“Textual criticism is that discipline that tries to recover the original wording of a work whose original documents have now been lost. Since no original document survives for the New Testament and since the existing copies disagree with one another, textual criticism is needed for all 27 books. Since we cannot study, teach, and apply the Bible if we don’t know what it says, textual criticism—whether we know it or not—plays a foundation role in pastoral ministry.”Gurry, Peter. https://ps.edu/busy-pastor-know-developments-nt-textual-criticism-part-1-new-editions/. 2018.
If you ask the average pastor what is the goal of textual criticism, they will tell you it is the process of finding the original, inerrant text of the Bible. That is largely due to the definitions that modern scholars assign to the discipline and what is communicated in seminaries. The scholars that contribute to the consensus will assure you that even the non-Evangelical sources admit that, “with only a few minor exceptions, we can be confident that the Gospels and the New Testament as a whole reliably report what was originally written.” What they don’t tell you is that those same scholars believe that what was originally written was “a product of developing traditions.” In other words, the definition of “original” is highly co-opted for some other definition.
This is the reason why many well-meaning pastors are still on board with the idea of “Evangelical Text Criticism.” They think, along with most Christians, that there is a group of stalwart scholars trying to find the original Bible. This, without a doubt, is the stated goal of many Evangelical textual scholars, but has no basis in the scholarly works of said scholars. In short, what the scholars desire is not synonymous with what they are actually publishing or doing. While it is true to say that said Evangelical textual scholars desire to find the original wording of the Bible, it is also true that none of them believe this is possible with the current data. The way they get around this conundrum is by asserting theological interpretations of empirical processes. They engage in doublespeak.
Two Opposite Things True at Once
The Evangelical scholars often say that they are in pursuit of the original wording of the text of the New Testament. This is true, if by “in pursuit” we mean, “is emotionally invested in finding the original.” The reality is, in order to actually substantiate this claim, they must add an additional 20 lines of nuance. What the average Christian hears when Evangelical textual scholars talk about the original is that there is a very real, vigorous process that is currently honing in on the final jots and tittles of the Bible that remain uncertain. What is actually going on is the attempt to reconstruct a hypothetical initial text that represents the earliest form of the manuscripts scholars have decided are “earliest and best.” Notice that this doesn’t have anything to do with what is ontologically original.
Since the actual effort that is taking place is not actually being done, for the most part, by the Evangelicals, nothing that they say actually matters all that much. Regardless, let’s suppose that the Evangelicals were in charge of creating the texts that the Bible the average Christian reads are translated from. Even if it were the case that these were the people making Greek Bibles, they wouldn’t be doing so from the standard assumed in the definition they provide of text criticism. In the actual methodology, they admit that they are trying to find a substantially accurate representation of the original Bible, even though there is not a single method that can validate the “substantially” part of that claim.
Assuming that the Evangelicals weren’t just glorified commentators, they wouldn’t be doing what they say that text critical efforts are doing. Objectively, the effort of text criticism is trying to scrape together an early form of a handful of manuscripts that in no way can be verified to be what was originally written. Theologically, they deal with this by saying that what is earliest should be considered original. In other words, the original assumption of “earliest and best” should be considered “as good as original.”
When Evangelical scholars discuss the original text of the New Testament in the context of the actual product that Bibles are translated from, they aren’t actually talking about a word-for-word representation of the original. They are talking about an early form of the text that they assume to be original. This assumption is based on no empirical grounds, and is not warranted by the methodology that created the text itself. So it is comforting for the average pastor and Christian to see that Evangelical text critics desire to find the original, that desire in no way comports with reality. After all, “there are many, many places where the text of the New Testament is uncertain” (Dan Wallace).
This is the doublespeak of Evangelical textual scholars. They will provide a definition of textual criticism, which states the goal of the effort while simultaneously making no effort to actually achieve that goal. Not only does the methodology itself not claim to arrive at a final product, the scholars engaging in the effort are quite open in admitting that they can’t arrive at a final product. So the next time you hear an Evangelical textual scholar talk about the original, remember that the actual work they are doing is an effort to find the earliest possible text, not the original. Any assumptions about that earliest possible text being original is not warranted by the methodology itself. It is fanciful double speak.