…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.
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.