No, this is not a reproduction of the lecture I give to my students when they hand in essays in bad English...
I want to argue here that the spelling of the Greek New Testament matters more than is usually reckoned.
Background: All editions of the GNT since printing began have sought to produce an NT with consistent spelling. Though there are various spellings in the manuscripts, editors usually plump for one and stick with it all the way through.
It is true that with words of rare occurrence different editors may accept different spellings in different places (e.g. the spellings of Rahab in Hebrews 11:31 and Matthew 1:5). There are also names for which different spellings are produced, e.g. Jerusalem or Mary. On the whole, however, when witnesses are regularly divided spelling is decided globally, despite fluctuations from text to text in the manuscript support for the general decision the editors have made. Thus Westcott and Hort spelled David's name Δαυειδ but this is always spelled Δαυιδ in Nestle-Aland. It is as if scholars woke up one morning and all of a sudden the evidence for the spelling in each passage changed.
This does not merely affect proper names, but also many verb and noun forms (e.g. forms of λαμβανω), and particularly the question of the moveable nu. There are literally hundreds of words in the GNT with varied possibilities for spelling. Some phenomena, such as the spelling of δε or αλλα and whether the final letter elides, offer a literal wealth of data.
Why does this matter? After all, spelling variants do not affect meaning.
The reason it matters are as follows:
1) Spelling may tell us something about canon history. David Trobisch has argued that the common presence of nomina sacra in manuscripts points towards a 'canonical edition'. Even if, like me, one is sceptical of his case, one can still admit that spelling may tell us something about which books were collected when. Letters by the same person might contain varied spelling (authors are not always consistent, and varying amanuenses might be used). If, however, there is a significant homogeneity of spelling this may point to a common scribe (perhaps someone who brought letters together) or author. To what extent is spelling uniform across the fourfold gospels? What about Luke-Acts? What about Hebrews in relation to the Paulines? These are all questions that could be addressed by research on spelling.
2) Spelling may tell us something about literary dependence. If there is an unusual congruence of spelling between two works, but not between others, this might show us something in relation to literary dependence. This might be used in the Synoptic question.
3) Spelling may help us detect secondary variants. Obviously, this could only be used alongside other criteria.
4) Spelling may help highlight citation. We have of course the fascinating case of the use of ειπον 'I said' in John 10:36 following the Septuagintesque (Bible-sounding) ειπα 'I said' in John 10:34. This may be somewhat akin to the difference for us between 'spoke' and 'spake'. How many more of these are there that are not recorded in editions?
5) Spelling data may tell us about the attitude of the copyists towards the text. We know from a comparison of P75 and B that spelling could be faithfully copied. How widespread was the view that the letters of the text should be copied faithfully? Can this be connected with a theology of the text?
6) Spelling data may help us differentiate between Patristic citation by memory and Patristic citation by consultation of a manuscript.
There are a number of other reasons why spelling data are important. I think that this may be a significant area of untapped data. Spelling is a domain in which theological debates are hardly likely to have made inroads. Moreover, despite the fact that scribes clearly did frequently change spelling, there is also plenty of evidence of conservatism, which is why some spellings widely used in Classical literature are hardly found in NT mss. The absence of the iota adscript, though more common in inscriptional material, is particularly noticeable. Since the spelling data taken over the whole NT gives us thousands of pieces of information it is highly unlikely that all historically useful information has been lost from our manuscripts. This is so, even if we take a pessimistic view of their transmission.
This is an area where there has been virtually no interest and virtually no research, but there is almost certainly lots to discover. It is also an area where an optimistic view of the transmission of the NT (such as an evangelical might tend to possess—though it is not exclusively found in them) is a far better stimulus to research than the pessimism that seems to dominate academic discourse about Christian origins. The critical consensus may be said to have tended to lead to complacency.