TextThe Most Objective Textual Critic You’ll Ever Meet The evidence from stone and papyrus promises a better way to determine difficult elements of the Bible’s original text. Benjamin KantorIllustration by Peter GurryApril 4, 2023 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level For many of us, spelling was not our favorite subject in grade school. Getting up in front of class for the annual “spelling bee” filled us with dread. And yet, not all cultures and languages have “spelling bees” like English does. For many languages, in which the alphabet or script is essentially phonetic, a “spelling bee” would be quite boring. The reason it works in English is because the history of sound changes in the language has made correct spelling such a difficult thing to learn. In many ways, we can attribute the idea of “correct” spelling—at least as we moderns see it—to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1436. Before this monumental invention, and certainly in ancient times, spelling was much less standardized. While certain schools might teach spelling a certain way and general trends might develop, there was no standard or universal spelling for written documents across a region. Different scribes and authors often spelled the exact same words differently. The value of spelling In fact, the way that ancient scribes spelled words can provide a valuable window into the nature and quality of their work. I encountered this again and again as I worked through inscriptions and papyri while writing a book on the historical pronunciation and spelling of Judeo-Palestinian Greek coming out later this year. For the book, I analyzed and documented the spelling of every single word in roughly 4,500 inscriptions and papyri from the time of the New Testament, the centuries leading up to its composition, and the centuries following its completion. The research has yielded thousands upon thousands of various spelling interchanges in the ancient material. Dr. Kantor’s forthcoming book Why are variant spellings important? Aren’t they just mistakes? In some cases, a variant spelling can reflect something about how an ancient scribe was pronouncing a word, just like someone learning to write English might spell the word tough as t-u-f-f. Even though the spelling t-u-f-f is a kind of mistake, it also provides us helpful information about pronunciation. In other cases, certain spelling conventions can tell us something about the time or location of a scribe’s training the same way that the spelling colour points to an author who learned to write in British schools but color to an author who learned to write in the U.S. Indeed, in addition to providing us with a fairly clear idea of how Koine Greek was pronounced at the time of the New Testament, this research has also yielded a wealth of statistics regarding how different ancient scribes spelled words. In the roughly 4,500 inscriptions and papyri, every “correct” (i.e., standard) and “incorrect” (i.e., variant) spelling is documented and tabulated according to text, date, region, genre, and demographic of author. By looking at all these data together, we can draw conclusions about the pronunciation and spelling practices associated with scribes of particular times, regions, and genres. The most objective textual critic While all these data points are important, perhaps the most significant of them all for textual criticism concerns the date and chronology of certain spelling patterns attested in inscriptions written on stone, etc. (epigraphy) and in texts written on papyrus (papyri). After all, none of the extant fragments or manuscripts of the New Testament are from the first century AD. Nevertheless, we would expect the original readings of the New Testament to match scribal practices current in the first century AD. What we do have in abundance from the first century AD are Greek inscriptions and papyri unrelated to the New Testament. If New Testament textual criticism is ultimately about establishing the original text at the time of its composition, then it would be of great help to know what sort of spelling conventions were current among scribes writing inscriptions and papyri at the same time the New Testament was written. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: With all this information at our fingertips, we can eradicate some subjectivity from the work of textual criticism. Instead of making our best judgments regarding the “more difficult reading” (lectio difficilior), trying to determine which wording in a particular passage might be theologically motivated, or merely counting witnesses, we can use epigraphic and papyrological spelling as a sort of measuring stick to determine which witnesses best reflect the scribal conventions of the first century. Spelling conventions don’t get distorted through a modern lens. Spelling conventions aren’t (typically) motivated by theological or exegetical harmonization. In fact, the evidence shows that when copying biblical manuscripts, scribes tend to regularly update spelling conventions to match contemporary practice, even if it differs from that of the manuscript they are copying. This is why, with the right data at hand, epigraphic/papyrological spelling can become what I like to call the most objective textual critic you’ll ever meet. In the remainder of this article, we will look at a couple of examples where a comparison with ancient spelling conventions attested in contemporary epigraphy and papyri can help clarify some text-critical issues. The name “John” in P45 (3rd c.). CBL BP I, fol. 16r. Spelling John’s name In critical editions of the New Testament, you will find the name “John” spelled with two nus (i.e., νν) as ἰωάννης. This is probably because most early witnesses have the name spelled with two nus. There is, however, considerable variation in the witnesses. Here are just some examples: ἰωάννηςἰωάνηςP66(2nd/3rd c. AD)ϊωαννης (John 1:6)ϊω[α]ννης (John 10:41)P4(3rd c. AD)ϊωαννης (Luke 3:16)ιωανου (Luke 3:15)[ιω]ανου (Luke 5:33)ϊωανην (Luke 6:14)P45(3rd c. AD)[ιω]αννην (Luke 9:28)ιωαννης (Luke 9:49)ϊωαννης (John 10:40)P75(3rd c. AD)ϊωανει (Luke 7:18)ϊωανης (Luke 7:20)ϊωανης (John 1:6)P106(3rd c. AD)ιωαννου (John 1:42)Codex Vaticanus(4th c. AD)ϊωαννης (Luke 1:60)ϊωαννης (Acts 4:6)ϊωανης (Matt. 3:4)ϊωανης (Mark 1:4)ϊωανης (Luke 3:16)ϊωανης (John 1:15)ϊωανης (Acts 1:5)Codex Sinaiticus(4th c. AD)ϊωαννης (Matt. 3:4)ϊωαννης (Mark 1:4)ϊωαννης (Luke 3:16)ϊωαννης (John 1:15)ϊωαννης (Acts 