The ongoing series of lectures "Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism" continues with Lecture 24, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHYcBlwAqzc , about conjectural emendations. I had a stroke on June 14, and you may notice in this video that I am speaking more slowly than before. Also for some reason I repeatedly didn't say "chi" correctly. Oh well; hopefully improvement will continue. I covered some of the passages mentioned in this lecture back in 2017 (in the "Cracks in the Text posts, part 1 and part 2). Here is a transcript of the video!
Welcome to the twenty-fourth lecture in the series, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism. Let’s begin with prayer.
Thank You for giving Your people the fruit of Your Spirit. Influence us to long to be more loving, modeling your love. Make us more joyful as we remember Your promises to us. Make us peaceful, in light of the peace you have provided. Make us patient, kind, and good, seeking to conform to the image of your Son. Make us gentle, seeking to represent Your kingdom in every circumstance. And give us self-control, that all our actions may be guided by our awareness of Your presence. Through Your Son Christ our Lord, Amen.
Today we are investigating one of the most controversial areas in the field of New Testament textual criticism: the creation and adoption of conjectural emendations. A conjectural emendation is a reading that is not directly supported by any witnesses. Conjectural emendations are driven by the premise that on some rare occasions, the reading that accounts for all other readings is a reading that is not extant.
Even in the earliest days of the printed text of the Greek New Testament, some conjectural emendations were proposed: in James 4:2, Erasmus did not think that it was plausible that the readers of James’ letter would kill, so he introduced the idea that James originally wrote that his letters’ recipients were envious. Erasmus’ conjecture influenced some future translations, including Martin Luther’s translation, and the 1557 Geneva Translation.
By the late 1700s, so many conjectural emendations had been proposed that a printer named William Bowyer collected them in a book in 1772 that was over 600 pages long, titled Critical Conjectures and Observations on the New Testament. Many of the conjectures were apologetically driven and resolved historical questions rather than textual ones, and many others implied a magical stupidity on the part of copyists.
But in 1881, when Westcott and Hort printed their Greek New Testament, they were willing to grant the possibility that 60 passages in the New Testament contain a primitive corruption, where only by conjecture could the original reading be recovered. Other scholars have seriously argued for the adoption of non-extant readings in a few other places.
Mark 15:25 – One of the earliest conjectural emendations is from Ammonius of Alexandria, from the 200s, whose proposal was passed along by Eusebius of Caesarea and others. Ammonius suggested a conjectural emendation that could harmonize Mark’s statement (in Mark 15:25) that Jesus was crucified at the third hour, and John’s statement (in John 19:14) that Jesus was being sentenced by Pilate at the sixth hour. Rather than imagine that different methods of hour-reckoning are involved, Ammonius proposed that the text of John 19:14 contains an ancient error, and that the Greek numeral Γ, which stands for “3,” was misread as if it was the obsolete letter digamma, which stands for “6”). Some copyists apparently thought that this idea must be correct, and wrote the Greek equivalent of “sixth” in Mark 15:25; a few others (including the copyists of Codex L and Codex Δ) wrote the equivalent of “third” in John 19:14.
John 1:13 – Another early church writer, Tertullian, proposed that the extant reading of John 1:13 is not the original reading. In chapter 19 of his composition On the Flesh of Christ, he insisted that the reading that is found in our New Testaments is the result of heretical tampering, and that the verse initially referred specifically to Christ. Not only Tertullian but also Irenaeus and the author of the little-known Epistula Apostolorum appear to cite John 1:13 with a singular subject rather than a plural one.
John 7:52 – No reading that is
supported exclusively by papyri has been adopted in place of readings that were
already extant. But a reading of Papyrus
66 comes very close to doing so. William
Bowyer’s 1772 book included a theory that had been expressed by
Dr. Henry Owen about John 7:52:
Owen had written, “The Greek text, I apprehend, is not perfectly
right: and our English Version has carried it still farther from the true
meaning. Is it possible the Jews could say, “that out of
The key component of Owen’s proposal was vindicated by the discovery of Papyrus 66, which has the Greek equivalent of “the” before the word “prophet” – just what Owen thought was the original reading.
