Saturday, July 10, 2021

Scrivener: Principles of Comparative Criticism (Part 5)


F. H. A. Scrivener
   Those who have followed me through this prolonged investigation (which I knew not how to abridge without sacrificing perspicuity to conciseness) will readily anticipate my reply to Dr. Tregelles’ “statement of his case,” comprehended in the following emphatic words:  “It is claimed that the united testimony of versions, fathers, and the oldest MSS should be preferred to that of the mass of modern copies; and farther, that the character of the few ancient MSS which agree with versions and fathers, must be such (from that very circumstance) as to make their general evidence the more trustworthy” (p. 141).  Unquestionably, I rejoin, your claim is reasonable, it is irresistible.  If you show us all, or nearly all, the uncials you prize so deservedly, maintaining a variation from the common text which is recommended by all the best versions and most ancient Fathers, depend upon it we will not urge against such overwhelming testimony the mere number of the cursive copies, be they ever so unanimous on the other side.

But are we not discussing a purely abstract proposition?  Do we ever find the “united” testimony of the ancients drawing us one way, that of the juniors another?  I will not assert that such instances may not occur, though at this moment I can hardly remember one.  It is enough to say that principles broad as those laid down by Tregelles must be designed to meet the rule, not the exception.  In the seven texts we have been reviewing, in the sixty-five that remain on his list, in the yet more numerous cases he tells us he has passed over, the uncial MSS are not unequally divided; or where there is a preponderance, it is not often in our adversary’s favor.  The elder authorities being thus at variance, common sense seems to dictate an appeal to those later authorities, respecting which one thing is clear, that they were not copied immediately from the uncials still extant.  Such later codices thus become the representatives of others that have perished, as old, and (to borrow Davidson’s suggestion, p. viii) not improbably more old than any now remaining.  These views appear so reasonable and sober, that they have approved themselves to the judgment even of Dr. Tregelles: for he does not by any means disdain the aid of the few cursive copies (e. g. 1. 33. 69. etc.) which “preserve an ancient text,” whereby of course is implied one coinciding with his preconceived opinion of what an ancient text ought to be.

[1 – Dean Alford had constructed the text of his first volume of the Greek Testament (1st edition) on nearly the same plan as Tregelles would, and thoroughly was he dissatisfied with the result.  “The adoption of that test,” he writes with admirable frankness, “was, I do not hesitate to confess, a great mistake.  It proceeded on altogether too high an estimate of the most ancient existing MSS, and too low an one of the importance of internal evidence.” (N. T. Vol. II. Proleg. p. 58.)]


      Perhaps I shall be expected to say a few words respecting the scheme devised by Bentley for settling the sacred text on a firmer basis, since both Tregelles and his precursor Lachmann (N. T. Proleg. Vol. I. p. xxx) have sheltered their practice of recurring exclusively to the most ancient extant documents beneath the shadow of that great name.  We shall all agree on one point, that no authority, however imposing, can supply the place of argument in enquiries of this kind; nor do I scruple to confess that were I disposed to swear allegiance to any earthly teacher, it would be to that illustrious scholar, whose learning and genius shed a bright ray across the darkness of his evil generation.  It is painful to say of the most highly gifted man that ever devoted himself to the study of Biblical criticism, that his leading principle was taken up hastily and on precarious grounds.  Yet if the fact be so, why need we hesitate to avow it?  

Bentley’s theory, as most of my readers will remember, was built on the idea, that the oldest MSS of the Greek original and of Jerome’s Latin version, resemble each other so marvelously, even in the very order of the words, that by means of this agreement he could restore the text as it stood in the fourth century, “so that there shall not be twenty words, or even particles, difference!”  “By taking two thousand errors out of the Pope’s [Clementine] Vulgate, and as many out of the Protestant Pope Stephens’s [1550], I can set out an edition of each in columns, without using any book under nine hundred years old, that shall so exactly agree word for word, and, what at first amazed me, order for order, that no two tallies, nor two indentures, can agree better.”  Thus wrote Bentley to Archbishop Wake in 1716; the tone of his “Proposals,” in 1720, after considerable progress had been made in the work of collation, is not materially less confident.

Yet to those who have calmly examined the subject, the wonder is not the closeness of agreement between the Greek and Latin Codices, but that a man of so vast erudition and ability should have imagined that he perceived it, to any thing approaching the extent the lowest sense of his words demands.  Accordingly when his collations came to be examined, and compared, and weighed, keen indeed must have been the disappointment of our English Aristarchus.  With characteristic fearlessness he had been at no trouble to select his materials (at least I trace no indication of such choice in his surviving papers), and thus the truth would burst upon him all the sooner, that the theory on which he had staked a noble reputation, in the face of watchful enemies, must either be abandoned or extensively modified.  We can well ‘understand the struggle which silently agitated that proud spirit.  Had the subject of his labors been Terence or Milton, it would be easy to conjecture the course he would have adopted: if MSS refused to support his system, they must have been forced to yield to it.  

