The following is my outline of the critical study of the New Testament based upon the following works: Werner Georg Kümmel The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems, William Baird, History of New Testament Research 3 volumes, Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986, and Scott McKnight and Grant Osborne, The Face of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Recent Research.

Unit 3

The Greek text of the New Testament was first published in Spain in 1514 in a polyglot edition of the University of Complutum (Alcalà). Two years later in 1516, Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) published his edition of the Greek NT. In the years to come, Erasmus’ Greek text gained more prominence than the Complutensian polyglot and, after 1633, became known as the Textus Receptus. Richard Simon (1638-1712) was also an important player in the development of what later became known as Textual Criticism. Simon’s goal was to bring out the necessity of the tradition of the Catholic Church along with the Bible. To prove this thesis, Simon laid undue emphasis on the unreliability of the NT text as seen in the number of variants. In doing so, he unwittingly undermined the scriptures.

About the same time, the Anglican theologian John Mill (1645-1707) embarked on the monumental task of putting together a critical version of the Greek NT. He used the text of Stephen (1550), except for a few places, “whether by accident or design” (per Scrivener), and added a list of the vast number of variants at the bottom of each page. This was a bold step indeed. Mill began the work with a Prolegomena in Latin that laid out valuable information and gave his method in listing the readings. Not everyone was as appreciative of his untiring effort. His work was attacked vehemently by the likes of Daniel Whitby (1638-1725), who represented the old guard against deism. His view could be described as moderate or even progressive for the day with regards to NT scholarship. Nonetheless, he held to a preservationist view of the transmission of the NT text. On the other hand, scholars like Richard Bentley (1662-1742) did come to his rescue. Nonetheless, as Scrivener remarks: “Of the criticism of the New Testament in the hands of John Mill it may be said, that he found the edifice of wood, and left it marble.”

Mill’s work was not without its faults. Bristol notes, “It is true that his collations were not always correct, but the errors were usually in collations made by others rather than in those made by himself. In this early period, at the very beginning of textual criticism of the New Testament, he could not be expected to go far beyond his generation. Therefore, we must not be surprised that he did not make notes of such things as transpositions of words, homoioteleuta, and itacisms.” (Lyle O. Bristol, “New Testament Textual Criticism in the Eighteenth Century,” in Journal of Biblical Literature, 69 no. 2 (June 1950), 103)

Tregelles affirms the problem with the collations from the early days of the discipline and points out that Mill based his use of the versions on the Latin translations of the versions in Walton’s Polyglot. He rightly remarks: “thus, whenever they are inadequate or inexact, he was betrayed into error.” Furthermore, Mill focused heavily on patristic citations but here as well, they were “often less complete.” Metzger further cautions that: “The Fathers are referred to merely by their names, and only occasionally does Mill provide the title of the patristic treatise in which the citation is preserved.”

Although a monumental attempt no doubt, Mill’s work is not the perfect gauge to measure the number of variants. Fox points out that “there are very numerous corrections of errors both typographical and editorial. J.J. Wetstein in his Greek Testament of 1751 estimates that there were 10,000 errors in Mill, and he is probably right.” If Mill’s data were recorded according to today’s standards and progress in the field, it would be much less spectacular.

Another scholar worthy of mention in the field of textual criticism in this period was Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752). He attempted to regain the confidence in the reliability of the NT text. He was the first scholar to classify the NT Greek manuscripts into families. He also formulated the classical precept: “The most difficult reading should be preferred.” Bengel’s Gnonom (a Commentary on the New Testament) served as a model for combining critical studies along with figures of speech and also devotional applications.  A contemporary of Bengel who also deserves to be mentioned was Johann Jakob Wettstein (1657-1740). He too focused on the variants at the bottom of the page, claiming that many of them were the original text.

Such was the beginning of the discipline that became known as textual criticism of the New Testament.

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