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Textual Transmission of NT Writings in the Second Century

March 20, 2015

The recent postings by Dieter Roth on Marcion’s Gospel reflect wider questions about how the writings that now form the familiar NT regarded and transmitted, especially in the second century.  It is all too easy to play a “what if” game, postulating this or that theory.  Our data are frustratingly limited, but sufficient, I think, to allow us to proceed with some guarded confidence.  And these data also enable us to assess various proposals about these wider questions.  I’ll simply mention here a few resources for those seriously interested in the questions (and not simply posers), and offer a few observations/results of such studies.

Perhaps the crucial work now is the multi-author volume:  The Early Text of the New Testament, eds. Charles E. Hill & Michael J. Kruger (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2012).  In addition to overviews of key questions, such as Kruger’s discussion, “Early Christian Attitudes toward the Reproduction of Texts” (pp. 63-80), there are detailed analyses of the textual history of each of the main NT writings by competent textual historians.  There are also studies of a host of related matters, such as Hill’s discussion of “Methods and Standards of Literary Borrowing in the Second Century,” Paul Foster on “The Text of the NT in the Apostolic Fathers,” Dieter Roth on “Marcion and the Early NT Text,” Joseph Verheyden on “Justin’s Text of the Gospels,” Tijtze Baarda on “Tatian’s Diatessaron and the Greek Text of the Gospels,” Stanley Porter on “Early Apocryphal Gospels and the NT Text,” Jeffrey Bingham & Billy Todd on “Irenaeus’ Text of the Gospels in Adversus haereses,” and Carl Cosaert on “Clement of Alexandria’s Gospel Citation.”  And each essay is rich with citation and engagement with the abundant other scholarly literature and views on each topic.

On a more modest scale, I’ll also refer to my own essay published several years ago: Larry W. Hurtado, “The New Testament in the Second Century: Text, Collections and Canon,” in Transmission and Reception: New Testament Text-Critical and Exegetical Studies, edited by J. W. Childers and D. C. Parker (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2006), 3-27.   As suggested by the sub-title, I discuss various historical factors that likely helped to shape the transmission of the NT writings in that early period.  The pre-publication version is available on this blog site here.

To make some basic observations:

  • There are indications that some of the familiar NT writings were being treated as scriptures by ca. 100 CE (perhaps even a bit earlier), esp. epistles of Paul, and not much later at least some of the canonical Gospels (and perhaps all four).
  • The extant remains of early manuscripts, which may take us back into the late 2nd century, show variations in copyist attitudes and abilities, and variations in the texts copied.  But these variations are actually quite small and unremarkable.  None of the major variants are attested.  These data suggest (1) it is unlikely that there was some centralized recension of NT writings that artificially obscured an earlier and greater diversity in text, and (2) there is no indication of a “wild” copying tendency or a readiness to change the texts in any major manner.  It is interesting that, although we commonly presume that major variants such as the “Pericope Adulterae” (John 7:53–8:12) and the “Long ending” of Mark were added to copies of the respective Gospels in the second century, we have no extant manuscript from the earliest centuries with either variant.

So, my final plea is that we formulate our theories “upward” from the extant data, not by starting with some “what if” notion and then force-fitting everything to suit the hunch.  It’s more boring, maybe, but it’s also more scientific and likely to achieve something valid.



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  1. Martin Willis permalink

    Dear Dr Hurtado

    Do you support the Q hypothesis and, if so, do you think Marcion used it? I ask because, as far as I know, Marcion’s gospel contains noQ material.

    • Incorrect. The reconstructions of Marcion’s Gospel do include material often assigned to “Q”. I remain of the opinion (with most NT scholars) that Marcion modified a version of a Gospel text, likely Luke. And Luke is commonly seen as incorporating “Q” material.

  2. griffin permalink

    Vinzent would logically require flexible or decentralized approaches to texts till 140 AD or so. Given frustratingly little data, can we definitively rule that out? Here we might recall early resentments regarding the imposition of Catholic vs Orthodox centralization and over-stabilization of dogma and presumably, text.

    • Griffin (your name?? We use names here, please): All of us grant “decentralized approaches” through the first two centuries at least (by which I presume that you mean no ecclesiastical authorities able to control copying in centres). That’s not the issue. Vinzent claims that there were no Gospel texts prior to Marcion. (Oh, and “Catholic vs Orthodox centralization” is COMPLETELY anachronistic for this early period. You really need to acquaint yourself with the early history of Christianity.)

  3. Brian permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,

    When you say: “we have no extant manuscript from the earliest centuries with either variant.” What do you mean by “with either variant”? That both passages are or are not part of the earliest extant mss we have discovered until today? Sorry for my ignorance on this point, I havent read about both variants in terms of textual criticism.

    • I mean that no Greek manuscript of GJohn or GMark dated earlier than the 5th century includes either the Pericope of the Adulteress or the “Long Ending” of Mark. There are hints that a version of the Adulteress woman story was known earlier, and references in CHristian writers of the 4th century suggesting that they knew the Pericope in copies of GJohn (not all).

  4. Roland Wolfe permalink

    The Early Text of the New Testament, eds. Charles E. Hill & Michael J. Kruger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) was made available in a much more affordable paperback version last year.

  5. Thanks for this, Dr. Hurtado. Could you comment briefly on Bauckham’s circulation theory of the gospels as it relates to these textual transmissions?

    • Hmm. I’m not sure that the view of Bauckham to which you refer is relevant to my posting. Bauckham proposes that the Gospels weren’t originally written for specific communities but for general circulation. My posting was about the copying/transmission of the NT writings (Gospels included) diachronically across the first couple of centuries.

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