Alexandrian text-type

The Alexandrian text-type (also called Neutral or Egyptian) is one of several text-types used in New Testament textual criticism to describe and group the textual character of biblical manuscripts. The Alexandrian text-type is the form of the Greek New Testament that predominates in the earliest surviving documents, as well as the text type used in Egyptian Coptic manuscripts. In later manuscripts (from the 9th century onwards), the Byzantine text-type became far more common and remains as the standard text in the Greek Orthodox church and also underlies most Protestant translations of the Reformation era. Most modern New Testament translations, however, now use an Eclectic Greek text that is closest to the Alexandrian text-type.

Manuscripts of the Alexandrian text-type

Up until the 9th century, Greek texts were written entirely in upper case letters, referred to as Uncials. During the 9th and 10th centuries, the new lower-case writing hand of Minuscules came gradually to replace the older style. Most Greek Uncial manusripts were recopied in this period and their parchment leaves typically scraped clean for re-use. Consequently, surviving Greek New Testament manuscripts from before the 9th century are relatively rare; but nine - over half of the total that survive - witness a more or less pure Alexandrian text. These include the oldest near-complete manuscripts of the New Testament Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus (believed to date from the early 4th century CE).

A number of substantial papyrus manuscripts of portions of the New Testament survive from earlier still, and those that can be ascribed a text-type - such as P66 and P75 from the early 3rd century - also tend to witness to the Alexandrian text.

The earliest translation of the New Testament into Egyptian Coptic - the Sahidic of the 3rd Century - uses the Alexandrian text as a Greek base; although other 2nd and 3rd century translations - into Old Latin and Syriac tend rather to conform to the Western text-type. Although the overwhelming majority of later minuscule manuscripts conform to the Byzantine text-type; detailed study has, from time to time, identified individual minuscules that transmit the alternative Alexandrian text. Around 17 such manuscripts have been discovered so far - consequently the Alexandrian text-type is witnessed by around 30 surviving manuscripts - by no means all of which are associated with Egypt, although that area is where Alexandrian witnesses are most prevalent.

List of notable manuscripts represented Alexandrian text-type:

Sign Name Date Content
p46 Chester Beatty II c. 200 Pauline Epistles
p66 Bodmer II c. 200 Gospels
p72 Bodmer VII/VIII III/IV 1-2 Peter; Jude
p75 Bodmer XIV-XV 3th fragments of Luke — John
Codex Sinaiticus 325-350 NT
B Codex Vaticanus 325-350 Matt. - Hbr 9, 14
A Codex Alexandrinus c. 400 (except Gospels)
C Codex Ephraemi 5th (except Gospels)
Q Codex Guelferbytanus B 5th fragments Luke - John
T Codex Borgianus 5th fragments Luke - John
I Codex Freerianus 5th Pauline epistles
Z Codex Dublinensis 6th fragments of Matt.
L Codex Regius 8th Gospels
W Codex Washingtonianus 5th Luke 1:1–8:12; J 5:12–21:25
057 Uncial 057 4/5th Acts 3:5–6,10-12
0220 Uncial 0220 6th NT (without Rev.)
33 Minuscule 33 9th Romans

Other manuscripts: Codex Coislinianus, Porphyrianus (except Acts, Rev), Dublinensis, Sangallensis (only in Mark), Zacynthius, Athous Lavrentis (in Mark and Cath. epistles), 071, 073, 076, 077, 081, 083, 085, 087, 088, 089, 091, 094, 098, 0205.

Characteristics of the Alexandrian text-type

All extant manuscripts of all text-types are at least 85% identical and most of the variations are not translatable into English, such as word order or spelling.

When compared to witnesses of the Western text-type, Alexandrian manuscripts tend to be shorter; and are commonly regarded as having a lower tendency to expand or paraphrase.

Some of the manuscripts represented the Alexandrian text-type have the Byzantine corrections made by later hands (Papyrus 66, Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Ephraemi, Codex Regius, and Codex Sangallensis).

