Chapter 7- The Revision of the Text

We have now arrived at a point, just over a hundred years ago, when a fresh start was made in Biblical criticism, and a period opens which is full of exciting incidents, lively controversy, and remarkable disco cries. By I830, as we have seen, a stage had been reach( when, through the labours of Scholz and his predecessor a large mass of evidence had been catalogued and arranged for the use of scholars. A few efforts had been made, notably by Griesbach, to formulate principles of the scientific use of this evidence; but these had met with little acceptance from their contemporaries. The time had come when, under the impulse of the more critic spirit of the mid-nineteenth century, a fresh start could be made with a better chance of success, and a movement could be initiated which has gone on with ever-increasing momentum to our own day.

The prime mover in this was a German scholar, Carl Lachmann. He had been trained as a classical scholar and had edited classical texts, and it appeared to him that the problem of sifting out the true text of the New Testament from the divergent manuscripts in which had been handed down to us was exactly the same as that which confronts an editor of Thucydides or Plato, and should be attacked in the same manner. The earliest manuscripts were likely to have suffered least from the accumulated errors of scribes or the revision of editors; therefore it was to them that we should look first, though keeping a vigilant eye on the possibility of errors in them also. The mass of late manuscripts could for most purposes be ignored. The `received text' of Stephanus was set aside, and the text was constructed de novo from the earliest authorities accessible to him. These included the codices Alexandrinus,Vaticanus (very imperfectly collated as yet), Ephraemi, Bezae, Claromontanus, Laudianus, and a few uncial fragments, the two oldest manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate, and the writings of four or live of the earliest Fathers. The Syriac and Coptic versions were not used, because he did not know these languages. To eliminate the `personal equation', he followed in every case the majority of his selected authorities; and in this way he hoped to arrive, if not at the authentic original text, at least at the text as it was known about the time of the acceptance of Christianity by the Empire.

He began by printing a small edition of the New Testament in 1831, containing his revised text with very little explanation of the grounds on which he had arrived at it; and this was followed up in I842-50 by a larger edition, containing fuller evidence and an exposition of his principles of criticism. His work was by no means perfect, and the materials at his disposal were much less than we have today; but by his outspoken rejection of the received' text of I550, and his bold application of textual science to the problems of the Bible, he did invaluable service, and lighted a fire which is still burning.

So far the search for manuscripts had been of a commonplace kind -merely the listing, and sometimes the collation, of volumes standing on the shelves of the principal libraries in Europe. Now a young man comes on the scene, who was to carry the search into more out-of-the-way places - the bindings of books, collections of miscellaneous sheets of old vellum, and libraries in more remote countries - who was to make a greater number of important additions to the list than any other scholar before or since, and who was to crown his career by the most sensational discovery in the history of scholarship, and by making known the two most valuable copies of the Bible in existence. This was Constantine Tischendorf (1815-74), who immediately after taking his degree in Theology at Leipzig in 1840 set out on his self-imposed task of searching out and publishing every fragment of an uncial manuscript of either Testament that he could find, together with not a few minuscules. The list of his discoveries is amazing. He discovered for the first time eighteen uncial manuscripts (all except five being mere fragments) and six minuscules; he was the first editor of twenty-five uncials (all fragments) ; he edited afresh eleven others, some (such as the Vaticanus, Ephraemi, Claromontanus and Laudianus) of the first importance; he transcribed four more, and collated thirteen. With the exception of the Alexandrinus and Codex Bezae, there was no uncial manuscript of real importance to the knowledge of which Tischendorf did not contribute in greater or less degree.

Meanwhile he was producing edition after edition in which the results of his discoveries were incorporated. In all he produced eight editions of the Greek New Testament, four of the Latin, and four of the Septuagint, besides texts of the apocryphal gospels and epistles, and besides his editions of individual manuscripts. Following Lachmann, he cut himself free from the `received text', and depended mainly on the more ancient manuscripts; but his own reconstructed text fluctuated much according to his most recent studies and discoveries, so that his contribution to text-reconstruction is less important than his additions to the materials of criticism. Nevertheless his final edition of the Greek New Testament (1869-72), with its full textual apparatus, has remained the standard edition for the use of scholars, and is only now in process of being superseded by a new edition prepared in England on the same lines, but embodying the results of all those recent discoveries which Tischendorf did not live to see.

