Re: Using variant readings
Fri, 6 Dec 1996 14:15:20 -0500

In a message dated 29-11-96 3:12:17 AM, you wrote:

>I have to confess, although I look at variant readings in my UBS GNT, I
>don't really know how to use them profitably. Currently, I use them to see
>if there is more than one possibility, and to assess the relative likelihood
>of each.
>Should I be doing more?
>Silva's "Explorations in Exegetical Method: Galations as a test case" has a
>chapter devoted to this, and implies strongly that if I had understood what
>he is trying to say, my exegesis would be all the better for it, but he
>doesn't really go into detail, and the discussion passed through my synaptic
>channels without leaving any traces.

What with the SBL and other meetings, I'm not sure if you received any
replies to this post. I would suggest that you look at two types of works:
basic intros to NT textual criticism; and works that use the textual variants
in practice.

For the basic intros, Metzger's "The Text of the New Testament" is the
recognized standard in the field, although many other good texts are also
available, such as Jack Finegan's "Encountering New Testament Manuscripts,"
Harold Greenlee's revised "Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism,"
and Aland and Aland's "The Text of the New Testament." These give good
intros to TC, but don't actually address some of what may be behind your
inquiry. These will help in seeing how to decide as to the original reading
in the text.

For using TC in the exegesis process, I offer the following thoughts. The
variant readings can be used to reconstruct the original text, as noted
above, or to trace the history of the transmission of the text, with several
correlaries to that line of thought. The history of the transmission of the
text at a given point of variation (a variant reading noted in GNT, for
example) includes not only various renderings of the text, but various
understandings of the text many times (this is usually true of the GNT
variants, but certain types of variants are not useful for this goal, since
they are due to unintentional changes or changes in orthography). For
example, many mss. add the doxology to the Mt. 6 version of the Lord's
prayer. While the doxology is not original to the text and is actually
present in many different forms, the presence in the ms. tradition shows that
this prayer was often understood/used in a worship type setting, with the
reading of the text adjusted so as to be more suitable for such usage. The
question could then be asked, if so many understood that to be the proper
context for reading this passage, did they understand the intended impact on
Matthew's readers correctly or not? Is the text designed to invite the
reader into a worship focus as an alternative to the worship focuses
denounced in the surrounding context? If so, then this interpretation of the
text might be helpful for a current understanding/ application of the text.
In other words, the variant readings help us to understand the context of
the transmission of the text and historical interpretations of the proper
impact of the text. Granted, this is an easy and obvious example, but the
same procedure can be applied to other variants. Even non-original readings
can shed light on early interpretations/understandings of the text
(particularly since we feel that most variants arose in the early stages of
the transmission of the text--2nd and 3rd centuries especially). After all,
the textual variants are usually among our earliest commentaries on the
understandings of the texts.

Another use of variant readings has been highlighted by Bart Ehrman ("The
Orthodox Corruption of Scripture"). Ehrman has used the christological
variant readings (making a contrast between original and non-original
readings) to look at the social setting of early Christianity as reflected in
the Christological controversies and reflected in the transmission of the
text, with the more orthodox readings "winning" in the long run as the
dominant readings in the later textual traditions.

The use of variant readings for social history and textual commentary is a
developing field with much work still to be done, but some initial signs of
promise, at least IMHO.

Hope this is helpful,

Bill Warren
Professor of New Testament and Greek
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary