Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Evaluating Ehrman’s Comparative Argument for Textual Unreliability

We have discussed at some length on this blog the value (or lack thereof) of what I called the comparative argument for the reliability of the NT text. In particular, we discussed Bart Ehrman’s three objections to it and why I found one of them significant. In this post, I want to return to that same objection, but this time I’m going to stack it against one of Ehrman’s own reasons for thinking the NT textual tradition is unreliable or at least not reliable enough.

Ehrman’s Argument

Here is Ehrman in his NT introduction:
In the earliest centuries, the vast majority of copyists of the New Testament books were not trained scribes. We know this because we can examine their copies and evaluate the quality of their handwriting, and we can assess how accurately they did their work. The striking and disappointing fact is that our earliest manuscripts of the New Testament have far more mistakes and differences in them than our later ones. The earlier we go in the history of copying these texts, the less skilled and attentive the scribes appear to have been.*
And here is his objection to the comparative argument as applied to the number of manuscripts:
Second, and more important: just because we are WORSE off for other authors than for those of the New Testament does not in itself mean that we can trust that we know what the NT authors wrote. I am a lot stronger than my five-year old granddaughter. But I still am not able to bench-press a half-ton truck. Yes, but you are MANY TIMES stronger than her! It doesn’t matter. I’m nowhere near strong enough. We have far more manuscripts of the New Testament than for any other ancient writing. But that doesn’t mean that we can therefore know what the originals said. We don’t have nearly enough of the right kinds of manuscripts.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Jerome’s Bibliology and the Greek Additions to Esther

Jerome of Stridon translated the Hebrew text into Latin in the late fourth and early fifth century. The book of Esther is in Jerome’s canon, as it was in most early Christians’, but there was the additional question about its text form, since the Greek version is some fifty-per-cent longer than the Hebrew. When he comes to the book of Esther, he composed a preface to the book and prefaces before each of the Greek additions, all basically indicating what was translated from the Hebrew and what came from the common edition, i.e. the Latin translation of the Seventy. He moved these additions to the end of the book, and in the preface to Addition F, he says he put the obelus, that is a spear, beside them.

Two Examples from Jerome’s Letters

Evidently, the matter is more complicated in Jerome’s actual practice. In Ep. 49(48).14, writing a defense to Pammachius (ca. 393–394), who perceived Jerome in his books against Jovinian to be elevating chastity above marriage, Jerome launched into a discussion of what is “good.” From Exod 3:14 (“I am who I am”), he settles on this principle, “If you compare every created thing (assumed to be good) with God, it has no existence.” In support of the converse, he then cites Esther Add C22: as Esther says, ne tradas hereditatem tuam his, qui non sunt, uel idolis scilicet uel daemonibus. If God, “who is who he is,” is good, then “those who are not” are evil idols and demons. They exist, but because they are lost (periit) to God, they are said not to be.

Be that as it may, for our purpose, Jerome appeals to Esther Add C22 to establish a theological point about what is good and what is not good in categories of “who is” and “those who are not.” In fact, he uses Add C22 to establish the opposite point of Exod 3:14. Perhaps, one could argue that he’s only using Add C22 illustratively and not as authoritative scripture. But that appears to be a stretch here.

In Ep. 130.4 (ca. 414 AD), he says, “Demetrias cried like Esther to the Lord (Esth Add C27), ‘You know that I hate the sign of my high estate’—that is to say, the crown which she wore as queen—’and that I hate it as a filthy rag’.” Here, Jerome compares the virtue of Demetrias, a chaste woman, with the virtue of Esther, and once again, Jerome uses a passage from the Greek additions to Esther not found in the Hebrew. One could suggest here that Jerome uses Add C27 for a simple example of piety and not for doctrine. That is, in this case, Jerome is appealing to the edificatory nature of this passage, not any perceived authority.


