In an intriguing post entitled “The Composition of the Original Text,” Dan Wallace addresses “a relatively new movement afoot in text-critical circles… the idea that the wording of the originals (also known as autographs) of the New Testament documents is not only not possible to recover, even the notion of an original is not true to history.” He names Bart Ehrman and David Parker as prominent proponents of this theory; I would add Eldon Epp to the list as well, on the basis of his article in last summer’s issue of Harvard Theological Review (about which I blogged here). In particular, Wallace critiques Parker’s comparison of the New Testament text to the work of Shakespeare or Mozart, each of whom altered his own original creations and therefore made it impossible to speak of an “original.” He counters, “In Shakespeare’s and Mozart’s case, the author continued to exercise control over the document. That is not the case with NT books.” He adds that all of the New Testament texts were sent elsewhere, thus severing the author’s control over them; the early church’s interest in the words of the apostles would have led to a desire for accuracy; and that unlike the work of Shakespeare and Mozart, “authority,” not “aesthetics,” guided the transmission of the New Testament texts.
I am perfectly willing to discard any extended comparison between the New Testament and later artistic works (although I can see how such a comparison might be formed, particularly if earlier theories such as the editing of Acts by Luke were invoked), but a few of Wallace’s other observations give me pause. While I certainly do not possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the theories of gospel transmission, I was unaware that the scholarly majority had determined that all of these works, in addition to the epistles, had been immediately dispatched to other locales after their composition. The Gospel of John, in particular, may have been composed and originally used by a single community. Furthermore, under certain conditions texts may be altered in the name of authority as readily as they might be changed for aesthetic purposes. To quote but one example, the infamous “Johannine Comma” (ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὁ Πατήρ, ὁ Λόγος, καὶ τὸ Ἄγιον Πνεῦμα. καὶ οὗτοι οἱ τρεῖς ἕν εἰσι. καὶ τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες ἐν τῇ γῇ; 1 John 5:7-8) seems to have been added in order to provide additional scriptural authority for the doctrine of the Trinity.
I would also second Epp’s recent argument that an obsessive search for an “original” text often causes the critic to discard or ignore variants which have been branded as “spurious” or “unoriginal,” despite the fact that their presence in the manuscript tradition indicates that they formed a part of Scripture for at least some early Christian communities (and were therefore “original” in their eyes). Many of these variants, even some which appear on only a few scraps of papyrus or parchment, still have a great deal to teach us about the individuals who copied, transmitted, and worshipped with them. And that means they’re important, too.