Wednesday, September 09, 2015

ETC Interview with Maurice Robinson: Part 2

Posted below is the second part of my interview with Maurice Robinson. You can read part one here.

[PG] In a previous interview you said that, within a normal transmission process, we should expect to find the autographic text preserved “within a single dominant branch of the transmissional tradition.” What makes a branch “dominant” in your view and does this risk counting what should be weighed?

[MAR] Probably no greater conceptual misuse exists concerning the phrase “manuscripts should be weighed rather than counted” than when applied repeatedly to critique a presumed “majority text” type position, the obvious intent being to disparage such by a reductionist caricature of mere “nose-counting”. In reality, one first must define what constitutes “weight” and then determine the procedure for measurement and evaluation of such in the accompanying “weighing process”. Only then can one inquire as to what extent the constituent elements of such determined weight have actually been applied to each of the various MSS under consideration.

My suspicion is that most eclectic critics merely regard the primary and almost sole element of “weight” to be the age and particular non-Byzantine nature of a given MS. I would rather suggest that such is only one element of what constitutes “weight”, and that various other considerations carry an equal or greater level of influence. For example, the particular habits of all individual scribes really need to be assessed (this to some extent now being accomplished), with the results applied to the readings found in the given MSS. In other words, a scribe prone to frequent accidental omission or supplementary addition should not be given serious consideration when dealing with issues involving shorter versus longer readings. Similarly, scribes that demonstrate frequent transposition or itacistic variation should be disqualified from offering serious testimony when dealing with variant units that involve such. But in truth, such evaluation of individual scribal habits accompanied by a resultant weighting application of MSS on that basis simply has not been carried out: the current studies regarding scribal habits at best classify, but fail to apply the results in any manner that might increase or reduce the “weight” assigned a MS when dealing with specific variant unit situations. So indeed, I would agree with the validity of the principle, but only if such actually occurs and is applied in a manner befitting the maxim.

F. H. A. Scrivener
In regard to counting as opposed to weighing, however, the Byzantine-priority position is not primarily concerned with the mere number of MSS that support a particular reading at any given point — such easily could degenerate into mere nose-counting with any numerical 51%+ reading becoming determinative. Rather, the issue centers far more upon which reading at any given point within a particular type of text happens to itself be dominant within and thereby characteristic of the texttype under consideration. In other words, without being localized to a single texttype, “dominant” readings exist among those MSS that pertain to the Alexandrian type, just as within the Byzantine (and to a lesser degree the Western or Caesarean). In those latter situations, the issue clearly is not nose-counting, seeking for any numerical “majority,” but the determination of a basic texttype-related pattern of readings based upon a general consensus of the MSS that constitute and characterize each particular grouping of documents. Further, the fallacy wherein the pro-Byzantine position has been caricatured by elevating “number” into the supposedly sole constituent determinant was addressed long ago in comments from those older and generally pro-Byzantine supporters who had been criticized on that very point. Consider the following:
Scrivener: “We should thus have some better guide in our choice between contending readings, than the very rough and unsatisfactory process of counting the number of witnesses produced in behalf of each.” (Full and Exact Collation, xiii) 
Scrivener: “That mere numbers should decide a question of sacred criticism never ought to have been asserted by any one; never has been asserted by a respectable scholar. But I must say that the counter-proposition, that numbers have ‘no determining voice,’ is to my mind full as unreasonable, and rather more startling . The reading of the majority is so far preferable. Not that a bare majority shall always prevail, but that numerical preponderance, especially where it is marked and constant, is an important element in the investigation of the genuine readings of Holy Scripture.” (Codex Augiensis, vii-viii) 
Burgon: “That ‘witnesses are to be weighed — not counted, — is a maxim of which we hear constantly. It may be said to embody much fundamental fallacy. It assumes that the ‘witnesses’ we possess: (1) are capable of being weighed: and (2) that every individual Critic is competent to weigh them: neither of which propositions is true. The undeniable fact is overlooked that ‘number’ is the most ordinary ingredient of weight. Number then constitutes Weight. Not of course absolutely, as being the sole Test, but caeteris paribus, and in its own place and proportion.” (Traditional Text, 43)  
Miller: “[Burgon] does not simply count his authorities, or follow the largest number, irrespectively of their weight and value. But he urges that all should be taken into account.” (Textual Guide, 34)
Even so, number does carry a certain level of weight in and of itself, just as these early scholars had noted. In fact, the most obvious and primary inference from the consideration of numerical dominance within the Byzantine Textform is well summed up by Miller (who says nothing more than Hort had stated in his “theoretical presumption” comment mentioned earlier in this interview):
Miller: “Their overwhelming number supplies a presumption, and indeed more than a presumption, that their ancestors were also numerous.” (Textual Guide, 101).
To return to the original question: I indeed have suggested that “within a normal transmission process, we should expect to find the autographic text preserved within a single dominant branch of the transmissional tradition.” The point, however, was not to claim “dominance” as a merely numerical matter, nor to restrict such exclusively within the Byzantine tradition.

