Textual Optimism: A Critique of the UBS4

I’m on the plane to Tampa and I’m reading Textual Optimism: A Critique of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament by Kent W. Clarke, part of the JSNT monograph series now edited by Stanley Porter,

The opening chapter on the history of (mainly modern) textual criticism is a fine summary, and it would make an excellent class reading assignment. Westcott and Hort get the most space, but that material is readily available elsewhere. Those familiar with it may want to skip to the history of the UBS GNT (and how it relates to the Nestle-Aland series of GNTs).

The focus of this work starts in the second chapter. Here Clark examines the textually optimistic shift in the A-D rating system from UBS 1-3 to UBS4.

Did you follow that? Briefly, the UBS GNTs rate each textual variant unit with the following system:

  • {A} The text is certain.
  • {B} The text is almost certain.
  • {C} The editors had difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text.
  • {D} The editors had great difficulty arriving at a decision.

The remarkable set of statistics Clark has compiled show clearly that while the overall number of treated variants went down slightly from UBS3 to UBS4 (1444 to 1431), the number and percentage of A and B ratings went up significantly while C ratings dropped significantly. The D rating is now almost non-existent: the 144 D’s in UBS3 have decreased to just 9 in all of UBS4.

This could be because the UBS4 has chosen to treat different variants, but Clark rejects that as a sufficient explanation. Here are some of his key summary statements:

“There is…an astonishing upgrade in the UBSGNT4 and, therefore, a newly proposed quality of text.” (90)

“There is a strong tendency for each biblical book (excluding Mark) to move towards an increasing degree of certainty regarding debated readings, and thus, an overall upgrade in the quality of text. These UBSGNT4 modifications progress at an inconsistent rate and are incongruent with those alterations made throughout [previous editions].” (90)

Here are some key stats detailing the shift from UBS3 to UBS4 (the number of ratings is followed by the percentage of the total):

  • {A} ratings: 126 / 9% to 514 / 36%
  • {B} ratings: 475 / 33% to 541 / 38%
  • {C} ratings: 699 / 48% to 367 / 26%
  • {D} ratings: 144 / 10% to 9 / 1%

More exciting statistics to come, D.V.

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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