Reviews of

James Keith Elliott, “New Testament Textual Criticism: Recent Developments”

In Durham, James Keith ELLIOTT, Justin A. Mihoc, New Testament, SEMINAR REPORTS, Textual Criticism on December 13, 2010 at 11:48 pm

This is a report on a paper presented by Emeritus Professor Keith Elliott, formerly Professor of New Testament Textual Criticism at the University of Leeds, at the New Testament Research Seminar at the Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, 6th of December 2010.

The list of forthcoming papers in the NT Research Seminars at Durham University can be found here.

Prof Elliott, one of the greatest authorities in modern textual criticism, conferenced on the new trends and developments in the area of biblical so called ‘lower criticism’ (being the discipline which reads and compares all manuscripts containing the literature written prior to the invention of printing, along with analysing their textual history). He proposed a presentation of the most important editions of Greek New Testaments and discussed the differences between them.

It can be said that beginning with Erasmus’ Textus Receptus a new era of textual criticism started. From that point onwards with every new critical edition of the New Testament there was an impression that nothing else can be done.

However, the constant discovery of new and, sometimes, earlier and more reliable manuscripts requested newer and more accurate editions. Codex Vaticanus (B), for instance, along with Codex Sinaiticus (א) found in the 19th Cen. at Monastery of Mount Sinai, were discovered just after Erasmus’ edition. These are two of the oldest NT manuscripts (4th Cen.) and their text differed in many places from the Textus Receptus. The next major critical edition was published by B.F. Westcott and J.A. Hort in 1881 (The New Testament in the Original Greek) and was mainly based on Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. But then again some new manuscripts were discovered, shading a light of uncertainty upon the Westcott & Hort edition. The subsequent editions included more and more manuscripts (complete and, more often, fragmentary). Eberhard Nestle’s Novum Testamentum Graece (1st edition in 1869) was expanded and republished by his son, Erwin Nestle, who included a critical apparatus in his 13th edition of NTG (1927). This version became the basic text for Kurt Aland’s revised and expanded editions (the newest being NA27 and UBS4). If until the 26th edition each of them were regarded as ‘canonical’ versions (the only one to be used), in the rewritten introduction of the 26th it was written that this edition is no more than a ‘working text’.

Prof Elliott also introduced the new SBL Greek New Testament, edited by Michael Holmes and presented at the last Annual Meeting of the American Society of Biblical Literature (20-23 Nov 2010, Atlanta). In his version, Holmes analyses different critical editions of the Greek New Testament, and not manuscripts. Therefore, in order to understand why he chose his version of the text one needs a textual commentary, due to come out next year (probably). However, the editor claims in the introduction that he did go back to the manuscripts and not only relied on the critical editions. The text is freely available on SBL GNT’s website (

It is also worth mentioning the publication in facsimile edition of the Codex Sinaiticus (discovered by C. von Tischendorf) by Hendrickson Publ. (due to be issued in Feb 2011, price: $ 799,00). Nevertheless, the digitized manuscript can be accessed freely at

Among the current ongoing projects, Prof Elliott mentioned: the International Greek New Testament Project (Münster, Germany/ Birmingham, UK), working at this time on John’s Gospel, it represents a ‘new Tischendorf’ edition, entitled Novum Testamentum Graecum – Editio Critica Maior. So far, four volumes containing the Catholic Epistles were published and the volume on John’s Gospel is planned to be out in 2013. The project will then continue with Acts and the Pauline corpus. Another project led by the Birmingham team is currently working on a critical edition of the Latin Old Testament (prior to the Vulgate). Also, a number of Oxyrhynchus Papyri were recently discovered, among which some contain a sizeable portion of Acts (the Western text-type) and are in the process of being analysed and published. Among the discovered Oxyrhynchus manuscripts there were 10 slides from Revelation, containing, strangely, the number of the beast as 616. Also, some other manuscripts were uncovered in Tirana (Albania), Bulgaria and in the Russian Federation.

