Canons of Criticism

Contents: Introduction * Outline of the Canons * External Critical Rules * Internal Critical Rules * How to Use the Canons of Criticism * Footnotes


Although detailed methods vary, there are really only two ways to edit a Bible text. One is to print a text based on some sort of external control (the Textus Receptus, the text found in the majority of manuscripts, the text found in B/03). This may be useful, and may fit the publisher's assumptions, but it hardly constitutes editing. Its's more an exercise in reading an illegible hand.

The only other way is some form of eclecticism -- picking and choosing between readings. And, unless one is content to print a chaotic text, choosing between readings requires some sort of guidelines. These guidelines are the "canons of criticism."

Outline of the Canons

Different editors have listed different rules, and applied them in different ways. Some have listed dozens of criteria,[*1] others only a handful. No matter how many rules they list, all fall into one of two categories: Internal criteria (pertaining to the logic of readings) and External criteria (pertaining to the manuscripts containing the readings). Thus there are only two fundamental canons:



All other canons -- no matter how numerous or how detailed -- are simply corollaries or specific examples of these two rules. (The only so-called "critical method" which does not operate on this basis exception is the Byzantine Priority technique which simply counts noses. As no editor -- not even Robinson -- has ever published an edition based solely on this criterion, we can ignore it.)

Still, as any mathematician will tell you, the general rule may be pretty, but it's usually much easier to apply specific formulae.[*2] The sections which follow describe some of the better-known rules for criticism that various scholars have used. Note that, since each is a specific case of a general rule, they should only be applied in the appropriate situation. The discussion tries to describe the situations in which which each rule applies. I've also tried to list who first proposed the rule, or who popularized it.[*3]

(Comment: Some treat these canons as particular types of internal or external evidence, e.g. Robertson, Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, p. 161, delares that "The chief canon is that the reading must be preferred that explains the origin of the others." However, it is clear in practice that all the more detailed rules are justified in their application -- if they are justified -- on the basis of the two basic criteria above.)

External Critical Rules (pertaining to manuscripts)

That reading is best which is supported by the best manuscripts. This was the fundamental tenet of Hort, and has been followed by many others -- including even Lagrange and Weiss, who in theory explicitly rejected it. This is a good rule if all the best manuscripts support a single reading (i.e. if all the leading manuscripts of all the early text-types agree), but should not be applied by itself if there is disagreement among the text-types. Still, this rule may be the final arbiter if all other criteria fail. Also, to apply this rule, one must have a precise definition of the "best" manuscripts. Unless one is Hort, and prepared to follow B/03 blindly, this rule can be hard to apply.

In connection with this, however, we should note that it is common, in non-Biblical criticism, to see what is called "best-text" editing, which consists of finding the best manuscript and following it unless there is overwhelming reason not to. Sadly, a lot of "best-text" editors seem to think that it consists of looking for the manuscript with the most reliable spelling and turning off one's brain. I personally find it very hard to trust best-text editions. Yes, a best text is often useful for determining orthography (I have no objection to that!), but substantives should be decided based on all the evidence.

The geographically superior reading is best. I deliberately state this criterion vaguely, because geography has been used in various ways by various critics. The usual sense used in New Testament criticism is Streeter's, who argued that the reading supported by the most diverse sets of "local texts" is best. I.e. his criterion is That reading is best which is supported by the most geographically diverse manuscripts. That is, if reading X is supported by manuscripts from Rome, Carthage, and Alexandria, while reading Y is supported only by witnesses from Byzantium, reading X is to be preferred. The rule goes back to Bengel, but was strongly reinforced and restated by Streeter. All things being equal, this is a good rule, but there are two limitations. First, good readings may be preserved in almost any text (e.g. there are many instances where scholars read the text of B/03, perhaps supported by a papyrus or two, against all comers). Second, this rule can only be applied if one truly knows the provenance of manuscripts. (For additional detail, see the entry on Local Texts.)
There is, however, another rule based on geography, more commonly encountered in classical criticism but with some application to New Testament criticism, especially in studies of text-types and smaller textual groupings: The more remote reading is best. That is, isolated sites are more likely to preserve good readings, because manuscripts preserved there are more likely to be free from generations of errors and editorial work. This criterion, of course, cuts two ways: While a remote site will not develop the errors of the texts of the major centres, it is more likely to preserve any peculiar errors of its own. Remote texts may well be older (that is, preserve the readings of an older archetype); they are not automatically more accurate.

That reading is best which is supported by the earliest manuscripts. This was the basis of Lachman's text; he used only the earliest manuscripts. Today, it finds support from Aland (who has referred to the papyri as "the original [text]") and also Philip Wesley Comfort, who has the tendency to treat all papyrus-supported readings as accurate. It is, of course, true that the papyri are valuable witnesses, and that the support of early manuscripts increases the likelihood that a reading is original. But other criteria must take precedence. This is a rule of last resort, not a rule of first resort; Housman would doubtless make the point that to use this rule is to refuse to think.

That reading is best which is supported by the most manuscripts. This is, of course, the negation of the theory of Hort, whose primary purpose was to dethrone the Textus Receptus. Although this rule has some modern supporters (e.g. Hodges, Robinson), it is generally rejected. Certainly those with scientific training will not be impressed with "Majority Rule." Modern eclectics of all types generally feel that, at best, this rule should be avoided until all other means of decision have failed. (Note: This is not saying that the reading of the Byzantine text is wrong. It's just that it's only one text type; adding more and more witnesses to the type does not change that fact.)
We might add that, if the rule is modified to "That reading is best which is supported by the most completely independent branches of the tradition," it goes from almost worthless to extremely important. The problem with the Byzantine text is not that it is numerous but that its witnesses are not independent.

That reading is best which goes against the habitual practice of particular manuscripts. So, for instance, 𝔓75 and B have been accused of having exceptionally short texts -- of omitting (by design or chance) many pronouns and other "unnecessary" words. So where 𝔓75 and B have a long reading, their testimony bears particular weight. By contrast, D is considered to include many interpolations and additions. Where, therefore, it has a short reading, the short reading is considered especially probable. (This is the theory, e.g., behind the so-called "Western Non-Interpolations.") Note that this rule can only be applied if the habits of a particular manuscript are truly known; very few manuscripts have really been studied in enough detail for this criterion to be usable.

The reading of the first hand is best. This requires a good deal of caution in application, but it is Miroslav Marcovich's first rule for editing patristic texts: "Wherever possible, establish and follow the first hand of a manuscript." This is presumably because the first hand is older and is less likely to be using corrupt sources. But we know that there are exceptions, the most obvious being 424, where the corrected text is much more important than the base text.

