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The Transcriptional Canons

medieval-scribeTextual criticism is the task of removing errors which have crept into a text during the copying process. Identifying the types of mistakes that scribes tended to make is therefore an essential part of the textual criticism of the New Testament.

The Four Transcriptional Canons

Under the heading of transcriptional probability, textual critics appeal to four main canons:

  1.  because scribes tended to add to the text, we should Prefer the Shorter Reading (lectio brevior potior),
  2.  because scribes attempted to relieve difficulties or improve the sense of the text, we should Prefer the Harder Reading (lectio difficilior potior),
  3.  because scribes tended to assimilate the text to parallel passages or the immediate context, we should Prefer the Non-harmonised Reading (lectio non-harmonizans potior), and
  4.  because scribes tended to make the text more smooth or familiar in form, we should Prefer the Harsher Reading (lectio durior potior)[1].



Appeals to scribal habits are made in about two-thirds of textual decisions[2] and play a prominent part in the determination of readings in our current Greek text. Attempting to avoid repetitive formulations, textual critics will refer to these transcriptional canons in a variety of ways, saying things like

  • 'there is no reason why scribes should have omitted these words if they had originally stood in the text'
  • 'this word was inserted by copyists'
  • 'scribes have doubtless altered the apostle's bold and vigorous phrase to the more usual expression'
  • 'it is probable that scribes have assimilated the text to the Lucan parallel'.

'Proofs' of the Canons

Nevertheless, despite the widespread reliance upon and importance of the transcriptional canons, we encounter a curious problem once we open up our textbooks of New Testament textual criticism. We would expect to find some form of demonstration of the validity of the canons, preferably from first principles. However, such demonstrations are consistently and conspicuously absent. It might be argued in defence of our handbooks that the subject of textual criticism is so abstruse and arcane that, for an intended audience of beginners, technical details are inappropriate. However, our manuals are not averse to footnotes or bibliographical details, and surely sections on ‘further reading’ would reference technical studies validating the transcriptional canons. But, again, we look in vain. Or it might be argued that the transcriptional canons are so well-credentialed and so easily proven that nobody bothers. If that were the case, why should we not expect the textbooks to include such elementary demonstrations?

Whatever the reason for this oversight, other forms of substantiation dominate the presentations of the canons in our standard handbooks. Thus, the most common method of substantiating the canons is to illustrate or describe them rather than prove them, often by citing a few convenient examples. Thus, both Metzger and the Alands in their manuals first state their canons and then illustrate them as they evaluate selected passages in the New Testament. The Alands give ‘selected examples’ (p312) and Metzger talks of ‘illustrative examples’ (p219)[3]. This approach has a long history. One of the earliest textual critics, J.J. Wetstein, illustrated his canons by examining various readings[4]. F.H.A. Scrivener’s approach was likewise illustrative. He claimed that ‘the canons or rules of internal testimony [are] grounded either on principles of common sense’ or, he added, ‘certain peculiarities which all may mark in the documents from which our direct proofs are derived’[5]. Scrivener proceeded to furnish readers with a few such selected examples[6].

J. J. Griesbach took a slightly different approach, formulating generalised descriptions of scribal tendencies, but offering no evidence for his assertion that ‘the shorter reading … is to be preferred to the more verbose, for scribes were much more prone to add than to omit’[7] (his first canon). J.R. Royse comments: ‘in fact, no specific reading of a manuscript is cited anywhere within Griesbach’s Prolegomena ... [this] makes it difficult (if not impossible) for later students to know what exactly he would have considered as evidence, to check the evidence upon which his statements rest, or to revise his statements in the light of new evidence’[8]. Griesbach’s canons are valuable as descriptions of the varieties of scribal errors but, as we will show, less valuable as probabilistic statements about the tendencies of scribes.

Common Sense?

Others have tried to argue that the canons of transcriptional probability are correct by a process of logical reasoning. Thus, Royse writes: ‘one may view some such observations (about scribal alteration of the text) simply as common sense[9]’. Scrivener, as we have already noticed, likewise refers to ‘common sense’ as the basis for the canons.

This claim is problematic. Some ordinary people would argue that academics in general, and textual critics in particular, are hardly the sort of people to lecture others about common sense[10]. 

Whether the transcriptional canons represent common sense (and, indeed, whether appeals to common sense have any place in a critical approach to the text) are interesting, but ultimately irrelevant, issues. What is certain is that the self-evident maxims of common sense are a far less dependable guide to follow than other evidence-based approaches which test hypotheses empirically in the real world.

Some might substitute the terms ‘reason’ or ‘logic’ for common sense. But, as A. E. Housman described it, textual criticism has for its subject ‘the frailties and aberrations of the human mind, and of its insubordinate servants, the human fingers’[12]. These are hardly the sorts of variables that, with a lazy afternoon’s speculation, can be safely reduced to a few logical propositions. Presentation of evidence must precede analysis or reasoned conclusions. Thought-experiments are no substitute for real-world experiments based on what scribes actually did.

