Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Looking into the Alexandrian Text at John 12:12

            War – what is it good for?  “Absolutely nothing,” many have answered.

            And when the question is asked, “What is the Alexandrian text good for?”, quite a few people have responded with the same answer.  Independent Fundamentalist Baptists tend to insistently subscribe to the Textus Receptus, and some KJV-Onlyists even make it a formal condition of church fellowship to use the KJV or versions in languages other than English that conform to the meaning of the KJV New Testament.

            Simultaneously you might think, listening to other folks, that the Alexandrian text is the greatest invention since sliced bread.  The text of the New Testament portion of the ESV, NIV, CSB, and NRSV are all based primarily on the Alexandrian Text – the “critical text” that is published in the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece and the UBS Greek New Testament.  (And why is this compilation referred to as the critical text?  Weren’t all compilations critical, i.e., thoughtfully compiled?  Are we supposed to be given the impression that other compilations are not critical, and merely reproduce the text found in a particular manuscript??) 

            I reckon that 99% of American preachers who promote English versions based on the NA/UBS compilation(s) still get their justification for using it, at any given point of variation, from Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary of the Greek New Testament – apparently never realizing that Metzger’s Textual Commentary was made with the intention of promoting the UBS compilation.  (So if you’re looking for an objective textual commentary, Metzger-readers, or for one written by an author who wasn’t writing under the influence of the Lucianic recension delusion, you’re digging in the wrong place.)

            Meanwhile, advocates of the Byzantine Text tend to reject the Alexandrian text as a matter of course; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be majority-text advocates. 

            I would argue, though, that the Alexandrian text excels in at least one area:  the preservation of the original grammar.  For example:  there’s a little variation-unit in John 12:12 that doesn’t get attention often, because its effect on translation is so slight:  between τη επαύριον and ἐλθὼν, did John write ὄχλος πολὺς ὁ or ὁ ὄχλος πολὺς or simply ὄχλος πολὺς?  The Byzantine text has ὄχλος πολὺς ὁ, and its allies include Codex Alexandrinus, D K W X Π Ψ f1 579 700 1424 (etc.) plus the Peshitta, the Sahidic version, and the Gothic version.  Even Origen is cited in the UBS GNT as support for ὄχλος πολὺς ὁ – apparently the only patristic reference the editors considered worth mentioning.  Papyrus 2vid, assigned to the 500s, also supports ὄχλος πολὺς ὁ.

            Codex Sinaiticus initially read ὄχλος πολὺς but a corrector has conformed its text to the  Byzantine/Western/Caesarean reading.  D 565 892 and 1195 agree with À’s initial reading.  But that’s not the true Alexandrian reading.   The Alexandrian reading here is what Vaticanus has:  ὁ ὄχλος πολὺς ὁ.  And Codex B is allied with P75 P66vid B L 1241, the Sinaitic Syriac, and the Bohairic version.  (The UBS apparatus listed f13 as if it supports ὁ ὄχλος πολὺς ὁ; Swanson lists f13 as support for ὄχλος πολὺς ὁ).

            Bruce Metzger, a few verses earlier, treated support from multiple transmission-streams as a strong indicator of a reading’s genuineness (“the overwhelming manuscript support for the verse seemed to a majority of the Committee to justify retaining it in the text,” wrote Metzger).  That’s a general principle with which I enthusiastically agree.  But in this case, despite the shallowness of the external evidence in favor of the minority reading, there’s a valid reason for favoring it:  the internal evidence.  It’s the reading more likely to have been written by John, and it’s the reading more likely to have been altered by scribes.    

            Metzger’s colleagues seem to have had some misgivings about the Alexandrian reading here, giving their decision a “C” rating.  Metzger wrote, “The expression ὁ ὄχλος πολὺς serving as the subject of a verb [in verse 9] is such unusual Greek (with πολὺς in the predicate position) that serious doubts arise whether the evangelist could have written it thus.”  The counter-argument should be obvious:  are later scribes likely to have changed the text from ὄχλος πολὺς ὁ to ὁ ὄχλος πολὺς ὁ?

            Granting that some Alexandrian scribes were not particularly attentive in the vicinity of this variant-unit (P75’s scribe skipped the second part of verse 8), I am content to accept the Alexandrian reading, not on the grounds that its external support is stronger, but on the grounds than internal considerations are in its favor.  There are many other examples that could be selected to show the Alexandrian tendency to preserve original grammatical quirks – not errors; just grammatical quirks, like when a baseball umpire correctly says, “That ain’t a strike” – but this one may suffice for today.