When did you first becoming interested in the field of textual criticism?
When I was a student at Biola. I took a course from Dr. Harry Sturz on textual criticism and loved it. He had taken several courses from E. C. Colwell at Claremont (20 units’ worth), a scholar renowned for articulating proper method in the discipline of textual criticism. I benefited greatly from Sturz’s expertise and rigor. I almost flunked out of Greek my first year with him as my prof! I felt that I owed it to him to demonstrate that I wasn’t such a flunky after all, so I continued on in textual criticism. I took the course from Zane Hodges at Dallas Seminary as well, though I did not subscribe to his views on the majority text. After my ThM, I wanted to continue to work in textual criticism and met with Bruce Metzger, hoping to go to Princeton for my doctorate. Metzger told me that the school would not allow him to take any more doctoral students because he was reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65. I was deeply disappointed to hear that. But my other love was Greek grammar, so I decided to go back to DTS for my PhD, and study under Buist Fanning. At the time, I thought that that would seal my fate and lay a path for my academic career as a grammarian and exegete. But in the doctoral program, when I tried to sign up for the class on textual criticism, I was told that no one on faculty was qualified to teach it, so they asked me to do so! That was 21 years ago. I guess the TC bug has never left me, even though my interests have broadened considerably into exegesis, biblical theology (especially Christology), historical Jesus studies, early Church history, canon, Apostolic Fathers, etc.
I’m sure at no point during your early years of work in this did you, in your wildest dreams, imagine that a book on textual criticism would ever hit the bestseller list; ! How exactly did that happen?
No kidding! Most New Testament scholars think that textual criticism is an arcane and boring subject, so what hope was there that the public in general would become interested in this topic? It took a scholar who knew how to put the cookies on the lower shelf, so to speak, to do this. Kudos to Bart Ehrman for his book, Misquoting Jesus.
But it wasn’t just clear and witty communication that made Misquoting Jesus a New York bestseller. It was also the angle that Ehrman brought to the book: the New Testament manuscripts have been corrupted and they are not reliable guides to what the New Testament originally said. At least, I think that’s what Ehrman is trying to say in the book. He’s very careful not to commit too much to any one viewpoint, and those whose faith could be easily shaken find the book rather disturbing. But elsewhere he seems to have argued that we can virtually recover the original wording and that no great theological issues hang in the balance. One could be jaded and say that Ehrman is just trying to sell books, and that he knows his audiences well enough to know what to say that will titillate them. Regardless of his motives, Misquoting Jesus is a provocative book that seems to level its attacks at the very foundation of Christian orthodoxy today—namely, that the scribes have corrupted the text of the New Testament in major ways, in ways that get to the core of the faith.
Let’s get some quick definitional/factual questions on the table. First, what does “textual criticism” mean?
Textual criticism is the discipline that attempts to determine the original wording of any documents whose original document no longer exists. There are other, secondary goals of textual criticism as well, but this is how it has been classically defined. This discipline is needed for the New Testament, too, because the originals no longer exist and because there are several differences per chapter even between the two closest early manuscripts.
How many NT manuscripts do we know of?
As far as Greek manuscripts, over 5700 have been catalogued. The New Testament was translated early on into several other languages as well, such as Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Gothic, etc. The total number of these versional witnesses has not been counted yet, but it certainly numbers in the tens of thousands. At the same time, it should be pointed out that most of our manuscripts come from the second millennium AD, and most of our manuscripts do not include the whole New Testament. A fragment of just a verse or two still counts as a manuscript.
At the other end of the data pool are the quotations of the NT by church fathers. To date, more than one million quotations of the NT by the church fathers have been tabulated. These fathers come from as early as the late first century all the way to the middle ages.
What’s the earliest manuscript we have?
A papyrus fragment that had been sitting in unprocessed ancient documents at the John Rylands Library of Manchester University, England, is most likely the earliest NT document known today. Known as P52 or Papyrus 52, this scrap of papyrus has John 18.31-33 on one side and John 18.37-38 on the other. It was discovered in 1934 by C. H. Roberts, then a student at the university. He sent it to the three leading papyrologists in Europe and got their assessment of the date—each said that it was no later than AD 150 and no earlier than AD 100. A fourth papyrologist dated it to the 90s. Since the discovery of this manuscript, there have been another nine or ten New Testament papyri from the second century.
How does the number of NT manuscripts compare to other extant historical documents?
NT scholars face an embarrassment of riches compared to the data the classical Greek and Latin scholars have to contend with. The average classical author’s literary remains number no more than twenty copies. The very best classical author in terms of extant copies is Homer: MSS of Homer number less than 2400, compared to the NT MSS that are approximately ten times that amount.