But the crowning achievements of his life were the discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus and the editing of the Codex Vaticanus. The story of the former has been much before the public lately on the occasion of the surprising acquisition of the manuscript by the British Museum from the Government of Soviet Russia; but so many myths were embroidered on it, and so many credulous people were led to believe them, that it may be well to tell it again. In soberest fact, it is a sufficiently romantic story. It was as a young man of 29, with three editions of the New Testament already to his credit, that Tischendorf set out to carry his researches farther afield under the patronage of King Frederick Augustus of Saxony. In the course of this journey he visited the monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, and there, according to his story (which has successfully resisted all the criticism of those who have tried to discredit him), he one day saw in a basket a number of leaves of vellum with fine and obviously very early uncial writing on them, which he was informed were about to be destroyed, as many similar leaves had already been. He asked for and was allowed to keep these leaves, forty-three in number, which proved to contain portions of the Septuagint, from the books of I Chronicles, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, and Esther, written in a hand which struck him as looking older than anything he had ever seen. He also saw, but was not allowed to take away, a considerable number of leaves from the books of Isaiah and Maccabees. There was nothing to suggest that the manuscript included, or had ever included, the New Testament. Still, forty-three leaves of a Septuagint, perhaps as much as a century older than the celebrated Codex Alexandrinus, were no small haul, and Tischendorf returned in triumph to Leipzig, deposited his treasure in the University Library with the name of Frederick Augustus attached to it, edited it, but was careful not to say whence he had obtained it. He knew that there was more of it to be had, and did not want to put anyone else on the track, so he merely said that the leaves appeared to have been always lying perdus in Egypt or at any rate in the neighbourhood of Egypt, which was true, but a very ingenious (and quite proper) economy of the truth. It was nine years later that he was able to revisit Sinai, but he could then obtain no news of the manuscript, and supposed that some more fortunate traveller had carried it off, perhaps an English officer of whose presence he heard rumours. Six years later he was back again, working at the manuscripts visible in the library of the monastery; but still no word of the lost treasure until, on the last evening of his stay, he chanced to show the steward of the monastery a copy of the edition of the Septuagint which he had produced a few years before. Whereupon the steward remarked that he also had a copy of the Septuagint, and taking from a shelf a parcel wrapped in a cloth, he revealed to Tischendorf's astonished eyes a mass of leaves which he easily recognized as belonging to his long-coveted manuscript. It was a far greater prize than he had any reason to expect; for not only were there 199 more leaves of the Old Testament, but the whole New Testament, complete from beginning to end with the Epistle of Barnabas and part of the `Shepherd' of Hermas. Tischendorf, beside himself with delight, sat up all night copying the Epistle of Barnabas, and asked if he might take the manuscript to Cairo to copy. The Superior was absent, and one monk objected, so Tischendorf departed without it; but on applying to the Superior at Cairo, where a branch of the monastery was established, the latter agreed, and sent a camel-rider to fetch it, and at Cairo sheet by sheet was handed out for him and his assistants to copy. Meanwhile Tischendorf had suggested that the monks should present the manuscript to the Tsar, as the protector of the Greek Church; and as they desired the Tsar's influence in connexion with a disputed election to the Archbishopric of Sinai, they were inclined to accept the proposal. The negotiations dragged on a long time, as they are apt to do in the East; but after nine months Tischendorf was allowed to take the Codex to St. Petersburg, in order to superintend the printing of it, and shortly afterwards the desired appointment of the Archbishop was made. Throughout Tischendorf acted in full accord with the heads of the monastery, and when the Tsar delayed to make the return gift which Eastern practice expected, he again intervened, and procured the gift of the very substantial sum (for those days) of 9,000 roubles and a number of coveted decorations.

The correctness of Tischendorf's action throughout is established beyond question by the contemporary records, which make it clear that the monks parted with the manuscript (which they had so little valued in the past) willingly and for value received. It is only subsequent generations that have regretted that they did not open their mouths wider. The generation that made the `gift' was satisfied, and Tischendorf remained on good terms with them to the end of his life.

That Tischendorf also was satisfied goes without saying. He had brought to light a manuscript of the whole of the New Testament and nearly half the Old, a hundred years older than any extant manuscript except the very imperfectly known Vaticanus. It is a magnificent book, written with four columns to the page of the most beautiful uncial writing on pages of fine vellum measuring 15 by 13.5 inches, and in admirable preservation. It was published in full by Tischendorf in facsimile type in 1862, some sheets of it being shown at the Great Exhibition in London in that year; and in 1911 the Oxford University Press published a photographic facsimile of the New Testament, followed by the Old Testament in 1922, both from photographs taken by Professor Kirsopp Lake and under his editorship. At St. Petersburg it remained for nearly three-quarters of a century, until the Soviet Government resolved to sell it, and after somewhat protracted negotiations it entered the British Museum at Christmas, 1933, there, it may be hoped, to find its lasting home, side by side with the Alexandrinus.

