William Petersen on the Concept of an “Original” Text

William Peterson (1950 – 2006) was one of the most erudite scholars when it came to New Testament textual criticism. He was probably best-known as one of the world’s leading experts on Tatian’s Diatessaron, the most prominent early harmony of the four gospels, likely composed around the year 170 CE. About five years after his death, a volume of Peterson’s collected essays was published by Brill. I recently revisited one essay in the middle of that volume, as it relates directly to the question I’ve been exploring regarding current debates about the status of the designation “original text” to describe the text being reconstructed by New Testament textual critics. The essay is titled, “What Text Can New Testament Textual Criticism Ultimately Reach?” and it was first published in 1994!¹

Petersen’s essay is divided into three parts. Part 1 sketches the problem in two ways. First, he notes the difficulty of defining what is meant by the “original” text, particularly when it comes to the text of the New Testament. Petersen uses the gospel of Mark as his example, asking whether our understanding of the “original” Mark is based on fourth-century (or later) manuscripts or on the minor agreements between the gospels of Matthew and Luke, since most scholars believe that Matthew and Luke both had access to their own copies of Mark’s gospel.

Second, Petersen points out the fact that despite the monumental nature of recent discoveries of early Christian papyri, as well as the work being done on the citations of New Testament texts among the early church fathers, our critical editions of the Greek New Testament have remained virtually the same since the text of Westcott and Hort, which relied heavily on the fourth century manuscripts, Sinaiticus (א) and Vaticanus (B). Here’s how Petersen describes the situation:

The papyri have been trumpeted as offering a text which is “closer to the original” than any other extant evidence. Yet it is simply a fact that nowhere in the entire apparatus for the gospels in Nestle-Aland27/UBS4 is there a single instance where a reading supported just by the papyri, or by just the papyri and Patristic evidence has been adopted as the text. This poses an awkward question: If, as alleged, the papyri preserve a text “closer to the original,” then why do they not contribute any new readings to the critical text? (221-222)

Part 2 of the essay illustrates this problem with three examples. For the sake of brevity, I’ll only focus on the first, which is drawn from the pericope about the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:17//). Here is the text (with parallels) from the current critical edition (NA28):

Matthew 19.17 Mark 10.18 Luke 18.19
εἷς ἐστιν ὁ ἀγαθός οὐδεὶς ἀγαθὸς εἰ μὴ εἷς ὁ θεός οὐδεὶς ἀγαθὸς εἰ μὴ εἷς ὁ θεός.


Mark and Luke have identical texts, with Jesus responding to the rich young ruler by saying, “No one is good except God alone.” In Matthew’s gospel, however, Jesus’ response is briefer, “There is only one who is good.”

Petersen points out for his readers that Justin Martyr (c. 150 CE) almost certainly quotes the Matthean version of this pericope, but he includes the phrase “my father in the heavens” afterwards.

Justin Martyr (c. 150 CE): eἷς ἐστιν ἀγαθός, ὁ πατὴρ μου ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς

Petersen goes on to show that this longer reading in Justin Martyr is actually found in several early Christian sources. He notes the following examples (225-226):

  1. Tatian, Diatessaron (c. 172 CE), as per Ephrem Syrus, Commentary on the Diatessaron, XV.9:
    • ܚܕ ܗܘ ܠܡ ܛܒܐ ܐܒܐ ܕܒܫܡܝܐ
  2. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I.20.2 (pre-185 CE):
    • Εἷς ἐστιν ἀγαθός, ὁ πατὴρ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς
  3. Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, V.7.25 (pre-222 CE):
    • eἷς ἐστιν ἀγαθός, ὁ πατὴρ ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς
  4. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, V.10.63 (c. 207 CE):
    • eἷς ἐστιν ἀγαθός, ὁ πατὴρ
  5. The Pseudo-Cementine Homilies XVI.3.4 (c. 260 CE):
    • ὁ γὰρ ἀγαθός eἷς ἐστιν, ὁ πατὴρ μου ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς
  6. Old Latina MS e (Mattew; 5th cent.):
    • Unus est bonus, pater.
  7. Old Latina MS d (Luke; 5th cent.):
    • Nemo bonus nisi unus Deus pater

These witnesses, which are are all early and broadly distributed, support Justin’s citation of Matthew’s text. This means, as Petersen notes, “the oldest-known version of this Matthean pericope contains the phrase ‘my Father in the heavens'” (226, emphasis original). Yet despite this evidence our critical editions continue to present Matthew’s text as only εἷς ἐστιν ὁ ἀγαθός.

This leads to Part 3 of Petersen’s essay. Given the early nature of the textual variant and its attestation above (with similar evidences for the other two examples he provides) why have we not changed our critical editions to fit this evidence? Petersen argues, once again, that textual critics have become too attached to the so-called “Alexandrian” or “Neutral” text represented by the later fourth century majuscules א and B.  Instead of allowing earlier witnesses (i.e. the papyri and especially the patristic sources) to play a crucial role in determining the earliest form of the text of the New Testament, critics tend to use them merely as witnesses in support of readings that were already preferred on the basis of א and B. More controversially, Petersen states that certain “theological standards” are also keeping critics from adopting Justin’s version of Matthew 19:17, since these theological standards would deem that particular variant “unacceptable” (234). In fact, this is Petersen’s explanation for why these variant readings were not retained in the manuscript tradition: “the reading was suppressed because in later times it was no longer theologically acceptable” (231, emphasis original). What makes them theologically unacceptable, according to Petersen, is that they are adoptionistic in nature. But this sort of explanation of the evidence seems reductionistic, and it fails to take account of all the available evidence we have on this particular variant. As Holger Strutwolf notes in his article entitled, “Original Text and Textual History,”

What is strange about [Petersen’s] theory is that the supported orthodox reading, which is supposed to have pushed away the reading that later came under suspicion of heresy, did not become the majority reading. Quite the contrary, it is attested only by very few, but very old and good witnesses, while the majority of manuscripts support a reading that is far from sounding more orthodox. In fact, the majority reading appears as heretical and dogmatically incorrect as the text of Justin.²

It therefore seems very unlikely that this particular variant is another case of the so-called “orthodox corruption” of scripture. In any case, one does not have to agree with Petersen’s explanations for why the variant given above is excluded from our critical editions in order to see the value of his broader contention.

So, in the end, how does Petersen answer the question posed by the essay’s title? Here is how the essay concludes:

The question facing textual critics today is not “How far back can we go?”…we can go back to the time of Ignatius, c. 107 CE. Rather, the question is “How far back do we wish to go?” The answer to this question is never stated openly; rather, it must be intuited from the sources used to construct the critical text of a particular edition.

At present it appears that the furthest back we wish to go is the third century, and the method we use is the agreement of the papyri and the uncials. If, however, we really wish to…reconstruct the text “as close as possible to the original,” then we must avail ourselves of the Patristic sources and take their witness seriously. And unlike the papyri, the use of Patristic evidence will, as our exhibits have shown, significantly alter the shape of the critical text. (235)

Works Cited

¹ William L. Petersen, “What Text Can New Testament Textual Criticism Ultimately Reach?” in Patristic and Text-Critical Studies: The Collected Essays of William L. Peterson, ed. Jan Krans and Joseph Verheyden (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 219-235.

² Holger Strutwolf, “Original Text and Textual History,” in The Textual History of the Greek New Testament: Changing Views in Contemporary Research, eds. Klaus Wachtel and Michael W. Holmes, TCS (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), 34.

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