A Fresh Approach to New Testament Scribal Habits

In 2007, James R. Royse published his exceptional study on the scribal habits of six early New Testament papyri. In his work, Royse revolutionized text critics’ understanding of the text-critical canon lectio brevior potior or, “the shorter reading is preferred”1 by demonstrating that the scribes he studied tended to omit more than they added. In its place he coined a new canon which he called lectio longior potior or, “the longer reading is preferred.”

Because the papyri Royse studied had no known exemplar, he was forced to reconstruct what the hypothetical exemplar probably said and then determine how the scribe copied the hypothetical exemplar—a disadvantage of his method. Royse admitted as much and called for an examination of another set of manuscripts—those with surviving exemplars. Royse wrote: “there has been (it seems) a failure to explore the problem of scribal habits for the text of the New Testament in the best possible case, namely, where the Vorlage of an extant manuscript is also known to be extant. In such a situation we can virtually look over the scribe’s shoulder and compare the text he is copying with his result.”2

One aim of New Testament textual criticism is to discover the most original form of the New Testament text. One way to reconstruct the original text is to better understand scribal habits, or how scribes copied the text. If we can understand how scribes copied the text then we can better understand what changes they might have made, which then informs our discussion of the original text.

My research has attempted to support or disprove Royse’s new text-critical canon that, in fact, the longer reading is preferred. Rather than analyzing early papyri for which no exemplar remains, I chose to identify and analyze manuscripts which have a known exemplar.

I have therefore identified twenty-two New Testament manuscripts which have known extant exemplars. Of this 22 I chose four manuscripts and their copies to transcribe, collate, and analyze to determine how well the scribes copied the text of their exemplar.

In the past, unfortunately, manuscripts with a known exemplar have actually been tossed aside and ignored because they seemingly provide no new information. Previous scholarship has attempted to locate manuscripts that are direct copies of a known exemplar in order that they may discount and ignore them from text-critical consideration. My motivation is exactly the opposite. By locating and analyzing these directly copied manuscripts we gain special insight into the scribal habits of the copy. Rarely have previous scholars employed direct copies as a way to understand scribal habits better.

Eberhard Nestle typified the attitude that has largely been held toward direct copies when he wrote of 0319: “in the Greek merely an incorrect transcription of [06], and may therefore be dismissed.”3 Hort agreed saying, “These instructive phenomena naturally receive little consideration now, because the exact knowledge that we possess of the original [Claromontanus] renders attention to the copy [Sangermanensis] superfluous.”4 While it is correct to exclude a manuscript from critical editions when we can know that it is a copy, it is not sufficient to ignore them altogether since they provide a unique glimpse into scribal activity. The tradition of ignoring direct copies has persisted for some time. Kirsopp Lake ignored 205 because he thought it is was a copy of 209, saying: “It is for this reason that no further notice has been taken of 205.”5 But, unfortunately for Lake, more recent scholarship thinks that 205 was not actually a copy of 209 but that they were simply closely related. Most believe that 2886 is a copy of 205 as is found in the Liste. For this reason, Amy Anderson ignored 2886 from her study of Family 1 in Matthew.6 Frederick Wisse did the same.7 But now more recent scholarship believes that 205 is actually a copy of 2886.8 The only time a manuscript that is a known direct copy of an extant manuscript should be excluded from text-critical consideration is in the formation of critical editions. Above all, such manuscripts are invaluable in revealing scribal habits.

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But we must carefully determine which manuscripts are indeed direct copies of extant exemplars. I have therefore formulated six questions to ask of a manuscript to determine if it is indeed a direct copy of an extant manuscript:

  1. Does the proposed copy share a high percentage of textual agreement with another manuscript?
  2. Do these manuscripts share a good number of peculiar dual agreements, or readings that are found only in these two manuscripts?
  3. Historical considerations: Can one of the manuscripts be demonstrated to be older than the other or were the two manuscripts created contemporaneously to each other? This is important in order to discern the direction of borrowing between the manuscripts.
  4. Paleographical concerns: Is there any evidence from the appearance of the text itself that one is a copy of the other? If the proposed exemplar is damaged or faded in a certain location, perhaps the proposed copy will show difficulty or commit an error here.
  5. Corrections: Does the proposed copy stumble over corrections in the exemplar or show their hand in any way?
  6. Codicological concerns: Do the two manuscripts share similar formatting, i.e. line breaks, page breaks, columns, pages, etc.?

