Book Notice: Stanley Porter, How We Got the New Testament

Stanley E. Porter

How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013.
Available at

Stan Porter’s book on the origins of the NT is based on a series of lectures delivered at Acadia Divinity College in 2008. In sum, Porter deals with three areas: The text of the NT, the transmission of the NT text, and the translation of the NT.

In chapter one, Porter argues that the goal of textual criticism should be to establish the “original” (i.e.,  published/authorized) text, he provides a brief history of published editions of the Greek New Testament, gives a critique of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, and argues for the use of “real” manuscripts in NT research rather than a reliance on eclectic editions.

In chapter two, Porter examines the transmission of the NT where he looks at the earliest manuscripts and what they tell us about the development of the Gospels, Pauline letter collection, and Apostolos.

In chapter three, Porter discusses various translations of the  Bible and numerous translation theories. He is at pains to point out that formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence are not the only options around.

Porter makes a number of interesting arguments in the book that stand out:

He maintains the stability of the NT text, commenting: “The impression sometimes given in discussion of the text of the New Testament is that the text is entirely fluid and unstable, and that it was subject to so much variation and change through especially the first two centuries that its very stability is threatened. This simply is not true” (p. 24).

He thinks that the goal of the textual criticism is not the recovery of an “initial text” but rather an “original text” properly defined as the first published version of the text.

He believes, in contrast to David Parker and others, that it is still feasible to talk about text-types, holding to at least three: the Alexandrian, Western, and Byzantine. Porter holds the Alexandrian to be the earliest and a very stable textual witness (p. 64).

Porter argues that, contra Peter Head and Scot Charlesworth, that T.C. Skeat might have been right that P4, P64, and p67 belong to the same codex.

Porter contends that P.Egerton 2 is derivative of the four canonical Gospels (interesting point in contrast to Francis Watson who thinks P.Eg 2 was a possible source for John). FYI, I learned from the footnotes that Porter has a book on Jesus and John’s Gospel scheduled to come out from Eerdmans some day.

According to Porter, “The Pauline corpus, once formed in the first century, quite possibly by Paul himself, began to be used and copied widely, sot that it is likely that a complete compilation of Paul’s letters was circulating by the end of the second century (P46) and throughout subsequently centuries (P13), probably with Hebrews considered part of the Pauline letter collection” (p. 120).

Porter suggests that NT manuscripts should be categorized along the lines of “continuous text” and “noncontinuous text” (i.e., lectionaries, magical papyri, commentaries, excerpts, apocryphal texts).

I am also convinced by Porter’s suggestion that we should use real texts rather than eclectic texts (NB: this is done in the Septuagint Commentary Series). Porter writes: “If Westcott and Hort’s edition is clearly based on the two major codexes, and the current text is 99.5 percent the same … it seems as if we are already in essence using the the two major codexes. If our goal is to seek the earliest rest that we legitimately can find, without abandoning the claim to be seeking the original even if we now that we can only get back so far, then it makes sense to use the earliest actual texts that we can find” (p. 75).  For such reasons I’m tinkering with the idea of using P72 as the text for a 2 Peter commentary.

On translation, it is hard to pin down Porter’s preferred translation method. He certainly favors discourse analysis as a way of evaluating Bible translations. The vibe I get is that Porter seems to favor something between relevancy theory and descriptivist linguistics (pp. 205-209) as a method of translation – though I might be wrong here)

Porter is a recognized expert on biblical Greek, papyrology, and epigraphy, and therefore, this book reflects his wealth of knowledge in those areas. Even in places where he is not fully convincing (e.g., on P4, 64, 67), he nonetheless raises good points for consideration about the text, transmission, and translation of the NT. A very good read about the origins of the NT, not quite a new Metzger, but definitely worth reading and to recommend to students.

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  • dougchaplin

    A couple of comments.

    Isn’t there a contradiction between insisting on an original text and then complaining scholars use an eclectic published text which represents something like a consensus on what an original text might be?

    What does Porter mean by “published” and does he recognise that’s a problematic concept in the ancient world?

    • Martin Williams

      agree: (1) If, as Porter states on paged 75, thatour modern eclectic editions
      of the Greek New Testament contain 99.5 percent of codex Sinaiticus (01 ℵ) and Vaticanus (03 B), then are we
      not basically using them anyway? (2) Related to that, the advantage of the
      Alexandrian based eclectic text is that it takes into account the many textual variants
      between Sinaiticus and Vaticanus that Porter fails to mention in his book. In
      his book Codex B and its Allies (Bernard
      Quaritch, London 1914), textual critic Herman Charles Hoskier (1864–1938)
      counted 3,036 textual variations between Sinaiticus and Vaticanus in the text
      of the Gospels alone (Matthew, 656; Mark, 567; Luke, 791; John, 1022). Anyone
      that is going to use Sinaiticus and Vaticanus as their Greek text will need to
      deal responsibly with these variants (and will thus need to have a good
      knowledge of the disciple of textual criticism). I actually think Porter makes
      a good case for using modern eclectic Greek texts!