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.
Tim Reichmuth says
Thanks for taking a stand that affirms that recovering the original text is still the goal of TC. However, I take exception to your final paragraph, at least, the way I understand it. The vast majority of the text, somewhere around 94%, according to M. Robinson is without doubt the original text witten by the author. The other 6% is acknowledged to have some question about which variant is original but not whether the original is unknown. Even in the couple of places that the original text might not be present, many TC scholars agree that the original text is present in the limited manuscripts that are available. TC is important because it is not sufficient to just have a text that allows us to accurately communicate the message of scripture! We need to strive for 100% accuracy while admitting that we are not there yet, these are the very words of God. While I m not covinced that every decision made by the NA/GNT editors, I am convinced that I can confirm what Kurt Aland has said about those texts, that for all intents and purposes the latest edition of NA text, contains the original words penned by the authors. The vast number and early dates of the manuscript evidence virtually assures that the original authors words and not just the message are available.
Thanks for all that you do for the cause of Christ! Your latest book tops my Christmas wish list.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Tim. Appreciate your comments. But I do think you misunderstand the final paragraph. I agree that about 95% of the text is without doubt, and I also agree that we possess the original text somewhere in our manuscript tradition. I simply point out that we cannot have absolute certainty about ever single reading. Or put differently, we cannot always be sure which reading is original, even though we have the original reading. You also mention that we should “strive for 100% accuracy.” Of course, I would agree wholeheartedly with this!
Tim Reichmuth says
Thanks, glad that I misread you! Your writings and blog have really solidified my understanding and ability to articulate the development of the Canon. I appreciate you.
I’ve listened to several of your lectures on the canon and appreciated the content. The two sentences of your concluding paragraph:
Although we can acknowledge that absolute certainty about the text 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 sufficient for accurately communicating the message of the Scriptures.
I think that you would argue on certain terms for the absolute certainty of the canon, so why not for the text? Isn’t it the same argument? Is there even a canonicity of books taught in the Bible? Isn’t it a canonicity of words taught and the books following from that premise? Is the Holy Spirit through the churches not able to guide His elect to the text? You say, “unattainable.” Is that just your opinion or is it based upon scripture, upon faith?
I think Dr Kruger covered most of this in his reply to Tim, but let me add a couple more thoughts:
(1) If God required that the exact original text be accurately transmitted through history, he has had ample opportunity over the past several millennia to impart additional revelation prescribing one document as canonical, and to repeat such if any further errors occurred. That he has not done so suggests that either the Scriptures as currently received are “near enough” for his purposes, or that he trusts the work of scholars to continue to verify the contents we have.
(2) At the time of Christ, variant readings existed for the Old Testament also (e.g. LXX (a translation into Greek) – vs Hebrew texts (such as the “Dead Sea Scrolls”)). That neither the Gospel authors or Apostolic writers saw fit to discuss or authorise one particular transcript as correct also suggests that authorising one particular text as a true expression was not a priority, especially when contrasted by the vigour used to suppress false doctrine.
God seems much more concerned about mis-use or dis-respect of his Scripture than preserving one canonical form.
Dan Smith says
I am very grateful for your writing on this issue. While studying for my degree (MAR), I starting having questions about this subject and a few related ones. Your site has helped a great deal.
Those are a couple of curious further thoughts.
(1) God both finished imparting revelation and said He was done in the first century. What God wrote was complete and sufficient. His lack of further revelation doesn’t suggest anything more.
(2) is another argument from silence. You shouldn’t take so much from what God didn’t say in the Bible. We don’t get our doctrine from what’s in between the lines.
You make two points from what God didn’t say. Elevating silence and speculation above scripture disrespects it.
An unattainable text is not a biblical position nor the historic position of the church, which takes its doctrine from the Bible. There was either a total apostasy of scriptural bibliology about unattainability or it’s a new doctrine.
Mike Gantt says
“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…”
Am I missing something? Koester’s speculation sounds absurd. If he has no earlier manuscripts which are “dramatically” different from the ones we do have, by what evidence would we accept his thesis?