For those of us that work with manuscripts and wrestle with issues of divergence among the host of New Testament manuscripts, it is absolutely imperative to nail down a method or at the least a set of guiding principles by which we can assess the evidence in favor of one reading over another. One group of manuscripts might read one way in a particular passage, while another group of manuscripts might read something different. It could be a word, could be a phrase, maybe a clause, maybe even a whole discourse unit. It's imperative that all of the evidence is considered though. Absolutely imperative. The study of written texts is a scientific study. But without a consideration of the evidence––a real consideration of the evidence––there is no science. It's just a complete waste of time. Because, after all, whether a person just ignores the evidence or has a bias toward the evidence, the danger is all the same.
Tonight I was reading J. H. Petzer's "Eclecticism and the Text of the New Testament" in Text and Interpretation: New Approaches in the Criticism of the New Testament, edited by P. J. Hartin and J. H. Petzer (E. J. Brill, 1991; 47–62). There's an interesting little expression in this article, one worth highlighting here. Petzer writes the following:
"In assessing the documentary evidence wherein each reading appears, one will look primarily at the date, geographical distribution, and genealogical relationship of the documents and the texts in the documents. To safeguard one from making merely mechanical judgments (i.e. choosing the reading of the proto-Alexandrian witnesses by default), the evidence of these three aspects of documentary evidence must be integrated with the intent of determining which reading has the earliest most independent (geographically and genealogically) witnesses in its favour." (55)It's those words "mechanical judgments" that jumps out at me; well, that and the id est that follows it. There is in the present day a wild consensus for preferentially adopting the reading of certain manuscripts. I suppose it really started hard and fast back at the turn of the twentieth century with Westcott and Hort's edition of the Greek New Testament and their unashamed proclivity towards two particular manuscripts (01 and B). Scholars have often challenged this tilt in textual criticism––scholars like A. T. Robertson who said "No single manuscript, not even B, is always right." But those voices are quieter and quieter. The white noise of academia just sort of drowns it out. Those who are trying to call people to reconsidering the evidence are like the uncle that no one really wants to listen to when the family gets together at Thanksgiving. He talks and everyone lets him talk, but no one is really listening. Sure reasoned eclecticism and reasoned conservatism are more and more popular but somehow the results in all the commentaries just end up the same. 01 and B still seem like the favorites. Are people really considering the evidence––all of the evidence, all of the possibilities? Or are textual critics just getting more skilled at masquerading preference for 01 and B around longer discussions of the evidence? Or maybe it could just be as simple as those writing the commentaries aren't really engaging the textual evidence like they should? Or maybe 01 and B are just really that trustworthy? (Well, not if you ask me).
When Petzer wrote about "mechanical judgments" back in 1991 he was talking about the preference for a particular text type. That still happens of course, but there might be an even worse mechanical judgment going on today. The preference not for a particular manuscript or two, but one for the view of a particular text critic. I can't tell you how many times when I pick up a commentary I see something referencing what Bruce Metzger writes or what D. A. Carson writes, or something like that. I'm not particularly upset about hearing what those two believe. I consult the former every time I do a textual analysis. But we really need more than just a reproduction of what Metzger says in the commentaries. Tell me what the evidence says and interpret it for me. I want to see how a commentary author is thinking about the strengths and weakness of the evidence. The other mechanical judgment that I can see is just a preference for type of data, which usually means date. It usually shows up in textual notes looking something like this: "The earliest mss. omit the phrase." Date is just one criterion. It's not enough to help anyone using a commentary who genuinely wants to know more than the fact that an issue exists with a particular verse. Seriously, mechanical judgments don't help anyone, and they certainly don't make commentaries better.