To return to my discussions with Clark, he had strongly urged even in his published articles that eclecticism was little more than a text-critical dead-end due to its pick-and-choose methodology (compare again the later “Interlude” and “Solution or Symptom” essays by Epp that expressed similar thoughts). Clark’s view was that the most reasonable transmissional scenario would presume the original text more likely to have been preserved and perpetuated in a single existing texttype rather than necessarily being pieced together from hither and yon by subjective determination made by various eclectic critics. From his standpoint, one could envision the best candidate for autograph originality to be either a reconstructed Alexandrian text or some sort of Byzantine consensus (Clark ruled out the Western due to its more loose and fragmentary character, and the Caesarean due to its late date and questionable manuscript base).

Clark shifted his conclusion toward a Byzantine preference on transmissional grounds, noting that the Byzantine Textform continued to be perpetuated over the centuries, whereas the Alexandrian and Western streams effectually died out. For Clark this became a primary tipping point, especially after his failed experiment carried out with Colwell and Parvis, that attempted to reconstruct a functional Alexandrian archetype based upon a reasonable consensus of Alexandrian MSS (as Colwell noted, that experiment led to “no useful results”, and thus Clark later called for “a critical history of transmission,” noting that “Some new angle, some novel experiment must be tried if we would in our time achieve a breakthrough The remedy we need can only come through a better diagnosis. The true diagnosis will of necessity be a new and different one”.

[PG] With decades of preparing people for ministry, how do you challenge those students who conclude that textual criticism is best left to the “experts”?

[MAR] Thirty years of teaching has made one thing clear: a text-critical non-expert often becomes as dangerous in that discipline as does the non-expert in Greek or Hebrew when attempting to apply exegesis, hermeneutics, translational philosophy, or application based on such. If the necessary skills are lacking, the result necessarily suffers to some degree. I suggest that every student preparing for ministry should attempt strenuously to gain a solid knowledge of the biblical languages; this is the first essential step toward establishing a proper level of expertise in regard to exegesis, interpretation, and application. Certainly, such will be useful even without a knowledge of textual criticism, particularly when dealing with the ca. 94% of the text where variant readings do not seriously impact the text or theological aspects of the content. Once that level of skill has been obtained, the student then should carefully study the various theories and issues involving NT textual criticism and the differing approaches toward establishing textual originality, particularly matters related to particular variant units of translational or exegetical significance. Although the average student might not become “expert” in regard to the languages, exegetical and interpretative skills, or text-critical acumen, he still will be prepared in a more than general sense to utilize the various tools of these disciplines to great advantage in ministry.

[PG] What are the most important things a pastor who can’t read Greek needs to know about the textual criticism that stands behind their English Bible?