1:5)Codex Washingtonianus(4th/5th c. AD)ϊωαννης (Matt. 3:1)ϊωαννης (Luke 1:60)ϊωαννης (John 1:6)Spelling of the name “John” in 2nd–5th c. manuscripts It should also be added that the form ιωαννης is much more common in witnesses of a later date, which are not included here. It would seem, then, that most critical editions opt for the form with two nus (ιωαννης) based on the frequency of its attestation and distribution across early witnesses. Nevertheless, there is seemingly enough evidence for one to make an argument for either of the forms. The manuscripts aren’t sufficient to decide with confidence. If we take a look at the attestations of this name in the ancient epigraphic and papyrological record, however, the picture becomes much clearer. As can be seen from the chart below, spellings with a single ν are far more common in the first and second centuries, whereas spellings with a double νν are far more common from the third century AD and later: 1st c. BC/AD2nd c. AD3rd c. AD or laterιωανης7 (100%)20 (95%)23 (13%)ιωαννης0 (0%)1 (5%)149 (87%)Spelling of “John” in the epigraphical and papyrological record These statistics by themselves may be sufficient to give preference to the spelling ιωανης for the original text of the New Testament, at least in some of its occurrences. The reason why we have two different forms, however, requires further explanation. Although there isn’t space to deal with the topic in depth here,1See §126.96.36.199.X in The Pronunciation of New Testament Greek for the full linguistic discussion. we may outline the basic conclusions. The name ιωανης with a single nu probably goes back to the Hebrew name יוחנן yōḥānān, whereas the name ιωαννης with a double nu may reflect something more closely related to the Aramaic name יוחנה yōḥannā. It would make sense, then, that the more “Hebrew” name is reflected in earlier texts, when Hebrew was still a spoken language, and the more “Aramaic” name is reflected in later texts, when Aramaic had completely displaced Hebrew as the vernacular. However we explain the different forms, this example shows just how helpful the spelling conventions of contemporary inscriptions and papyri can be in sorting through text-critical issues in the New Testament. And this is not the only place where these datasets can help us. The quest for “Roman” scribes In my work on historical Koine Greek pronunciation and spelling, I found myself encountering the same chronological trend over and over. When the ruling, political administration in a region changes, the spelling practices of the scribes working in that region also change. To give a far-fetched illustration, imagine if Britain took over the U.S. tomorrow and we all started altering our spelling of words like realize to realise, color to colour, etc. This is the sort of thing that happened in the ancient world with Greek scribes. Because of this phenomenon, there are a number of spelling conventions that are particularly characteristic of scribes under Roman rule (roughly 1st–3rd c. AD) as opposed to Byzantine rule (roughly 4th—7th c. AD). In addition to the ιωανης vs. ιωαννης distinction noted above, I list two other characteristically “Roman” vs. “Byzantine” features below: SpellingRomanByzantineName “John”written with ν:ιωανης (Ioanes)written with νν:ιωαννης (Ioannes)Long ῑ vowelswritten with ει:κρεινω “I judge”written with ι:κρινω “I judge”συν- + words starting with πwritten without assimilation:συνπαθεῖν “to sympathize”written with assimilation:συμπαθεῖν “to sympathize” Because it was composed during the Roman period, we would expect the original spelling of the New Testament to reflect more characteristically “Roman” scribal conventions as opposed to “Byzantine” scribal conventions. Even though scribes tend to update spelling conventions in accordance with contemporary practices (see this article), some scribes may have reproduced the spelling of the manuscript they were copying more precisely. As such, the overall prevalence of “Roman” (as opposed to “Byzantine”) scribal conventions in a New Testament witness should perhaps contribute to our overall confidence in the reliability of the manuscript tradition. And this from a relatively objective set of data. On this point, it is noteworthy that a manuscript witness like Codex Vaticanus exhibits a high proportion of all three of these characteristically “Roman” scribal conventions. It has ιωανης as opposed to ιωαννης roughly 90 percent of the time (in the New Testament). It also frequently exhibits both ει for long ῑ vowels and unassimilated συνπ- forms: e.g., κρεινω “I judge” (John 5:30); συνπαθησαι “to sympathize” (Heb. 4:15). And we are able to ascertain this characteristically “Roman” character of the scribe without any appeals to particular phraseology, omissions/additions, or anything else that requires a subjective judgment. The relative distribution of certain spelling patterns is an objective statistic. It either correlates well with those spelling conventions of the Roman period or it does not. The relative distribution of certain spelling patterns is an objective statistic. Future of the field These examples show why I call epigraphic and papyrological spelling “the most objective textual critic you’ll ever meet.” Giving careful attention to the scribal conventions of contemporary epigraphy and papyri should become more and more a part of the work of the textual critic as time goes on. It is telling of just how long the field has minimized the importance of spelling that The Tyndale House Greek New Testament was perhaps the first critical edition of the Greek New Testament to give careful attention to reproducing the spelling conventions used in the manuscript witnesses themselves. This is a major step forward in this regard. Many other critical editions just generalize the “standard” spelling even if the manuscripts have a variant or “non-standard” spelling. And yet, even in The Tyndale House Greek New Testament, we still have ἰωάννης instead of ἰωάνης.Notes1See §188.8.131.52.X in The Pronunciation of New Testament Greek for the full linguistic discussion. Benjamin Kantor Ben Kantor (PhD, University of Texas at Austin) is a research associate in Biblical Hebrew at the University of Cambridge and will be preceptor in Classical Hebrew at Harvard University starting in July. He is the founder of KoineGreek.com and the author of The Pronunciation of New Testament Greek: Judeo-Palestinian Greek Phonology and Orthography from Alexander to Islam.