Textual Optimism: A Critique of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament

Textual Optimism: A Critique of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament

Rhodes, James N

KENT D. CLARKE, Textual Optimism: A Critique of the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament (JSNTSup 138; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997). Pp. 350. 47.50, $70.

Clarke advances a single thesis. He seeks to demonstrate that in the critical apparatus of the fourth edition of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (UBSGNT4) “a remarkable change” has been introduced in the letter ratings of a large number of variants, especially in comparison with earlier editions of the UBSGNT (p. 13). C. first offers a brief account of the foundational work of Wescott and Hort and assesses the extent to which NT textual critics, those responsible for the text of the UBSGNT in particular, stand within the tradition of Wescott and Hort. He then discusses the text in the editions of the UBSGNT in turn and notes the distinct features of each in comparison with its predecessor, as well as in comparison with the NestleAland text.

In the rest of the book he assesses the extent to which the UBSGNT4 departs from its predecessors, with many higher letter ratings assigned in its textual apparatus, an implication of greater confidence in the published text. C. compares the distribution of variant letter ratings (A-D) for each NT book with that in previous editions of the UBSGNT and finds that in nearly all cases the UBSGNT4 evinces a substantial increase in variants rated A and a significant reduction in variants previously rated D. The total number of variants rated A in the UBSGNT4 jumps from 126 in the previous edition to 514, while variants rated D fall from 144 to 9, despite the fact that the total number of variants treated is roughly equal ( 1431 in the fourth edition, 1444 in the corrected third edition). The “optimism” reflected in the fourth edition also adds to the problem of “exceptional variants.” The author defines “exceptional variants” as variants whose letter ratings have repeatedly fluctuated in an irregular fashion, or, more often, as variants whose ratings have shifted at least two letter grades (usually upward).

Clarke pursues several possible explanations for the upgraded letter ratings of the UBSGNT4. These include changes in the passages included in the textual apparatus, the addition of new manuscript witnesses, the increasing influence of specific manuscripts or groups of manuscripts, and the redefinition of letter ratings. He concludes that these explanations cannot account for the extensive upgrading. The addition and deletion of passages represented in the apparatus of the UBSGNT4 can account for only a small portion of its upgraded letter ratings: of the 514 variants rated A in the fourth edition, 346 are variants that have appeared in earlier editions. However, no previous edition contained a total of more than 136 variants. C. suspects that an increasing reliance on the papyri and the further marginalization of the Byzantine text have exerted some impact, but he judges that no new evidence has emerged significant enough to account for the extent of the upgrading present in the UBSGNT4.

Moreover, the redefinition of letter ratings raises more questions than it answers. In previous editions of the UBSGNT the letter A identified a reading as “virtually certain,” and the letters B, C, and D signified, respectively, that there was “some doubt,” “considerable doubt,” or “a very high degree of doubt” about the selected reading. In the UBSGNT4 the ratings A and B have been redefined as “certain,” and “almost certain,” while ratings C and D denote that the committee had “difficulty” or “great difficulty” in reaching a decision. C. faults the United Bible Societies’ committee for failing to explain how these new definitions are applied in practice. For example, is a rating of “almost certain” (B) the equivalent of “virtually certain” (A in previous editions)? Or is “almost certain” simply a rephrasing of “some degree of doubt” (B in previous editions)? C. notes that if a greater level of certainty is intended by the new definitions, such rigor should decrease the total number of variants rated A and B.

Clarke calls upon the editorial committee to provide a more detailed explanation of the methodology that has led to the edition’s upgraded letter ratings. The most impressive aspect of C.’s book is its extensive documentation. Taking into account all editions of the UBSGNT, C. tracks the letter ratings assigned to each variant passage, summarizes the distribution of letter ratings in each NT book, and categorizes the nature (upgrade or downgrade) and extent of fluctuation in letter rating (one, two, or three steps) in each book. Appendixes correlate the citation of specific textual witnesses with the assignment of letter ratings in selected portions of the NT.

While the documentation alone will secure a place for this monograph in the libraries of seminaries and graduate schools, its narrow focus will tend to limit its use to those who regularly work with the text of the UBSGNT especially translators and scholars accustomed to using its apparatus as a teaching tool for beginning students. Nevertheless, we may all thank the author for highlighting the need for further clarification of the methodology underlying a textual tool that is used by so many students at some stage in their preparation.

James N. Rhodes, The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC 20064

Copyright Catholic Biblical Association of America Oct 1998

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