Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism
I recently finished reading Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, an excellent up-to-date scholarly evaluation on everything that you need to know about New Testament textual criticism. To highlight the key points of the book, here's a brief overview of its contents:
Information about the reliability of the New Testament in apologetic handbooks is often outdated.
Statistical arguments for the reliability of the New Testament are often unqualified or factually incorrect.
Christians need to avoid the tendency to “believe what we want to be true” about the early manuscripts of the New Testament.
We should be careful not to appeal to exaggerated or sensationalistic claims.
Myths About Autographs: What They Were And How Long They May Have Survived
For the New Testament, the autographs should be conceived of as the completed authorial work that was released by the author for circulation and copying, not earlier draft versions or layers of composition.
Once a work had been circulated in a community, that writing could not be significantly transformed, either by plagiarizing or altering its text, without these actions becoming known.
Once a New Testament writing was completed and released for circulation, there may have been a number of copies made under the control of the author or authors.
It is unlikely that the New Testament autographs still existed and influenced the text by the time of our earliest copies. Even if they did, this alone would not guarantee that the existing manuscripts are reliable.
Math Myths: How Many Manuscripts We have And Why More Isn't Always Better
The official catalogue of Greek New Testament Manuscripts is maintained by the INTF in Münster. The total number of entries in the INTF catalogue is not necessarily the total number of Greek New Testament manuscripts.
New manuscripts continue to be discovered, usually in existing libraries or collections. These, however, are by no means equal in size or significance.
Most manuscripts of the New Testament are only manuscripts of part of the New Testament, and providing an exact count of them is a fool’s errand. It is best to say that there are ~5,300 Greek New Testament manuscripts in existence, although ~5,100 might be the safer estimate.
Myths About Classical Literature: Responsibly Comparing The New Testament To Ancient Works
Scholars and apologists often count all the manuscripts for the New Testament that exist (an inclusive count), whereas classicists generally only count the ones they need to use (a functional count). This needs to be considered when comparing numbers.
Apologists’ numbers too often reflect this inclusive count for the New Testament but a functional count for manuscripts of classical works and end up comparing apples and oranges. Whichever count is used, one should be consistent on both sides.
When counting manuscripts and giving dates for comparison, scholars and apologists also often give numbers that reflect or exaggerate the most recent discoveries for New Testament manuscripts, but do not check for updated numbers or dates for classical manuscripts. Consistency in comparison should be clear here too.
The comparative argument is valuable but limited; it can demonstrate only that the New Testament has a better textual basis than classical works, not that it has a perfect one. Text-critical methods are what give reliability to our use of the manuscripts, not the numbers alone.
The more specific your number is, the more vulnerable it is to a skeptic who wants to weaken your credibility.
Citing a classicist on the issue has the benefit of showing that you’ve done your homework and allows you to give the year in which the data were published—which allows you to make your point about the numbers but also allows some wiggle room due to updating over time.
Dating Myths: How We Determine The Ages Of Manuscripts
Often a manuscript can be dated only by paleography, which is a difficult and imprecise way of assigning the date by means of an assessment of the handwriting.
It is almost always unwise to assign a date range of fewer than ~50 years on the basis of paleography; a range of ~75 to ~100 years is typically more preferable.
The middle year of a date range is no more likely (but also no less likely) to be the “actual date” of a manuscript than any other date in that range. Always try to give the full range; do not assume the earliest date is the right date.
The responsible date range of P52 (probably our earliest New Testament manuscript), is 100–200 a.d., and a few scholars even extend this range into the 200s a.d.
Although it is often thought that the later a manuscript is, the worse its textual quality will be, this is not always true. Sometimes later manuscripts can have better readings than some earlier manuscripts. Even our latest manuscript can preserve very early readings in isolation.
The core textual tradition of the New Testament remains remarkably stable over time. The difference between the two texts usually thought to be most polarized is actually fairly small.
Later scribes show evidence of conscientious work, seen in their choice of early manuscripts and in their choice to correct their manuscripts.
Myths About Copying: The Mistakes And Corrections Scribes Made
Corrections in manuscripts show that scribes strove to improve and revise their work before they handed it to posterity. For example, the corrections in P66 show that despite its scribe’s initial lack of skill and care in reproducing his exemplar, he was greatly concerned for the accuracy of his copy.
Corrections added later in the life of a manuscript can show how its readers interacted thoughtfully with its text. They can even shed light on whether a scribe made any intentional, theologically motivated changes.
Careful attention to corrections plays a role in debates about the origin of the Gospels. In the case of the so-called Egerton Gospel, a reading thought to support its use in writing John’s Gospel turns out to be unlikely.
Myths About Transmission: The Text of Philemon From Beginning To End
There are more than 570 manuscripts of Philemon, and only 3 of them are complete manuscripts written before 700 a.d. If we had only manuscripts copied more than ~900 years after Paul wrote Philemon, our text of Philemon would change very little.
An examination of all Greek witnesses to the text of Philemon has revealed that the textual tradition contains more variants than some might expect, even if most of them have no serious merit.
There are really only two places where the initial text may be uncertain: “to us” or “to you” in Philemon 6, and the presence or absence of “and” in Philemon 11.
Textual variations that aren’t original can still help us to understand how the text was understood in some settings.
