Thursday, June 24, 2021

Scrivener: On the Principles of Comparative Criticism, Part 1 (1858)

      The following is an extract from F.H.A. Scrivenener's 1858/59 "Contributions to the Criticism of the Greek New Testament," which appeared as the Introduction to an Edition of the Codex Augiensis and 50 Other Manuscripts.  Only a few years later, Scrivener's work was eclipsed by the publication of Codex Sinaiticus, but there is much in his observations that remains relevant to the field of NTTC to this day.

     I have added a few notes for the sake of clarifying the meaning of some obscure words and references, and inserted his footnotes adjacent to his main comments, but for the most part Scrivener's comments are unchanged from the form in which they initially appeared.


The term “Comparative Criticism” has been happily applied to that delicate and important process of investigation whereby we seek to trace the relative value and mutual connection of the authorities upon which the Greek Text of the New Testament is based, whether they be manuscripts of the original, early versions, or citations by the Christian Fathers.  Our accurate acquaintance with these authorities is very limited, much that we know about them being due to the exertions of scholars yet living.  Yet we are sufficiently aware of the extent of the subject,1 and the minute and perplexing inquiries which beset the Biblical student at every step, not to seize with hearty welcome any clue that may promise to guide us through a labyrinth thus dark and doubtful.  To this natural feeling, far more than to any external evidence or internal probability of the theories themselves, I would ascribe the favor extended to the schemes of recension promulgated by Griesbach and his imitators in the last generation.  Men wished such compendious methods of settling the sacred text to be true, and as demonstrated truths they accordingly accepted them.  These systems, bold, ingenious, imposing, but utterly groundless, I have elsewhere discussed at length (Collation of the Holy Gospels, Introd. Chap. 1); it were needless to revert to them, for I believe that no one at the present day seriously entertains any one of them.  

[1 – I can hardly estimate the number of copies containing the Gospels alone (including Evangelistaria) to be much under a thousand, nineteen-twentieths of which are for critical purposes as good as uncollated.]  

     As Griesbach’s scheme and its subsequent modifications were gradually abandoned by critics, a more simple, but (I am persuaded) a no less mistaken theory grew up in its place, which, under the seemly profession of recurring to ancient authorities alone for the remodeling of the text, deliberately refuses so much as to hearken to the testimony of the vast majority of documents that freely offer themselves to the researches of patient industry.  This certainly appears a short and easy road to Scriptural science, but, like some other short routes, it may prove the longest in the end: yet it is recommended to us by names I cannot mention without deference and respect.  The countenance which Dr. Davidson lends to this principle is neither unreserved, nor supported by arguments he can well deem conclusive.  

     Tischendorf practically adopted it in his earlier works, but even then made concessions amounting to nearly all a discreet adversary would be disposed to claim: in Dr. Tregelles, however, it finds an advocate learned, able, uncompromising.1  [1 – I refer to Dr. Davidson’s “Treatise on Biblical Criticism,” Vol. II. 1852; Tischendorf’s Prolegomena to his manual Greek Testament, Lips. 1849; and Tregelles’ “Account of the Printed Text of the Greek New Testament,” 1854.  These three works I shall cite throughout the present chapter, simply by the page affixed to their authors’ names.]     In my endeavor to refute what I conceive to be erroneous in his views on this subject, I trust I shall not be betrayed into one expression that may give him pain.  I honor the devotion and singleness of purpose he has brought to bear on these divine pursuits; I am sure that his edition of the New Testament by reason of the large accession it will make to our existing store of critical materials, and of its great accuracy so far as it has yet been tested, will possess, when completed,2 what he modestly hopes for it:  “distinctive value to the Biblical student.”  I am not the less earnest in hailing the fruits of his long and persevering toil, because I fear that, as a clergyman of the English Church, I differ from him on matters of even more consideration than systems of Comparative Criticism.


[2 – At present (July 1858) but one part of this laborious Work has issued from the press, for the use of Subscribers only.  It contains the Gospels of St Matthew and St. Mark.]





     For Dr. Davidson a short notice will suffice. In his chapter (an excellent one on the whole) entitled “General Observations on MSS,” he tells us that “The first thing is to collate the oldest thoroughly and accurately, publishing the text in facsimile or otherwise, so that they need not be re-examined.  All the rest, or the great mass of juniors, may be dispensed with.  They are scarcely needed, because the uncials are numerous.  At present they do nothing but hinder the advancement of critical science, by drawing off to them time and attention which might be better devoted to older documents.” (Davidson, p. 328, etc.)  He then states (I am not concerned to say how truly) that Scholz, from attempting too much, accomplished little, and adds, “Critics have discovered a better way than Scholz’s diffuse perfunctory method.”  No profound discovery surely; that it is better to do a little well than much carelessly is an axiom tolerably familiar to most of us. Yet why must what is done well be of necessity but little? 

     Dr. Davidson’s judgment, with regard to the order in which the work should be executed, must be assented to by every reasonable person.  Of course there is a presumption beforehand that the older MSS written in uncial characters will prove of more weight than comparatively modern copies in cursive letters: the rule of common sense is to examine first what promises the most richly to reward our pains. Yet has not this been done?

