“Original Text”: A Recent Discussion
I finally finished reading and writing the review of a massive and very worthwhile multi-author book that I mentioned in an earlier posting: The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis, Second Edition, eds. Bart D. Ehrman & Michael W. Holmes (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2013). At 830 pages (plus indexes and front matter), and containing 29 contributions, it’s sort of “the daddy” among recent books on NT textual criticism. And it’s not simply big, it really does comprise a valuable body of discussions of nearly all matters, with copious bibliographies for each one. I congratulate Ehrman and Holmes, and all the contributors too, for this excellent project. It’s only too bad that the hardback price of over $300 (USD) will make it prohibitive for almost any individual, and for all but the most dedicated (and well-financed) libraries. But I understand that a softbound edition is now announced and out soon that will sell for ca. $75, making it just affordable for committed readers.
My full review will appear in due course in Review of Biblical Literature (the excellent online book-review project sponsored by the Society of Biblical Literature), but I want to flag up one contribution in particular (by Holmes) that deals with a much-contested issue in NT text-critical circles: “From ‘Original text’ to ‘Initial Text': The Traditional Goal of New Testament Textual Criticism in Contemporary Discussion” (pp. 637-88). This is one of several new contributions for this second edition (the first edition appeared in 1995), indicative that this issue has come much more to the fore in the period between the two editions.
As indicated in the title, the originating and “traditionally” principal goal of NT textual criticism was typically stated as attempting to re-create the “original” text of NT writings. This usually meant (using critical methods and criteria) wording as close as feasible to the wording of the text as it came from the author. But it is now recognized that there are several complications.
One problem is the ambiguity of the term “original text.” If one means the “autograph” as it came from the author, there was already likely a copying/transmission process involved from the outset, which likely means that there were at least some differences among even these very first copies (as one expects of any text copied by hand). And in some cases, authors might have released more than one copy or even more than one “edition” of a given writing (e.g., Acts??).
So, with a number of other textual critics, Holmes prefers to advocate aiming to establish a critical text that is “the earliest recoverable” (in light of extant evidence) and that approximates (as best we can judge) the wording of a given writing that stands at the head of its subsequent transmission. This definition of the goal reflects the limitations of the extant evidence, while also retaining something of the traditional historical aim of moving back towards the originating text.
Our German colleagues in the Munester Institute for New Testament Text-Critical Research express now as their aim the “Ausgangstext,” which seems to be pretty much equivalent to what Holmes means.In short, this terminological discussion isn’t simply pedants playing with words; it reflects a substantive matter. There is a chronological gap between the “autograph” of NT writings and our earliest extant copies (as there is for just about any literary text from antiquity), and so the closest we might come is a restoration of the wording/state of a given writing at the approximate date of our earliest copies. One could then make inferences about the relationship of that restored text to the “autograph” copy, but inferences, although critically based, are only that. But, as Holmes also notes, there is another important development in recent NT text-critical discussion: Variants are no longer seen simply as problems to be solved so as to get back to the originating wording of a text, but instead are now seen as valuable data in themselves of how a given text was transmitted, what forces may have affected this transmission, and in what form the text was known and read in various settings. This is a major development in the discipline, opening new vistas for research, and linking NT textual criticism more directly to church/doctrinal history and to interests in the development of earliest Christianity. Indeed, some scholars (e.g., David Parker) seem so keen on the latter type of study that they express little interest in the “original text” issues, preferring to focus on the “living text” of NT writings (especially the Gospels). Holmes engages this stance as well, insisting that it remains valid and feasible to pursue the restoration of the early form of NT writings from which all subsequent copies derive ultimately. As he also observes, any stance on this matter reflects some kind ideological commitment, not simply a judgment about the feasibility of the task. Whatever stance one takes on these matters, I’m sure all will be grateful for Holmes’s patient and carefully considered discussion of them. It certainly shows that NT textual criticism is not a stagnant or obscure discipline, but lively with debate, and of crucial relevance for the wider aims of historical investigation of Christian origins.