Stanley E. PORTER, How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. pp. 222. $21.99 paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8010-4871-5. Reviewed by Wilburn T. STANCIL, Rockhurst University, Kansas City, MO 64110
Stanley Porter is president, dean, and professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College in Ontario. Porter had authored dozens of books and articles on the New Testament and textual criticism. This book is an expanded version of lectures originally offered at Acadia Divinity College, Nova Scotia.
The book is divided into three chapters, each corresponding to three related themes: the text of the New Testament, its transmission through the centuries, and its translation into other languages. Porter is not only conversant with the scholarship related to these three areas but has made important contributions to that scholarship over the years.
Chapter one reaffirms the traditional purpose of textual criticism, namely, to get back to the original text of the New Testament, insofar as possible. Porter counters recent proposals that suggest that textual variants mainly reflect the ecclesiastical concerns of that era and were deliberately made for doctrinal purposes. He especially is critical of what he considers to be hyperbolic statements concerning textual variants in the books of Bart Ehrman, noting that 80-90% of the New Testament has no variants.
Porter acknowledges that the concept of an “original” text can be slippery, since other forms of the text might have existed—early redactions, sayings of Jesus, etc. However, he believes that once the text passes out of the hands of the author as a written document, it takes on a literary form that can be described as the “published” text. “Thus, whether the first or a subsequent edition is the published text, the original text is the published text that goes forth as the author’s, is circulated in the Christian community, and is found in the Greek New Testament” (35-36). The remainder of chapter one deals with the history of the printed Greek text of the New Testament—from Erasmus to the United Bible Society’s fourth revised edition.
In the search for the original text, Porter believes that it would be better to use the Greek text of an individual codex rather than an “idealized eclectic text that never existed in any Christian community” (74). He argues that we are already using the text of two major codexes (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus), which are texts that were actually used in the early church and get us “closer to the original autographs in terms of quantifiable evidence than a text edited in the nineteenth, twentieth, and now twenty-first centuries” (75).
The bulk of chapter two is an attempt to reconstruct the history of the transmission of the Greek New Testament before the major codexes of the fourth century. Based on the study of early papyri and parchment documents, Porter garners evidence to show that by the early second century, the four canonical gospels were established as a collected body of authoritative writings, and possibly also the Acts of the Apostles. The Pauline corpus, Porter believes, was “formed” in the first century, possibly by Paul himself, and widely circulated by the end of the second century. With reference to the rest of the New Testament, the limited textual evidence makes it difficult to retrace the transmission history. However, Porter cites examples that point to a gathering of this material by the late second, early third century. By the fourth century, the New Testament had been brought together into one collection, including the Old Testament.
Chapter three traces the history of the translation of the New Testament from ancient versions to major English translations. Of special interest are the issues faced by translators, the most important of which has been whether the translator takes a more literal approach (a one-to-one correspondence between the text and the target language, often called a “formal equivalence”) or a more dynamic approach (seeking an equivalence of the message rather than conserving the form of the text, often called a “functional equivalence”). Porter believes that translators need to move beyond these two models and “explore levels of language use that move beyond the clause all the way to the discourse level” (208). He cites examples in which the organization of information in Greek is not the same as in English.
How We Got the New Testament is a fine survey of the issues related to text, transmission, and translation. Porter’s work has a more conservative bend in its conclusions; yet, they are grounded in his detailed work on manuscripts. Porter describes his audience as “an inquisitive and generally well-educated and thinking Christian audience,” though portions of the book may “require the reader to pay close attention” (8). In fact, portions of the book actually assume some background in textual criticism, especially in sections dealing with textual variants in manuscripts. Therefore, even readers with theological training may find the book challenging at places. Still, I would recommend the book for those who are interested in how the Bible came together and how it has been passed down to us today in its present form.