Do we know the original wording of the New Testament? Here I continue!
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.
As I have pointed out we have way more manuscripts of the NT than for any other ancient book. But that is not the extent of our evidence. The two other major kinds of textual “witnesses” are the ancient versions of the New Testament and the writings of the Church Fathers (called “Patristic” evidence). These are terrifically valuable for us. They are also inordinately difficult to access and analyze.
The versional evidence involves ancient translations of the New Testament into other ancient languages: Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, Gothic, Old Church Slavonic, and so on. This evidence can be very useful to us.
Suppose you could show that all the Latin evidence (i.e., the surviving Latin manuscripts) attest a certain way of reading a verse when there are varieties of ways it is worded in different Greek manuscripts, and suppose that you could show that all the Syriac evidence agrees with the wording of all the Latin evidence. That would *suggest* (it would not prove, but it would strongly suggest) that that way of wording was the dominant way of wording in the Latin west and the Syriac east, at about the same time – the second century, a time before any of our Greek manuscripts were produced. That would be very useful to know. In some instances it might suggest that most of our surviving Greek manuscripts have a reading that has been altered from the earliest available form.
There will always be debates about such matters, but one has to look at all the evidence, and knowing where and when the versions were created is of supreme importance. Part of the problem is that there are *some* variant readings found in Greek manuscripts that cannot be replicated in some of the versions. Latin, for example, does not have a definite article. So if some Greek manuscripts of a verse have a word with an article, and others are lacking the article, the Latin manuscripts are not going to help you decide whether the article is original or not.
So too, some kinds of word order cannot be determined in some of the versions – for example, if some Greek manuscripts order the words of a verse in one way and others order them in a different way, it is usually very difficult indeed to determine if one version or another points to one of these possible variants.
There are problems as well with verb tenses, since different languages do their tenses differently and the tenses of one language does not always map well onto the tenses of another. And, there are problems with lots of other grammatical niceties.
But there are many other instances in which the versions are especially helpful. If there are Greek manuscripts that have, say, additional words in a verse, or even additional verses in a chapter, it is possible and relatively easy to see if these words or large collections of words are present in this, that, or the other version. That would show that the words were present in the Greek manuscripts that were being used by the translators of that version when the version was originally translated.
For that reason it is highly important to establish when the various translations were made – and to determine if they were made from Greek manuscripts or, another possibility, from one of the other versions. If you could show, for example, that, say, the Ethiopic translation was made not from the Greek but, say, from the Latin, then establishing the Ethiopic form of the text would tell you something about the Latin (not the Greek) text at the time and place of its’ translation (I’m just picking this as a random example to explain the potential situation.)
And so one has to determine the source language for each of the versions. There are scholars who do such things. They tend to be very smart.
The most important versions are the Latin, Syriac, and Coptic, in no small measure because they appear to have been produced, independently of one another, from (different) Greek manuscripts, in different parts of the world (obviously), in the second century – i.e., at a date earlier than the vast majority of our surviving Greek manuscripts. Unfortunately, as I’ve indicated, we don’t have the actual translations that were first made in any of these instances, but only later manuscripts. So to use them to establish the text of the New Testament, we have to study these later manuscripts (in Latin, in Syriac, and in Coptic), try to reconstruct the earliest from of the text (i.e., the Latin, Syriac, or Coptic texts), then make a retroversion of the translation into Greek – i.e., translate the earliest from of the Latin, Syriac, or Coptic into the Greek equivalents – and then compare that to the various surviving Greek manuscripts.
Textual criticism is not for the faint of heart. It is unbelievably technical and intricate and complicated. The VAST majority of New Testament scholars avoid it like the plague (by far the great majority know almost nothing about it). But it has a worthy goal, or rather set of goals: figuring out what the authors of the New Testament probably wrote and seeing how and why scribes changed the texts they copied.
If you would like to see a fuller discussion of the early versions of the New Testament, there is a discussion of them in Bruce Metzger, The Test of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (4th ed.; pp. 94-125). There are entire (and often detailed and, let us say, difficult!) books written on the versions. One, still authoritative, treatment of the whole shooting match, with extensive bibliography (which is now, of course, out of date; but still hugely useful), is one of Metzger’s magna opera, The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations (1977). It’s a great book, arguably his most impressive.