Thursday, January 05, 2006

God-given words and textual criticism

Back in October I posted a query about the strengths and weaknesses of evangelical textual criticism. In the light of the discussion of Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus it seems that we might benefit from further discussion of this. In particular it would be worthwhile discussing the problems posed by textual criticism for the idea that God inspired particular words and their sequence within scripture.

Verbal inspiration is not merely an evangelical concept, but one presupposed in OT phrases that speak of God's 'words' (e.g. Ps. 119:130). This pre-Christian idea has at various times been embraced by a wide range of historic churches. In fact, verbal inspiration has proven such a powerful notion that it has even been attributed to translations of the Bible, e.g. the Septuagint, or part thereof (Philo, De Vita Mosis 2.37-38), Vulgate, and, in the last century, even the KJV. This of course raises the question of the extent of such inspiration. We should avoid multiplying unnecessarily entities that have been thus inspired. Protestants at the Reformation maintained that verbal inspiration applied to the Hebrew/Aramaic text of the OT and the Greek of the NT, and evangelicals have generally continued in the same belief. My questions are as follows:

1) What, according to textual criticism, are the principal problems with maintaining that the 39 + 27 books of the (Protestant) Bible are verbally inspired in the original languages?

2) What are the ways one might go about addressing these problems?

12 comments:

  1. "What, according to textual criticism, are the principal problems with maintaining that the 39 + 27 books of the Bible are verbally inspired in the original?"

    First of all, we can leave the Catholic canon out of the equation: Papal infallibility has long since rendered Biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and even authority irrelevant.

    But to even address this question practically requires an essay on Faith. Not Blind Faith, which clings steadfastly to a belief long after all that supports it has crumbled, except faith itself–-faith in the infallibility of one's own Faith. Not a Faith Tradition, which can be held as an adjunct to a contradictory scientific paradigm. But Faith–-believing in what cannot be proven or disproven, purely because it comes from a source whose reliability is beyond question.

    Beginning with Faith gives God the benefit of the doubt. Without that, any opinion is as good as another, and all lack final authority. If God said that His Word would endure forever, and that it was both inspired and profitable, then it is totally illogical to believe that God would, having once given His Word, allow it to pass out of human hands. Yes, it may be suppressed, even forgotten–-remember the experience of King Josiah. But it will always be available to any who sets his heart to seek after God.

    Now, the problem arises when we look at the Scriptures available to us, and find that the text is corrupt. Granted, only a small portion of the entire text is corrupt, but God either preserved His Word entire, or preservation accounts for nothing. We can look at that situation and throw up our hands in unbelief. Or we can stand on our Faith, and use the minds God gave us to probe the evidence until we find our questions being answered, and our doubts resolved.

    Which approach one takes will radically alter his use of textual criticism, and the results he gets from it. But it is only the second approach that will take the science of textual criticism and use it to its fullest. The first approach will avoid digging too deeply (or too broadly), lest its initial conclusion be itself cast into doubt.

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  2. Daniel Buck wrote:

    'Now, the problem arises when we look at the Scriptures available to us, and find that the text is corrupt. Granted, only a small portion of the entire text is corrupt, but God either preserved His Word entire, or preservation accounts for nothing. We can look at that situation and throw up our hands in unbelief. Or we can stand on our Faith, and use the minds God gave us to probe the evidence until we find our questions being answered, and our doubts resolved.'

    Could you explain what you mean when you talk of the 'Scriptures available to us' being 'corrupt'? Do you mean that there are instances where the inspired text is available in none of the mss?

    '[B]ut God either preserved His Word entire, or preservation counts for nothing.'

    Tregelles spoke of 'the evidence which the providence of God has preserved' (front quotation from Robinson and Pierpont, The New Testament in the Original Greek). Preservation for him was related to evidence not to text. There is no single concept of 'preservation' that has been used amongst evangelicals.

    However, perhaps from this exchange we may isolate two potential problems:

    (1) The possibility that the inspired text has nowhere survived.

    (2) Our inability to identify the inspired text among what has survived.

    Is this the essence of the problem?

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  3. I personally don't have any problem at all with the possibility that the original text is nowhere found in any of our manuscript or other witnesses. Nor do I believe that it must be contained somewhere on earth, if need be in some buried cache of MSS (as in Josiah's day).

    The possibility that many Christians down through the centuries either have been denied access to the Bible in their own language (was the bible preserved for them?) or that Bibles have faulty translations is hardly any different to the outcome obtained if we do not have a manuscript witness available for every original variant reading.

