It has been said that F. J. A. Hort, in constructing the textof the Westcott & Hortedition, simply looked for the readings of B and followed those.
This is just about precisely backward. Hort did not start fromsome anonymous text and then start looking for ways to correctit toward B. Rather, he started from B and then looked for placeswhere it should be rejected. In other words, he used B as a"copy text."
It is curious to note that the copy text (also known as aproof text), one of the fundamentaldevices of most classical textual criticism, doesn't even seem to bementioned in most manuals of NT criticism. Simply put, thecopy text is the starting point for an edition. An editor, afterexamining the various witnesses, picks a particular manuscript asthe best source and then, in effect, collates against it lookingfor places where a better text presents itself. As G. BlakemoreEvans puts it in the textual introduction to the RiversideShakespeare, "an editor today, having chosen for whathe considers sound reasons a particular copy-text, will adhere tothat copy-text unless he sees substantial grounds for departingfrom it" (p. 37). This, we should note, does not mean slavishly following thecopy text; it at most means following it when we have no other basis for decision,or alternately in adopting its orthography and other minor details whenthe texts disagree.
G. Thomas Tanselle gives an analogy in his paper "Editing withouta Copy-Text": "The controlling images of these two approaches arethose of initially full and initially empty sheets of paper. If one chooses acopy-text, then in effect one begins with filled sheets and proceeds to alter thetext present on them; but if one has no copy-text, one begins with blank sheets,so to speak, and fills them by placing one word after another on them,drawing those readings from relevant documents (and, on occasion, fromone's own mind)." Thus there has never really been an edition of theNew Testament prepared entirely without a copy-text; even an editor whoconsidered himself to be starting from scratch, like Lachmann or Hort,would work from an existing printed edition for pure convenience -- so, ina sense, the copy text for the printed New Testament is the manuscripts thatErasmus used as copy text: 2e, 2ap, and 1r.But with so many generations of editing in between, these copy texts by nowhave had almost no effect on the text, although perhaps some slight influenceon orthography.
The term "copy text" has been around for quite a long time, althoughthe meaning of the term changed somewhat after W. W. Greg published "The Rationale of the Copy-Text" in 1950, because he drew a distinction between "substantives" and "accidental" readings and variants. Gregwarned against the "tyranny of the copy text," which amounts tofollowing the copy text even when the weight of evidence (internal orexternal) argues strongly against it. Indeed, he argues that the copytext should be chosen primarily on the basis of the accidental features,not the main features. (So, for instance, if the choice in the gospelswere somehow to come down to, say, D versus 33, we should go with D,even though it is heavily edited and far from the original text, becauseit probably preserves the original orthography better than 33 -- if forno other reason than that it hasn't undergone the change from uncialscript to minuscule.)
In the most extreme case, it may mean simply adopting the text whichis most typical of the tradition -- that is, the one which allows the editorto produce the shortest critical apparatus. This was the form used byFredson Bowers in some of his later work (and, in a way, lies behind thetendency in the International Greek New Testament Project and othersto use the Textus Receptus as a collating base: The text is notconsidered to have any authority, but it is convenient.)
Erick Kelemen, Textual Criticism and Editing: An Introduction(Norton, 2009), p. 102, makes a note that some textual critics forget:the copy text "provides the chief authority for the readings of theaccidentals but not necessarily the substantives" -- in other words,for details such as spelling and orthography but not for major variants.Hort didn't follow B closely; a good editor will beopen to good readings from any source. But the copy text isthe starting point. It is followed unless there is a clear reasonto do otherwise. So, for example, one would tend to follow thecopy text spelling of various proper names, or on points ofAttic versus non-Attic usage, or on inflected versus non-inflectedSemitic names. And, of course, in the case of readings wherethe canons of criticism offer no clear point of decision, you followthe copy text. It gives you a fallback if you have no othergrounds for decision.
Note that this is in strong contrast to most methods ofEclecticism. Eclectics generallydon't start anywhere; theyhave to decide everything -- even such trivialitiesas spelling variations -- from the manuscripts or from someexternal reference. It's a lot of work for slight reward -- andit arguably produces a rather inconsistent text.
I find it ironic to note that my preferred method of textualcriticism, which is strongly based on manuscripts and genealogy,is considered hopelessly conservative and rigid by almost allNew Testament critics, who prefer a more eclectic edition. Yet toeditors of early printed works, with their copy-texts and theirbest editions, I would be a wild-eyed radical because I restrictmy use of a copy-text! I can't help but think that both schoolscould learn from the other -- and, very likely, end up at acompromise rather like mine!
