A Review of Comfort’s “A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament”

While it may seem a little bit out of my usual strike zone on this blog, I was interested in having a look at the newest edition of Philip Comfort’s A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament (Kregel Academic, 2015), pp. 448, hardback. My work and research interests are grounded in all things Old Testament, however much of my daily grind involves a fair bit of heavy-duty textual-criticism in the Greek versions of the Bible. Doing research in the Septuagint version of Judges requires that I dive into the manuscript evidence for that Greek translation, and one of the side-effects of doing so is that I am interested in New Testament textual-criticism as well.

This handy volume is billed as “an up-to-date commentary on all the significant manuscripts and textual variants of the New Testament,” and it certainly lives up to its description. It’s cleverly shaped just like your NA27 (or if you’re cutting-edge and nit-picky, your NA28), and so it sits nicely next to your Greek New Testament and, of course, your Rahlfs-Hanhart Septuaginta.

The essential purpose of this book is to provide a passage-by-passage guide to textual reliability, the variants, and specific translation issues that arise in the New Testament. Additionally, Comfort has commented upon the qualities of the manuscripts that make up the textual evidence for the New Testament in order to help the scholar and exegete evaluate significant textual issues. When you come across a variant in the NT text, deciding between readings must be based upon a number of factors. As the famous NT scholars Westcott and Hort stated, knowledge of the documents where the variants are found must precede decisions about the textual variants themselves. These external factors that influence text-critical decisions include the tendencies of the scribe of a particular manuscript (including scribal reception), textual purity (i.e., number of variants compared to other witnesses and/or the supposed autograph), approximate date, region of discovery, and so on. In turn, the internal factors for text-criticism rely upon the so-called “Canons” of the discipline, such as proclivi scriptoni praestat ardua (“the more difficult reading is preferred”). These are briefly but helpfully explained by Comfort on pp. 29-31.

If you have ever undertaken serious NT textual criticism – or even had to write a graduate paper that wades through this area of scholarship – then you already know how useful a tool like this book will be for doing much of this spadework for you and getting huge amounts of data into concise and centralized format.

What’s in the Book

Comfort spends the first two chapters of the book dealing with various textual issues in the NT, and providing his annotated list of NT manuscripts. In chapters 3-9, he then walks through the NT books in chunks as follows:

  • Ch. 3 – Synoptic Gospels
  • Ch. 4 – Gospel of John
  • Ch. 5 – Acts
  • Ch. 6 – Pauline Epistles
  • Ch. 7 – Hebrews
  • Ch. 8 – General Epistles
  • Ch. 9 – Revelation

I was quite pleased and surprised to find that Comfort has also included some interesting and useful material on the Nomina Sacra, and their relevance to textual-criticism (see pp. 31-41, Appendix II). Best of all is that this material is directed towards NT text-criticism and also aspects of the Greek Old Testament where the divine names are also a prominent textual issue.

Reflections

Not specializing in New Testament textual criticism per se, I do not have much negative feedback. However, from that perspective I must say that I found myself wishing there was a Glossary of Terms in this volume. No doubt, Old Testament and New Testament textual criticism operate on similar principles in some ways, but in other ways these tasks are quite different. I think the average reader would likely benefit from a clarification of terms used throughout a book like this. Nevertheless, this book is a must-have for students of New Testament, and considering the fair price it is a worthwhile investment.

___________________

Thanks to Kregel Publications for the complimentary review copy, which has not influenced my opinions.

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