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Textual Stability and NT Studies

September 21, 2017

Claims by some that the earliest period of textual transmission of the Gospels was so “wild” that we cannot take extant early copies of the Gospels as a good representation of what the authors may have written are all belied in practice by NT scholars, including those who make such claims.

Indeed, a great deal of the field of the study of NT/Christian Origins would have to be shut down if these claims were taken seriously.  The work of “redaction criticism” and of its successor “literary criticism,” for example, in which the detailed particularities of the individual Gospel texts are compared closely to assess their respective emphases, all rests on the confidence that we have sufficient textual continuity to the originating authors to make such fine judgments.

Scholarly works on the possible social and geographical location of the Gospels, their grammatical character, and on the nature of any literary dependence of this or that Gospel on the others, investigation of Paul’s activities and teachings, these and most of the rest of NT scholarly work would be put into question methodologically if we took seriously the notion that our manuscripts don’t give us a pretty good picture of what the authors actually wrote.

Of course, there is textual variation.  And we textual critics are quite keen to identify and consider any such variation, however small (others might say we’re a bit obsessive about the matter!).  So, we furrow our brows, for example, over at a given point the presence/absence of a definite article before the name of Jesus, or which word-order at a given variation-unit is to be preferred.  And there are, as the handbooks report, thousands of such variations to weigh among the many manuscripts in question.

There are also some more noteworthy variations, though these are remarkably few in the main.  The variant endings of GMark (including the uniquely attested phrasing in Codex W), the “adulterous woman” pericope commonly found in later copies of GJohn, and the remarkable variants that distinguish the Greek text of Codex Bezae (D) in Acts, come readily to mind.

And we shouldn’t generalize overly.  For in the earliest centuries the Gospels were copied and transmitted in individual manuscripts (not all in a single codex), and individually enjoyed varying levels of usage and favor.  Consequently, each of the Gospels has its own textual history.  It appears, for example, that GMark was frequently harmonized (at the “micro” level) to parallel passages in the other Gospels (especially to GMatthew).

In the case of some other texts, such as 2 Corinthians, scholars differ over whether it comprises two or more letters that may have been combined to form it in the process of the formation of an early collection of Paul’s letters.  That’s a substantial question, to be sure.  But it’s also nearly exceptional, as the general textual integrity of other NT writings isn’t as widely queried.

And there are questions (e.g., by my esteemed teacher, Eldon Epp) about whether the aim of reconstructing the “original” text of any of the Gospels is realistic (or at least what we mean by the term).  Given that any “autograph” would have been immediately copied, and these or subsequent copies would then have served as the basis for subsequent copies, and given that copying almost always would involve some level of accidental changes (at the least), can we achieve that “autograph” text at a word-for-word level and with absolute confidence?  But the question reflects the detailed focus and aim of traditional textual criticism (some might say “obsessive”): to reconstruct the “original” text as perfectly and confidently as we can, right down to every word.

So, in critical editions such as the Nestle-Aland or others, the apparatus of variant readings indicates that the most that can be achieved is our best judgment, based on extensive familiarity with the variants, the quality and character of witnesses, knowledge of copying practices, and other factors.  There remain places where judgments differ, and it’s not possible to settle matters definitively.  But, in the main, these are both comparatively small matters (e.g., word-order of phrases, presence/absence of definite article, tense differences, etc.).

The really more “interesting” variants (whether judged “accidental” or “intentional”) tend to be more readily judged.  So, for example, the variants in Mark 3:21 (“those around him” or “those attached to him”) are commonly (and rightly) judged:  “Those attached to him” (Jesus’ family members) are the ones who went to seize him.  The alternate variant is rather clearly an attempt to “correct” what was seen as an inappropriate characterization of Jesus’ family (perhaps especially his mother).

In sum, no one should deny textual variation, right from the start of the textual transmission of the Gospels (and all other ancient texts).  But it’s an exaggeration to characterize the earliest transmission of these writings as “wild” and chaotic, or to suggest that we can’t know what the authors actually wrote.  We can continue to practice NT studies with the confidence that our modern critical editions give us substantially what the Gospels authors (and other NT authors) wrote.  No need for all my NT colleagues to close up shop (although I could wish that more of them were a bit more familiar with textual criticism)!

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12 Comments
  1. josh kinlaw permalink

    Saving these recent posts for future reference. Thank you!

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    I wonder which scholars do you have in mind who have characterised the earliest period of transmission as chaotic and wild? Do they often use those actual words themselves or is that a characterisation of their position?

    Trobisch argues for an edition of the NT in the middle of the second century, possibly by Polycarp. There are only a couple of NT fragments that possibly predate this, and they contain tiny portions of text. The “early” NT papyri are unfortunately not early enough to tell us anything about the crucial earliest period of textual transmission. So citing their text as stable is a red herring.