But Bentley, with all his faults of temper, was an honest and a pious man; he dared not make the text of Holy Scripture the victim of his sportive ingenuity; and so, soon after the year 1721, we come to hear less and less of his projected Greek Testament.  Though he lived till 1742, it does not appear that he ever made serious progress in arranging the stores collected by himself and his coadjutors.  As I have turned over his papers in the Library of Trinity College, with a heart saddened by the spectacle of so much labor lost, I could not persuade myself that the wretched dissensions which embittered his declining days had, of themselves, power enough over Bentley’s mind to break off in the midst a work that he had once regarded as his best passport to undying fame.


From the facts we have been discussing I feel entitled to draw two or three practical inferences.

(a).  That the true readings of the Greek New Testament cannot safely be derived from any one set of authorities, whether MSS, versions, or Fathers, but ought to be the result of a patient comparison and careful estimate of the evidence given by them all.

(b).  That where there is a real agreement between all the documents prior to the tenth century, the testimony of later MSS, though not to be rejected unheard, is to be regarded with much suspicion, and, unless supported by strong internal evidence,1 can hardly be adopted.

(c).  That in the far more numerous cases where the most ancient documents are at variance with each other, the later or cursive copies are of great importance, as the surviving representatives of other codices, very probably as early, possibly even earlier, than any now extant.2

I do not lay down these propositions as any new discovery of my own, but as being (even the second of them) the principles on which all reasonable defenders of the Textus Receptus have upheld its GENERAL INTEGRITY.


[1 – If I have hitherto said nothing on the important head of internal evidence, it is from no wish to disparage its temperate and legitimate use.  Yet how difficult it is to hinder its degenerating, even in skillful hands, into vague and arbitrary conjecture!]


[2 – Even Mr. Green, from whom I fear I differ widely on some of the topics discussed in this chapter, does not shrink from saying, “In a review of authorities special regard will reasonably be paid to antiquity; but this must not be over-strained into a summary neglect of more recent witnesses, as offering nothing worthy of notice,” finally adding, “The critic should not suffer himself to be encumbered by prepossessions or assumptions, nor bind himself to the routine of a mechanical method of procedure.  If he allows himself to be thus warped and trammelled, instead of ever maintaining the free employment of a watchful, calm, and unfettered mind, he abandons his duty and mars his work” (Course of Developed Criticism, Introduction, p. x.).]


IV. I have a good hope that the foregoing investigation of the laws of Comparative Criticism will have convinced an impartial reader, that the cursive or junior copies of the Greek New Testament have, in their proper place and due subordination, a real and appreciable influence in questions relating to doubtful readings.  If I have succeeded thus far, it results that the time and pains I have bestowed on studying them have not been wasted: the collations I have accumulated cannot fail to be of some service to the Biblical critic, even though he may think I have a little exaggerated their value and importance.  I am not so sanguine as to the degree of popular acceptance my views may obtain, nor (without affecting absolute indifference on the subject) am I by any means so anxious on this head.  I have always thought that the researches and labors of the scholar – of the theological scholar above all others – are their own highest and purest reward.1  Let me plead guilty to having read with sensations akin to scorn, the manuscript note appended by Caesar de Missy (a person who might have known better) to the copy of Hearne’s scarce edition of the Codex Laudianus (published in 1715), now preserved in the British Museum.  To Hearne’s miserable list of just forty-one subscribers to his book, De Missy subjoins the sarcastic comment “Après cela, Docteur, va pâlir sur la Bible!”  Yet why should he not have grown pale in the study of God’s Word?  Why not have handed down to happier times a treasure of sacred learning which the princes and prelates of George the First’s reign (that nadir-point of public virtue and intellectual cultivation in England) were too slothful to appreciate, too negligent even to despise?  The pursuits of Scriptural criticism are so quiet, so laborious, that they can have few charms for the votary of fame, or the courtier of preferment: they always have been, perhaps they always must be, the choice employment mainly of those, who, feeling conscious (it may be) of having but one talent committed to their keeping, ‘seek nothing so earnestly as TO USE THAT ONE TALENT WELL.



[1 – I should have wished to add some noble sentiments of Dr. Dobbin (Codex Montfortianus, Preface, p. xx.) on this point, but that I trust they are known to my readers, as they well deserve to be.]


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