Jerome’s bibliology includes canonical, apocryphal, and useful-edificatory books (cf. Prologue to Solomonic Books and elsewhere). The latter category consists of books neither canonical nor apocryphal; that is, books neither authoritative for doctrine nor the dangerous works of heretics. Does Jerome’s use of the additions to Esther fit this category in a similar way to how he treats Judith and Tobit? It seems his appeal to C27 does, but his use of C22 does not so easily fit.

More work needs to be done here, but we should pause before immediately claiming Jerome was pro Hebraica Veritas only or exclusively. His views are more complicated than appear at first blush.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Alex Joffe on Why (Some) Academics Don’t Like the Museum of the Bible

Over at Mosaic, Alex Joffe writes this about some of the criticism of the Museum of the Bible:
For academics, [at] issue [is their] loss of public authority over the Bible. The intellectual monopolization of the Bible by academics in the post-World War II era coincided with the gradual collapse of biblical literacy in America, along with many mainline [Protestant] denominations. With this went an important part of the language of American identity, conversation, and consensus. The Bible in the public square was taken over by professors.

Inevitable or not, this was not healthy in social or political terms. Invocations of the Bible, religion, or God in politics today—[whether] earnest, banal, or grotesque—are condemned instantly. And yet this [habitual condemnation] cuts Americans off from not only a vernacular but from history; [for instance], the national, personal, and spiritual agony that Abraham Lincoln expressed in his second inaugural address is explicable only by reference to the Bible. . . .

Academics have hardly been faithful stewards of the Bible any more than of other forms of canonical knowledge; efforts to reclaim the Bible on the part of faith were also inevitable. If these also lead to more earnest engagement with the Bible as literature, tradition, and [a source of] morality on the part of academics and intellectuals, all the better. Unfortunately, I see the opposite occurring; [such] reclamation will be met with further academic criticism, which will only increase the distance between academia and society, heightening mutual suspicion and alienation, and setting up at least one side for a nasty surprise. . . .

The families and church groups visiting the Museum of the Bible are unlikely to be troubled by [issues of provenance] or converted to one denomination or another, but they might have elements of their faith, in the Bible and in America, reaffirmed. They are also likely to come away interested in Biblical history and archaeology. Many will go on to the Air and Space Museum for other sorts of reaffirmations, in technology and the human imagination, or to the National Gallery, filled with silent tributes to religious faith and to beauty itself. None of these is an unalloyed good, but that is the nature of museums. The good that one comes away with depends in part on what one goes in with.
On Twitter, Candida Moss says the reality is otherwise:
I’m not entirely sure there is an either-or here. Couldn’t the motive be both?

The element Joffe doesn’t mention here is personal animus toward the Greens, their Christian faith, or their win at the U.S. Supreme Court. Donna Yates, for example, wrote back in July 2017 that, “I had fantasies during the Hobby Lobby birth control case of taking them [the Greens] down with antiquities and told everyone I knew ‘you know they are terrible antiquities collectors too…’ but that wasn’t the story at the time.” Or, here is Joel Baden saying he thinks historic Christian faith is morally bankrupt.
Baden has also said that he tells his students that “all good academic writing comes from a place of anger.”

It’s hard to believe that the MOTB gets a fair hearing from critics who feel this way. That doesn’t mean that all the criticisms themselves are unwarranted, of course. Bad motives can lead to good questions and the museum has had clear problems with provenance. But it’s not silly to wonder if some of the critics are motivated by more than issues of proper provenance.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Peter Rodgers Reviews James Voelz on Mark

