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“Original Text”: A Recent Discussion

January 16, 2014

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.

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  1. Larry, is this worded correctly, “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.”?

    I have one question: By acknowledging a chronological gap between autograph and earliest copies, are we not really describing a gap between autograph and later literary form, which the earliest copies may or may not reflect? In other words, later mss often times reflect the purer later literary form better than the earliest mss, correct? If this is right, then does it follow that one can only retrieve the text from c. 200 CE (e.g. P46)? Or do the mss from 200 CE already reflect error and revision which readings in other mss reveal?

    I guess my question is one of epistemology: how do we know that we are only going back as far as 200 CE and not earlier, especially, when one sees P46 (for example) as containing the variant and later texts preserving a more original text? Perhaps, there are exceptions to the general rule you (and Holmes?) are presenting?

    Thanks for bringing this issue to our attention.

    • Dear John,
      I don’t see any problem in what you quote from my posting. Let’s illustrate: If, e.g., the autographs of Paul’s letters date variously ca. 50-60 CE, and the earliest extant copies from ca. 200 CE, there is a chronological gap. Strictly, therefore, the most attainable and assured goal would be a critical edition that offers the text that served as exemplar for the copies dated to ca. 200 CE.
      But also, on the basis of the kinds of variants that MSS of that period exhibit, one could then infer backward into the second century. It’s a reasonable proposal that similar copying practices were observed such as are displayed in earliest extant MSS. Further, we know that at a very early point (depending on when you date 2 Peter) Paul’s letters were treated as scripture and apparently circulated as some kind of collection. This means that there were multiple copies, and that they were read in Christian gatherings. These latter factors would militate against some radical re-writing of them being un-noticed (to put it negatively). So, we can make scholarly inferences based on things we do know about things that we don’t know empirically.

      • Larry,
        Ok. Thanks for your clarification. I was tripping over the word “inferences.” Basically, you are still affirming that one can use all of the manuscript evidence combined with what we know, for example, about when Paul wrote his letters and perhaps also when his letters were collected vis-a-vis 2 Peter 3 in order to “restore” or reconstruct an earlier form of the text, though we do not know the exact wording of this text empirically.

      • Basically, yes. But also, of course, that’s essentially the situation with any literary text from antiquity. We have no autographs for any that I know. But that doesn’t mean that we can speak with some confidence about ancient texts and authors, e.g., Demosthenes, Cicero, Pliny, et al. For any, what we can strive for is the best critical edition of works, any such edition in principle subject to improvement in the light of further/better evidence and/or judgement.

      • I agree with you in principle. What stage in the textual history does the critical (and provisional) edition approximate? This is my last question. Thanks for your clear responses.

      • A critical text such as the Nestle-Aland aims to approximate the text from which all copies were subsequently made: i.e., the “Ausgangstext” (“Initial text”). This in turn is regarded as being an approximation of the “autograph” text, although the degree of approximation is debated.

      • Larry, once again thanks for the dialogue. I agree with what you have stated here.

  2. Ali Hussain permalink

    Professor , i have 3 questions .

    1) When MSS of the Bible are dated century wise ; eg: 2nd , 3rd etc , does this refer to the century after they were penned down or is it the 2nd and 3rd century etc after Christ ?

    2) Are there any 1st century MSS as Prof.Wallace claimed in his debate with Ehrman ?

    3) From which century do we have a complete New Testament in MSS form ?

    • The dating of MSS (of the Bible or other literature) is based either on the item having a date (as, e.g., sometimes in letters or “documentary” texts such as contracts) or on palaeographical grounds (i.e., the detailed features of the handwriting compared with the handwriting in other and more securely dated texts). The date designates the time-frame in which the MS was copied.
      We have no NT MSS dated to the first century CE. But we do have a number of OT MSS dated to the first century BCE and earlier (from Qumran and other sites in the Judean desert).
      The earliest MSS containing all the books of the now-traditional NT are from the 4th century CE.

  3. J.J. permalink

    We look forward to your full review, Larry. It’s a book worthy of many reviews and of good length. One of the more creative reviews I’ve read on it was by Yii-Jan Lin who did some textual criticism to compare the two editions to notice how some essays changed from their “original” in the first edition… including noteworthy variants such as Ehrman’s omission of the term “autograph” in the second edition.

  4. It seems to me that there’s an interesting theological as well as historical angle on the question of original vs initial vs variant text in the complexities of the ways in which the NT uses LXX / Greek variants, sometimes quite possibly knowing other versions of the text. Do any of the essays deal with that more specifically?

    • No, what you’re referring to seems to be in the discourse-realm of studies of the use of the OT in the NT.

  5. It is sad that the book is that expensive. But the issues addressed are top of the list, especially the hermeneutical approach in understanding the variants. They express different stages, outlooks, and agendas of the people who did the work of copying the manuscripts.

  6. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Cool – I borrowed this book from the library when you mentioned it a couple of weeks ago. I’ve read four essays so far: the one on Coptic (because I’m learning Coptic); Wallace of the TR/RT debate; Ehrman on the text and social history; and Holmes on “original” and “initial text”, plus a quick look at the “thoroughgoing” and “reasoned eclecticism” essays.

    I was wondering if you would have something to say about how this volume compares with the similar volume you participated in called “The Early Text of the New Testament”. That volume seemed slightly more conservative overall in terms of the goal of reaching the “original text” than Ehrman/Homes, although contributors in each differ, as it says in the introductions.

