Skip to content

Early Textual Transmission of Christian Texts

September 19, 2017

Assumptions and claims about the transmission of the texts of early Christian writings continue to require correction.  Old assumptions and claims die slowly, advocates sometimes seeming so wedded to them that they exhibit some resistance to the data.

There is, for example, the persistent claim/assumption that there was some kind of “recension” of NT writings sometime in the (late?) second century CE (advocates include Helmut Koester and William Petersen).  I addressed this notion in an earlier posting here.  This sort of claim seems more and more to look like a kind of “rear guard” action against the accumulating manuscript evidence.  Moreover, it’s difficult to posit the ecclesiastical structure(s) that could have carried off such a recension at that early point, supposedly succeeding in erasing all evidence of the “pre-recensional” situation.  Historical work does involve imagination, but it really should be controlled by the evidence!

Likewise, there is the accompanying claim/notion that the second century, or that part of it (conveniently for this assumption) from which we have no extant manuscripts, was a time of “wild” copyist practices.  In this assumption, God knows what copyists got up to, perhaps including making substantial changes to texts, inserting blocks, deleting blocks, re-writing freely, conducting doctrinal purges, etc.  So, it is further asserted, we have no way of knowing what Paul or any of the Gospels writers may actually have penned.

But, again, this notion seems increasingly more dubious.  In an essay published some years ago I sketched several factors and lines of evidence that point to a comparatively more stable transmission of certain texts, especially those treated/read as scriptures in early Christian circles (the pre-publication version of this essay on this blog site here, and see also my review of early papyri, the pre-publication version here).

The second century may well have been a time of “uncontrolled” copying (i.e., no ecclesiastical structure controlling the process), but it does not appear to have been a time of particularly “wild” copying of the biblical texts.  (I borrow here a helpful distinction in terminology from my former PhD student, Lonnie Bell, whose PhD thesis on earliest papyri of the Gospel of John is forthcoming in the NTTSD series from Brill.)

There is variation, to be sure.  But the variation is relatively minor, and none of the supposedly major textual changes posited show up.  The major distinguishing large variants in Codex Bezae, for example, don’t appear.  There are, certainly, some variants that textual critics find “significant,” but they are small and not the sort of thing that some imagine.

By contrast, those writings that likely functioned more as “edifying” texts for personal usage appear to have been susceptible to more substantial changes, as reflected, e.g., in the extant portions of the Greek copies of the Gospel of Thomas or other such texts.  Michael Holmes has distinguished between what he calls “micro” variation, exhibited in the copies of biblical texts, and “macro” variation, exhibited more in some other early Christian texts.  In short, those texts that early became the “textual property” of Christian circles (i.e., read in churches) seem to have enjoyed a comparatively greater stability in transmission.

In sum, the general weight of manuscript evidence of biblical writings reflects a relatively conscientious copying of these texts.  That’s not an apologetic tactic, just a statement of the evidence.  Whatever you make of the contents of these writings, the early Christians seem, by and large, to have transmitted them with some impressive care.

From → Uncategorized

  1. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Isn’t the evidence in the NT manuscripts themselves? David Trobisch outlined some of the features of the early NT manuscripts that indicate a recension in the second century: nomina sacra, standardised names for works, use of codex, arrangement of books in manuscripts, the collective title “New Testament”, and segments that look like editorial additions: John 21 and 2 Peter. If the NT, as it has come down to us, was not compiled by an editor or editors in the second century, how do we explain these standardised features?

    • Trobisch’s theory of an edition of the NT is falsified by the manuscript evidence. Writings such as the Gospels rather clearly circulated independently all through the 2nd century and beyond. Writings that became part of the NT were still being composed into the 2nd century. The origins of the nomina sacra I have proposed years ago. Catch up! In any case, the compiling of writings, and the composition of new ones isn’t the same thing as the transmission of writings. Please try to focus!

  2. Isn’t the existence of Matthew and Luke pretty strong evidence of at least some “wild” copying in at least the late first century? Similarly with Ephesians and II Peter (the latter in the 2nd century).

    • You’re confusing the composition of new works with the copying task. The latter is what we’re talking about.

