We know that textual criticism is the study of variants in different manuscripts. But how did you first get interested in textual criticism?

When I was an undergrad at Biola University, I sat in on Dr. Harry Sturz’s one-year course in textual criticism. At that time, it was the only full-year course on that subject anywhere in the country. I’d come to Biola with questions about what we can know with total confidence about the Bible, and I knew I’d have to go back to the original languages and sources. So textual criticism was a clear interest right away, along with the four years of Greek I took at Biola. It also fit my lifelong fascination with history.

When you entered the ThM program at DTS, what was your major?

Actually, I started in systematic theology—and I only lasted two weeks in that major! I was so hungry to learn in every area, and I took classes with John Grassmick, Buist Fanning, Harold Hoehner, Zane Hodges, S. Lewis Johnson, Art Farstad, Ken Barker, Don Glenn, and others. I loaded up on coursework in New Testament, Greek, and Hebrew, and I ended up with effectively a double-major in Old Testament and New Testament.

In second-year Greek, I turned in a single-spaced, twenty-five-page paper on a textual problem, and I found that Prof. Hodges was the only one in the department at that time who could suggest answers to the questions I was raising. 

When I finished my ThM in 1979, Dr. Hoehner was building up the New Testament department, hiring a number of us who had just finished the degree to stay on as instructors. But there was no doctorate in New Testament at that time, as Dr. Hoehner wanted to develop the library resources before relaunching the ThD. I stayed on at DTS for a time as an instructor, teaching Greek—and I was way too tough on my students at first!—and after the doctoral program was up and running again, I returned to Dallas to earn my PhD.

It was while I was teaching at DTS that I wrote a forty-page position paper on textual criticism—which I’m actually still working on, modifying, and expanding, expecting to publish it as a book very soon. In that paper, I took a view that I learned from Dr. Sturz, though it wasn’t the dominant approach. My own views morphed away from Sturz’s approach into “reasoned eclecticism” the more I worked in this area.

So you focused on textual criticism during your doctoral studies?

I wanted to take textual criticism, but there was nobody teaching it at DTS at the time. Dr. Hoehner said, “Well, Dan, how about if you teach it?” This was out of character for Dr. Hoehner, and I ended up teaching a textual criticism class in the summer of 1987. I read about ten thousand pages of material in preparation for that course, and it was because of that research that I adopted reasoned eclecticism for my approach to the problems of the New Testament text.

You were the instructor at the same time as being a doctoral student yourself?

A funny thing about that course: because one of the final exams for the doctoral program covered textual criticism, I wasn’t allowed to see the exam, even though I was preparing doctoral students to take it! I taught the course but didn’t see or grade the exam. Hoehner would not let me get credit for the class I was teaching, so I did four credit hours of independent study in textual criticism. I wrote two papers for independent study, both of which were later published. From that unusual beginning, the course has continued to thrive at DTS, and I still teach it today.

And that course is where you first looked at an actual manuscript?

Yes, it was during that course in 1987 that I took the students to Southern Methodist University to look at their papyrus—a fragment from Romans 1.

You started the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts twenty years ago. How do the high-resolution digital images of ancient manuscripts benefit our understanding of textual criticism?

One great benefit of the current technology is that it allows us to more easily do comparisons of a much larger number of manuscripts. Looking at Greek New Testament manuscripts, you’re dealing with over 1,500 years of different handwriting styles, ligatures, and other variations. It’s an enormous task for one scholar to look at all those variations and make any conclusions. Only one scholar at the time—Herman Hoskier—had collated and transcribed all of the manuscripts for one New Testament book. He chose Revelation, maybe partly because there are far fewer manuscripts of Revelation in existence than for other New Testament books. Hoskier worked from 1899 to 1929, at a time when there weren’t even microfilms; he had to travel to every library to view the manuscripts. CSNTM board member Tommy Wasserman did the same exhaustive work for the book of Jude. But I figured if one person works on each New Testament book in such a comprehensive way, it would take hundreds of years to get the work done. With forty scholars all working on it full-time, that could take ten years, but there just aren’t that many scholars who are willing to do this. By making high-quality images of all the manuscripts available to scholars, wherever they are, the Center has increased the pace at which scholars can access the material and collaborate on their research.

