Historical Jesus studies and textual criticism are two subjects that one does not regularly think of together. But recently I was looking over my copy of Anthony Le Donne’s little book Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? (2011) and came across a section which does bring them together. The context is Le Donne’s discussion about the problem of arriving at historical certainty or objectivity (think Lessing’s “ugly ditch”). He writes:
Scholars determined to attain historical certainty will always be frustrated by the limits of modern presuppositions. Modern presuppositions have made skeptics out of a small (but boisterous) contingent of Jesus historians in every generation since Lessing. But the larger portion of historians have been no less guilty of a hunger for certainty. Historians who are more optimistic about historical certainty have tried to attain it through something akin to textual archaeology....
One of the central presuppositions of textual criticism is that priority should be given to the best reconstruction of the “original manuscripts” of the New Testament. Furthermore, textual criticism was founded on the notion that the closer we get to the original manuscripts, the closer we get to the original Jesus.
If you recall my discussion of “orality” in the previous chapter, you might see the fatal flaw of this presupposition: Where the gospels are concerned, there were no original manuscripts. To suppose that there were “originals” is to impose a literary anachronism onto a largely oral culture. Since no one doubts that the words and deeds of Jesus were actively remembered by a community for over a decade, one must conclude that there were several versions of these memories from the start. With this in mind, the best explanation of many textual variants is that there was no one original story. In fact, many recent studies of the gospels conclude that the variation and stability we see in the gospels are exactly what you’d expect from the variation and stability in any oral tradition.
Keep in mind that in the earliest decades of Christianity there was not one but four (or five) “books” about Jesus’ life. Keep in mind that Luke begins his story about Jesus by referring to several other “accounts” which he has used to form his story (Luke 1:1-3). Keep in mind that at the height of Jesus’ public career he sent out several disciples to share his message and story orally to other regions (Matt. 10:7). Keep in mind that we have no physical evidence of any “original” documents of the New Testament.
The most likely solution is that there were no “original manuscripts” of the gospels (i.e., handwritten documents); rather, there were several remembered compositions. Moreover, we should expect that in an oral culture there would be no call to write down these compositions until the first generation of living memory began to die. Once that first generation began to die off, there would be a greater call for written accounts. Upon the realization of such a “crisis” of collective memory, one should expect several varying compositions to emerge both independently and in relationship to other similar accounts. This is exactly what we see with the emergence of the gospels.
Any hope to reconstruct a single life of Jesus must navigate multiple variations—none of which are “original.” The postmodern historian is not concerned with solidifying a single account of the original story. (pp. 74-76; emphasis original).This is a bit muddled, it seems, and it illustrates how “orality” and “oral culture” sometimes get the best of good scholars. Oral cultures still write things down and literary works within oral cultures still have to be published in the first instance. (On the question of why we have written Gospels at all, see previous discussion here.) So nothing about an “oral culture” makes it a flaw (fatal or otherwise) to think that literary works written in such cultures had original manuscripts. What else could they have?
I’m not sure I know exactly where Le Donne took a wrong turn, but in this passage he is confusing “original manuscript” with “original story.” He seems to think that a lack of a single original oral story about Jesus means that there is no single original manuscript of Matthew’s written version of the story. But that, of course, is to confuse things. Manuscripts and stories need to be distinguished.
Moreover, “the best explanation of many textual variants” in the Gospels is not “that there was no one original story” but that copying by hand is hard work. That explanation may be banal, but that does not make it less true. To be sure, some significant variants in the gospels may be due to the influence of oral tradition(s), but that hardly demonstrates that our copies of Matthew’s Gospel do not descend from an original manuscript.
As it is, I don’t think Le Donne has helped his case against historical objectivity by bringing the original manuscripts into play. What’s surprising is that he could have made his case easily enough by comparing the necessity of human judgment in textual criticism with the necessity of the same in historical Jesus research. But he has cut off that branch with his claim that there are no original manuscripts about which to make such human judgments in the first place.