Lots of ink has been spilled and many pixels been lit up on the question of what we mean when we say ‘the text of the New Testament’. Is the only thing we are left with ‘texts of the NT’, in which every imperfectly copied manuscript constitutes a new and different text? How much can the text of a ‘work’ (that is here, the New Testament) be changed before the text of a particular manifestation of that work (a printed edition, a manuscript – the latter is also an ‘artefact’) is no longer that of the original ‘work’?1
In a sense this question is no different from what philosophers have been discussing since the days of Plato. Intuitively, or naively, most people who think for a moment about the text and the various forms in which it appears, solve the question the same way as Plato did. Different manuscripts with their slightly different wording, and even different translations of the text in a wild variety of languages, all constitute different instances of the same text, a perfect idea reflected in the wordings of the various manuscripts.
Relevance theorists would say that this is true because an utterance has no meaning in itself but only functions to point to the intention of the speaker, and listeners will interpret an utterance accordingly. When it comes to textual criticism, it may follow that the majority of differences we are talking about will hardly affect the listener’s (reader’s) construction of the speaker’s (writer’s) meaning. The same mental construction of the speaker’s meaning can be formed using an array of different utterances, and we can find evidence of this in that few, if any, of the various sub-strands of Christianity are based on particular manuscripts or depend on specific translations. If there were only ‘texts’ and not a single ‘text’, it is quite remarkable how few problems this has created in the course of history.
Perhaps a fresh way of doing Plato is found in linguistics, namely in prototype theory. Prototype theory says that often concepts are used in ways that are close to the mental prototype of that concept, but also allows for uses that are quite different. We all have the image of what a dog is, though many of us will have the experience to think about some actual dogs as more ‘dog’ than others; they conform more closely to the prototype we have formed. Perhaps it is possible to force an analogy with the ‘texts’ and ‘text’ discussion. There is the ‘prototypical text’ (perhaps better the archetypical text when we throw in chronology) and manuscripts, or again translations, conform more or less to the prototype yet still are all instances of that particular category / prototypical field. This is how we seem to organise concepts in our mind, and it works pretty well in the practice of doing textual criticism.
So what we have set out to do in the Tyndale House Edition is to present a text that approximates as closely as possible the oldest recoverable text since we hold that this is the best approximation and representation of the ‘ideal text’, the text of the ‘work’ as it was produced in the first place.
The theology of all this is of course quite a different matter.
1 Thanks to Michael Dormandy, who pointed me to this helpful distinction made by Driscoll: “Hamlet is a work. The New Swan Shakespeare Advanced Series edition of Hamlet by Bernard Lott, M.A. Ph.D., published by Longman in 1968, is, or presents, a text. My copy of Lott’s edition, bought from Blackwell’s in Oxford in 1979 and containing my copious annotations, is an artefact. (93)” I am quite conscious (and relaxed about this) that by talking about ‘original work’, I may be accused of misappropriation of the term as used by Driscoll.
Driscoll, M.J. “The Words on a Page: Thoughts on Philology Old and New.” In Creating the Medieval Saga: Versions, Variability, and Editorial Interpretations of Old Norse Saga Literature, edited by Judy Quinn and Emily Lethbridge, 85-102. Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2010.