Chapter 6-The Search for Manuscripts

By 1611 the Western world had got its Bible in Greek and England had got its Bible in English. It might seem that the work was done; but a new work had to be begun. As has been shown, the Greek Bible had been printed from the first manuscripts that came to hand, and from this text the English Bible had been translated. As it happened, the Greek Old Testament was in better state than the New, since Pope Sixtus V had caused, in 1587, the production of an edition of the Septuagint mainly based on the great Vatican MS., which was and still is the best single authority for it, and this text was frequently reprinted; but Erasmus's New Testament, which with little change had become the `received text', was taken from a few late manuscripts. For two hundred and fifty years, and to a great extent even today, this Greek text and this English Bible remained in possession of the field, and few people realized that they were not wholly satisfactory. It needed three centuries of work to collect the materials necessary for their improvement, to digest the results, and to set them before the world at large. That has been the work on which the scholars of Europe and America have been engaged; and in it English scholars have taken an honourable, and often the leading, part.

The first impulse, indeed, came from England, only sixteen years after the publication of the Authorized Version, when the great Codex Alexandrinus came to this country. It was a gift from Cyril Lucar, Patriarch of Constantinople, offered through Sir Thomas Roe, British Ambassador to the Porte, to James I, but did not actually reach England till 1627, when Charles I was on the throne. It is a manuscript of great antiquity, written, as scholars are generally agreed, in the first half of the fifth century, probably in Egypt. Cyril had been Patriarch of Alexandria, and it is believed that he brought the manuscript with him thence, when he was translated in 1621 to Constantinople. It is a beautiful book, written on pages of fine vellum measuring about 12.5 by 10.5 inches, with two columns of writing on each page. At present, bound in four volumes bearing the royal arms and initials of Charles I, it may be seen any day in the British Museum, to which it passed with the rest of the Royal Library by the gift of George II in 1757. It contains the whole Greek Bible, complete except for accidental mutiliations, which have caused the loss of nearly the whole of St. Matthew and substantial parts of the Psalms, St. John, and 2 Corinthians, and a few smaller mutilations elsewhere. In addition, it contains the third and fourth books of Maccabees at the end of the Old Testament, and the two Epistles of Clement at the end of the New, while a table of contents shows that originally it had, at the end of all, the apocryphal Psalms of Solomon; but these, together with the end of 2 Clement, are now lost. In all, 733 leaves remain out of an original total of about 820.

The arrival of a manuscript of such antiquity made an instant sensation among scholars. Patrick Young,Librarian of the Royal Library, lost no time in publishing (in 1633) the Epistles of Clement, hitherto unknown, and made preparations for a complete edition of the whole. These came to nothing, but a collation of the principal readings in the New Testament was included in Bishop Walton's great Polyglot Bible in 1657. The Old Testament was eventually published in full in 1707-20, the new not until 1786; but its readings had been frequently collated and quoted before that. In modern times photographic facsimiles have been published by the British Museum, which for most purposes serve all the needs of scholars.

It was this discovery and its publication that set on foot the search for manuscripts, especially of the New Testament, and the tabulation of the variations of reading found in them. A period of search through the libraries of Europe now set in, resulting in a series of publications ranging over the next two centuries (and still continuing, as occasions serve, today) in which English and German scholars took the leading part. The `received' Greek text continued to be printed without alteration, but readings from various manuscripts were appended to it, and the manuscripts themselves were tabulated and numbered for easy reference. Uncial manuscripts were indicated by the capital letters of the Latin and Greek alphabets, minuscule manuscripts by arabic numerals; and this system has continued in force (with some necessary modifications) to the present day.

A few of the principal landmarks of this work may be doted. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the issue of a series of sumptuous editions of the Bible in several languages, hence known as the Polyglot Bibles.The first of these was the Complutensian Polyglot (1522), already referred to, which in six volumes contained the Old Testament in Hebrew, Latin and Greek (with interlinear Latin translation), and the New Testament in Greek and Latin. Next came the Antwerp Polyglot (1569-72), in eight volumes, in which the Syriac version was added (with a Latin translation) ; then the Paris Polyglot (1629-45), in ten huge volumes, which added Arabic (again with a Latin translation) and the Samaritan Pentateuch to the other languages; and finally the London Polyglot (1657), in eight volumes, edited by Brian Walton, in which the total of languages reaches seven, viz. Hebrew (Old Testament only), Greek, Latin, Syriac, Ethiopic, Arabic and Persian (New Testament only), with Latin translations attached in all cases, besides the Samaritan Pentateuch and various Targums or paraphrases. These massive volumes may be found today on the shelves of the great libraries, or in the ancient collections of colleges and schools, and inspire one with awe at the amount of labour involved in their compilation; but none of them is of any critical value except the one in which Walton added in notes the readings of the Codex Alexandrinus, and so made them available for the use of scholars. He also gave the readings of fifteen manuscripts, besides the fifteen used by Stephanus, and among these authorities were two of great age and value, the Codex Bezae of the Gospels and Acts (fifth century), and the Codex Claromontanus of the Pauline Epistles (sixth century).

