Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Present Trends in Textual Criticism … from 1962

Harry Oliver
Having just written a very short article on developments in New Testament textual criticism, I was curious to come across an article on the same subject by Harold Oliver from 1962. He organizes his material under five headings: new materials, a new perspective (no, not on Paul), new emphases, new methods, and new editions. The timing of this article is especially interesting because Kurt Aland had already announced his plan to move the Nestle away from its majority principle but had not yet published the results. Likewise, the UBS edition had been announced but was still four years from publication.

What is most interesting to me is some of the trends that Oliver points out are ones we think of as being definitive of our era and yet, Oliver sees them as trends in his. So, for example, under his second heading, he says that “there is a new perspective in textual criticism concerning the text critic’s goal.” That shift is one from seeing the goal as merely negative (removing errors) to one that is also positive (appreciating variants in their own right).

In support, he cites an article from Donald M. Riddle from 1936: “The legitimate task of textual criticism is not limited to the recovery of approximately the original form of the documents, to the establishment of the ‘best’ text, nor to the ‘elimination of spurious readings.’ It must be recognized that every significant variant records a religious experience which brought it into being. This means that there are no ‘spurious readings’; the various forms of the text are sources for the study of the history of Christianity.” This is some 30 years before Epp’s work on Acts and 60 years before Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption.

The whole article is worth reading for the perspective it provides on the current discipline. It’s also interesting that Oliver’s author bio says, “Mr. Oliver’s Th.M. thesis, ‘Helps for Readers’ in Greek New Testament Manuscripts, won the 1955 prize of the Christian Research Foundation. His doctoral dissertation was entitled, The Text of the Four Gospels as Quoted in the ‘Moralia’ of Basil the Great.” He was also part of the IGNTP and was dismissed from Southeastern as a result of his “Bultmann phase.”

 Let me end with Oliver’s closing paragraph:
The appearance on the scene of other disciplines such as Form- and source-criticism, as well as biblical theology, has served to remind textual critics that while theirs is potentially a truth-speaking discipline, it cannot speak the whole truth, nor can the whole truth be spoken apart from its witness. The modern textual critic realizes that the recovery of the original text and the reconstruction of the history of its transmission are important goals, but they do not eclipse the greater search for the original meaning and the demand which ancient Christian texts make upon modern folk. In the total perspective textual criticism is “lower criticism,” not because it is inferior, but because it is the foundation upon which all genuine and productive “higher criticism” must be built.
The article is Harold H. Oliver, “Present Trends in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” Journal of Bible and Religion 30.4 (1962): 308–20. 


  1. "and 60 years before Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption." I think you mean 50 years. 60 years would be 2022.

    1. Ehrman’s first edition came out in 1997, didn’t it? 1936 + 60 = 1996. Or, did I miss something?

  2. Yes, you missed something: Orthodox Corruptions first apppeared in 1993 ...