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More on Manuscripts: Longevity and Other Matters

June 24, 2011

In a recent posting, Craig Evans sumarizes some ideas from a paper that I read some time back, and in which he pointed me to the interesting article by George Houston about the longevity of ancient Greek manuscripts.  There are also some interesting comments, esp. from Greg Schwendner:

I agree that the longevity of ancient manuscripts is a factor relevant in trying to understand how the NT texts were transmitted and what forces may have affected this process, along with others that have been cited by a number of scholars.  I’ve drawn attention to some of these other factors in an essay published several years ago, the manuscript posted under the “Essays, etc.” tab of this blog site:  “The NT in the Second Century”.

There certainly are reasons to question the sometimes glib claim that in the 2nd century the textual transmission of NT writings was completely chaotic.  But we should also probably avoid an equally simplistic view that they were transmitted everywhere with the same protocols and practices in place.  The ancient classical texts noted by Houston were the property of somewhat more elite individuals and circles, and the Qumran texts were the property of a geographically confined and somewhat tightly organized single community.  Under these circumstances, it would be more likely for a consistent “copyist culture” to develop and persist.

But we should remember that the NT writings seem (from the first) to have been copied frequently, circulated impressively widely trans-locally, and used (and copied) by people of somewhat varying social and educational levels.  So, I would think that we should expect a certain variety of copyist practices, perhaps ranging from more exact to considerably less so.

I suggest that this is in general terms what the earliest manuscript evidence shows.  We do not see major fluidity (indeed the major textual variants, e.g., the pericope of the adulterous woman, seem to appear first in later manuscripts).  But we do see some variety in copying practices, some manuscripts reflecting what seems an impressive concern for exact copying, and other manuscripts showing varying degrees of freedom in making what the persons responsible must have regarded as “improvements” (usually stylistic) in the text being transmitted.

In short, I’d say that it’s dubious to make a broad generalization, either that the NT writings were transmitted in a “wild/free” or chaotic mode, or that they were always exactly copied.  Instead, we should allow for a certain variety of copying practices.

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