The last three steps provide almost irrefutable evidence that one manuscript is a copy of another. If, however, no paleographical evidence corroborates the textual evidence, then concluding that a manuscript is a direct copy of another should only be done tentatively while accepting that the two manuscripts may actually be sibling manuscripts or simply very closely related. Such is the case in my analysis of two manuscripts previous mentioned: 205 and 2886. Many have believed that 2886 is a direct copy of 205 but recent scholarship has argued for a reversal of the dependence that 205 is a copy of 2886. Because I have not been able to find paleographical evidence that one of these manuscripts directly depends on the other, I have concluded, following Josef Schmid, that they are likely sibling manuscripts descended from a now lost exemplar.9

Codex Claromontanus

Codex Claromontanus (06), copied in the fifth century, is the earliest extant manuscript with extant copies being copied not only once but at least twice by Codex Sangermanensis (0319, ninth century) and Codex Waldeccensis (0320, tenth century). I have transcribed, collated, and analyzed all three of these codices by test passages in order to determine the scribal habits of the scribes of 0319 and 0320. All three of these manuscripts are Greek-Latin diglots. There were two surprising conclusions from the analysis of these manuscripts: first, the scribes of both direct copies neither added nor omitted any words. They broke even completely on word count. Not only did they break even but they had no variants of adding or omitting any words. They copied their exemplar almost exactly. They did make many substitutions, spelling errors, and nonsense errors, but they did not add or omit a single word. Which leads to the second surprising conclusion: these scribes were this accurate because of their ignorance of Greek. These manuscripts are diglots with Greek and Latin and an analysis of the scribal habits shows that these scribes were more proficient in Latin but had very little knowledge of the Greek language. They therefore copied the text extremely accurately but when they made a mistake it was an egregious mistake which usually resulted in such a nonsensical error that the result was not even a real Greek word. I have therefore tentatively concluded that scribes who do not know the language they are copying may copy extremely well for the most part but when they reach a difficulty they may produce an extremely obvious error. More research on the habits of scribes copying a language with which they are unfamiliar is needed.

The Latin scribal habits of the scribes who copied Claromontanus were more in line with what we would expect to see in light of Royse’s new text-critical canon. On the Latin side of the page the scribes—who were the same scribes who copied the Greek text in the case of 0319—lost words on the whole and made the types of errors that scribes who know the language are prone to make. Most of the variants between Claromontanus’ Latin text and its copies were a result of the copies updating their text to match the Vulgate. This resulted in numerous substitutions but very few nonsense errors.

Codex Seidelianus

Another manuscript pair includes two catena manuscripts of John: the tenth-century 0141—the exemplar—and its sixteenth-century copy, 821 copied by a man named Camillus Venetus and commissioned by Cardinal Francisco de Mendoza. 0141 seems to actually have two extant copies being copied also by the sixteenth-century 1370, but I was unable to procure digital images of this manuscript and I was unable to travel to Berlin to transcribe it in person. I hope to complete the study of this family in the near future. Venetus acted as we would expect most Greek scribes to behave. Over the course of more than 4,000 words, he added one word and omitted seven for a net loss of six words. Therefore, while being incredibly accurate, on the whole Venetus lost more words than he added and had an error rate of 2.22 total variants per thousand words. This is the lowest error rate of any scribe in this study and in Royse’s study. But this is not unexpected since it is likely that a sixteenth-century scribe will copy better than an earlier scribe. In fact, the data bears this out: the error rate of the scribes in this study decreased as the centuries rolled by—meaning, as time went on the scribes became better copyists and the text became more stable.

I also compared the error rates found using this method to those found if I were to use the method employed by James Royse who tabulated only singular readings—or, readings which are only found in the manuscript he was analyzing. I found that his method was less accurate than this direct copies method. Sometimes the inaccuracy was minor but in the case of 821’s relationship to 0141, Royse’s method yielded an error rate which was less than half of the scribe’s actual error rate.

I have found that the scribes in this study did their best at a difficult job of copying manuscripts. At no point did I find any examples of intentional corruption for theological reasons. The most blatant intentional changes found in this study were the Latin scribes copying 0319 and 0320 who consistently altered the wording from Claromontanus’ Old Latin to update their text to the Vulgate. Additionally, some of the scribes in this study lost words on the whole, as did Royse’s, but other scribes broke even. None of the scribes in this study gained words on the whole. Therefore, with respect to the scribes in this study, we can reject the older canon lectio brevior potior. We are unable, however, to confirm Royse’s new canon of lectio longior potior but rather I caution that length should not be used in any way to determine which reading is more original. Here I add my voice to Stephen Carlson’s10 and Peter Malik’s11 that length is not a valuable metric for determining which reading is more original.