  3. Roy Kotansky permalink

    There is no evidence that Justin did not use written copies of gospels to cite his references. In fact he names them as “Memoirs”, apomneumata (or the like), which are written sources. Your implication that he is therefore freely quoting from authors without carefully citing from his sources is unproven and wrong.

    • Dr. Kotansky, as you may know, Justin’s use/citation of texts has been well studied. Results: He used Matthew and other Gospel texts. A *few* of his uses give variants from our otherwise known copies of these Gospels. Free citation is a well-established practice in the Roman era. It is entirely appropriate to think that Justin sometimes followed this established practice.

  4. Roy Kotansky permalink

    Again, I papyrological evidence from the 2nd century is very scant. There are seven areas of textual research that are neglected:

    1) Western Readings
    2) Church Father’s (2nd cent)
    3) Diatessaronic tradition
    4) Minor Agreements
    5) So-called Apocryphal gospels
    6) Variant readings in harmonized passages of NT mss.

    Peterson’s scholarship is not easily gainsaid. I doubt any 2nd century papyrus of Mk. 3:21f. would give the text of Mark we have.

    • You’re throwing into the mix a variety of things that don’t apply. Citation/use of texts followed one set of practices, and copying another. The Diatessaron is a fresh composition, not a copy of anything (so not relevant), likewise apocryphal gospels. Really! It looks like you’re frantically trying to avoid the most relevant evidence: actual copies of the texts in question. Why such anxiety??

  5. GPG permalink

    We still don’t know much about the very most critical period: of 33 to 150 ACE.

    And? Though you, Larry, have argued that pious believers would not have allowed any huge changes in this period of 117 years? We know from many testimonies, records, that historically, many Jews and Christians did allow massive changes in their holy books: many allowed the addition of an entire New Testament.

    Futhermore, in the NT, many early Jewish Christians offered hundred of justifications for this massive change.

    So given lack of papyrus evidence for this period, shouldn’t we entertain what we know from other historical evidence, to be a trend in this period: a willingness to make huge changes in sacred things.

    • I’ve answered your question in my posting. The best evidence of what happened in the copying of texts is copies of texts! For heaven’s sake, why this determined reluctance to engage the data? And what’s the logic in your final statement? We don’t have evidence from prior to ca. 150 CE. We do have evidence thereafter. So, why posit something entirely different from what the extant evidence shows?? How’s that logical?

      • GPG permalink

        Note that looking at changes in the canons, is another side of textual criticism.

        We need to keep in mind that the problems in copying texts, are just part of a larger picture. Aside from looking at changes from one copy of an individual gospel to its next copy, we need to note the appearance and disappearances of whole books. In the Jewish and Christian canons.

        When we look at this larger pattern of variability, early Christian writings seem overall, less stable than you have characterized them just from the examination of individual gospels.

      • Yet again, you introduce a red-herring issue. And your comment is ill-informed. Books didn’t get dropped from Jewish or Christian canons in the 2nd century CE. Their canons weren’t even formed yet, but were still forming! And the composition of additional books tells us nothing about the copying of books. Really, you must devote some effort to learning about something before you spout off so confidently. It would save you appearing so poorly.

      • GPG permalink

        You are unnaturally restricting the discussion to the one kind of textual data that supports your limited point; but that neglects or misrepresents the more important, larger project.

        The larger, important question is this: how reliable, stable, consistent, are the early texts in Christianity. Since you can’t produce any texts from 33-149 AD, especially, then you have no textual evidence, in the limited sense you define it – actual pieces of papyrus, etc., – dating from the most important period. The most critical, earliest period.

        If you limit our examination just to the copying habits of copyists, that bias it in one direction.

        After all, as you note, given a text to copy, copryists, scribes, will usually do a fairly exact job of that. But the important larger question, relates to this one: what texts they were handed to reproduce?

      • Again and again, you’re confusing issues. As I’ve shown (e.g., in my book, Destroyer of the gods) there were many texts composed by early Christians. That’s not the point. The point is whether the extant manuscripts from the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries give us substantially the texts from which they originate or whether all was chaos in the earlier period. Gee whize! How often do I have to re-state the matter??

  6. Danny Yencich permalink

    The synonymous “textual fluidity” characterization of the early transmission ought to go, too, for the same reasons you helpfully lay out here. Thanks for the post!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: