Thursday, April 2, 2015

Basil the Great and Ancient Manuscripts

Basil the Great
 A previous post discussed the useful life of ancient papyrus books and a few Church fathers that mentioned ancient manuscripts in their writings. It is a real treat when an ancient author explicitly references a textual reading, it is even more exciting when they mention the age and number of manuscripts that contain a particular reading.

The Majority of Copies
Basil of Caesarea (ca. 329-379 CE) explicitly mentions an interesting textual variant, Luke 22:36, in his Asceticon, Shorter Responses, 251. Here Basil mentions a reading that is found today in only one manuscript, the 5th century Codex Bezae (Nestle, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism, 340). Here Basil quoted Luke 22:36;
He [Jesus] said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one." (ESV)
Basil notes that the majority of manuscripts (τα πολλα των αντιγραφων) contain the future tense "the one who has no money bag will take it" and today this reading is preserved in Codex Bezae alone. Basil apparently preferred the minority reading, the imperative "the one who has a moneybag take it" as it stands in modern Greek editions and English translations. We can tentatively infer from Basil's statements (whether by conscious editing or by chance) that textual traditions dominant in certain regions were later superseded.
It would have been difficult (even impossible) for ancient scholars to accurately assess the number of manuscripts that contained a particular reading. But knowledge of the broader textual tradition of the New Testament must have been accessible to a degree (at least in the region of Asia Minor) because Basil makes reference to "majority of manuscripts."

The Oldest Copies Handed Down
Basil made another interesting reference to an important textual variant in Ephesians. In his Against Eunomius 2.19, Basil used Ephesians 1:1 in countering Eunomius;
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are [in Ephesus], and are faithful in Christ Jesus." (ESV)
Basil left out the bracketed words "in Ephesus" and quoted the sentence as "to the saints who are" and declared that "those who came before us handed it down in this form, and we have found it in the oldest copies" (Donaldson, Explicit References, Vol II, 501). Though the vast majority of manuscripts today contain [in Ephesus], some of the oldest extant manuscripts of Paul's epistles do not contain this phrase, P46, Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus among others (Metzger, A Textual Commentary, 532; Comfort, New Testament Text, 577-579).
Codex Sinaiticus (4th cen.) with the marginal note "in Ephesus."
In referring to the manuscripts that did not read "in Ephesus," Basil used the same word, "παλαιος," that the corrector in the Colophon of Pamphilus in Codex Sinaiticus used to describe the "extremely old copy" that Sinaiticus was corrected against (see discussion here). If we consider again the useful life of ancient papyrus manuscripts, Basil was likely referring to copies of Ephesians that were a hundred or more years old.
Another interesting aspect of Basil's comment is that he wrote that these "ancient copies" were "handed down" from "those who came before." Basil used the verb "παραδεδωκασι" (handed down), a phrase that implies a formal tradition or body of teaching. This verb is related to the noun used by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, "παραδoσεις" to refer to the traditions he passed along to the Thessalonian Christians;
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions (παραδoσεις) that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (ESV)
Basil sheds some light on how he might have known which reading was in the "majority of manuscripts." When a textual variant changed the meaning of a text, how it was interpreted, or that it was traced to widely known editorial activity, then it may have been more widely known and even disseminated within Christendom. This must have happened in the case of  Asclepiodotus and Theodotus who apparently were altering their text to better accommodate their doctrinal views.
Eusebius wrote 120 or so years after the time of Asclepiodotus and Theodotus, yet he knew of their editing practices. This account he had learned from "a laborious work by one of these writers against the heresy of Artemon" which is no longer extant and is attributed to various Church fathers (Eusebius Hist. eccl. 5.28, NPNF 2.1:246). Perhaps Basil had learned of the age and preference for the manuscripts that did not contain "in Ephesus" through the writings of other Church fathers, such as Origen, who discussed this variant as well (Metzger, A Textual Commentary, 532).

Comfort, Philip W. New Testament Text and Translation Commentary. Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 2008.

Donaldson, Amy M. "Explicit References to New Testament Variant Readings Among Greek and Latin Church Fathers" (PhD diss., University of Notre Dame) 2009.

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary On The Greek New Testament. 2nd ed. New York: United Bible Societies, 1994.

Nestle, Eberhard. Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the Greek New Testament. Translated by W. Edie. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1901.