On May 1st, 1851 a German man named Christian Gottlieb Nestle and his wife Sophie Beate Kleinmann gave birth to a bouncing baby boy whom they named Eberhard. Young Eberhard grew up in Württemberg and attended the Gymnasium of Stuttgart. From there he went on to study at the Theological Seminary of Blaubeuren – one of four secluded, monastic institutions at which very thorough philological training was provided for the up and coming clergy of the land. After this, Nestle studied divinity and eastern linguistics, first at the University of Tübingen, and then at the University of Leipzig. He was then delighted to be given the opportunity to spend two whole years in England, working at the British Museum and preaching to various church communities in London. From there he accepted a position as Tutor at the Theological Seminary of Tübingen, and then moved on to the Gynmanisum of Ulm to teach Greek, German, Hebrew, and Religion. After that he went back to the University of Tübingen as Professor of Semitic Languages. Then, after a tenure during which he was not promoted to Chair, he moved back to Ulm, where he had more opportunities to indulge in more direct philological and theological study.
Dr. Nestle made some key contributions to several theological and literary journals, wrote an entire Syriac grammar, produced a tetraglot of the Psalms in Greek, Syriac, Chaldean, and Latin, edited two successive editions of Tischendorf’s critical Septuagint, with collations of Codices Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, and Alexandrinus, and even did some work with the Apocryphal Gospels. He also edited the Greek New Testament for the Stuttgart Bible Society.
One striking feature of Dr. Nestle’s work is his relentless pursuit of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He refused to omit details or smudge over difficulties for the sake of making work easier for the New Testament textual critic. He had the type of faith that drove him to behave as if getting to the bare truth of the matter, linguistically, historically, textually, and archeologically – without squelching any questions or turning a blind eye to even a single jot or tittle – would ultimately bear the best, the most pure and historically accurate, textual fruit.
He believed that in every case the facts would ultimately testify to the truth of Christianity in the long run, even if they posed difficulties and raised questions in the short term.
One way his work went against the grain of his time was that it led him to disbelieve in the concept of a “Textus Receptus”, or “Received Text” – an edition of the New Testament that was final and after which there would be no use in continuing to study manuscripts to try to gain more and more accurate understandings of what the original documents said. Nestle firmly believed that there was much work to be done in the field of New Testament textual criticism (which, if you don’t already know or haven’t figured out by now is the attempt to identify and correct transcription errors in the texts of the New Testament manuscripts).
To put the issue in perspective, however, it should be noted that we have a recent count of 24,970 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament (not counting quotations in the writings of the early church fathers), compared to 643 of Homer’s Iliad (which has the next highest MSS count). Some of these manuscripts date very closely to the originals that were penned. FF Bruce, Bruce Metzger, Kurt Aland, Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, even Eberhard Nestle, and virtually all other experts in the field believe(d) that we can reconstruct about 99.5% of the text of the autographs with virtually 100% certainty. And the uncertainties are in minor areas – usually grammatical or punctuational.
In other posts, here or on my other blog, I might tell you about some of the more interesting cases, try to explain what hangs in the balance in each, and possibly even take a crack at trying to take a position of my own in one or two instances. But the point is that while there isn’t any basis for doubting the accuracy of the transmission of the New Testament text, there isn’t any basis for believing that we have received a perfect transmission straight from God either (even if we believe the originals were inspired by Him).
One very telling characteristic of the work of New Testament textual critics like Nestle is that the whole goal is to go backwards, not forwards. They try to reconstruct, as accurately as possible, what the original manuscripts said. They keep a running publication now (thanks to Kurt Aland) documenting every extant manuscript, where it is held, what it contains, what it dates to, and other details. They produce almost yearly “critical” editions of the New Testament in which the text is presented and almost every extant variant reading of the uncertain passages is documented in detail (they even assign probabilities to each variant, placing the most probable original reading in the main body of the edition).
They are correcting copyist errors, not revising teachings.
Eberhard Nestle’s edition of the Greek New Testament quickly became universally accepted the best yet, and has become the basis for just about every critical edition of the Greek New Testament text since. His son Erwin picked up where his father left off, and in the 50’s began collaborating with Kurt Aland. The Nestle-Aland 27th edition of the “Novum Testamentum Graece”, published in 1993, is now the foundational text from which many modern English Bibles are translated.