That reading is best which endured longest in the tradition. That is, a reading which is found in manuscripts from (say) the ninth to fifteenth centuries is superior to one found only in the fourth and fifth centuries. This criterion, offered by Burgon, has recently been re-stated by Pickering.[*4] Moderns apparently apply this rule in some cases (e.g. Eph. 1:1, where most scholars include the words "In Ephesus," even though the manuscript evidence against them -- 𝔓46 ℵ B 6 424** 1739 -- is very strong). I know of no eclectic scholar who states the rule, though, and most of the time they actively reject its dictates; see, for example, 2 Cor. 12:9, where ℵ** A** D** K L 0243 33 330 1739 Byz (sixth through sixteenth centuries) read "my power is perfected in weakness," while 𝔓46-vid ℵ* A*vid B D* F G latt sa (third through ninth centuries) omit "my." The fact that every truly early witness omits "my," and that these witnesses come from three different text-types, counts for nothing when using this criterion. Therefore scholars reject the rule; all editions since Tischendorf (save Hodges & Farstad and Pierpont & Robinson) have omitted "my."

Great diversity of readings often indicates early corruption and perhaps editorial work. This principle, in use since the nineteenth century, has recently been firmly restated by Kurt and Barbara Aland. The difficulty, of course, lies in figuring out which reading is original when confronted by a wide variety. It should be noted, however, that in the case of such corruption, the original may be found in manuscripts which otherwise would not be found reliable. A good example is 1 Thes. 3:2, where the best-attested reading would appear to be διακονον του θεου (ℵ A P 424** bo arm). Of the half-dozen different readings here, however, the best appears to be συνεργον του θεου, supported only by D* 33 d Ambrosiaster.

The continuous reading is best. Maurice Robinson, who strongly supports this rule, states it in full as follows: "In any extended passage where multiple sequential significant variant units occur, those MSS which offer strong support in less problematic variant units are more likely to be correct in the more problematic units if such MSS retain their group support without serious fragmentation of or deviation from such group." This rule only applies in groups of three or more points of variation. Let us consider the simplest example, of three sets of variants (call them A, B, and C). Suppose you can clearly decide the correct reading in A and C, but are not certain about the reading in B. In that case, the manuscripts which are correct in A and C are likely to be correct in B as well. The logic is that scribes are basically careful. They transcribe accurately if they can, but one or another condition may cause them to slip. If a scribe is transcribing most variants in a passage accurately, chances are that he or she will have done equally well in variants where we cannot assure his or her accuracy.
This rule is difficult to demonstrate in practice, because of the great diversity of methods of criticism. A reading which one critic considers uncertain may seem quite assured to another critic. And critics do not agree on textual groupings, either. It may not be possible to offer an example of this rule which would be accepted by all critics. Certainly I know of none. So I will offer a hypothetical example, not because I like using artificial examples but because I'd rather have something that clearly demonstrates the point.
Consider the following passage, based loosely on John 11:25. The variants are enclosed in curly brackets. We will assume that each reading is supported by a certain collection of text-types: A=Alexandrian, B=Byzantine, C=Caesarean, W=Western. (Note that one need not accept the existence of any of these types; any set of groupings would be equally meaningful here):
απεκριθη {Ιησους AB | κυριος Ιησους CW} {και ειπεν BC | omit AW}, {εγω BW | omit AC} ειμι η αναστσις και η ζωη
Most critics would agree, based on either internal or external evidence, that the short reading Ιησους is correct in the first variant. And stylistic considerations dictate that the third variant should read ειμι, not εγω ειμι. But what about the inclusion/omission of και ειπεν? One reading is shorter and more direct, the other more typical of Johannine usage. So internal evidence fails us, at least at a casual glance. In such a case, we turn to the criterion of the continuous reading. In this case, the Alexandrian text is clearly correct in the first and third readings. Chances are, then, that it is correct in the second reading also; we should omit και ειπεν.
The danger with this criterion lies in over-applying it. This is not the same as the rule that the best manuscript/text-type is best. (Though Maurice Robinson believes that this lesser rule generalizes to that greater principle.) This is a local principle, applying to relatively short passages. Moreover, it is a secondary rule, applying only to uncertain variants in the context of variants which are secure.

The stemmatically stronger reading is best. It is generally believed that it is impossible to create a stemma (family tree) of the New Testament, although Stephen C. Carlson has done it for Galatians and 1 Peter and has software to do more if more data is available. However, it is probably possible to create stemmas of smaller groups. For example, the Lakes offered an analysis of Family 13 that looked something like this:

         |                     |             |
         a                     b             c
         |                     |             |
 -----------------         ---------         |
 |   |   |   |   |         |   |   |         |
13  346 543 826 828       69  124 788       983

Ordinarily one might suggest that, if 13-346-543-826-828 have one reading and 69-124-788 983 have another, that we should adopt the reading of 13-346-543-826-828 as being supported by more manuscripts. But all these manuscripts derive from a, while the other four manuscripts come from two different branches of the tree. So the reading of 69-124-788 983, the stemmatically stronger reading, is to be preferred.

That reading found in the majority of early text-types is best. OK, a personal opinion here: In the absence of a stemma, this should be the rule. The whole story. It's how you do stemmatic criticism without a stemma, and if it can be used, you shouldn't need all these other tools! (Of course, it's better still to have a stemma.) If you have three early text-types (call them "Ptolemaic," "Romanesque," and "Cilician,") and two of them attest to a particular reading, doesn't it stand to reason that the majority of the text-types -- all of which go back to the original -- is more likely to be right unless there is some other explanation for how they came to be corrupted? Curiously, no one seems to have applied this rule on a consistent basis (Hort probably would have tried, but he only recognized two early text-types). The problem, of course, lies in determining what is a text-type and which of them are early. This is an area that doesn't get nearly enough attention -- which in turn means that this most basic and obvious and objective of rules is not stated, and rarely applied; no one is willing to do the work to apply it!

Internal Critical Rules (pertaining to the nature of variants)

The reading which could most easily have given rise to the other readings is best. This approximates Tischendorf's formulation of the basic rule "That reading is best which best explains the others." It is a direct corollary of that basic rule, and has much the same force as the basic rule and applies in all the same cases and more. (For some reason, most lists of criteria merely include this among the collection of other canons. But Eldon J. Epp correctly describes this as "The Preeminent Criterion." No other internal criterion can override it! Epp regards it as going back to Gerhard's list of 1711 -- but Gerhard did not formulate it in anything like this way.) Furthermore, as Epp points out (Eldon Jay Epp "Traditional 'Canons' of New Testament Textual Criticism: Their Value, Validity, and Viability -- Or Lack Thereof," in Wachtel & Holmes, editors, The Textual History of the Greek New Testament: Changing Views in Contemporary Research, Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, p. 94), this criterion is really the entire basis for Hort's "Transcriptional Probability" -- and it's a lot easier to understand. (Because of its breadth of significance, some scholars even regard it as an external as well as an internal canon, but it's probably safest to regard it as an internal canon only.)

The hardest reading is best (Difficilior lectio potior or Proclivi scriptioni praestat ardua). First offered by Bengel (for whom it was the basic rule), based on approximations by Erasmus and Le Clerk, this is a good criterion; scribes were generally more likely to make texts simpler rather than harder. But some caution must be applied; scribes were capable of making errors that led to prodigiously difficult readings. (A good example of this is the peculiar readings that litter 𝔓66.) According to Vincent McCarren & Douglas Moffat, editors, A Guide to Editing Middle English, University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 54, the rule "has been examined and found wanting for many genres of Middle English writing" (although it should be noted that Middle English studies are full of people who think that it is not their job to seek the original text...). One should prefer the harder reading only when it is adequately attested and does not appear to be the result of error. Or, perhaps, the rule should be rephrased:Among readings which are possible, the hardest reading is to be preferred.

