Friday, March 30, 2018

Review: A Commentary on Textual Additions

            Philip W. Comfort’s A Commentary on Textual Additions to the New Testament answers a question that many users of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece have asked:  where are the editors taking us?  Or to put it another way:  if translators consistently applied the principles that have resulted in the promotion of heavily Alexandrian compilations, what would the text of the New Testament look like?
            It would not include “thousands of extra words.”  If Philip Comfort – a senior editor at Tyndale House Publishers and the Coordinating Editor of the New Testament of the New Living Translation – has ever met a short reading he didn’t like, it is hard to tell from this book.  He rejects not only Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 but also many other words, phrases, and verses which are retained in the text of the Gospels in the Tyndale House edition of the Greek New Testament:
            Mt. 3:16 – “to Him”
            ● Mt. 6:15 – “their trespasses”
            Mt. 6:33 – “of God”
            ● Mt. 9:14 – “often”
            ● Mt. 12:15 – “crowds”
            ● Mt. 12:47 – entire verse
            ● Mt. 14:30 – “strong”
            ● Mt. 16:2-3 – entire passage
            ● Mt. 18:15 – ‘against you”
            Mt. 19:29 – “or wife”
            ● Mt. 21:44 – entire verse
            ● Mt. 27:24 – “righteous”
            ● Mk. 1:1 – “Son of God”
            ● Mk. 5:21 – “in the boat”
            ● Mk. 6:44 – “the loaves”
            ● Mk. 9:29 – “and fasting”
            ● Mk. 10:7 – “and will be joined to his wife”
            ● Mk. 14:68 – “and a rooster crowed”
            ● Lk. 8:25 – “and they obey him”
            ● Lk. 8:43 – “though she had spent all she had on physicians”
            ● Lk. 8:45 – “and those with him”
            ● Lk. 11:33 – “or puts it under a basket”
            ● Lk. 17:24 – “in His day”
            ● Lk. 22:43-44 – entire passage
            ● Lk. 23:34 – “And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”
            ● Lk. 24:32 – “within us”
            ● Jn. 3:31 – “is above all”
            ● Jn. 7:39 – “Holy”
            ● Jn. 9:38 – entire verse
            ● Jn. 9:39 – “And Jesus said”
            ● Jn. 10:8 – “before Me”
            ● Jn. 18:40 – “again”
            In his comments on Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation, Comfort’s tendency to adopt the shortest reading continues, even if the reading he advocates is supported by only a very narrow array of witnesses.  However, Comfort seldom comments on passages in which the Byzantine reading is shorter than the Alexandrian reading (such as in James 4:12 and Jude verse 25).  In the General Epistles, Comfort’s treatment of the text is remarkably sparse, and in all of Revelation’s text, he comments on a mere eight passages.  More pages are devoted to Romans 16:23-27 than to the text of First Peter, Second Peter, and Jude combined.                
            Comfort’s adamant preference for the shorter reading – a preference which one study after another has drawn into question, if not overthrown, in the past 20 years – is chronically expressed in very confident terms, and often with the evidence presented in a one-sided and incomplete way.  Arguments that begin with qualified premises typically end up being expressed as flat assertions. 
            References to scribes’ “horizon of expectation” are everywhere in Comfort’s arguments.  He does not explain, however, why this “horizon of expectation” only affected some passages and not a host of others which, one would think, were also at risk of scribal assimilation and simplification.  For example, Comfort explains why some scribes erroneously added the name “Isaiah” to Matthew 13:35, but he declines to make the same argument at Mark 1:2, where the same scribal motivation – the desire to identify an unnamed prophet – accounts for the reading “in Isaiah the prophet” as opposed to the less specific “in the prophets.”  Many other examples could be listed – passages which have not been harmonized, even though it is just as easy to imagine in these cases a “horizon of expectation” inviting scribes to adjust the text. 
Comfort uses the “horizon of expectation” argument as a sort of panacea; it is the beginning and end of his case for dozens of shorter readings.  When discussing Mark 16:9-20, for example, he proposes that “the other gospels formed a horizon of expectation” – but what exactly is in the other Gospels’ endings that would elicit the expectation of a passage like Mark 16:17-18?  Nothing at all.  In the same discussion, Comfort exhibits his usual hurried carelessness, misinforming his readers by claiming that minuscule 1221 has a note that indicates that “the more ancient MSS” do not include verses 9-20. (In real life, 1221 has no such note, and in the manuscripts that do have an annotation about verses 9-20, such as MS 20, the notes tend to affirm that either the ancient manuscripts include the passage, or that the majority of manuscripts do so – contrary to the impression that writers such as Comfort have absorbed from Metzger’s comments).
            In addition, Comfort has failed to deliver much analysis of shorter Western readings – a serious shortcoming in a book on the subject of shorter readings.  Not a single “Western Non-Interpolation” is covered.  There is no mention of Codex D’s curious non-mention of Jairus’ name in Mark 5:22 – as if Comfort either was oblivious to the likelihood that some scribes deliberately shortened the text, or wanted his readers to avoid considering that possibility.                 
            The amount of confidence that Comfort expresses in his theories throughout A Commentary on Textual Additions to the New Testament is very high – so high as to be exasperating for anyone looking for a balanced and even-handed presentation of the evidence.  From the introductory chapter onward, Comfort maintains that “Any textual variant that appears to fill in a gap in the text is suspect as a scribal emendation” – and this idea is aimed almost exclusively at Byzantine readings. 
A strong bias in favor of shorter Alexandrian readings is maintained throughout the book; sometimes Comfort essentially declares the Alexandrian reading original, rather than offer evidence supporting it.  For example, in his discussion of Matthew 14:30, where a few manuscripts (including Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, and 33) do not include ἰσχυρὸν, Comfort declares that it is “more likely” that non-Alexandrian scribes added the word “to intensify the narrative” than that Alexandrian scribes accidentally skipped it when their line of sight drifted from the final letters in ἄνεμον (the preceding word) to the identical final letters in ἰσχυρὸν.  What was the scientific method by which Comfort calculated that the probability that a copyist deliberately made an interpolation that adds only minimal detail to the narrative is higher than the probability that an early scribe briefly lost his line of sight?
            Although A Commentary on Textual Additions to the New Testament is thoroughly skewed, I recommend it as a nearly perfect specimen of the spin and evidence-molding that is commonly used by commentators to promote the Alexandrian Text and the theory that the original Greek text of a multitude of New Testament passages has survived in only a tiny handful of manuscripts.