[MAR] As noted above, that pastor first of all really should make some serious attempt to learn Greek. Sufficient online resources are available to assist with such a project, requiring neither formal classroom study nor any real expense. Until that point, however, the pastor needs to recognize in particular the most significant places where the various texts differ from one another and most seriously affect translation.

Obviously, just as for those possessing a more extensive knowledge of Greek and textual criticism, any English-based exegesis, hermeneutics, and application are similarly affected; regardless of one’s state of knowledge, some familiarity with the basic issues is therefore is obligatory upon the interpreter. In this regard, the pastor can be helped by using English NT translations that indicate the most important translatable variant readings. For this purpose, one could consult the NKJV (my particular recommendation due to its specific identification of NA/UBS and Majority Text readings in its footnotes), the HCSB (apparently footnoting more translational variants than any other English version, although unhappily failing to specify which textual stream actually reads a given variant), or the NET Bible, which in its extensive footnotes provides some (mostly one-sided) text-critical discussion of the variant readings.

Other translations in current use tend to be lacking in the variant footnote area, although at least the most significant variant readings usually are displayed. The problem remains, however, that without further study the student or national-language-based pastor is still left in a quandary that permits a more simplistic pick-and-choose mentality, following whatever reading one might prefer in any given situation. The point is made more clear by a parallel: consider those pastors who preach from a formal equivalence translation but then “creatively augment” their material by quoting “new” insights presumably gained from an extremely questionable paraphrase or interpretation (think The Message).

[PG] Where—institutionally or topically—would you point someone who is interested in graduate research in NT textual criticism?

[MAR] Normally I would suggest that one should apply at our seminary and study under me (why not?). With retirement now looming only a year away, I no longer can take any new students for either ThM or PhD purposes. One still could study here under David Alan Black, but even that might be limited unless application be made soon (we all are getting older). Beyond our institution, a student could well pursue graduate text-critical study at New Orleans Baptist Seminary under Bill Warren, or (to whatever extent is possible) at Dallas Seminary under Dan Wallace. What really would be helpful would be a revitalization of text-critical opportunities at leading schools such as Claremont, Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, or Duke — but I just don’t see them returning to the level of involvement they had in their earlier glory days. European study of course offers other opportunities, and study at Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Cambridge, or Oxford could be profitable; similarly, study or internship at Münster would allow multiple options for research.

[PG] What are the top 5 rock & roll albums of all time?

[MAR] Peculiar question — in fact the first time anyone asked such within a text-critical context. Reversing my usual practice, my comments are purely eclectic, based on internal criteria and not endorsing any theological, political, moral, or lifestyle views that might underlie the external evidence (mostly older witnesses from a more ancient era). I also would define “top” from my perspective as indicating “influential” as opposed to “best selling” or “most popular”.

Rather than arranging the candidates by rank, I exclusively have used the CBGM as my base (the Chronological Basis for Grouping Music):

Hwy 61 Revisited1965Dylan
Sgt Pepper1967Beatles
Crosby, Stills, and Nash1969Crosby, Stills, Nash
Rumours1977Fleetwood Mac
The Wall1979Pink Floyd

Others equally could be suggested [like the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” I should hope! —Ed.], but time and space does not permit.

And now I should ask you: what are your top 5 operas of all time?

[PG] Many thanks for giving us so much of your time, Dr. Robinson. It is much appreciated!

[MAR] Always welcome.


  1. Not sure that "rock and roll" is the best generic description for that list. Although three of them are clearly great albums and still worth listening to most weeks.

  2. Gurry: "the Beach Boys’ 'Pet Sounds' I should hope! —Ed."

    Someone is trying to put words in my mouth that I would never have said....

    If that goes in, so also Jethro Tull's Aqualung.

  3. I'm so disappointed! AC/DC's Back in Black and Highway to Hell should be in the top five!

    1. Only if one considers heavy metal to be "rock and roll"....and then where does Black Sabbath fit in?

      Not my cup of tea at any rate, which is why my five are more on the lighter side of the category.