The shorter reading is best (Lectio brevior praeferenda). This rule is found in most manuals, beginning with Griesbach. Indeed, Nicholas Manjacoria, writing around 1150 in Libellus de corruptione et correptione Psalmorum, wrote that the longer reading should not automatically be preferred -- a rule implicitly also supported by Stephen Harding. Few rules, however, have suffered more attacks. A. C. Clark, on p. v of The Primitive Text of the Gospels and Acts, wrote, "The chief result of my investigation has been to show the falsity of the princple brevier lectio potior.... Unless my method is based upon a delusion, this statement has no foundation in facts. I may also observe that it is not so easy to invent as it is to omit." More measured, but still critical of the rule, was G. D. Kilpatrick: "There are passages where reasons can be found for preferring the longer text and there are others where we can find reasons for preferring the shorter. There is a third category where there does not seem to be any reason for deciding one way or the other. How do we decide between longer and shorter readings in this third category? On reflection we do not seem able to find any good reason for thinking that the maxim lectio brevior potior really holds good." ("The Greek New Testament of Today and the Textus Receptus," in Anderson & Barclay, The New Testament in Historical and Contemporary Perspective," 1965, p. 196.) And Mark Bland reminds us that "Scribal omission is so common as to affect almost every manuscript tradition of any complexity" (A Guide to Early Printed Books and Manuscripts, p. 169).
There is no question but that there are scholars who have applied this rule too expansively -- Boismard adopts a number of short readings in John on the grounds that patristic sources omit the words. This is not good evidence; the phrases in question may simply not have been relevant to the commentator's argument.
This has given rise to a sort of a counter-rule, mostly among supporters of the Majority text, which is almost The longer reading is best. The problems of length-related rules have led Epp to his longest discussion of any critical canon.
The danger here is of seeing rules in black and white -- as if they always apply or never apply. Griesbach himself limited the scope of this rule, adding exceptions for scribal errors and for minor omissions that do not affect the sense. There were scribes who liked glosses, and there were scribes who would always prefer the longer reading (on the principle that it was better to have an extraneous word in scripture than to risk leaving something out). On the other hand, the most common sorts of scribal errors (haplography) result in a shortening of the text. Also, there is a strong tendency among copyists to omit short words. (These first two errors are both characteristic of ℵ, for example.) In addition, there were scribes (the scribe of 𝔓45 is perhaps the most extreme) who freely shortened the text.
Therefore the rule of the "shortest reading" should be applied only if the manuscripts with the short reading are reliable and if there is no evident reason why scribes might have deliberately or accidentally shortened the text. Certainly, despite Boismard, the short reading should not be adopted based only on arguments from silence!
My rule of thumb would be, if a scribe makes a deliberate change, it will usually result in a longer text; if a scribe makes an error, it will more often result in a shorter text. To take an obvious example of the former, consider the several additions of "fasting" with "prayer," e.g. in 1 Cor. 7:5 (Mark 9:29 is also an example of this type, although it is perhaps a questionable instance since the external support for "and fasting" is very strong, and the words are found in all manuscripts which insert the entire sentence in Matthew. This implies that those who added the words to Matthew must have known them in Mark. But, in a way, this still proves the use of the rule: The words are clearly a gloss in Matthew, showing that the short reading, in Matthew at least, is correct).
This gives rise to a different conception of this rule: The length of a reading should be considered, not prefer the shorter reading. If a longer reading could have arisen as an explanation of the shorter, then the shorter is to be preferred; if the shorter could have arisen by error from the longer, then the longer is to be preferred. If neither of these arguments applies... then use another canon.

The reading most in accord with the author's style is best. This is a two-edged sword, since copyists were perfectly capable of conforming a peculiar passage to an author's style. Take the Gospel of John. There are dozens of instances of the phrase "Amen, amen, I say to you." Suppose the author had, in one instance, left out an "Amen"? Would this reading have survived in the tradition? Perhaps not. And if it had survived in one part of the tradition, might not an editor be inclined to reject it? If applied with caution, however, this rule can be very useful; it often allows us, e.g., to choose between verb forms (since most authors have a peculiar pattern of verb usage.) Of course, the usage of the author must be known very well. I personally never trusted this rule much -- and recently it has been strongly attacked by Petzer.
This canon is sometimes stated in Greek, Πλάτωνα ἐκ Πλάτωνος.

The reading which best fits the context or the author's theology is best. If we were absolutely sure of how the author thought, this would be a good rule. As it is, it is awfully subjective.... Ultimately, this one has much the same strengths and weaknesses as The reading most in accord with the author's style is best. Epp expresses serious reservations about it, based indirectly on Petzer's criticism of the stylistic criterion. I would point out, furthermore, that theology is something that tends to be hammered out in debates between experts and authorities; the medieval church had a lot more theology than did the early, and there is every reason to think the authors of the New Testament -- especially the earliest ones, such as Paul and Mark -- did not have a unified theology. They had opinions, sure, but they had not developed a consistent doctrine. So why should they express a consistent doctrine?

The middle reading is best. This rule is rarely found in the textbooks, even though Griesbach had a form of it -- though biological stemmatists have found it very important and useful. It obviously only applies in cases where there are three (or more) readings. If there are three readings, X, Y, and Z, and a simple change will convert X to Y, and Y to Z, but no simple change will convert X to Z or vice versa, then Y is the middle reading (the one that could have given rise directly to the others), and is to be preferred. Of course, this only applies where X, Y, and Z all have early attestation. If one of the readings is late, then it could be a tertiary corruption.
An example of the use of this rule occurs in 2 Pet. 2:13. Here 𝔓72 ℵ A* C? 33 81 436 614 630 1505 2344 Byz read απαταις, A** B Ψ 623 1243 1611 vg read αγαπαις, and 322 323 945 (1241) 1739 1881 read αγνοιαις. Most editors explain away αγαπαις as an assimilation to Jude 12. However, there are good arguments for its originality. In addition, it is the middle reading; both απαταις and αγνοιαις could have arisen directly from but could not easily have arisen from each other. Since all three readings are early, and αγαπαις is the middle reading, it is to be preferred.

The reading which could not have arisen from lectionary use is best. Many continuous-text manuscripts were marked for lectionary use. Often this meant adding lectionary introductions, and often these introductions crept into the text (the praxapostolos 1799, for instance, is littered with lectionary incipits). If a reading might have arisen as the result of this error, it is probably to be avoided. Compare the following rule:

The reading which is counter to ecclesiastical usage is best. Offered by Eberhard Nestle, this applies mostly to passages found in the lectionary. It also argues against readings such as "Amen" at the end of epistles: With the exception of James (where "Amen" is found in 614 1448 1505 1852 (2492) 2495 t hark pc), at least one uncial witness attests to "Amen" at the end of every New Testament epistle. However, the editors of UBS/GNT accept the word only at the end of Galatians, Jude, and -- in brackets -- 2 Peter.

