Interviews with Text-Critical Scholars

csntm_itunesThe Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) conducted a series of interviews with scholars of textual criticism at the Society of Biblical Literature conference in San Diego, California in 2014. These videos are currently being released on CSNTM’s iTunes U site for free. The first two interviews are by Dr. Ekaterini Tsalampouni of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and Peter Gurry, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.

Make sure to check out these interesting and significant videos as they continue to come out over the next few weeks.

CSNTM is going to Athens!

Huge news, friends! CSNTM just signed a contract with the National Library of Greece in Athens to shoot all their New Testament manuscripts. You can see the press release at This will involve shooting about 300 manuscripts (150,000 pages!) in 2015 and 2016. If you’d like to partner with CSNTM in preserving these ancient Christian scriptures, you can go here to make a donation.

Lexical Fallacies by Linguists

Ever since James Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language, originally published in 1961, introduced students of the Bible to the fascinating field of linguistics, the world of biblical studies has not been the same. Barr took his cues from linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, whose 1916 work Cours de linguistique générale (translated as Course in General Linguistics), marked a milestone in lexical studies.

Some of the lexical fallacies pointed out by these scholars, and numerous others after them, include the following:

  • Root fallacy: assigning the (supposed) original meaning of a word to its usages throughout history;
  • Diachronic priority: like the etymological or root fallacy, this looks at usage throughout the history of a word as though all such uses are still in vogue at any given slice of history (synchronic view);
  • Illegitimate totality transfer: assumes that all the uses that occur at a given time apply in any given instance;
  • Lexical-conceptual equation: the belief that a concept is captured in a single word or word group or the subconscious transference of a word to the concept and vice versa (like ἁμαρτάνω and sin).

All of these fallacies are well documented in the literature prior to 1961 (and even after!), and they are indeed linguistic fallacies that must be avoided. I have essentially applied this linguistic approach to syntax in my Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1996).

There are other ‘fallacies’ which themselves are fallacious, however. Below are enumerated three of these:

  • a word has no meaning apart from context;
  • diachronics are not helpful; instead one must focus entirely on synchronics;
  • etymology is always worthless.

I will briefly examine these three fallacies of linguists in this blog post.

A Word Has No Meaning Apart from Context

Often linguist say that the word being examined should have the meaning of ‘X’ with ‘X’ being only what one can determine from the context. But this is an unreasonable demand on any word. If every word in a given utterance had the meaning ‘X’ then we simply could not figure out what any utterance ever meant. Consider the following sentence:

Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow.

If the only word we did not understand was ‘lamb’ then with a little help from the broader context we might be able to determine that it meant a four-legged domesticated ruminant mammal whose woolly coat is used for clothing. But what if we did not know the meaning of all the words in this utterance? Unfortunately, when lexical studies are done, armed with modern linguistics, they often assume the meaning of all but the target term. But where did the meanings of the other words come from? If we were to carry the linguistic notion that a word has no meaning apart from its context to its logical conclusion, then the above sentence would initially be rendered:

X X X X X X X X X X X.

Like Egyptian hieroglyphics that were not decipherable until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, we would never be able to figure out the meaning of the sentence. It is not only the immediate context that tells us what a word means, and this leads us to the discussion of the second fallacy.

Diachronics Are Not Helpful

Frequently, linguists assume that diachronics are not helpful in determining a word’s meaning. The analogy that Saussure used was a chess game: Someone who observes a chess match, coming in sometime after the beginning of the match, can simply by observation determine who is winning the game. He or she does not need to know any of what has occurred prior to this point. This is synchronic (current time) priority to the exclusion of diachronics (over time).

There are inherent fallacies with this analogy, however. In this case, each one of the chess pieces always has its own defined functions and abilities. This never changes, yet it presupposes diachronics. Further, the chess game is not really the best analogy. A better one would be an American football game (or some other contact sport that involves teams). Suppose you came to the stadium at the beginning of the third quarter of the 1974 USC-Notre Dame football game. The score at the time was 24–7, with Notre Dame in the lead. You might say that Notre Dame was well on its way to winning the game, and you might even put money on it. I saw the game, but didn’t bet on it—though I should have since I have always been a USC fan! The second half USC team seemed to be different guys wearing the same numbers: USC went on to win 55–24, with Notre Dame being completely shut out in the second half. One would have to know about momentum (USC scored their first touchdown just before the half), and even what the coaches said to the players at halftime. In the least, just knowing the score would not be a helpful predictor of the outcome.

