The theory that the more difficult and shorter readings is more likely to be original is a theory that is used to justify the primacy of the Alexandrian text-type. The theory is not supported by the facts of specific readings in the manuscripts and the testimony of Church fathers.
A general maxim of modern textual criticism is lectio difficilior lectio potior (the more difficult reading is the stronger). For example, if two manuscripts say different things, the more “difficult” reading is preferred over the “smoother” reading. The assumption is that scribes have the tendency to smoothen difficult passages rather than vice-versa. This maxim was accepted by New Testament scholars Fenton John Anthony Hort, Kurt Aland, and Bruce Metzger. However, this maxim is applied by modern textual critics in an inconsistent and highly selective fashion. This inconsistent application raises questions as to whether the maxim is valid at all.
An example of the inconsistent and highly selective application of the maxim is in Mark 1:2 of the NA/UBS text. Here the Textus Receptus reads, “As it is written in the prophets….” The quote that follows is from Isaiah as well as Malachi. The NA/UBS text reads, “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah….” This is a prima facie error since a portion of the quote is not from Isaiah. Hence “the prophets” is the smoother reading and “the prophet Isaiah” is the difficult reading. Despite “the prophet Isaiah” being the difficult reading, it is the reading found in ancient Egyptian witnesses such as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. Thus it is common for scholars to justify the reading in these ancient witnesses by invoking the maxim that the more difficult reading is to be preferred. Their typical reasoning is that the author referred only to Isaiah because Isaiah was the greater of the two prophets. They reason further that a later scribe noticed that two prophets were quoted and smoothed the passage by replacing “Isaiah the prophet” with “prophets.” This seems plausible if Mark 1:2 were the end of the story.
However, Codex Sinaiticus, the same witness that has “prophet Isaiah” instead of “prophets” in Mark 1:2, says in Matthew 13:35, “that it might be fulfilled that was spoken through the prophet Isaiah, saying: I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things concealed from the foundation” (You can read the digital scans of the Codex HERE). Codex Sinaiticus has an obvious error here since the quoted passage is from Psalm 78:2, not Isaiah. Matthew 13:35 in the Textus Receptus as well as in the NA/UBS text reads, “the prophet” without giving a name to him. Matthew 13:35 in Codex Sinaiticus is not only a difficult reading – it is outright wrong. Thus in Matthew 13:35 the NA/UBS text and modern translations abandon the maxim that the more difficult reading is to be preferred and admit that the scribe of Codex Sinaiticus added “Isaiah.” Herein is the inconsistency of textual critics who invoke the maxim only when it serves their purpose of explaining away difficulties in their preferred readings.
The NA/UBS editors adopted the maxim to defend the reading of Mark 1:2 in their preferred Egyptian witnesses but hypocritically abandoned the maxim when its application would have led to an outright error such as in Matthew 13:35. These liberal critics would attempt to save the validity of their maxim by calling it a general rule. However, since there is clear evidence that the scribe of Codex Sinaiticus had the tendency to create difficulties (such as in Matthew 13:35), a textual critic must accept that even a general rule does not apply to at least this particular codex. Perhaps some scribes did indeed have the tendency to smooth passages. However, that is clearly not the case with the scribe of Codex Sinaiticus. Despite very clear evidence that the scribe of Codex Sinaiticus had the tendency to add “Isaiah” to a quote of a prophet, proponents of the maxim deny that the scribe had the tendency to do so in Mark 1:2. Critics who nonetheless apply the maxim to Codex Sinaiticus are either hypocritical or simply have not studied their preferred witnesses sufficiently so as to notice just how flawed they are.
With respect to shorter and longer readings, it is because of Dr. Hort’s theory that modern textual critics believe that shorter readings are more likely to be original. This is convenient for pro-Alexandrian critics since Alexandrian readings are generally shorter than other readings. Dr. Hort stated:
- “In the New Testament, as in almost all prose writings which have been much copied, corruptions by interpolation are many times more numerous than corruptions by omission” (Fenton John Anthony Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, at p. 235).
This theory is merely based on the assumption that the shorter Alexandrian text is the neutral text. This theory, which validates the primacy of the Alexandrian text, is based on circular reasoning.
Eye-witness evidence of the Church fathers, however, challenge this assumption. Irenaeus, a second century bishop in Gaul, wrote extensively on the condition of the early Church. He said with regards to Marcion, one of the chief heretics of the early Church:
- “Wherefore also Marcion and his followers have betaken themselves to mutilating the Scriptures, not acknowledging some books at all; and, curtailing the Gospel according to Luke and the Epistles of Paul, they assert that these are alone authentic, which they have themselves thus shortened.” (Against Heresies, III.xii.12; pp. 434-5)
Irenaeus says there were manuscripts made by heretics which had “curtail[ed]” and “shortened” readings. In light of this testimony from an early orthodox bishop, it is foolish to suppose that shorter readings are generally closest to the original readings. Perhaps certain heretics made interpolations. But other heretics corrupted scripture by omissions.
Origen in the early third century had already noticed the great corruption of manuscripts, complaining of the “negligence” and “perverse audacity” of copyists who “lengthen or shorten” passages as they please. Dr. Metzger wrote:
- “The question whether Origen ever attempted to edit a critical text of the New Testament has been answered quite diversely by modern scholars; it seems probable to the present writer that he did not extend his textual efforts to preparing a formal edition of the New Testament. At the same time, in all his writings and particularly in his exegetical treatises, Origen reveals a certain solicitude for critical details in the Biblical text. He complains that ‘the differences among the manuscripts [of the Gospels] have become great,either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they lengthen or shorten, as they please’.”
(Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 3rd ed. (1991), pp. 151-152).
The underlying basis for Dr. Hort’s assumption, according to Dr. Hort himself, is that in almost “all prose writings” scribes added to the text rather than omitted from the text. However, consider the flaw of using this fact as the basis for understanding what happened in the transmission of the New Testament:
- Whereas scribes of other prose writings, such as Greek and Roman histories, were not subject to persecution, the scribes of the New Testament were persecuted in the first 300 years of transmission. Since the working conditions of non-persecuted scribes and persecuted scribes would have been quite different, it is unreasonable to assume that the scribal habits of non-persecuted scribes were the same habits of those of persecuted scribes.
Whereas other prose writings, such as Greek and Roman histories, are secular records, the New Testament is a doctrinal text. It is unreasonable to assume that the way in which scribes might have treated a secular record was the same way in which scribes might have treated a doctrinal text.
Dr. Hort’s assumption that shorter readings are preferable is based on ignorance of the testimonies of the Church fathers and a shallow understanding of the context in which the transmission of the New Testament took place.