An Interview with Daniel B. Wallace on the New Testament Manuscripts
As Craig Blomberg has written, “Dan Wallace has clearly become evangelical Christianity’s premier active textual critic today.” In addition to teaching New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, he serves as executive director of the cutting-edge Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM). He recently made quite a stir when he announced that next year an academic publication will reveal the discovery of a first-century fragment from the Gospel of Mark. (See, for example, this interview with Hugh Hewitt.)
He was kind enough to answer some questions about the discipline of textual criticism, the number of manuscripts, the earliest manuscripts (including the soon-to-be famous fragment), why the process of copying is nothing like the “telephone game,” and other questions.
What is “textual criticism?”
Textual criticism is the discipline that attempts to determine the original wording of any documents whose original 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. All New Testament manuscripts differ from each other to some degree since all are handwritten manuscripts.
How many NT manuscripts do we know of?
As far as Greek manuscripts, over 5800 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. And yet, the average size for a NT manuscript is more than 450 pages.
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?
Up through the end of 2011, the following would be the answer: 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…
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