Review: ‘A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament’

Review of, A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament, by Philip Wesley Comfort, Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015, 443 pages, hardback, $29.99

Philip Wesley Comfort is well known to students of the text of the New Testament.  He has produced some informative works on the subject such as Early Manuscripts and Modern Translations of the New Testament, and Encountering the Manuscripts.  Both productions, as well as the one under review, are marked with a clarity of style which makes them accessible to interested readers.  He has produced, with David P. Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, of which the present book is the companion.  Along with these efforts Comfort has edited several helpful books, of which the The Origin of the Bible is perhaps the most noteworthy.

This Commentary is divided into three main parts.  After an introduction and a listing of the earliest Greek mss. lying behind each verse in the NT, what I will call Part One deals with a brief survey of the manuscript tradition. Unsurprisingly, the author favors the Alexandrian tradition as found in the papyri; with special exemplar status given to P75 through Codex B (Vaticanus) (24-26).  In his list of “reliable copies” the author takes leave of the Aland’s classifications, noting that if a ms. is from the same codex and is clearly by the same scribe, it deserves to be seen in the same way.  He adds to the Aland’s list several mss. he thinks “largely preserve the original wording.” (27-29).  The chapter also includes a section on the nomina sacra (that is, the distinctive way the “sacred names” are written), which, as Comfort rightly points out, has not received the notice it should have done (33).  He notes, “The nomina sacra for “Lord”, “Jesus”, “God”, and “Spirit” must have been created in the first century.” (38).  An extended treatment of this significant phenomenon is appended to the end of the book.

“Part Two” (chapter two), is titled “An Annotated List of the Manuscripts of the New Testament.”  It is a lengthy chapter, running from page 43 to page 126.   Ranging from the papyrus mss, to the major uncials and minuscules, to the older versions, and, too briefly, the Church Fathers, the reader is provided with the essential information.  The most important texts are described in terms of sigla (designations), first transcription, present location, date (with discussion where needed), and a brief description of textual provenance.  The use of clear typeface making this section less of a chore to read than it might have been.

The main part of the Commentary, which covers chapters three through nine, is best described by the author’s introduction to chapter three, which is on the Synoptic Gospels:

In this chapter and those that follow, I list what I think is the original wording in a verse in bold type; variant readings follow.  Manuscript information is provided for each reading in the manuscripts (abbreviated as MSS.), followed by an explanation.  The names “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” and “Christ” are almost always written as nomina sacra (sacred names) in all the MSS; so these are not noted throughout.  There are notes for other nomina sacra (sacred names), and sometimes for “Lord” in certain contexts. (127) 

Comfort’s notations are conservative; as, for example, when he is dealing with Matthew’s use of parthenos (virgin) for the Hebrew almah in Isaiah 7:14 (129), or in his quite extensive handling of the original ending of Romans (312-316).  Not everyone will be enthusiastic about his preference for 616 over 666 in Revelation 13:18b, especially as he links it up with “Caesar Nero” (410-411).  Proponents of the importance of the Byzantine tradition, of which I am one, have their own arguments against the author’s conclusions regarding the ending of Mark’s Gospel (197-206, although Comfort’s discussion should be read carefully); the pericope de adultera (Jn. 7:53-8:11), or the better reading of John 1:18a or 1 Timothy 3:16a.  In such places it appears that the chosen slant, namely that “the readings of the earliest manuscripts are always followed” (31), will tend to prejudice his conclusions while relegating other counter-evidence to the sidelines.  The historical “accident” that preserved early Alexandrian-type manuscripts in the sands of Egypt needs to be viewed with a critical eye, as must the reality of 2nd and 3rd century heresies in the region, which even Kurt Aland called attention to.  Too, the fact that the favored methodology of “reasoned eclecticism” in NT textual criticism is often not followed by critics in other fields ought to be considered, as should the fact that this procedure does not present us with what Maurice Robinson calls “a running text” of the NT based upon a clear textual tradition.  This last tendency is, of course, minimized somewhat by Comfort’s onus on the earliest witnesses to a reading.

Keeping these propensities in mind, the student of the Greek New Testament has been given a most useful tool.  It does not replace Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, but it complements Metzger well.  I shall be referring to this book often in my studies.                



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