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The Early Text of the New Testament: The Latest Scholarship

December 4, 2012

Back in July, I noted the publication of a multi-author work that collectively addresses the many issues and bodies of evidence pertaining to the earliest state of the text of NT writings:  The Early Text of the New Testament, eds. C. E. Hill & M. J. Kruger (Oxford University Press, 2012).  The link to Mike Kruger’s announcement of the volume, which gives the table of contents, is here

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve taken the time to work through the volume (21 contributions, and over 400 pp.), and I have to underscore how impressed I am with it.  In the following comments, I highlight contributions that I found particularly valuable.  (In a previous posting, here, I referred to my own contribution:  “Manuscripts and the Sociology of Early Christian Reading,” 49-62.)

There are cogent discussions of wider issues, including in particular Harry Gamble, “The Book Trade in the Roman Empire” (pp. 23-36), and Kruger (a former PhD student), “Early Christian Attitudes toward the Reproduction of Texts” (pp. 63-80).  Scott Charlesworth, “Indicators of ‘Catholicity’ in Early Gospel Manuscripts” (37-48) is a provocative argument that early manuscripts reflect an emergent Christian copying culture with its own conventions.

Charles Hill (“‘In These Very Words':  Methods and Standards of Literary Brorowing in the Second Century,” pp. 261-81) provides a valuable study showing that pagan and Christian authors followed a different set of conventions in citing texts than used by copyists of texts.  This is a point I’ve tried to make for a number of years, and I’m pleased now to see this well-supported presentation of it.  The major point is that (contra some claims), we can’t play off the loose citations of NT writings in early Christian authors against the evidence of our early manuscripts to make a case that the NT writings were in a chaotic state until some supposed “recension” in the late second century that produced all our extant manuscripts.  In fact, the earliest manuscripts remain our best evidence for the text of NT writings.

This leads me to highlight the several chapters in which the manuscript evidence for various NT writings is analysed.  Tommy Wasserman, “The Early Text of Matthew” (83-107), Peter Head, “The Early Text of mark” (108-120), Juan Hernandez, “The Early Text of Luke” (121-39), Juan Chapa, “The Early Text of John” (140-56), Christopher Tuckett, “The Early Text of Acts” (157-74), James Royse, “The Early Text of Paul (and Hebrews)” (175-203), Tobias Nicklas, “The Early Text of Revelation” (225-38), all address the early witnesses and reach broadly similar (and positive) conclusions about the value of extant manuscript evidence.  J. K. Elliott (“The Early Text of the Catholic Epistles,” 204-24) is essentially an analysis of variant-readings in early papyri in comparison with the text of the Editio Critica Maior edition of the “Catholic” Epistles.

Peter Williams (“‘Where Two or Three are Gathered Together':  The Witness of the Early Versions,” 239-58) gives a sober review of the usefulness of the early “versions” (translations) of the NT, focusing especially on the Syriac.

Paul Foster (“The Text of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers,” 282-301) likewise provides the data and offers appropriately cautious advice about use of them:  “The quest for establishing the form of the text of the NT in the second century can only be securely undertaken on the basis of continuous texts of the NT writings that date to the second century itself” (p. 301).

Dieter Roth (one of my former PhD students), “Marcion and the Early New Testament Text” (302-12),  provides a valuable assessment of what we can derive about Marcion’s text of the Pauline epistles and Gospel of Luke.  This brief study draws on Roth’s PhD thesis and the larger study he is preparing on Marcion’s text of Luke.

It is also good to have the discussion of “Tatian’s Diatessaron and the Greek Text of the Gospels” (336-49) by the respected senior scholar, Tjitze Baarda.  Baarda’s sobering judgement has to be taken seriously:  “. . . it is my conviction that it is not possible to make the Diatessaron a standard witness in any appartus” (348). 

Stanley Porter (“Early Apocryphal Gospels and the NT Text,” 350-69) concludes “that the evidence from the apocryphal gospel literature is that the text of the Greek New Testament was relatively well established and fixed by the time fo the second and third centuries” (369).

D. Jeffrey Bingham & Billy R. Todd (“Irenaeus’s Text of the Gospels in Adversus haereses,” 370-92) confirm that generally Irenaeus’s citations reflect an early stage of the so-called “Western” text of the Gospels, showing particular agreement with old Latin witnesses.

Carl Cosaert (“Clement of Alexandria’s Gospel Citations,” 393-413) concludes that Clement’s Gospel citations exhibit a “high degree of textual confluence” with later Alexandrian fathers, an awareness of “diverse readings” in circulation, but a primary influence of the “Alexandrian” text of the Gospels.

This volume (though expensive!) is now probably the most up to date analysis of earliest evidence about the state and transmission of NT writings in the second century CE.  Given the limitations of our evidence, scholars are required to make the best inferences they can.  This volume provides essential resources in doing so, and largely shows that we can with some confidence posit that the NT writings, essentially as we know them, were copied for both ecclesial and private reading.

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  1. blop2008 permalink

    Professor Hurtado,

    What do you think of the debates (on DVD and youtube) about the early texts of the NT between Bart Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace? Are you familiar with their debates, books, and articles on this matter?


  2. I am not a scholar, but I wonder whether this collection addresses the conclusion of Maurice Casey and James Crossley that Mark was written in Aramaic as early as 40CE, and later translated into the form we now have? Does anyone else give credence to this?

    • To my knowledge, Crossley’s thesis about the early date of GMark (endorsed by his teacher, Casey) is very much a minority (of perhaps not more than two) opinion.

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