Do We Have the Original Text? Some Optimism in Textual Criticism

by Michael Kruger

Over the last few decades, the world of textual criticism has had a less than an optimistic feel about it.  While the central purpose of textual criticism has traditionally been the recovery of the “original” text (regardless of whether one is dealing with the New Testament or any ancient text), some are now suggesting that it should not necessarily be the goal of the discipline.  Bart Ehrman, commenting on the attempts to recover the original text, declares, “It is by no means self-evident that this ought to be the goal of the discipline…there may indeed be scant reason to privilege the ‘original’ text over forms of the text that developed subsequently” (“Text as Window,” 361, n.1).

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In addition, others have express substantial skepticism about whether the “original” text can even be recovered at all. Helmut Koester has argued that the text has changed dramatically in the earliest time period of its transmission–a period prior to our earliest copies–and thus scholars are “naive” if they think it can be recovered (“Text of the Synoptic Gospels in the Second Century,” 19).

Now, it is important to recognize that these scholars are correct in many ways.  Prior generations of scholars have perhaps given too little attention to the complexities and challenges in recovering the original text of the New Testament. And it is correct that we cannot have absolutely 100% certainty regarding every single textual variation.

That said, I thought it might be helpful to also revisit the more optimistic voices within in the practice of textual criticism.  One key question is whether the original text has been lost entirely (and thus appears in none of our manuscripts), or whether our manuscripts (at least somewhere) contain the original text.  Here are just a few quotes from scholars who think that the original text is still in our possession…

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Do We Have the Original Text? Some Optimism in Textual Criticism | Canon Fodder