In a typical seminary course on New Testament textual criticism (TC), the standard methods are usually outlined: reasoned eclecticism, majority text, thoroughgoing eclecticism, and most recently the coherence-based genealogical method (CBGM), with a few others perhaps included, such as modified majority text (advocated by Harry Sturz), the documentary approach (Philip Comfort), and the single manuscript approach (advocated today by Stanley Porter).
Most of these approaches, however, have the same underlying assumption about the purpose of textual criticism: to recover the “original text” of the New Testament. Due to the problematic notion of an original text, which I explain in the next paragraph, some (especially in the CBGM camp) have opted to refer to other terms, such as source text, or the fancier Ausgangstext. But if you dig a bit deeper into what is meant by source text, the distinction is really minor and essentially refers to the same thing as original text. Because really, what is the meaningful difference between origin and source? The term might be different, but the concept is the same (remember the word-concept fallacy).
The identifiable problem with the notion of original or source text is that it is insurmountably difficult, if not impossible, to identify the original text of the New Testament. We can talk about the source of a particular manuscript or sets of manuscripts, but when we get to the earliest extant manuscripts, the real objective is to determine the source text of all the texts, or… the original text. Furthermore, the determination of the first text of each book of the New Testament is difficult, if not impossible. If one agrees, at least in principle, with David Trobisch’s and Porter’s views of the Pauline letter collection (they agree in some ways and disagree in other ways), Paul himself was involved in the collecting and gathering of his letters as a letter collection and that he may possibly have written multiple copies of his letters. Porter posits that Paul may have made a copy for the individual or group he addresses his letters to, and then made a copy (or copies?) for himself. I think there is a high likelihood—as well as opportunity, especially given the amount of time he spent in prison—that Paul (and/or his amanuensis) did just that. I think that when Paul tells Timothy to send the parchments (2 Tim 4:13), he’s referring to his own letter collection (up to that point, of course). You don’t have to agree with this scenario, but if there is any chance that any of the biblical writers wrote a second (or third or fourth) version of their book/letter—and I find this to be highly likely—and if the second (or third or fourth) version is superior to the previous one (in the sense of less graphical mistakes and such) or if the first one got lost, damaged, or destroyed, then we have a problem with the traditional view of the original text. Now, you can believe that the writing of the New Testament books were a sort of magical process like Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon except over a longer period of time, but I see the divine inspiration process as working within the natural human process of writing and “publishing” of the individual New Testament books. That doesn’t affect my high view of Scripture as the inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God. But if you’re one of those people who think inspiration was a sort of magical event, then TC is probably not for you in the first place.
In any case, this is not a post on my view of inspiration, although I realize TC is related to it. But returning to the main point, while I think the whole attempt of recovering the original or the source text (notice it’s not a source text, but the source text) is problematic, I also think that applying internal criteria to discover an original text is also problematic. Internal criteria are based on the perceived likelihood of what a scribe would have (likely) done in amending or editing the exemplar—determined from a modern perspective. Some of the internal criteria are obvious; examples like dittography and haplography are indisputable. But setting those aside, for anyone who has had any experience in human tendencies, they know that humans have individualistic tendencies and that one human’s tendency may be not only different from but opposite to another human’s tendency. While one scribe may have the tendency to “correct,” another scribe may have the tendency to retain typos or misspellings. While one scribe may have the tendency for clarity, another may have the tendency to retain ambiguity. Unless there is a handbook for scribes that was strictly followed for centuries that I don’t know about (and even then, there could have been one or a dozen scribes that didn’t follow the handbook because they “knew” better), scribes did not operate as a uniform, collective whole. In fact, the manuscript evidence clearly shows that individual scribal habits can be seen in various manuscripts. Going back to my point, the internal criteria posited by most textual critics are way too subjective; and as fun as it is trying to determine whether a scribe did this or that from his exemplar, it is impossible to determine whether or not scribal tendencies match our modern notions of copying and editorial habits.
Having said all of that, I am not saying that we should abandon TC. Far from it. I think TC is still a fruitful enterprise, given our honest understandings of the process of textual transmission. And no doubt, some assumptions have to be made—but the less subjective these assumptions are, the better. Instead of attempting to recover some sort of original or source text, we should start with a single manuscript, or even some sort of hybrid manuscript (this starting point can be open for debate). Variants can be noted in the apparatus. Where TC comes in is… in its purest form; it reveals the textual, and interpretive, history of the New Testament. When an interpreter looks at the variants (and those of us in the field know how doctrinally insignificant these variants are), we can try to interpret the data to see later readings compared to former readings, and these may actually give us much insight into both ancient and modern interpretations of the New Testament. For example, we can see that for the variant in Gal 2:12 (ἤλθον or ἤλθεν), the P46-Scribe (2nd century) wrote ἤλθεν, as well as the א-Scribe (4th century) and the B-Scribe (4th century), but the A-Scribe (5th century) wrote ἤλθoν. And we can interpret the data accordingly, however that might look. (But going into depth on the interpretation of this variant would make this post much longer, so I’ll leave it for now.) But on a larger scale regarding the enterprise of TC, we can ditch the comfortable and unnecessarily safe idea of determining the original or source text, and just observe and interpret the textual history of the New Testament and its individual readings from the evidence we have today. And that’s exciting in a much different, but more responsible, way.
(For further reading on method in NTTC, see Stanley E. Porter, How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation [Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013], esp. pp. 12-36, 72-76.)
— David I. Yoon