When compared to witnesses of the Byzantine text type, Alexandrian manuscripts tend:

  • to have a larger number of abrupt readings - such as the shorter ending of the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:8), which finishes in the Alexandrian text ".. for they were afraid";
  • to display more variations between parallel synoptic passages - as in the Lukan version of the Lord's Prayer (Luke 11:2), which in the Alexandrian text opens "Father.. ", whereas the Byzantine text reads (as in the parallel Matthew 6:9) "Our Father in heaven.. ";
  • to have a higher proportion of "difficult" readings - as in Matthew 24:36 which reads in the Alexandrian text "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only"; whereas the Byzantine text omits the phrase "nor the Son", thereby avoiding the implication that Jesus lacked full divine foreknowledge.

It must be noted that the above comparisons are tendencies, rather than consistent differences. Hence there are a number of passages in the Gospel of Luke where the Western text-type witnesses a shorter text - the Western non-interpolations. Also there are a number of readings where the Byzantine text displays variation between synoptic passages, that is not found in either the Western or Alexandrian texts - as in the rendering into Greek of the Aramaic last words of Jesus, which are reported in the Byzantine text as "Eloi, Eloi.." in Mark 15:34, but as "Eli, Eli.." in Matthew 27:46.

In Gospel of Matthew 27:49 was added this text: "The other took a spear and pierced His side, and immediately water and blood came out" (see: John 19:34). We can find this textual variant in codices: Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, Regius, and several other witnesses of Alexandrian text-type. Probably this text was added in a result of figthing with Docetism.

Editions of the Alexandrian text-type

Starting with Karl Lachmann (1850), manuscripts of the Alexandrian text-type have been the most influential in modern, critical editions of the Greek New Testament, achieving widespread acceptance in the text of Westcott & Hort (1881), and culminating in the United Bible Society 4th edition and Nestle-Aland 27th edition of the New Testament.

Evaluations of text-types

Most textual critics of the New Testament favor the Alexandrian text-type as the closest representative of the autographs for many reasons. One reason is that Alexandrian manuscripts are the oldest we have found, and some of the earliest church fathers used readings found in the Alexandrian text. Another is that the Alexandrian readings are adjudged more often to be the ones that can best explain the origin of all the variant readings found in other text-types.

Nevertheless, there are some dissenting voices to this general consensus. A few textual critics, especially those in France, argue that the Western text-type, an old text from which the Old Latin versions of the New Testament are derived, is closer to the originals.

In the United States, some critics have a dissenting view that prefers the Byzantine text-type. They assert that Egypt, almost alone, offers optimal climatic conditions favoring preservation of ancient manuscripts. Thus, the papyri used in the east (Asia Minor and Greece) would not have survived due to the unfavorable climatic conditions. The argument is that the much greater number of Byzantine manuscripts indicate a superior claim to being close to the autograph. The Byzantine text is also found in modern Greek Orthodox editions, as the Byzantine textual tradition has continued in the Eastern Orthodox Church into the present time.

Some of those arguing in favor of Byzantine priority further assert that the Alexandrian church was dominated by the gnostics who generally had either docetic views of Jesus, or considered his life to just be an allegory that was not based on facts. Alexandrian proponents counter that the Byzantine church was dominated by Arianism around the time that we first see evidence of the Byzantine text emerging. However, most scholars generally agree that there is no evidence of systematic theological alteration in any of the text types.

The evidence of the papyri suggests that - in Egypt at least - very different manuscript readings co-existed in the same area in the early Christian period. So, whereas the early 3rd century papyrus P75 witnesses a text in Luke and John that is very close to that found a century later in the Codex Vaticanus, the nearly contemporary P66 has a much freer text of John; with many unique variants; and others that are now considered distinctive to the Western and Byzantine text-types, albeit that the bulk of readings are Alexandrian. Most modern text critics therefore do not regard any one text-type as deriving in direct succession from autograph manuscripts, but rather, as the fruit of local exercises to compile the best New Testament text from a manuscript tradition that already displayed wide variations.

See also


Further reading

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