When scholars try to establish what an ancient author wrote, they can do so only on the basis of the surviving evidence. That seems, well, rather obvious, but the reality is that most people have never thought about that. It just seems that if you pick up a copy of Plato, or Euripides, or Cicero, that you’re simply reading what they wrote. But it’s not that simple. In none of these cases, or in any other case for any other book from the ancient world, do we actually have the person’s actual writing. All we have are later copies, and invariably these copies are filled with scribal mistakes. Scholars who are “textual critics” try to reconstruct the text that the author produced, to the best of their ability.
I have been talking about the challenges of doing that with the New Testament. In many, many ways we are much better situated with the New Testament than with any other ancient book (or set of books) from the ancient world. We have WAY more evidence – TONS more – for the NT than for anything else from antiquity. The reason is not hard to figure out. Throughout the Middle Ages, when most of our surviving manuscripts of every ancient book were produced, who was doing the copying? Christian scribes. Usually monks. And what would Christian monks prefer to copy? John’s Gospel or Plato’s Republic? No contest. John got copied hundreds and hundreds of times more frequently.
So we have way more manuscripts of the NT than for any other ancient book. But as I pointed out, we also have more differences among our NT manuscripts than for any other book.
Still, we are also fortunate to have two other kinds of evidence for reconstructing the text of the New Testament: the versional evidence and the Patristic evidence. These are terrifically valuable for us. They are also inordinately difficult to access and analyze.
The versional evidence involves…
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