This article is also available in text-only format.

Novum Testamentum Graecum Editio Critica Maior:

An Evaluation

Bart D. Ehrman
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

1. I'd like to begin by saying how honored I am to be a part of this event. Everyone here knows the extensive and enduring contributions that Professor Barbara Aland and her late husband, Professor Kurt Aland, have made to the field of textual criticism--in their publications, both individually and together, and in their work through the Institute for Textual Research in Münster. We are highly privileged to have her here with us today, along with her colleague, Klaus Wachtel, who has himself made major contributions to the ongoing work of the Institute. The work of these two scholars, together with their other colleague Gerd Mink, has now culminated in the publication of the first of four installments in the first of five projected volumes of the Novum Testamentum Graece Editio Critica Maior.

2. As indicated in the preface to the work, the project was conceived in the mid-60s, as announced in 1969 in an article by Kurt Aland in New Testament Studies. Now after three decades of work establishing methods, devising computer programs, revising concepts, employing collators--and, generally, engaging in unspeakable quantities of detailed and painstaking analysis--the Institute has provided for us the first-fruits of their labor, the 102-page fascicle on James, with its 39-page supplement.

3. As I understand it, and as I'm sure Prof. Aland and her colleagues will be glad to affirm, we will not be waiting another thirty years for fascicle two. Indeed, the lion's share of the work has been completed on the Catholic epistles and a good start has been made on the complicated tradition of the book of Acts.

4. Let me begin my comments by stating in the strongest terms possible the obvious, that this apparatus dwarfs anything that is available today. It is brilliantly conceived; it presents massive amounts of material; and it is clearly and efficiently presented. To be more specific, I might mention the following notable aspects of the accomplishment.

5. First and most obvious is simply the enormous quantity of data that the apparatus presents. On the one hand, just sticking with the manuscript evidence, there are 182 Greek manuscripts whose textual witness is cited in toto. By my count, that's about eight times as many as cited consistently in NA27. Yet more significant are the numbers of variant readings that can be presented: namely, all of the ones found in these mss. A quick comparison with other widely used editions is instructive. In James 2:1-11, e.g., the NA27 presents 22 units of variation, the ECM: 69 (the UBS4: one!); so too in James 3:13-18, whereas the NA27 gives 12 units of variation, the ECM gives 39 (the UBS4: none!).

6. Second, this mass of data is presented simply, elegantly, and clearly. The apparatus is extremely compact; the supplementary volume provides extensive additional information, enough to keep textual specialists absorbed for some time, and all introductions are given in lucid German and English.

7. The problem with embedding so much information into such a brief compass, of course, is that it can appear intimidating for a first-time user. I don't see any way around this problem, and I imagine that despite Prof. Aland's hope that the edition proves serviceable to exegetes and theologians--a hope that I'm sure we all share--the reality is that exegetes who for one reason or another have not gone to the trouble of mastering the NA apparatus--and this includes a disheartening number of scholars in the guild, I'm afraid--won't go to the bother of learning how to use this one either. At the same time, I should say that, as odd as it might seem, in some ways this apparatus is much easier to use than the NA27, where the differentiations between the consistently cited witnesses of the first order, consistently cited witnesses of the second order, frequently cited witnesses, and occasionally cited witnesses can create havoc for anyone who is not a committed devotee. The ECM is somewhat simpler and far more efficient.

8. Having said all that by way of praise of the edition, let me move to a second rubric, to mention what I expect to be two common criticisms of the edition, namely, that the Introduction promises too much and that the Text itself has been changed too little. For the record, I'm somewhat partial to the first criticism and completely unsympathetic with the second.

9. The Introduction, in my judgment, may promise too much in a couple of ways. First, it states that the reasoned selection of 182 mss "guarantees reliably" that the apparatus contains all the known readings which have appeared in the history of the text from its earliest beginnings through the formation and final establishment of the Byzantine text. But I suspect that the guarantee is a bit premature. For as Prof. Aland has pointed out, not every ms of James was collated in full in preparation for the edition. Instead, the Institute fully collated only those later mss which they judged to contain non-Byzantine forms of the text (along with a few clear representatives of the Byzantine tradition). The decision concerning which mss to collate was made on the basis of 98 test passages scattered through the entire corpus of the Catholic epistles, not just James. Mss were collated in full for these 98 passages; mss that varied from Majority text more than 10% in these units of variation were the ones chosen. The problem, of course, is that, theoretically, mss that differ from the Majority text somewhat less than 10% of the time in these readings may contain early readings elsewhere; if so, they are not recorded for us in the apparatus.

10. Let me stress that I'm not faulting the selection process per se--there needs to be some way of choosing which mss to include in an apparatus, until we're able to load all of them up electronically. I'm simply urging caution in claiming too much. Based on this system of deciding which mss to represent, at least if I've understood it properly, we simply don't know if we've located all of the early readings or not. My guess is that the apparatus probably has nearly all of them.

11. But I doubt if we can be "guaranteed" to have them all. Evidence comes in the Supplementary volume itself, where 37 readings are noted that were uncovered in some of the Institute's previous work and by an examination of the apparatus of Tischendorf and von Soden. This is over seven readings per chapter that are not represented in the mss chosen for the edition. The editors insist that these readings are Byzantine, i.e., that they developed only later in the textual tradition. But I would submit that precisely this is what we don't know.

12. A second area in which the Introduction may promise too much involves its extensive notation of the quotations of the text of James in the writings of the Greek Church Fathers, who "were thoroughly reviewed to the time of John of Damascus (7th/8th century).... All the quotations from the Catholic Letters by these Fathers were accepted to the extent that they witness to the biblical text then current" (p. 12*).