    As Peter (Williams) wrote somewhere earlier, the text is immaterial. 'Forever, O Lord, your Word is settled in heaven' (Ps 119:89). Again, 'heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away' (Mt 24:35). The text will endure even after the physical realm ceases to exist. Some might suggest that the Lord was using hyperbole here or being hypothetical, but whatever He was saying about the physical universe, the point is that God's Word - and Jesus' words - are not bound by the limitations of a physical universe.

    We live in a fallen world, not an Edenic ideal, and the text problem is part of that fallenness. I don't have any theoretical problem with conjectures, for this reason, either. Except for the fact that few commend themselves as probable.

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  4. Andrew,
    You write saying that you 'personally' don't have a problem if the text is not extant. However, we must also consider what we would say to someone who did have that problem. Can you find a reason why your position of not having a problem is preferable to theirs of having a problem (apart from the obvious fact that it is convenient not to have problems)?

    I agree entirely that the word may have an existence without existing in any material copy. This is allowed in Islam. It is also the position that Don Carson adopted when I had a conversation with him about the text-critical implications of Matthew 5:18.

    However, I wonder whether the position that the text is not actually extant in copies is very 'historic'.

    When early church fathers thought that copies they came across had been corrupted, they did not think that all copies had been. Even when early Reformers such as Bezae made conjectures, my guess (and perhaps someone can better inform me) is that they thought that their conjecture would turn up somewhere in a manuscript. They conjectured because they only had a few mss.

    Bengel in Monitum 5 from the preface of his Gnomon said:

    Hi tamen codices per ecclesias omnium seculorum et climatum diffusi sunt, et manum primam ita prope attingunt, ut conjunctim, in omni varietatum multitudine, sinceram lectionem exhibeant.

    Roughly: 'These manuscripts [including some versions] have been spread through the churches of all ages and locations, and come so close to the first hand that, together, in all the multitude of variant readings, they show the correct reading.'

    My guess is that the historic Protestant position is that God's word is eternal and immaterial, but that there has never been a point at which the immaterial word has been without material witness.

    Now just because something is historic Protestant or historic evangelical does not mean that it's right. However, it does mean that if we depart from it we should be aware of what we're doing and we should acknowledge our departure.

    I realise that we're bordering on our previous discussion about conjecture. However, my sense is that by allowing that the immaterial word might be without material witness you would be creating more problems for yourself in the long run.

    Do I hear 1 Sam. 13:1 coming next...?

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  5. I think my answer to the problem would be to stress the difference between a theoretical and a practical approach to NT textual criticism.

    At a theoretical level, I do not have a problem with the possibility that the original text is not extant at some point in our witnesses.

    In practice, I think the manuscript, versional, patristic and internal evidence overwhelmingly attests to the transmission of that original text. Ok, some modern tc practices tend to diminish confidence that we can recover the original text, but I think those principles are themselves wrong (and not simply because they undermine the tc project to recover the text, but for other independent reasons). I do not think that the possibility of recovering a near-perfect original is out of the question.

    Yes, there are some spots where I wonder whether we have got the original in any witness, but these are extremely few in number, and maybe the problem is simply my own view of them. Thus my presumption remains that the original can be recovered at any given point.

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  6. So Andrew and I agree in being people who are predisposed to think that the original is recoverable. Neither of us claims to have a copy of a printed text that perfectly sets forth the inspired text. In that we are just in a mainstream historic position. Jerome, Luther or Calvin would likewise not have claimed to have perfect copies of the inspired text.

    But surely, with developments in printing we should expect ourselves actually to be in a better position than, say, Jerome would have considered himself to be in.

    So, what has gone wrong?

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  7. The main canonical problem would be the possibility there there were times of fluidity in the textual tradition.

    In the case of the OT, this time would end in the Hellenistic era. In the case of a conservative scholar like Hengel, this would end in the early Hellenistic era. The view would presuppose that there were several versions of a pre-Masoretic text that we no longer have (or in the case of Jeremiah which we do have).

    In the case of the NT, the problematic period could be the second century.

    Both problems are easily dealt with by ancient and moderns who just accept as authoritative one version (the LXX - Hengel) to deal with the problem.

    Is it Jesus' Bible that we are after? I think this may be the easiest solution to canon for the evangelical. There seems to be a strong argument that the MT represents such, and that the Reformed NT corpus includes the document of the earliest church which was directly tied to the historical Jesus

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  8. Beckwith's OT Canon of the NT Church is under-rated on that question, in my opinion, and I'd like to see more scholars interacting with such questions. I think the "MT as J's Bible" is a bit optimistic, but not far from accurate.

