Sometimes people take what I say to an extreme that I don’t mean to convey. That especially happens when I talk about the textual criticism of the New Testament. As a reminder, “textual criticism” is a technical term. It does not refer to the interpretation of texts or to the history behind the composition of texts or to the assessment of the original context of texts or anything like that. It is used to refer specifically to the attempt to reconstruct the words of a text. That is, textual criticism is not interested in understanding what the text means; it is interested in figuring out what words the author originally used. And in seeing how the author’s original words may have been changed over in the process of copying.
Textual criticism is a fundamental aspect of literary study – certainly for the Bible, but for all texts. There are textual critics who avidly work on the classics (Homer, Virgil, Cicero, etc. etc.); and on medieval literature and on modern literature. It’s a huge field, e.g., in Shakespeare, but also in, say, 19th century English poets, etc. You can’t really give an interpretation of what Hamlet means if you don’t know what the words were. And the reality is that it’s impossible to know what Shakespeare originally wrote. I won’t go into that here, but look it up: textual criticism of Shakespeare is a really major problem. As with the writings of the New Testament, there is a widespread sense that it doesn’t even make sense to talk about “the original” text of Hamlet. If you check around about Shakespeare scholarship, you’ll see.
My field, of course, is New Testament, and in a number of my books I’ve talked about the textual criticism of the Christian Scriptures. I absolutely stand by everything I’ve ever said in writing (so far as I know!) about the problems, and I’ll restate them here. But I want to stress that I have never meant them to be taken to the extreme that some people have taken them to, either in fervently agreeing with me (when they’re actually “agreeing” with something I don’t think) or vehemently opposing me (again, over something I don’t think).
So let me say it clearly: it is NOT my opinion that …