Encountering New Testament Manuscripts

Written by Jack Finegan Reviewed By Dick France

It has been suggested that textual critics are born and not made, that a delight in papyri, palaeography and the like is something which you either have or do not have, but which cannot be learnt. If that is true, this book is a waste of time, because its clear aim is to win converts to the fascinating pursuit of textual criticism. There are plenty of books which will provide the bare facts about New Testament manuscripts and readings, in far more detail than this one. But I know no other which so imaginatively sets out to capture the beginner’s interest and get him hooked on textual study. If converts can be won, this book should win them.

It is inevitable, however, that despite its different aim it will be compared with Metzger’s The Text of the New Testament,2 which is currently the leading vade mecum for most New Testament students. I shall therefore describe the content of the book in some detail in comparison with Metzger, before attempting a general assessment. This is the more necessary in view of the amazing claim on the blurb that ‘the work will probably become a standard reference tool for New Testament scholars and teachers.’

Part I (‘Ancient Writing Materials and Practices’) is brief (28 pp.) and basic, assuming very little, and translating even common Greek words and phrases. Enough detail is provided for the beginner, though some of the space is taken up by unnecessary discussion of points of special interest to the author (e.g. the Euthaliana, pp. 41–45). There is an excellent infra-red photograph of both sides of a papyrus letter, showing the nature of papyrus as a writing material more clearly than pages of description. Photographic illustrations of examples of the various scribal conventions mentioned e.g. in §§ 24–27 would have been a helpful addition.

A surprising omission in this section is an adequate discussion of palaeography, which rates half a page compared with nine pages on prologues, Euthaliana, etc. The practical value of the latter for the text-critical activities of most New Testament students is very limited, but a grounding in the basic principles of deciphering and dating scripts is essential for anyone who is not prepared to take a predigested apparatus criticus on trust. Some familiarity with these techniques will be acquired in the course of Part III (though very little on minuscule script, which is much more trying than uncial), but a systematic discussion of the subject might usefully have been introduced in Part I.

Part II (‘History of Textual Criticism’) is considerably briefer than the corresponding section of Metzger (33 pages against 91), but for an introduction to the subject this is probably an advantage, as the plot can be seen developing more easily. A definite plus in Finegan’s treatment is his separate history of the listing of manuscripts, which will help the beginner not only to find his way through the symbols but also to see why the conventional systems of listing developed. His select list of major manuscripts would have been improved by a more exact specification of the contents, particularly in the papyri, where the conventional use of e, a, p, c and r makes no distinction between a two-verse fragment and a codex of several books.

The one section here which cries out for expansion is pp. 54f. on the way variants arise. Less than a page of bare description of possible forms of corruption is not going to make any sense to anyone unfamiliar with ancient manuscripts. Examples are needed, preferably ones which may actually be seen in the portions of manuscripts illustrated. Metzger’s twenty pages of detailed and sometimes amusing examples have no counterpart in Finegan.

In Parts I and II, then, Finegan gives a much briefer introduction to textual criticism than Metzger. He does not include enough detail to make an adequate work of reference, but apart from the omissions noted provides an adequate and relatively painless beginner’s guide to the subject.

It is in Part III (‘Encounter with Manuscripts’) that Finegan’s book reaches its real raison d’être. This is not a list of facts and figures, but an attempt to give the reader the feel of actually studying the manuscripts for himself. This is done by presenting three ‘sequences’ of manuscripts in photographic facsimile, with discussion and comparison of their texts. Each sequence consists of a series of manuscripts of the same biblical passage presented in chronological order, the object being to see how the variants found in an apparatus criticusactually emerge from the manuscripts, and so to explain how scholars reach their conclusions on what was the original text of a given passage.

