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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Impact of New Materials

The growth of mercantile dealings between England and the Levant was accompanied by political and cultural interests, and these had their effect on New Testament manuscript studies. To the seventeenth century we owe the expansion of those manuscript collections which were in time to flow into the holdings of the British Library and of Bodley. One of the most dramatic first fruits of this was the gift by the patriarch of Alexandria to King Charles I of the Codex Alexandrinus, a copy of the entire Bible that had been produced in the fifth century. While in the gospels this manuscript represents an early form of the Byzantine Text, elsewhere it contains a purer text. But even in the gospels there was much that was new to excite the scholar. Along with the exploration of the east went linguistic opportunities, and thus further study of the versions. The most splendid achievement in this respect was Brian Walton's Polyglot, published in London between 1654 and 1657. It contains the New Testament in Greek, Latin (the Vulgate and a modern version), Syriac, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Persian (only in the gospels).

The study of one of the most important of the early versions soon received an important boost. The Latin text of the New Testament had undergone as many changes in the manuscript copying as had the Greek. It became clear that there were early materials quite different from the Vulgate. The latter is associated with the name of Jerome, who undertook a translation in 382. In fact, what he did was to revise one of the many existing versions of the gospels. He does not seem to have translated, or rather, revised, any other part of the New Testament. What is known as the Vulgate was a collection of various other Old Latin versions of the rest of the New Testament into association with Jerome's gospels. The study and collection of the pre-Jerome versions is associated with the name of Pierre Sabatier (1682–1742), a French scholar who was one of the Benedictine scholars known as the Maurists. He edited all the material then known, in three volumes published posthumously. Only in recent years has his work been superseded.

To the generation after Walton belongs one of the most important figures in this account. John Mill (1645–1707), Fellow of Queen's College, Oxford, devoted 30 years of his life to collating manuscripts and versions. ‘To collate’ in this connection means to compare a witness with a base text, and to record all divergencies from it. In 1707, two weeks before his death, his great edition appeared. It brought together, for the first time, the materials then available for reconstructing a text older than the received text. Mill did not in fact print a new text. What he did was to print the received text, recording beneath it all the variants which he had collected. It has been stated that he collected 30,000 variant readings. In addition, he wrote a long introduction in which the principle witnesses were discussed, and the problems described.

Courtesy The Queen's College, Oxford.

The reaction was violent. Even though Mill had printed the received text, the very fact that he listed variations from it was regarded by many as playing into the hands of Latitudinarians, Deists, and Atheists, as threatening the historical truth of Christianity, and as providing the materials for proving the New Testament not to be the dictated Word of God. Textual criticism was suspect. Certainly, people had got used to the idea that the familiar printed text was the original text. To be told that this text might be a corruption of what the evangelists and apostles had written, and to hear that the church had not preserved this text incorruptible from the very beginning, were ideas that many preferred to fight than to consider. Such was the weight of opposition, with the accusation of heresy and the threat of ejection, that it was to be a century before scholars dared to do more than to print the received text and to express their own preferences in the margin.

This was precisely the course of action followed by J. A. Bengel (1687–1752), who published an edition in 1734. Disturbed by Mill's huge collection of variations between the witnesses, Bengel carefully studied them all. He reached the conclusion that no article of doctrine was affected by them. But even this orthodox and conservative conclusion did not protect him from severe criticism. He was marked as a dangerous man. It was not simply the conclusions, it was even the practice of textual criticism of which at least some churchmen disapproved. The concept of a verbally inspired and infallible text had become too dear to Protestantism for the harsh light of textual reality to be tolerable. However, times were to change.

But it was not only to the theologian that Mill's apparatus criticus (the name given to the collection of variants at the bottom of each page) presented a challenge. There were also many problems for the textual critic. Nevertheless, the weakness of the received text became quite clear. Particularly, the significance of the frequent agreement of early manuscripts and versions against was appreciated. On the whole, the agreement of early witnesses against the received text was noted more frequently than their disagreement with one another. In the case of the bilingual manuscripts Bezae and Claromontanus, Mill argued that the idiosyncrasies of their Greek columns were the consequence of the influence of the Latin, thus finding an argument which would explain the degree of difference, enabling one to posit a purer base text essentially in common with other early witnesses.

The principles of Richard Bentley (1662–1742), probably the greatest English critic of any age, also emphasize the agreement of the oldest manuscripts. For the gospels there were now four regarded as pre-eminent. Two of them have been described—codices Alexandrinus and Bezae. A third, Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (so called because the manuscript was re-used to copy some works of Ephraem), contains the entire Bible. Copied in the fifth century, it is one of the leading witnesses to the New Testament text. The fourth, Codex Vaticanus, was still imperfectly known, although its value was recognized. It will be described at a later point. Bentley also used a manuscript in Cambridge of the ninth century, Codex Augiensis, which contains the epistles of Paul in Greek with a Latin translation. He recognized its value, although the full story of its text has only been unravelled in recent years. It is a later representative of the text first known from Codex Claromontanus. Bentley believed that the oldest and best Greek and Latin manuscripts agreed with each other, and that this was the original text. He was not the first scholar to explore this possibility, but he was probably the most influential. He was right, to the extent that the Vulgate, particularly in the gospels, is modelled on a Greek text similar to some of the old Greek manuscripts known to Bentley.

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