Some commentators have considered it implausible that John would report, in John 19:29, that the soldiers at the crucifixion would offer to Jesus a sponge filled with sour wine upon a stick of hyssop. In 1572, Joachim Camerarius the Elder proposed that originally John had written about a javelin, or spear, and that after this had been expressed by the words ὑσσῷ προπεριθέντες, scribes mangled the text so as to produce the reference to hyssop. This conjecture, which was modified by Beza, was adopted by the scholars who made the New English Bible New Testament in 1961.
In Acts 7:46, textual critics have to choose between the reading of most manuscripts, which is the statement that David asked to be allowed to find a dwelling-place for the God of Jacob, and the statement that David asked to be allowed to find a dwelling-place for the house of Jacob (which is the reading in the Nestle-Aland compilation).
The second reading is more difficult, because it seems to say that David asked to build a house for a house. Even when the second “house” is understood to refer to the nation descended from Jacob, the problem does not go away, since the temple was for God, not for the people, who were not looking for a new place to reside in the days of David. In 1881, Hort proposed that “οἴκω can hardly be genuine,” but instead of accepting the Byzantine reading, he conjectured that neither reading is original, and that the original text was τω Κυριω (“the Lord”), which was contracted, and then inattentive copyists misread it as ΤΩ ΟΙΚΩ.
In Acts 16:12, Bruce Metzger was overruled by the other
editors of the United Bible Societies’ Committee, and an imaginary
reading was adopted into the UBS compilation:
πρώτης was adopted, instead of πρώτης της μερίδος, so as to mean that Philippi was a “first city” of the district
● Acts 20:28 – Bruce
Metzger dedicated two full pages of his Textual Commentary to
consider the variants in Acts 20:28. Did
the original text refer to “the
The Contemporary English Version, advertised as “an accurate and faithful translation of the original manuscripts,” seems to adopt this conjecture. It has the word “Son” in its text of Acts 20:28b: “Be like shepherds to God’s church. It is the flock that he bought with the blood of his own Son.”
The Greek evidence is in agreement about how First Corinthians 6:5 ends. But the Peshitta disagrees. The reading in the Peshitta implies that its Greek base-text included the phrase καὶ τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ (“and a brother”).
The first part of Paul’s statement in this verse is something to the effect of, “Is there not even one person among you – just one! – who shall be able to judge between” – and that’s where the difficulty appears. The Greek text just mentions one brother, whereas the idea of judgment between two parties seems to demand that more than one brother should be mentioned.
Although the Textus Receptus has the equivalent of between his brother” – which is clearly singular – the KJV’s translators concluded the verse with “between his brethren” (which is clearly plural). The CSB, the NIV, and the NASB likewise render the text as if the verse ends with a plural word rather than a singular one. All such treatments of the text make the problem all the obvious: the first part of the sentence, in Greek, anticipates two brothers, while the second part of the sentence mentions only one.
In light of such strong internal evidence, Michael Holmes, the compiler of the SBLGNT, recommended the adoption of a conjectural emendation at this point, so that καὶ τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ (“and the brother”) appears at the very end of the verse.
Gordon Fee advocated this view in his commentary on First Corinthians and it has grown in popularity since then, especially among interpreters who favor an egalitarian view on the question of gender roles in the church. One of the interesting aspects of this issue is the impact of the double-dots, or distigme, that appear in the margin of Codex Vaticanus to signify a variation between the text of that manuscript and the text in another document.
● In Hebrews 11:37, as the sufferings endured by spiritual heroes are listed, one of those things is not like the others: they are all somewhat unusual experiences, except for “they were tempted.” Some textual critics have suspected that the word ἐπειράσθησαν originated when a copyist committed dittography – writing twice what should be written once; in this case, the preceding word the means “they were sawn in two” – and that subsequent copyists changed it into something meaningful. Others have thought that this relatively common term replaced one that was less common – perhaps another word that meant “they were pierced,” or “they were sold”.
