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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 Advent of Palaeography

The rapid growth of the number of known manuscripts, brought about principally by explorations and cataloguings in European libraries, led towards the end of the seventeenth century to the formation of a discipline that is indispensable to the analysis of texts: palaeography, the study of the development and character of handwriting. Two French scholars were responsible for this development. The first was Bernard de Montfaucon (1655–1741), the second Jean Mabillon (1632–1707). They provided the essential prerequisites: the classification of hands into different types, an explanation of the relationship between these types, and an account of the development of each. The oldest New Testament manuscript to contain a colophon explicitly stating its date was finished on 7 May 835. Without such information, although there is sometimes some sort of indirect evidence, it is almost invariably necessary to use the handwriting as a means of dating. In this science, Montfaucon and Mabillon led the way. Although there were errors—generally, out of proper caution, dating tended to be rather late than early—subsequent advances have confirmed that the first framework was sound. The classification of hands into different types, principally for Greek writing the two types of majuscule (the precursors of upper-case letters) and minuscule (from which modern lower case is ultimately derived) is basic. The former was the principal book hand down to the eighth/ninth centuries, when the latter took over.

Today European and indeed world-wide travel is an easy matter. In the eighteenth century it was not. The great scholar J. J. Wettstein (1693–1754) did his travelling in his youth, and spent the rest of his life examining the materials which he had gathered, and discussing it with correspondents, on whom he relied for further information. In spite of the obstacles—how often one had not noted information which twenty years later appeared vital, how easy it was to be misled by second-hand information—Wettstein's edition (1751–2) provided a wealth of information. Besides the variant readings, the linguistic and intellectual parallels which he noted have made his work a treasure house for generations.

The work of Bentley, Bengel, and Wettstein show two important developments in the way in which manuscripts and their texts were studied. The first was the first coherent steps towards giving a history of how the texts had changed. Bentley noted the ways in which fourth- and fifth-century manuscripts were different from those copied later. Bengel was able to compare enough manuscripts to place them in two groups, the Asiatic and the African. The details of his scheme have long proved unsatisfactory, but the concept has become basic. In particular, the recognition that different texts circulated in different parts of the early Christian world (perhaps the genetic comparison of a particular subspecies of plant or animal developing in a particular area will explain the idea) has been of great importance.

The second area was the development of rules, ‘canons’, for determining how to choose between two or more variant readings. For example, Bengel articulated the rule that ‘the difficult reading should be preferred to the easy one’. The point is that a scribe or a reader would be more likely to replace what was written with what they thought should have been written, in places where the author was in some way obscure. To Wettstein we owe the rule that ‘manuscripts must be evaluated by their significance, not their number’. That is, one does not prefer the reading supported by the greater number of witnesses. For the greater number of manuscripts may all be descended from a single copy that was wrong at this point, while the few manuscripts which oppose it may be derived from one which was here correct.

The century that followed was significant above all in the printing of editions to replace the Received Text. First came Bowyer's text of 1763. William Bowyer (1699–1777), a London scholar-printer, put Wettstein's preferences (which he had only indicated in the margin) into the text, and provided more changes of his own where he found better readings in the manuscripts. In addition, he placed a number of suspected interpolations in square brackets, such as John 7: 53–8: 11 , the doxology of the Lord's Prayer in Matthew, and those verses in 1 John 5 which Erasmus had reinserted. Edward Harwood (1729–94) followed in 1776 with an even bolder text. He printed the text of three manuscripts: Codex Bezae for the gospels and Acts, Codex Claromontanus for Paul, and Codex Alexandrinus for the rest.

Bengel's theory of groups was further developed by J. S. Semler (1725–91), who identified three in his contribution to the discipline, an expanded edition of Wettstein's introduction (1764). It was now clearly recognized that what had been named the western recension by Semler was very distinctive, against the Alexandrian and eastern texts. The claim that this Western Text is consistently better than the other two has been upheld by some people ever since. But the majority of scholars were becoming aware of the virtues of the Alexandrian witnesses. This trend was encouraged by the researches of J. J. Griesbach (1745–1812), who gave these three text-types their common names Alexandrian, Western, and Byzantine. Griesbach was also the first scholar to show how three types of evidence might be used in recovering each of these three text-types: Greek manuscripts, early versions, and Fathers. Thus, his materials for reconstructing the Alexandrian text included various majuscule and minuscule manuscripts, translations into Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, and Syriac, and quotations from the New Testament in the writings of Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, Cyril of Alexandria, and Isidore of Pelusium. It was the evident Alexandrian location of some of these writers, together with the Coptic, that most strongly justified the name of the text-type. The place of Alexandria in the ancient world as a centre for the preservation, study, and copying of classical texts added weight to the claim.

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