We should note that the Copy Text notion arose in situationswith very few witnesses -- e.g Shakespeare, where there are nevermore than three independent witnesses, usually not more than two,and occasionally only one. However, the idea has been successfulenough that it is now applied to texts with far larger numbers ofwitnesses -- e.g. Chaucer, where some passages have as many as 75witnesses. There is no inherent reason why the method could notbe applied to the NT as well.
Of course, if one is to choose a copy text, there is the questionof which copy text. This is rendered much more complicated bythe nature of New Testament witnesses: Most of the important ones,the papyri and uncials, lack accents, breathings, punctuation, andspaces between words. Should one adopt a copy text which includesthese features (in which case it will be much more recent than whatare usually considered the best witnesses), or choose a text withthe best text apart from readers' aides? Or even choose one text forthe text and another for the aids?
If you prefer the Byzantine text, it probably isn't an issue. Otherswill face a harder choice. Personally, I would incline to take the besttext, while allowing for the possibility of a text with more reader aids.
On that basis, I would suggest the following:
Gospels: B. Or P75 where it exists, but consistencyargues for using B throughout. There are no other real candidates.ℵ ismixed and rather badly copied, and every other copy except D has Byzantinemixture. (Of course, if you prefer the Byzantine text, you can have acopy manuscript -- probably E or perhaps Ω.
Acts: Again, B. Although there are proportionally more goodmanuscripts, none can claim superiority over Vaticanus.
Paul: Now this one is complicated, as there are fullyfour reasonable candidates: P46, B, ℵ, and(improbable as it sounds to list a minuscule) 1739. Nonetheless, I wouldargue that 1739 is the best of the choices. The best texts -- at least inmy opinion and that of Stephen C. Carlson; compare also Zuntz -- areP46, B, and 1739. But P46 is very incomplete, andalso contains a much-too-high rate of scribal errors. B is better onthis count, but it too is defective. Adopting 1739 gives us a verygood text, complete, and supplied with accents and breathings. Theother alternative,ℵ,will appeal primarily to those, such as the UBS committee, who believein Alexandrian Uber Alles without noting that the quality of the differenttypes changes from corpus to corpus.
Catholics: Here again we have several options: B, P72,ℵ,A, C, and 1739 are all possibilities. P72 is probably eliminatedby its incompleteness and its errors plus its wild text of Jude. A isthe head of the main branch of the Alexandrian text, but while that is thelargest group, it does not appear the best. C would have a strong case if itwere complete -- indeed, if it were complete, it would be my first choice --but it's too fragmentary. Textually,ℵstands almost alone; so does B, whereas 1739 heads a large group. Ultimately,I would say the choice comes down to B or 1739. I would incline very slightlytoward B.
Apocalypse: Here again we have four choices: A, C,ℵ,or P47. The latter is eliminated by its fragmentary state.ℵisn't a particularly good text. C may well be the best text, but itonce again has too many lacunae. We must choose A almost by default.
Those who wish to examine a text built on the copy text concept,a PDF of a text of Philippians (with critical apparatus, introduction,and commentary on significant variants) is available here.
We should recall, however, that the copy text concept can be appliedto more than just the text of the New Testament. An edition of one ofthe versions might well be founded ona particular copy text (and some have been -- e.g. the Hopkins-Jamesedition "The Celtic Gospels," an attempt to recreate theearly Vulgate texts used in the British Isles, is based on CodexLichfeldensis). So we should probably enumerate points to beconsidered in choosing a copy text.
Let's give the last word to W. W. Greg, whose work on this topicis considered to have revolutionized textual criticism from the periodaround the invention of printing:
[W]hen, as may happen in the majority of cases, the claimsof alternative readings appear evenly balanced, [the editor] will naturallyretain the reading of the copy-text, this being the text which he hasalready decided is prima facie the more correct. The exact degreeof confidence that an editor need feel before he decides to alter thecopy-text will necessarily depend on his mental constitution, and it would,I think, be futile to attempt to defend it. I will only remark that it mayproperly depend to some extent upon the confidence with which he has madechoice of the copy-text, and that a cautious editor when hesitating willgive the copy-text the benefit of the doubt. (The Editorial Problem inShakespeare, third edition, p. xxix.)