Early Manuscripts of Biblical Writings? What’s at Stake?
In light of the renewed hubbub about a supposed first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark, I’ll offer some comments about why people get all excited (or exasperated) about the matter and other such incidents.
For any text of antiquity, scholars prize early copies, the earlier the better. In the transmission process (hand-copying) every copy to be made presented the possibility of accidental or deliberate changes (variants) being introduced. So, in principle, the closer we can get to the origin of the text, the fewer such opportunities we have to consider, and the closer we might get to the text as it originated.
To take a well-known example, until the Qumran find, the oldest copy of the Hebrew scriptures we had was from the 10th century AD. In the Qumran manuscripts, however, scholars found copies of writings of the Hebrew scriptures that were dated (palaeographically) to the 1st century BC, i.e., some 1000 years earlier than the previously oldest Hebrew copy of these writings. That’s a monumental gain, and both scholarly studies and even recent translations (e.g., the NRSV) reflect some of the import of this.
Given that our only copy of Mark from the first three centuries is in “P45” (the Chester Beatty Gospels codex), which is commonly dated to ca. mid-3rd century AD, any additional copy of Mark from the pre-Constantinian period would be most welcome by all scholars. We know that the transmission of Mark resulted in many variants (although nearly all of them are small changes in word-order, tenses, etc., i.e., more stylistic than of any substance). The most well-known Markan variation-unit, of course, is the ending, where we have as many as four variant-endings reflected in the extant evidence. So, particularly because the early manuscript evidence for Mark is so limited, any additional copy from the earliest centuries would be greeted with great excitement.
But (you may ask) how useful can a mere fragment of a manuscript be for judging the transmission-history of a given writing? Well, of course, we’d always prefer a full/complete copy. But fragments of a manuscript can still tell us a lot. As to the text-critical question, although only a portion of the writing remains, what remains is at least a sample, and, very importantly, a random sample. That is, what remains hasn’t been determined by scholars but by the accidents of history. That randomness actually enhances the usefulness of a fragment. For a random sample may be indicative of the skill, care, ability of the copyist generally. If the portion of text in the exhibits a number of variants, perhaps variants that indicate carelessness in copying, then we may well suspect that the fragment reflects a larger copy of a text made by a copyist with limited skill or care.
If, however, the preserved portion of text seems to be fairly free of variants, and reflects a form of the text that seems to have been copied with some accuracy and care, then it’s fair to judge that the larger copy from which the fragment derives had those characteristics. So, although fragments only give us “snapshots” (so to speak) of ancient texts, they are still valid evidence on which to base judgements.
In the current flurry of excitement over the putative 1st-century fragment of Mark, there are obvious agendas at work. That both Dan Wallace and Craig Evans mentioned the item in debates and settings appealing to Christian apologetics clearly reflects one agenda: to emphasize the extent of evidence available for judging the early transmission and textual integrity of NT writings. But this particular agenda was formed in response to another, and equally suspicious purpose and agenda, reflected, e.g., by some rhetorical flourishes by some other scholars (e.g., Bart Ehrman, et al.), in which it is asserted that the chronological distance between extant copies of NT writings and the time of likely composition is such as to make it almost impossible to say whether extant copies resemble with any great faithfulness what the authors actually wrote. This sort of claim, too, is a kind of apologetics, in the service of scoring points in a religion-debate, in an effort to unsettle those (esp. traditional Christians) who revere the NT writings as scriptures.
As a former inter-scholastic debater (in high school days), and a fairly good one at that, I find these “debates” (e.g., Ehrman vs. this or that Evangelical) not the most productive way to engage the issues involved. I’ll simply point out that there are TWO agendas in play, TWO opposing apologetic-aims, and that there seems to me to be the danger (and incidence) of exaggeration and distortion on BOTH sides.
So, let’s all chill a bit, tone down the rhetoric, and allow the scholarly process to proceed. As to what we can make of early evidence about the early transmission of NT writings, I’ll refer readers to my essay published in 2006, “The New Testament in the Second Century: Texts, Collections and Canon”, the pre-publication version (and the publication facts) available here.
Oh, and one final note: One of my recent PhD students, Lonnie Bell, produced a study of all pre-Constaninian copies of the Gospel of John as his thesis (successfully defended last year). He’s currently preparing the thesis for submission to a publisher. I won’t “steal his thunder” here, but his analysis seems to me an important contribution to questions about the early transmission of this writing (and perhaps other NT writings). I think it should be published and that scholars will find it a cogent and valuable study, with perhaps a few surprises.