The study of the various manuscript witnesses to the New Testament, commonly referred to as New Testament Textual Criticism, is, without doubt, of the most critical importance for the Christian church. For the non-Christian academic, the precise wording of the original Greek language texts is of scholarly interest, but nothing more. For the Christian, however, the text under examination is God’s Word communicated through men to men. If these words are inspired by God, then it is of paramount importance that the Christian know exactly which words God intended the inspired authors to write. Indeed, the question of what the pastor is going to preach to his congregation in terms of the Biblical text should drive the Christian textual critic to pursue excellence in this field of study.
There is almost unanimous certainty that, given the quantity of New Testament manuscripts that have been preserved throughout the world–whether entire Bibles, or small fragments, within all of these manuscripts the exact wording of the original New Testament text has been preserved. The work of the textual critic is to sift through the manuscripts and determine to the best of his ability, given the evidence available, which ones contain the original words. Are they all contained in one manuscript, a family of related manuscripts, or perhaps a lot of extremely diverse manuscripts?
There are many different theories and approaches to the discipline, art, and science of textual criticism, and it is easy for the layperson to hear two or three and think either that they are all the same, or that they are all at odds. Moreover, these views are not often articulated clearly enough for most laypeople to understand and apply them when choosing Bible translations or evaluating the opinions of commentators. The purpose of this series is to guide the layperson through the most common text critical positions, and provide some analysis of their weak and strong points. This is not an exhaustive study, and the reader is directed to books in the field by authors such as Bruce Metzger and Kurt Aland for further reading. Dr. White’s book The King James Only Controversy is also a very helpful introduction to the art and science of textual criticism.
Writing in the Ancient World
The Phoenicians provide us with the first evidence of writing and an alphabet in the early second millennium B.C. Since that time, the canon of the Old Testament has come to us from the hands of Moses, Joshua, and other scribes. Even within the pages of the Old Testament, other works are cited for reference, indicating the existence of a wider library in the Middle East beyond their sacred works during the first millennium B.C. The treasure trove of manuscripts and papyrus fragments dating from 100 B.C. to the earliest days of Christianity found at Qumran bears further testimony to this. It should not be surprising, therefore, that people in the first century wanted to document the words and activities of Christ and His Apostles; nor should it be a surprise that there would be exchanges of letters between churches and church leaders dating back to the earliest days of the church. What has been a great source of amazement among students and scholars of antiquity is that these writings have survived, often in a readable condition, and in such quantity for nearly two thousand years.
In this respect, the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, is unique among ancient works. There are over 5,000 manuscripts in the form of near-complete codices (the codex being the earliest form of the book, as opposed to the scroll), partial codices, and papyrus fragments of the New Testament extant (i.e., existing today) in Greek alone. This does not include the numerous copies in Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and other languages. Also, while the original manuscripts of the New Testament books have long since been lost, the extant copies date back to the second century A.D.within 100-150 years of their original composition. Scholars of ancient literature would love to have these kinds of statistics for other works. Often they are relying upon a handful of versions copied over one thousand years after the original was composed.
While this may give comfort to the Christian in terms of the antiquity of the Bible, it is important to note that out of all these extant manuscripts in Greek and other languages, no two manuscripts are completely identical. That is to say, they all differ from one another to a greater or lesser degree. This is understandable given that they were copied at a time before the printing press and, therefore, were made by hand and were subject to the circumstances of their composition and the frailties of their human transcribers. In light of this, one may wonder how it is that we came to have the Greek New Testament in its entirety, and how we can trust that the Greek text upon which our English translations are based is accurate. Hopefully, this series will go some way to answering those questions. To begin, we need to learn a little more about the nature of the variations (called “variants”) between the manuscripts, and how they came about. And we will start next time with a brief discussion of the way ancient documents were written and transmitted.