The next steps forward were again made in England. In 1675 Dr. John Fell, Dean of Christ Church and hero of a celebrated stanza, printed a critical apparatus in which he claims to have used over a hundred manuscripts, adding a number from the Bodleian to those which he derived from Stephanus, Walton, and others, and using the Coptic and Gothic versions. But the climax of English work in the seventeenth century was that of John Mill, who, encouraged and pecuniarily assisted by Fell, laboured at the task of collecting collations over more than a quarter of a century, and eventually produced in 1707 a New Testament in which he attached to the text of Stephanus the various readings of seventy-eight other manuscripts besides those used by Stephanus himself, with all the versions to which he could get access, and (for the first time) the quotations from the Scriptures ,if the early Christian writers, the evidence of whom as to the texts known to them is often of great value. To all this he prefixed an elaborate introduction, which may fairly be said to have laid the foundations of the textual criticism of the New Testament. It was a great work, and, though assailed by some who thought that doubt was thrown on the integrity of the Scriptures by the presentation of so many various readings, remained as the basis for scholarly work on the New Testament for a long time to come. It was warmly defended by the great scholar, Richard Bentley, against those who foolishly thought that reverence for the Bible was better shown by accepting a faulty text without question than by facing the facts and endeavouring to arrive at the truth by a scholarly study of the evidence.

But for this hostile atmosphere, England might have anticipated by a century the work in which Germany eventually led the way, by applying the evidence thus collected to the revision of the text itself. Bentley himself (who certainly would have been deterred by no criticism) contemplated the preparation of an edition of the New Testament with a revised text, but never got beyond the collection of materials; but two scholars of less note, Edward Wells (in 1709-19) and William Mace, a Presbyterian minister (in 1729), produced such editions, on the basis of the evidence collected by Mill. Both editions were vehemently attacked in their own country, and they made no impression on the course of criticism; but modern German scholars have paid honourable tribute to them, pointing out that in a large majority of cases the corrections made by them in the received text have been confirmed by the scholarship of the nineteenth century. In their own country, however, they were prophets without honour, and little is heard of English contributions to the subject for the next century. On the Continent also text-revision was not in favour; but the work of collecting evidence and cataloguing manuscripts continued actively.

A Swiss pupil of Bentley's, J. J. Wetstein, was the first to compile a list of manuscripts with the method of nomenclature (as described above) which has since been generally followed. His list (published in 1751-2) comprised 21 uncial manuscripts, and over 250 minuscules. C. F. Matthaei added 57 manuscripts to the list in 1782-8, and a few more in 1803-7. Further additions by Alter from manuscripts in the Imperial Library at Vienna, and by three Danish professors from various libraries in Italy, Germany, and Spain, carried on the work to the end of the century; and in the early years of the nineteenth century all that hitherto had been done in the way of listing manuscripts was summed up and greatly extended by J. M. A. Scholz, who in 1830-6 published a catalogue of New Testament manuscripts which included 26 uncials and 469 minuscules of the Gospels, 8 uncials and 192 minuscules of the Acts and Catholic Epistles, 9 uncials and 246 minuscules of the Pauline Epistles, and 3 uncials and 88 minuscules of the Apocalypse, besides 239 lectionaries, or collections of lessons for reading in church. Scholz's object was not to collate manuscripts, but to catalogue them, so that others might know what materials were in existence for them to work on; and his list, for all its defects, provided the basis on which the list has since been kept up, until now the total runs into the neighbourhood of five thousand.

The period during which the mere collection of material predominated over all other considerations may be said to extend from 1627, when the Codex Alexandrinus came to England, to 1830, when Scholz began to publish his catalogue - a period of two hundred years. A new period starts, as we shall see, in 1831 ; but meanwhile it may be useful to sum up what had been achieved. Exactness of figures is illusory, since some manuscripts contain the whole of the New Testament, while others (the large majority) contain only one section of it - the Gospels, or the Acts and Catholic Epistles, or the Pauline Epistles, or the Apocalypse; but it is within the limit to say that something over a thousand manuscripts had been brought to the knowledge of scholars. By far the greater part of these were minuscules - that is were of the tenth century or later; but among the uncials, which were of early date, were some of prime importance. The oldest and best of all, the Codex Vaticanus, was indeed known, since it had been in the Vatican Library since at least 1481; but though it had been used for Pope Sixtus's edition of the Septuagint, it had been little noticed in connexion with the New Testament. Bentley had a collation made of it, but did not use it; other scholars examined it more or less casually; but it was not until after it had been brought to Paris by Napoleon, with other loot from Italy, that a German scholar, Hug, realized and proclaimed its age and value. When it was returned to Rome, after the fall of Napoleon, the Vatican authorities withheld it from foreign scholars, because they contemplated publishing it themselves; but their edition hung fire until 1857, and then was so badly executed as to be quite unserviceable. At the period at which we have arrived, therefore, it was for practical purposes still unknown, or at least unappreciated.