    PJW, in answer to question one, if we take the MT, there are two problems, one TC and the other related. 1) vowel points--inspired or not? 2) the perennial problem seems to be redaction/editing. When is a version of a text "final" and thus inspired? When Philistines appear? Or are all editions until "the close of the canon" (whatever that means) inspired? I would include here 'accidental' editing, i.e. Mark 16:9ff. If all are 'inspired' then how can mutually opposing texts be the Word of God simultaneously in Corinth and in Ephesus? (I don't have a big problem with this myself, but many folks probably would.)


    On question two, I like your response, Peter, about the word of God being immaterial. I think you've carefully argued this so as to make a distinction between your position, and the position that Scripture as we have it is the "record" of revelation and God's Word. Pulling from Islam is interesting, but I would very much like to know what Jewish sources said about the matter, particularly before "Torah study as Temple replacement" got going full steam.

    It seems to me that this is a good ways from, e.g., the ETS doctrinal statement, and I'm a bit surprised that Carson would take such a track on any text. I've never heard inspiration argued out of connection with the material text (especially for Protestants, who are so close to bibliolatry).

    Coming soon: Peter J. Williams, Inspiration: A New Paradigm via Textual Criticism (Eerdmans, 2007)?

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  9. Christian,
    Thanks for the contribution about 'fluidity' in the textual tradition. I suppose that fluidity would not be a problem provided it only affected parts of the textual tradition and provided we could identify what those parts were.

    What evidence do we have of textual fluidity in the pre-Hellenistic era?

    Shead allows that the G-Text of Jeremiah and the MT may both have come from round the time of Jeremiah. In which case there is no scribal fluidity, only authorial license.

    I don't see that Hengel's solution of adopting the LXX solves anything for those who believe that particular words were inspired by God. One simply begins to ask 'which LXX?'

    I'd agree that 'Jesus' Bible' could be a useful way of expressing our goal for OT textual criticism. However, I'd prefer to express it in terms of 'the Bible Jesus recognised as authoritative'. I do this because, hypothetically, had the Messiah chosen to come in the fifth century of our era, the OT would still have been authoritative by the first century. The Bible we might call 'Jesus'' was probably also that of many others before he came to earth.

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  10. Jason Hood,
    Alas, I think that 2007 is a rather optimistic publication date! Actually, I'm probably not the person for the job as I am only an amateur at formulating theology. I hope my next two books to be on the early versions and on the spelling of the NT, respectively.

    I likewise regard Beckwith as underrated.

    Re: vowel points

    God inspires words within a language system and within a culture. Hebrew words were basically represented by consonantal letter sequences. God inspired the words and these were represented in letters. It is not the case that God just inspired letters that we may take as any old words that the letter sequence allows.

    Consequently, when we come to a Hebrew consonantal sequence in a word that could be read more than one way (i.e. as two different lexemes) there is usually a right way and a wrong way.

    Since a word may be the same word despite a wide variety of pronunciations (American, English and Scottish readers of this blog still identify the same words), finer points of pronunciation are irrelevant, provided the right word is identified. Therefore, provided Palestinian, Babylonian, Yemeni and Tiberian pointing systems identify the same lexeme as God intended, their vocalisation is a helpful rendering of the inspired text even if all four systems show internal variations of pronunciation.

    Moreover, given the fact that 'orality' is currently in vogue in scholarship (witness two of Jimmy Dunn's books in 2005), it is surprising that the (proto-)Masoretic Text has generally been isolated from its oral setting.

    If we are really to believe that most people were illiterate in the first century, and if we assume that much of the Hebrew Bible was being read regularly in synagogues at the time then we must suppose that there was a strong reading tradition. The written vowel signs that may have come into existence in the 6th-9th centuries of our era record this reading tradition. As my Doktorvater, G.A. Khan, once said: the reading tradition is as old as the consonants.

    Conclusion: vowel markings are not inspired, but they do go back to the Second Temple period and therefore to reading traditions at the time of Jesus.

    You asked: 'When is a version of a text "final" and thus inspired? When Philistines appear? Or are all editions until "the close of the canon" (whatever that means) inspired?'

