Larry Hurtado's Blog

Early Textual Transmission of Christian Texts

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.