Appeals to Authority

One last approach, again arguably antithetical to a critical investigation of the text, but unsurprising considering the way that the textbooks of textual criticism deal with the canons, is the appeal to the scholarly tradition. Attempts to defend the canons often amount to little more than an appeal to the consensus communis, an ipse dixit or two from notable experts from the tradition sufficing for evidence. G.D. Kilpatrick asked, in relation to lectio brevior potior, ‘Can we see any reason, apart from repetition and tradition, why it should be right or wrong? We can produce reasons for thinking sometimes that the longer text is right and sometimes that the shorter text is right, but that will not demonstrate our maxim’[13].

Lessons from Medicine, Science and Art

Perhaps a lesson from the history of medicine will put the problem with this approach to validation of the canons into perspective. The dissection of human cadavers by Andreas Vesalius (1514-64) and the demonstration (by careful experimentation) of blood circulation by William Harvey (1578-1657) set medical science on the path to a true understanding of human anatomy and physiology. Before this period, medical knowledge was derived from ‘logical’ thinking (that is, speculation, often invoking vital forces to explain bodily functions), as well as the writings of ancient authorities like Galen. In fact, the teachings of Galen were considered unassailable truth despite Galen having only ever dissected apes and, it was later discovered, having invented ‘facts’ to suit his anatomical theories at times. The work of men like Vesalius and Harvey ushered in a scientific revolution in the understanding of the human body, despite the fierce attacks of traditional anatomists who resolutely defended their book-learning. Vesalius and Harvey were vindicated because their methods – exploration and experimentation – enabled others to verify the facts for themselves. Vesalius and Harvey’s results were reproducible and the accuracy of their observations were able to be independently verified.

To take another example, this time from the world of science, in 1905 Albert Einstein published a paper on what later became known as Special Relativity while working in the patent office in Berne, Switzerland. He argued that in certain circumstances, clocks seemed to slow down, and suggested that time is not absolute but a relative measure. He followed this paper up with his famous paper in 1907 which showed that mass has energy, which eventually led to the atomic bomb. But during the first world war he developed his theory of General Relativity which would complete the revolutionisation of the world of physics and replace the Newtonian model which had dominated physics for  more than two hundred years.

However, Einstein insisted that his theory of General Relativity must pass certain empirical tests before it deserved to be accepted. He himself insisted on three separate tests, any one of which could disprove his theory. One experiment that would test his theory required a solar eclipse. One of the incredible co-incidences of nature is that our sun and moon have exactly the same apparent size in the sky as viewed from earth, thus enabling us to observe total solar eclipses, so that in addition to providing a habitat for us to live in (the only habitat discovered in the universe that supports life), our earth also serves as a platform for precisely the sorts of scientific discoveries we need to make about the nature of the universe. The solar eclipse of  March 1919 confirmed Einstein's theory: a ray of light was deflected by 1.745 seconds of arc, twice what Newtonian theory predicted. The solar eclipse showed that Einstein's theory had passed two of its three tests, but Einstein himself refused to accept his own theory until the third test was passed, which it was in 1923 with evidence from the Mount Wilson observatory of a 'red shift' in light from distant stars.

Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, wrote of his admiration for Einstein's empirical approach as follows: 'What impressed me most was Einstein's own clear statement that he would regard his theory as untenable if it should fail in certain tests ... Here was an attitude utterly different from the dogmatism of Marx, Freud, Alder and ever more so that of their followers. Einstein was looking for crucial experiments whose agreement with his predictions would by no means establish his theory; while a disagreement, as he was the first to stress, would show his theory to be untenable. This, I felt, was the true scientific attitude'. [14]

To take a final example, this time from the world of art, we may contrast the work of Michelangelo with that of Leonardo Da Vinci. Both men were commissioned to portray battle scenes from the history of the city of Florence. Leonardo Da Vinci was commissioned in 1503 to portray a scene from the Battle of Anghiari whereas Michelangelo was subsequently commissioned to paint a scene from the Battle of Cascina. However, whereas Michelangelo chose to show a scene in which a group of naked soldiers bathing were startled by the sudden call to arms, Da Vinci pictured the brutal violence of warfare, the faces of the soldiers contorted and agonized. The difference between the outlook of the two artists is stark. Michelangelo, heavily influenced by Neo-platonic idealism, used the opportunity to portray his nude male forms in a state of almost angelic perfectionism. On the other hand, Da Vinci’s approach to life was Aristotelian: he preferred empirical evidence and observation of the real world to scholarly philosophising, and so showed war in its ugly reality.

 The Renaissance

The Renaissance of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries amounted to more than a revival of interest in the ancient world of the Greeks and the Romans. It involved a change of outlook: discovery and exploration were embraced as routes to truth instead of allowing tradition to limit understanding, or speculation or idealism to arbitrate truth. It is not a little ironic that textual criticism (of the New Testament, at least in its approach to the transcriptional canons), a central enterprise of the Renaissance, instead of demanding the empirical proofs that Renaissance standards would normally require, has been content with appeals to authority, common sense, repetition of the received wisdom and 'selected illustrations' of its central claims.

Thus, although a good many New Testament scholars would claim to be familiar with the basic principles of New Testament textual criticism, including the transcriptional canons, the reality is that very few have anything but a second-hand knowledge of the subject. Unlike medical science, in which a student learns anatomy by dissecting a human body, most New Testament textual critics (let alone ordinary New Testament scholars) have never performed any experiments that reproduce the received wisdom about the transcriptional canons[15]. Book learning and logical speculation still dominate the discipline, although scholars more familiar with the trends in text-critical research are becoming increasingly reserved about saying anything that might be quoted regarding the transcriptional canons[16].

The Status Quo

There would be no problem with repetition of the received wisdom about the transcriptional canons, of course, if the canons were established on solid footings. It would appear, however, that the transcriptional canons are simply assumed to be true because of a venerable tradition. They are not considered to be matters requiring demonstration or proof. Whatever the reason for this oversight, the reality appears to be that there simply are no technical studies which establish or demonstrate the validity of the transcriptional canons from first principles. That this is not exaggerated language may, as we have already argued, be easily confirmed by checking manuals of textual criticism for footnotes referencing studies of New Testament scribal habits that confirm the standard canons. Apart from Metzger’s appeal to the Iliad and the Mahabharata[17], there are none. Royse writes, ‘Regrettably, though, most presentations of these canons are not – as far as one can tell from the exposition – based on the actual knowledge of documents of which Hort speaks, but rather appear to rest upon a priori reflections on how scribes behaved (or must have behaved)’[18].

Thankfully, a quiet revolution is slowing taking place in New Testament textual criticism in relation to the transcriptional canons. Quoting the traditional wisdom or relying on speculative ‘logic’ about the way scribes would most likely have behaved is giving way to investigation and observation of what scribes actually did. The idea that these studies will leave the resultant text of the New Testament relatively unchanged is a delusion of the first order: these studies will revolutionise New Testament textual criticism.



[1]See B.M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd Edition, London and New York, United Bible Societies, 1994, pp xxii-xxiii.

 [2] If we may take as any kind of sample the textual decisions in Galatians in Metzger’s Textual Commentary (ibid, pp520-531). Of the 38 textual notes, 26 make some reference to scribal activity.

 [3] K. and B. Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, Translated by E.F. Rhodes, 2nd Edition, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1989; B. M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, 3rd Enlarged Edition; New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992.

 [4] In the second volume of his Greek New Testament (1751-52)

 [5] A Plain Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament, 4th ed., Edited by Edward Miller, London, George Bell and Sons, 1894, Vol. 2, p 247.

 [6] Scrivener, Plain Introduction, Vol 2, pp 247-50.

 [7] Quoted from Metzger’s translation of Griesbach’s Prolegomena to the second edition of his Greek New Testament (1796-1806) in The Text of the New Testament, p120.

 [8] J. R. Royse, Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri, Leiden, Brill, 2008, pp4-5

 [9] Scribal Tendencies in the Transmission of the Text, in The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the “Status Quaestionis” (SD 46), Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1995, p241   

 [10] The perception that academics (and thus textual critics) lack life and social skills is, of course, nothing but baseless stereotyping.

 [12] In his essay, The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism, Classical Association Proceedings, 18:68 (Morning Session, August 4, 1921). London, 1922

 [13] G.D. Kilpatrick, Griesbach and the Development of Textual Criticism, in J.J. Griesbach: Synoptic and Text-Critical Studies 1776-1976, ed. Bernard Orchard and Thomas R.W. Longstaff, SNTSMS 34, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1978, p140.

 [14] Quoted from Paul Johnson's Modern Times (London: Phoenix, 1992), p3 

[15] Although scholars regularly investigate individual textual problems, invoking transcriptional canons to ‘solve’ them, yet textual critics who have published technical studies showing general patterns of scribal behaviour (i.e. testing the canons themselves) can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

 [16] See, for example, D. C. Parker’s solitary note about scribal habits in his recent work, An Introduction to the New Testament Manuscripts and Their Texts, Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 2008, p296.

 [17] The Text of the New Testament, 3rd enlarged edition, 1992, p163

 [18] Royse, Scribal Habits 2008, p4 (emphasis in original).



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