In the concluding chapter of his excellent and highly recommended On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King) gives the reader a glimpse of his writing process "with the door open." In other words, he gives a reproduction of the first draft of a short story, "The Hotel Story," in its entirety. Immediately afterward he reproduces a facsimile of the story (now titled "1408") with his revisions visible--lines are marked through, words are replaced, entire sections gutted and moved.
The chapter is helpful to aspiring writers, certainly, in its bald assertion that a lot of what gets written gets cut and rearranged, and that this process (despite our over-protective suspicions) is okay. It is in fact quite natural. In the process of writing, rewriting and self-editing happens (and happens very often repeatedly before a "final" draft is achieved).
I want to use this illustration of the process, however, to raise a question that cuts to the heart of "Biblical Studies" (and "Theology") as they seem to be undertaken in current practice. That question is, "Having now seen the process laid bare by King that this story has been revised and rewritten prior to its 'first appearance' as a published piece, what, would we venture to say, is the original text of this story?"
The question is tricky. In order to answer it, the answerer is required to make some preliminary decisions about what "original" would mean in such a case. For example, "The Hotel Story" is clearly original in a chronological sense--it comes before "1408" in time, after all. There would be no "1408" if "The Hotel Story" had not existed first. So, in this sense, "The Hotel Story" is "original."
However, it is also clear (from King's testimony in the book, at least) that "The Hotel Story" is inferior to "1408," and therefore it is to be rejected and abandoned by the author in favor of the later revision. In this sense, the author "intends" for "1408" to be the true story, the one upon which the author places name and imprimatur. It is "1408," and not "The Hotel Story," which is first published as a short story proper (as opposed to the pedagogical exercise here in On Writing, where they both appear to demonstrate the process). In this sense, "1408" would be considered the primary text, and thus "original," would it not?
The question, I submit, is problematic for us even when we have a contemporary text distributed through modern publication channels at a time when the author is still alive and available to answer questions about these matters (as occurs in On Writing, above). In other words, the availability of all these aides to our process of answering the question does not actually help us at all in the answering of the question, "What is the original text here?"
We are unaided because the answer cannot come from the text itself. Rather, it must come from the presuppositions we make in what constitutes an "original" text--is it chronology? It is intentionality? Is it some other factor we might choose as a criterion? This decision constitutes the status of the "originality" of a text--not some inherent quality of the text itself.
I make the point because there is a defect in the terminology many of us reflexively utilize in the sister disciplines of Biblical Studies and Theology. Let me put it this way: if I had a nickel for every time a student (myself included) has looked at the Biblia Hebraica or the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece and said, "Let's see what the original Hebrew (or Greek) says..." to settle a textual dispute, I would have so many nickels I likely would not have had to take out all those student loans during my graduate work.
We (many of us, myself included) reflexively appeal to these publications as the "original" language for the text in question. For many of my students in seminary, this is a highly uncritical process--but I also observe professors making the same reflexive claims. It is, I submit, a systemic reflex at all levels of the academy (again, for many--not all--of us).
But it must be clearly stated that these texts are no more "original" than the Latin Vulgate. They are not facsimilies of autographs in any sense. Rather, they are themselves assemblages of fragments that are incomplete, often contradictory, and long-disputed.
What we hold in our hands is not the "original" text in such cases, but rather a critical text. This is to say, a text that has been assembled and agreed upon through a critical process that has certain conventions and methodologies, and that is based upon certain preliminary assumptions about what the given text will be allowed to be. These assumptions, moreover, are not generated by "the text itself" (remember - there is no "text itself") but rather through external agreements such as grammar, lexicography, papriology, and so on.
The danger of a terminological blurriness on this point is that, in using the term "original Hebrew" or "original Greek" as our reflex, we might imply an ontological quality to the text which is not proper. An "original text" can exercise an absolute authority over translations and interpretation. A critical text, in contrast, still can exercise and authority in such matters, but it is a negotiated authority. The authority is conventional and debatable--not ontological and absolute.
A result of this claim would be that we acknowledge that our conversations about (biblical) texts, and their translations and interpretations, are not ever attempts to render the "best" version of the "original." Rather we labor to render the "best" version of the given critical text we have agreed, for the purposes of this particular conversation, to read and use at that time and that place.
What I am arguing for, then, is a scruple about the term "original text." If you are like me, it will be difficult to dispense with the reflex to use the term. However, with practice, I hope for myself (and anyone reading this who might share the concern) that the term might come to be replaced with a reflex to call the item what it is--a critical text. Conventional, limited, negotiable and tacit in its authority, though still authoritative and useful in a local, rather than a transcendent sense.
(I want to acknowledge the graciousness of my friend and colleague Jimmy Barker in helping me think through these points recently. I am deeply thankful for his insights on these matters. I do not claim he agrees with all the points I have made, of course, and any errors in the arguments above are mine, not his.)