Exposing Textual Corruption: Community as a Stabilizing Aspect in the Circulation of the New Testament writings during the Greco-Roman Era.
Very few manuscripts of the New Testament writings date to within the first three centuries of the Christian era. Because of this, William L. Petersen determined that, “Our critical editions do not present us with the text that was current in 150, 120 or 100—much less in 80 CE.” In contrast, Michel W. Holmes wrote that the New Testament text is “characterized by macro-level stability and micro-level fluidity.” Both of these scholars used a similar method, applying our knowledge of scribal transmission from later periods backward into the first century. Yet, each of their results were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Despite the disparity of these conclusions, there is another avenue that remains to be analyzed that governed the transmission of texts in the period under investigation; the publication and circulation conventions of the Roman imperial age.
This paper will set out the evidence for ancient publication through community transmission. It will consider examples from Cicero, Martial, Quintilian, Pliny the younger, and Galen. These authors reveal that, although they were familiar with and used commercial book dealers on occasion, they preferred to use social networks to circulate their writings. These same communities that copied and distributed an author’s compositions inadvertently created an environment in which significant alterations and plagiarizing of these same writings became known. Martial described this well when he wrote that “a well-known book cannot change its master” (Epig. 1.66). Through these networks Quintilian knew that some of his lectures had been crudely transcribed and were circulating amongst his followers (Inst. Or. Pref. 7-8). Pliny gives an example when he warned Octavius that draft versions of his poems had begun to circulate without Octavius’s consent (Ep. 2.10). Through the communities that circulated his writings, Galen learned that his original marginal note was mistakenly copied into the main body of text (In Hipp. epid. comm. III, 1.36).
Within the New Testament writings as a whole, this paper will examine Col 4:16, 1 Tim 4:13, and Rev 1:3, and in the Apostolic Fathers at, Poly. Phil. 13.2, 1 Clem. 47.1, Mart. Poly. 22.2, and Herm. Vis. 2.4. These examples portray early Christian publication practices as functioning primarily through social networks. As a result, any significant alterations to the New Testament writings were exposed in the wider community of the first and second centuries. This is evident in 2 Thess 2:1-2, where the author knew of falsely attributed letters. And in 2 Peter 3:16, where the author is aware that Paul’s epistles are being corrupted. In the second century, the textual alterations of Marcion and the Theodotians became widely known (Tertullian, Praescr. 38; Eusebius, Hist.eccl. 5.28).
The conclusion will be that because the New Testament writings were transmitted and circulated primarily through social contacts during the Greco-Roman era, this naturally produced a condition in which the plagiarizing and alteration of these books would have been exposed within these same community circles. This would have resulted in a moderately stable textual transmission during the first and second centuries.