In my previous post I had begun to indicate that the field of New Testament textual criticism had grown notably and depressingly moribund in America by the late 1970s when I began my graduate studies. But I didn’t explain just *why* most New Testament scholars – let alone scholars in other fields of religious studies or the humanities more broadly – did not find the field interesting and / or important. The reason has to do with what I laid out as one of the almost-universally-held views among textual critics (and other scholars at all connected with the field): That the entire goal, purpose, and raison d’être of the discipline was to establish what an author originally wrote (a goal, purpose, and raison d’être that may seem both reasonable and self-evident. But keep reading my posts).
Why would that view have created such apathy toward the field, such a lack of interest in pursuing its objectives? For the most part, it was because New Testament scholars assumed that the field had achieved its goal. We pretty much already *knew* what the authors of the New Testament wrote. And textual scholars were not coming up with any new findings to change anyone’s mind about much of anything.
The reality is that the wording of the Greek New Testament (I am talking, of course, about the wording of the New Testament in the original Greek, not about its English translations) was understood to have been established with great reliability by the scholars of the past, going back to the end of the 19th century. For nearly a century, most everyone *agreed* on what the words of the New Testament originally were (for the Gospels, the writings of Paul, and so on). There might be disagreements on the margins about a scattered verse or two here or there. But for the most part, there were no longer any major debates or issues to resolve.
Support for this view came from the fact that just about everyone who read the Greek New Testament on the planet used an edition that was produced by an international team of five textual scholars. My teacher Bruce Metzger was one of the five (he was the lone American). This edition came in two formats, one of them for scholars, which had a rather lengthy apparatus and one for Bible translators working in countries that did not yet have a New Testament in their indigenous languages, that had a much, much smaller apparatus.
By “apparatus” I mean this. For the New Testament, as I have stressed in previous posts, we have different textual witnesses (Greek manuscripts; manuscripts in other ancient languages such as Latin, Syriac, and Coptic; quotations of the New Testament in the writings of the church fathers) and often they word a passage or a verse differently. In almost any Greek New Testament you buy, there are *two* most obvious features: the text and the apparatus.
The “text” is the running Greek text of the New Testament, just as in the English Bible (where you may have footnotes at the bottom of the page, but what you read are the words in the text). Below the text is the “apparatus” which indicates important places where the textual witnesses have a different wording for the text. The “text” that is printed is the one that the editors have decided is most likely what the author originally wrote, based on their evaluation of all the textual evidence, as I did in a series of posts last week on 1 Thessalonians 2:7. Every passage, every verse, every word, every letter is evaluated by the editors, based on the surviving evidence, to determine which is the “original.”
The apparatus is produced by these same editors as they choose words, or collections of words, that are (in their judgment) significantly different in one or more textual witnesses. The point of the apparatus is to give the reader a chance to see some of the variations found in these witnesses, especially at places that the editors think are of greatest importance. And so the apparatus will indicate what the variant readings are, and will show which textual witnesses have which reading (the one judged by the editors to be original and all the other variant readings).
These apparatuses are always highly selective. There is no way an apparatus can indicate *every* change found in every textual witness. As I’ve pointed out, there are more differences among the manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. And so the editors choose the variants that they think are the most important – for example, the ones that could change the very meaning of the text – and they include these in the apparatus.
Thus, (virtually) every Greek New Testament gives the text and an apparatus.
By the late 1970s, New Testament scholars widely assumed that since we already pretty much knew for relative certainty what the original text was, there was no reason to worry very much about studying the apparatus. One reason for this kind of complacency was that a new edition of the Greek New Testament would appear every decade or so. And the new edition was almost always virtually identical with the one before it in its text, even if the apparatus had been brought up to date by the editors making available more newly discovered evidence (manuscript discoveries and the like). There would usually be *some* changes in the text, but usually they didn’t affect things overly much.
And this had been going on for decades. The reality is that the basic character of the printed Greek text was not much different in 1981 from what it was in 1881. Most New Testament scholars knew that. And so what was the point of spending your life studying the textual witnesses? The task that the field was trying to achieve – the reconstruction of the original text – had already been achieved. Or so it was widely thought.
Hence the view among NT scholars that there was really no reason to get involved with (or even learn about) textual criticism any more. I didn’t agree with this view (for reasons I’ll explain in a subsequent post), but that’s what I was facing when I got into the field.