    And saying that other aspects of New Testament studies would be negatively impacted by acceptance of early textual fluidity in the NT is not a good logical argument against the proposition. Maybe branches of study of the NT should be more modest about the possibility of drawing conclusions on the basis of a secure text. Maybe that’s an entirely appropriate response to the totality of the evidence, and not something to be feared.

    • I refuse to be drawn into personalized issues, as you well know. If you read widely enough, even in very popular works, you will find the terms I used. I’ve already indicated that Trobisch’s theory is judged improbable by the great majority of scholars competent to judge.
      Invoking our earliest papyri isn’t a “red herring”. I repeat–the most direct evidence of how ancient scribes copied is copies, as close as we can get to the earliest period. And we have such copies ranging in dates from late 2nd century and into 3rd century, well before Constantine, church councils, etc., multiple and independently produced copies. Royse and others have given us detailed studies of the scribal habits exhibited. So, it’s no stretch at all to infer that what we see in these copies is indicative broadly of what habits were practiced in earlier ones. Donald, do try to learn something and desist from simply trying to be a gadfly. It ill becomes you.

  3. GPG permalink

    As a trained PhD interdisciplinarian, I always look at the larger literary and cultural context for any given text. Which are thought, in my field and sometimes related fields – like say the History Religious school – to have an enormous effect on the content of texts.

    In the present case, in the examination of the final four gospels, I feel it is absolutely necessary to look beyond the text “itself.” And to note the very wide diversity of cultures – and holy writings – in biblical Israel, Juda, Palestine, and what is called the ANE; the Ancient Near East.
    …………………………….[edited for conciseness–LWH]
    But when was popular opinion finally corralled, marshalled, and edited to produce even more churchly, stable texts?

    That is open to discussion. But we might suggest a rather later moment; c. 140-400 AD.

    • Well, as a “trained interdisciplinarian” you should also know that you should depend on the work of specialists in the respective fields and learn from them. I’ve edited your comment because, yet again, you go wandering off into matters that should be kept clear and distinct. The developments in ancient Judaism and in formative Christianity are one thing, which no one would deny. But the topic of my posting (and which I ask comments to address) is whether the earliest period of the *textual transmission* of Christian texts that became part of the NT can be characterized as “wild” and chaotic, or whether (as our very early manuscripts reflect) the situation is rather one of impressive stability overall.
      If your final question is when these writings were composed and achieved the form in which they were then copied, the answer (as practically any scholar in the field will affirm) roughly 50-120 CE.

  4. Robert G permalink

    Is it known that all of the earliest papyri of the text of Paul’s letters postdate a collection of letters? If so, how could thus be known? It seems like a reasonable assumption, but is it more than an assumption?

    • The earliest copies of Paul’s letters are from ca. early 3rd century (the most significant one, P46, our earliest single-codex collection of Paul’s letters). In 2 Peter 3:15-16 reflects a Pauline collection (“as in all his letters,” of how many letters we can’t say for sure), and 2 Peter is typically dated ca. 70-130 CE). So, by then (at the latest) we have a Pauline letter-collection circulating (note that the author and his opponents both have Paul’s letters and treat them as scripture; they disagree over how to interpret them).

      • Robert G permalink

        Thank you, Professor Hurtado.

        Since the P46 collection includes Hebrews, Ephesians, and Colossians, may I ask if you consider any of them to be authentic Pauline letters, forgeries, or would you use a different term than ‘forgery’ perhaps?

      • Hebrews is anonymous. Early on, a tradition developed of attributing it to Paul. But that’s not a forgery. Ephesians is another question. It claims Pauline authorship, but seems (to most of us) likely written in his name. That is “pseudonymous”. “Forgery” is a term applied when one wants to sell books. But legally a forgery is something done for profit. That doesn’t apply.

      • Robert G permalink

        Thank you, Professor Hurtado.

        I realize Hebrews does not directly claim to have been written by Paul, but it seems like the invocation of Timothy might be trying to imply this. Any thoughts on whether or not the first collector of Paul’s letters might have also added some interpolations, created or knowingly included some pseudonymous letters, or compiled composite letters like II Corinthians?

        As always, thank you for your efforts to communicate yours and others’ scholarship to a wider audience.

      • No. There is no evidence of the collectors of Pauline editions as in P46 tampering with Hebrews to insert an author, etc. As for 2 Corinthians, the theories I mention are that someone (likely in the late lst or early 2nd century) joined up two or more of Paul’s shorter letters to form 2 Cor. So, it’s all authentic, not pseudonymous.

  5. Thanks for this. Very handy to keep in mind when preaching.

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