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The Encyclopedia of New Testament Textual Criticism

A different sort of problem is illustrated by Matthew 19:20. Jesus is talking to the rich
young man, and has just told him to keep the commandments. Does the young man say
“I have kept all these” or “I have kept all these from my youth”? The evidence is as
follows (f1 and f13 are small groups of closely related manuscripts; you can look up the
e? ?e?t?t?? µ?? — “from my youth” — (?c) C (D omits µ??/“my”) E F G H O W G ? S
f13 28 33 157 565 892 1006 1010 1071 1241 1243 1342 1424 1505 1506 a b c (d) e f ff2
h n q sy sa bo arm eth geo slav
omit — ?* B L T f1 22 579 700* aur ff1 g1 l Cyprian
It is clear that the bulk of the manuscripts include the longer reading “from my youth.”
On the other hand, the text without “from my youth” is supported by the two oldest
manuscripts (?* and B), and by several other manuscripts with what we shall learn are
good or interesting texts. Most scholars would conclude, simply on the basis of the
manuscripts, that the shorter reading is better.
But we have more evidence. This reading, of course, has parallels in Mark (10:20) and
Luke (18:21). Both of the other gospels have the words “from my youth.” Now suppose
you're a scribe. You've heard the phrase “I have kept all these from my youth” a few
zillion times in your life. Unless this is your ?rst copy of the gospels, you've written it a
few times in your life. If you encounter a copy without the words, wouldn't you be
tempted to add them? Certainly, if they were present already, you would have no
tendency to delete them.
This process is known as “assimilation of parallels.” Scribes have a tendency to make
texts read alike. If a text sounds familiar, the scribe tended to conform it exactly to the
familiar form. (You may have done it yourself. Try reading this phrase: “To be, or not be,
that is the question… ” Did you notice the omission of the word “to” after “not”?)
So in all likelihood the original reading here is the one which omits “from my youth.”
You may have noticed that in both cases here we went against the reading supported by
the majority of manuscripts. Does this mean that we are undemocratic?
In a word, yes. One of the great rules of textual criticism is that “manuscripts are to be
weighed and not counted.” Some manuscripts are good, some are less good. (Though
all are at least occasionally questionable; as Michael Holmes puts it, “none are perfect,
not even one; all have ?aws, and fall short of the glory of the autograph” — Michael
Holmes in “A Case for Reasoned Eclecticism,” not yet published at the time of this
writing.) So how do we decide?
The Encyclopedia of New Testament Textual Criticism