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Understanding Greek Texts

Written by Ronald J. Gordon Published: April, 1997 ~ Last Updated: September, 2020 ©
This document may be reproduced for non-profit or educational purposes only, with the
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Imagehere are over 5,800 Greek manuscripts in various forms: papyrus, uncial, cursive - and no two are exactly the same. After the demise of the western half of the Roman Empire in the Fifth Century and the subsequent destruction of their Latin documents, the eastern half of the Empire and their Greek documents flourished for another thousand years. In fact, most of what we know of the ancient world is derived from Eastern manuscripts. In later centuries, with the threat of invasion to Eastern capitals, merchants and scholars moved to the Latin West, bringing along their Eastern Greek culture, and a profusion of documents (in some cases, the only surviving documents) of many Old World classics, including biblical manuscripts in the original Greek language of the New Testament. This produced a storm, a veritable explosion of interest in learning. With this new influx of culture into the West, in the space of little more than one century, history spawned these great events -- the Renaissance, the Bible in Greek, an explosion of learning, the printing press, the Reformation, an explosion in art (Michelangelo, Raphael), resurgence of astronomy (Copernicus), scientific experimentation (Galileo), world exploration, and the discovery of the American continent. Western Europe was punctually awakened from a thousand years of cultural slumber. It was a seminal moment for Christianity as well, for great men of intellect and theology such as Tyndale, Luther, and Beza were driven, as Wycliffe before them, to place Holy Writ in the hands of the common populace for them to read and appreciate for themselves. Jerome's Latin Vulgate was firmly entrenched in the West but it was notably different from the manuscripts of Byzantium. As interest in these new Eastern manuscripts greatly increased, men of learning - Textual Critics - attempted to reconstruct what they believed to be the original text of God.

Significant Advances In Textual Criticism

A Textual Critic is a person who makes critical judgements while reviewing the texts of a family of similar manuscripts, in order to determine what the original scribe most probably had written. Naturally, the more dissimilar the set of manuscripts, the more disciplined must be the science of Criticism. Various methods are used to weigh the importance of the same reading in many different manuscripts. There must be a reliable way of understanding how a reading might change over the years, and thus account for the varied appearance of the same reading. Over the centuries, biblical manuscripts started appearing from many other sources as dedicated researchers combed the sands of Egypt or the shops of antiquities dealers, where Bedouins had already deposited the fruits of their labors. In 1621, Cyril Lucar the Patriarch of Alexandria was transferred to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and along with the transfer came a codex manuscript that would be called Alexandrinus. It was the first of the great Uncials to become known to the scholarly world. He later sent it to England and it is now a cherished glory in the British Museum. Arthur Hunt and Bernard Grenfell began unearthing the city of Oxyrhynchus in 1896, and it soon yielded an unbelievable treasure of ancient papyri: government orders, personal letters, school exercises, bills of laden, tax receipts, random scribblings and even a possible list of undocumented sayings of Jesus Christ (OXY 654). Distinctive biblical fragments were also found here - P70 (OXY 2384) and P71 (OXY 2385). These discoveries are a treasury of everyday life, which has given researchers a more lucid understanding of early Egyptian language and customs. Once the third most important city in Egypt, Oxyrhynchus has been called the “Wastepaper City” because of its astonishing yield of documents.

Biblical fragments also began showing up, here and in many other Egyptian archeological digs. New significant biblical finds were given a P number for identification purposes only, since the order of their discovery can in no way chronologically infer their antiquity. John Rylands acquired P52 (possibly the earliest) after it was unearthed from an Egyptian tomb dating to about 115-120 AD. Presuming 20-30 years for such a copy to arrive in Egypt from the original place of writing (Ephesus?), it would also validate the traditional date of 95 AD for the writing of the fourth Gospel by Apostle John. Despite its rather small size, this portion of John (18:31-33 and 37-38) is currently thought to be the earliest known biblical documentation. Many fragments are small and contain little text but some are large and comprise many New Testament books. Mining engineer Alfred Chester Beatty acquired several fragments in 1930-31 - P45 (Gospels & Acts), P46 (Pauline Epistles & Hebrews), and P47 (much of Revelation). Swiss collector Martin Bodmer acquired numerous fragments and published them in 1955-56 - P66 (John), P72 (1-2 Peter & Jude), P74, and P75 (much of Luke & John). The combined Bodmer and Beatty manuscripts permit us to reconstruct nearly 90% of the New Testament from the 2nd to 3rd centuries. (Excluded will be Philemon, Titus, 1-2 Timothy, James, 1-2 Peter, and 1-2-3 John).

