Texts of the Greek New Testament

In a previous post I discussed the greek word translated “daily” in the Lord’s prayer. In the comments I got asked about the categories that we use to talk about the greek text. I promised to post more on that, so here goes. I don’t have long this evening to edit this thoroughly, so I may do that more over the next few days.

So, we have a lot of different Greek texts of the New Testament. How are these classified, grouped and understood? Well aside from dating, which is (obviously) a continuum, there are two important ways to group them:

The First Division — Type of Text

The most obvious division is between three groups of text that have different forms. They are the Papyri, the Uncial Texts and the Minuscule Texts. The papyri were written on papyrus (obviously), the uncial and minuscule texts were typically written on vellum, parchment or paper, and bound into codices (in book form), although in many cases we have only individual leaves. The difference is in the style of writing. The uncial manuscripts are written in capitals, the minuscules in lower case.

1 John 5:7-8 in the Codex Vaticanus, a Uncial Codex of the Alexandrian text-family.

1 John 5:7-8 in the Codex Vaticanus, an Uncial codex of the Alexandrian text-type

This division is roughly chronological – papyrus manuscripts (c. C2 – C8) tend to be earlier than uncials (c. C3-C10), which are in turn earlier than minuscules (c. C9-C16). This isn’t rigid, however. There is a lot of overlap between papyri and uncials in particular.

When you see a NT manuscript discussed, it will be referred to by a code. Papyri have a prefix written as a Blackletter P (e.g. 18, a papyrus of Rev 1 found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt and now held at the British Library). Minuscules are written as numbers (e.g. 44, a complete  C12 text of the gospels also in the British Library). Uncials have a broader range of symbols, the most important are represented by single letters, in a range of different scripts (e.g. א, Codex Sinaiticus, or B, Codex Vaticanus), often with superscripts (so Ha is distinct from He – the stories behind these letters are complex and for another day). These letters are called ‘Sigla’, and there are a little less than 50 of them. Other uncials are represented by their number, which is always given with a leading zero (to differentiate from Minuscules), so 068 is a C5 uncial of John 16, once more at the British Library [I’m picking the British-housed texts deliberately – there are plenty of these texts not housed in the British Library!]. All Uncials have a numerical value, but those that also have a letter are rarely referred to by their number (א is 01, for example).

The Second Division — Text Family

Scholars also divide the texts according to the text tradition they come from. A text tradition is a group of related texts. Because corrections, changes, editing and additions all tend to be copied from one text to another, the premise is that, texts that all display the same features, are likely to trace back to common ancestry. This isn’t always a perfect premise, but it is normally a good one.

So we divide the texts into three again. The Alexandrian text tradition, the Byzantine text tradition and the Western text tradition.

These are obviously named for places, but don’t let the names fool you. Each of these traditions may be clustered in a particular area, but they are all relatively geographically spread. The names are names of convenience rather than being hard-and-fast geographical distinctions.

The Alexandrian text is evidenced in the earliest manuscripts we have. Most of the Papyri are Alexandrian (those that aren’t are either later, or else are unclassifiable because they contain too small a fragment, or contain sections without significant variation among the text-types). The Alexandrian texts are clearly the earliest we have. Whether they are better evidence of the original text, is a more theological debate. As I’ve said before I have little patience for the obsession with ‘original’ texts, whatever that means. Recently critical editions of the NT, and most new translations, have methodologically preferred the Alexandrian texts because of their demonstrable age, and the fact that they lack what look like interpolations and decorations of later texts.

The Byzantine text tradition is also sometimes called the Constantinople tradition (Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine empire – the Greek speaking part of the Roman empire that survived until the C15 – 1000 years after you were probably told the Roman empire fell in your western-biased high school!). But it is also more problematically called the Majority text. This name is somewhat politically charged, it is the remnant of a bad scholarly program that tried to prioritize this text over the Alexandrian tradition because of the sheer number of manuscripts we have. It doesn’t take a scholar to notice that the quest for authenticity is not democratic – there are more extant copies of the LOLcats bible than the Byzantine text tradition – that doesn’t make the LOLcats bible more authentic. So I’d recommend staying clear of “Majority Text” (and its paranym “Received Text”). The Byzantine texts are much later, and tend to be more verbose than the Alexandrian. It is in the Byzantine family that we have the bulk of texts with the post-resurrection narratives in Mark, for example, or the woman caught in adultery, or the end of the Lord’s Prayer. We also have a lot of Byzantine-style texts in the form of Lectionaries – compilations of bible verses used for daily prayer or ritual. This is not surprising, the Byzantine empire was a Greek-speaking Christian state. Byzantine texts often have more fluent, liturgy-friendly, wording. You can think of the Byzantine texts as being equivalent to the various versions of the Latin Vulgate used in Catholic Europe.

