I am currently reading through Martin Hengel’s The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ and Hengel has a bit to say on the textual tradition of the Gospels in the second century (pp. 26-31). He maintains that the Gospel texts were still to some degree “fluid” and were influenced by a “richer” parallel tradition evident from harmonizing supplements. He contends that Mark is the most effected by this parallelizing and Matthew was the strongest influence. Hengel also asserts that in the first half of the second century (before Justin), the words of Jesus were not quoted too frequently and there was a lack of concern with quoting them exactly. This style of free quotations is also applied to Paul and the Old Testament. He writes: “In other words, as a rule the first Christians often quoted from memory and were fond of adapting the text to the catechetical situation”. In addition, people not only used the original texts but also prepared extracts from the Old Testament, the new Christian scriptures, and even from ‘apocryphal’ material, i.e. the testimonia or eklogai. Christian teachers had this freedom because they were “inspired by the eschatological gift of the Spirit of God, who was the true expositor of the biblical text”. The use of texts was pragmatic and situational rather than precise.
Hengel goes on to say that this does not mean that the textual tradition in the manuscripts was arbitrary. He thinks we should differentiate between oral tradition/catechetical praxis and the transmission of the text by early scribes. Hengel even posits early Christian scriptoria around the turn of the century in places such as as Rome, Ephesus, or Antioch. Christians rapidly built up their own means of codex production. Hengel states: “The text of the Gospels is the best transmitted in the whole of antiquity: about six Gospel papyri go back to the period around 200 or the second century AD, and a further nineteen to the third century”. He rejects the notion of a chaotic diversity brought into line in an orthodox way. Instead, he writes: “The relative consistency of the Gospel text despite all the appearance of its running wild up to the end of the second century may be connected with constant reading in worship, which on the whole required fixed forms of text. Liturgical usage is more ‘conservative’; the same goes for the scribal customs in the early Christian scriptoria. The difference at precisely this point from the often romance-like apocryphal literature, say the apostolic acts, but also the Gospel of Thomas, in which the Greek fragments and the Coptic translation are often substantially different, is striking. Once again: no ancient text is as well attested as the Gospels.”
A few comments: (1) I think Hengel is plotting a middle ground between Birdsall and Koester on the stability of the Gospel texts in the second century; (2) I do not at all think that Jesus’ words were quoted infrequently since reading the Apostolic Fathers convinces me otherwise (esp. Ignatius) as these authors were “red letter Christians” and often prefaced Gospel quotes with “As the Lord said”. (3) I’m a bit more ambivalent about Christian scriptoria and the charismatic teachers, specifically as to whether or not we can really speak of the former as conservative and the latter as creative, sounds too general to me. (4) I’d also be interested to read more about early Christian testimonia collections and their effect upon the textual tradition. Apparently a good place to start is Martin C. Albl, And Scripture Cannot Be Broken: The Form and Function of the Early Christian Testimonia Collections. Novum Testamentum Supplements 96. Leiden: Brill, 1999.