Myths About Variants: Why Most Variants Are Insignificant And Why Some Can't Be Ignored
The estimated number of variants in just our Greek manuscripts is ~500,000, not including spelling differences. Nearly half of these are meaningless mistakes.
Only a tiny fraction of the known variants are ever discussed by commentators. Fewer still deserve a footnote in a modern translation. In John 18, not one of the more than ~3,000 variants makes it into a footnote of the ESV, NIV, NRSV, or even the NET.
It is true, then, that most variants do not affect the meaning of the text or the Christian faith in general. However, a few dozen do, and some of these are theologically important (as in Mark 1:1; Luke 23:34; and John 1:18).
We should not give the impression that New Testament variants do not matter at all for Christian theology or practice; however, we can and should recognize that no doctrine is in jeopardy because of a serious variant.
Myths About Orthodox Corruption: Were Scribes Influenced By Theology, And How Can We Tell?
Scribes did sometimes change the text for theologically motivated reasons; however, not a few textual variants that might appear to be theologically motivated are better explained by other factors.
Determining the intention behind textual variants is much more difficult than some surmise. This means we should be appropriately skeptical about bold claims of theologically motivated variation or “orthodox corruption.”
The best approaches to determining when this happened are based on a knowledge of an entire manuscript and the context in which it was made, not simply on isolated occurrences from otherwise unrelated manuscripts.
Myths About Patristics: What The Church Fathers Thought About Textual Variation
The argument that we can reconstruct all but 11 verses of the New Testament from 36,289 quotations by the church fathers is not only false but it is a conflation of two different arguments that are both riddled with problems. It should not be used.
Even if true, the argument fails because it is viciously circular: we have to know what the text of the New Testament is before we can identify patristic quotations of it.
In general, patristic theology of scripture affected the value of patristic quotations of scripture. For instance, when a variant reading did not run contrary to the rule of faith, patristic writers were sometimes happy to allow multiple readings to stand in their interpretations.
Many early Christian writers believed that while one finds meaning through the words of scripture, meaning is not necessarily equivalent to the words of scripture. Consequently, many patristic writers felt free to be more fluid in their wording when they “quoted” scripture than many Christians today would be.
Myths About Canon: What The Codex Can And Can't Tell Us
Early Christians preferred the codex form over the book-roll or scroll form.
Early Christians had a category for books that they considered useful and good but not canonical. Sometimes early Christians placed the two kinds of scripture (canonical and non-canonical-but-still-useful) between the same covers but kept them conceptually different.
Early Christian canon lists provide the best way to interpret the varied contents of the early Christian codices.
Just because a book was in the codex does not mean it was therefore deemed canonical.
Myths About Early Translations: Their Number, Important, And Limitations
In the 2nd century to the 4th century, the New Testament was translated from Greek into other languages such as Latin, Syriac, and Coptic. Many other translations followed later.
Manuscripts of the New Testament in these versions sometimes shed light on the Greek text used by the translators, but using the translation for textual criticism of the Greek New Testament is difficult and often too fraught with problems to be useful in the details.
There are probably not ~10,000 Latin manuscripts, and claiming ~25,000 New Testament manuscripts beyond the Greek is an exaggeration too big to keep using. It is better to say there are a few thousand versional manuscripts and leave it at that.
The versions are not simply of value for reconstructing the Greek text; they are immensely valuable in their own right as the scriptures for the communities that produced them. In some cases, communities continue to use them as their only bible.
Myths About Modern Translations: Variants, Verdicts, And Versions
Many bible translation teams employ the base-model approach, which uses intermediate translations to guide the translators.
Translators’ concerns and needs do not always line up with those of modern textual critics, and in many cases the community receiving the translation will determine key questions of textual base, notation, and so on.
Footnotes are where most bible readers come into contact with textual variants. Yet translators are faced with a host of questions when thinking about when and how to use footnotes. In some translations, footnotes are not acceptable to the readers and so are not used at all.
Even the paratextual features of our manuscripts can affect modern translations.
Bible translation is a viable avenue for conveying text-critical information but only in a limited way, and we should not expect modern translations to be the main place for explaining text-critical issues.
In summary, Daniel Wallace concludes:
These two attitudes—radical skepticism and absolute certainty—must be avoided when we examine the New Testament text. We do not have now—in our critical Greek texts or any translations—exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote. Even if we did, we would not know it. There are many, many places in which the text of the New Testament is uncertain. But we also do not need to be overly skeptical. Where we should land between these two extremes is what this book addresses. The new generation of evangelical scholars is far more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty than previous generations. They know the difference between core beliefs and those that are more peripheral. They recognize that even if we embrace the concept of absolute truth, absolute certainty about it is a different matter. One word kept coming to mind as I read this book: nuance. The authors understand what is essential and of vital significance in the Christian faith and what is more peripheral. As Stephen Neill argued over 50 years ago and Peter Gurry affirms in this book, “The very worst Greek manuscript now in existence contains enough of the Gospel in unadulterated form to lead the reader into the way of salvation.” Andrew Blaski shows that the patristic writers, too, recognized this. Origen, whose concern to recover the original wording of the Bible was worked out with indefatigable exactness, had an even deeper concern. Many Fathers understood that the New Testament—highly valued, revered, even apostolically authoritative—nevertheless pointed ultimately to what is more revered, more authoritative, and more central to our faith: our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.