The disharmonious reading is best. This rule is usually applied in the gospels, where assimilation of parallels is common. If one reading matches the text of another gospel, and the other reading does not, then the assumption is that the unique reading is best. (Von Soden noted a special instance of this: All things being equal, scribes tended to assimilate to Matthew as the "strongest" of the gospels. If no other rule resolves a variant involving parallels, The reading which does not match Matthew is best.) This is a good rule, but must be applied with caution. As Colwell has shown, the most common sort of assimilation is assimilation to the immediate context. Tregelles had also been very concerned with assimilation to immediate context. Also, scribes would sometimes assimilate to other, unrelated sources (e.g. hymns or other writings that sounded similar to the scripture being copied). So this rule should really be altered to read...
The less familiar reading is best. That is, if one reading is what you would expect a scribe to write, and the other is unusual or surprising, the latter is probably the correct reading. This is a major element of what Hort called "Transcriptional Probability." The only problem is guessing what was going on in the scribe's head as he wrote....
We can illustrate this with an example from the LXX. Consider Ezek. 38:13. The Hebrew text refers to "Tarshish." The translators of LXX glossed this to the more familiar "Carchedon" (Carthage). But the scribe of A was confused even by that, and converted it to "Chalcedon." We see this identical error in some classical texts, from the period when every Byzantine scribe knew the Council of Chalcedon but when Carthage was a forgotten city in the west: In Aristophanes, Knights 1303, manuscripts R V Ψ refer to Carchedonians/Carthaginians, but Γ2 and some scholia mention Chalcedonians.
This phenomenon has actually been observed "in the wild." Silva Lake, who sometimes read manuscripts aloud in the process of collating them, reported that when she spoke an unfamiliar reading, she was "almost always" interrupted by librarians who expected some other text.

The less smooth reading is best. This is almost a corollary of the preceding. Scribes, when they looked away from their exemplar, might forget what they wrote, and if they did, they were likely to make it simpler and more straightforward. This has been repeatedly observed in English manuscripts. An extreme example is the ending of Mark: A sentence should not end with γάρ. So someone might be tempted to change that reading even if it didn't seem like a strange place to end a gospel.

The reading which has the truest sense is best. Hort said that the best readings are those which, on the surface, don't make sense, but which, on reflection, show themselves more reasonable. Hence this criterion. Perhaps the best example of its application is the reading of UBS/GNT in 2 Cor. 5:3, where (following D* (F G) a d f** g) that text reads "if indeed, when we take it off, we will not be found naked." All other witnesses, starting with 𝔓46, read "...when we put it on, we will not be found naked." The UBS editors accept the reading "take it off" on the grounds that the other reading simply doesn't make sense.

The reading which avoids Atticism is best. With the Attic Greek revival of the early Christian centuries, Attic forms began to be used after some centuries of disuetitude. Kilpatrick, in particular, called attention to Atticising tendencies. The caution with this rule is to determine what is a truly Attic reading and what is legitimate koine. Parallel to this rule are the three which follow:

The reading which is characteristic of Hellenistic usage is best. Since the koine used a number of unclassical and uncouth forms, later scribes with more classical education might be tempted to correct such "barbarisms." This is another of the stylistic criteria of Kilpatrick and Elliot. Fee, on the other hand, denies it; scribes seem often to have conformed readings to the koine and Septuagint idiom. This rule and the preceding remain very much open to debate. There were probably scribes who did correct their texts either toward correct Attic forms or toward the Septuagint, but how do we tell who did which?

The reading which resembles Semitic usage is best. Since most of the New Testament authors were native speakers of Aramaic, they would tend to use Semitic idiom in violation of Greek usage. Copyists, as native Greeks, might be expected to correct such readings. This is again the argument of the thoroughgoing eclectic school (compare the preceding rules), and again there are those who argue that scribes would be more likely to prefer Septuagintal usage.

Parallel to the two preceding is The reading which is less like the Septuagint is best. This is another of those tricky rules, though. It's certainly true that some scribes would tend to conform to the Septuagint. But this has even more than the usual complications. It must be remembered, for instance, that most copies of LXX were made by Christians, and they might often conform LXX to the New Testament usage more familiar to them -- meaning that the harmonization, rather than being in the NT, is in LXX! And then, too, NT authors often deliberately used LXX language which scribes might mis-copy.

That reading which seems to preserve an ungrammatical form is best. A trivial example is Mark 6:29 (ηλθαν/ηλθον), where first and second aorist stems are interchanged. Most applications of this rule are to equally trivial matters -- although sometimes they may reveal something about the scribe who produced the manuscripts.

The metrically superior reading is best. Much of the Bible is poetical, and even much that is not is still metrical -- just as much of Shakespeare is in blank verse, because blank verse sounds like just plain old spoken English, but is smoother. In non-poetic passages, think of it as an "accounting" meter, to fit the rhythms of the language or hold to some particular pattern of content. If a metrical pattern is detected, the variant that conforms to this pattern is more likely to be original. Some students have seen very regular patterns in the text which can even be used as a sort of guideline for the use of this canon.

If one reading appears to be an intentional correction, the reading which invited such a correction is best. Alternately, That reading which is most likely to have suffered change by copyists is best. Proposed by Tischendorf. This is fundamentally the same as preferring the harder reading. If a reading calls out for correction, of course some scribes will correct it. They are hardly likely to deliberately create a reading which requires such correction. An easy example is Mark 1:2. Here ℵ B (D) L Δ (Θ) (f1) 33 565 (700) 892 1241 it arm geo read "As is written in Isaiah the Prophet," while A W f13 579 Byz read "As is written in the prophets." The citation which follows is, of course, from several sources, only one of which is Isaiah. While it is possible that scribes corrected "in the prophets" to "in Isaiah the Prophet" based on parallels (since so many NT citations are from Isaiah), it is much more likely that scribes corrected "in Isaiah the prophet" to "in the prophets" to eliminate the errant reference.

A variant on the above: If one reading is clearly a deliberate correction, then the reading closest to the corrected reading is best. This comes from E. Talbot Donaldson, although he gave it as an observation about scribes, not a canon of criticism: If a scribe sees something which looks like an error, and can see an easy correction, the scribe will make the correction, but if there is no obvious correction, then the scribe will copy the difficult text uncorrected. So the correction will tend to be close to its original.

The reading which could have given rise to the others accidentally is best. Or, as P. Kyle McCarter puts it, Look first for the unconscious error. This is a very important rule in Old Testament criticism, where independent witnesses are few. It is less applicable in the New Testament, where witnesses are frequent and where errors of spelling or dittography are less likely to give rise to a meaningful variant. However, if one reading could have given rise to another by an accidental error (e.g. by omitting a doubled letter or a short word or syllable), that reading is clearly to be preferred.