Prior to the work of the Center, high-quality images were unavailable?

What has mostly been available is microfilm. But microfilm is of a significantly lower quality. At the Institute for New Testament Textual Research (INTF), in Münster, Germany, for example, 80–90% of their Greek New Testament manuscript collection is available on microfilm—but as many as one-fourth of the microfilm images are illegible. Thousands of them are the original images made by Kurt Aland and his assistants, using a pre-World War II microfilm camera. Because with film cameras, you couldn’t see the image right away, you didn’t know until later if the image was blurry, cropped, too dark, or not framed properly.

Making excellent, high-quality images of manuscripts is a precise science, and so as we’ve continued working at the Center, we’ve refined the technique to be the best. The images we currently make, with our 150-megapixel cameras, are hundreds of times better than microfilm, and of course the multispectral imaging enables manuscript analysis of words that are invisible to the naked eye. The libraries that have manuscripts often just don’t have the manpower or the best technology to make the images.

The images the Center creates are freely available to all scholars?

The holding libraries own the rights to their manuscripts, and each institution may determine its own permissions for sharing. But our aim is make as many images as possible available through the Center. Hundreds of thousands of images are viewable on our website, but some require additional permissions from the holding libraries to be viewed.

Besides discovering manuscripts, what else do you learn about manuscripts while photographing them?

Among the many things I could relay, I’ll mention a rather minor observation. When we write up the metadata for each manuscript (which includes leaf count, line count, date, dimensions, contents, etc.), we measure not just the width and height of a manuscript, but also the depth—that is, not counting the covers, how wide is the manuscript at the crease? We measure at the top and the bottom of the codex, and any difference in those measurements tells us some interesting things about how the manuscript has been stored. Almost always, books are a little bit wider at the top than at the bottom. If we find a manuscript where the depth at the bottom is several millimeters wider than at the top, then it has likely been stored upside down for most of its life.

What would you most like to discover in your work with manuscripts?

Well, you might think I’d like to find the very oldest manuscripts in existence. And of course I would, but actually, a later manuscript can be every bit as valuable as the early ones. For example, there’s a tenth-century manuscript (Codex 1739) of Acts and the Epistles at Mount Athos in northeastern Greece. It was written by a scribe named Ephraim, who worked in Constantinople and copied at least five different manuscripts. He did his due diligence to get the oldest manuscripts he could find to copy from, and he included quotations in the margins from early church fathers in Codex 1739. That text is so good, it's the equivalent of a fifth-century manuscript. Finds like that are extremely important and incredibly rare.

What’s next for CSNTM?

More trips! We have a big world map on the wall in the office, marked with pushpins indicating locations of manuscripts that we haven’t yet visited at all and other locations we want to return to with the better equipment we have now. The work will always be ongoing, and it will always be exciting. Our goal is to make accessible images of the more than five thousand Greek New Testament manuscripts so that we can have greater certainty about what the apostles and their associates wrote so many centuries ago. The work is critical because it is on the foundation of these manuscripts that we can have more accurate translations. We just need more people to find out about what we’re doing and get involved in supporting this work.

About the Contributors

Daniel B. Wallace

Daniel B. Wallace (ThM, 1979; PhD, 1995) is Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at DTS and the executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. He has been a consultant for several Bible translations and has written, edited, or contributed to more than three dozen books and numerous articles.

Neil R. Coulter

Neil R. Coulter

Neil R. Coulter completed degrees in music performance and ethnomusicology from Wheaton College and Kent State University. He and his family lived in Papua New Guinea for twelve years, where Neil served as an ethnomusicology and arts consultant for Wycliffe Bible Translators. In 2015, he helped design and launch the PhD in World Arts at Dallas International University. He teaches doctoral courses in theory and ethnography at DIU’s Center for Excellence in World Arts. At DTS, he teaches about art, literature, film, and theology, and he is senior writer and editor of DTS Magazine. Neil is married to Joyce, and they have three sons.