. Hurtado, “The New Testament in the Second Century:  Text, Collections and Canon,” in Transmission and Reception:  New Testament Text-Critical and Exegetical Studies, ed. J. W. Childers and D. C. Parker (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2006), 3-27.  The pre-publication version is here.

From → Uncategorized

  1. Steve Kell permalink

    Larry, I’ve enjoyed reading your comments for a number of months now. Thank you for taking time to share insights and observations of your studies over the years to online readers like myself.

    I went to your 3rd footnote link document, saw in your first footnote there a reference to Carroll Osburn. I knew he had left Abilene Christian University a number of years ago to go to Africa (and perhaps Europe) but I am not sure of his current involvement with any university and/or ministry. But his past expositions on various texts were meaningful to me. Any update on him?

    Is your health improving/holding its own during/post treatment? Prayers sent on your behalf.

    • I don’t know where Osburn is now. My health is improving since release from chemo treatment.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: