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Mark 4:8: External Evidence Part I: Textual Criticism is not a Textual Democracy

September 26, 2008

Textual critics use two types of evidence to form their opinions on variants: external and internal evidence.

External evidence refers, most generally, to the age and pedigree of the manuscripts that attest to a certain reading, while internal evidence refers to aspects of a text’s contents.

When examining internal evidence, textual critics may ask questions such as “which variant reading is most compatible with the author’s style,” “what errors (e.g., misspelling, scrambling similar words, mixing up similar words from different lines of a page) did the scribe of this manuscript often make,” and “could the scribe have had an intentional motive for changing a word?”

For now, let’s examine the external evidence for Mark 4:8. Recall this chart from the last post.

Manuscripts present three different options for the word “abounding.” In the far left column, I listed “important witnesses” for each reading; these are well-known manuscripts, many of which have relatively early dates.

If you looked at a list of readings for Mark 4:8 and the manuscript evidence that supported each reading, you would notice that auxanomena has very few witnesses, auxanomenon has slightly more witnesses, and auxanonta has the most witnesses.

A temptation exists to endorse the reading that has the most witnesses. A valuable lesson in textual criticism, however, is that multiplicity of witnesses does not ensure accurate preservation.

Infamous textual critical scholars, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort helpfully explained this maxim in the late 1800s. Consider their hypothetical scenario.

A certain text has 10 manuscripts which differ with respect to a certain word. 9 manuscripts endorse reading X, while only 1 manuscript endorses reading Y. If we take a democratic approach to this reading, the 9 agreeing manuscripts inevitably win. What if, however, we knew that 8 of the group of 9 manuscripts all derived from 1 member of the group?

Through characteristics of the rest of the text, we can detect genealogical relationships between manuscripts. In this scenario above, if 8 texts descended from one, then we no longer have 9 manuscripts versus 1 manuscript. We have 1 manuscript versus 1 manuscript.

Thus with Mark 4:8, auxanonta does not receive any special treatment because it has many witnesses. Also, auxanomenon is not to be preferred over auxanomena simply because it has more witnesses. Rather the quality of the witnesses must be assessed.

The next post in this series will continue to look at external evidence for Mark 4:8 by discussing manuscript quality.

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