A comic episode attended the romance of its discovery, which was revived at the time of its purchase by the Museum. An ingenious Greek, by name Simonides, had about 1855 brought to England some manuscripts, among which was one which purported to be a history of Egypt by a Greek author named Uranius. This imposed even upon some of the elect, and an eminent German scholar, Dindorf, prepared an edition of it for the Oxford Press. Some sheets of it were already printed off when another German scholar observed that the chronology was unmistakably copied from a modern work. The forgery was obvious, and the work was hurriedly suppressed; such sheets of it as have survived are a rare bibliographical curiosity. (Subsequently, it may be added, Simonides purported to find among the Egyptian collections of a Liverpool gentleman a papyrus manuscript of St. Matthew written fifteen years after the Ascension, and portions of first-century papyri of the Epistles of SS. James and Jude, with other surprising things, which he published in the same year as the Sinaiticus, but which failed to carry conviction of their genuineness. They may still be seen in Liverpool today, and considering how little was then known about papyri they are very ingenious productions.) Now Tischendorf had been concerned in the Uranius controversy, and Simonides had a grudge against him. Accordingly he proclaimed that, while the Uranius was genuine, he had himself written the whole of the Sinaiticus, having copied it in about six months in 1840 at Mount Athos from a Moscow edition of the Greek Bible! The story teems with impossibilities. In 1840 Simonides was only 15 years old. He could not have obtained 350 leaves of ancient vellum.He could not have copied it in the time claimed. The manuscript is not written by a single hand, but by at least three different scribes, and has corrections by several others. No Moscow Bible from which it could have been copied exists. The whole story is one of the comedies of crime, amusing but not deserving a moment's serious consideration.

Having thus published the Sinaiticus in 1862, Tischendorf turned his attention to the Vaticanus, of which two editions by Cardinal Mai had been published in 1857 and 1859, which differed so much from one another that both were evidently untrustworthy. Tischendorf visited Rome in 1886, and with difficulty obtained permission to examine particular passages of it over a period of fourteen days, with only three working hours in each day. He exceeded the terms of his permission, however, by copying twenty pages in full, and the manuscript was withdrawn. Nevertheless with the results of his examination he was able to publish in 1867 an edition which went far towards placing the evidence of this supremely important manuscript in the hands of scholars; and this was supplemented in 1868 by an edition of the New Testament (followed in later years by the Old Testament) prepared for the Vatican itself by Vercellone and Cozza.

In this manner New Testament scholars had in their hands by the end of 1868 two great copies of the sacred books earlier by a century than those they had hitherto been able to use. A powerful stimulus was thus given to the demand for a thorough revision of the Greek text in common use; for these two great manuscripts plainly did not support the `received' text, and in the eyes of nearly all trained scholars were evidently superior to it. Tischendoff himself issued in 1869-72 a revised text of the New Testament based predominantly on the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, and provided with a full Apparatus of various readings from all the important extant texts and the principal versions and quotations in the early Fathers. This edition remains today the most serviceable critical edition for the use of scholars, though much needing to be brought up to date by incorporating the results of the later discoveries which we still have to describe - a task which has lately been taken up by an English committee, and of which the first part (the Gospel of St. Mark, edited by the Rev. S. C. E. Legg) was published not long ago.