    Inspiration surely may apply to all sorts of things that never made it into our canon (there have of course been earlier canons): Elijah's and Elisha's prophecies, Jonah's prophecies, etc. Perhaps also we might include some of Paul's lost letters. In that sense one could allow various OT works to be the result of a tradition of inspired authorship, only the last stage of which created something that was meant to be canonical for later generations.

    You wrote:
    'I think you've carefully argued this so as to make a distinction between your position, and the position that Scripture as we have it is the "record" of revelation and God's Word. Pulling from Islam is interesting, but I would very much like to know what Jewish sources said about the matter, particularly before "Torah study as Temple replacement" got going full steam.'

    The man of God in Psalm 1 is meant to meditate on the law day and night. 'Meditation', Hebrew hagah, probably involves sounding out the words to oneself, and if this is done by night (without lighting) then it is done without the text in front of one. Thus God's law is something that may have nightly existence apart from any copy. Similarly, the shema is generally recited without reference to a written text. The present emphasis on oral culture in antiquity helps us regain the sense of text as immaterial. I would not say that I'm borrowing (or 'pulling') from Islam. I am merely drawing attention to a parallel. Actually, I think that Jews and Christians got there first.

    You wrote:
    'It seems to me that this is a good ways from, e.g., the ETS doctrinal statement'

    I've just looked at the ETS statement, which is as follows:

    "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs."

    If 'The Bible' is understood to refer to 'text' (as one might say that one has several Bibles on one's palm computer—definitely immaterial) then the ETS statement says that the immaterial text was inerrant as a graphic sequence in its material autographs. Thus the ETS statement is compatible with what I've been saying. However, it is too brief and too open to misunderstanding to be particularly useful.

    You again:
    'I've never heard inspiration argued out of connection with the material text (especially for Protestants, who are so close to bibliolatry).'

    Of course I maintain a connection between the immaterial text and the material manuscript. However, confusions abound. We often say that a 'manuscript reads' and that we're 'holding a text'. We would also do well to remember that a word like 'Bible' has several different senses!

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  11. Peter,

    Thanks for the interaction. I'm looking forward already to your work on spelling. My dissertation is on Matt's Genealogy (pending supervisory approval of submitted material). Needless to say, spelling is a huge issue there, at least if you're TC minded. I wasn't at first, but I have to say I've been sucked in at least a little as I've looked into it, if only to confirm that Matt did something interesting in a couple of locations. 1:16 is interesting (but easy to solve, IMO), but the names are what's truly fascinating.

    Lots of good response there. I certainly hear you: "The present emphasis on oral culture in antiquity helps us regain the sense of text as immaterial." I think that's very, very interesting. Gen 1 and John 1 certainly wouldn't contradict it. (Can you have any more 'oral' a culture, with the Word still present, than in Gen 1?) Your ref of Ps 1 is also strong. It's also inspiring (brief chuckle).

    I understand that you maintain a connection between the material/immaterial, but as you note many people have problems recognizing such distinctions. It seems that many I know have no sense of connection btwn immaterial and material--it's only what's written that counts, and it only counted when it was written. What you are saying sounds far less abstract, in a sense, than the normal way in which I hear inspiration utizlied (with a big interest on written text, no interest in relating it to the immaterial Word except to prove correspondence with the material, so that we can say God is a truth-teller).


    What you're saying is much less wooden, more meditative, easier to sell, but also and more importantly easier to experience (after all, those words of God's were spoken to produce action). It's first theology for the soul, not (just) the mind. Write that book!


    PJW: "when we come to a Hebrew consonantal sequence in a word that could be read more than one way (i.e. as two different lexemes) there is usually a right way and a wrong way."

    Usually, but it's not always clear. But I guess we should say that a right way does of course exist, even if we presently lack the acumen to decide which is inspired?

    You seem pretty prolific, so 2007 didn't seem to be too far off.

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  12. Jason,
    A thesis on Matthew's genealogy sounds pretty exciting. Don't miss out study of the moveable nus in the verb 'begot'!

    Part of the problem is what I would call 'hermeneutical Bible-onlyism'. People come to the false conclusion that it is 'sounder' only to use information internal to the Bible in understanding it. Of course there are dangers on the other side. However, since the Word of God has never meant to be interpreted without historical or linguistic context we may legitimately use the reading traditions as part of the cultural context that we use to interpret the Bible. This spares us from treating the consonants as some puzzle to be solved (as Dahood might have been said to treat them). The reading tradition shows how people understood the text at a time when Hebrew was still probably a living language. Thus it is an important historical tool for understanding.

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