How the Early Church Sought to Resolve Textual Variants

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 10/23/2013

Dan Wallace of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts has an interesting article offering evidence that the transmission of the New Testament text wasn’t merely linear—that is, it wasn’t like a child’s game of “Telephone” (or “Chinese Whispers,” for our European friends), where one person tells the next person, and he tells the next, and so on.

Instead, imagine a game of Telephone where the third, fourth, and fifth people in line can go back to the first and second and check the message they received against the original before they pass it on. Then imagine the first person doesn’t just tell one person, but multiple others who also check their copies against earlier copies (likewise with the second person, third person, etc.), and add to that the fact that the goal is to get an exact copy (not to end up with a funny joke), and you have a better picture of the situation.

Wallace explains how statements by Tertullian reveal the early church’s concern with textual purity and their practice of resolving variants by referring back to copies as close as possible to the apostolic originals, and possibly to the originals themselves:

There are two or three places that address whether the originals survived into the second century. Tertullian, writing in c. 180 CE, said, “Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over [to] the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally”....

Tertullian goes on to discuss each of these ‘authentic writings’ as being found in the very churches to which they were written. He mentions Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus, and Rome. He urges his reader to visit these sites to check out these authentic writings. This seems to suggest that he believed that these documents were the autographs. In the least, it suggests that by his day carefully done copies of the originals were considered important for verifying what the apostles meant, and such copies had a strong connection to the churches to which they were originally written....

Tertullian’s statement tells us that some early Christians were concerned about having accurate copies and that the earliest ones still in existence were not quietly put on the shelf....

An important ramification of all this is as follows: By the middle of the second century, when canon conscientiousness was on the rise, the Christian community regarded the autographs, or at least the earliest copies of the New Testament documents, as important witnesses. They were concerned about the purity of the text with regard to select textual variants. Most likely, this implies that the copying of the manuscripts in the early decades of the Christian faith was not that of strictly linear descent (one copy of another copy of another copy). Rather, there would be times when at least a few scribes would want to check behind their exemplar and look at its exemplar. This would especially occur whenever a disputed reading cropped up. So, there seems to have been a bit of a check on the quality of the transmission of the text from very early on.

Read the rest of the article “Did the Original New Testament Manuscripts Still Exist in the Second Century?

(HT: The Poached Egg)