Textual stability and fluidity exhibited in the earliest Greek manuscripts of John: an analysis of the second/third-century fragments with attention also to the more extensive papyri (P45, P66, P75)
Bell, Lonnie David
This thesis is an assessment of the character of textual transmission reflected in the pre-fourth century Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of John. Since John is the most attested New Testament book among the early papyri, has the highest number of papyri that share overlapping text, and is the best attested Christian text in the second century, it serves well as a case study into the level of fluidity and stability of the New Testament text in its earliest period of transmission. The transmission of New Testament writings in this period has been characterized by a number of scholars as error-prone, free, wild and chaotic. This thesis is an inquiry into the validity of this characterization. I contend that our earliest extant manuscripts should serve as the most relevant evidence for addressing this issue, both for the period in which they were copied and for inferences about the preceding period for which we lack manuscript evidence. My treatment of the earliest Greek manuscripts of John primarily involves a fresh and full assessment of the level of fluidity and stability exhibited in the 14 smaller fragments (P5, P22, P28, P39, P52, P90, P95, P106, P107, P108, P109, P119, P121, 0162) by identifying on the basis of internal evidence the character of variants and unique readings attested. Additionally, I compare the number, character and significance of the singular/sub-singular readings of each early fragmentary manuscript with those in the same portion of text in the major majuscule manuscripts up through the seventh century that share complete overlap. The unique readings of P66 and P75 are added to this comparison where they fully overlap with the smaller fragments. Since P45 and P66 have been particularly identified with a “free” manner of transmission, I include an extended discussion in my introductory section in which I engage with research on the character of transmission exhibited in these two witnesses. My analysis of these early manuscripts based on the internal evidence of readings allows for a more in-depth and accurate characterization of the freedom and/or care exhibited. The comparison of singular and sub-singular readings with those of the later majuscules facilitates a diachronic comparison of the number and nature of readings most likely to have been generated at the time in which each respective manuscript was transcribed. This latter step allows us to test, by way of these passages, whether or not the manuscript tradition can be fairly characterized as freer and more prone to corruption in the second and third centuries than in subsequent centuries. From these data, and in conjunction with observations made on any relevant physical features of the manuscripts themselves, I conclude that the copying of John during the second and third centuries was characterized largely by stability and by continuity with the later period. These conclusions serve the broader purpose of providing a window on the character of New Testament textual transmission in the earliest centuries.