The Early Text of the New Testament and the Usefulness of Papyri MSS

I’m currently reviewing The Early Text of the New Testament. I couldn’t help but stop to interact and briefly summarize the first chapter by Charles Hill and Michael Kruger (blog). Below is a brief summary and personal interaction on the first chapter (“Introduction: In Search of the Earliest Text of the New Testament”). Much of the documentation is Hill and Kruger’s research and I provided it to supplement the summary. If you are able, any NT and Early Patristic student or professor ought to own this and digest its findings.

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As new generations of text-critical scholars have surfaced in the past decade or so, it appears to come with a new set of text-critical questions and conclusions. When trying to state what “text criticism” is trying to accomplish, there are various and competing ideas. Are we trying to find the “original” (however that is defined)?[1] Or are there other textual concerns driving the discipline? “It is by no means self-evident that this ought to be the goal of the discipline,” Bart Ehrman asserts, “there may indeed be scant reason to privilege the ‘original’ text over forms of the text that developed subsequently.”[2] As text-critics look at the process of the early MSS tradition, some are moving far away from attempting to determine the “original” text, but are seeing “text” as a process. Consequently, multiple MSS, even with their variants, are traditions and “Scripture” to multiple early Christian communities. Therefore, there is no pressing need to locate the “original”.[3]

Regardless of these suppositions, each textual critic must interact with the early texts of the New Testament as they appear in codices and papyri. At the turn of the 20th century, there were only 9 papyri MSS documented. As of now, there are 127.[4] Therefore, the conversations of the early text a century ago are much different than current discussions. In 20th century textual scholarship, Bruce Metzger, Eldon Epp, and the Alands created similar categories for the major 4th century documents. According to Metzger, there are the Alexandrian text types, the Western text types, and the text types partially influenced by both.[5] Eldon Epp created a rubric for ‘A’ Group, ‘B’ Group, ‘C’ Group, and ‘D’ Group.[6] The Alands divided MSS into three major groups: ‘strict text’, ‘normal text’, and ‘free text’.[7] The problem of modern papyri textual scholarship is determining how to categorize early texts. The majority of the papyri pre-date the major MSS of the 4th century and these three scholars created categories for the major codices. Therefore, do we refine textual categories or do use the same categories when the papyri appear to have similar features matching the major early codices?[8]

Rather than using the same categories, Hill and Kruger provide a new approach to analyze the papyri MSS. Some do appear, as Metzger defines, as an Alexandrian text whereby it is crisp, the text is clear and careful, and very little conflations appear in the text. Moreover, some papyri are less careful in composition and contain more changes and modifications than normal papyri MSS. Rather than assuming the framework of the three scholars above, Hill and Kruger assert two new categories of reference. The first is determining the Transmission Quality.[9] A number of papyri MSS are compared with one another and then a list is provided with all their differences. This is similar to the historical critical methodology (*please don’t read into the this title). There is a leveling of sources and then letting the similarities percolate to a level of prominence. The Transmission Quality attempts to do the complete opposite by studying single MSS. Analyzing individual texts enables the critic to notice scribal patterns and habits. Therefore, the “freedom” concept of scribes is not patterned after early scribal tradition, but to the insufficiencies of an individual scribe.

The other category created by Hill and Kruger is analyzing the non-textual features of the papyri texts. This is not looking at the specific text itself, but all the features surrounding the text MS. Some texts contain “reading aids” whereby there are breaks, diaeresis, rough breathing marks, punctuation points, and accents. These features suggest certain papyri texts were used for public oration. Second, there are a specific number of “lines per page”. Eric Turner argues, as cited by Hill and Kruger, that literary texts averaged fifty lines per page. P46, however, is estimated to have twenty-five–twenty-eight lines per page. This mass reduction suggests public oration.[10] Lastly, the “scribal hand” helps categorize each papyri text. There are literary aesthetics to some while other posses a sense of “unprofessionalism”. These literary external features help explain why some papyri seem to have greater freedom than others.

The hypotheses of Hill and Kruger do suggest a possible new avenue of papyri discussions of the early text. It will be interesting how well these ideas are received or what type scrutiny that will appear by textual critics.

[1]B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1881), 2.1; Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York; Oxford University Press, 1992), 150; Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 291–92.

[2]Bart D. Ehrman, “The Text as Window: New Testament Manuscripts and the Social History of Early Christianity,” in The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 361n1.

[3]For more discussion on texts as a “process” instead of as object, see David C. Parker, Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012). Idem., The Living Text of the Gospels (New York: Cambridge University, 1997), 203–13.

[4]Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger, “In Search of the Earliest Text of the New Testament,” in The Early Text of the New Testament, eds. Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012), 2.

[5]Metzger and Ehrman, Text of the New Testament, 278, 67.

[6]Eldon Jay Epp, Perspectives on New Testament Textual Criticism (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 380–81.

[7]Aland and Aland, Text of the New Testament, 93–95.

[8]Hill and Kruger, “Earliest Text,” 6–7.

[9]Ibid., 13–15.



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