In a recent Catholic Biblical Quarterly, the blog’s own Peter Rodgers has reviewed the first volume of James Voelz’s commentary on Mark. It’s not often that a commentary review mentions textual criticism (or has warrant to!), but when the commentary is by Voelz and the review is by Rodgers, we get lucky. Here’s the relevant portion:
Textual critics will welcome Voelz’s full treatment of variant readings for each section. His “spiral method” for making judgments on readings (p. 25) appears to give equal weight to both external and internal criteria in making judgments on textual matters. His preference for manuscript B (Vaticanus), however, leads him to prefer this manuscript as “a strong witness to the characteristics of Marcan Greek” (p. 25). This procedure normally serves well but must not be followed slavishly. For example, Mark’s use of “immediately,” a persistent Marcan peculiarity, should have overridden V.’s omission of the particle on the strength of B and allies (see 7:35). His commendable willingness to depart from NA28 should have allowed him to entertain or at least mention the conjecture in 8:26, “don’t say anything into the Village, which alone honors another strong feature of Marcan usage: the use of “into” (εἰς) where “in” (ἐν) is expected. Moreover, the recently developed “Coherence-based Genealogical Method,” together with the salient features of Marcan usage, should give pause to anyone who wishes to emphasize one manuscript (even one so excellent as B). To do so is ultimately to neglect the complexity of the whole manuscript tradition.
You can read the rest in CBQ 80 (2018): 540–542.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Africanus–Origen Correspondence and the Form of Greek Daniel

As often happens in research, while investigating one topic, one becomes distracted by another. In several of my pursuits, the book of Daniel keeps surfacing, and I keep blogging on it. In this post, I tie together a couple of loose threads on the textual form of the book of Greek Daniel.

Order of Sections in Greek Daniel

In a previous post, I noted different orders of the sections/pericopes of the book of Greek Daniel according to B, Q, and Syh. B and Q represent (though with different paratextual features) what appears to have become the dominant order in MSS: Sus–Dan–Bel et Draco, and Syh represented Dan–Sus–Bel–Draco, all set off with separate titles, even though the opening title of the book was “Daniel according to the Seventy” in this same MS. In a post from last week, I commented on Ra 967 in conjunction with my research on Esther but did note that the order of pericopes for Daniel are as follows: Dan–Bel et Draco–Sus, though we can’t be certain whether there were pericope divisions or titles since the joins between Dan–Bel and Draco–Sus in the MS are in lacunae. This MS appears to be the only one that has this order of the sections, and one wonders whether it was because the 2nd/3rd century scribe wanted to place Susanna next to Esther, but I speculate here.

Enter: The Africanus-Origen Correspondence

The Africanus-Origen correspondence probably occurred around 248 AD. This is not the place to launch into all the debates over certain matters in this correspondence (e.g. Origen’s views of the Seventy and Hebrew texts), but there are a couple of places where these letters appear to provide a clue as to the order of the sections of Greek Daniel. First, in Ep. Or. 7, Africanus says, “Now above all these, this pericope (περικοπή) [Susanna] together with the other two at the end (ἐπὶ τῷ τέλει) does not circulate in the [book of] Daniel having been received by/among the Jews.” He does not name Bel et Draco, but he knows of these pericopes at the end of the book and mentions “two other” pericopes–not one.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

More Digital Humanities stuff: Digital Papyrology

About a week ago, Pete Williams posted an advertisement for a postdoc in a digital humanities project on Mark 16 based in Lausanne. Needless to say, digital humanities are a very prospective field of research, and textual critics have already begun to rely on some of the first fruits of this line of enquiry. For instance, few people conducting NT text critics could now imagine their lives without the New Testament Virtual Manuscript Room (NTVMR). For those of us dabbing into papyrology and manuscript studies, the same holds true regarding the multitude of essential online resources and databases. In this vein, our blog readers might be interested in the recently published two-volume book Digital Papyrology (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017–18). The first volume, entitled Methods, Tools and Trends (2017) was solely authored by Nicola Reggiani, whereas its (thinner) 2018 sequel Case Studies on the Digital Edition of Ancient Greek Papyri presents a collection of essays edited by Reggiani himself.