Following is a brief overview of the more remarkable developments in the field of biblical Textual Criticism. A subsequent list of many other notable Critics will follow these short biographies, so that you may acquaint yourself with additional material that extends beyond the scope and purpose of this auxiliary treatment.

Desiderius Erasmus 1466-1536

The first published edition of a printed Greek Testament was issued in 1516 by this Dutch Humanist monk who took vows in 1492 and began studying theology in 1495 at the University of Paris. Desiderius Erasmus Erasmus disliked university life and soon departed but his quest for classical learning and independent literary study only increased. His residence in England garnered a professorship of divinity at Cambridge University and friendships with leading British thinkers such as Thomas More, John Colet, and William Grocynthe. Erasmus traveled extensively in Europe and was offered numerous positions of honor in the academic world. He was a practicing Catholic all his life but a committed reformer at heart, rejecting the Latin Vulgate and questioning the efficacy of monasticism. Erasmus is disparagingly called a Humanist but Humanism in the 16th Century did not entail the varied colors of atheism that is usually attached in the modern age. After settling in Geneva, he found the necessary freedom to express his views more openly; and gained a reputation as one of the most prominent scholars of Europe, regularly corresponding with over five hundred of the most influential and powerful figures of his day. Although he forcefully strove to regenerate humanity through education and purify the doctrines and practices of the Church, he was never the target of any ecclesiastical body or official authority in the Roman Church.

“I would wish that all women, girls even, would read the Gospels and the letters of Paul. I wish that they were translated into all languages of all people. To make them understood is surely the first step. It may be that they might be ridiculed by many, but some would take them to heart. I long that the husbandman should sing portions of them to himself as he follows the plough, that the weaver should hum them to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveler should beguile with their stories the tedium of his journey.” (Preface, New Testament)

Learning was the driving force behind Erasmus, and one of his passions was to formalize the mammoth number of Byzantine Greek manuscripts into a single printed Greek Text, the first such attempt to produce a Critical work. His first edition (1516) was accomplished in about a years time but somewhat hastened because of a deadline set by the publisher. Most of its notable disappointments were corrected in a second edition (1519) and this one became the Greek Text used by translators Martin Luther (1522) and William Tyndale (1525). A frequent criticism of Erasmus is that he used only late manuscripts. In reality, he did have some access to early manuscripts but disregarded readings bearing any resemblance to the Latin Vulgate. The Codex Vaticanus was discovered by the Papal librarian Paulus Bombasius in the Vatican Library in 1521, and he thoughtfully sent readings to Erasmus for consideration. Several more editions were produced by Erasmus until his death and these became the foundation for Theodore Beza's nine editions and the basis of French printer Robert Estienne (Stephanus), who was the first to include a Critical Apparatus and subdivide chapters into verses. The Greek Text of Erasmus has often been called the Textus Receptus, a term which is actually derived from the second edition of Abraham and Bonaventure Elzevir's Greek Text of 1633: “textum ergo habes, nunc ab omnibus receptum...” (the text that you have is now received by all). Because of these many close textual relationships, some biblical students innocently conclude that Textus Receptus or Received Text, Erasmus, Beza, Stephanus, Byzantine Text, and King James Bible all mean the same thing. Demonstrative variances exist but interpretively, they all posture on the same side of the aisle.

Johann Griesbach 1745-1812

The awareness of text-types is largely due to this German textual Critic who studied at Halle under Johann Semler and later became a professor of New Johann Griesbach Testament Studies at Jena in 1775. Griesbach is also responsible for using the term “synoptic” in his Commentarius Criticus of 1811. Although Johann Bengel appears to be the first to demonstrate an interest in text typing, remarking that “manuscripts need to be classified into companies, families, tribes, and nations” with further refinement on this notion by Semler, it was Griesbach who put this idea on the scholarly map. Griesbach was one of the first Critics to actually view and handle the Vatican Codex. He was permitted to inspect it, but only without the use of writing materials and then only while under immediate supervision. Griesbach would memorize vast amounts of Vaticanus and then record its contents from memory back at his quarters each evening. After many years of study, Griesbach reduced the numerous textual relationships to essentially three, which he termed: Byzantine comprising perhaps 90%, Western primarily coming from the Old Latin, and Alexandrian which was represented by only a few manuscripts. He published several Greek New Testaments in 1775-1777, 1796-1806, and 1803-1807. Although each one exhibited tenuous differences from that of Erasmus, Griesbach incorporated new readings from other editors, and used the margins to note which ones he thought were the best - even if he did not include them in the body of his own text. One significant milestone was his use of the margin to cast warnings or approval concerning variant readings. This innovation was a precursor to the {A} {B} {C} {D} evaluations found in the United Bible Societies Greek New Testaments. Most future Critical editors would be corporeally influenced by the work of Johann Griesbach.