The reading which is susceptible to a heterodox interpretation is best. This rule does not often apply, but when it does, it is important -- and it goes all the way back to Erasmus. A reading which lessens the dignity of Christ, for instance, is usually preferable (unless it is supported only by highly questionable sources). Examples of readings where this criterion applies include:

If there were any doubt about the operation of this rule (and there shouldn't be, because we see Origen casting out the "Jesus Barabbas" reading because he didn't like its implications), we can see its operation in action in classical texts as well. In Odyssey XIII.158, the manuscripts read μεγα δε, which causes Zeus to say to Poseidon, in effect, "Go ahead! Flatten those Phaeacians for being kind and hospitable to visitors." This was so troubling that Aristophanes of Byzantium claimed the proper reading must have been μηδε, which makes Zeus reluctantly allow a limited punishment rather than adding refinements to Poseidon's capricious cruelty. This sort of theological tampering continues today; the Richard Lattimore translation of the Odyssey accepts this reading!

There has been a good deal of attention paid to this canon as a result of the work of Bart D. Ehrman, which has shown pretty clearly that there was intentional modification of the Biblical text. But this isn't really a yes-they-did or no-they-didn't canon (and Ehrman didn't invent it; Hans H. Glunz's The History of the Bible in England, for instance, presents many instances of deliberate "improvements" of the Vulgate). These sorts of corrections might be deliberate -- but often they would be the result of a scribe simply mis-reading the text, or thinking it must contain an error, simply because the reading seemed unbelievable. Were there deliberate modifications? Yes. Were all corrections that made the text more orthodox deliberate? Almost certainly not.

The reading which contains unfamiliar words is best. Offered by Metzger (following Griesbach) in conjunction with some other observations about scribes. The change from the unfamiliar to the familiar can happen (it happens very frequently in oral tradition), but is not as likely as it sounds. (Consider the word επιουσιον in the Lord's Prayer. No one to this day knows what it means with certainty -- but scribes never tried to change it!) If a scribe knows a word, he will not object to copying it. If the word is unfamiliar, how is the scribe to know what word to replace it with? In applying this criterion, it is best to know the peculiar habits of a particular manuscript. To this compare the following:

Ordinary and common words are more likely to be changed than unusual. This was J. R. R. Tolkien's observation regarding the effects of copying on his own works: The peculiar words seemed to be better-preserved than those more often heard. In limited circumstances, he was probably right: in a line such as "I took my road to ItIsHardToRememberville," a copyist might just glance at "I took my road to," think he remembered it, and mis-copy it (e.g. as "I took the road to" or "I took my path to"), while looking carefully at "ItIsHardToRememberville" and so copying it verbatim. But anyone who looks at, for instance, the LXX of Chapter 1 of Chronicles knows that long lists of unfamiliar names tend to be butchered by scribes. Tolkien's rule may be true of works that have not gone through too many generations of copies, but works which have been copied many times will be more damaged, because it is hard to correct the odd words.

If, in a variant reading, one reading is subject to different meanings depending on word division, that reading is best. I don't remember where I came across this, and I can't cite an example by chapter and verse; it certainly doesn't come up often. (Souter gives two examples, 1 Tim. 3:16, ομολογουμενως or ομολογουμεν ως and and 2 Tim. 2:17, γαγγραινα or γαγγρα ινα. But neither of these involve variants in the actual text.) But I recall a variant something like this. Suppose some manuscripts read ΟΙΔΑΜΕΝ and others ΚΑΙΟΙΔΑ. Since the former could be read as either οιδαμεν (one word) or οιδα μεν (two words), and so is ambiguous, it is preferable.

If a reading is a conflation of two shorter readings, the shorter readings are best (though the correct reading must be decided on other grounds). This rule, used by Hort to demolish the Textus Receptus, is good as far as it goes, but conflate readings are actually very rare. The best-known example is probably Luke 24:53. Here 𝔓75 ℵ B C* L sin cop geo read "blessing God," D a b e ff2 read "praising God," and the remaining witnesses (including A C** W Θ f1 f13 33 892 1241 Byz) read "praising and blessing God." Since the reading "praising and blessing God" is a conflation of the Alexandrian reading "blessing" and the "Western" reading "praising;" it is to be rejected. As between "blessing" and "praising," the decision must be made on other grounds. (Most scholars would prefer "blessing," both because it is the Alexandrian reading and because it is more presumptuous -- how dare people "bless" God? But that decision is made based on other rules. The rule against conflate readings only allows us to eliminate the conflate reading.)
Another good example is Matthew 10:3, where the readings "Lebbaeus called Thaddeus" and "Thaddeus called Lebbaeus" are obviously attempts to combine the Alexandrian reading Thaddeus and the "Western" reading Lebbaeus.
In using this rule, one must also be careful to try to reconstruct how the conflation came about. For example, in Mark 15:39 there is a possible conflation, since the various readings are εξεπνευσεν, ουτως εξεπνευσεν, κραξας εξεπνευσεν, and ουτως κραξας εξεπνευσεν. I have argued elsewhere that the manuscript evidence here indicates that the "conflate" reading ουτως κραξας εξεπνευσεν is most likely original.

The true reading is best. This is offered by Wordsworth and White, who stated it as, "The true reading wins out in the end." Although this might be interpreted as an argument for the majority text, or the late medieval text, that is not how Wordsworth & White used it. How this rule is to be applied must therefore be left as an exercise for the reader. Bentley's version was simply to apply "common sense." Apparently early textual critics had never heard American politicians talk about what is sensible....

The reading which is contrary to the habits of the scribe is best. This can be applied to individual manuscripts, in which case it is hardly a canon of criticism, but is very useful in assessing the habits of a particular scribe. For example, D/05 has been accused of being anti-Jewish and anti-Feminine. If, therefore, it has a reading that is pro-Jewish or pro-Feminine, that reading is likely to predate the prejudiced handling of D (compare the examples in the next item). Similarly, if 𝔓75 is given (as many believe it is) to omitting pronouns, and somewhere it has a pronoun not found in other Alexandrian witnesses, the evidence for the longer reading is strengthened because 𝔓75 went against its habit, implying that the reading comes from its exemplar. This criterion, although appealed to by eclectics of all sorts, is apparently particularly dear to Elliot and the thoroughgoing eclecticists. If applied at a level above that of individual manuscripts, though, it says little more than "study what Hort called 'transcriptional probability.'"

That reading which violates the prejudice of scribes is best. This may sound like the previous rule rehashed. It isn't, exactly, although it also applies first and foremost to individual manuscripts. This has been pointed up by Ehrman and others in connection with the Christian prejudice against Jews. So, for example, if one reading is anti-Jewish and the other is neutral, the neutral reading is to be preferred. (Ehrman offers John 4:22 as an example, where some versional witnesses read "salvation is from Judea" rather than "...from the Jews.")[5] Also falling in this category is the treatment of Prisca the wife of Aquila. Her name occurs six times in conjunction with his. In four of these instances (Acts 18:18, 26, Rom. 16:3, 2 Tim. 4:19), her name appears first in the best witnesses (she is listed second in Acts 18:2, 1 Cor. 16:19). But in Acts 18:26 (D 1175 1739 Byz), some manuscripts demote her to the position after Aquila. In addition, in Rom. 16:3 (81 223 365 630 876 1505 1881** ful* pm), 1 Cor. 16:19 (C D F G 81 Byz a d ful tol), 2 Tim. 4:19 (206 223 323 429 436 876 2412 a ful al) the manuscripts listed demote her name from "Prisca" to the diminutive "Priscilla." This could just be assimilation to the more familiar usage -- but it could be prejudice, too.

