Textual criticism

We may begin with an uncontroversial point, but one whose full significance is not always appreciated even by critical scholars. We do not have direct access to the New Testament documents, we can only read them in later copies. Although important papyrus discoveries over the last hundred years have pushed our knowledge of part of the textual tradition back to about 200 CE, the variety of readings does not diminish in the earlier period. And the other sources of knowledge about the text, the early Latin, Syriac and Coptic versions, and the citations of the Church Fathers, remain vital. New Testament textual criticism, a discipline which spans the divide between traditional and modern interpretation and can claim Origen and Erasmus among its illustrious exponents, is the foundation of all scholarly work. But it is based on the history of interpretation, on the part of scribes, translators and commentators, in the pre-modern period. There is no pure text of the New Testament; it reaches us only via the work of its traditional interpreters.

The historical-critical method

New Testament scholars once confidently believed that the historical-critical method would deliver the original meaning of the text, the meaning which the author intended to convey to his original readers/hearers. While precritical interpreters read their own later concerns into the text, the modern biblical critic was objectively reading meaning out of the text. ThereAre both moderate and radical reasons for questioning this confidence.

First, meaning depends on context, including issues like place, date and authorship. For the Gospels we know nothing from the texts themselves about these issues; their authors effectively hide themselves behind the stories they tell. For the epistles, some are pseudonymous works, in which date, authorship and even place may be part of the fictional disguise. And for those that are genuine letters—such is the nature of the genre—the crucial context is assumed by the parties to the correspondence, only one side of which are we privileged to overhear. It has dawned on many critics, therefore, that we may be asking questions of the text which it is now quite simply impossible for it to answer, because the context is unavailable.

Furthermore, the methods of source, form and redaction criticism, so industriously pursued this century have yet failed to produce consensus among the experts. If we do not know whether Mark was using Matthew or vice versa, or whether John was dependent on the Synoptics or not, we cannot evaluate the evangelists' own contributions. Redaction criticism started with a sharp distinction between the evangelists' editing and earlier traditions, but it has eroded its own starting point by attributing more and more to authorial creativity and leaving less and less to be accounted for by the tradition. Formcritics were once certain that the Synoptic Gospels were popular literature made up of independently circulating units, whose transmission history could be traced back through the oral period. But both the assumptions and the categories of the method have been reopened to scrutiny and doubt. There is a real possibility that the Synoptic evangelists themselves created episodic, apparently disjointed narrative for literary and social reasons of their own, and that this feature is not necessarily evidence for their use of fragmentary, popular oral tradition.

The historical-critical method had hoped to be able to provide a complete history of earliest Christianity from Jesus of Nazareth to the immediate postapostolic period, fitting all the documents and the pre-documentary traditions into a coherent developmental scheme. That programme now appears to be much too ambitious. Paradoxically, at the same time as this radical questioning of historical criticism, there has been a sudden revival of 'Jesus of history' research, perhaps because, with the method in doubt, scholars have been encouraged to trust to intuition, with a little help from Jewish background studies and sociological theory.

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