As I was teaching my Sunday School class today on the topic of New Testament textual transmission, and was speaking about the number of variants present within the transmission tradition, an objection arose. “Are you saying that the people were just winging it?” was asked. This question stems from a misunderstanding of how the Lord worked in disseminating the manuscripts (MSS) around the known world in the lifetime of the apostles.
The transmission of the NT text was unguarded and uncontrolled. It was not the same as OT transmission in that they did not use trained scribes (in most cases). Also, the manuscripts were duplicated in a rapid fashion. It was common folks who were reproducing the NT MSS in the infant church, and these reproductions were done under hostile circumstances. As a result, it is evident that the MSS were often hurried, resulting in textual variants. Colin Smith explains;
As a result of persecution and oppression during the first few centuries of the church, the various books of the New Testament were usually hastily copied, either by tradesmen or by churches as they had opportunity. The rapid growth of the church also generated a great demand for copies of the Scriptures. As the church expanded its borders beyond Palestine, her Scriptures traveled with her. Wherever churches were planted and wherever Christian merchants traveled, copies of the various New Testament books made their way into different parts of the world. (emphasis added)
Smith states in another article;
The fact that the church underwent severe persecution during this time is very significant to the history of the text of the New Testament. First, as mentioned earlier, the threat of persecution meant that the demand for copies of the Scriptures was met hurriedly and under adverse conditions. Many texts produced in this way would be prone to spelling errors and the kinds of human error precipitated by speed. Secondly, during waves of intense persecution it was a common practice for copies of the Scriptures to be confiscated and burned. (emphasis added)
Also note the helpful words of Dr. James R. White, from his opening statement in his debate with Bart Ehrman;
But if preservation is not to be found in a single manuscript tradition with no variants, how then has the text been preserved? It has been preserved through the very mechanism that produced the majority of the textual variants: the rapid, uncontrolled, widespread explosion of manuscripts during the early centuries of the Christian era. Let’s look at how it happened.
The initial Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament were written at various places at various times. Some were written for distribution within the community—such as the Gospels—and others were Epistles sent to specific locations. Then copies would be made and sent elsewhere. Often Christians travelling from one place to another would encounter a book they had not heard of before, and hence would make a copy to bring back to their own fellowship.
I mention this point because some in the church believe that NT transmission was similar to OT transmission where scribes were extremely careful in the reproduction of the text, often writing one letter at a time and the counting letters and words on each page. This simply was not the case with NT transmission and it is simply not practical, given the historical circumstances mentioned above. Now, this is not to say that those who copied the text were “winging it” as implied today in the class. Rather, those who copied the MSS were often on time-tables, untrained and working under horrid conditions. Also, one would think that fatigue would play another factor in the quality of the copy and the amount of time one spent in their reproduction. The point is, the rules that governed the controlled, highly regulated OT MS reproductions were not present in the early centuries of NT transmission and praise be to God that they weren’t. Why, because the fashion that the Lord used in reproducing the NT MSS allowed the entire known world of the Roman Empire to hear, and often read the word of God and His great message of Salvation in Christ alone within the lifetime of the apostles or shortly thereafter.