Where the same variant occurs in parallel passages, each variant is original somewhere. I have not seen this canon formally stated (and so provided my own statement), but it is used in a number of places (e.g. by the editors of the New English Bible). Three examples may best explain the situation:

  1. Matt. 8:28=Mark 5:1=Luke 8:26, Gerasenes/Gadarenes/Gergesenes
  2. Matt. 10:3=Mark3:18 Lebbaeus/Thaddaeus
  3. 2 Pet. 2:13=Jude 12 ΑΓΑΠΑΙΣ / ΑΠΑΤΑΙΣ

In the first instance, the NEB reads Gadarenes in Matthew, Gerasenes in Mark, and Gergesenes in Luke. In the second, it has Lebbaeus in Matthew and Thaddaeus in Mark.
One must take great care in applying this criterion, however. The NEB approach is probably wrong, at least in the case of the Lebbaeus/Thaddaeus variants. The key observation has to do with text-types. In both Matthew and Mark, the Alexandrian text reads Thaddaeus, while the "Western" text reads Lebbaeus. (The Byzantine text conflates in Matthew.) In other words, this is not a case where the two gospels had different readings but where two different traditions had different names for this apostle. We are not trying to decide which name to use in which book; rather, we must decide between the two names overall. Whichever name is original in one book is original in the other.
This is not to say that this criterion is without value. One must simply be very careful not to use it where it is not relevant.

If similar variants occur in several places, the reading more strongly attested in the later points of variation is best. Or, as Maurice Robinson phrases it, "If a particular type of phrasing recurs several times within a book, but in a form rarer than that normally used by the writer, scribes would be tempted to correct such a reading to standard form at its earlier occurrences, but not in its later occurrences." This rule apparently goes back to Wordsworth and White.
As for what it means, it means that if a scribe is confronted with a particular reading -- especially one which seems infelicitous or atypical of the author -- he is likely to correct it the first few times he sees it. After seeing it a few times, he is likely to give in -- either due to fatigue or as a result of saying something like, "Well, he's said it that way three times now; I guess he meant it."
We in fact see some instances of this in Jerome's work, though in his translation activity rather than in his copying; early in the Vulgate gospels, he was much more painstaking in conforming the Old Latin to the Greek; later on, if the Old Latin adequately translated the Greek, he didn't worry as much about making sure parallel Greek structures translated into parallel Latin structures. This seems to be a good rule, in principle. In practice, I can't cite a place where it would be used.

The Parsimonious Explanation is Best. As far as I know, this rule has never been used in a manual of textual criticism -- but it is absolutely vital in science. "Parsimony" is sort of a technical term for Occam's Razor: The simplest explanation is best. To put it another way, The Explanation Requiring the Fewest Assumptions Is Best. Unneccessary assumptions are the root of all evil -- at least when seeking knowledge.
It seems to me that this is best applied when dealing with Kurt Aland's "Local Genealogical Method." The idea is to produce the simplest local genealogy.
I thought of this while having a row with one James Snapp over the ending of Mark. I am sure I will not present this in a way that is fair to him, but it makes a good demonstration of the number of different assumptions one might make to explain a variant. What follows is only my take on his presentation of the evidence. Note that what we really discussed was a matter of canonicity more than textual originality, but it can be handled as a textual issue.
Snapp's opinion is that "Mark 16:9-20" is probably not from the same author as the rest of the gospel, but that it was added to the Gospel before it began to circulate. To put it another way, it is not original to the author, but it is an original part of the published text.
He accepts that the gospel originally ended at 16:8 (either due to loss of text or because the author never managed to finish the gospel). But this was remedied at an early stage by the addition of the Longer Ending.
Snapp's suggestion is that some later authority disliked the Longer Ending (arguing that this authority intended to use the ending of John as a better ending for Mark, offering the Gospel of Peter as a parallel). So this person excised the Longer Ending and did -- something. This, seemingly, was detected and the interpolation excised. Hence the version of Mark which ends at 16:8. This circulated widely enough that someone felt the need to add an ending. Hence the creation of the Shorter ending. From this situation -- versions with no ending, with the Longer Ending, with the Shorter Ending, and with the Johannine Ending -- the current mix of manuscripts evolved.
So Snapp's assumptions are:
1. Mark came to end, either deliberately or accidentally, at 16:8
2. At a period before the book was widely circulated, 16:9-20 was added. This makes it an original and canonical part of the gospel as published.
3. 16:9-20 was excised so that a different ending (from John?) could be added. (Interesting that this later editor could slice off the ending at the precise point where the style and content seems to change dramatically. But ignore that.) This left two versions in circulation: That with 16:9-20 and that with the Other Ending
4. The forgery of the Other Ending was detected and excised, leaving three endings in circulation: 16:9-20, Other Ending, no ending
5. The Other Ending was lost, leaving in circulation 16:9-20 and the version with no ending
6. In a region where 16:9-20 was unknown, the lack of an ending was felt as a defect and the shorter ending was added.
7. The surviving endings (longer, shorter, no ending) combined to produce the current mix of manuscripts.
By comparison, here are the assumptions underlying the UBS assumption that 16:9-20 are simply an addition:
1. Mark came to end, either deliberately or accidentally, at 16:8
2. The lack of an ending was felt in at least two distinct places, resulting in the independent creation of two different endings, 16:9-20 and the Shorter Ending
3. The surviving endings (longer, shorter, no ending) combined to produce the current mix of manuscripts.
Snapp's reconstruction requires seven steps. The UBS version requires three (arguably four, if you count the Longer and Shorter Endings as separate creations). Snapp's reconstruction also involves a version which has been completely lost (except for debatable parallels such as the Gospel of Peter and Tatian's Diatessaron). Snapp disagrees vigorously with he considers the list of assumptions, but this is how I slice it; parsimony argues very strongly against the assumption of canonicity for 16:9-20.
Like most canons of criticism, the most parsimonious explanation is not guaranteed to be correct. And it must be examined in light of the textual evidence. But the mere act of trying to identify one's assumptions, and seeing if any can be dispensed with, has shown itself to be an immensely powerful tool in the sciences; I suspect it will in textual criticism also.

Errors are more likely at the end of a line than a beginning. This rule is unattributed; I found it in an uncredited essay in Vincent McCarren and Douglas Moffat, A Guide to Editing Middle English (p. 309). I suspect this is especially true of poetry, where a scribe would read a whole line, then attempt to copy it, and forget more as he approached the end of the line. But if there is solid evidence behind this criterion, I have not seen it.