Karl Lachmann 1793-1851

A professor of Classical and German Philology in Berlin who issued three Greek Texts (1831, 1842, 1850) that completely departed from the proliferating Karl Lachmann Textus Receptus. Lachmann attempted to publish his text by using a small number of early manuscripts and applying presumptive rules of examination that he had developed while studying Greek classical literature (he was especially intrigued with Homer's Iliad). His Critical efforts were influenced by two significant developments: the ascent of Rationalism that questioned the inspiration of the Bible, and the methodology of Altertumswissenschaft (Antiquity Science) which began to change how researchers viewed ancient documents. Unlike biblical manuscripts which were usually produced with some degree of reverent care for faithful preservation by the Church, Greek classic manuscripts had garnered numerous alterations by reckless scribes that resulted in regrettable to hopeless corruption. Lachmann and a few others (Wolf, Bekker) developed rules of comparison which they believed would yield the original text (autograph), and his crowning work using this method was an 1850 edition of the works of the Roman poet, Lucretius. This process required diligence and guesswork to unravel corrupted manuscripts, and Lachmann approached the New Testament with the same presumption, that its huge number of manuscripts were as corrupted as the Classics. He applied the same rules of critical examination to biblical manuscripts that he followed in editing Classical manuscripts. This involved establishing a series of presuppositions and systematic rules for hopefully arriving at the original text. Unfortunately, this effort did not prove to be a true Critical production because he did not largely follow his own methods of Textual Criticism. Lachmann committed a few grievous errors which resulted in his text not being widely accepted, further exacerbated by his routine practice of discarding one reading for another, which may only rest on a few manuscripts. His intellectual arrogance is largely ignored by modern revisors, who generally prefer to stress his determined effort to channel a new non-inspirational approach to Textual Criticism.

Brooke Westcott 1825-1901 / Fenton Hort 1828-1892

Westcott was born in Birmingham, England and attended Trinity College in Cambridge. He finished graduate school in 1851 and began teaching at Harrow School. Fenton Hort Brooke Westcott Westcott was Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge from 1870 to 1890, and then Bishop of Durham until his death. He served in many prestigious ecclesiastical appointments including one of thirty-six chaplains to the King of England. Hort was born in Dublin, Ireland, and also attended Trinity College, beginning the same year that Westcott began graduate school. These two Cambridge professors developed a friendship which culminated in a mutual quest to revise the Greek Text of the New Testament. Hort seemed to always be the guiding voice in their mutual work and especially of the Revision Committee of 1881. Each man publically disdained the Received Text and also observed glaring differences between Lachmann and Tischendorf. Even Tischendorf's own texts varied considerably. In 1853, they set a course to assemble a Greek Text that would harmonize existing Texts and gain wide scholarly acceptance. The Upper House of the Convocation of the Province of Canterbury of the Church of England appointed a Revision Committee in 1870 to initiate the first true revision of the Authorized Version and both were appointed. Although Bishop Ellicott was chairman, he was no match for Fenton Hort in Textual Criticism and Hort gradually displaced the others in prominence, to become the main voice of the Revisionists. The Revised Version was issued in 1881 (New Testament) and 1884 (Old Testament). It was passionately literal, interpretatively rigid, hopelessly preferential, and just plain hard to read, which explains why its verses are rarely, if ever, quoted in any literary work. The underlying Greek Text achieved success but its English text was a disappointing failure. It may have been financially disappointing but it was the first major translation to break with the Textus Receptus. Please see complete exposition at Comparing Translations: History of Westcott & Hort

John Burgon 1813-1888

This son of a London merchant was born in Smyrna, an eastern province of Greece, and could speak Greek at an early age when most future Textual Critics John Burgon were struggling to learn their own native tongue. He wanted to be a minister and pursued studies at London University in 1829, and then enrolled at Oxford in 1841 where he became Gresham Professor of Divinity in 1867, and appointed Dean of Chichester in 1876. Burgon was a natural master of classical Greek, studying with ease the works of Thucydides, Aeschylus, Herodotus, and Aristotle (his favorite). He preached twice on Sundays and taught Bible Studies to the students at 7:00 AM. Burgon never issued a Greek Text but he was a firebrand of learned opinion in the area of Textual Criticism and Quotations of the Church Fathers. Although generally ignored by modern Critics because of his stress on Divine Preservation, some of his arguments have yet to be successfully answered. For example, he dismissed Fenton Hort's Recension Theory of the Byzantine Text from the Fourth Century as intellectual buffoonery, predicated entirely without evidence. Today, most reputable scholars also disown this once widely held view, not because there remains no evidence of such from Church Fathers or Church Councils, but largely because far too many distinctive Byzantine readings have now been identified in the Papyri - especially P46. The brilliant scholar Gunther Zuntz exhibits a steadfast preference for the “text of the papyri” and questions both the true origin of the Byzantine and the pure neutrality of the Alexandrian which he frequently regards as a mixture of different sources. He does not revere Burgon or show himself a friend to King James enthusiasts, but interestingly writes in The Text of the Epistles: “...a number of Byzantine readings, most of them genuine, which previously were discarded as late, are anticipated in P46 ... we are now warned not to discard the Byzantine evidence en bloc ... the extant Old Uncials and their allies cannot be relied upon to furnish us with a complete picture of the textual material which the Fourth and Fifth centuries inherited from earlier times ... P46 has given us proof of that.”

