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Why You Need to Read Your Critical Apparatus

Updated: Jan 15, 2021

The apparatus to a critical text of the Greek New Testament condenses a wealth of information about the text. The apparatus can be a bit complicated to get used to. The symbols and abbreviations it uses are their own kind of language that you need to learn, even aside from the language of the text. In another respect though, the apparatus can also be deceptively simple unless you read it in two different ways—vertically and horizontally.

Reading Vertically

Reading the apparatus vertically is by far the more obvious of the two strategies. As you read the main text, you find different places of variation. For each place of variation, you can then consult the apparatus to see what it has to say about the different witnesses it includes. You then move on to the next place of variation, considering the various options it indicates for filling the place where it’s noted in the main text. When you read your apparatus “vertically,” you consider the variants more or less in isolation from each other and look at their various alternatives for the main text.

Reading Horizontally

But reading the apparatus horizontally is important too. When reading horizontally, you read across the different places of variation to better understand the text’s different forms.

To illustrate the value of this practice, it might be easiest to take a concrete example from Rom 10:5.

Surveying the Main Text

In the Nestle-Aland’s 28th edition, this text appears as

Μωϋσῆς γὰρ γράφει ⸂τὴν δικαιοσύνην τὴν ἐκ [τοῦ] νόμου ὅτι⸃ ποιήσας°αὐτὰ°1ἄνθρωπος ζήσεται ἐναὐτοῖς*.

So, you have five different places of variation noted in the text. These are respectively noted by the signs ⸂…⸃, […], °, °1, and ⸀.

Unpacking the Apparatus

But if you unpack the apparatus, you find that it identifies eleven distinct readings for this one verse. The additional readings emerge because some of the witnesses group together differently at the different places of variation.

According to the apparatus, the differences in these readings mainly revolve around

1) The placement of ὅτι, whether before τὴν δικαιοσύνην or after νόμου,

2) The presence or absence of τοῦ,

3) The interchange of νόμου and πίστεως,

4) The presence or absence of αὐτά,

5) The presence or absence of ἄνθρωπος, and

6) The interchange of αὐτοῖς for αὐτῇ.

But unless you read horizontally across the variation units, you might well miss that, for example, variations 1 and 4 are strongly related.

When ὅτι appears after νόμου, it simply introduces the following quotation from Lev 18:5. In this case, δικαιοσύνην is an accusative of respect that tells the topic about which Μωϋσῆς … γράφει. The ὅτι clause then specifies the content of what Μωϋσῆς … γράφει.

But when ὅτι appears before τὴν δικαιοσύνην, it directly introduces the content of what Μωϋσῆς … γράφει. This means that αὐτά has become redundant with δικαιοσύνην in competition for the slot of direct object for the participle ποιήσας.

So, in a couple cases, ὅτι appears before τὴν δικαιοσύνην and αὐτά is retained (33*, 1881). But in almost all the cited witnesses where ὅτι appears before τὴν δικαιοσύνην, the same witnesses also omit αὐτά (א*, A, D*, 81, 630, 1506, 1739, co). And observing this relatedness can help in sorting out the different readings and possibilities for why they’ve arisen.


So, when you read a critical text of the Greek New Testament, you need to read the apparatus too. You need to read the apparatus vertically to take account of the different places of variation in themselves. And you need to read the apparatus horizontally to take account of relationships that different variants might have with each other.

As a tool to help you engage the apparatus in the Nestle-Aland’s 28th edition, I’ve prepared a condensed, searchable table of its signs and abbreviations. I’ll be happy to share this table with you entirely for free. In it, I’ve also included the Unicode equivalents for several of the signs—in case you find yourself wanting to type them.

I hope you find this table a helpful reference as you read your apparatus—both vertically and horizontally.

J. David Stark

Winnie and Cecil May Jr. Biblical Research Fellow, Faulkner University Kearley Graduate School of Theology


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