A couple of posts ago I mentioned a comment that I used to make (and still would be happy to make) that rankled some of my colleagues and has led some of my conservative evangelical critics to claim that I’m contradicting myself and can’t figure out what to think. Or, rather, they claim that I present one view to scholars and a different view to popular readers in order to sensationalize the truth in order to sell books, presumably so I can make millions and retire in a Swiss villa in the Alps. The comment, as you recall, ran something like this: “Barring spectacular new discoveries (such as the originals!) or radical developments of new methods, we will never get any closer to the original writings of the New Testament than we already are.”
I explained in my previous post why I used to make some such statements (and why I continue to stand by them). In short, despite all the discoveries over the past 135 years, and all the revolutions in method, the basic appearance of our Greek New Testaments today is very, very similar to how they appeared in 1881. And they aren’t likely to change much. We’re just tweakin’ ‘em. To be sure (this point can’t be stressed enough) there are lots and lots of places where scholars disagree on which variant reading to prefer. But there is no consensus on most of these readings that make the text we have much different from the text that our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents had (assuming any of them could read the Greek NT) (in my case, not a one of them could….).
So, if that’s what I really think (as evidenced by the fact that I made some such claim in scholarly contexts), how could I have the audacity to claim, to general readers, that we in fact don’t know what the text of the NT originally said? Aren’t I contradicting myself? Making spectacular claims to draw attention to myself. Trying to find the dosh for that villa in the Alps?
Like some of my readers (who commented), I just don’t see the problem. I don’t think our New Testaments are likely ever to change much. And I don’t think we know in a lot of places what the originals said. Where’s the contradiction? I’m not saying that we *know* that we have the original text in 99.9% of the passages of the NT. I’m saying we *don’t* know – for a wide variety of reasons that I haven’t gotten into very much here. But I’m emphasizing the word “know.” We simply don’t know.
Do I *suspect* that most of the time we are pretty close or even there? Yes, that would be my guess. But it’s just a guess based on scholarly assumption and suspicion.
I should stress that (despite occasional requests) I really can’t give a percentage of how many places we are relative comfortable with, as having the original or something very close to the original. That is very much unlike many of my critics, who somehow think they can say things like “we are sure about the text in 99% of all cases.” Where in the blazes does that 99% come from? What does it mean? How are they counting? *What* are they counting? What statistical model have they employed? And how would they know?
In fact, they’re just…
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