Sometimes a book comes along that makes you as a reader realize that everything you thought you knew about a certain topic was wrong. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism is sure to be one of those books for many people. The editors, Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry put together a collection of essays that challenge common assumptions and “knowledge” about New Testament textual criticism to the point of overturning expectations and forcing readers to re-think their research. Make no mistake, if you’re not an expert in this specific field–and perhaps even if you are–this book is going to challenge your preconceptions and even what you thought you knew.
After a foreword by renowned textual critic Daniel Wallace and an introduction that opens up the themes of the book, Timothy N. Mitchell’s chapter on autographs (entitled “Myths about Autographs: What they Were and How Long They May Have Survived”) is the first to set a major challenge to assumptions about the New Testament text. The autographic text is considered to be the original text. Thus, an autograph, in the mind of those interested in Christian apologetics or the transmission of the New Testament, is often what is affirmed as being the copy that was inspired or inerrant or the goal of textual criticism to find. Various apologetists have made claims about the autographs surviving long enough to produce many copies over decades (or even centuries) (27). Yet Mitchell points out that some have argue that the concept of a single original itself is mistaken (28). The way documents were disseminated in the ancient world was very different from the way we spread documents, and the same “original” may have been produced several times, with minor edits or even major ones depending on the audience. Specific examples in the ancient world are cited, which challenge the very concept of a single autographic text. Another difficulty would be the concept of multiple autographs. Copying an original for the author to keep was a common practice, but then which would be the autograph–the one sent to one or another person, or the one kept by the author (39-41)? The claims about longevity of the authographs also meet serious challenges, due to climate, persecution, and many other possible problems with thinking that any supposed original text could have survived centuries.
Note that all of these challenges–which are detailed, of course in the book–are all from the first non-introductory chapter alone. There are more than 10 additional chapters outlining many, many assumptions about NT textual criticism and the errors they make. Chapter three outlines questions about the number of NT manuscripts as well as why having more manuscripts might not be better. If all we had was a multiplicity of error-ridden manuscripts, that would hardly be better than just a few very precise ones. Chapter four notes the common errors in citation of numbers of other ancient literature’s manuscript evidence vs. that of the NT (this will have those involved in apologetics–like me–checking their numbers). The next two chapters deal with dating manuscripts and the immense difficulties with getting at which MSS are earlier than other ones at times. Additionally, earlier manuscripts aren’t always better than later manuscripts, in part because later manuscripts might be based on manuscripts that are even earlier than the earliest extant manuscripts!
Questions about who made copies of the NT are another common myth-making scenario. As is often the case in the book, the issue is much more complex. Many claim that the copies were made by untrained hands just scrawling what they could from the NT on whatever they had at hand, while others claim the opposite is true–trained hands copied them and ensured few errors. The truth is somewhere in between. Myths about how scribes made errors are abundant, and attempts to discern scribal intent are shown to be often impossible, but at other times somewhat easier to demonstrate. The number of variants is wildly huge in the claims about how many there are, and the way they are counted is often misstated. Too often, apologists and others claim that variant counts include misspellings, but this is not the case–the huge number of variants would only increase astronomically were misspellings included in the count! Questions about how much of the NT really could be constructed from the patristics are also addressed, and the answer is a somewhat interesting middle ground once again, in which the question of tradition looms large. Canonicity, translations modern and ancient, and more are addressed as well.
All of this is to say the book is an absolute treasure trove of information for those interested in any way in the textual reliability of the New Testament. It is tempting in any day and age to seek certainty, but Christians–and hopefully others–ought to really be seeking after truth. This book helps get at that, providing ways forward for additional research while also blowing open the doors of understanding both hyper-critical and overly optimistic myths about the possibility of getting at the “original” New Testament.
Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism is an invaluable resource for those interested in textual criticism. It points out many major errors that persist in common knowledge while also opening many avenues for new research. There are few times I think a book comes along that everyone should read, but this is one that anyone with even the slightest interest in the reliability of the New Testament ought to read, mark, and inwardly digest.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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