The Retreating Claim of an Early NT Textual Recension
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.” 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. We know that Roman-era writers typically drew upon other writings loosely, and often deliberately did so. 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. 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. 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.
 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.
 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.
 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).
 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.