A Review of Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes’ (ed.), “The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis”

Editors: Bart Ehrman is James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has written extensively on issues relating to the historical Jesus, NT canon, and NT TC, including The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (1993). (https://religion.unc.edu/_people/full-time-faculty/ehrman/)

Michael Holmes earned his PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary and has written and contributed to many books, including numerous journal articles and society meeting papers. He has also worked as chief editor on a volume on the apostolic Fathers and produced the SBL Greek New Testament. He is currently the University Professor of Biblical Studies and Early Christianity at Bethel University. (https://bethel.academia.edu/MichaelHolmes/CurriculumVitae)

Purpose and thesis: This volume is a collection of essays from many contributors, assembled to provide the student of textual criticism with the current state of textual studies and a potential springboard for further research. Each author contributes his or her own unique skill set and specialization to the full picture of contemporary textual research.

Review: This volume improves on the previous edition published in 1995 by updating certain information within the essays, by adding seven new essays altogether, and by bringing in the work of several younger scholars. The essays are grouped loosely by topic, beginning with the general types of MSS organized by medium (papyrus, majuscule, lectionary, etc.). The next group of essays deals with the NT versions (Latin, Syriac, etc.), which is followed by sections on method, theory, and practice. In total, the book provides the reader with a foundational knowledge of all the issues pertaining to NT TC and gives an impressive bibliographical basis for further study.

Chapter 1 is Eldon Epp’s study on the NT papyri. He begins with an orientation to the study of the papyri, including the history of their discoveries over the last two centuries. He generally holds that it is nearly impossible to know the provenance of the extant papyri due to the nature of the writing environment in Egypt during the first few centuries CE. He laments that the papyri have been underutilized in the publishing of critical editions of the NT over the last century, with only “gradual” inclusions of the papyri in recent editions (17-18). However, an understanding of the scribal habits of the copyists in the papyrus era is fundamentally important for categorizing later MSS and for challenging, when needed, broadly-held assumptions relating to text-types, geographical textual, criteria, etc. that stand in the field of TC.

In chapter 2 David Parker introduces the reader to the current state of research on the NT majuscule MSS. He gives some background information on the history of the MSS themselves, including their general form of writing, materials, and the contents of extant continuous script majuscule MSS (42-43). He then documents the history of the study of majuscule MSS in modern study, beginning with Erasmus’ mention of Codex Vaticanus in 1521 and the citation of Codex Bezae at the Council of Trent (45). Parker documents the study of majuscules and their use in critical editions from the time of John Mill (1707) to the modern period. The study of majuscules has become more ubiquitous in recent years, due in part to the publication of online images, and the field has leaped forward due to improvements in methodology as well. With this in mind (and in typical fashion for Parker), he emphasizes the study of individual manuscripts as artifacts before making decisions on their texts prematurely (61).

Chapter 3 is Barbara Aland and Klaus Wachtel’s contribution on the minuscule MSS of the NT. The authors document the provenance of minuscule script for NT MSS, especially in the early-9th and 10th centuries, and the importance of the minuscules for NT study despite their comparatively late dating when considered alongside the majuscule MSS and papyri (71-72). The importance for the study of minuscules is found in the task of tracing the history of the NT tradition, especially in determining the “stemmatic relation of manuscripts to one another” (74). In chapter 4, Carroll Osburn provides and introduction to the lectionary MSS of the NT. He distinguishes between most lectionaries’ two parts: the synaxarion (readings that follow the ecclesiastical calendar based on the date for Easter) and the menologion (readings that follow the civil calendar independent of ecclesiastical dates; 95). Osburn concludes that a critical edition of the lectionary MSS is needed as well as the consideration of their textual data in the determining the oldest attainable text of the NT (109). In chapter 5, Ulrich Schmid discusses the Diatessaron of Tatian and its importance for NT textual research. Schmid views Codex Fuldensis as vitally important in the determination of Tatian’s Gospel harmony and in distinguishing between the Syriac and Latin harmony traditions (137).

Chapters 6-12 are individually dedicated to the versions of the NT. In chapter 6, Peter Williams introduces the reader to the Syriac versions, including the Diatessaron, the Old Syriac versions (Curetonian and Sinaitic), the Peshitta, the post-Peshitta versions (Philoxenian and Harclean), and the Christian Palestinian Aramaic version. Philip Burton introduces the Latin version of the NT in chapter 7 and documents its history in the Old Latin era (including Tertullian’s confounding citations [195]) and its further development in Jerome’s Vulgate. In chapter 8, Christian Ashkeland examines the Coptic versions of the NT, challenging the popular belief that it emerged simultaneously alongside the written Coptic language (207). Rochus Zuurmond surveys the state of research and history of the Ethiopic version of the NT in chapter 9. He holds that the chief importance of the Ethiopic text is its use as a window by which to view the history of textual transmission of the NT text (249). In chapter 10, S. Peter Cowe surveys the history, the current state of research, and the witness of the Armenian version for the NT. In chapter 11, Jeff W. Childers documents the Georgian version of the NT, noting that it is “one of the least well-studied versions” (293). He gives an overview of its recensional history in the Gospels and epistles and surveys the Georgian patristic and lectionary texts, but he laments the lack of scholarly attention given to these in the Georgian version (311). The final chapter on versions is Carla Falluomini’s chapter on the Gothic version. She gives a history of the translation and its general “adherence to the Byzantine text” (330, 332). The Gothic version’s close relationship to the Byz is one factor that has led to its exclusion from most modern critical texts (332). However, the Gothic version in this regard is helpful in tracing the history of textual transmission over time.

