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Mark 4:8: An Introduction to Textual Criticism

September 22, 2008

Mark 4:8, part of the parable of the sower/seeds, presents an intriguing textual critical case. A literal translation of the verse reads, “And others fell among the good ground and gave fruit growing up and abounding ….”

The question copyists wrestled with was to what do the verbs “growing up” and “abounding” refer? Two nouns emerge as options: “others” and “fruit.”

Because of the forms of “others,” “fruit,” and “growing up,” the word “growing up” could actually modify either word. So, at face value, “growing up” could be modifying the seeds that fell on the good ground or the fruit these seeds bare. (Maybe the color-coded chart below will help.)

 

The word “abounding” has appeared in different forms in different manuscripts. Some scribes show which word they believe “growing up” refers to by their choice of the form for “abounding.” The chart below demonstrates (notice the consistent color-coordination).

We have quite a puzzle here. Of course, the main point of the passage does not hinge on what reading is original. As in most textual critical cases in the New Testament, no major doctrine is in jeopardy with what variant we consider original. However, having some confidence about the original can add a slight nuance to the passage.

Over the next few posts, I will feebly attempt an introduction to the science of textual criticism with this variant. We will see some key principles that, when applied to the case of Mark 4:8, grant some clarity.

Readers may wonder, “what in the world does this have to do with church history?” Textual criticism explores the history of the New Testament text, and it is this very text by which Christ has regeneratively washed his bride, the church (Eph 5:26). Furthermore, textual criticism has been an important discipline in the history of the church and is becoming a vital apologetic tool in Christianity’s current conflict with Western culture. 

And, if nothing else, at least we will have a better understanding for the painstaking scholarship behind our tiny ESV footnotes: “Some manuscripts read . . . .”

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