Saturday, 11 October 2008

Free and Strict Transmission of the New Testament Text

The Alands express in the following paragraph their view that early scribes felt free to improve or paraphrase their texts, and that we have extant manuscripts to prove it:

"Until the beginning of the fourth century the text of the New Testament developed freely. It was a " living text," unlike the text of the Hebrew Old Testament, which was subject to strict controls because (in the oriental tradition) the consonantal text was holy. And the New Testament text continued to be a 'living text' as long as it remained a manuscript tradition.... They also felt themselves free to make corrections in the text, improving it by their own standards of correctness, whether grammatically, stylistically, or more substantively. This was all the more true of the early period, when the text had not yet attained canonical status, especially in the earliest period when Christians considered themselves filled with the Spirit. As a consequence the "Early text" was many-faceted, and each manuscript had its own peculiar character. This can be observed in such early papyri as p45, p46, p66, and so forth. The fact that this was not the normative practice has been proved by p75, which represents a strict text just as p52 of the period around A.D. 125 represents a normal text. It preserves the text of the original exemplar in a relatively faithful form... (69).

The bulk of the paragraph suggests a sceptical view of the transmission of the New Testament text in the early period--that we should be rather glum about the reliability of the New Testament text. However, it might be easy to overlook the penultimate sentence in which the Alands profess that not all manuscripts were so free in their transmission. Quite the contrary, there was a very careful, strict approach to the transmission of the biblical text in the earliest period and that this was "the normative practice."

Some would contest this assertion that strict transmission was the normative practice in the second and third centuries. This is the location of one of the great fronts in current textual criticism.

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