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Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe, Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scalle, But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe; So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe, It to correcte and eke to rubbe and scrape, And al is thorough thy negligence and rape. One person thinks up a message, and whispers it to the next person, who whispers it to the next person, and so on around the circle, until you reach the end and the final person repeats the message aloud.
The first person then states the original message. The two sentences often cannot be recognized as related. Even if you haven't played "Telephone," you must have read a book or a magazine which was filled with typographical errors.
And that's in a case where the typesetter has the author's original manuscript before him, and professional proofreaders were engaged to correct errors.
Now imagine what happens when a document is copied, by hand, tens of thousands of times, long after the original manuscript has been destroyed. Imagine it being copied by barely literate scribes standing not sitting, standing at cold desks in bad light for hours on end, trying to read some other scribe's barely legible handwriting.
Imagine trying to do that when the words are written in all upper-case letters, with no spaces between words, and you're writing on poor-quality paper with a scratchy reed pen using ink you made yourself. Because that's what happened with all ancient books, and with the New Testament in particular.
Not all scribes were as bad as the secretary Chaucer poked such fun at in the quote above, but none were perfect -- and few had the New Testament authors looking over their shoulders to make corrections.
After a few centuries of that, it's easy to imagine that the text of the New Testament would no longer bear any relationship to the original.
Human beings just aren't equipped to be exact copyists. And the more human beings involved in the process, the worse the situation becomes. Fortunately, the situation is not as grim as the above picture would suggest. Despite all those incompetent scribes making all those incompetent copies, the text of the New Testament is in relatively good shape.
The fact that copies were being made constantly, by intent scribes under the supervision of careful proofreaders, meant that the text stayed fairly fixed. It is estimated that seven-eighths of the New Testament text is certain -- all the major manuscripts agree, and scholars are satisfied that their agreement is correct.
Most of the rest is tolerably certain -- we probably know the original reading, and even if we aren't sure, the variation does not significantly affect the sense of the passage.
For a work so old, and existing in so many copies, this fact is at once amazing and comforting. Still, there are variations in the manuscripts of the New Testament, and some of them are important.
It is rare for such variants to affect a fundamental Christian doctrine, but they certainly can affect the course of our theological arguments. And in any case, we would like the most accurate text of the New Testament possible.
That is the purpose of textual criticism: Working with the materials available, to reconstruct the original text of an ancient document with as much accuracy as possible. It's not always an easy job, and scholars do sometimes disagree. But we will try to outline some of the methods of New Testament textual criticism in this article, so that you too can understand the differences between Bibles, and all those odd little footnotes that read something like "Other ancient authorities read The description at left is my definition of textual criticism: Determining, as best we can, the original text of the document.
In recent years, with this post-modern tendency to think that methods matter more than results, there has been a certain tendency to argue that the phases in the history of the document are the point of textual criticism.
I'll say flat-out that, as far as I'm concerned, this is pure bunk. Such historical criticism is useful and interesting -- but it's not textual criticism, which should always have its eyes fixed firmly and solely on the original text. Only that and nothing more. Types of Manuscripts If the task of reconstructing the text of the New Testament may be compared to a detective story, then our "witnesses" are the ancient manuscripts.
Manuscripts fall into three basic categories:Real news, curated by real humans. Packed with the trends, news & links you need to be smart, informed, and ahead of the curve. Get the latest science news and technology news, read tech reviews and more at ABC News. Second Life Town Hall Event with Linden Lab Execs.
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