Thursday, April 12, 2018

Greg Lanier: Locating the Inspired ‘Original’ Amid Textual Complexity

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Greg Lanier is an assistant professor and dean of students at Reformed Theological Seminary and a good friend of mine from Cambridge. Recently, he published a long article in JETS about a particularly knotty textual problem that spans both OT and NT. It also raises questions for Evangelicals about the goal of textual criticism and its relationship to our bibliology. I would like to see more discussion about these issues and so I asked Greg if he would introduce us to his article and pose some of the issues it raises. So, here is Greg.

The most recent volume of JETS (61.1) includes my analysis of the textual tradition of the murder (M), adultery (A), and steal (S) commandments of the Decalogue—traditionally 6th–8th in the Protestant numbering. The full article can be downloaded here.

The bulk of the article is an inventory of the various sequences found in extant sources (including the versions) for both OT and NT occurrences of these commandments. For instance, the order M-A-S is read in the MT for both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5; A-M-S in the Nash Papyrus and B-Deuteronomy; A-S-M in B-Exodus; and a variety of sequences appear in the NT references to these commandments (and the resulting textual traditions). The full set of results can, of course, be found in the article.

While tracing the minutiae of these passages as far as possible was interesting in its own right, I eventually realized that the project served as a well-contained case study that surfaces and helps crystallize a bigger-picture issue of significance in the study of the textual tradition of Scripture. Namely, what does it mean to speak of an authorial/original/initial form of a Scriptural writing when faced with tremendous complexity in the actual data itself?

In conversations with various OT and NT peers—particularly those who have a “high” doctrine of Scripture (of the American or British varieties)—I’ve found that this topic has struck a chord, as others have been thinking on it as well.

Actual photo from
John Meade’s Hebrew class
In the article I mainly articulate various aspects of this question (and others) but do not offer much by way of solutions, chiefly because to do so would require substantially more space than is possible in an (already long) article. Gurry and Meade invited me to write up something briefly here so that, if nothing else, it will spark more discussion.

Many readers of ETC likely hold to the divine origins of the writings of both the OT and NT. Moreover, most would agree that we can, in general, confidently reconstruct the textual form of something that goes far back (though the OT and NT are obviously quite different in this regard).

But we all know from working with the text closely that there is a lot of complexity when you peel back the layers of data. This is true for the NT, but it is even more acute for the OT. (That is why this case study was so fascinating: it involved both—and their interaction—in a significant way).

The article concludes:
This study attempts to use a concrete example to illumine how the complexity of the data on the OT and NT sides touches each [aspect of one’s doctrine of Scripture]. A well-argued doctrine of Scripture needs to be able to articulate how we should understand the wording deemed “inspired” in light of the contemporary challenges posed to the very idea of an “original”/“autographical” form; the relationship between the authorial form and extant diverse textual forms (and recensions/editions?), especially on the OT side; and the role of editing/compiling as well as the downstream use of upstream sources both within and between the Testaments.
Let me try to be more concrete in stating what I mean, along with questions that readers are invited to discuss.
  • AusgangstextI find it fascinating that scholars working on critical editions of the HB and the NT have been grappling with the same issues, often unaware of each other (Gurry has noticed this as well). For instance, the editors of the Hebrew Bible: Critical Edition (formerly Oxford Hebrew Bible) are speaking in terms of “initial” or earliest-reconstructible text, just as those associated with the ECM have gravitated towards the Ausgangstext as the goal, rather than “original.” I also know that many folks, at least on the GNT side, have registered qualms about the burgeoning agnosticism about our ability to make the inductive leap from Ausgangstext to “original”/“authorial.” How do these two parallel movements relate to one another? What presuppositions do they share about the recoverability of some earlier form that is closer to the point of origin? How do such shifts in understanding impact a Protestant doctrine of Scripture? What would it take to articulate a robust, comprehensive engagement with the issues raised?
  • Text-form: On the OT side, specialists are well-aware of key instances in which the known textual forms vary to such a degree that simple answers do not always work; e.g., the longer/shorter forms of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and portions of 1 Samuel; the multiple forms of Daniel (and related literature); the double-texts of Judges; the fluidity seen for Job and Proverbs (particularly between the MT and Greek forms); the complexity seen in the Psalter (MT vs. DSS, and to a lesser degree Greek); and so on. Similar examples occur in the NT, though they’re less pronounced: longer/shorter Acts; fluidity in the ending of Romans; LE(s) of Mark; PA; etc. Which of these is “original” (where most doctrines of Scripture place their emphasis)—and what would the answer to that question look like? No doubt scholars have been working on some of these issues piecemeal (e.g., Peter Gentry on Proverbs). But my impression is that, on the whole, most of the work done by those broadly identifying with a “high” doctrine of Scripture is either narrowly confined to this or that textual variant, or is not altogether conversant with the complexity (e.g., the 2016 Enduring Authority volume almost completely ignored these issues, despite its length). For some, especially those outside the broadly evangelical world, the answer is found in resigning ourselves to a plurality of initial text-forms. But is there an alternative? What would it take to articulate a comprehensive, integrated solution to these questions? Is there a macro-theory that would accommodate the data in a compelling way, and what are the steps to getting there?
  • Progressivity/diversity and authority: No doubt within the OT guild, theories abound in terms of layers of progressive editorial work on the text. Muted forms of this are found in NT work as well (Synoptics; 2 Corinthians; ending of John; etc.). TC sometimes plays a role in these discussions; sometimes not. Either way, the interesting thing surfaced by this Decalogue case study is the diversity of text-forms for the same passage that the NT authors treated as authoritative. This is not “new” news, of course; scholars working on OT-in-NT are acutely aware of the complexities one finds in tracing what text-form of an OT passage is adopted by a NT author. But even as you go downstream into the textual tradition, you see this continuing among the scribes, who through secondary assimilation or some other phenomena will differ from one another in which text-form they adopt. And in all such cases, that reading is apparently privileged as “original” even though others exist. How should this shape the way we think about the intersection of “original/authorial/initial” and textual authority (given that most variations of a “high” doctrine of Scripture only treat as authoritative the form deemed to be given by God)? 
I’m not at all trying to be alarmist, nor do I want to come across as suggesting that everything is up in the air. However, I do think these are important and tremendously complex issues, involving (at a minimum) expertise in HB TC, LXX TC, textual formation/redaction/etc. for much of the OT, and NT TC (not to mention canon and other topics). I’m hoping personally to contribute to their resolution in some way. But it’s probably not something that any single scholar can “solve.”