The next three chapters pertain to the use of patristic data in NT TC. Chapter 13 is an immensely helpful essay by Gordon Fee (revised by Roderic Mullen) on the use of the Greek Fathers for NT TC. The authors document some of the general difficulties in determining a Father’s tradition/exemplar used in his citations and warn against the overuse and misuse of the Greek Fathers in attempting to determine the earliest NT text. Chapter 14 is Hugh Houghton’s analysis of the use of the Latin Fathers for NT TC. He traces the history of patristic Latin exegesis and explains the usefulness and hazards of using the Latin Fathers in determining the earliest attainable Greek NT text. He also provides a helpful section on tools for working with the Latin Fathers. Chapter 15 is Sebastian Brock’s examination of the use of the Syriac Fathers in NT TC. He compares the difficulties of working with the Syriac Fathers with that of the Greek Fathers, i.e., in determining where a particular Father is drawing his citation.

Chapter 16 is Peter Head’s examination of the use of other Greek witnesses in tracing the history of the NT text. He includes very helpful sections on ostraca (e.g., pottery), amulets (e.g., charms worn on the body), and inscriptions (texts carved into hard surfaces). Head’s article is helpful for showing how these oft-forgotten witnesses can assist in tracing textual development, and it shows how the biblical text was understood and remembered by the Christian community (452-3). The primary advantage of inscriptional data is in pinpointing the form of the text geographically. In chapter 17, James Royse surveys the habits and tendencies of the earliest scribes, including a snapshot of the most common copying errors (spelling, homoeoteleuton, haplography, etc.). He challenges common oversimplifications misuses of certain TC canons, such as lectio brevior potior and lectio difficilior potior (464-465). Like Epp, Royse also laments the lack of influence of the papyri on modern printed editions (474). Kim Haines-Eitzen’s contribution in chapter 18 covers the social history of early scribes, taking into consideration literacy rates and the codicological and paleographical elements of book production.

Chapter 19 begins a larger section on the methodology and practice of doing NT TC with Thomas C. Geer, Jr.’s essay on analyzing and categorizing Greek MSS. He examines the history of MS analysis beginning with Colwell’s methods and their further development in later scholarship (498-9). Colwell emphasized categorization by establishing “relationships among MSS” (499) which led in later years to the development of more complex methodologies, such as the CBGM and Comprehensive Profile Method. Chapter 20 by Eldon Epp is an argument for the supersession of the idea of “text-types,” as this term is in many ways ahistorical and untenable in classifying MSS (530-5). He argues for a more tenable approach and terminology, using instead the term “textual clusters,” as he believes this comports more with the extant data and the transmission history of the Greek text by emphasizing relationship through agreement and disagreement (541, 571).

In chapter 21, Tommy Wasserman analyzes evaluating readings in NT TC. He gives a brief historical survey, noting Westcott, Hort, and Colwell’s influences and provides a template for examining internal and external data. Wasserman also gives a small case study and brief overview of the CBGM and its viability in evaluating readings. In chapter 22, Jan Krans explores the use of conjectural emendation in critical editions of the Greek NT. He notes the difficulties in setting the boundaries for proper conjectural emendation (as readings which have no explicit written support) and provides occurrences in the critical editions. In chapter 23, Michael Holmes offers his expertise on the debate between the terms “original text” and “initial text,” or the like. He addresses what was once a near-consensus in the field of TC, that the common goal is to determine which of the variant readings most likely represents the original text” (637). However, this quest for the “original text” has slowly gone out of chic by many scholars in lieu of a prescribed goal that reflects a quest for the “earliest recoverable text” (Epp), a “hypothetical initial text” (ECM), and others, including Holmes’ own two-stage goal centering on tracing the textual transmission to the earliest text possible (656).

In chapter 24, Juan Hernandez, Jr. examines the robust collection of modern editions and their respective apparatuses. He covers major editions, such as the ECM, as well as lesser known editions like Reuben Swanson’s Horizontal Line Synopsis volumes. Daniel Wallace examines the Majority Text theory from a historical, critical, and judicial point of view in chapter 25. He offers his criticism of modern Majority Text (MT) proponents, such as Maurice Robinson and other “Burgonians” (724). Wallace then critiques the MT theory in light of internal and external evidence, concluding that it is no longer viable in light of recent discoveries and work in the MSS (738). Chapter 26 is J. K. Elliott’s explanation and defense of thoroughgoing eclecticism (TE) in NT TC, i.e., the method that gives priority to a manuscript’s internal evidence in lieu of external/documentary evidence (745). TE gives precedence to details involving Semitisms, grammar, transcriptional probability, and intrinsic probability over the weight of external evidence pertaining to types and number of extant MSS. This view is challenged by Michael Holmes in chapter 27, who advocates reasoned eclecticism, which takes a more balanced approach to both internal and external evidence. Bart Ehrman concludes the book in chapter 28 with a look at the NT MSS as they relate to the social history of Christianity. He takes into account the theological controversies, social structures, and missionary movements that may have impacted textual transmission. He views the text’s transmission history as a window in which to view the social history of Christianity unfold over time (825).

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