It is interesting that as recently as twenty years ago almost *no one* outside a small cohort of textual geeks (like me) had much interest at all in the actual manuscripts of the New Testament. Even the majority of NT scholars (a very *large* majority) just weren’t interested. And most non-NT scholars had never heard that there was even an issue / problem. That has changed a lot. Now it’s something people seem to want to talk to me about all the time.
I’ve long thought about the issues that are involved (starting when I was 17! Seriously). Here are some reflections that I made some time ago, which I ran across again recently and thought summed up one of the big problems rather neatly.
It’s a little hard to get one’s mind around the irony of our early manuscripts (the term means: “hand-written copies,” i.e., *all* the copies before the invention of printing). To reconstruct the “original” text of the New Testament – by which, for my purposes here, I mean the text that the author himself produced and put into the public sphere by “publishing” (or sending) it – we would love to have lots of early manuscripts to look at. Unfortunately, we don’t have lots of early manuscripts. 94% of our manuscripts are 800 years after the fact. We have only a handful of manuscripts, at best, that can plausibly be dated to the second century. These are all *highly* fragmentary (the oldest is just a scrap with a few verses on it). And even these are decades after the authors were all dead and buried.
The problem is that every time a manuscript gets copied, mistakes – either intentional or accidental – are introduced. And then when that manuscript serves as an exemplar for the next scribe, its mistakes are replicated, and the second scribe adds mistakes of his own. Then a third scribe copies the copy made by the second scribe, replicating the mistakes of both his predecessors, and adds his own. And so it goes, year after year, decade after decade. Someone copying Paul’s letter of 1 Thessalonians in, say, the year 90 is already copying a text that has been in circulation for four decades. How many generations of copies have intervened between this scribe of the year 90 and the original made by Paul 40 years earlier? Is it a copy of the original? Unlikely. Of the first copy of the original? Still unlikely. Of a copy of the copy of the copy of the copy of the copy of the original? Who knows?
And the bad/sad thing is we do not have a copy of 1 Thessalonians from the year 90. Or 100. Or 120. Or 160. Or 190. Our first copy is named P46, and is probably from around 200 CE or so. It does not have all of 1 Thessalonians, but is fragmentary (although it does have most of it). Our first complete copy of 1 Thessalonians is Codex Vaticanus, dating from, perhaps, 370 CE – over three hundred years after the original.
For most of the New Testament we do have papyri (an old writing material used for our very oldest manuscripts before scribes started using parchment — i.e., animal skins) from the second, third, and fourth centuries. These papyri are extremely valuable, as they show us how the text was being copied in the centuries before (that extremely valuable!) Vaticanus. These papyri have largely been discovered in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And they have taught us some very significant things about one of the topics we are most eager to know about as textual critics of the New Testament: the early transmission of the New Testament text. They show us that:
- Most early copyists were not as skilled and/or careful as the later scribes (many of whom – the later ones – were monks in medieval monasteries)
- Most of the textual changes that we find in later manuscripts were first made in these earliest copies (specialists usually maintain that most of our textual alterations were made before the year 300 CE)
- These copies differ from later ones in very significant ways in places (so that it is nice to have so many later manuscripts; but they do not always represent the form of the text that we can find in our earliest manuscripts; what about passages where we don’t have earlier manuscripts?!)
- And, as important, these copies differ significantly, in many places, precisely from one another.
To elaborate on this last point: if you collate (that is, compare in every detail the wording of) later manuscripts with one another, in many instances you will not find that many differences. But if you collate the earlier manuscripts with one another, you will typically find lots and lots of differences.
This shows that even though the earliest manuscripts are the best thing we have going – since they are closest to the originals – in another sense they are the most problematic – since they incorporate so many mistakes. It seems that the earlier you go, the less reliable the scribes were as scribes; but ironically, since they were copying earlier copies, even though the copies they made may have been relatively bad in many instances, they were copying texts closer to the originals than the later texts copied by more competent and reliable scribes.
This is one of the ironies of our textual tradition. And it makes the task of establishing the “original” text oh so difficult for specialists in the field, who want the earliest manuscripts they can find but realize that these manuscripts in many instances will be the products of scribes who were not as skilled or scrupulous as we would like. So our earliest manuscripts, in many instances, provide us with both the best of all worlds and the worst.