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The Retreating Claim of an Early NT Textual Recension

April 7, 2016

The continued claim that there was a datable “recension” of NT writings sometimes resembles the stubborn rear-guard action of a retreating force that’s been beaten in battle but won’t surrender.   When driven from one position, claimants simply retreat to another.

A century and more ago, some scholars posited a major “recension” of the text of the NT supposedly carried out in the fourth century and sometimes ascribed to Hesychius of Alexandria (3rd-4th century) as the source of the text that we have in the great codices such as Vaticanus.  But the bases for this ascription are not secure.  More importantly, when 3rd-century NT papyri were discovered and published, it became clear that the NT text attested in the great 4th-century codices was substantially attested in these papyri from a century or more earlier.

So then the claim of a major NT textual recension moved backward in time to the late 2nd or early 3rd century and Alexandria.  The late William Petersen, for example, posited 180 CE as “the date when the ‘Alexandrian’ or ‘Neutral’ recension was created, probably by the generation of Leonidas [sic], the father of Origen.”[1] From this supposed recension, he further posited, all our extant 3rd-century papyri derive. This claim quite handily allowed him, thus, to disregard these early witnesses to the NT text, and to preserve the cherished notion of a recension.

Indeed, Petersen insisted that the only relevant data for describing the state of the text of the NT in the second century (prior to his alleged recension) are the apparent uses of NT writings in the writings of 2nd-century church figures such as Justin Martyr. But, as I urged some years ago now, this is a major methodological error, confusing the conventions pertaining to ancient citation/use of text with the conventions pertaining to the copying of texts.[2] We know that Roman-era writers typically drew upon other writings loosely, and often deliberately did so.[3] That was a feature of rhetorical and writing practices of that time. But it is not indicative of how copyists treated the task of transmitting texts in manuscripts.

So, in fact, the primary data pertaining to the transmission of ancient writings such as the NT are the early manuscripts. In the case of the NT writings, we have some that take us back to ca. 200 CE and perhaps even a bit earlier. In particular, we have such early manuscript data for the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John in the papyri known as P75 and P66, as well as P46 for the letters of Paul. And these manuscripts, together with collateral data, suggest that, instead of some phantom recension relocated into the late 2nd century CE, we should posit a relatively conscientious copying of NT writings as what lies behind the extant manuscripts (or at least behind the majority of the early ones). There were, to be sure, variations in the abilities of early copyists, resulting in a number of copying errors (which are usually readily identifiable). And some ancient readers clearly made changes here and there, most often reflecting stylistic preferences but also for what they meant as clarification and removal of ambiguities in meaning (and these also most often readily identifiable). But, in the main, ancient copyists just copied their exemplars.

As for “the generation of Leonidas” (properly, Leonides) and subsequent figures such as Origen, here too the data don’t justify much confidence in the assertion that the sort of text that we have in P75 and Vaticanus, for example, derives from some recension dated to ca. 180. Consider, for example, Gordon Fee’s data-rich critique of “The Myth of Early Textual Recension in Alexandria,” in which, among other things, he pointed to studies of Origen’s text-critical practices.[4] In short, there is scant basis for ascribing to Origen and others of his (or the preceding) generation the sort of project that Petersen and some others have asserted.

But the rear-guard action continues in some quarters, and one still encounters claims of a major recension of NT writings from which all extant manuscripts derive. Only now it’s often put well back into the second century, and increasingly earlier as the counter-evidence accumulates. With no desire to over-simplify things, however, such a notion seems increasingly to be an apparition that, however, cherished and linked with respected scholars of the past, should probably be laid aside as we continue to probe the transmission of NT writings in the second century.[5]  There were likely various efforts to collect and transmit these writings, but the notion of a recension carried out at some particular point is, as Fee labelled it, a myth.


[1] William L. Petersen, “What Text Can New Testament Textual Criticism Ultimately Reach?” in New Testament Textual Criticism, Exegesis, and Early Church History: A Discussion of Methods, ed. Barbara Aland and Joël Delobel (Kampen: Kok-Pharos, 1994), 150 (136-52).  I knew and liked Petersen, and his work on Tatian’s Diatessaron is the “go-to” resource on that subject, but I found his claim about this supposed recension of the NT text bizarre.

[2] 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, ed. J. W. Childers and D. C. Parker (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2006), 3-27.

[3] Christopher D. Stanley, Paul and the Language of Scripture: Citation Technique in the Pauline Epistles and Contemporary Literature, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, 74 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[4] Gordon D. Fee, “P75, P66, and Origen: The Myth of Early Textual Recension in Alexandria,” in New Dimensions in New Testament Study, ed. Richard N. Longenecker and Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 19-45; republished in Eldon J. Epp and Gordon D. Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1993), 247-73.

[5] For earlier postings on a similar subject, see here and here.

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  1. Who has made this claim in the last 20-30 years?

    • Peter: Both Petersen & Koester, and others echoing them. Check around.

      • It is a silly claim. But calling it a ‘continued claim’ is a stretch. Fee put it to bed long ago.