    It is interesting to see Wallace included despite the fact that Ehrman came close to ridiculing his views on the feasibility of reaching the “original text” during a debate they had a couple of years ago. Having said that, maybe it was more Homes’ choice to include Wallace, plus Wallace was given the rather “safe” topic of the Textus Receptus to expound on. Having said that, I found his essay really interesting: how the doctrine of “providential preservation” has a sort of logic to it, while ignoring most of the evidence; and the fine distinction between TR and RT that is sometimes missed by outside observers of the debate.

    About David Parker: I would say I find his views on the goal of TC most compelling and am persuaded that the original text is all but lost. He gave an excellent explanation of his position and survey of the field in general in his short book: “Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament” – excellent read!

    The Stanley Porter book on the other hand is just dreadful, I am sorry to say. He whines on about Ehrman, but can’t decide whether he objects to him on the basis that he is 1) an extreme sceptic, or 2) that he is simply stating the bleeding obvious (scholarly consensus) in a marketable form for a mass readership. It seems to me you can make one of those complaints or the other, but to make both at the same time is just bizarre. At one point Porter shrilly exclaims that publishers should be “ashamed of themselves” for publishing books with titles like “Misquoting Jesus”, I mean grow up! We don’t live in Geneva you know, no matter how much some conservative believers may hanker after the censorship of such a theocracy.

    • At the risk of straying too far from the topic of this post, I wish to comment on some of Mr. Jacobs’ criticisms and comments.

      I find your sweeping denunciation of Porter’s book to be quite unfair. First of all, Porter does not spend much time discussing Ehrman (pp 65-72 specifically on Misquoting Jesus and pp 20-23 on The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture) as compared to rest of the 213 page book, excluding indexes. In addition, the way I read Porter, I don’t find him annoyed so much as simply stating the facts to include the fallacy of some of Ehrman’s arguments. Porter agrees in part with some of Ehrman’s criticisms, those which are well known to the discipline of textual criticism, but notes how he takes them to illogical and unfair extremes. And, finally, I may have missed it, but I didn’t catch where the author stated that the publishers of MJ “should be ‘ashamed of themselves”’. Perhaps you can cite page number.

      Also, I’m confused by your statement about “the fine distinction between TR and RT that is sometimes missed by outside observers of the debate”. I’m assuming that TR = Textus Receptus, while RT = Received Text. Aren’t these the same thing? Perhaps you meant MT (Majority Text) rather than RT?

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Yes you are correct I meant the distinction between the majority text (MT) and the received text.

        The shrill exclamation from Porter about Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus: the Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why” is on page 7, note 12:

        “I must say that publishers who issue books with such sensational titles should be ashamed of themselves.”

        Look at the index: Porter engages (derides) Ehrman throughout the book, not just in the section dedicated to him.

        (Editor’s Note: OK, I think we’ve pursued the matter far enough. In any event, it takes us off from the topic of my posting.)

  7. Geoff Hudson permalink

    Larry, I don’t believe that all this effort takes one any closer to real history.

    • Geoff: You’ve surely given us all knowledge of your beliefs. But scholarship isn’t about beliefs; it’s about reasoned argument/inference based on detailed competence in the evidence. So, you’ve registered your belief (I’d say, your bias). Enough said.

  8. Brian permalink

    I heard Bart Ehrman, Daniel Wallace and Michael Holmes (and others) discuss these issues at their 2008 Greer-Heard Counterpoint Forum back in 2009. It seems like they have refined and imprinted what they were already debating back then.

  9. Thanks Larry for yr first thoughts on this. In the field of text criticism of classical Greek&Latin we are still very much in pursuit of the ‘original text’, albeit that we recognise the problems associated with the idea in itself. For instance, if we are dealing with the poems of Horace, there is value to using the variants as evidence for the interesting evidence for the history of Horatian criticism (there are early variants that are still metrical because the metre was still understood, later ones which arose once classical Latin metre was no longer understood etc.), but it may still be assumed that Horace did originally write a poem and it is not an invalid goal to attempt to reconstruct it from the extant evidence, albeit that one admits that occasionally (and it would only be a small minority of cases) two variants might represent different editions. Once one has reached the end of the line by a normal recensional method, one proceeds with conjectural emendation where it is felt necessary. Both the goals (original text, and evaluating the processes of textual history) are valid scholarly pursuits.

    • jwds permalink

      Daniel, do you know of any books on text criticism written more specifically for the field of classics or ancient history, rather than NT? Or perhaps on some of the specific authors? The state of the MS evidence in ancient works is often referenced in NT discussions, but I’ve had a hard time tracking down specific treatments by classical/ancient history scholars within their own fields…Thanks.

      • JWDS: There are whole bibliographies of works on textual criticism of classical works, Shakespeare, Piers Plowman, et alia. E.g., Erick Kelemen, Textual Editing and Criticism: AN Introduction. (Norton, 2009); E. J. Kenney, “Textual Criticism,” The New Encyclopaedia Britannica 18 (1974) 189-95 (online:; Paul Maas, Textual Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958).

      • Martin West’s little book on Textual Criticism is the best recent thing in terms of pure methodology. If you’re after info about particular authors, then Reynolds, Texts and Transmission (for Latin) and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars (for Greek) are good starts

  10. Stanley Porter discusses this very thing in his book How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), in a subsection titled “Questioning the Original Text” (pp 27-36), referencing Holmes, Parker and others. I just read that particular section yesterday.

    The book is an expanded form of lectures he gave originally at Acadia Divinity College, Nova Scotia in 2008.

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