Expanding on this analogy, suppose you saw a game in which the teams were tied with 5 minutes to go. Knowing who had the momentum (which could only be known by diachronics); what injuries may have sidelined some key players—and when they happened; which team had the ball—and just as important, how they acquired it; which plays have worked; and which men are playmakers are all important factors in determining the outcome. Just as professional gamblers do not simply look at the W–L column but also examine injuries, home field advantage, weather, one-on-one matchups, and numerous other factors, diachronics is a key element in determining outcome. Although the current situation (synchronics) is the most important factor, the past also helps one to get a clearer picture.

It has often been said by linguists that since the speaker or writer whose words they are trying to understand may be blissfully unaware of the diachronic usage of his words, so linguists need to focus on this author’s/speaker’s usage rather than the past. I agree that we must employ the principle of synchronic priority; but we should not embrace the notion of synchronic exclusivity. Why? Because said author/speaker is presumably comfortable with his own language, having been exposed hundreds and thousands of times to most of the various words he will use in any given utterance. Diachronics are needed by the modern investigator, not the ancient speaker. Precisely because the modern researcher does not have the same linguistic background as the person whose usage is being examined he or she must ‘get up to speed’ on what a word can mean by employing diachronics. Consider for example the word-group κοινός/κοινωνία/κοινόω/κοινωνέω, etc. In the New Testament, when this word-group is used of human beings’ relationship to God, it is often put in a positive light because of the cross. We have fellowship (κοινωνία) with God because Jesus has made this possible. But in the Septuagint, this word-group frequently, if not usually, has a decidedly negative tinge. Has the word changed its meaning? No, it still has the idea of (sharing something in) common. What has changed is mankind’s relationship to God through the blood of his Son. But someone just looking at the synchronic meaning of the word-group in the New Testament may miss this background and thus an important clue to the richness of its usage in the New Testament.

Etymology Is Always Worthless

Certainly for words that have a long history, etymology is hardly needed to determine meaning. The fact is, words change in their meaning over time. Root fallacy ignores this fact. But what about words that are of recent vintage, perhaps even coined by the author one is studying? Consider, for example, θεόπνευστος, a word appearing only in 2 Timothy 3.16 in the Greek Bible. Although Paul did not invent the term, it was recently coined (apparently occurring for the first time in the Hellenistic period). As such, its history is short by the time we get to Paul. Breaking it down into its constituent elements (one form of etymologizing), we see that the word may mean “God breathed” or “inspired by God.” Did it have this force in 2 Timothy 3.16? Almost surely it did. In instances where a word is of recent coinage, and especially when it is used for the first time by the author in question, etymology is a must. No author would coin a word whose meaning had no resemblance to its parts. Words that have been in circulation for a long time, especially common words, however, require primarily a synchronic analysis with supplement from diachronics.

Although modern linguistics has made significant and abiding contributions to biblical studies, not all linguistic principles are of equal value. And some may even be fallacies themselves.

Press Release from CSNTM

Press Release (8 Nov 2013):

Debut of Chester Beatty Papyri and New User Tools at CSNTM


The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts ( is well known for digitizing ancient biblical manuscripts. But the Center is not well known for having a user-friendly website. Because of a generous donation, the Center is giving a much-needed face-lift to its site. Phase I includes the following new features:

  • A basic search function now allows users to look at manuscripts by date, material, content, etc. You will notice a new search bar at the top of the manuscripts page. Simply enter in the data you’re looking for, and only those manuscripts that meet the criteria will be displayed.
  • Viewing technology has been added, allowing users to see thumbnail images instead of just a link. Simply click on the thumbnail and the high-resolution image is displayed in the viewer below. Users can now zoom in and examine manuscripts without having to open individual pages. This feature is currently available only for manuscripts digitized on the last five expeditions (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence; Gennadius Library in Athens; University of Athens Historical Museum; City Historical Library of Zagora, Greece; and the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin). More to come!
  • The website also provides links to the images of 29 (and growing!) significant manuscripts in various libraries throughout the world.
  • CSNTM currently has over 450 manuscripts listed in its manuscript page, with more than 1100 manuscripts in our archives. We are working on getting all 1100+ manuscripts listed on the site. As always, when the Center gets permission, the images of manuscripts become accessible to all.

