In trying to figure out what it even means to talk about the “original” text of Philippians (was it what Paul meant to dictate? Was it what he did dictate, if it was different from what he intended? Was it what the scribe wrote even if it was different from what Paul dictated? Was it what Paul corrected after he saw what the scribe incorrectly wrote? Was it the fresh copy that the scribe made even if it was different from the corrected version Paul gave him? What happens if in fact Philippians is two letters that have been spliced together by a later editor, as many scholars believe, rather than just one letter – is the “original” the two different letters originally sent or the spliced together version that Paul did not create but someone else did? Etc. etc.), in trying to figure all this out, several readers have suggested that the easiest way to look at it is that the “original” of Philippians is the letter Paul sent to Philippi, whatever happened, prior to its being sent.
Fair enough. But we are still left with the problem that all the manuscripts we have of Philippians are based on the spliced-together edition created after the two letters were received (spliced together a year or two later by someone in the church of Philippi? By someone living ten years later? It’s impossible to say: our earliest copy is from about 150 years after Paul sent the letters!), so that if this critical view (that the letter was originally two letters) is correct, then we don’t have access to the original letter(s) that Paul sent at all! (I should say that most textual critics do not even *consider* this host of problems that I’ve been laying out. Possibly that’s because, well, they throw complications into the midst that no one wants to deal with because there’s simply no way to solve them!)
But let’s suppose just for the sake of argument that our letter to the Philippians is just one letter, not two spliced together later, and let’s suppose, again just for the sake of the argument, that what we are going to call the “original” text is the version of the letter that Paul sent to the Philippians after all the dictating, writing, editing, and re-writing was finished. Doesn’t that solve our problems?
Well, no, not really. Would that it did!
Let’s say (for the argument)…
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that Paul sent the one letter to Philippians. Someone in Philippi obviously copied the letter. If no one copied it, we wouldn’t have any manuscripts from later times. So how did it actually happen? Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing. Let me give a scenario that is really no more likely and no less likely than any other. You can come up with dozens yourself, some that create more problems and some that create fewer.
Let’s say the “original” letter was copied three times in Philippi over the course of the next month – maybe there were four different house-churches in Philippi (the church was too large to fit into one household, say), and each one wanted a copy. Let’s call the original O and the three copies A, B, and C. They each get read a lot. Maybe O gets read so much that it wears out, and so the church that has that copy, after some years, makes another copy, that we’ll call D. Now A, B, C, and D may have some differences among them – maybe small differences, maybe large ones, as some of the people making the copies were not all that literate or skilled in copying or careful. Let’s just say that A and B were copied pretty well, with only a few minor mistakes here and there, but that C and D were not copied very well.
And let’s say that a Christian from another city – say Thessalonica — comes to Philippi and visits church C, and sees that they have Paul’s letter (a copy of it) and wants a copy of it for their home church. So they make a copy. And suppose it’s not a perfect copy of C, which was not a very good copy of O. And so the copy that gets taken back to Thessalonica is not a brilliant copy of a copy of O. Six months later a Christian from Rome visits the church in Thessalonica, learns of the letter, makes a copy of it to take back to Rome. It’s an OK copy (of an imperfect copy of C which was a poor copy of O). In Rome, the copy of a copy of a copy of O gets copied twelve times for the various house churches in Rome.
Meanwhile, the churches in Philippi have used and reused their copies, until they need more copies because the first copies are wearing out. But – this is just one hypothetical scenario out of hundreds – it is the copies that are found in Rome that get copied by other churches around the Mediterranean, since, more Christians come to Rome than to Philippi or Thessalonica, which hardly ever have any visitors from the outside, as opposed to Rome.
Eventually the original, O, and the first copies, A, B, C, and D are worn out, replaced, recopied, and recopied again, but not put into circulation. The copies that get circulated are copies of the copies of the copies of the copies of C, which was not a very good copy in the first place.
And all this takes place over the course of, say, 10 years. After thirty years, there are lots of copies, but the vast majority of them ultimately go back to C. After 90 years there are lots more copies. All of the copies are made by scribes who might make small mistakes. After 150 years there are more. And one of *those* copies happens to survive in fragmentary form – we call it, today, P46.
All of this is further complicated, in rather mind-boggling form, by the fact that a lot of critical scholars think that O is not one thing, but two things, spliced together by someone in Philippi.
Well, you get the idea. Can we say for *certain* that P46, our oldest fragmentary manuscript, and B, our oldest complete manuscript, of Philippians contain word-for-word exactly what Paul wrote? Obviously not. How could we possibly know?
In my next post I will complete this thread by arguing that all of these complications do *not* mean (as one might think) that we have to throw up our hands in despair and say that there is no longer any point in studying the texts of Philippians as they have come down to us.[/mepr-show]