When it comes to the gospels, how do we define the ‘original text’? Do we define it as the original manuscript that was first penned by the author, or do we define it as the gospels in their most settled canonical form?



As it turns out, this is a complicated and endlessly fascinating question that, so far as I have been able to work out over the past twenty years of thinking about it, has no clear and obvious answer!

By way of very simple background for readers not completely on top of the textual situation we are confronting when it comes to the Gospels (or any of the other books of the New Testament) (or of any ancient Christian writings at all) (or, in fact, of any writings of any kind at all that come down to us from antiquity) we do not have the “originals” (however we define that term: see below!).  What we have are copies made from copies, which were themselves made from copies.  Most of these copies are hundreds of years after the books were put in circulation, and all of the surviving copies contain mistakes of one kind or another.  The task is to use the surviving copies – some of which are in all certainty  more reliable than others – to determine the original text.

But what is the original text?

Here’s the problem, or at least part of it.   You might think – for years I thought – that the answer is very simple.  The “original” is …

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