The Manuscript History
I want to briefly double back on our trip through Can We Trust the Gospels? to elaborate on a point that apparently wasn’t as clear as I thought.
I wrote that we can be confident that there were no significant changes in the Gospels early on because “…unless someone was actually able to track down and destroy all the originals, any changes in the Gospels would show up in the manuscript history. No changes like that appear.”
Vinny responded: “We don’t see the changes in the manuscript data from the first 100 years because there is virtually no such data.”
It took me a while to see that Vinny, and perhaps others, weren’t clear on what I was saying. (Sorry, everybody.) So let me go into a bit more detail.
When a document is copied by hand, it’s almost certain that a mistake will be made. And sometimes changes aren’t “mistakes” but intentional. Either way, once a change has been made to a text, there is a fork in the manuscript (ms) chain.
Both the original ms and the one with the change will be copied later. Each copy of the original will, hopefully, transmit the original message intact (though in reality there will be other errors).
Each copy of the changed ms will contain that change as well as any other errors.
As the copies are copied, we will see two groups form. The first will be based on the ms that was not changed; the second will be based on the corrupted text.
In the case of Greek NT manuscripts (mss), the two major families are the Alexandrian and Western textual traditions. At some point in the distant past, there were changes on one side of the Mediterranean than didn’t occur on the other; we see that by comparing the mss.
Protecting the Text by Criticizing It
When textual critics compare the various mss of the NT, they try to work backwards to determine what the originals probably said.
Though we might be tempted to say that we can’t see back beyond that 100 year gap between the autographs and the oldest extant mss, that’s not entirely true.
If someone making a copy of Matthew in 102AD inserted something – a story, a miracle, a phrase – there would be copies of Matthew that didn’t have the insertion. Though we would have neither the corrupted nor uncorrupted copies, we would see the change in later mss – the “children” of those earlier copies.
Modern textual scholars would be able to see this corruption. And they would do their best to filter it out by comparing with all the other mss.
Our Modern NT Text
I’ve never seen evidence of any great period of creativity and liberty with the NT text, but I can’t say I spend a lot of time pouring over Greek manuscripts.
But I can say that those that do are very certain about what the vast majority of the NT is supposed to say. Those parts that are really uncertain do not affect anything important. As Roberts put it, “If you actually took out of the Gospels every word that was text-critically uncertain, the impact on your understanding of Jesus would be negligible” (p34-5).
This has been a brief and oversimplified look at this topic. For a slightly more detailed look, I recommend An Introduction to Textual Criticism. A broader collection of references can be found at NTGateway.