“Originals” for NT Gospels??
In reading for review the recent (mammoth) multi-author volume, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis, Second Edition, eds. B. D. Ehrman & M. W. Holmes (Leiden: Brill, 2013), one of the things that caught my attention was in Michael Holmes’ contribution, “From ‘Original Text’ to ‘Initial Text'” (pp. 637-88). In a section of this essay he considers the question (posed by David Parker) whether the NT Gospels are “the kinds of texts that have originals” (p. 670; the section in question = 670-77).
Holmes’s response is to compare the nature and extent of textual variation evidenced in extant manuscripts of the Gospels and a number of other writings, including some other early Christian ones. He shows that, in comparison with the kinds of textual variation (and even dislocation) that one finds in texts such as Shepherd of Hermas. or Life of Adam and Eve (and we might also include Gospel of Thomas), the NT Gospels seem to have a greater measure of textual fixity.
To be sure, as Holmes freely notes, there are many textual variants evidenced in the early manuscripts of the NT Gospels, many indeed. But these, he points out rightly, are typically variations in such things as word-order (e.g., in phrases), tenses of verbs, individual words, etc. Whereas in the comparison texts, we have much larger textual variation, such as re-arrangement of material (as reflected, e.g., in comparing the Greek fragments of Thomas with the later Coptic text), the compilation of composite texts (again, Hermas and Didache are examples of the latter), and such. That is, with the Gospels we appear to have lots of small variations, but not much in the way of the larger types of variation reflected in some other writings.
This leads him to propose that the Gospels seem to display “what one may term microlevel fluidity and macrolevel stability” (p. 674). I find this handy terminology and a helpful distinction very much worth testing and using in considering the textual transmission of early Christian writings.
The closest that we get to any “macrolevel” variants in the Gospels are the “long ending” to the Gospel of Mark (i.e., Mark 16:9-20 in the “King James” Version) and the “Pericope of the Adulterous Woman” (i.e., John 7:53–8:11). But the latter does not appear in any extant witnesses earlier than ca. 400 CE. As for the Markan “long ending” (and the other alternative endings), this too isn’t evidenced in our earliest witnesses of Mark, and, in any case, the main body of Mark doesn’t show any disturbance or re-arrangement of material.
Holmes’s essay is a thoughtful engagement with the question of whether it is feasible to pursue the traditional aim of reconstructing the earliest extant text of the NT writings. I commend it to anyone else seriously interested in the matter.
For a somewhat similar argument, see this recent study: K. Martin Heide, “Assessing the Stability of the Transmitted Texts of the New Testament and the Shepherd of Hermas,” in The Reliability of the New Testament: Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace in Dialogue, ed. Robert B. Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 111-45.