The only two manuscripts of the Gospels of the first rank that were fully known were the Codex Alexandrinus and the Codex Bezae, both in England. The Alexandrinus had been collated by Walton and Mill and other editors, and was published in full in 1786; and its pre-eminence among New Testament manuscripts was generally recognized. The Codex Bezae had been slightly used by Stephanus and Beza, and more fully collated by Walton and others, and was published in full in 1793 by the University of Cambridge; but its peculiar character, and its very marked divergences from the, generally accepted text (as to which more will have to he said later) caused it to be regarded with suspicion, so that not much weight was attached to it. There were also two good and early manuscripts of other parts of the New Testament, the Codex Laudianus of the Acts at Oxford (published in full by Hearne in 1715) and the Codex Claromontanus of the Pauline Epistles at Paris, both of about the sixth century. It will be seen therefore that the scholars of this period had not much acquaintance with manuscripts of a really early date, and may be excused for having failed to realize the imperfections of the text to which they were accustomed. With a few exceptions, they were overwhelmed by the mass of later manuscripts, nearly all of which contained the relatively late Byzantine text which had entrenched itself in the `received text' of Stephanus.

There were some, however, who saw deeper and took the first steps towards testing the evidence by the application of scientific scholarship. Bentley would have done so, if his edition had ever come to the birth; but a few others actually achieved something, and their work, though it found little acceptance among their contemporaries, is held in honour today. Three scholars deserve particular mention, as having laid the foundations of the theory of the textual criticism of the New Testament on which we build today. The first is J. A. Bengel, who in an edition published in 1734. was the first to endeavour to classify the total mass of authorities and to distinguish the character and relative importance of different groups - in short, to consider the quality of the witnesses, and not only their quantity. He divided the witnesses (including versions as well as Greek manuscripts) into two groups, which he named African and Asian, the former including the few most ancient authorities, which appeared to emanate from Egypt and North Africa, and the latter the great mass of later manuscripts, containing what we have called the Byzantine or received text. J. S. Semler (1767) expanded this division into a threefold classification, (a) Alexandrian, which he attributed to Origen, and to which he assigned the earliest Greek manuscripts and the Syriac, Coptic, and Ethiopic versions, (b) Eastern, with its centres at Antioch and Constantinople, and including the main mass of authorities, and (c) Western, to be found in the Latin versions and Fathers. This thesis was elaborated and extended by his pupil, J. J. Griesbach, the greatest Biblical scholar of the eighteenth century, who in three editions published between 1774 and 1805 applied Semler's classification to the increased material collected by Wetstein, and allotted the several manuscripts, versions and Fathers precisely to the several groups. In the Alexandrian group he placed three uncials (including the early but incomplete Codex Ephraemi at Paris), six selected minuscules, the Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, and later Syriac (known as Harklean) versions, and the quotations in Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Eusebius; in the Western, Codex Bezae, the Latin versions, and sometimes the Peshitta Syriac; and in the Eastern or Constantinopolitan, the Codex Alexandrinus and the mass of later authorities. Like Bengel and Semler he regarded the small groups of early witnesses as altogether superior in weight to the numerically preponderant mass of the Constantinopolitan or Byzantine group.

This classification, though minuter criticism has modified it in some of its details, remains substantially the basis of modern textual theory. It rests first on the discernment that certain groups of authorities are linked together by internal agreements which show that they go back to some common ancestor or group of ancestors; secondly, that quality is to be preferred to quantity; thirdly, that quality can be discerned on grounds of internal probability. On the basis of these principles the conclusion is arrived at that the great mass of authorities represent a relatively late revision of the text, and that to find the truth we must look mainly to the small groups of witnesses which are either anterior to this revision or have partially escaped its influence. It was a doctrine wholly inacceptable to the age in which it was produced, and has been hotly disputed since, as we shall see; but it is the doctrine which has been universally applied by the editors of ancient classical texts, and is now accepted by practically all Biblical scholars. We shall reach the last stages in the controversy when we come to the English Revised Version in 1881.

Chapter 5 Table of Contents Chapter 7