The axiom, “Prefer the reading with the oldest manuscript-support” is one of the standard guidelines of New Testament textual criticism. It is natural to assume that an old manuscript’s text is more reliable than a young manuscript’s text, because the passage of time allowed more copies to be made, and every time a copy was made, copyists had another opportunity to make mistakes.
However, guidelines are not rules. The accuracy of a manuscript’s text depends on how accurately copyists reproduced the contents of the exemplar, and the exemplar’s exemplar, and so forth, all the way back to the autograph (that is, the original document).
To test the validity of the practice of giving a manuscript special value (or “weight”) just because it is older, let’s have a contest between Codex Sinaiticus (À [the Hebrew letter Aleph], 01) – hailed as “The World’s Oldest Bible,” made in the mid-300’s – and Codex Cyprius (K, 017), a medieval Gospels-manuscript. (William H. P. Hatch proposed in 1937 that “It is altogether probable that Codex Cyprius was copied about 1000 A.D.,” but other researchers have assigned it to the 800’s.)
In the 1800’s, Codex K was regarded as an important manuscript, but this estimate of its value changed after the publication of Westcott & Hort’s compilation in 1881. In 1901, F. G. Kenyon stated, referring to Codex K, “It is one of the nine extant complete uncial copies of the Gospels, but as it is as late as the ninth century, and contains the normal α-text [that is, the Byzantine Text], it is not of remarkable value.” The people who made the fourth edition of the United Bible Societies’ compilation of the Greek New Testament seem to have agreed with Kenyon, inasmuch as they did not even mention Codex Cyprius in the apparatus. In Bruce Metzger’s handbook The Text of the New Testament, the description of Codex Sinaiticus fills over four pages, while the description of Codex Cyprius consists of one sentence, occupying three lines.
If we were to evaluate the accuracy of À and K using the Byzantine Text as the standard of what constitutes an accurate text, there can be no doubt that the comparison would demonstrate that the text in Codex K is far superior. But what happens when the standard is, instead, the Nestle-Aland compilation? When we strictly compare the text of Matthew 5:1-20 in Codex À to the text of NA27, we get the following results:
Codex À omits the letter ε eight times (in verses 3, 5, 8, 10, 13a, 13b, 15, and 19).
Codex À omits the letter ς twice (in verse 13).
Codex À omits the letter ι once (in verse 20).
Codex À omits 14 words (in verse 19, consisting of 62 letters).
Codex À has the letter ε six times where the Nestle-Aland text has the letters αι (in verses 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, and 20).
Codex À has the letters ου where the Nestle-Aland text has the letter ω one time (in verse 11).
|Part of the Beatitudes |
from Matthew 5 in Codex Cyprius.
In Codex K, the following deviations from NA27 are observed in Matthew 5:1-20:
Codex K omits the letter ν six times (in verses 4, 11a, 11b, 15, and 16).
Codex K has ο instead of α (in verse 1), ο instead of ω (in verse 3), and ε instead of αι (in verse 14), for a total loss of four letters via itacistic interchange.
Codex K omits the word αυτοι (in verse 7), the word οι (in verse 9), and the word τους (after προφητας in verse 12). (Αυτοι is in the side-margin, and this is probably a first-hand correction; nevertheless I did not include it as part of the text in my calculations.)
Codex K adds the word ρημα (in verse 11), and the word και (after εγω in verse 13).
Codex K reads βληθηναι instead of βληθεν (in verse 13).
Thus, if we treat NA27 as if it represents the original text, we conclude that Codex K deviates from the original text via the loss of six letters, and via the loss of three words, and via three itacistic changes that result in the loss of four original letters, and via the addition of two words (ρημα and και, for a total of seven letters), and via one substitution (βληθηναι instead of βληθεν in verse 13).
Side by side:
À lost 14 words (consisting of 62 letters), and also lost 24 letters, with 1 one-letter accretion.
Κ lost 3 words (consisting of a total of 11 letters), and also lost 10 letters, with accretions totaling 10 letters.
Thus if we assign a penalty to each manuscript for each word or letter that deviates from the original text, whether due to subtraction, addition, or substitution, À receives 39 penalty-points, and K receives 23 penalty-points.
If we simplify the comparison, and give each manuscript a penalty-point for each letter that deviates from the original text, whether it subtracts an original letter, or adds a non-original letter, Codex Cyprius receives 31 penalty-points, and Codex Sinaiticus receives 87 penalty-points.
There seems to be no way to avoid the conclusion that in Matthew 5:1-20, the text of Codex Cyprius – a manuscript with an essentially Byzantine Text of the Gospels – has descended from the autograph with much less corruption than the text of Codex Sinaiticus, even though Codex Cyprius had a much longer transmission-history. This amply demonstrates that the idea of assigning special value to a particular manuscript because of its age is not well-grounded.
(Readers are invited to double-check this data. Contracted nomina sacra were not treated as errors. Codex Sinaiticus has its own website, and fully indexed page-views of Codex Cyprius are available at the website of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. Codex K can also be viewed and downloaded at Gallica.)