Finally, never forget Murphy's Law of Textual Criticism: If you can imagine an error, a scribe has probably made it. (For that matter, scribes have made a lot of errors you can't imagine.) To put it another way: Never underestimate the sleepiness of scribes. Scribes who work long hours inevitably get tired, and as they reach the close of the day their vigilance will wane. (Zuntz thought he observed this in 𝔓46 in Hebrews, and I see signs of it in C3 throughout the New Testament. Students of Egyptian texts often found that the scrolls they were reading were much less accurate as they approached the end.) The result can be hilarious errors. Perhaps the most famous is found Luke's genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:23-38). In codex 109, the genealogy was copied from an exemplar where the genealogy was written in two columns. The scribe of 109 converted this into one -- without observing the gap between the columns! As a result, instead of God standing at the head of the list, the ancestor of all is Phares and God is the son of Aram. It is possible that the strange version of the Parable of the Two Sons (Matt. 21:28-31) found in D lat is also the result of such a stupid error. Confronted with two versions of the story (one in which the first son went and the other in which the second did so), a very early "Western" copyist corrected one form part way toward the other -- and wound up with the absurd conclusion that the son who refused to work was the one who did his father's bidding! This rule needs always to be kept in mind in assessing criteria such as "the harder reading."

We find another curious example from an Anglo-Norman manuscript of sermons by Robert de Greatham. Charlton Laird (The Miracle of Language, pp. 185-186) tells this story: "The scribe who copied the manuscript finished a line which ended in a form of peché (sin). Whether or not this particular scribe had some Freudian interest in sin, when he flicked his eyes back to the manuscript he was copying from he hit upon another peché which was the last word in the seventh line previous. Accordingly, he copied the same seven lines twice.... No two of these lines agree. Here was the same scribe, with the same [original], who copied the same passage twice within a quarter hour, and he does not produce one single line which is identical in both copies. Nor is he consistent in his own spelling of common words."

Always look to see what errors a scribe could have made!

How to Use the Canons of Criticism

Let's start with a general warning: Keep in mind that the use of every canon listed here is subjective, but the use of the internal canons is especially subjective. If you decide to print the reading that is supported by the majority of BℵD, you at least have a predictable text. But as A. T. Robertson writes, "The rule of 'it seems to me' (δοκεῖ μοι) is the one that comes first and is the worst of all." Warfield wrote, "It is easy to become an improver instead of remaining a simple editor, and it is often very difficult not to make an author speak our thoughts, if not even our own language." Similarly, Robertson warns, "[I]ntrinsic evidence has more negative value than positive force. In actual use... external evidence of the documents is appealed to first , then internal evidence.... [T]ranscriptional evidence should come before intrinsic evidence" (Introduction to Textual Criticism, pp. 164-166.) Put another way, start with the most objective rules you can, then move to the most subjective only when the objective fails. History is littered with editors who thought they knew better than their sources, and produced editions which no one will touch.

That said, different scholars apply the canons very differently. Some place most of the weight on external criteria; others on internal. Some analyse readings starting with internal criteria, others with external. In other words, people have different rules for using the rules! [*6]

An article such as this cannot, or at least should not, tell you what to do. But it might be appropriate to describe how some editors approach the problem.

Eldon Jay Epp, in the essay "Traditional 'Canons' of New Testament Textual Criticism: Their Value, Validity, and Viability -- Or Lack Thereof," in Wachtel & Holmes, editors, The Textual History of the Greek New Testament: Changing Views in Contemporary Research, Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, p. 104, suggests a sort of super-criterion that we might paraphrase as "that reading which has the support of most other criteria is best." In other words, if one reading seems better in the light of one criterion (say, it is the shortest reading), but another is supported by many more (say, it is found in the oldest witnesses, is found in the most diverse witnesses, and could give rise to the other reading due to an easy error), the reading with the support of many criteria is better than the one supported by just one. I don't really consider this a criterion, even though Epp puts it in his list; it's merely a logical tool for examining the evidence. While we may not agree on our canons, surely we would agree that the reading which is supported by the preponderance of the criteria (among the criteria we accept, and perhaps weighting some canons above others) should be preferred! So let's get down to a more detailed method.

As the least of all textual critics, I will describe my method next. If the textual tradition has a Lachmannian stemma (as many classical works do, and as Stephen Carlson has managed for Galatians and 1 Peter), I start with that. For the rest of the New Testament, where that is not possible. I begin by looking at text-types. If all early text-types (of which there may be as many as four or five) agree, then I am done. If, however, the early text-types disagree, then I shift to examining the variant. If there are multiple readings, I attempt to construct a local stemma. (In doing so, we should note, the evidence of the number of types is very important. If one type has a certain reading, and all the others have a different reading, the more common reading is much more probable.) If a local stemma can be constructed successfully, this resolves the variant. If no certain stemma can be constructed, I adopt the variant supported by the most text-types; if the types are evenly split, and only then, do I turn to the earliest/best type.

Hort's method (as reflected in the edition of Westcott & Hort) was basically similar, except that he had only two early text-types, and one of them (the "Western") was very bad. So Hort frequently was constructing stemma within the Alexandrian text, or simply setting aside the "Western" reading and adopting the text of B. Hort did not list canons of criticism as such, although he stressed the role of "intrinsic probability" (what the authors had written) and "transcriptional probability" (what scribes did with it) -- i.e. he was looking at internal and external rules; he just didn't call them "canons." His summary of the causes and nature of errors is still relevant today.

The Alands stress the importance of "local genealogy" (the stemma of the various texts in a variant).[7] As described, this is basically what is called "radical eclecticism" -- internal evidence is everything, and the manuscripts are nothing. It is interesting to note, however, that their text very much resembles Hort's. In effect, they were bound by manuscripts as much as he was (note how many of the Alands' "Twelve Basic Rules for Textual Criticism," rather than being true canons of criticism, simply stress the importance of manuscripts, or are truisms -- e.g. "only one reading can be original"). One suspects that they felt that the local stemma had to be inferred from the manuscript evidence -- which makes a great deal of sense. It's just not what they actually described. It is, however, a very important component in the Coherence Based Genealogical Method.

Von Soden's approach was genealogical in another sense. He tended to work based on the majority-of-text-types, after making allowances for corruptions (e.g. from Tatian and Marcion) and for harmonizations. His method, whatever its theoretical merits, was badly flawed by his imperfect text-types and his inadequate knowledge of the sources he blamed for corruptions.

Harry Sturz's proposed approach (which did not result in a complete text) is to print the reading found in the majority of text-types (Alexandrian, Byzantine, "Western"), with little or no attention to internal criteria. He made no attempt to seek other text-types, so his method is arguably very dated. Since the Byzantine text, in the gospels, agrees with the other two more often than they agree with each other, his gospel text appears to be strongly Byzantine.

Also Byzantine are the texts of Hodges & Farstad and Pierpont & Robinson, both of which accept the Byzantine Majority text as original and apply various criteria to restore that text.

The "rigorous eclectic" school of Kilpatrick and Elliot gives almost all its attention to internal criteria. Although it is not entirely true, as some have charged, that they only use manuscripts as sources of variant readings, it is certainly true that they resolve most variants based entirely on internal criteria, and will accept readings with minimal manuscript attestation.

B. Weiss theoretically used techniques similar to those of the "rigorous eclectics," based primarily on internal criteria and with especial focus on suitable readings and those appropriate to the author's style. In practice, however, he came to rely rather heavily on B as the best manuscript (and so produced a text with significant similarities to Westcott and Hort).