If Burgon was so skillful at Textual Criticism, why then is he so neglected or defamed by modern Critics? It may be for the very same reason that he also lacked ecclesiastical promotion during his life time - he rocked too many boats. Burgon wrote forcefully with a confidence that often came across to his contemporaries as intemperate defiance, and perhaps even elitist. If one is able to intellectually disassociate Burgon's personality from his writing, many of his arguments are quite reasonable. For example, modern scholars have now generally dispensed with Hort's 4th Century Recension Theory regarding Lucian of Antioch, not because early Church Councils and Church Fathers are silent to the matter, not because Lucian accepted the heresy of Arius, not because the entire Athanasian Church could hardly accept a recension written by an Arian heretic, rather because too many distinctive Byzantine readings have now been cataloged in the Papyri. No matter how one desires to frame the argument - Burgon was correct on this point.

The Revised Version of 1881 and its departure from the Received Text for that of Westcott & Hort was received with dismay by many and immediately challenged by Burgon, Cook, Beckett, Salmon, Malan, and perhaps the most eloquent Textual Critic of the day, Dr. Frederick H. A. Scrivener. Burgon's response was published as The Revision Revised in 1883. No stronger champion of the Textus Receptus can be found in church history and for that reason he is immediately beloved or disdained in accordance with one's textual predilection. F.F. Bruce writes in History of the Bible in English: “Some scholars did attempt to reply to Burgon -- competently, like Professor William Sanday of Oxford ... and less competently, like Bishop Ellicott, chairman of the Revisers, who was no match for Burgon in Textual Criticism ... The one scholar who could have answered Burgon conclusively -- Dr. Hort, chose to say nothing.” Of further note to Burgon's credit but locked in the British Museum is his most ambitious and unpublished work, a detailed catalog of more than 86,000 quotations of the early Church Fathers, the only project of its kind and a companion effort to his being the only Textual Critic to personally collate the Big Five Uncials.

Eberhard Nestle 1851-1913 / Erwin Nestle 1883-1972

All major Greek Texts would be nearly harmonized into one cohesive Critical Edition by an unassuming yet meticulous scholar from Stuttgart, Germany. Eberhard Nestle Nestle was a theologian, pastor, teacher, and Orientalist who studied at Tübingen (1869) and later pursued studies at Leipzig, Berlin, London, and Ulm. In the late Nineteenth Century, Textual Criticism was being tossed about in an oceanic storm, by the pounding waves of two schools of transmission: the Traditional-Preservation school of Dean John Burgon (Revision Revised) accompanied with the superior intellect of Frederick Scrivener (Plain Introduction to the Text of the New Testament), and the Alexandrian-Neutral school of Karl Lachmann, Constantin von Tischendorf, Brooke Westcott, and Fenton Hort. Lachmann was the first to break with the Byzantine Text and Tischendorf's discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus propelled Textual Criticism into an “oldest is always best” manuscript mode, which was in direct opposition to the Burgon-Scrivener plea for a preserved text against demonstrative corruption in the oldest manuscripts.

Nestle sided with Lachmann, Westcott, and Hort against Burgon, Scrivener, et.al. and further tried to harmonize the variant concerns of the Neutral School, because Hort was enamored with Vaticanus and Tischendorf with Sinaiticus. The first Edition of 1898 was little more than a comparison of three sources: Westcott & Hort, Tischendorf, and Weymouth. A majority reading from each source became the Nestle Text. When they disagreed, an arbitrary decision became the accepted reading. Bernard Weiss was substituted for Weymouth in the third Edition and with few changes, this was the Nestle Text until the Twenty-Fifth Edition. For personal reasons, Nestle did not allow his name to appear on this first edition issued by the Württemberg Bible Society but succumbed to their persistence by the third Edition. In 1904, the British and Foreign Bible Society adopted Nestle?s text, which garnered international awareness and acceptance for the Nestle enterprise. Eberhard died in 1913 and his son, Erwin, made several changes beginning with the 13th Edition in 1927, especially the addition of a true Critical Apparatus.

Erwin Nestle is also accredited with making the Nestle Text a scholarly Text. Unlike previous Critics who produced several editions that never seemed to dominate the field or “cut through the noise,” Erwin worked devotedly towards producing not only a scholarly Greek Text, but also a highly marketable one. This was accomplished in large part by expanding the Manuscript Apparatus to include a wider range of evidence, particularly over sincere promptings from the 1924 Magdeburg Conference. This permitted translators and scholars the opportunity to make better and more independent textual judgements by giving them a greater degree of information. He further made use of Von Soden's identification sigla. Kurt Aland became associated with Nestle during the early 1950s and eventually became a joint-editor, accompanied by his wife Barbara Aland who also became an authority on manuscript evidence. Thus, it is presently called the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece. Kurt Aland decided to incorporate his own textual labors toward the new Nestle 26th Edition which appeared in 1979. This would be the first Nestle Greek Text to have an independently established text. New manuscript finds were also reflected. Eight verses from Luke chapter 24 (3, 6, 9, 12, 36, 40, 51, 52) have been missing in modern translations because of the supposed validity of Westcott and Hort's “Non-Western Interpolation” theory (omissions or brevity in the otherwise paraphrasic Western Text might be indicative of an original reading). With the discovery of P75, a near relative of Vaticanus which included all eight verses by the original scribe, Nestle-Aland reinserted them in 1979 and most translations have done likewise (compare RSV-1948 and NRSV-1986).

Kurt Aland 1915-1994

A textual critics dream would be the compilation of a manuscript apparatus that would catalogue every known manuscript variant reading, accompanied by Kurt Aland patristic evidence - verse by verse - plus an exhaustive bibliographic and genealogical reference that would offer both scholar and student an opportunity to trace the actual formation and development of the New Testament text over the centuries. This may have been a hidden dream of the youthful Kurt Aland when he worked for Junge Kirche (Young Church), the journal of the Confessing Church movement. He was born just outside of Berlin, studied theology at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität (Humboldt University of Berlin) became a lecturer after World War II, and appointed Professor ordinarius at the University of Halle in 1947. Aland escaped to West Berlin in 1958 and became Professor at the University of Münster the next year. It was here that he founded the “Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung,” (Institute for New Testament Textual Research), an organization with a thirst for manuscripts and a vision of explaining the development of the New Testament. Kurt Aland searched tirelessly for old manuscripts and became a world known textual authority on manuscripts. This led him to become an associate editor of the twenty-first edition of the Nestle Greek New Testament published in 1952. Eberhard Nestle's son, Erwin, asked Aland to become more involved in this project which he inherited from his father. Aland expanded the Critical Apparatus with more manuscript evidence for the twenty-fifth edition of 1963. Eventually his involvement would lead to a complete revision of the Nestle Greek Text itself. In 1979, the publication of the twenty-sixth edition included his own name. It was now the Nestle-Aland Greek Text and signified by the Latin words Novum Testamentum Graece (Greek New Testament). Also being a member of the United Bible Society, he submitted his work to them and it became the basic text for the UBS Third Edition.

Alan continued his work at the Institute for New Testament Textual Research, along with his wife Barbara who also became a manuscript and textual Editio Critica Maior IV authority herself. Their goal was the production of a giant Critial Apparatus with every known variant reading. But he wanted something more than than just a thesaurus of variant readings. It should also include Patristic Evidence, something that had proven unwieldy for other textual critics. The fruit of their labors would finally be published with the title: Editio Critica Maior (ECM). The Institute for New Testament Textual Research (INTF) has registed and catalogued every known manuscript in a large computer database. They have photographed almost ninety-five percent of this material. In keeping with the latest technology, they have begun to digitize this massive amount of information to be made available on various digital media and a future web site, and perhaps even an online Virtual Manuscript Room. The first installment of the ECM was published in 1997, four years after his death. It included the General or Catholic Epistles (Epistle of James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1 & 2 & 3 John, and Jude). Barbara Aland continues his work.