Codex Sangermanensis

Another main conclusion of the dissertation was the role of the patron. We see hints of the hidden hand of the patron in Codex Sangermanensis (0319), which was actually copied by two different scribes. The two scribes who copied 0319 were very different individuals with different scribal habits. 0319A seems to have had at least enough Greek knowledge to pronounce (or mispronounce) words which led to many orthographic variants. 0319B, however, made only one orthographic variant. Neither 0319A or 0319B added or omitted any text. That 0319B was a better copyist with respect to significant variants and total variants further suggests that 0319B knew less Greek than 0319A. So 0319A and 0319B were very different people with different scribal habits. What is striking, however, are their shared scribal attributes. Both 0319A and 0319B usually followed the same corrector (06***). Additionally, they both ignored marginal corrections preferring instead only corrections in the main body of the text. These shared scribal attributes, in spite of these scribes’ distinct individuality, suggest that a patron was behind the production of this manuscript. The patron instructed both of these scribes on how to copy the text and what changes, if any, to make.

We therefore see that patrons play a substantive role in textual transmission—a larger role than previously thought. We should therefore at each point of variation endeavor to determine who in the editorial process created each variant: the patron, a reader, or, only lastly, the scribe. I wholeheartedly agree with Barbara Aland that scribes wanted to copy as best as they could and that scribes would not have been authorized to make any changes in the text.12

There are many avenues for further study from this study. I would like to know more about the scribal habits of those copying a language with which they are unfamiliar and if my hypothesis holds true that non-native scribes will actually copy the text more accurately most of the time but will make rare but egregious nonsensical errors. 010 is a possible manuscript with which to begin.

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We should be honest, however, about the limitations of this method. While this method gives great insight into copying procedures it is not without its shortcomings. For example, the earliest direct copy of the Greek New Testament is 0319 from the ninth century. Additionally, there are currently only twenty-two known directly copied manuscripts. Nonetheless, in order to best understand New Testament scribal habits, more attention should be paid to manuscripts which are direct copies. All twenty-two directly copied manuscripts should be wholly transcribed, collated, and analyzed for their scribal habits. Doing so will provide a much more complete picture of how scribes copied the New Testament text.

In the end, our analysis of these codices was greatly enhanced by access to their exemplar. Had we not had access to the exemplar but rather analyzed these codices based on singular readings alone, then our understanding of their scribal habits would be less accurate. While the singular readings method captures many scribally created.

  1. James R. Royse, Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri (NTTSD 36; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), 732.
  2. Royse, Scribal Habits, 34.
  3. Eberhard Nestle, Textual Criticism of the Greek New Testament (tr. William Edie; New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1901), 77.
  4. Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton James Anthony Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek: Introduction and Appendix (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1882), II:255.
  5. Kirsopp Lake, Codex 1 of the Gospels and Its Allies (TS 7; Cambridge: Cambridge, 1902), xxii.
  6. See Amy Sue Anderson, “Codex 1582 and Family 1 of the Gospels: The Gospel of Matthew,” (PhD. Diss., University of Birmingham, 1999), 118–19; Amy S. Anderson, The Textual Tradition of the Gospels: Family 1 in Matthew (NTTS 32; Leiden: Brill, 2004), 116.
  7. See Frederick Wisse, The Profile Method for Classifying and Evaluating Manuscript Evidence (SD 44; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 106.
  8. See Alison Welsby, A Textual Study of Family 1 in the Gospel of John (ANTF 45; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014), 82–83 = Alison Sarah Welsby, “A Textual Study of Family 1 in the Gospel of John,” PhD diss., University of Birmingham, 2011, 122–24.
  9. See Josef Schmid, Studien zur Geschichte des griechischen Apokalypse-Textes, vol. I: Der Apokalypse-Kommentar des Andreas von Kaisareia. Einleitung (Munich, 1956), 288.
  10. See Stephen C. Carlson, The Text of Galatians and Its History (WUNT 2:385; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015), 90.
  11. See Peter Malik, P. Beatty III (P47): The Codex, Its Scribe, and Its Text (NTTSD 52; Leiden: Brill, 2017), 114–15.
  12. See Barbara Aland, “Sind Schreiber früher neutestamentlicher Handschriften Interpreten des Textes?” in Transmission and Reception: New Testament Text-critical and Exegetical Studies (Jeff W. Childers and D. C. Parker, eds; TS 3.4; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2006), 114 and Barbara Aland, “Der textkritische und textgeschichtliche Nutzen früher Papyri, demonstriert am Johannesevangelium,” in Recent Developments in Textual Criticism: New Testament, Other Early Christian and Jewish Literature: Papers Read at a Noster Conference in Münster, January 4–6, 2001 (W. Weren and D-A. Koch, eds; Studies in Theology and Religion 8; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 36.
Written by
Alan Farnes

Alan Taylor Farnes is currently an adjunct instructor of ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University. His dissertation can be found as: 'Scribal Habits in Selected New Testament Manuscripts, Including those with Surviving Exemplars' (PhD dissertation; University of Birmingham, 2017).

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