27 Criteria to Evaluate Different Readings

Criteria to Evaluate Different Readings.

That variations exist is a plain fact. How should we decide on the variations we choose? Should we guess, or subjectively choose the one that fancy our taste? Translation experts are convinced that we should first look at the external evidence. That entails the manuscripts themselves and their origin.

Only then do we look at the internal evidence. Are there any typical mistakes or logic probability that the scribe could have unintentionally or even deliberately have altered the text? Only after these possibilities have been exhausted do we endeavor to decide what the original writer would most probably have written.

The following are some of the more important criteria used by the translators:

External evidence.

  1. The date of the manuscript and/or of the text type. With text critique we try to establish the original autograph. Subsequently a manuscript dating from the fourth century has a greater chance to be free of the alterations and additions made during the centuries of copying. It is also possible that a late copy could have been made from a very early manuscript. Therefore the age of the document is not the only criterion.
  2. Geographical distribution of the documents supporting a specific reading. If a reading is supported for instance by a Greek manuscript form Alexandria and one from Caesarea, as well as a Coptic translation from Egypt, and an old Latin translation from Italy, it would probably weigh more than a reading supported by twenty Greek manuscripts all originally from Antioch .
  3. Genealogical relationship of the witness. It is more important to evaluate than merely to count witnesses. As an illustration we look at a family of manuscripts called Family 1424. They are names after the oldest of the group, minuscule manuscript No 1424 dated the tenth century. This group of no less than thirty manuscripts shows the same peculiarities. They all have the documents of the New Testament in a unique order i.e. Gospels, Acts, Catholic letters, Revelation and lastly the epistles of Paul. All except for Revelation are provided with a commentary in the margin. It is obvious that these manuscripts all must have the same “ancestor”, and therefore do not have individual value.

Family 1 with ten manuscripts dated between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries is another family with i.e. the incident of the woman caught in adultery after John 21:25, and not in chapter 8. This family also has the longer ending of the gospel according to Mark (16:9-20) though some have a note that this ending is questioned.

Family 13 with twelve manuscripts all have the incident of the woman caught in adultery after Luke 21:38 and not at all in the gospel according to John. They also have the words we know from Luke 22:43-44: (“An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. ”) not in Luke, but after Mat.26:39.

 There are several other peculiarities typical of each of these families.

The many Greek manuscripts used within the Greek Orthodox Church most probably have the same ancestor, like also the Armenian manuscripts of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Internal Evidence.

Under the internal evidence we understand principles coming forth from the text itself. If a scribe made a mistake and it can easily be identified and corrected, it is a mistake of the scribe. It does not devaluate the manuscript itself. Bear in mind, we try to discern the original autograph. There are typical mistakes anyone copying a manuscript could do. These form the first considerations taken into account when we have more than one possibility.

A. Transcriptional probabilities as well as known typical habits of scribes.

When confronted with more than one possibility, the following guidelines are taken into account:

  1. The more difficult reading is usually the authentic, especially when it superfluously looks wrong, but with deeper study does proof to support the meaning of the pericope. A scribe would rather be entitled to “improve” a difficult text by altering it to be more easily read than he would make an easy text “difficult”.
  2. Usually the shorter text is the authentic; “corrections” usually makes the text longer. Yet there are cases where words could have been left out, causing a shorter reading. a) Words could have been left out due to something in the sentence causing the eye to “jump”. b) Words could have been lest out because they seem i) unnecessary, or ii) seem harsh, or iii) contrary to pious belief, or liturgical usage, or ascetical practice.
  3. Scribes sometimes tried to harmonize parallel texts. They also tried to harmonize quotes from the Old Testament with the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
  4. Scribes would sometimes a) replace an unfamiliar word with a known synonym, b) try to alter grammar to the typical form used in Koine Greek, or c) add pronouns, conjunctions and expletives to make a smooth text.

B. The intrinsic probabilities of what the original author might have written.

When two or more variations are supported by even possibilities, how could we decide what the most probable words could be that the author would have used? Every person has a specific preference for a way of saying something. We have preferences for certain synonyms, thoughts or emphasis. When we write, there is a certain logical build up. All these aspects can play a role in determining the best choice when confronted with differing manuscripts.

The following intrinsic considerations are taken into account:

  1. Compare the vocabulary and style of the writer with the rest of the document. We all know that Paul accentuate grace and not works. James on the other hand stresses the fact that our faith should be “proven” by deeds, while John is known as the apostle of “love”. In Ephesians 2:5 we find the statement: “… it is by grace you have been saved.”  Let us say we were confronted with a reading saying: “…it is by your deeds you have been saved.” And a third manuscript reading “…it is by love you have been saved.” If all other criteria were equal, we should decide on what Paul would typically have said, don’t you agree? Of course the decision would be on the first probability.
  2. Look at the immediate context. In Mat.22:10 some manuscripts say that the wedding (gamos) was filled with guests, (MKJV). Other manuscripts say that the wedding hall (numfōn) was filled with guests, (NIV). Though it might be trivial, the context is that the place where the feast was held, was filled with guests.
  3. Look at the usage of the author in other documents.

The words in 1Cor. 14:34: “…women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. ” are placed in some manuscripts after 1Cor.14:40. Could some monk with a grudge against women have added these words, or could it be authentic to Paul? If all other evidence is equal, we should take into account that Paul gives the same direction in 1Tim2:12. This text will be handled in more detail later on.

  1. Take the Aramaic background of the teachings of Jesus into account. In Mat.5:38 Jesus quotes an Old Testament principle: “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.” If we were to be confronted with an otherwise equal manuscript reading: “hand for hand and tooth for tooth.”, our knowledge of the Aramaic background of Jesus would be decisive.
  2. Take the priority of Mark as source-gospel for Matthew and Luke into account. In depth study of the Synoptic Gospels had proven that Matthew and Luke made use of Mark and not the other way around. This could help us in some cases.
  3. Take the influence of the Christian community upon the formulation and transmission of the passage into account. During the ascetic life monks over emphasized fasting. When two equal texts differ only by the inclusion or omission of “fasting” together with “praying”, almost certainly “fasting” would be found a later addition, as is the case in Mark 9:29. Numerous examples prove the influence of the early Christian community on the copy and transportation of texts of the New Testament.

All the criteria are not applicable to every test variant. If one would seriously try to reconstruct the original autograph, all personal preferences need to be crucified and with prayer and objectivity all manuscripts should be evaluated. If a verse or part of a verse had not been part of the original, it should be discarded, though it might be dear or of great influence in one’s lives. Even though the Lord might have touched one’s heart through it, if it had been added to scripture by some pious person or dedicated publisher, one may thank the Lord for it, but it could not be lifted up to be declared “word of God”. The Lord sometimes touches people through sermons, or secular books, or the motto of someone, and yet we do not declare that “word of God. To evaluate the word of God requires sincere objectivity and brutal honesty.

All the known manuscripts as well as antique translations and quotations by Church Fathers are to the avail of the modern translator. The Bible Societies use without exception a standardized text accepted by most denominations. Therefore the text of modern translation can be accepted with great certainty as rendering the original as near as possible.

God Bless!



About bibledifferencesfacts

I am a retired preacher of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. Since my studies at the University of Pretoria I had a keen interest in the reasons for the differences between the translations of the Bible, especially the New Testament. Since 1973 I am married to my dear wife and greatest friend, Leah Page. We are blessed with two daughters and two sons, two grand sons and one grand daughter. God is alive and omnipotent! Glory to His Name! Herman
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