Kurt & Barbara Aland Criteria For Textual Criticism

  1. Only one reading can be original, however many variant readings there may be.
  2. Only the reading which best satisfies the requirements of both external and internal criteria can be original.
  3. Criticism of the text must always begin from the evidence of the manuscript tradition and only afterward turn to a consideration of internal criteria.
  4. Internal criteria (the context of the passage, its style and vocabulary, the theological environment of the author, etc.) can never be the sole basis for a critical decision, especially when they stand in opposition to the external evidence.
  5. The primary authority for a critical textual decision lies with the Greek manuscript tradition, with the Versions and Fathers serving no more than a supplementary and corroborative function, particularly in passages where their underlying Greek text cannot be reconstructed with absolute certainty.
  6. Furthermore, manuscripts should be weighed, not counted, and the peculiar traits of each manuscript should be duly considered. However important the early papyri, or a particular uncial, or a minuscule may be, there is no single manuscript or group or manuscripts that can be followed mechanically, even though certain combinations of witnesses may deserve a greater degree of confidence than others. Rather, decisions in textual criticism must be worked out afresh, passage by passage (the local principle).
  7. The principle that the original reading may be found in any single manuscript or version when it stands alone or nearly alone is only a theoretical possibility. Any form of eclecticism which accepts this principle will hardly succeed in establishing the original text of the New Testament; it will only confirm the view of the text which it presupposes.
  8. The reconstruction of a stemma of readings for each variant (the genealogical principle) is an extremely important device, because the reading which can most easily explain the derivation of the other forms is itself most likely the original.
  9. Variants must never be treated in isolation, but always considered in the context of the tradition. Otherwise there is too great a danger of reconstructing a “test tube text” which never existed at any time or place.
  10. There is truth in the maxim: lectio difficilior lectio potior (“the more difficult reading is the more probable reading”). But this principle must not be taken too mechanically, with the most difficult reading (lectio difficilima) adopted as original simply because of its degree of difficulty.
  11. The venerable maxim lectio brevior lectio potior (“the shorter reading is the more probable reading”) is certainly right in many instances. But here again the principle cannot be applied mechanically.
  12. A constantly maintained familiarity with New Testament manuscripts themselves is the best training for textual criticism. In textual criticism the pure theoretician has often done more harm than good.

Bruce Metzger 1914-2007

North America entered the world of biblical Greek scholarship through a young student from Mennonite heritage in Pennsylvania. Born in Middletown just Bruce Metzger south of Harrisburg, Metzger first studied Greek and Latin at Lebanon Valley College and then made plans to study at Louisville under A.T. Robertson, one of the leading authorities of New Testament Greek. After learning of Robertsons death (1934), he decided to study Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac at Princeton Theological Seminary, where a few weeks prior to his graduation in 1938, he was invited to begin teaching Greek at the Seminary. This began a forty-six year career until he retired in 1984. His scholarly credentials are a litany of international associations and recognitions: the International Greek New Testament Project beginning in 1948 seated him as one of six members on their Executive Committee, Metzger eventually became the driving force of the United Bible Societies new series of Greek Texts (1966, 1968, 1975, 1993), the principal editor of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV 1989), elected to the advisory committee of the Institute for New Testament Textual Research at Münster, West Germany, in 1964, and numerous international speaking engagements such as addressing the University of Cambridge Faculty of Divinity and Fellows of Emmanuel College in 1981 for the Centenary Celebration of the 1881 publication of the Westcott-Hort Greek New Testament. One highlight of his speech noted that modern scholars have about sixty times the manuscript evidence as did the Revision Committee of 1881. Along with his translation efforts, Metzger wrote a companion work to the United Bible Societies Greek New Testaments, A Textual Commentary of The Greek New Testament (1975) wherein he explains and reasons, verse by verse, for the textual decisions of the Committee that totals over 2,000 variant readings. This went one step beyond Erwin Nestle's evidentiary efforts by actually explaining the Committees thinking during the process of selecting readings, thus allowing students to understand the “why” behind the UBS Greek Text.

Bruce Metzger Criteria for Textual Criticism

  1. EXTERNAL EVIDENCE, involving considerations bearing upon:
    1. The date of the witness or, rather, of the type of text.
    2. The geographical distribution of the witnesses that agree in supporting a variant.
    3. The genealogical relationship of texts and families of witnesses: Witnesses are to be weighed rather than counted.
  2. INTERNAL EVIDENCE, involving two kinds of probabilities:
    1. Transcriptional Probabilities depend upon considerations of palaeographical details and the habits of scribes. Thus:
      1. In general the more difficult reading is to be preferred.
      2. In general the shorter reading is to be preferred.
      3. That reading is to be preferred which stands in verbal dissidence with the other.
    2. Intrinsic Probabilities depend upon considerations of what the author was more likely to have written, taking into account:
      1. the style and vocabulary of the author throughout the book,
      2. the immediate context,
      3. harmony with the usage of the author elsewhere, and, in the Gospels,
      4. the Aramaic background of the teaching of Jesus,
      5. the priority of the Gospel according to Mark, and
      6. the influence of the Christian community upon the formulation and transmission of the passage in question.

