A few days ago I answered a question about whether someone in the very earliest church who was reading one of the Christian writings to his congregation in the church — say, one of the Gospels or one of Paul’s letters — might have *changed* it in places orally so that the people who were listening to him (most of whom wouldn’t be able to read themselves) might have heard something other than what was written. Great question.
In this and the following posts I want to deal with an equally vexed question. Stick with that same situation. That writing the person is reading (unless he is living in the same town as the author and this is just a little while later) is presumably a copy of the original writing, or, more likely, even if it’s just a few years after the original, a copy of a copy. What are the chances that that copy was different in places from the original, and if it was, do we now, today, actually have the original.
I dealt with this question many years ago on the blog and thought I would take it up again, starting with the question that “originally” (!) prompted it — which, I think arbitrarily, was asked about Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Would you agree that the letter written to the Philippians was an original writing of Paul? Do you agree that the first copy of the letter written by Paul to the Philippians was also an original? Assuming there were errors made by the person(s) who copied the original letter of Paul to the Philippians, would you agree that the first copy even with some errors still had the original context of the first letter. If you do agree, then is it totally accurate to say that we don’t have the original letter of Paul written to the Philippians? Don’t you think that it’s more accurate to state that we do have the original but it has been altered to some degree? Has the letter to the Philippians written by Paul been altered so much that we can’t really know what the original proclaimed?
These are great questions. They have the benefit of making very concrete some of the things that I have said, in general terms, about the textual tradition of the New Testament. I think I might devote a few posts to delving into the issues that the questioner has raised, since the answers are not as simple as one might imagine, and they open up a number of very interesting issues that need to be decided when trying to resolve the questions of (a) what the “original” text of a book like Philippians might have been, and (b) whether we can reasonably hope to know what that original text was.
But before going into detail with various parts of the problems that are involved, let me give here in this post a more rapid-fire shorthand response to each of the questions seriatim. I’ll do that by …
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