Tischendorf's approach was in some ways similar; most of his criteria were based on internal evidence (though he stressed that readings needed to be found in old manuscripts). It is not too surprising that the text of his eighth edition (his ultimate work) heavily favored his personal discovery, ℵ.

The method used in the first twenty-five editions of the Nestle-Aland text need hardly be discussed here, since it was based exclusively on earlier published texts. It was consensus text of Westcott & Hort, Tischendorf, and Weiss (after the third edition).

Lachmann printed the text found in the majority of the early manuscripts. His text therefore fluctuated badly depending on which manuscripts survived for a given passage.

A. T. Robertson gave an actual checklist. First determine the number of (significant) readings. Then appeal to external evidence, starting with classes, then groups, then individual manuscripts. Then turn to internal evidence, starting with transcriptional probability, then checking that the reading makes sense. It truly could be done mechanically -- except that Robertson's classes and groups are not properly defined and are not correctly linked with individual manuscripts. (Plus he accepts everythint that Hort said, even when out of date.)

So how does one decide what method to use, and which canons to emphasize? Despite the words of Michael Holmes,[*8] that still remains very much up to the reader. Perhaps this piece will give you a slightly fuller menu to choose from.


1. Von Mästricht's 1711 edition -- arguably the first to include rules for criticism -- listed forty-three canons! Most of these are not what we would today call "criteria"; they are observations about (often attacks on) scribes, or methods for deciding what is or is not a variant. But they are historically important, since both Wettstein and Bengel were influenced by them.
It should be noted, however, that the first real study of textual criticism from the modern standpoint is that of Wilhelm Canter in 1566. Syntagma de ratione emendandi scriptores Graecos outlined many classes of errors, and probably influenced Bengel at least.
The best summary of the history of criteria is probably Eldon J. Epp, "The Eclectic Method in New Testament Textual Criticism: Solution or Symptom," printed in Eldon J. Epp and Gordon D. Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism (Studies and Documents 45, Eerdmans, 1993). The extensive section on canons of criticism begins onpage 144. The history shows clearly how much of the theory of criticism goes back to Bengel; see especially the summary on page 148. [back]

2. If you want an example, consider this: I learned to add starting in first grade. Thus I was doing arithmetic, following a specific rule, when I was six years old. It was not until I was a junior in college that I was first exposed to what mathematicians call "The Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic" (that each number has a unique prime factorization). Thus I learned the specific rules a decade and a half before I learned the general rule. And, to this date, I have never used the Fundamental Theorem of arithmetic. [back]

3. The list given here is compiled from a variety of modern manuals, most of which list only the critical canons accepted and used by that particular author -- if they list canons at all. This list attempts to show all the canons the various authors use, whether I approve of them or not. The list of works consulted includes Hammond, Metzger (both the Introduction and the Textual Commentary), Vaganay/Amphoux, Kenyon, Aland & Aland, Black, Lake, and Greenlee, as well as a variety of special studies, most particularly by Epp and Colwell. I also looked at several Old Testament commentaries, and of course the book by Pickering cited below. Not all of these books list canons of criticism (indeed, some such as Lake hardly even mention the use of internal criteria); in these cases I have tried to reconstruct from the examples or from miscellaneous comments. It will be noted that some of these rules are closely associated with classical textual criticism, but that others are unique or nearly unique. For example, New Testament criticism does not rely upon manuscript stemma to the extent that classical studies do. This is largely due to the massive numbers of Biblical manuscripts (among Classical sources, only Homer is within an order of magnitude of the number of NT sources), which make true genealogical studies very difficult. [back]

4. Wilbur N. Pickering, The Identity of the New Testament Text (Nelson, 1977), p. 134. On pages 129-138, Pickering offers the first modern support for Burgon's seven "Notes of truth" -- criteria by which a reading is determined to be original. These are:

  1. Antiquity, or primitiveness -- which to Pickering means that an original reading must be found before the Middle Ages (!).
  2. Consent of witnesses, or number ("a reading attested by only a few witnesses is unlikely to be genuine").
  3. Variety of evidence, or Catholicity (witnesses from many different areas).
  4. Continuity, or Unbroken Tradition ("A reading, to be a serious candidate for the original, should be attested throughout the ages of transmission, from beginning to end.... If a reading died out in the fourth or fifth century we have the verdict of history against it. If a reading has no attestation before the twelfth century, it is certainly a late invention.")
  5. Respectability of witnesses, or weight. (Note that Pickering, in offering this criterion, adds "The oldest manuscripts can be objectively, statistically shown to be habitual liars, witnesses of very low character...." Since Pickering can be demonstrated to have about as much understanding of statistics as the average lungfish, one must wonder how seriously to take his comments here.)
  6. Evidence of the Entire Passage, or Context (referring not to internal evidence but to how reliable a particular manuscript is in a particular section of the text).
  7. Internal considerations, or reasonableness (Pickering applies this only to readings which are "grammatically, logically, geographically, or scientifically impossible," and gives as an example Luke 19:45, where he apparently prefers "The sun was darkened" to "the sun was eclipsed"; Pickering cites four other examples, but in none of them was I able to determine which reading he preferred and why.)

It will be noted that all of Burgon's "Notes" except #4 (the canon to which this note refers) are accepted by other textual critics -- but generally applied in very different ways! If Pickering's version of Burgon's criteria were applied consistently, then the search for "the original text" would be nothing more than an examination of the Kx recension. Kx is, by Pickering's standard, old (the earliest manuscript, E/07, dates from the eighth century); it is always the majority reading (according to Frederik Wisse, The Profile Method for Classifying and Evaluating Manuscript Evidence, Studies & Documents 44, Eerdmans, 1982, 53% of the manuscripts of Luke are Kx at least in part); its sheer bulk ensures its "catholicity," "continuity," and "weight," and -- by virtue of being Byzantine, and therefore relatively easy -- its readings are "reasonable." [back]

5. Bart D. Ehrman, "The Text as Window: New Testament Manuscripts and the Social History of Early Christianity," printed in Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes, eds, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research (Studies and Documents 46, Eerdmans, 1995), p. 366. [back]

6. Eldon J. Epp (in "Decision Points in New Testament Textual Criticism," printed in Epp and Gordon D. Fee, Studies in the Theory and Practice of New Testament Textual Criticism (Studies and Documents 45, Eerdmans, 1993)), pp. 39-42, speaks of "The Crisis of Criteria," and even goes so far as to describe the present use of "reasoned eclecticism" as a "cease-fire" between the proponents of internal and external criteria (p. 40). This obviously implies an earlier state that was nearly a shooting war.... [back]

7. Kurt Aland & Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament (translated by Erroll F. Rhodes, 2nd Edition, Eerdmans, 1989), p. 281, item 8 -- and elsewhere. [back]

8. "In short, reasoned eclecticism is not a passing interim method; it is the only way forward. As long as our subject matter is, to paraphrase Housman, the human mind and its disobedient servants, the fingers, hopes for a more objective method will remain an impossible dream." Michael W. Holmes, "Reasoned Eclecticism in New Testament Textual Criticism," printed in Ehrman and Holmes, p. 349. [back]