Over the last few decades, the world of textual criticism has had a less than an optimistic feel about it. While the central purpose of textual criticism has traditionally been the recovery of the “original” text (regardless of whether one is dealing with the New Testament or any ancient text), some are now suggesting that it should not necessarily be the goal of the discipline.
Bart Ehrman, commenting on the attempts to recover the original text, declares, “It is by no means self-evident that this ought to be the goal of the discipline…there may indeed be scant reason to privilege the ‘original’ text over forms of the text that developed subsequently” (“Text as Window,” 361, n.1).
In addition, others have express substantial skepticism about whether the “original” text can even be recovered at all. Helmut Koester has argued that the text has changed dramatically in the earliest time period of its transmission–a period prior to our earliest copies–and thus scholars are “naive” if they think it can be recovered (“Text of the Synoptic Gospels in the Second Century,” 19).
Now, it is important to recognize that these scholars are correct in many ways. Prior generations of scholars have perhaps given too little attention to the complexities and challenges in recovering the original text of the New Testament. And it is correct that we cannot have absolutely 100% certainty regarding every single textual variation.
That said, I thought it might be helpful to also revisit the more optimistic voices within in the practice of textual criticism. One key question is whether the original text has been lost entirely (and thus appears in none of our manuscripts), or whether our manuscripts (at least somewhere) contain the original text. Here are just a few quotes from scholars who think that the original text is still in our possession:
“The point is that we have so many manuscripts of the NT … that surely the original reading in every case is somewhere present in our vast store of material” (“Textual Criticism” in New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters, 91).
“The immense amount of material available to NT textual critics … is their good fortune because with such an abundance of material one can be reasonably certain that the original text is to be found somewhere in it” (“Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” 6).
Kurt and Barbara Aland:
“One of the characteristics of the New Testament textual tradition is tenacity, i.e., the stubborn resistance of readings and text types to change …. This is what makes it possible to retrace the original text of the New Testament through a broad range of witnesses” (The Text of the New Testament, 70).
“The transmission of the New Testament textual tradition is characterized by an extremely impressive degree of tenacity. Once a reading occurs it will persist with obstinacy …. It is precisely the overwhelming mass of the New Testament textual tradition which provides an assurance of certainty in establishing the original text” (ibid, 291-292).
“It is probably quite clear that the element of tenacity in the New Testament textual tradition not only permits but demands that we proceed on the premise that in every instance of textual variation it is possible to determine the form of the original text” (ibid, 294).
“In spite of the remarkable [textual] differences, scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the original words of the New Testament with reasonable (although probably not 100 percent) accuracy” (The New Testament, 481).
“This oldest form of the text [of Galatians] is no doubt closely (very closely) related to what the author originally wrote, and so it is the basis for our interpretation of his teaching” (Misquoting Jesus, 62).
Of course, I threw in these last two quote by Ehrman to make a point. Even the most skeptical textual critics still acknowledge (at least at certain points), that the original text, or something very close to it, is recoverable. For Ehrman, this optimism is essential for him to maintain because elsewhere he argues that scribes changed the New Testament text for theological reasons (see The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture). But, he could never make the case for these theologically-motivated changes unless he had some way to know that they were actually scribal changes, and therefore not original.
Although we can acknowledge that absolute certainty about every single variant is unattainable, we can also acknowledge that absolute certainty is not necessary. We can recover a text so very close to the original that it is more than sufficient for accurately communicating the message of the Scriptures.