Early on in my study of textual criticism I came to realize one of the major issues confronting scholars in the field – an issue that scholars have been contending with since the eighteenth century. For the past hundred years or so the vast majority of experts have been convinced by a solution to the problem, but the solution was slow in coming, for all sorts of reasons. But when I was first introduced to the problem I learned there were two sides that were being taken, and I wrote a paper about it (my first year in college). I continued to be interested in the problem for a long time, and it ended up being the subject of the Masters’ thesis I wrote under the direction of Bruce Metzger.
The problem is this. We have thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament – at last count, somewhere around 5600 manuscripts in Greek alone (that includes everything from small fragments the size of a credit card with just a few letters written on them to massive volumes with the entire New Testament from beginning to end). Over 94% of these manuscripts come to us from after the ninth Christian century – so 800 years or more after the books of the New Testament were first written and placed in circulation. But some of them are early – with fragments going back to the second century and full manuscripts going back to the fourth.
These various manuscripts – the thousands of them – can be grouped together based on their textual similarities. That is to say, some of the manuscripts agree a lot with each other but not with other manuscripts. And so, to use the example from yesterday’s post, some manuscripts include the story in John 8 of the woman taken in adultery, and others lack it; some manuscripts have the last twelve verses of Mark and others do not. Because some manuscripts are very similar to one another, we can assume they are related to one another and we can, in theory, build a kind of family tree.
And so here is the problem. When we do that,…
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