As Craig Blomberg has written, “Dan Wallace has clearly become evangelical Christianity’s premier active textual critic today.” In addition to teaching New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, he serves as executive director of the cutting-edge Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM). He recently made quite a stir when he announced that next year an academic publication will reveal the discovery of a first-century fragment from the Gospel of Mark. (See, for example, this interviewwith Hugh Hewitt.)
He was kind enough to answer some questions about the discipline of textual criticism, the number of manuscripts, the earliest manuscripts (including the soon-to-be famous fragment), why the process of copying is nothing like the “telephone game,” and other questions.
What is “textual criticism?”
Textual criticism is the discipline that attempts to determine the original wording of any documents whose original no longer exists. There are other, secondary goals of textual criticism as well, but this is how it has been classically defined.
This discipline is needed for the New Testament, too, because the originals no longer exist and because there are several differences per chapter even between the two closest early manuscripts. All New Testament manuscripts differ from each other to some degree since all are handwritten manuscripts.
How many NT manuscripts do we know of?
As far as Greek manuscripts, over 5800 have been catalogued. The New Testament was translated early on into several other languages as well, such as Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Gothic, etc. The total number of these versional witnesses has not been counted yet, but it certainly numbers in the tens of thousands.
At the same time, it should be pointed out that most of our manuscripts come from the second millennium AD, and most of our manuscripts do not include the whole New Testament. A fragment of just a verse or two still counts as a manuscript. And yet, the average size for a NT manuscript is more than 450 pages.
At the other end of the data pool are the quotations of the NT by church fathers. To date, more than one million quotations of the NT by the church fathers have been tabulated. These fathers come from as early as the late first century all the way to the middle ages.
What’s the earliest manuscript we have?
Up through the end of 2011, the following would be the answer: A papyrus fragment that had been sitting in unprocessed ancient documents at the John Rylands Library of Manchester University, England, is most likely the earliest NT document known today. Known as P52 or Papyrus 52, this scrap of papyrus has John 18:31-33 on one side and John 18:37-38 on the other.
It was discovered in 1934 by C. H. Roberts. He sent photographs of it to the three leading papyrologists in Europe and got their assessment of the date—each said that it was no later than AD 150 and as early as AD 100. A fourth papyrologist thought it could be from the 90s. Since the discovery of this manuscript, as many as eleven NT papyri from the second century have been discovered.
On February 1, 2012, I made the announcement in a debate with Dr. Bart Ehrman at UNC Chapel Hill, that as many as six more second-century papyri had recently been discovered. All of them are fragmentary, having only one leaf or part of a leaf. One of them rivals the date of P52, a fragment from Luke’s Gospel. But the most significant find was a fragment from Mark’s Gospel, which a leading paleographer has dated to the first century!
What makes this so astounding is that no manuscripts of Mark even from the second century has surfaced. But here we may have a document written while some of the first-generation Christians were still alive and before the NT was even completed. All seven of these manuscripts will be published by E. J. Brill sometime in 2013 in a multi-author book. Until then, we should all be patient and have a “wait and see” attitude. When the book comes out it will be fully vetted by textual scholars.
How does the number of NT manuscripts compare to other extant historical documents?