     Which of the uncial codices of the Greek Testament not previously published in full, has escaped the unwearied zeal of Tischendorf on the continent, of Tregelles at home?  I really know of none, except those printed in my present and former volume, and four Evangelistaria in England (Barocc. 202, Canonici Graeci, 85 and 92 in the Bodleian, and Wheeler 3 at Lincoln College), and perhaps a few abroad.  Now respecting Evangelistaria and Lectionaries, Dr. Davidson holds that “till the ancient codices are collated and applied, it were better not to meddle with them.  They must have been oftener copied, and therefore are more liable to errors of transcription.”  I may question alike his fact, his inference and his conclusion on this point, yet at any rate we have here a reason, satisfactory to himself, why the whole process of collation should not be suspended till a few Evangelistaria shall be examined, hardly any of which date higher than the tenth century.

     But the mass of juniors, he tells us, are scarcely needed, “because the uncials are numerous.”  On a first perusal I was fairly at a loss to account for such a statement from so well-informed a source.  At length I came to recollect that “numerous,” like some others, is only a relative term, conveying to different minds widely different ideas.  One person will think it a “long distance” from London to Lancashire; another uses the same expression when speaking of the space between this earth and 61 Cygni, some sixty-three billions [i.e., trillions - JSJ] of miles.  We shall therefore best see Dr. Davidson’s meaning when we come to simple numbers.   

     In the Apocalypse the uncial MSS are three:  one of first-rate consequence, complete and well-known (A), another very ancient and well-known, but a mere heap of fragments (C), and the third of late date, hastily collated, and now virtually inaccessible (B).  These, I conceive, are not so “numerous” as to tempt us to dispense with further information, when we fortunately have it within our reach.  In the case of the Acts and Epistles matters are not much better. In the Acts, three MSS are very old (ABC); the last of them is a fragment: two incomplete (DE) exceedingly precious, but not so early; one (Fa) a fragment containing just seven verses; one (I) of 42 verses; two (GH) imperfect copies of the ninth century; in all nine.  

     In the Catholic Epistles we find four entire MSS, one fragment.  The list for the Pauline Epistles is nominally thirteen; from which deduct E a mere transcript of D, make allowance for the intimate connection subsisting between F and G, and reckon several as mere fragments, three of but a few passages (FaIL): not one of the thirteen is complete.

     Dr. Davidson will probably tell us that he used the term “numerous” with reference to the uncial MSS of the Gospels; if so the fact should be stated, lest we be induced to throw aside the cursive copies of other parts of the New Testament as if they might be “dispensed with.”  Yet I really know not that his case is materially strengthened even in the Gospels. True, the list of uncials is formidable enough at a rapid glance.  Tischendorf’s catalogue (N. T. 7th edition, 1856) extends to thirty-two.  Let us briefly analyze its contents.

     In the first place we notice ten which consist of only a few leaves, some of but a few verses (FaJNOR1TWY1ΘΛ): they are beyond all price as specimens of the state of the text at periods varying from the sixth to the tenth century, yet I doubt whether all put together contain as much matter as St. Luke’s Gospel.  PQZ exhibit larger fragments, Z indeed a considerable portion of the single Gospel of St. Matthew: these three may contain about as much as the sum of the other ten.  The Nitrian palimpsest R consists of fragments of St Luke on 45 leaves; the two Bodleian MSS Γ and Λ are considerable, and between them contain about as much matter as one complete copy (see Tischendorf, Anecdota Sacra et Profana, pp. 4-6).  Then we must in fairness deduct six, which, being not earlier and some of them decidedly later than the tenth century (GHMSUX), are entitled to no more weight than many “junior copies" of the same age.  This observation applies, though with diminished force to five (FKVΓΔ) ascribed to the ninth, and even to three (ELΛ) of about the eighth century.  There will then remain but the four primary authorities ABCD, of which B alone is complete, A and C being seriously mutilated. I cannot imagine that many will judge this apparatus criticus so comprehensive, as to render further investigation superfluous.

     Notwithstanding the sentiments on which I have commented, it would be wrong to regard Dr. Davidson as a willing advocate for the suppression of all manuscript evidence not written in uncial letters.  I shall presently have occasion to confirm my own argument by statements of his respecting the importance of the cursive or later codices, quite as full as anything I could hope to say.  The fact is that Davidson, himself no mean example of the dignity of intellectual toil, despairs of a thorough collation of all existing materials from the languid students of our age.  “It is sufficient for one man to collate well several important documents, whether they be versions, MSS, or patristic citations.  It exhausts his patience and energy.” (Davidson, p. 105).  So discouraging a representation of energy and patience exhausted by a few slight efforts cannot, must not, be true of the younger school of Biblical critics in our two great Universities; I will leave Dr. Dobbin, the editor of the Codex Montfortianus, to speak for that of Dublin.  These men will not surely much longer suffer the manuscript treasures of their public libraries to lie neglected or unapplied. The very repulsiveness of this task, at its first aspect, is to the earnest student only one reason the more for prosecuting it with ever-growing interest;

Et non sentitur SEDULITATE labor.


To be continued in PART TWO

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