The idea of the “original text” of the Scriptures is a mirage. Instead, the Scriptures which make up the Christian Old and New Testaments represent a rich and diverse set of textual traditions. There has been a long history, when it comes to the nearly 6,000 New Testament manuscripts currently known to the scholarly world, of categorizing these texts according to geographical determines based on where they were found. This has produced the language of ‘text families’. Older works of textual criticism and study, and even some newer ones, make frequent reference to Byzantine, Alexandrian, Caesarean, and Western texts. Recent computer-based research has, in general, relativized if not invalidated these distinctions. Essentially, it is now being demonstrated that all of the extant manuscripts represent variations and stages of development within the Byzantine text tradition. The Byzantine text tradition is itself diverse and rich, not a superior or sacred set of manuscripts over against others whose geographical provenance might have negative associations for contemporary Orthodox Christians. This post and those which immediately follow will discuss different areas of that richness. In order to distinguish more easily between different versions of the text of Scripture, the old language of ‘families’ will be used in these posts. This should not be taken as a validation of those old paradigms, merely as the most useful shorthand way to refer to a particular version of the text over against others.
One of the areas of richness and diversity is the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, or rather, the two-volume work Luke-Acts composed by the single author, St. Luke. The text of Luke-Acts in the textual tradition actually represents two separate traditions. This is most clearly visible in the text of the Acts of the Apostles, which is roughly 8% longer in what is termed the ‘Western’ text. The text of the Gospel of Luke, however, likewise contains significant textual differences between the two forms of the text. The state of the Alexandrian text, reflected in early manuscripts from the areas in and around Egypt, of these books is generally regarded as the neutral text or base text. The Western text represents the other form of the text, and this version of the text is exemplified by Codex Bezae (D). Especially in the case of the significantly different text of Acts, these Western readings are also supported by a number of other papyri, versions, and quotations, as well as another set of manuscripts that contain at least significant elements of the Western text.
In these cases, where the text of the Gospel of Luke is also present, it follows Acts in either its Western character or its allegiance to the neutral text, making it legitimate to speak of a Western and neutral or Alexandrian text of Luke-Acts. Though it is broadly accepted based on textual evidence that Luke-Acts was composed as a two-volume work, the rise in popularity of the codex within Christian communities led to the gospels, at a relatively early stage (by AD 150), circulating together as a unit, which had the side effect of separating St. Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles in later textual transmission. Because of this transmission tendency, the earlier the stage of the text, the more closely the texts of Luke and Acts will be linked, and vice versa. This means that connecting themes in the Western or Alexandrian forms of Luke-Acts will constitute an important step in demonstrating that the variants involve stem from an early stage of differentiation between the two texts, rather than later transmission.
The Western and Alexandrian texts are chiefly distinguished by their length. The Western text of the Acts of the Apostles is longer than the Alexandrian, and the text of the Gospel of Luke has several significant passages beyond what is common to both texts. There are, however, also several cases in St. Luke’s Gospel where the Western text is shorter than that of the Alexandrian. Westcott and Hort, the great 19th-century textual critics of the New Testament, came to the conclusion that nine of these were actually “more original” than the longer Alexandrian text. They termed these the “Western non-interpolations” which awkward phrase was most likely generated by their unwillingness to propose that what they had established as the neutral text could then include interpolations itself.
Based on their presence in the papyri, the earliest fragmentary manuscripts on papyrus, these two forms of St. Luke’s Gospel reach back into the ancient period of the text. In addition, however, there is a third text which is of significance in comparing the two and understanding their relationship to one another. The text of Marcion’s gospel, though now lost in toto, does exist in excerpts in anti-Marcionite writing beginning in the second century. According to the attestation of these apologists, Marcion made use of a single gospel, as well as a compilation of the Pauline epistles. Marcion’s gospel is generally characterized as a form of St. Luke’s Gospel, though one which the anti-Marcionite party characterizes as having been heavily edited by way of redaction by Marcion himself. Marcion may be considered the first great heretic of Christian history and nearly every major father of the early Church, as well as numerous authors not considered Church Fathers, wrote against him.
Though the characterization of his opponents, that Marcion had radically deformed the texts which he utilized as authoritative, prevailed for centuries, more recent scholarship has argued that Marcion was actually faithfully reproducing a set of texts which he himself had received in that form. If this is the case, then the absence of certain textual elements uncovered in the debate was not the result of malice on the part of Marcion in removing them as they contradicted his theological ideas, but rather the result of another form of the Gospel of Luke lacking those elements holding authority in his community. The relationship of St. Luke’s Gospel in its early forms to Marcion’s gospel is a crucial element of understanding the reception history of the text, whether that relationship is direct, in the text of Marcion representing a stage in the history of one or the other form of the text, or merely one of influence, in one or the other form of the text representing a reaction to Marcion’s gospel.
The diversity of the “Western” and “Alexandrian” texts is not easily reducible to the primacy of one over the other in regard to originality. Even the characterization of the Western text as expansionist, as adding to an earlier, simpler form, does not hold uniformly true in significant instances. While our earliest extant copies of manuscripts in the Western category are from the sixth century while those categorized Alexandrian go back to the fourth, there are significant citations and fragments of Western elements dating back to the third century AD. The origins of these two textual traditions, as well as the third text of Marcion’s gospel, date to at least the early second century. Theories regarding their relative origins, how they may be genealogically related to one another, are conjecture into a historical fog. Suffice it to say that the Western and Alexandrian texts of St. Luke’s Gospel represent an example of the richness of the text in early Christian history, before the period of canonization and controlled manuscript reproduction.
Next week’s post will discuss a number of the variations between these two versions of St. Luke’s Gospel and the possible relationships between these variations and issues surrounding Marcion’s gospel. Once the quixotic quest for which version of the text, in all its details, represents “the original” is abandoned, a different world opens up within the variances of these ancient manuscripts. A window is opened into the earliest phases of the Christian understanding of the person of Jesus Christ and of the Gospels, as well as the gospel. Understanding these factors, in turn, reveals how the testimony of St. Luke himself is preserved within these manuscript traditions which bear his name.