The Early Text of the New Testament, Book Review (Part One)

Title: The Early Text of the New Testament
Author: Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger
Publisher: OUP, 2012
Price: $175.00 (amz)
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 483
New Scholarship on Old Texts
This volume represents some of the most recent scholarship on some of the oldest New Testament texts. Professors at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger seek to gather high-quality reflections and detailed investigations of the early textual transmission of the New Testament writings. An intentional emphasis of the volume is on both the scribal context and early textual history of the New Testament writings. Their overall goal is “to provide an inventory and some analysis of the evidence available for understanding the pre-fourth-century period of the transmission of the NT materials” (2).

NT Manuscripts and the Story they Tell 
The structure of the volume reflects these primary concerns. Part one provides a series of essays on the textual and scribal culture of Early Christianity (chaps 1-4), part two devotes a chapter to the early text of each major section of the New Testament (chaps 5-13), and part three examines the early citation of the New Testament writings in the patristic period (chaps 14-21). One distinctive feature of this volume is its careful attention to questions of method and recent debates within the discipline of textual criticism. The contributors are seeking to describe the shockwaves produced by the papyri manuscript discoveries of the last century. Though Hill and Kruger acknowledge that these manuscripts have an “automatic importance,” they also note that “their real significance for the discipline of NT textual criticism is currently controversial” (2). In addition to containing sacred text, the manuscripts also have a story to tell about their own checkered history and about those who produced and passed them along. This type of analysis involves “the study of the papyri as physical specimens, as scribal artifacts” (15).

Accordingly, the essays of part one seek to adumbrate the ways a keen attention to paratextual elements (those surrounding the actual text) can shed light on early scribal cultural, the actual textual transmission of the New Testament documents, and the study of Christian origins. Harry Gamble outlines the nature of the “book trade” in the Roman Empire at large and also the “early and lively private traffic in texts within and between far-flung Christian communities” (36). Moving to the manuscripts themselves, Scot Charlesworth highlights the consistent codex size and use of nomina sacra (an early and intentional abbreviation system) among early New Testament manuscripts. These are likely indications of “catholicity” and show signs of coordinated (yet still informal) consensus among the early churches. 

Similarly, Larry Hurtado argues that there is “a distinguishable Christian reading-culture” among the early churches and that “early Christian manuscripts are direct artifacts of it” (49). After analyzing a variety of visual/artifactual features, Hurtado concludes that the manuscripts reflect a Christian “reading-culture” that involved “the enfranchising and affirmation of a diversity of social strata in the public reading and discussion of literary texts” (62). Kruger ends this section with a brief survey of early Christian attitudes toward the reproduction of the texts they held to be Scripture. In order to account fully for the complexity of the historical data, Kruger contends that the historian must allow the explicit testimony of early church leaders to inform the reconstruction of their actual practice in handling those texts.

New Methodology for NT TC
In their editorial role, Hill and Kruger not only seek to account for fresh evidence but also recent developments in research and methodological approaches. For Hill and Kruger, the time is ripe for “at least a first attempt” to assess this new data and these new developments. In the process, they discuss and take positions on important text-critical areas. For example, they note the discussion regarding the difference between the “early text” and the “original text” (3-5). Acknowledging the “complexities involved in defining” the “original text” and taking into account recent arguments against the term, Hill and Kruger opt to define the goal of textual criticism as the pursuit of the “earliest text” and its transmission (e.g., 4). However, they do argue that “the concept of an original text” is not altogether incoherent and illegitimate (4). For them, there is not need “to relinquish the traditional goal of textual criticism (even if that goal cannot always be reached with the precision we desire” (4).

Hill and Kruger also ask whether the most helpful text-critical category for new readings is “text type” or “type of text” (6-9). These two explanations of variants “have become fountainheads for two streams of analysis of the papyri which continue up to the present” (7). The traditional approach classifies patterns of readings into broad text types (Western, Alexandrian, etc) based on characteristic features of the texts found in the major fourth century manuscripts. The early papyri evidence from the second and third centuries is then classified according to these broadly developed text types. An alternative approach (the “Münster approach”) classifies early manuscripts in three main groups (strict, normal, and free text) “according to how closely they mirrored the original or Ausgangstext—assumed for practical purposes to be the text now established by over a century of text critical work, the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graeca” (9).

Noting that this approach has received legitimate criticism (e.g., of “circularity”), they also recognize it as a valuable “working hypothesis” that is unobjectionable “at least as a point of departure” (9). For Hill and Kruger, adopting this kind of starting point also helps respond to the assumption that the pre-fourth century was populated by wildly incompetent scribes roaming an uncontrolled textual wilderness. They observe that (according to the standard clarifications), “just under 73 percent of the earliest NT manuscripts” are classified as “normal to strict” texts, and conversely “just over 27 percent” are labeled as “free” (10-11). Accordingly, “what was previously, even by the Alands, dubbed the ‘living text’ of the early period now seems to have been ‘dead’ for nearly three-quarters of the scribes who copied it” (11).

Tracing the Manuscript Tradition 
Although the editors do not impose a particular methodology on the scholars presenting the chapters in the text-criticism section of part two, they do ask them to note the transmission quality of the texts in question in their analysis (using the classification system of the Münster approach). For Hill and Kruger, the inclusion of this technical element is crucial because “these judgments constitute one significant datum which many researchers use in formulating judgments about the transmission of the NT text in the early period” (18).

Part two provides text-critical analysis of the early texts of each of the New Testament books or groupings: Matthew (Tommy Wasserman), Mark (Peter Head), Luke (Juan Hernández), John (Juan Chapa), Acts (Christopher Tuckett), Paul/Hebrews (James Royse), the general epistles (J. K. Elliott), and Revelation (Tobias Nicklas). Peter Williams rounds out this section by surveying the translational technique of some of the early versions of the New Testament (e.g., Syriac versions) and the difficult task of discerning a translation’s vorlage (underlying text).

Citing the Citations
After the historical and text-critical analysis of parts one and two, the volume ends with a series of literary studies on the early citation of the New Testament writings in the apostolic and patristic period. Hill provides a methodological discussion of the “methods and standards of literary borrowing” in this period (261-81). Patristic citations often receive prominence in the establishment of a “clear picture of an erratic NT text” (262). Because there are numerous loose quotations in the patristic literature, it is assumed, there must not have been a stable textual tradition.

Hill points out that there is a difference between an author’s “manner of citation” and “the text behind the citations” (263). He also seeks to take “the literary environment in which Christian authors operated” as a starting point rather than modern standards of quotation (265ff). After surveying citation examples from the wider literary culture, Hill argues that Christians did not represent a “special case” but they too cited even scriptural texts with a variety of methods (e.g., “loose” or adaptive citation).

While taking account of the vagaries of the historical data, Hill posits that “the reading of an author’s NT exemplar from his citation always remains, in some authors more so than in others, and therefore the task must be pursued” (281). Accordingly, the essays that follow examine the citation and possible underlying text cited in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers (Paul Foster), Marcion (Dieter Roth), Justin Martyr (Joseph Verheyden), Tatian and his Diatessaron (Tjitze Baarda), the apocryphal Gospels (Stanley Porter), Irenaeus (D. Jeffrey Bingham and Billy Todd), and Clement of Alexandria (Carl Cosaert). These discussions of external evidence plow through most of the textual ground that traditional canon studies seek to harvest.

See Also:
Book Review
December 8, 2012


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