I have an above-average interest in textual criticism of the New Testament. I haven't done any graduate work in the area, but I've become familiar with the NA27 apparatus and with Tischendorf. I find Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament one of the most helpful volumes in my library when it comes to applying textual criticism. I've even read the forwards to the NA27 and UBS3/4 editions to better understand their respective apparatuses. I've studied a little Coptic on my own (Sahidic, though I have a Bohairic grammar I've poked through as well) and have grammars for classical Ethiopic (Ge'ez) and classical Armenian that I want to examine in greater detail, if only to understand the writing systems a bit better. I've read two of the three books that make up what I call Metzger's “trifecta” (Text of the New Testament, Canon of the New Testament, still need to read Early Versions of the New Testament). I've read Aland & Aland's Text of the New Testament. I've read most of Westcott & Hort's Introduction to their 1881 edition of the Greek New Testament. In short, I'm into this stuff.
Lately, I've been spending some time poking at Dr. Swanson's very impressive work, New Testament Greek Manuscripts. He describes this as “variant readings arranged in horizontal lines against Codex Vaticanus”.
Most of my time has been spent examining the preface/apology* for his work, in order to understand both what Dr. Swanson is doing and why he is doing it. It is obvious that Dr. Swanson, while appreciating the work done on the NA/UBS critical editions of the Greek New Testament, doesn't find such information too helpful.
The critical text, of course, is eclectic in that it seeks to provide the most reputable reading in every instance. This results in a text that is essentially a pastiche of manuscript readings that has no real evidence or meaning for the text as a whole; but it also results in a text that has reputable readings at almost every point.
And this seems to be Dr. Swanson's beef with the eclectic texts in their critical editions: While variants are ostensibly cited, gaining a clear picture of these variants and the MSS that contain them is nigh upon impossible.
Much better, says Dr. Swanson, to begin with an early text of high repute (Codex Vaticanus), and show all of the variants in a horizontal view. This gives a better idea of the differences across whole passages instead of selected bits and chunks in selected locations. As well, this has the advantage of showing us how different MSS of different eras witnessed the New Testament to their respective communities of faith.
After all, writes Dr. Swanson, “ ... each manuscript was scripture for a believing and worshipping community.”
I was with him right up to that last part.
I don't think that one must decide which is best between the standard NA27 critical apparatus or Dr. Swanson's presentation. It seems to me they're both geared toward different uses with different goals.
For a standard edition of the Greek New Testament, with evidence inserted for various different witnesses throughout the Greek New Testament, NA27/UBS4 (and their respective apparatuses) do just fine. These are handbooks; they do not claim to be exhaustive. They select the most valuable witnesses for each NT book (as determined by the editors) and consistently reproduce where they vary (or confirm) the eclectic text chosen by the editors. These are items offered in defense for the readings chosen by the editors. They are not (nor do they claim to be) whole presentations of variants across the entire text. This is immensely helpful for study of the Greek New Testament in that it provides a reliable edition that all can use and reference with ease.
Dr. Swanson's work, on the other hand, is different. It is good and useful; but it seems to me that its purpose and use is altogether different than that of the NA27 critical text.
Perhaps a restatement of what I see as the purposes of each edition will help me make my point.
The NA27 is the culmination of textual criticism applied to solve a particular problem: What is the ‘best’ text that can be assembled, based on currently known MS evidence? The NA27 attempts to answer this question, and does so admirably. In all likelihood it answers this question as well as it can be answered, barring new MS discoveries. The work on the Editio Critica Maior proves this. Through massive textual examination and sifting, the text produced for this work (that has thus far been released) is virtually the same text as the NA27.
Dr. Swanson's work, however, is different. He simply presents the text of all MSS, important and unimportant, that he can get his hands on. He arranges them such that the agreements and differences can be easily seen and tracked from MS to MS. Rather than answering the same question answered by the NA27, I see Dr. Swanson's work instead providing a foundation for future questions to be examined. Information that was hard to obtain (e.g., “I'm working on an exegesis of 1 Corinthians. Where do I get my hands on Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, and the major papyri and minuscules so I can really establish the text?”) is now available in one spot, and it is even aligned at the word level with variants helpfully distinguished.
I recall an article by Eldon Jay Epp (sorry, don't remember where) where he posited that the next great thrust of textual criticism will be in establishing the provenance of the different papyri, uncials, minuscules and early versions that much of New Testament textual criticism is based on today; and in establishing local and regional sorts of critical texts for each of these communities.
This, in turn, will help establish what each text these respective communities used to establish doctrine and practice amongst the fellowships in these regions. In other words, getting at what Dr. Swanson notes in his introduction — that “each manuscript was scripture” for these communities. So, how was scripture transmitted to these different communities, what did it say, and how did they put faith into practice as a result of it? Establishing provenance and tracking distribution helps get at answers to these sorts of questions.
(I'm going to veer off track here for a moment, but it is appropriate. Stick with me, you'll see why.)
In 1948, a group of scholars of the Greek New Testament met at the University of Chicago. This group included luminaries such as Bruce Metzger and Allen Wikgren, among others. The purpose of this meeting was twofold: To honor Edgar J. Goodspeed, and to discuss how to go about preparing a new critical apparatus of the Greek New Testament.
One result of this meeting was an excellent set of essays (delivered at the 1948 meeting) entitled New Testament Manuscript Studies: The Materials and the Making of a Critical Apparatus. If you're into textual criticism, you must find a copy of this book. Head to your local library and request it via interlibrary loan, if necessary. Metzger's essay alone is worth it.
Why do I bring this up? One of the essays (“The Manuscripts of the Greek New Testament” by Kenneth W. Clark) made a very interesting point. One thing he saw as needed was for people to step into the shoes of F.H.A. Scrivener, who did tremendous amounts of work collating and publishing different NT MSS. Such work (and its widespread availability) would provide the foundation for the next generation of text-critical work. Clark writes:
We need many ‘Scriveners.’ Probably no single scholar has collated as many Greek New Testament manuscripts as this man whose labors were curtailed by ‘dimness of sight.’ Three of his volumes offer the witness of eighty separate manuscripts. ... The need for such collations has never been as great as now, since the complex problems of various textual types require far more data than we have at hand.
I think one could make a very strong case that Dr. Swanson's work starts to fill this void.** In presenting NT MSS in the way he has, he has provided the evidence of scads of MSS aligned word-by-word so that consistencies and variants are easy to see. Dr. Swanson's work, widely available, helps disseminate this information and can thus be used by folks who wouldn't have access to facsimiles or collations of the MSS in question.
Dr. Swanson's work alone won't do the job; but it is a valiant thrust in the right direction. Textual criticism has been focused on the question of supplying a reliable, early text of the New Testament. The NA27 is about as good as it's going to get for the forseeable future.
So, what problems will be pursued by textual critics next? Whatever they are, Dr. Swanson's work will surely be a valuable tool in the textual critic's toolbox as he approaches these problems.
* That's "apology" in the classic sense, meaning "a formal justification", according to Merriam-Webster.
** Comfort & Barrett's The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, now in its second edition, provides transcriptions of most of the available papyri, and also is a tremendous help in this respect.