In England especially the need for revision was strongly felt, and the response to it took two forms. On the one hand, two great Cambridge scholars, Westcott and Hort, undertook the preparation of a revised Greek text of the New Testament, with a full statement of the principles on which it was based; on the other hand, a committee was appointed by the Convocation of Canterbury in 1870 to prepare a revised edition of the English Bible. Both undertakings went on side by side, and the results of both, so far as the New Testament was concerned, were given to the world simultaneously in May, 1881. Westcott and Hort were members of the Revision Committee, and carried very great weight with it; so that the Revised Version, though not wholly representing their views, is so largely coloured by them, and their edition of the Greek text has had such an epoch-making influence on all subsequent textual criticism, that some account of their theories is essential for the understanding of the problems with which we have to deal today. Westcott and Hort made the fullest use of the materials with which Tischendorf had provided them; indeed, the outstanding characteristic of their work is the predominant importance which they attach to the Vaticanus, to which the Sinaiticus takes second place. Working on the lines already laid down by Griesbach, as described above, they divided all the authorities into four groups or families: (I) a group which they called Neutral, headed by the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, but supported more or less by some eight or ten imperfect and later uncial manuscripts, by a handful of minuscules which have more or less escaped revision to the standard form, by the Coptic versions (of which the earlier, or Sahidic, was at this time very imperfectly known), and by the great Christian scholar of the early third century, Origen: (2) a small and rather ill-defined group of authorities, domiciled in Egypt, but not conforming to the Vaticanus-group, which they called Alexandrian: (3) a family which they called Western, because its principal representatives are the Old Latin version and the Codex Bezae (which has a Latin text in addition to the Greek), but of which traces are to be found in several minuscule manuscripts, in the only manuscript of the Old Syriac version then known, and, above all, in nearly all the quotations in the earliest Christian writers; a family important by its age, and remarkable for its very marked deviations (especially in Luke and Acts) both from the Neutral and from the `received' text: (q) the great mass of later authorities. which they denominated Syrian, because they thought that this type of text, which eventually dominated the whole Eastern Church, had its origin in a revision that began in the neighbourhood of Antioch in Syria about the end of the fourth century. The `Syrian' family they ruled out, as Griesbach and Lachmann had done, because (as they were the first to point out) not only were the authorities containing it relatively late, but no readings characteristic of it are to be found in any writer before Chrysostom, who worked in Antioch in the last years of the fourth century. The `Western' type they regarded as intrinsically inferior to the `Neutral', and as losing authority on account of the great differences between the various members of the group. The 'Alexandrian' only differed from the Neutral in relatively unimportant details; but the `Neutral', and especially the Vaticanus, they believed to represent a tradition which had descended with no serious corruption from the earliest times. To the Neutral group, therefore, they pinned their faith almost exclusively, and departed from the Vaticanus only in a few special instances, or in cases of obvious scribal errors.

In Westcott and Hort, therefore, the Biblical student at last had a Greek text based on the most ancient authorities, and with a fully expounded textual theory to support it. And the English reader had in the Revised Version a translation which, though not taken directly oar fully from Westcott and Hort's text, at least represented a text far sounder than the `received text' which had been in the hands of the makers of the Authorized Version, and had since been in universal use. So far, all was clear gain. Unfortunately, however, the Revisers had not obeyed the instruction which enjoined on them 'to introduce as few alterations as possible into the text of the Authorized Version consistently with faithfulness', or at least they had given an exaggerated interpretation to `faithfulness'. A multitude of small changes made in obedience to a somewhat pedantic scholarship, and not governed by the instinctive sense of style which was the heritage of King James's translators, repelled the reader who found the most familiar passages in the most familiar part of his Bible (the Gospels) presented to him in a changed form for which he could see no good reason. The result has been fatal to the general acceptance of the Revised Version as a substitute for the Authorized; but this should not make us blind to its real merits. Where the difference between the two is due to a difference in the text translated, it is long odds that the Revised Version is right; though more recent scholarship would in some cases prefer the alternative readings which (from excessive caution in the acceptance of variants) have been relegated to the marginal notes. Also in the Epistles many a difficult passage has been made more clear as the result of centuries of study of St. Paul's meaning. It is in the Gospels that the changes have been most unfortunate; and as the Gospels are the books best known to the majority of readers, this has prejudiced the whole. The Revised Version of the Old Testament, moreover, which followed in 1885, is not open to the same criticisms. Here the Revisers had not to deal with a new text, for the Hebrew text before them was substantially the same as in 1611, and they did not undertake to introduce changes from the Septuagint. On the other hand, the understanding of Hebrew had made much advance since the Authorized Version, and the Revisers were able to give light to many an obscure passage, especially in the Prophets. In general, they were chary of making alterations unless the sense demanded it, and in most cases they were dealing with words less familiar than the Gospels. Consequently their work gave less offence, and the gain was generally recognized.

No serious student of the Bible in English can neglect the Revised Version without loss. While it never can be the magnificent monument of English which the Authorized Version is, while it cannot bring the sacred story and teaching home to us with the same unequalled appeal of majestic language, it does give us a more accurate text, translated with a more fully informed scholarship ; and if we want to be sure of the meaning of the Bible we must always keep an eye on the Revised Version. Every educated student of the Bible should have and use both - the one for the edification which comes from great literature greatly expressed, the other for the more exact study of the true meaning of the Word of Life.

Chapter 6 Table of Contents Chapter 8