Unless Someone Finds a First Century Copy of Mark…

…we will never have an original.  Yet, somehow, lots of people find this to be a difficult concept to grasp.  In class for the past few weeks we have been trying to come to a firm understanding of Textual Criticism and the most difficult aspect seems to be getting across that TC is not about locating an original text.  Any Textual Critic who argues that they are trying to find an original text in our current variants (I don’t know of any) is wrong or they’re completely delusional.    It just can’t be done.

I used two analogies to try to explain this problem; the first I posted up a few days ago.  The second one involves the construction of a house.

So let’s say you’re walking through the woods and you come across a pile of building material.

This never happens…

You find logs, some stone, etc…  and there is a construction foreman standing there.   He sees you and points to an empty square foundation and yells, “Build me the original structure that stood on this foundation.” and then walks away.  He leaves you no blueprints, no plans, no measurements.  You have no original photographs of what used to stand there, no grasp of the sort of structure it might have been.

Now, could you build the original structure?  No.  But you could build something (supposing you had the knowledge and trade skills to do so).


This is precisely what we have with our manuscript evidence.  We have a foundation (tradition) with no plans, no blueprints.  Nothing by which we can establish an original text of, say, the Gospel of Mark.  We can build you something (i.e., we can analyze the various manuscripts and choose which ones we thing contain the oldest elements), but the chances that we’ll magically construct an original building is  unlikely.  It would be like winning the lottery eight times in one month.  Sure, it may happen given a long enough timeline, but chances are better that you’ll see a UFO than ever see an original copy of Mark.  Frankly, we wouldn’t even know what an original copy of Mark would look like even if we did have it.  In the end, Textual Criticism, like all historical methodology, is tentative.

Why is that?  Because we just don’t have any early manuscripts full texts from the First Century CE.  We don’t even have any full texts from the Second Century.  We don’t see full textual evidence for the Gospels until the Codex Sinaiticus in the Fourth Century (of course we have a few fragmentary slivers of manuscripts here and there from the second century, but not as many as could be useful).   And even then they don’t always match other earlier manuscripts in Latin and Greek.  In actuality, most of our manuscript evidence comes from the medieval period or later.  Therefore our earliest manuscripts of Mark are not even close (chronologically) to the original version.  There is simply no way to tell what was added or removed without a reference point.  That is the sorry state of the evidence, I’m afraid.  And this is why we will likely never have an original.

4 Responses

  1. What possible use could an original script be for constructing a ‘life of Jesus’ anyway? The same use of tropes, myth and allegory would make up the text, leaving us with the same arguments as outlined in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ (a superb book, by the way).

  2. Knowing whether anyone believed in a Jesus of Galilee in the first century or not would be helpful.

  3. Hi Tom,

    This is an interesting metaphor for a post-structuralist to use!

    My opinion doesn’t matter much since I am not a textual critic, but I have argued that the quest for an “original” manuscript of the Gospels is a farce. The more likely scenario is that several versions of Mark existed in oral performance so that multiple originals were circulating in the first century. Eventually a few folks decided to write some of this material down and so there very well could have been multiple written copies of Mark. If so, the next 200 years involved creating a single authoritative version of Mark.

    So perhaps another metaphor would work: fourteen ships of a single fleet crash on an island. Textual critics are then tasked with taking the wreckage and building a single ship from this material.

    Again, this is a crackpot theory that goes against most of what textual critics think, but I have argued that it is a better way to think about oral tradition in this time and place. Of course, this conversation looks much different when applied the NT letters.


  4. I’m with you on a lot of this, Anthony.

    Just a note, this discussion is really about a class so my being a poststructuralist is sort of irrelevant if I want that A+! =) That being said, I’m not sure I am sold on the oral tradition argument since I don’t believe we can even locate such a tradition, an original tradition or modified. The best we might say, and this is the poststructuralist in me, is that the version we have may or may not contain elements of an oral tradition–at best those elements would be from the final redaction of Mark as we have it in our earliest complete manuscript (again, the difference between “original” and “immediate” is that we only have a 4th century [mostly?] complete manuscript of Mark so maybe there are elements there–where, I could not say–but those elements might as well be 4th century elements, or the immediate elements).

    Also on the letters, would the conversation really be that different? When are our first full manuscripts of Paul? What about Marcion’s use of Paul? What about Luke as a possible redaction of Paul against proto- or actual Marcionites? I’ve read arguments that Romans is actually more than one letter which has been compiled into a single one. Likewise, Philippians… not sure I buy that Paul was captured and imprisoned and yet, somehow, while under guard from Romans who were persecuting him for practicing Christianity (or whatever it was called then), they supply him with an endless amount of papyrus and ink to continue to practice his forbidden faith (much like Ignatius). It just seems a little too rhetorical for my skeptical mind. So in that sense I would not be surprised if what we have in the letters are final versions of redactions.

    Also, don’t count yourself short. Nothing you’ve said is crackpot; in my humble opinion, all interpretations are tentative when it comes to exegsis and methodology. Anyone who thinks they have a certain answer is lying to themselves (and probably others).

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