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More on Rethinking the Paradigm

April 17, 2018

In an earlier posting (here), I asked whether we need to rethink the now-standard paradigm/model for the textual transmission of the Gospels.  In the interest of explaining further why I ask the question, I’ve now uploaded the pre-publication form of my essay that concludes the recent mult-author volume on the “pericope adulterae” (John 7:53–8:11 in the traditional text of John).  That essay is accessible under the “Selected Essays” tab here.

Especially in pp. 9-12 (of this pre-publication form of the essay), I briefly sketch some observations that suggest to me that we may need to re-think how we picture the transmission of the Gospels in the early centuries.  In particular, I point to the most sizable and salient variants, the pericope of the adulteress and the “long ending” of Mark.  It is commonly thought that these variants first appeared as early as the second century CE.  This may well be so.  But, in any case, to judge from our earliest manuscript evidence, they did not apparently acquire widescale acceptance as part of the text of the Gospels till later, perhaps not until sometime by or after the fifth century CE.

So, if there were factors that generated these variants in the second century (to accept for the purposes of discussion the common assumption), there seem to have been other factors operating much later that led to the “success” of these variants, such that they became thereafter part of the “received” text of the Gospels.  This means that the simple paradigm of “early wild” and later “stabilized” transmission of the Gospels isn’t quite adequate.

Our model/paradigm of the textual transmission needs to include the evidence that (1) the earliest period of textual transmission of the Gospels wasn’t simply “wild” but, actually, more interesting, including a surprising degree of stability evidenced in a number of earliest Greek witnesses, and (2) if the second century was a time when many textual variants first arose, including large ones such as the two mentioned, by the fifth century CE and thereafter there were additional factors (thus far not adequately identified) that enabled these variants to obtain a commonly accepted place in the text of the Gospels, a greater acceptance than these variants held in the earlier period.

In short, a more sophisticated or complex paradigm seems to me to be required, with more complexity both in the earlier and subsequent centuries.


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  1. Prof. Hurtado,

    I’m interested in your phrase, “originating text.” What do you mean by this term vis-a-vis other terms, like “original text” and “initial text”? Is it synonymous with one of these, or is there a different nuance? Thanks for your time, as well as for this exchange with Nongbri. It’s been a great read.

    Best wishes,

    • “Originating text” is my own argot term, roughly equivalent to the German “Ausgang-text”, often rendered “initial text”. I prefer “originating” as the modifier, to signal that I mean the text from which copying then proceeded. “Initial” seems to me less clear on that.

      • Dr. Hurtado, would it be fair to say that the Originating/Initial text may never have existed in any one manuscript? In other words, although we can hypothesize (and/or the CBGM can indicate) that a particular text is the most likely one to have given rise to what we see in the extant mss, that does not mean to say that it is necessarily the ONLY text that could have given rise to what we see, nor that that text actually existed in any one ms.

      • David: It is certainly plausible that the copying process of a given text, e.g., GMatthew, or GJohn, may have originated in more than one setting, and so using more than one “archetype”. If so, however, it would appear that already at that point these multiple archetype copies were very similar, essentially witnessing to pretty much the same “text”. For the subsequent early copies all seem to reflect a rather stable text of these writings. So, either they all come from one archetype, or, if from multiple archetypes, these must have been impressively similar in text. Either way, the effort to reconstruct the “originating/initial” text of the writing seems to me a valid enterprise.

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    What about John 21 looks like it was added later. More evidence of wild early text?

    • Donald: Let me clear up your confusion (a frequent problem, it seems). First, the addition of chap 21 to the GJohn 1-20 is commonly accepted by scholars, but hardly represents a “wild” handling of the text! The putative authors of chap 21 instead claim to be admirers/followers of the unnamed author of the GJohn, this “postscript” chapter added after his death.
      Second, to judge by all evidence, the only form of GJohn that was copied and circulated included chap 21. So, in today’s parlance, a GJohn 1-21 was the “initial” text (i.e., the form of the text from which all subsequent copies derive).

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        If chapter 21 was added before any of the extant copies of John then how could we ever acquire the kind of evidence you believe necessary?

        Isn’t it simply rather unlikely that the original document was kept under wraps until chapter 21 could be added? The author of the first 20 chapters doesn’t seem to anticipate the addendum, but he does anticipate readers! In fact he seems to have died before others added to the text.

        This is just one of many internal indications that the early text of the NT was fluid.

        Your argument seems to be that there is no evidence that the text was unstable before the earliest surviving manuscripts because there are no surviving manuscripts to demonstrate otherwise. This is circular reasoning.

      • No, Donald, your confusion remains. My argument is not about the compositional process, which, in the case of GJohn appears to have involved at least two major stages. My argument is about the subsequent copying and textual transmission process. The only circularity of argument is in your misconception of what I wrote. Do attend to things more patiently, and perhaps with less of a concern simply to be contrary, and it will pay off enormously in your understanding of things.
        As for GJohn, it is thought by scholars (e.g., R.E. Brown) that initially an/the earlier edition of GJohn was prepared for a “Johannine community”, and, then, the form that we know was edited for a wider distribution, and became the “initial” form of the text from which copies came. It’s not a matter of something “kept under wraps,” Donald (what a bizarre notion!). But of an initially “intra-community” text thereafter edited for wider usage (as reflected, e.g., in the treatment of Peter and the “beloved disciple” in chap 21). I hope that you will read relevant studies and lift your confusion about various matters, so as not to raise invalid objections here.

  3. Jaysmith permalink

    Sorry for interrupting the discussion here. Have you ever read or reviewed or responded to Daniel Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ”. I want to know your scholarly view about this very provocative book.

  4. Dr. Hurtado, I would like to suggest that the evidence for a 14-chapter version of Romans seems quite strong, for example the likelihood that Marcion knew Romans in this form, as we are told in Rufinus’ edition of Origen’s commentary on Romans, and also the movement of the doxology. As I don’t believe it is safe to date P46 other than around the beginning of the 3rd century I think it hard to know from just this ms when the 16-chapter form of Romans became the ‘norm.’

    • David: I rely heavily myself on the study by Harry Y. Gamble, The Textual History of the Letter to the Romans, Studies and Documents, no. 42 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977). We don’t have any manuscript example for a 14 or 15 chapter edition of Romans, but the data do indirectly point to such. But there is, I think, little reason for doubting that the familiar 16 chapter version was the “originating text” of Romans, and became the norm quite early.

  5. Bill Wortman permalink

    Thanks for this, Dr. Hurtado. Perhaps an “early high textuality” club will be formed.

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