I've just finished reading Eldon Jay Epp's article on textual variants in the most recent edition of the Harvard Theological Review (if you or your supporting institution are subscribers, you may access a full text version of the article here; the abstract is available to everyone). Not surprisingly, I found it to be extremely stimulating (and not just because he taught at Case Western, where my best friend went to school!). Epp concludes with a brief definition of textual criticism which, in my opinion, succinctly captures the new direction in which the discipline is headed:
"New Testament textual criticism, employing aspects of both science and art, studies the transmission of the New Testament text and the manuscripts that facilitate its transmission, with the unitary goal of establishing the earliest attainable text (which serves as a baseline) and, at the same time, of assessing the textual variants that emerge from the baseline text so as to hear the narratives of early Christian thought and life that inhere in the array of meaningful variants."
The body of the article is concerned with the paradigm shift expressed in the above definition: the abandonment of the long-standing search for an "original text" in favor of an "earliest attainable text," and a more detailed exploration of the relationship between individual variants and the communities which produced them. In particular, Epp is determined to avoid the common text-critical pitfall in which one reading is determined to be "original" or "correct" while the others are simply discarded. He even offers a sample of a prototypical, "variant-friendly" critical text:
I must admit that despite my appreciation of the various sigla of the Novum Testamentum Graece--particularly the unobtrusive way in which they offer a vast amount of information to readers without forcing it upon them--I enjoyed the ability to view variants alongside the "baseline" text. Of course, as Epp points out, this is only a brief sample; a full-scale edition is but a pinpoint on the biblical studies horizon. He also notes that even if such an edition were produced, it would be best used in conjunction with existing critical editions, rather than apart from them. Even so... I think I'd buy one. ;-)