Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The evolution of biblical manuscripts

In an ironic twist of fate that might infuriate creationist fundamentalist Christians, evolutionary thinking dominates scholarly studies of biblical manuscripts, particularly attempts to reconstruct original texts of the New Testament in the face of copying errors!

The New Testament of the King James Bible is a seventeenth-century English translation of the Textus Receptus, a Greek text prepared by Dutch theologian Erasmus in the sixteenth century from a few late-medieval manuscripts.

In the late nineteenth century, Birmingham-born theologian Brook Westcott and his Dublin-born collaborator Fenton Hort tried to improve on the Textus Receptus, publishing The New Testament in The Original Greek (1881), which incorporated information from a wide range of manuscripts, including the oldest fragments known at the time.

Crucially, they adopted a genealogical view of manuscript affiliation that directly parallels the tree-like branching descent with modification seen in Darwin’s theory of evolution. In their own words:

“All trustworthy restoration of corrupted texts is founded on the study of their history, that is, of the relations of descent or affinity which connect the several documents.”

However, Westcott and Hort also recognized the potential for horizontal transfer between lineages, viewing the Byzantine textual lineage as a fusion of the two earlier traditions (the western and Alexandrian).

In the early twentieth century, British theologian Burnett Streeter proposed a theory of local texts, in which textual traditions diverged as a result of geographical separation – a parallel with allopatric speciation in evolutionary biology.

From the 1950s onwards, American biblical scholar Ernest Colwell attempted to bring quantitative methods into the analysis of New Testament textual traditions. Cladistic approaches borrowed from evolutionary biology now sit at the cutting edge of studies of New Testament manuscripts: exponents include David Parker, a theologian at the University of Birmingham, Gerd Mink at the Institute for New Testament Textual Research, Münster, Germany and among American scholars, Stephen Carlson.

So, in conclusion, evolutionary thinking even illuminates the origins of the text of the Bible!