[Readers are invited to double-check the data in this post.]


Timothy Joseph said...

First, I haven’t seen this particular work of Comfort’s firsthand. However, I have read him extensively in regards to TC, starting in the 80’s. He has been, as you rightly point out, an advocate of the earliest reading, particularly of the papyri. Again, not seen this work, I can only say that previously his arguments have been for specific manuscripts, yes the Alexandrian ones, for each book or group of books within the NT. He argues elsewhere for what he describes as a “Modified Documentary” approach. The manuscripts for each book that are in his judgment, based on experience with the manuscripts, the best representative of the original text, which he still uses, should be followed where extant, unless overwhelming evidence, external and internal, argue against the earliest reading. Usually, he does not accept singular readings.
Comfort would not be perturbed by any of what you wrote, to include his preference for the shorter Alexandrian reading. While I do not always agree with his final decision, I am also an advocate of this same documentary approach. This is why, while not being a Byzantine priority advocate, I often find arguments by Dr. R and others much more reasonable than arguments by eclecticism.

Thanks for this article.


James Shelton said...

Dear James, Thaks for your work on Comfort. I will temper his comments with your insights.
Jim Sheltom.

Daniel Buck said...

Timothy Joseph,
TO say that Comfort is an advocate for the earliest reading begs the question of which reading is earliest. In a contest between respective readings at Luke 23:44 of the two 4th-century codices 03 and 0171, Comfort choose the shortest one, when the longest is likely earlier. It's much more accurate to say that he's an advocate for the shortest reading, IF it is the reading of one or more of his favorite handful of manuscripts.