      • No. It’s not a stretch, when the claim remains echoed by others. E.g., Andrew Gregory’s book on the reception of Luke and Acts defers to Petersen on the matter. Fee’s article is a powerful refutation (along with others), but the claim simply retreats: so, e.g., now the putative redaction is put back into the mid/late second century.

      • Yes, there is a retreating time frame. Reminds me of a quote from Gerd Mink I just read: “And you know the tendency is to say the text we can reconstruct is of the second half of the second century and so on–or the fourth–century–so they have enough room in the second century to play with variant hypotheses, what may have happened in the evolution of the text.” That’s from an interview in 2011.

  2. Greg permalink

    Just wondering which works you have in mind that continue to advocate a datable recension (in the 2nd c.)? I can think of Trobisch’s books on the Pauline letter collection and the first edition of the NT (noted in a previous comment), but what of others? Thanks!

  3. elderdxc permalink

    How does this affect the Majority Text/Byzantine Text/Critical Text debate?

    • There’s no connection directly, although the general force of the early manuscripts is against the priority of the “Majority/Byzantine” text. Despite its ardent little band of supporters, the evidence suggests that it is a form of text that developed across early centuries and began to form recognizably in the 6th century and thereafter.

  4. Matt Whidden permalink

    Thanks Dr. Hurtado. I enjoy keeping up with TC issues and your insight is great.

  5. Donald Jacobs permalink

    The sorts of evidence that indicate a second century “edition” of the text, as argued by David Trobisch, include the universal adoption of nomina sacra, the names given to the individual texts, the passages that indicate editorial work (such as John 21), and even the very fact codices were used for transmission.

    Maybe it could have happened that disparate Christians in different places all adopted the codex, the names for the texts, and nomina sacra, all independently of one another, and for their own reasons. But it seems a less likely explanation.

    Plus given that all the early papyri come from Egypt, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that they may tend to reflect an early Egyptian kind of text, and that other sorts of textual traditions likely existed elsewhere. This is what it means to weigh textual evidence rather than simply count it.

    • Well, Donald, I’ll ignore your parting slight (but don’t try it again). The nomina sacra originate as a convention, not a regime, as evident in the variations and the growth in the practice. Likewise, the preference for the codex was a convention. And the manic networking of early Christian groups handily provides the mechanism by which such conventions spread so quickly (read Harry Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church.
      As the evidence of editorial work on individual writings, e.g., John 21, hardly amount to a wholesale “edition” of an entire NT. Contra Trobisch, all evidence indicates in fact an accumulation of writings to compose a “NT” well into the 3rd century. And for what it’s worth, Trobisch’s case hasn’t obtained much traction in the scholarly guild, your preference for it notwithstanding.
      That our early papyri come from Egypt is both correct and a red-herring. As I and others have shown, the circulation of texts in earliest Christianity was . .. frantic, meaning that we don’t have “local” texts, really, and that the evidence from Egyptian papyri is more cogently taken as reflective of Christian textual traditions more widely. THAT is what it means to weigh textual evidence, Donald.

      • S Walch permalink

        The fact that most of the manuscripts we have come from Egypt has no bearing on such a recession idea, Donald, especially as we have manuscripts of authors who didn’t write in Egypt at all (Irenaeus for example).

        Plus it also proves how fast texts could actually circulate in the early centuries.

        Take P. Oxy. 3 405 for example: here we have a manuscript fragment of Irenaeus’ Adv Her., dated to ca 200, a mere 20 years after Irenaeus composed it, found in the sands of Egypt. Contrary to popular belief, texts could be circulated quite easily. It was hardly a difficult task, especially compared with the time it would’ve taken to copy the text in the first place!

  6. stacy0063 permalink

    Larry,          I enjoy your blog and share it with my brethren.  I’m an Elder/Pastor/Bishop with the Independent Christian Church in Derby, Kansas.  Our roots are traced back to the American Restoration Movement, Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Independent Christian Church. We are about to begin a class on the Restoration Movement in America.  A question has been asked, When was the NT writings completed?  Some brethren believe the NT was completed before AD70,  some before AD 100.  Do you have any info I can study on this question? 

    • As pretty much any major NT Introduction textbook will indicate, scholars tend to date NT writings thus: Gospels (ca. 65-100 AD), Paul’s undisputed letters (Rom, 1-2 Cor, Gal, Philip, 1 Thess, Philemon: ca. 50-64 AD), Hebrews (ca. 60-90), Pauline “Pastoral” epistles (ca. 70-120), Revelation (ca. 90s), others (1-3 John, 1-2 Peter, Jude, James: ca. 70-120).

      • Just for completeness sake, what would the dating range be for Ephesians and Colossians?

      • The dates for Colossians and Ephesians are connected with the question of authorship. Probably most scholars view Ephesians as written in Paul’s name posthumously, and dependent on Colossians, so, sometime ca.65-80? Opinion on the authorship of Colossians is more divided. So if written by Paul, ca. 60-64 CE, otherwise, closer to the date of Ephesians.

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