Yesterday I discussed very briefly the benefits and difficulties of versional evidence for establishing the text of the New Testament. As it turns out, it is a very big and complex issue, or rather sets of issues. There are large and difficult books written on very small aspects of the versions. One, still authoritative, treatment of the whole shooting match, with extensive bibliography (which is now, of course, out of date), is one of the magna opera of my mentor, Bruce Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations (1977). It’s a great book, arguably his most impressive.
In this post I would like, to move into a very brief discussion of one other area of evidence for the text of the New Testament, the Patristic sources. The term “patristic” stands for “fathers” (Latin: patres) of the church – that is, the early church authors who quoted the books of the New Testament in the course of their writings. This too is an exceedingly thorny area of scholarly investigation, and one that I have long been deeply interested in. It is the area that I did my PhD research and dissertation in.
So here’s the deal. As I have pointed out before, we don’t have complete manuscripts of the New Testament until the middle of the fourth century – some 300 years after the books were written. We do have earlier fragmentary papyri manuscripts of this, that, or the other part of the NT, and for that we are all exceedingly grateful. But one problem with manuscripts is that we almost never know exactly when or where they were produced. And yet, that kind of specificity is very important for us if we want to know about how the text of the NT was transmitted over the years and centuries.
Here’s why. Suppose we have a verse that is worded in two different ways in various manuscripts (the differences may be large, they may be small, but they are in any event differences).
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