Presently the Nestle-Aland compilation, deviating from the 25th edition, simply does not include ἐπειράσθησαν in the text, following Papyrus 46. But Papyrus 13 appears to support the inclusion of ἐπειράσθησαν and it has a very impressive array of allies. I would advise readers to not get used to the current form of this verse in the critical text, for it seems to be merely a place-holder that might be blown away by the appearance of new evidence or slightly different analysis.
● First Peter 3:19 – The most popular conjectural emendation of all time was favored by the textual expert J. Rendel Harris, who encountered a very brief form of it in William Bowyer’s book. The extant text of First Peter 3:19 says, “in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” Verse 18 refers to Christ, and nobody else is introduced into the text, so verse 19 has been understood to mean that during the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection, He visited the realm of the dead, and visited the spirits of those who had been disobedient in the days of Noah, prior to the great flood – and delivered a message to them.
However, Harris, proposed that the original text was different. He thought that Peter had in mind a scene that is related in the pseudepigraphical Book of Enoch. In this text, Enoch is depicted delivering a message of condemnation to the fallen spirits who corrupted human beings so thoroughly that the great flood was introduced as the means of amputating the moral infection they had induced.
Harris proposed that the opening words of the original text of 3:19 were ἐν ᾧ καὶ Ἐνώχ (“in which also Enoch”), assigning the subsequent action not to Christ, but to Enoch. There are two ways in which the name “Enoch” could have fallen out of the sentence.
1. If the original text were simply Ἐνώχ (without ἐν ᾧ καὶ), then, in majuscule script, the chi was susceptible to being misread as an abbreviation for the word και (“and”) [a kai-compendium]. A copyist could easily decide to write the whole word instead of the abbreviation, and thus Enoch’s name would become ἐν ᾧ καὶ.
2. Or, if the original text were ἐν ᾧ καὶ Ἐνώχ, a copyist could read the chi as an abbreviation for και [again, a kai-compendium], and assume that the scribe who made his exemplar had inadvertently repeated three words. Attempting a correction, he would remove “Ἐνώχ.”
Against the charge that the introduction of Enoch’s name “disturbs the otherwise smooth context,” the answer is that a reference to Enoch is not out of place, inasmuch as Enoch’s story sets the stage for the story of Noah and his family, whose deliverance through water Peter frames as a pattern of salvation.
If this conjectural emendation were adopted, it would have at least a little doctrinal impact, by diminishing the Biblical basis for the phrase “He descended into hell” found in the Apostles’ Creed.
Finally, in First Peter 3:10, we encounter an imaginary Greek reading that has been adopted into the text of the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament. Rejecting the assortment of contending variant offered by the Greek manuscripts, the editors have preferred the reading that is implied by a reading for which the external support is only extant in Coptic and Syriac. However, the judgment of the scholars who gave up on the extant Greek readings may have been premature.
The text is sufficiently clear with the reading, “will be found,” while it is also puzzling enough to provoke attempts at simplification.
Only two of these conjectural emendations are mentioned in the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament; the 27th edition was the last one to list include conjectural emendations in its textual apparatus.
Some readers may be taken aback by the idea that some of the inspired words in the Word of God can only be reconstructed in the imaginations of scholars. A realistic pushback against the idea of adopting any conjectural emendation is the question, “Does it really seem feasible that every scribe in every transmission-stream got it wrong?” If scholars reject singular readings simply because they are singular, then non-existent readings should be even more disqualified, as a point of consistency. It also seems very inconsistent to criticize advocates of poorly attested readings only to turn around and advocate readings with zero external support.
It has been said by some very influential textual critics that New Testament textual criticism is both an art and a science. But it should be all science, and not art, because it is an enterprise of reconstruction, not construction. Its methods may validly be creative and inventive, and even intuitive, but not its product. Conjectural emendation is the only aspect of textual criticism that potentially involves the researcher’s artistic or creative skill.
In my view, no conjectural emendation should ever be placed in a compilation of the text of the Greek New Testament. At the same time, the task of proposing conjectural emendations as possible readings which account for their rivals serves a valuable purpose: to demonstrate the heavy weight of the internal evidence in favor of such readings in the event that they are discovered in an actual Greek manuscript.