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Using an Author's Consistency of Usage and Conjectures as Criteria to Resolve Textual Variation in the Greek New Testament*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2015

J. K. Elliott*
Dept of Theology, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, United Kingdom. Email:


As one of its rules, thoroughgoing eclecticism in New Testament textual criticism puts great store by an author's consistency of language, style and usage when assessing variation. This article examines the theoretical justification for such a rule and sets out a number of examples from throughout the New Testament to show how such an application works, even when the preferred solutions may go against traditional principles of text-critics such as the age, quality or quantity of witnesses in supporting a selected initial text. One section deals with conjectural emendation.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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Based on a Main Paper delivered at the 69th Annual Meeting of SNTS held in Szeged, Hungary in August 2014.


1 On deliberate changes created to suit a prevailing theological party line, see B. D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 20112).

2 Pace Petzer, J. H., ‘Author's Style and the Textual Criticism of the New Testament’, Neotest 24 (1990) 185–97Google Scholar, who questions if a biblical author's style is ever capable of being reconstructed, given the incidence of sources and redaction, quite apart from scribal alterations to the texts. He wonders if scribes may sometimes have brought an author into a conformity the text never possessed. I think that such activity is oversophisticated and, in any case, C. H. Turner and others have easily identified the characteristics of Mark; comparable studies of language and style exist for other New Testament books. See J. K. Elliott, ed., The Language and Style of the Gospel of Mark: An Edition of C.H. Turner's ‘Notes on Marcan Usage’ together with other Comparable Studies (NovTSup 71; Leiden: Brill, 1993).

3 See E. J. Epp, ‘In the Beginning was the New Testament Text but Which Text? A Consideration of “Ausgangstext” and “Initial Text”’, Texts and Traditions (ed. P. Doble and J. Kloha; NTTSD 47. Leiden: Brill, 2014) 35–70.

4 Expressed in his ‘The Multivalence of the Term “Original” in New Testament Textual Criticism’ of fifteen years ago and now recently reprinted in E. J. Epp, Perspectives on New Testament Textual Criticism (NovTSup 116; Leiden, 2005) 551–93.

5 Nestle28 shows the v.ll. at 6.14, 24 but not at 6.25; 8.28.

6 We discount J. W. Voelz's argument in his Commentary on Mark.1:1–8:26 (St Louis: Concordia, 2013) that here αυτου is the adverb meaning ‘just there’.

7 As found, for example, in the apocryphal text The Life and Martyrdom of John the Baptist.

8 V. Taylor, The Gospel according to St Mark (London: Macmillan, 1952) is a rare commentary to note v.l. singular, although he does not accept it as original. The v.l. is shown in Aland, Synopsis 15. H. Greeven and E. Güting discuss it in their Textkritik des Markusevangeliums (Theologie: Forschung und Wissenschaft 11; Münster: Lit, 2005). G. D. Kilpatrick, Mark: A Greek–English Diglot for the Use of Translators (London: BFBS, 1958) reads the singular.

9 Elliott, J. K., ‘Jerusalem in Acts and the Gospels’, NTS 23 (1977) 462–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Working on D with its own distinctive language, style and theology, Read-Heimerdinger and Rius-Camps state that this is the language of the author Luke and represents the originally published version of part 2 of his ‘Demonstration’ to Theophilus, part 1 of course being Luke's Gospel. See J. Read-Heimerdinger and J. Rius-Camps, Luke's Demonstration to Theophilus (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) xxii and cf. J. Read-Heimerdinger, The Bezan Text of Acts: A Contribution of Discourse Analysis to Textual Criticism (JSNTSup 236; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002). According to them D has a unique role as it preserves the author's distinctive intentions and his theological and linguistic usage which later scribes often misunderstood and corrupted.

11 As far as Mark 10.47 is concerned, we should allow the three firm examples of Ναζαρηνος elsewhere in Mark to determine the reading. B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament  (London/New York: United Bible Societies, 1971) carries a note in its first, but not the second, edition that agrees with the argument  favouring author's consistency. (Would that the editorial committee had promoted this rule about consistency consistently.)

