Was the earliest text of the New Testament hopelessly corrupted?

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Reading and copying communities as textual stabilizers in the circulation of the New Testament writings during the Greco-Roman era.

Timothy N. Mitchell, University of Birmingham

ORCID ID icon 0000-0001-6238-1118

The New Testament writings were composed in the first-century AD long before the invention of the printing press, and therefore they come down to us entirely on hand copied manuscripts. Very few of these are preserved from the earliest centuries, leaving a hundred years or more with no material evidence. Thus, scholars have debated the extent that modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament, and consequently English translations, reflect the text in circulation during the earliest centuries. Helmut Koester argued that, "New Testament textual critics have been deluded" into a false textual confidence of the form of the archetypes of the gospels in the first century. Similarly, William L. Petersen, after examining the quotations of the gospels in the church fathers, and the lack of early manuscript evidence, determined that, "We know next to nothing of the text of the gospels in the first century." In contrast, Michael W. Holmes, using a similar research method as Petersen, concluded that "all  the variation during the time period in view affects a verse or less of the text" indicating that the text of the New Testament writings is "characterized by macro-level stability and micro-level fluidity." Matthew D. C. Larsen attempted to resolve this tension by examining Greco-Roman composition and publication practices. Larsen postulated (in opposition to Holmes and in support of Koester and Petersen) that "the reality is we do not have access to the textual tradition we now call the Gospel according to Mark as it existed in the first century." 

Unfortunately, Larsen's conclusions do not appear to follow the evidence, leaving tension between the two perspectives. In response, I give a fresh examination of ancient publication practices. I investigate testimony from the Roman statesman Cicero (106-43 BC), the Roman poet Martial (c. 40-104 AD), the Roman rhetorician Quintilian (c. 35-100 AD), the Roman author and governor Pliny the Younger (c. 61-113 AD), and the Greek physician Galen (c.129-216 AD). These authors reveal that they preferred social networks rather than commercial dealers to circulate their writings. Pliny notes these avenues of ancient publication when he encouraged his friend Suetonius to publish his work, declaring that he wanted to "hear that my friend’s books are being copied, read and sold" (Ep.  5.10). Similar avenues of publication can be seen in the New Testament writings and in later Christian writers. Paul wrote to the Colossian church "And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans, and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea" (Col. 4:16).

Therefore, just as in the wider Greco-Roman culture, the New Testament writings were circulated within Christian communities through borrowing, lending, and making copies of these books. These same communities that copied and distributed an author’s works inadvertently created an environment in which significant alterations and plagiarizing of these same writings became known. Thus giving further support for Holmes's assertions that New Testament writings are "characterized by macro-level stability and micro-level fluidity."

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