What Do You Mean by “Earlier Readings”?

It has often puzzled me why an appeal to reading as “earlier” somehow trumped most claims to different but “later” readings. Consider the following quote from Wasserman and Gurry’s book, A New Approach to Textual Criticism: An Introduction to the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method,

“Reading a, on the other hand, is not attested until the ninth century in majuscules such as 018, 020, and 025, all of which are Byzantine.”

Wasserman and Gurry, A New Approach, 72.

What does the phrase “is not attested until the ninth century” mean? Perhaps I am the odd one out on this one but such a phrase as unadorned as it is seems to indicate that reading “a does not appear on the historical scene until the ninth century. The fact is that the “not attested until” is conditioned by the current manuscript evidence. As such, “is not attested until the ninth century” should be followed by, “as far as we know” or “according to the limited number of manuscripts we currently have”. Reading “a” very well may have appeared before the ninth century, but we don’t have those manuscripts. I intend on discussing this point later on in this post.

“Is not attested until the ninth century” means considering the current manuscript evidence we do not have a manuscript which attests to reading “a” until the ninth century which is not the same as “Reading ‘a‘ did not appear in history until the ninth century.” The former definition is relative to other manuscripts we have at present and our understanding of them while the latter is ontological, temporally defined. The former is a matter of interpretation and the latter is a matter of whether or not reading “a” came into being at that time [i.e., the ninth century].

At the rise of the CBGM we are finding out that later manuscripts like Byzantine minuscules actually contain very early readings. In other words, many of our youngest manuscripts [ontological, temporally defined] contain many of our oldest readings [relative to other readings we have in hand]. If this seems odd to you, consider the following quote from Wasserman and Gurry:

“With the advent othe CBGM, however, the editors of the ECM (and NA28/UBS5) have reevaluated the external evidence and concluded that the Byzantine manuscripts may indeed preserve very early readings, even ones that have disappeared from other streams of the textual transmission.’

Wasserman and Gurry, A New Approach, 72.

The editors of the ECM (Major Critical Edition) have now come to the conclusion that our youngest manuscripts may preserve very early readings, even very early readings which have vanished from certain streams of textual transmission. Given this last observation, ninth century manuscripts can have readings which appear no where in that manuscripts transmission stream but are nevertheless very early readings. That is to say, it is eminently possible that there are readings in young manuscripts which have no transmission history but are still very old. And the reason we don’t know these manuscripts is because the manuscript sample [i.e., 5,600+]does not contain them.

As a result, the modern text critic is treating the measure of what is later and what is earlier based only on the manuscript evidence we currently have as if that is complete enough to account for the form of this or that manuscript. We know now that young manuscripts have very old readings in them yet we have no manuscript stream to show how the reading came from the old manuscript and was finally copied hundreds of years later in the young manuscript. The CBGM is teaching us that there are potentially huge gaps between manuscripts which we do not have, but historically existed. And seeing we do not know what those manuscripts recorded, we can only guess on their form.

As such, the text-critic has a huge question to answer from a purely historical perspective, that is, without employing his Christian precommitments. That question is, how do you know that the manuscript stream which intervenes between the very old manuscript that has the very old reading and the very young manuscript which still retains the very old reading is not meaningfully different and more consistent with the original? If some manuscript/reading in that missing transmission stream is indeed meaningfully different and more consistent with the original and we do not have that/those document(s)/reading(s) then we do not have the Bible in that reading. And if that reading is in the Gospels, then perhaps we are indeed misquoting Jesus.

But this idea of young manuscripts containing very old readings is not a passing observation. Consider these quotes from Wasserman and Gurry,

“In this, they [the ECM editors] concluded that the much later Byzantine manuscripts have preserved the earliest reading, an application of the principle that early readings can be preserved in late manuscripts.”

Wasserman and Gurry, A New Approach, 73.

“… late manuscripts may not preserve merely early readings; sometimes they may preserve the earliest readings.”

Wasserman and Gurry, A New Approach, 79-80.

“But the ECM now following the reading translated by the KJV and found in most later Greek witnesses, which says instead that ‘they gave their lots…and the lot fell on Matthias…Still this variation serves as a good illustration, not least because it is a case where the ECM editors once again show their willingness to follow Byzantine manuscripts against the earlier and most important witnesses such as 01 [Sinaitaicus], 02, 03 [Vaticanus], 04, and 05C1.”

Wasserman and Gurry, A New Approach, 81.

“As Wachtel puts it in his commentary, early texts ‘are not necessarily preserved in early manuscripts.'”

Wasserman and Gurry, A New Approach, 86.

The point is that there are many old readings in many new manuscripts regardless if there is an extant manuscript stream or not. The manuscript is late in history but its content/readings are early relative to the manuscript/readings we currently possess, and that without a known transmission stream.

In sum, we here at StandardSacredText.com can account for the preservation of old readings in new manuscripts from a theological perspective. We don’t need the evidence of a manuscript stream to support our conclusions. The modern evangelical text critic on the other hand must admit that there are an unknown host of manuscripts between the old manuscript with the old reading and the new manuscript with the old reading. We know those manuscripts existed as part of the transmission stream. How many? We don’t know. Whether they still exist and can be found? We don’t know. What they said? We don’t know. Whether they have readings that are original which we do not have? Again, we don’t know. How many unknown manuscripts containing how many unknown original readings in lost transmission stream X are we missing? The text-critic does not know nor can they know until they find said manuscripts and readings.

The text-critic does not know.

2 thoughts on “What Do You Mean by “Earlier Readings”?

  1. This issue doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. If a reading exists in a 9th century manuscript, it will obviously came from somewhere, presumably an earlier manuscript script that is no longer extant. Yet modern text critics act as if the only explanation is that a 9th century scribe simply invented it? This is the kind of insanity that comes from a “science” that can only deal with extant manuscripts evaluated using purely naturalistic presuppositions.

    Liked by 1 person

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