The first two sequences (manuscripts of John 18:31–33, 37–38 and of John 6:8–12, 17–22 respectively) consist entirely of papyri, three in each sequence. The biblical passages are chosen on the quite accidental grounds that the former is contained in the oldest known papyrus, and the latter in a papyrus actually available to the author. The result is an interesting study of various scribal habits and of the problems of reconstructing a fragmentary text; but as no significant textual variant occurs in either sequence, it is hard to justify the selection of these passages. Surely equally interesting sequences with real variants could have been used instead.

The third sequence, on the other hand, is most instructive. The passage chosen is John 1:1–18, and attention is concentrated on the punctuation of verses 3 and 4, and the very important reading monogenēs theos in verse 18. These are traced through P66 and P75, codices Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Bezae, Washingtonensis and Alexandrinus, and the minuscule codices 666 and 1345, with a brief glance at the Latin versions, Irenaeus and Origen. A rudimentary apparatus criticus on each of the points at issue is built up progressively as each witness is examined. The result is that a dry list of symbols is graphically brought to life, and by the time the reader has completed the sequence he will have a sound understanding of the debate on these two readings, and will be in a position to make his own independent judgment.

One danger of this approach is that it can lead to an oversimplified view of textual criticism. Finegan concentrates overwhelmingly on Greek uncial manuscripts. Only two miniscules are, very briefly, considered. More seriously, the whole vast area of the versions and the Church Fathers is virtually ignored. Finegan does not of course claim to be giving a tour of the whole area, but anyone using this book as an introduction to the subject would probably end up quite unaware of the crucial role of these witnesses, in most cases reflecting a text earlier than the earliest Greek manuscripts. To deal only with the Latin versions, and those in only a page or so, is surely a dangerous oversimplification.

Metzger’s equivalent to Finegan’s Part III (by far the major part of the book) is his ‘Textual Analysis of Selected Passages’. As against Finegan’s two variants, exhaustively studied, Metzger considers fourteen, encompassing a representative selection of textual problems. Finegan’s method is far more fun, as it takes the reader behind the scenes of the compilation of an apparatus criticus. But Metzger’s more comprehensive selection will better prepare the student to understand the variety of textual problems that he will actually confront, and the detail he gives is enough for practical purposes. Most New Testament students are not going to be compiling their own apparatus from the manuscripts, but struggling to make sense of an apparatusprepared by the experts, and for this purpose Metzger’s practical examples will prove the more helpful preparation.

So an assessment of the value of Finegan’s book will depend on the question ‘good for what?’ For detailed information on the materials and history of textual criticism, it would score lower than Metzger, or than most other textbooks on the subject. For reference (despite the blurb!) it would not score highly either: it is not a systematic presentation of facts (though it is well indexed), and the information contained is selective, determined by the special aims of the book; e.g., details about individual manuscripts are given only for those which occur in the three selected sequences, not, as in Metzger, for those generally considered to be the most significant. But for its declared purpose of enabling the reader to savour the experience of actually using the manuscripts themselves, it is a real success, and goes as far as any book I know, perhaps as far as a book alone can, in communicating the fascination of textual study. Anyone who can come away from this book still convinced that textual criticism is boring would be well advised to steer clear of textual study altogether!

Finally, some technicalities. The book is beautifully produced. The photographs (which are a vital part of its conception, not, as so often, an irrelevant inducement to reluctant readers) are sharp and clear (though oversensitivity to dark patches makes those of P66, P75, Sinaiticus and Bezae less clear than the original photographs), and the large format enables all except those of Vaticanus, Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus to be practically full-size reproductions. The ambitious format, involving much wasted space (at least twelve pages are blank, and even on a full page the type covers less than half the area), unfortunately results in a price double that of Metzger. Footnotes are eschewed, references being given in the text, which can result in rather labyrinthine sentences. The book has obviously been long in production: the one footnote (p. 69) is a late addition to mention a 1971 publication; otherwise I found no references later than 1970, and the text of page 69 was clearly written before 1968. On p. 74, line 15, P20 should read P29.

Dick France

Llangelynin, Gwynedd