TOWARD A THEORY OF THE EARLY DEVELOPMENT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT TEXT
Since the 1950s the field of NT textual criticism has been struggling to find an overarching theory to undergird its practice. At that time the influx of second- and third-century papyrus fragments of NT books had overthrown Westcott and Hort’s theory of an unbroken line of carefully copying, from the beginning up to the fourth-century codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. What the early period of copying seemed to show instead was a pattern of loose or free copying, denoting a more casual attitude towards the preservation of the text. For the past 60 or more years, then, the prevailing tendency, the default theory, in NT text criticism has been to assume a period of free or even chaotic copying up until the fourth century, when both church and canon were established by the state. This approach leaves us with a significant gap between the “originals” and our earliest copies, a gap which is often seen as unbridgeable due to the lax copying standards of the earliest scribes. The present paper argues that the continued discovery and analysis of NT papyri, as well as recent developments in related fields, have changed our picture of the early NT scribal tradition significantly. It is time to offer a better-informed model for our understanding of the early development of the NT text.