The second section of Prof Elliott’s lecture focused on comparing different critical editions of the Greek New Testament. A number of 8 different versions were analysed:

1.     NA27: contains about 10.000 variation units and was until recently used as an ‘infallible version’. It is accepted by the majority of the NT scholars as the current working text. One of the problems regarding this version resides in the high number of words enclosed in square brackets. A new edition (NA28) will not be edited nor published in the near future.

2.     UBS4: it was intended for the use of translators and contains the same text as NA27. It contains only 1.400 variation units (and another 600 in Metzger’s Textual Commentary) but includes references to the Church Fathers. In Prof Elliott’s opinion, the insertion of references from Patristic authors is futile and serves no purpose for the common researcher/ translator. A new Reader’s edition (also containing a Greek-English dictionary) was issued in 2007.

3.     Tischendorf (8th edition): published between 1869 and 1872, this version contains a lot of material not used in the critical apparatus of the subsequent editions. If working in detail on the Greek text this edition cannot be ignored, although in some cases the manuscripts’ numbers have been changed in the meantime. A new and upgraded edition is prepared under the auspices of the Institute for New Testament Textual Research, Münster.

4.     Von Soden’s Die Schriften des neuen Testaments: published in 1913 it is regarded as being certainly the most important critical edition after Westcott and Hort’s, although not always accurate. It contains a massive apparatus and a changed numbering of manuscripts (although there are some ‘keys’ for identifying the textual variants, it is still difficult to use).

5.     Editio Critica Maior (ECM): edited by the aforementioned Institute in Münster, this edition is by far the most detailed and accurate critical Greek New Testament. Greek, Latin and Coptic manuscripts up to the year 1000 were used and all these manuscripts are included in the massive apparatus. The clarity of the critical apparatus and a very useful variant section (located just under the text body) are two of its most praised qualities. Also, the words of each chapter are numbered along with the spaces (beginning with 1 being a space). Only the Catholic Epistles were completed until this moment, a further volume containing the ‘Gospel according to John’ being in preparation (edited in conjunction with International GNT Project, Birmingham).

6.     International Greek New Testament Project: was set up after the Second World War (1949) in the USA and UK. Its critical apparatus includes variants from manuscript versions in Syriac, Ethiopic, et al., but also lectionary and Patristic texts (with a very helpful index). Two volumes containing the Gospel of Luke were published by OUP in 1984 and, respectively, in 1987 under the editorship of Prof Elliott. The aforementioned project in preparation on John’s Gospel can be found at

7.     Finally, a project on the textual history of Mark’s Gospel, analysing six of the most important variant manuscripts, is in progress. This new and interesting edition is prepared by an international committee of scholars (including Prof Elliott) and is expected to be completed in the following years (only the first 12 chapters being completed at present).

(Questions, remarks and suggestions were raised among others by Prof John Barclay and Prof Francis B. Watson.)

Justin A. Mihoc
Department of Theology and Religion
Durham University

  1. “In his version, Holmes analyses different critical editions of the Greek New Testament, and not manuscripts.”

    This is actually not true. Even in places where all the editions that Holmes used were in complete agreement, Holmes relied on the manuscript evidence.

    Quoting Dr. Holmes directly:

    “Permit me to emphasize one point in particular: in fact, I systematically went through the entire text of the NT in light of the manuscript evidence, not only where one or more of the four differed, but also where all four were in agreement (and at several places, I did adopt a reading not found in any one of the four). In short, the entire SBL text was decided on in light of the manuscript evidence (not on the basis of the editions). No readings were decided by any vote between editions; their contribution is limited largely to the apparatus.”

  2. Dear Mike,

    As I wrote above: ‘However, the editor claims in the introduction that he did go back to the manuscripts and not only relied on the critical editions.’
    Maybe I wasn’t clear in this respect, and for that I apologise, but these were Prof Elliott’s comments and not mine.

    Kind regards,

  3. Hey Mike! Thanks for stopping by.


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