Other Notable Critics

This exercise is principally concerned with major developments or turning points in the field of Textual Criticism, and not a biographical treatment of all who have pursued this discipline. Following are notable Critics who have also gained recognition in this field: Johann Bengel, Richard Bentley (forerunner of Lachmann), Arthur Farstad, Gordon Fee, John Fell, Casper Gregory, Fenton Hort, Herman Hoskier, F.G. Kenyon, Kirsopp Lake, John Mill, A.T. Robertson, Frederick Scrivener, Johann Semler, Hermann Freiher Von Soden, Constantin von Tischendorf, Samuel Tregelles, and Bernhard Weiss.

United Bible Societies

Image world fellowship comprised of separate national Bible societies from various countries, that are non-denominational organizations with the purpose of translating and distributing affordable Bibles in various languages. A German Bible Society was founded by Count Canstein in 1710 and others gradually followed: Nuremberg (1804), Berlin (1806), Finland (1812), Russian (1812), Saxony (1813), Netherlands (1813), Dennmark (1814), Norway (1815), United States (1816), Malta (1817), and Paris (1818). One of the most influential has been the British and Foreign Bible Society which was founded in 1804. When the BFBS refused to take a firm position against Unitarianism, this conflict resulted in the formation of The Trinitarian Bible Society in 1831. These national societies worked feverishly to populate the world with Bibles in the language of indigenous people, but over the years they witnessed their efforts overlapping and even conflicting. Predictably, there grew a desire for more cooperation and mutual support. After World War I, the major players began seeking to form a united organization that would more efficiently coordinate their energies. That vision was delayed by World War II until 1946 when delegates from several countries met at Haywards Heath, England, to found the United Bible Societies (UBS) on May 9. Several remaining Societies were then invited to join and seventeen responded in the first year. As of May 2001, the UBS has become a world fellowship of 137 national Bible Societies working in over two hundred countries.

A new awakening in textual research occurred during the 1950s and the UBS garnered a string of important Critical works: Eberhard Nestle?s Greek New Testament (1898) revised by Kurt Aland (1979), Gerhard Kittel's Hebrew Old Testament (1937) revised by Karl Elliger and Wilhelm Rudolph (1977), Alfred Rahlfs's Septuagint (1935), and Robert Weber?s Vulgate (1969). A call was made for an international group of textual experts to utilize this information and produce a new edition of the Greek New Testament. Kurt Aland and the Institute for New Testament Research microfilmed over a thousand previously unknown or unexamined new manuscripts. Additionally, a reliable method of evaluating all this data was necessary, in order to catalog all variants and establish a reasonable presumption for the transmission of the New Testament. There are now four UBS Editions (1966, 1968, 1975, 1993), the original committee being Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Bruce Metzger, Allen Wikgren with Carlo Martini joining for the second and third Editions, and the fourth Edition prepared by Kurt Aland, Barbara Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo Martini, and Bruce Metzger. Of special interest to many is the unique “italic” Greek font that was used in the UBS 3rd Edition because they consider it to be a more readable typeface. Reference material is richly incorporated, colorful topographical maps on the inside front and back covers, an obligatory Greek-English dictionary, the usual manuscript organizational charts, plus an expected bibliography.

Following is a graphical sampling of the UBS 3rd Edition body text, accompanied with a detailed explanation of each part of the Apparatus. The verse of John 13:18 was chosen for no other significance than to exhibit the Committee's vulnerability when faced with an uncertain reading, and to demonstrate the reasoning behind their decision.

For comparison, see also this same page in Nestle-Aland 26th Edition.

UBS 3rd Edition

United Bible Societies, Biblia-Druck GmbH (German Bible Society), Stuttgart, Germany
In cooperation with the Institute for New Testament Textual Research, Westphalia, Germany

John 13:18

United Bible Societies 3rd Edition
Sorting of Evidence
Papyrus, Uncial, Cursives, Byz = Byzantine, Lect = Lectionaries, Versions, and Church Fathers is the basic sorting order of evidence in the Apparatus. Superscript letters identify the hand of the contributor. An asterisk refers to the original scribe as P66* and successive Correctors as P66a, P66b, or P66c. Vid means apparent support when poor preservation makes complete verification impossible. Translated Versions from early centuries are abbreviated as goth (Gothic), it (italia or Old Latin ), eth (Ethiopic), cop (Coptic), arm (Armenian), or vg (Vulgate) to name a few. Church Fathers sometimes quote a passage in different ways, so their name may appear with more than one reading, as is the case in the above example.
Variant Reading
A numerically ascending superscript identifies variant readings of a chapter that the Committee deemed worthy of documenting the evidence. In verse 18, the superscript number 4 indicates that this is the fourth such instance in this chapter, and one should then look to the Apparatus for this same number, followed by the verse number in bold type. This instance in verse 18 will serve as our example. Occasionally, brackets [ ] will surround a disputed word(s) that the Committee did not feel was significant to footnote the evidence. Brackets can also indicate a transpositional word(s). For example in verse 21, “HO” is disputed but not deemed worthy of explanation.
Evaluation of Evidence

Griesbach was the first to add evaluations to his Apparatus and the UBS follows his example by inclosing a letter within braces immediately following the verse number.