The most exciting new additions to the CSNTM website are the Chester Beatty biblical manuscripts (which we digitized in the summer of 2013). These include all Old and New Testament Greek papyri, apocryphal texts, and all Greek New Testament manuscripts housed at the CBL in Dublin. Best of all, these can now be viewed on the manuscripts page. Using state-of-the-art digital equipment, the Center photographed each manuscript against white and black backgrounds. The result was stunning. The photographs reveal some text that has not been seen before.

CSNTM is grateful to the CBL for the privilege of digitizing these priceless treasures. The staff were extremely competent and a joy to work with. We are grateful to Dr. Fionnuala Croke, Director of CBL, for the opportunity to digitize their biblical texts. And we wish to thank Dr. Larry Hurtado, Edinburgh University, and the late Dr. Sean Freyne, Trinity College, Dublin, for recommending CSNTM for this important undertaking.

Daniel B. Wallace, Executive Director of CSNTM

Robert D. Marcello, Research Manager of CSNTM


Nestle-Aland 28: The New Standard in Critical Texts of the Greek New Testament


At the annual Society of Biblical Literature conference held in Chicago last month, the latest edition of the Novum Testamentum Graece, or the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, was unveiled. This has been a long time coming—nineteen years to be exact. The Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung (INTF) in Münster is behind this production, and deserves accolades for its fine accomplishment. This is the first new edition of the Nestle-Aland text since the death of Kurt Aland, the founder of the INTF.


Inexplicably, even though the new text was available at SBL—both as just the Greek text and in diglot with English translations—it could not be acquired through Amazon until later. I pre-ordered a couple copies last April; the diglot arrived in November but the Greek-only text will not be released until January!

Several gave presentations on the new Nestle-Aland text at SBL. Klaus Wachtel of INTF gave an overview of NA28. In his lecture, he noted, inter alia, the following:

  • The textual differences from the previous edition only occur in the Catholic Epistles. This is due to the fact that behind the scenes INTF has been doing exhaustive research on many variants in these letters and has produced the impressive Editio Critica Maior (ECM) series. These are the only books that have been thoroughly examined; hence, the changes to the text are only in these books. A total of 34 textual changes have been made.
  • In these letters, the siglum Byz is used instead of the gothic M (M).
  • As INTF worked through the Catholic letters, they came to see much greater value of the Byzantine manuscripts than they had previously. In Wachtel’s presentation, he noted that the NA27 displayed “prejudice against the Byzantine tradition” while the NA28 recognized the “reliability of the mainstream tradition.” This is a welcome change in perspective, made possible because of exhaustive collations.
  • For the entire New Testament, the apparatus functions now as “a gateway to the sources” instead of the more restricted purpose of the previous edition “as a repository of variants.”

The Introduction to the new work adds much more information. Among these consider the following:

  • “from now on, the Nestle-Aland will not appear only as a printed book, but also in digital form” (48*). This is more than what is already available in the digital copies of the NA27 that are part of the Accordance and Logos Bible software packages. For example, “Abbreviations, sigla and short Latin phrases in the apparatus are explained in pop-up windows. Above all, the digital apparatus becomes a portal opening up the sources of the tradition, as it provides links to full transcriptions and, as far as possible, to images of the manuscripts included” (48*).
  • Gone are the “consistently cited witnesses of the second order”—that is, those witnesses that comprised the gothic M (M) in NA27. Although this siglum is still used, its meaning has changed. Individual non-Byzantine witnesses that are part of the ‘majority text’ (a term that means more than just the Byzantine witnesses in NA27; it is unclear exactly what this siglum means in NA28) are now apparently cited explicitly, even if they agree with the Byzantine minuscules.
  • Conjectures are no longer to be found in the Nestle-Aland apparatus. There were nearly 120 conjectures listed in the previous edition. Nevertheless, at Acts 16.12 the editors still print as the text a reading that is not found in any Greek manuscripts (Φιλίππους, ἥτις ἐστὶν πρώτης μερίδος τῆς Μακεδονίας πόλις). Continue reading “Nestle-Aland 28: The New Standard in Critical Texts of the Greek New Testament”