Although Reggiani did not intend this to be a handbook or an introductory text-book, it can definitely serve that purpose (and much more). The wide range of topics discussed include digital bibliographies, catalogues, word-indices, online imaging, publication and editing—and everything in between. There is a great wealth of useful information presented here, but what I particularly appreciate is that Reggiani goes beyond merely outlining what’s out there. The various digital tools are scrutinised and contextualised, such that the reader might get a basic critical outlook instead of just a ‘dry’ description of what’s available. The analysis is embedded in a wider discussion concerning what the digital papyrology actually is and what it is becoming.

Until quite recently, conducting papyrological research without being physically present in a highly specialised research library would have been impossible. Today, the comprehensive digitisation of editions coupled with online publication of manuscript images, as well as the actual digital editing that’s taking place, are shifting the paradigm rapidly. A critically acute overview and analysis of the methods and tools that are part and parcel of this shift is thus most helpful. The helpfulness of this work is enhanced further still by the fact that  both volumes are freely available online as eBooks thanks to the Open Access initiative—in keeping with the ethos of this increasingly more inclusive field and its increasingly more widely available tools of trade. Hopefully we’ll see more of this in the days to come. (N.B. Pasquale Orsini’s forthcoming book on Greek and Latin palaeography is also supposed to be an Open Access publication.)

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Reading Religion’s Review of The Biblical Canon Lists

James E. Walters tweeted at me that his review of The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis (OUP, 2018) has been posted at Reading Religion. You can read his review here. He thinks the book is generally good and useful:
This volume provides an accessible collection of “lists” of biblical books from early Christian and Jewish sources. The lists are provided in original texts (primarily Greek and Latin, though also one Syriac and one Rabbinic Aramaic) and also translation. Each list is also accompanied by a brief introduction as well as thorough notes on issues of translation and interpretation. As such, the editors have compiled a very useful collection of texts that will be of intrinsic interest and value to anyone who works on questions of canon formation in early Christianity (and to a lesser extent in early Judaism).
His concluding paragraph is also positive, though he notes some concerns:
With these concerns in mind, this book is a valuable compendium of sources and summaries of scholarship pertaining to the history of the formation of the biblical canons. In addition to texts and translations (most of which are taken from previous publications), the entries include convenient references to previous studies of each canon list included, so this book can serve as a valuable reference to students and researchers at all levels.
Walters expressed concern over how Ed Gallagher and I (1) treated the dating of the Muratorian Fragment in ch. 1 (“the careful reader will note that in the first chapter the Muratorian Fragment is generally supplied as evidence for ‘early’ canonical status for various books”), even though he said our treatment of the problem of date in the section on MF in ch. 4 of the book was “even-handed and diplomatic”; (2) our definition of “canon list” (but more precisely, “The editors then immediately claim that this definition fits ‘most of the lists’ in the volume, an admission that already clues the reader into the fact that some of the included lists may not necessarily meet these criteria.”); (3) our inclusion of Josephus’s statement on the 22 books in his Against Apion; (4) the inclusion of chapter six on whole bible MSS left Walters puzzled, “Thus, it remains unclear exactly how this chapter contributes to the volume.”

Walters’s review was generally positive, and there is no need to respond to each of his concerns here, except only to note that in the book we did mention many of them ourselves. For example, regarding Josephus on p. xiii, we said:
Our description of a canon list as the list of books that an author or council considered canonical should be nuanced when considering certain lists. We have included a passage from Josephus often labelled the first Jewish canon list, but anyone reading the passage will be disappointed to find that Josephus fails to list the books, and his account—while it affords us a great deal of certainty on the majority of writings that made up his collection of twenty-two sacred books—is not so precise that we can have complete assurance that we know the contents of his canon.
And on p. 63, we said:
Since Josephus does not list the exact contents of the books in his canon list, we only list his headings and brief descriptions of the types of works within the twenty-two books. Scholars have attempted to reconstruct Josephus’s list, and these conjectures are presented below...
Apparently, our cautions won’t satisfy everyone, but thank you, James, for writing a thoughtful and fair review of our book!