I have been talking about the problems in knowing what the “original” text of Philippians is. Even with the following brief review, the comments I will be making in this post will, frankly, probably not make much sense if you do not refresh your memory from my previous two posts. Here I will be picking up where I left off there.
We have seen that knowing what the original of Philippians is is complicated by the facts that: 1) The letter appears originally to have been two letters, so that it’s hard to know whether the original of each separate letter is to be the original or if the final edited version which Paul himself did not produce is the original; 2) Paul dictated his letters, and the scribe who wrote down his dictation would typically have made a fresh copy of the letter after Paul had made a few corrections – so which is the original: what the scribe originally wrote or the fresh copy he made after the corrections? 3) And if Paul made corrections to what the scribe wrote, then which is the original – what the scribe originally wrote (that’s the oldest form of the written text) or the correction Paul made (that’s what he intended to say)? How do you choose which is the “original”? One of these forms of the text is the original thing written, but the other is what the author (Paul) originally meant.
And there are more complications: what if, for example, Paul dictated the relatively long letter to the Philippians (it’s short for the Pauline letters, but very, very long for typical Greco-Roman letters: usually these were only one papyrus page in length and had very little substance to them), but between the time he did the dictation and the time he corrected the copy, he changed his mind about something and decided to say or word it differently? Then which is the original – the way he originally said it or the way he later corrected himself to say?
Moreover, some scholars have suspected that the “thorn in the flesh” that Paul had (which I mentioned in the previous post) was a speech impediment, which would explain why Paul would try to justify his poor speaking abilities to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 10:10). So maybe he wasn’t well understood by the scribe.
Or what if the words Paul used when he was dictating were not the words he *meant* to use? This happens all the time. Anyone who has recorded carefully scripted lectures and then listened to them afterwards will hear what they call “mis-speaks.” You remember saying something one way, but when you see yourself on film, you hear yourself saying something completely different (opposite!) to what you remember saying (for example, by leaving out a negative; or by twisting words around). What if Paul did that on occasion? It’s not inconceivable. People do it. If that’s the case, then what is the “original” text? Is it what Paul dictated to the scribe? Or is it what he *meant* to dictate to the scribe?
Suppose Paul had a mis-speak and the scribe faithfully wrote down what Paul actually said, and when reviewing the letter Paul did not catch it. If you think that the original text should be what Paul intended to say, even though that was not written down, then you are saying that the original text is a text that was never written as a text, but a word, phrase, or sentence that was in Paul’s head that never came out of his mouth. But if you say that the original text was what he incorrectly spoke, then you’re saying that the original writing is not the thing originally meant.
All of these speculative matters are complicated and compounded not only by the fact that we are probably talking not about a single letter that Paul wrote to the Philippians, but two letters. And by the fact that we don’t have the first fresh copy of either letter sent to the Philippians, but only one fragmentary copy from 150 years later and no complete copy unto 300 years later.
Let’s think about those copies for a second. How do we know that these surviving copies are accurate reproductions of that fresh copy sent to the Philippians in the first place? Technically speaking, we don’t know. How can we know? We don’t have the fresh copy to compare them with. Moreover, of all the hundreds of copies of Paul’s letters that we have in the surviving manuscripts, there are thousands and thousands of differences in wording.
I should stress – people get on my case for not stressing this enough, so let me STRESS: the vast majority (stress: VAST MAJORITY) of these differences don’t matter for a single thing. They are immaterial, insignificant, of no weight whatsoever, important only to the extent that they show that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than my students can today. But there are some significant differences among these thousands of variant readings. How do we know which variants – if any – represent the “original” reading? It’s hard to make a decision about that if we don’t even know what we mean by the term “original”!!!
I’ll say more about the copies of Paul’s letters in my next post.
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