12 See I. H. Marshall, ICC: The Pastoral Epistles (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999) 500.

13 As a nomen sacrum this noun was often contracted in manuscripts to ΘC with a superscript line over both letters. Thus in majuscule script it may have been accidentally misread as OC – or vice versa.

14 The original sequence of the divine names is a different, and often a more intractable, problem that we leave to one side now.

15 Koine Greek, rather like Swiss German, uses many diminutive nouns without necessarily implying smallness or affection: see e.g. the New Testament use of κυνάριον, ἰχθύδιον, μνημεῖον, χρυσίον, ἀργύριον, κλινίδιον, προβάτιον or ὠτάριον and note their many variants restoring the ‘proper’ Attic noun, which lacks a diminutive suffix.

16 There is also a v.l. om. δευτερος, possibly (if deliberate) to avoid tautology, or possibly (if accidental) through homoeoteleuton, a parablepsis made likelier when originally the adjective followed the noun.

17 Ehrman is too pessimistic about our ever being able to read an author's actual text because of scribal changes, manuscript contamination etc. (See his The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 2nd edition (2011), ‘Afterword’, 352.) In fact, there are sufficient places where an exhaustive apparatus allows us to see undisputed portions of text, as well as individual words, from which we may then write a grammar of that author. Enough is unchallenged by all manuscripts to enable one to establish a firm text. I cannot say what proportion of the text allows that deduction, but it is quite high and it is on such a base that many principles may be fixed. The means of establishing many features of a given author's language, style and usage are thus available to us. Most witnesses – some 5,000 Greek manuscripts that contain the New Testament in whole or in part – are not irreparably corrupt.

18 B. M. Metzger, ‘Explicit References in the Works of Origen to Variant Readings in New Testament Manuscripts’, originally published in J. N. Birdsall and R. W. Thompson, eds., Biblical and Patristic Studies in Memory of Robert Pierce Casey (Freiburg: Herder, 1963) 78–95, reprinted in B. M. Metzger, Historical and Literary Studies: Pagan, Jewish and Christian (NTTS 8; Leiden: Brill, 1968) 88–101), and ‘St Jerome's Explicit References to Variant Readings in Manuscripts of the New Testament’, originally published in E. Best and R. McL. Wilson, eds., Text and Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979) 179–90, reprinted in B. M. Metzger, New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional and Patristic (NTTS 10; Leiden: Brill, 1980) 199–211.

19 Metzger's Commentary is still a valued vade mecum and first port of call when one encounters a v.l. in the UBS Greek New Testament. It often shows how its committee regularly considered an author's language and style even if it did not necessarily follow its own arguments in such matters with any consistency. Nonetheless, they were alert to such important matters.

20 By printing thinly supported readings, we find ourselves in agreement with the editors of the current Nestle edition, who in Revelation print readings barely represented in the manuscript tradition, e.g. Rev 18.3, where the reading printed as the txt is supported by 1009c 2329 only, and at Rev 22.21 txt with A alone.

21 Mark 1:1–3: A Later Addition to the Gospel?’, NTS 46 (2000) 584–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I argue that we have lost the beginning of this Gospel and that Mark 1.1–3 is not part of the original writing.

22 Significantly, researchers at the Free University in Amsterdam have a current project that is examining the history of New Testament conjectural readings. This research is undertaken by B. J. Lietaert Peerbolte, J. L. H. Krans and others in the Faculty of Theology.

23 R. Wettlaufer, No Longer Written: The Use of Conjectural Emendation in the Restoration of the New Testament, the Epistle of James as a Case Study (NTTSD 44; Leiden: Brill, 2013).

24 D. Allison, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of James (London: T&T Clark, 2013).

25 FilNeo 26 (2014) 165–9Google Scholar.

26 There are several articles of a theoretical character explaining how CBGM functions, but to date the practical decision-making based on those variants (in the Catholic Epistles and soon Acts) has not been revealed. ECM part iii: Begleitende Studien is in the pipeline; this should contain a textual commentary exposing how and why certain readings were chosen as the Ausgangstext for the Catholic Epistles. It should also show how influential the decisions based on an author's usage and style were before its researchers’ attention shifted to the reading's coherence in each manuscript compared with a long-term ally.

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