Textual Criticism and the Problem of the “Original” Text: Introduction

Most students who are taught to engage the text of the New Testament in Greek will quickly encounter two very important facts about that text: (1) we do not have any of the original documents that make up what we call the New Testament and (2) all of the manuscripts containing these texts (over 5,500 Greek manuscripts alone) differ from one another (in mostly insignificant ways but also on occasion in pretty significant ways). For many years, the science of textual criticism was viewed as an attempt to deal seriously with the questions raised by these two facts in an effort to recover the “original text” of the New Testament documents. Bruce Metzger, arguably the most famous North American textual critic of the 20th century, says the following about the role of the textual critic in the preface to the first edition of his important book on the subject:

The textual critic seeks to ascertain from the divergent copies which form of the text should be regarded as most nearly conforming to the original

In an essay published for the Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, Bart Ehrman also stated the following about the purpose of textual criticism:

None of the autographs of the NT writings survives. The texts of these works must therefore be reconstructed on the basis of surviving evidence, which comprises (a) Greek manuscripts produced in later centuries, (b) copies of ancient translations into other languages (i.e., the Versions), such as Latin and Syriac, and (c) NT quotations found in Christian authors, especially Greek and Latin. The discipline of textual criticism works to establish the wording of the text as originally produced and to determine where, when, how, and why the text came to be changed over the course of its transmission.²

Over the past few decades, however, many prominent textual critics (including Ehrman) have begun to raise important questions about the concept of an “original” text. This has led to a series of discussions about some of the theoretical problems with common terminology about “restoring/recovering what the apostles originally wrote.” Notice, for example, that even Metzger’s quotation above is qualified. Rather than stating the goal of textual criticism as ascertaining the original text, he says that textual critics are looking to ascertain the text that most nearly conforms to the original. This qualification is an important one, since it represents a (now common) degree of caution regarding the popularly-assumed goal(s) for textual criticism.

This new trend in New Testament textual criticism raises important questions regarding how Christians might understand the text of the scripture, particularly since so many of us have put a lot of theological stock in the concept of the original text of the New Testament. For years, I thought, as many people still do, that the “original text of the New Testament” meant something like “the autographs,” or the literary work as it left the hand of the author(s) to be read by its intended audience. Today, however, this way of thinking about the original text is being challenged, particularly in light of two important factors:

  1. Predecessor literary activity, including the use of literary sources and initial drafts of a work prior to its publication.
  2. Successor literary activity, including a work’s reformulations/editing through additions, omissions, or rewording.

Here are just a few examples that illustrate the elusive nature of whatever we might want to call the “original” text in light of some of these questions:

  1. Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and all four gospels were composed in Greek. Which was the “original,” Jesus’ Aramaic words or the Greek words that were recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
  2. Several of the letters of Paul were dictated to a scribe, called an amanuensis (e.g. Tertius in Rom 16.22), and scribes were often expected to correct or fix mistakes made by the one dictating the letter. In that case, what is the “original” text of Romans, for example, the one Paul spoke to Tertius or the text Tertius actually wrote down?
  3. If the original scribe who composed a letter for, say, Paul made any obvious mistakes (in spelling, for example) while composing the letter, other scribes who might have copied the letter for distribution among other churches (or preservation within their own church) might have corrected any errors in the earlier text. In that case, which is the “original” text, the earlier one with the error or the newer, corrected one?
  4. Ancient authors sometimes edited their published work and re-published it in a second edition. Some scholars think the author of Luke-Acts may have done something like this, since the book of Acts comes to us in two forms represented by what are often labeled the Alexandrian texts, e.g. Codex Vaticanus (B), and the Western texts, e.g. Codex Bezae (D), with the Western text of Acts being about 10% longer than the Alexandrian. If this were the case, which form would constitute the “original” text of Acts?
  5. Some of the books in the New Testament include indications of editing by individuals other than the main author of the work. For example, the ending of John’s gospel includes a brief statement about the beloved disciple in 21:24 in the first person plural – “we know his testimony is true.” This has led some scholars to believe that the community for whom the gospel of John was originally written tagged on this final paragraph, which was then included in all subsequent copies of John’s gospel. If this were the case, which would be the “original” text, the earlier text written by John or the one with the added ending?

The point of this post is not to say that these questions cannot be answered, nor is it to suggest that they pose an insurmountable threat to Christians who believe in the inspiration of the Bible. Rather, it is to simply point out the fact that textual critics have raised important questions for Christians to consider as they learn to qualify their claims about the “original” text having some sort of special claim to authority. Specifically, these questions force us to think about the entire process of a work’s publication, from its ideation/research/source-gathering to its dictation/composition and even its reception and future revision. When we think of the entire lifespan of a literary work in this way, we can ask more specifically where Christians might locate a doctrine of inspiration along that process.

The books that make up the New Testament did not fall from heaven. They were composed by first-century Jews who believed that Israel’s God had decisively acted on behalf of the world through his Son, the Messiah Jesus. These people further believed that God’s life-giving Spirit was being poured out on all flesh, so that all of the world could now be welcomed into God’s Kingdom by faith. Consequently, they wrote accounts of this “good news” as well as letters to encourage and teach one another, in the hopes that the family of God would grow as faithful men and women brought this good news to the uttermost parts of the earth. These gospel accounts and apostolic letters were subsequently copied and shared with other Christians at an alarming pace, despite the fact that there were periods during which owning one of these books would have been considered criminal. Many of these copies had mistakes, but the substance of their content was never lost. They were also translated into other languages relatively early, with some translations being more accurate than others, but even the faulty translations were viewed highly by those who used them. That is how the New Testament’s history began, and the point of this blog and others like it will be to explore how that history might naturally impact our theological perspective when it comes to thinking about the text of the New Testament.

The blog series that this post introduces will include brief engagements with several of the scholars who are leading voices in the movement away from recovering an “original” text of the New Testament. It will also include a few brief reflections from myself along the way as they relate to a number of the questions being raised by contemporary textual critics and some of the theological implications of those questions for a Christian doctrine of scripture.

Works Cited

¹ Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: It’s Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), xv.

² Bart Ehrman, “The Text of the New Testament,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 361.

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