{A} means that the text is very certain
{B} indicates some degree of doubt
{C} means considerable amount of doubt
{D} signifies a very high degree of doubt

If we look to the present example of verse 18 in the Apparatus, we see that the Committee has used a D which means that they are not really sure what the reading should be - a very honest admission.

Preferred Reading

MOU (of me, bread of me, my bread) is the preferred reading of the UBS Committee in spite of the fact that the next alternate variant has much wider support. As explained in Comparing Translations: Herd Mentality, whenever Vaticanus and Sinaiticus disagree with each other, P66 will usually side with Sinaiticus and P75 will frequently stand with Vaticanus. Bruce Metzger explains in A Textual Commentary of The Greek New Testament the reason why the Committee chose MOU:

“Although MET EMOU is much more widely attested than MOU, which is also the reading of the Septuagint, a majority of the Committee preferred the latter reading because MET EMOU may be an assimilation to Mark 14:18.”

In other words, the Committee believes the original (eat my bread) was changed by a later scribe to (eat bread with me) in order to match the circumstance found in Mark 14:18 where the biblical writer emphatically stresses that the betrayer will actually be eating with or in the company of Jesus - a much more sinister or contemptible action. Matthew does not mention eating in 26:21 nor does Luke in 22:21 (although both hint at it).

This is one of many examples where Greek Critical Editors do not follow the majority of evidence because of a strong presumption or cautious intellectual guesswork - and sometimes herd mentality.

Break or Separation

Two forward slashes are used to separate variant readings. In our example verse 18, there are three readings (MOU - MET EMOU - MOU MET EMOU), with each partitioned from one another by the Break symbol.

Alternate Reading

MET EMOU (With Me - eat bread with me) is the more widely attested variant but is discounted because of the possibility that it may be a later alteration. Byz for Byzantine Text appears with this reading which usually also means the King James Version. Lect for Synaxarion Lectionaries frequently appears with Byz but not in this case. Versional evidence is strongly against the UBS preferred variant and may be the reason why the Committee evaluated this reading with a {D} - very high degree of doubt. Origen, Eusebius, and Cyril each quote this passage both ways, so evidence from Church Fathers remains inconclusive.

This reading also illustrates that editors may fear the possibility of a scribal alteration to a larger degree than the volume of evidence. If there exists the slightest possibility that a variant resulted from an editorial choice by a scribe, it is usually listed as an alternate - no matter how much evidence to the contrary. For example in Matthew 5:22, only three manuscripts P67, Sinaiticus, and Vaticanus support the UBS preferred variant when every other manuscript or Lectionary containing the verse stands against it.


Located just below the Manuscript Apparatus and separated by a short horizontal line is a Cross-Reference which provides the researcher with: 1) quotations from biblical and non-biblical works, 2) allusions where it may be assumed that the writer had another scripture in mind, and 3) other literary parallels. In verse 14, John may have had Luke 22:27 and Matthew 20:28 in mind, a reference to Feet Washing can be found in 1 Timothy 5:10, and in verse 15, John refers to 'doing by example' which can also be found in Philippians 2:5 and 1 Peter 2:21.

Final Notes:

The body text of the UBS 3rd Edition has been harmonized to read with the Nestle-Aland 26th except for minor nuances of punctuation. Although it is much easier to study than most Greek Texts, the Apparatus seems geared more for the translator rather than the serious Critical researcher, because the manuscripts and sources cited are not exhaustive and the number of variant readings per instance are rarely more than three or four. Interpretatively, it is an eclectic version of Alexandrian witnesses leaning toward Westcott & Hort but not nearly as rigid as the latter, nor as slavishly preferential toward the Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. One of the draw-backs to an eclectic (multiple source) text is that it does not inherently possess a solid textual theory. A large difference between the UBS and Westcott & Hort is that the former has incorporated many more distinctive Byzantine readings, since these supposedly late variants have been anticipated in the Papyri - especially P46 and P66. Now that the Nestle-Aland 27th Edition and the UBS 4th Edition are managed by the same parent organization, one may wonder what the purpose will be for each in the future. It seems probable that the small-sized N/A Text is destined to be the pocket reference while the larger UBS Text will serve for desktop reference.

“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed,
rightly dividing the word of truth.”
2 Timothy 2:15