13. The labor involved in tracking down this kind of evidence is simply enormous, and we are completely in the Institute's debt for undertaking it. The apparatus includes every citation of James in over 100 church fathers.

14. I do want to issue one caveat, however, which is not sounded in the Introduction to the installment itself. A disheartening number of the patristic writings are still not found in modern critical editions. The manuscript traditions of the fathers themselves, of course, are extremely complicated, and as is well known, the earlier printed editions, such as those on which the volumes in Migne's Patrologia are based, regularly used late medieval mss which represented corruptions of the fathers' texts, especially in their citations of scripture, which scribes commonly modified to represent the Byzantine forms of the text known in their own time.

15. We certainly cannot fault the Institute for using the only editions available to them. But the downside is that we need to utilize the patristic evidence, even in this most comprehensive and up-to-date apparatus, with considerable caution. Through no fault of the Institute, the evidence in places may well be faulty (I should add that they have provided us with a full listing of every edition of the Fathers' writings that they used, so anyone interested in checking out the information more fully has the resources available to do so).

16. The second criticism that will be leveled against this edition--possibly more frequently than the first--is that the Institute's full examination of all these data has made virtually no impact on the reconstructed text itself. In the Introduction we're told that "the text of the present edition has been established afresh on the basis of these resources" (p. 11*). And yet, as also noted there, the text differs from the NA27 in only two places, both of them having to do with a simple change of word order: in 1:22, the readers now are told: "Be Doers of the Word, and not Hearers only," instead of "Be Doers of the Word, and not only Hearers." And in 2:3, the readers are now castigated for telling a poor person in the congregation to "stand, or sit there by my footstool" rather than to "stand there, or sit by my footstool." So far as I can tell, neither change has any bearing on the exegesis of the letter.

17. I count eleven other places in the text of James where the editors judge that the manuscript support for a variant reading is "of equal value" to that of the text that is printed. Here too I would say that the majority of these have almost no bearing on the meaning of the text; four of them, for example, have to do with a change of word order that cannot be translated.

18. Now, a number of users will probably insist that the fantastic amount of labor involved in creating such an apparatus is all for naught, if the resultant text is for all practical purposes identical to the one we had before. In response, let me say, as emphatically as I can, that I completely disagree.

19. In my opinion, we need to reconceptualize the task of NT textual criticism. If the primary purpose of this discipline is to get back to the original text, we may as well admit either defeat or victory, depending on how one chooses to look at it, because we're not going to get much closer to the original text than we already are. Barring some fantastic manuscript discoveries (like the autographs) or some earth-shattering alterations in text-critical method, the basic physiognomy of our texts is never going to change. I've been arguing this for several years now, sometimes to the discomfort of my colleagues in the field. But I have to say that this edition does nothing to disconfirm my view. There are masses of data now available for reconstructing the text of James--several times more witnesses than available, for example, over a century ago to Westcott and Hort. How much has this mass of evidence affected the textual complexion of the book of James? Almost none at all. The two changes of the NA27 text in this new attempt are completely minor. And I should point out, in both cases the text now reads exactly as it did in Westcott and Hort's edition of 1881.

20. A lot of textual scholars have fretted about this as if it were a problem. The concern seems to be that if we can't radically modify the original text, we have no business engaging in this line of work. This view strikes me personally as completely bogus. We can still make small adjustments in the text in places--change the position of an adverb here, add an article there--we can still dispute the well known textual problems on which we're never going to be agreed, piling up the evidence as we will. But the reality is that we are unlikely to discover radically new problems or devise radically new solutions; at this stage, our work on the original amounts to little more than tinkering. There's something about historical scholarship that refuses to concede that a major task has been accomplished, but there it is.

21. Does this mean then that our forebears in the field have worked us, their descendants, out of a job? Anyone who thinks so, in my opinion, has a completely myopic view both of what the task of textual criticism has to be and of what the Institute has provided us with here in this ECM. These mounds of data will not help us get closer to the original text; we're not going to get much closer, as the editors at the Institute themselves appear to concede in their refusal to change the text except in the relocation of two adverbs in the entire book. But the data will show us how the text came to be transmitted over the centuries, by scribes who modified the texts they inherited, and so produced a different text, sometimes a significantly different text, from the one they inherited.

22. The next task, in my judgment, is to use the scribal alterations of the text to see how the text was re-read and re-created once it left the hand of its "original" author, to see what kinds of social, historical, and theological influences affected its transcribers, whose rewriting of the text determined how it was read by those who inherited the results of their labors. To this end, the Institute's ECM can provide us with just the data we need and so has performed for us an invaluable service.

This paper is a revision of a presentation given to the New Testament Textual Criticism Section of the Society of Biblical Literature at the 1997 annual meeting in San Francisco, Michael W. Holmes, presiding. Presentations by Barbara Aland (general editor of the Editio Critica Maior), Peter H. Davids, D. C. Parker, William L. Petersen, and Klaus Wachtel (co-editor) also appear in this issue of TC. See also the critique of the volume by J. K. Elliott.

© TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, 1998.


Aland, Barbara; Aland, Kurt; Mink, Gerd; and Wachtel, Klaus, eds. (for the Institute for New Testament Textual Research), 1997. Novum Testamentum Graecum Editio Critica Maior. Vol. IV: Catholic Letters. Installment 1: James. Part 1: Text; Part 2: Supplementary Material. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft.