How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation, by Stanley Porter (Baker Academic, 2013), 240pp.

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717SQG3Wp8LStanley Porter, the President and Professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College in Ontario Canada, has recently published the substance of his 2008 Hayward Lectures, delivered at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia. The volume is broken down into three (somewhat lengthy) chapters, as insinuated by the subtitle; Text, Transmission, Translation.

Chapter one opens with an overview of the major historical players involved within the history of textual criticism (Erasmus, Tregelles, Tischendorf, Westcott, Hort, Nestle, etc). After outlining the particular contributions made by these scholars, Porter notes that the traditional goal of textual criticism was to devise a methodology by which the original text (or the text that most resembles the original) may be ascertained (17).

However in recent study there have been two challenges to this goal of TC, namely,  (i) contextual variation and (ii) questioning the original text. The first challenge seeks to shift the focus of TC away from textual reconstruction, and move towards an exegetical and hermeneutical enterprise. In other words, what were the theological and social motivations or conditions in which textual variations took place? In this vein, Porter addresses the work of Bart Ehrman, who proposes various socioreligious contexts that contributed to textual corruption (anti-docetic, anti-adoptionistic, anti-separationist, anti-patripassionist).

The second challenge (which seems similar to the first) questions the possibility of recovering an original text and instead proposes to study the contexts in which change is made. Here Porter interacts with the work of William Petersen, David Trobisch, Eldon Epp, David Parker and Gerd Mink. Porter’s basic response to these challenges is that whenever one proposes the “corruption” of a text, then one assumes the functional presence of a stable and original text (25).

Moreover, if one can differentiate between the original text and the original “published texted” (the text that goes forth as the author’s and is circulated in the early Christian community), then the traditional goal of textual criticism is more obtainable than sometimes purported. Porter is not disavowing the importance of recognizing theological and social contexts that may contribute to textual variation, however these realities to not negate the overarching discipline of textual criticism as a whole.

The subsequent section of this chapter is a tour de force history of the printed Greek New Testament. Beginning with Erasmus, the Complutensian Polyglot, and the Textus Receptus, Porter goes on to address the work of John Mill, Johann Bengel, Johann Semler, Johann Griesbach, Tischendorf, Wescott, Hort, and many more. This history naturally leads into the discussion surrounding “text types” and the need for manuscripts to not only be counted but “weighed”.

After outlining the methodologies of Streeter (geographical), Lachmann (stemmatic), Colwell (quantitative), as well as the latest CBGM (coherence-based genealogical method), Porter presents the three text-type system that he himself operates within (Byzantine, Caesarean, Alexandrian/Western). This section provides a helpful resource for the student who wants a succinct yet substantial description of various “types” and how those text types came into existence.

The chapter concludes with two final sections: 1. a focused interaction with the work Bart Ehrman (Misquoting Jesus), wherein Porter challenges the ingenuity of Ehrman’s arguments, noting several rhetorical and technical issues within his presentation and 2. an argument for a single manuscript approach over against the use of an eclectic text. In this regard, Porter notes the relatively minimal impact that individual papyri have had upon the history of textual reconstruction, especially since the publication of Westcott and Hort’s 1881 GNT (after which approximately 63 papyri have been published that predate the major codexes that are used to establish the text of the New Testament).

Chapter two opens with an overview of the materials used to produce ancient manuscripts and the various types of manuscripts produced (papyri, majuscules, minuscule, and lectionaries). With this in mind Porter, enters into a discussion on the tradition history of the New Testament. Porter here divides his discussion into the three major groups of NT documents (the Gospels and Acts, the Pauline Epistles, and the Other NT letters). With respect to the Gospels, Porter discusses P45, Tatian’s Diatessaron, the 0212 fragment, the work of Marcion, and the P4/P64/P67 papyri grouping.

While making the overarching conclusion that there is a strong line of continuity from the second century to the fourth, wherein the four Gospels emerge as a whole, Porter also contends that the presence of Tatian’s Diatessaron (an early harmony of the Gospels) lends support to the notion that a  number of authoritative Gospel texts were already established prior to the mid-second century. Similarly, with respect to the Pauline Epistles (Porter notes that Pauline authorship of the thirteen epistles is historically and critical defensible) Porter begins with P92 before discussing the mid-second century papyrus P46, noting that there seems to be a collection of thirteen Pauline epistles as early as AD 200 and quite possibly even earlier.

**One interesting point to note for potential readers is the argument made by Porter, following the observations of Trobisch, that the arrangement of epistles by decreasing size in P46 may reveal Paul’s own involvement in the assembling of his corpus within the first century**

The rest of the this chapter surveys the major codexes that students of the New Testament need to familiarize themselves with, namely, Codex Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, Alexandrinus, and Ephraemi Rescriptus. However one will also find here a discussion of the liturgical use of manuscripts in addition to the significance of minuscules (cursive style hand writing) and lectionaries (selected bible readings). This naturally leads Porter into his proposal for a more nuanced considerations of manuscripts for textual criticism, namely, the distinction between continuous text and non-continuous text.

Chapter three provides not only a historical survey of various translations but also a consideration of the major translation theories that influence modern translations. The latter section of this chapter (translation theory) outlines a  myriad of approaches that will stretch the simplistic categorizations of many seminary students. So for instance, Porter introduces the reader to the approaches of the Latin orator Cicero (106-43 BC) and the Latin poet Horace (65-8 BC) before venturing into much later translators such was William Cowper (1731-1800) and Sidney Lanier (1842-1881). This background provides something of a historical backdrop to the more familiar categories of translation theory that are often addressed in bible translation debates. Porter’s discussion can be represented by the following table (based off his own chart on p.g 207):

Cultural Context                  (represented by)                    Cultural/Postcolonial Theory
Situational Context                                                         Relevance Theory; Descriptivist Approach
Discourse                                                                       Discourse Analysis
Clause Complex (sentence)                                            Functionalist Translation
Clause                                                                          Dynamic/Functional Equivalence Translation
Word Group                                                                  Literal/Formal Equivalence Translation

Two Concluding Points
(i) Further Research & Resourcefulness: Porter’s work will not only benefit the student as a substantial introduction to the many issues involved with the production, establishment, and transmission of the Greek New Testament, but it will also function as an excellence recourse for further study. Porter’s own publications in this field are more numerous than most, however the inclusion of pivotal monographs and representative works throughout the footnotes will be a great aid for those interested in the field.

(ii) History & Theory: Porter has combined the discussion of history and theory in such a way that How We Got The New Testament is neither a simple historical survey nor a plain theoretical proposal. The Greek New Testament has a long history with many characters who play important roles along the way, and yet a host of theories and methodologies have been proposed and debated within each generation. Porter should be commended for drawing upon this rich and interesting history while simultaneously contributing unique insights into the many debates.

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