Monday, May 14, 2007

Textual Criticism of the Bible

I've got a feeling this post may get an old friend to respond. We'll see. Its basically a simple question. When dealing with the area of textual criticism, what is preferable in order to best reconstruct the original text, many copies or only a few? If there are many copies, inevitably there will be more diverse readings because inevitably human copiest errors creep in when you are hand-copying something. The more copies, the more opportunity for error and the more variant readings (but also the more copies that share something in common, the more likely it is that what they share comes from the original).

With fewer copies you would have fewer variant readings (because there has been less of an opportunity for error to creep in) but you also have less assurance that the portions that those copies share would have come from the orginal text. It seems to me that when someone criticizes the Bible for it's so-called "numerous variant readings" (which I address in an article on the website, and which I do not believe are really nearly as severe as critics make it seem), they set up a standard by which they will never be satisfied. Are there going to be copyist errors? Of course. And the more copies you have, obviously the larger number of errors you will find (because there is more opportunity). But most textual critics will tell you this is actually a strength of the Bible (specifially the New Testament) because a greater number of copies enables us to find more commonalities and reconstruct the original to a greater degree. So what is the alternative? Less copies? Would this please the critic? Not likely, because then they could argue that there is an inadequate sample from which to draw any conclusions about the original text.

So what is better, many copies or only a few? If the former, you have to take the inevitable variants with the number of copies, but you also have to realize that these variants are a direct result of the large number of copies, which actually makes us MORE able to reconstruct the original text, not less.


DagoodS said...

Personally, I would prefer as many copies as possible from as early as possible of all the Early Christian writings, as well as the Gnostic writings, Johannine writings, Galilean writings, Essene writings, Pharisaical writings, and Cynic, Epicurean, and Stoic writings. I would also prefer as many copies as possible from as early as possible for any writings countering or arguing with these various positions.

Alas, we are stuck with what we have, and must work with it as best we can.

I will leave whomever you are referring to as “criticizing” the Bible for variant readings to speak for themselves.

Ten Minas Ministries said...


Let me ask you a question (because you admittedly have probably looked into textual criticism more than I have). Are you aware of any other historical documents (for which the originals are from around the New Testament era or earlier) of which we have as many copies as we do of the New Testament? Assuming, as I believe to be correct, that the New Testament has the greatest number of copies, do you know what the "runner up" would be? Just curious.

DagoodS said...

Ten Minas Ministries,

You ask a great question. It deserves a great answer. Unfortunately, I don’t have one.

As a general premise, I would say there is nothing that is remotely even close to the number of copies over the period of time in which we are talking. I even chuckled a little when I read “runner-up.” Not sure anything could even qualify for that. Like saying first place ran a marathon in 2:47, and second place ran it in three weeks! While technically we could call them a “runner-up” it wasn’t even a battle.

Part of it, of course, would depend on the specific time we are talking. For example, if we are referring to pre-200 C.E., anything with any length at all, or more than one copy would beat the New Testament. By 250 C.E. (as an extremely safe date) I would think the New Testament would far and away have the most copies. By the early fourth century the idea of a “runner-up” is laughable, due to the number of copies we have. If you want to stretch to the Tenth Century, that is when we get into the 10’s of 1000’s of documents.

For a comparison, if I recall correctly, our earliest copy of Josephus is Tenth Century. Just to show the difference.

(I exclude mention of the Dead Sea Scrolls, since they should be obvious in our discussion.)

You did raise my interest as to how we analyze the handwriting to determine dates. We do have papyrus and writing from 200 BCE on from other sources by which to “date” the New Testament manuscripts. So clearly there are other documents around. Not an area I have studied sufficiently to give you a good answer.

One thing I did find humorous as I was nosing a bit on the question. Apparently there is some little controversy over Euclid’s Elements and textual criticism was discussed as to how Mathematicians attempt to get as close to his original as possible. Sometimes we think that it is only our field of interest that has any research or concern over a project. I found it funny the mathematicians were equally engrossed in like endeavors.

I am unaware of anything that could even be in the ballpark with the New Testament manuscripts. (But, truth be told, there are a number of things that are true of which I am haplessly unaware.)

Ten Minas Ministries said...

I am not familiar specifically with "Elements", but I am assuming that contains his thoughts on Euclidian Geometry, in which case they would have a slight advantage over us in some respects, I would think. After all, if you are unsure whether the text says "2+2=4" or "2+2=5" (to use an obviously overly simplistic example), it should be pretty easy to figure out which one Euclid probably wrote!