Evangelical Textual Criticism

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Stanley Porter, the Book of Acts, and Textual Criticism

What follows is an interview conducted via email between Mike Bird and Stan Porter.

MB: Dr. Porter, you mentioned at your recent SBL presentation at the Acts seminar that there was little point writing a commentary using the NA27 or UBS4 editions, since the reconstructed texts do not correspond to any extant manuscript. Do you think that it is more viable to write commentary on Acts using the Alexandrian or even the Byzantine text-type as a "template"?

Did I say “little point” regarding the Nestle-Aland or UBSGNT? I think that it is fine to write a commentary on this text, but it would perhaps be more valuable as a commentary on nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship, especially German textual criticism, than it would anything else. In fact, this might be quite interesting. However, it would still leave us at a significant remove from the earliest text of Acts. That is why I raised the issue in my paper of whether a commentary that purports to be one on the Greek text of Acts is actually doing justice to this notion by using the Nestle-Aland or UBSGNT text. I think that a better option—if one wants to get closer to the original—is to use one of the early complete manuscripts, such as Vaticanus or Sinaiticus, perhaps supplemented by the early papyri. My contention is that despite the scholarly claims of some textual critics, we do not get closer to the original (and, if rightly defined, I do believe that the notion of an original text is a useful and even necessary one for most purposes) by studying an eclectic text. We get closer when we begin with an early complete manuscript that was actually used in ancient Christian communities. In one sense, I do not agree with you that simply commenting on a text-type is more viable—even if the Nestle-Aland and UBSGNT, so far as I have been able to determine, are based upon the Alexandrian text type and could be considered one of these. What I am arguing is that we should go back to actual early manuscripts. In that sense, commenting on a Byzantine manuscript would also be a viable option in some ways, although, with all due respect to my friends who argue for this text, I do not believe that any of these are as early as the major Alexandrian manuscripts, especially when Acts is concerned. I reject the various theories regarding the Western text of Acts that see it as early as the Alexandrian.

MB: This goes against the trend in recent commentaries that simply assume NA27 or UBS4. What made you come to this conclusion?

My position on this came about through a variety of means. One was on-going seminar discussions with students and faculty colleagues when I taught in the UK. A second was noticing that Hebrew Bible studies and Greek New Testament studies proceed along different lines, with Hebrew Bible studies utilizing single manuscripts. If they can use a single manuscript as the basis of their textual criticism, and that manuscript is around a millennium removed from the actual composition of the text, then I thought that perhaps we should use the Greek manuscripts, especially as they are much closer to the date of composition. A third was my own work in papyrology, where I was involved for some time in studying and editing a number of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, and, along with my wife, had the privilege of publishing a sixth-century fragment of the book of Acts. A fourth would be my concern for the Bible as a product of and fundamental document within the Church. I concluded that it was more important to comment on actual documents that were used by early Christians than later eclectic texts that never had a home in the Christian Church.

MB: Have commentary writers become too dependent upon Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament? If so, how can this be avoided?

I have been somewhat surprised but mostly disappointed that most commentators, even those who are commenting on the Greek text, show very little attention to matters of language, and only slightly more interest in matters of textual criticism. The comments made and the choices regarding readings are often not well considered, and are usually confined to the choices presented in the apparatus of the eclectic Nestle-Aland or UBSGNT texts. I am not sure that commentators have come to be too dependent upon Metzger’s textual commentary. The pattern that I note is that commentators look at what their standard eclectic text offers and usually agree with it—sometimes citing Metzger in support. I would simply repeat what I have said above, and that is that if scholars were more familiar with particular manuscripts they would be forced to compare and use them in a fresh way.

MB: The text of Acts represents a whole host of text-critical problems, especially the differences between the Western and Alexandrian texts. What do you think is the best way of accounting for this divergence in the witnesses of Acts?

There is certainly a whole host of text-critical problems if one counts them individually. As I work through the text of Acts, it seems to me that many of them are focused around the difference between the so-called Alexandrian and Western traditions. That is typically represented as the difference between our standard eclectic texts and Codex Bezae (D). When I first started working on my commentary, one of my first tasks was to investigate these two textual traditions, and I concluded that the so-called Western tradition was later and probably a form of interpretation of the Alexandrian. I am thus concentrating on commenting upon the Alexandrian tradition, referencing the Western in terms of interesting later interpretations that it presents, rather than as a competing concurrent primary text.

MB: W.A Strange The Problem of the Text of Acts (SNTSMS 71; Cambridge: CUP, 1992) theorizes that Luke left Acts unfinished at his death, and that Acts was posthumously completed and published by editors who performed independent revisions of the text. Are such theories helpful or needlessly speculative?

I may conclude differently when my commentary is done, but I don’t think that such explanations are particularly helpful. In some cases, they seem more designed to reinforce critical orthodoxy (e.g. around a projected date of composition of Acts), rather than emerging from the text itself. I would argue that Acts is what it appears to be, an account of the events that the author knew up to the time of writing. Acts does not appear to me to be a work cut off in mid-stride, but one that wrote to the extent of the author’s knowledge. If this is the case, then I think that this has implications for the date of composition of Acts (it is early, that is, before Paul’s death), and by further implication for the date of composition of Luke’s Gospel. There are a number of potential further implications, such as theories regarding synoptic dating and origins, but I am not going to let these dictate what I find in Acts. I would note that there are some who recognize an early date for the writing of Acts but who might posit a later edition or re-edition of Luke’s Gospel, and thus have later dates for the synoptics and their development.

MB: What contribution can discourse analysis make to textual criticism?

The role of discourse analysis for most areas of New Testament study is greatly underdeveloped and underemployed. I am encouraged that there are a few scholars who are exploring the use of discourse analysis, although not all of them are using rigorous forms of it. I am an advocate of more rigorous and linguistically based models of discourse analysis being used for the study of the texts of the New Testament, and my commentary on Acts has some of these elements included in it (within the parameters of the series). Textual criticism would be one of the areas that discourse analysis could play a greater part. One of the major problems that I have encountered in textual criticism is the ad hoc nature of making text-critical determinations. The limited scope of our eclectic texts of the New Testament also ensures that we have limited numbers of variants, and no real appreciation of the text-critical characteristics of a single manuscript. I would see discourse analysis as providing potential insight into the character of given manuscripts on the basis of its particular readings. These discourse patterns can then be compared across manuscripts to help make text-critical determinations in particular instances.

MB: Out all the Acts commentaries available at the moment, which one would you recommend to seminary and university students for a concise study of textual issues relating to the Book of Acts?

I think that I would still recommend the earlier (2nd) edition of F.F. Bruce’s commentary on the Greek text of Acts. I know that there are those who criticize Bruce’s commentary for not having as much theology as they would like, but I take this as a stronger indictment of the critics than of Bruce. I believe theology is important, but it needs to grow out of our study of the texts, not be foisted upon them. I always find that Bruce is worth considering and surprisingly fresh and enlightening in his analysis.


Stanley E. Porter (Ph.D) is President, Dean and Professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College. He is writing a commentary on the Acts of the Apostles for the NIGTC series.

7 comments:

  1. Thanks Michael and Stan,

    Re SEP: 'I think that a better option—if one wants to get closer to the original—is to use one of the early complete manuscripts, such as Vaticanus or Sinaiticus, perhaps supplemented by the early papyri. My contention is that despite the scholarly claims of some textual critics, we do not get closer to the original (and, if rightly defined, I do believe that the notion of an original text is a useful and even necessary one for most purposes) by studying an eclectic text. We get closer when we begin with an early complete manuscript that was actually used in ancient Christian communities.'

    I can't decide whether this is significant or not. If you start with Vaticanus, supplemented by the early papyri, how is your discussion going to be 'supplemented' by refering to earlier papyri? Presumably this means departures from the ms text of the document B in favour of earlier witnesses, but on what grounds? Presumably the sort of arguments that text critics have generally engaged in. And if on occasion you can prefer the text of an earlier witness, there can't be any methodological problem in occasionally prefering the text of a later witness. Eventually you are going to produce some sort of an eclectic text from a documentary starting point (I don't think you are going to find yourself a million miles away from Tischendorf and Westcott & Hort). Otherwise you will be commenting on a fourth century text.

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  2. Add to that, that as far as we know, every one of the earliest documents is unique. Only B and P75 are similar (but not identical). That means, these early documents never existed in any (other) known manuscript ...
    Taking an early document may take you to the same dead-end street as taking NA27. And, I bet, there are more folks who read NA27 today than Codex Vaticanus in the 4th century :)

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  3. PH: "...Otherwise you will be commenting on a fourth century text."

    This general discussion made the blogrounds a couple months ago prompted by some "text critical insanity" by Michael Bird, and I made the same basic point as this, Peter, though from a bit of a different angle. If there is anything to the traditional methods of textual criticism at all, I simply don't see how using a fourth century text for a commentary gets us "closer to the original" first century text than an eclectic critical text does. And, as you point out, even if one starts with an actual manuscript like Vaticanus, one must eventually engage in the methods of textual criticism anyway to produce one's own idiosyncratic eclectic critical text. If not, you are only reading Acts with a fourth-century church--a valid study in itself, but not the goal of a traditional exegetical commentary on Acts such as one expects in the NIGTC series...

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  5. Peter Head wrote:

    "I can't decide whether this is significant or not. If you start with Vaticanus, supplemented by the early papyri, how is your discussion going to be 'supplemented' by refering to earlier papyri?"

    Agreed.

    On the other hand if you started with Bezae you might write something worth reading but it wouldn't be a commentary on Acts that would fit into the NIGTC series.

    Porter's comments on discourse analysis seem to reflect the notion that he is the only one doing rigorous text linguists in NT studies. I find this ammusing.

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  6. In 1996, Mellen published the first of their biblical commentary series, George Wesley Buchanan on Matthew, 2 vols, 120US dollars each volume, which makes the price of Luz look like a veritable bargain.

    To make this commentary even more idiosyncratic, he argued extensively that Matt was shaped on the Hexateuch; and then proceeded to use his own translation of Sinaiticus as the basis for commenting on the text. I don't know of anyone else who's done something similar. Seems to me, though, that it didn't work when Buchanan tried it. Does anyone know of others who have tried to do something similar? Is the main goal to avoid text critical obstacles and the creation of an artificial text that's (almost certainly) never existed?

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  7. Eckhard J Schnabel, teds10:44 pm, August 28, 2006

    Stan, you seem to make "German textual criticism" responsible for NA27 and UBS4. The racial adjective does not seem to fully reflect historical reality: while German scholars were certainly influential (since the 18th century, think of J.A.Bengel), there are numerous scholars who do not have the misfortune of being born German and who not only agreed with the "German" approaches to the Greek text of the New Testament, but who also cooperated and collaborated in various projects. Scholars such as Matthew Black, Ernest Colwell, Carlo Martini, Bruce Metzger, Allen Wikgren, and many others, certainly did not play second fiddle to the Germans.

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