P37, from the University of Michigan library. An example of a Papyrus containing the Western text of Acts.

The Western text tradition is more eclectic. Originally named for a group of texts associated with the Western Mediterranean, this group of texts has now been found in a much wider spread. From France to Switzerland to Syria. It is characterized by a freer style, bordering on paraphrase and retelling at points. There are more additions (some the same, some different to the Byzantine texts), although in Luke there is a section that is shorter in the Western text (proving that all rules have exceptions). Unlike the Byzantine texts, which were highly influential in the production of early protestant translations, the Western texts haven’t had much of an impact on our English bibles, and so their alterations are less well known. There are relatively few Western texts, in contrast to the other categories. Though a couple of Papyri in this text-type are very early (C2-3 for P37, for example), most scholars consider their obvious paraphrasing and changes in wording to be evidence that they witness a later stage of the text than the Alexandrian text-type. With a much smaller number of texts, we get more patchy coverage. We have no copies of this tradition for the non-Paul epistles and Revelation, for example (and it could be that these books were not canonical for the communities who originated the Western text-style). Scholars of the Western text tradition often use non-Greek sources as primary evidence, particularly Syriac versions of the text, which appear to have a lot of similarities.

There are plenty of other texts that aren’t obviously thoroughly in one category or the other, or else are so fragmentary as to have no clear indication of their type. Various other text-types have been proposed, although none are unequivocally accepted. The Ceasarean text tradition, for example, is useful in categorizing some patterns of change in the Gospels, but on close inspection tends to fragment into sub-families and more nuanced arguments.

And that, phew, is a whirlwind tour of NT text classification. I hope it wasn’t too tedious. I find this geektastic, but I’m aware that there were plenty of my fellow undergrads asleep in these lectures!

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Texts of the Greek New Testament

  1. This is brilliantly helpful, thank you !!!

    So it sound like the “First Division” (text type) was one of the first taxonomies but later found less useful due to overlap in chronology and thus the second Division is now primary? Or is there a 3rd division that just estimates the text actual date-range with combination of first, second and chemical analysis?

  2. Ian

    You’re welcome. Seminary in a blog post at your service 😉

    Its a really good question – I’ve no idea about the chronology of when these things began to be the major divisions.

    There are other ways to divide things, yes. Aland (he of the Nestle Aland critical NT), divided the texts into 5 categories based on how useful they are for determining the ‘authentic’ text. This mixes chronology, text-type and manuscript type, and basically codifies his (very good) arguments in a system of categorization.

  3. Alexandrian are largely Papyrus.
    Byzantine and Western are?

  4. Ian

    There’s only 1 papyrus in the Byzantine text-type, and even that is too brief to be certain (it has characteristic changes, but is short enough that that could be coincidence). By contrast the minuscule style of writing is heavily associated with the Byzantine empire, so the vast majority of the minuscules are Byzantine (I don’t know the exact figure, but I’d guess maybe 90%?). There are many more Byztantine texts, so there are more Byztantine uncials, but relatively, uncials are more evenly distributed.

    Western is a much smaller tradition, and is more varied. There’s maybe half-dozen papyri, a dozen uncials and maybe a couple of dozen minuscules (there are more minuscules generally, because they are more recent). So a broad range.

  5. Thanx, Ian. That helps.

  6. imarriedaxtian

    Instructive post Ian. I have a question. Do contemporary Greek grammar still refer to capital letters as Uncials and uncapped letters as Minuscule, or are these two terms only use to mean the ancient manuscripts nowadays?

  7. Ian

    That’s a good question. Mine doesn’t, but I don’t have a selection of texts to refer to. In my experience (which I have to say is not much on the learning the language side), the names refer to the types of text. Except Uncial, which is also used in typography.

    Sorry I can’t be more helpful. Anyone else got a greek grammar to check on?

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