Should We Back Off The Papyri?

Though a series of events I won’t get into here, I was reading Stan Porter’s paper, Why so Many holes in the Papyrological Evidence? in The Bible as Book: The Transmission of the Greek Text. Every paragraph has something interesting in it, but the argument (that made me search out the paper in the first place) was as rewarding as I’d hoped. Check it out:

I wonder how wise it is to rely so heavily upon the papyri, in the light of the evidence marshaled above. The exact nature of some of these text is unknown, in the sense that one is not certain of their nature, composition or use. There is so little extant text that to put much stock in them at all would seem to be unwise, since no sort scribal tendencies can be established. In fact, it may be that little attention has been paid to them. Epp notes that modern critical editions, including the twenty-fifth edition of the Nestle-Aland text, are not significantly different from the edition of Westcott and Hort, which did not have access to any papyri. He therefore concludes that the papyri has not been incorporated in a significant way into New Testament textual criticism. He sees this as a shortcoming. Even the more radically revised twenty-sixth edition of the Nestle-Aland (identical to the twenty-seven edition) is only changed in 176 places, rejecting 980 possible instances where the earliest papyri have another reading, including a number from P45, P46, and P66, 54. I would suggest that we recognize what tacitly is the case and move away from an idealized eclectic text that never existed in any Christian community back to the codices that still form the basis of our modern textual tradition. We certainly should re-evaluate the hypothesis that the Nestle-Aland text is tantamount to the original text, unless it agrees with one of the major codices. These codices represent the Bible for a given Christian community, and while they may not represent the text as it came penned from the author, this is probably as early as we can get while still preserving the integrity of the New Testament. This would bring New Testament textual criticism into line with that of the Hebrew Bible, as well as much classical textual criticism. (pp. 176-77)

For those of you wondering, I’m pretty convinced by this line of argument and have been ever since first encountering with the Byzantine priority guys. In brief, I agree with advocates in both camps that I don’t see how the eclectic texts have delivered on the promise to make whole as great as their parts. And I don’t see how it ever could. I mean, why is “scholarly” approach to have one verse be the “best” reading while the next verse’s “best” reading is several centuries in one direction or another. That’s just an odd argument on it’s face, as if finding the original means going verse-by-verse with a nuclear DeLorean. So, as Porter suggests, it’s probably time for a new plan.