So, I turn the question to you: what needs to be done? I would love to hear your thoughts.

28 comments :

  1. I may speak out of ignorance, but I think it's actually pretty straightforward: inspiration is a quality of the words the authors (sometimes via dictation) put in ink. God has not kept scribes from error, and so the MSS and versions are imperfect I'm their representation of that inspired text, whence the variants.

    Clarifications are not, of course, out of order even on so streamlined a model as this. For instance, it should be noted that the NT authors were not ordinarily picayune about citations. And while an author like John might have issued multiple editions, most macro issues mentioned I would ascribe to later scribal activity, whether by way of amplification or excision or abbreviation. And of course many biblical books make use of earlier source material, but that is another matter entirely. If I recall right, the introductory HBCE volume makes some pertinent remarks there. Essentially, discussions of source material involve another sphere of criticism than the textual.

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    1. Thanks, Stephen. I think you're right in terms of the basic notion behind inspiration and how *that* differs from the downstream process of transmission. And yes the question of sources is a different matter, but I think it's nevertheless part of the comprehensive picture (e.g., I did a presentation at ETS this past November on how we should think about the "inspired" use of "non-inspired" sources [e.g., Jude's use of 1 Enoch] in terms of our broader understanding of the formation of Scripture).

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    2. The think that I see as the complication is what if the author put pen to paper twice? I'm thinking of things like Dr. Trobicsh's model of the collections of Paul's letters. If Paul did create a version of his letter collection. Which is original, the letters as he penned them to the churches, the copies of those letters he kept, the edition of the collected letters he published?

      It shouldn't be a surprise that we have this question. We have the same question about the documents for our nation. There we actually have 'the originals' and we still have a debate about which is original:

      The Constitution:
      https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2626538
      https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2778049

      The Declaration of Independence:
      https://declaration.fas.harvard.edu/resources/which-version-and-why

      Perhaps looking at more accessible document histories like this can help us clarify what we see in our biblical Text streams.

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    3. “Which is original, the letters as he penned them to the churches, the copies of those letters he kept, the edition of the collected letters he published?”

      If this question is correct (it assumes there are 3 different texts) then perhaps for us it is the collected edition where the original of each letter Paul wrote to each individual church in a given time was only authoritative to that individual church in that time, but is not otherwise authoritative, the copy Paul kept was only for his own reference, and the edition of collected letters is authoritative to all churches at all times.

      If snippets of the text of the individual copies and the reference copy has over the early centuries crept into later MSS of the final edition then the role of the textual critic is to weed out what has crept in.

      regards,

      Matthew Hamilton


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    4. Yes, that seems reasonable, and if one assume Dr Trobisch's reconstruction is correct, the version of the three we have is the third version. That means that again the 'Initial Text' that we reconstruct is worth of being considered authoritative/inspired (within the limits of our ability to reconstruct it). I wonder if the other multiplicity conjectures resolve as nicely.

      Of course the conjecture of multiple texts is just that, a conjecture, but it was meant to point out we can't always assume that there was just one original.

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  2. Thank you for your excellent JETS article. I appreciate and share your desire to wrestle with the issues of textual complexity. Rather than make a long blog comment here, I will refer first to an article that proposes a definition for "autograph" in our doctrine of scripture;

    "After analyzing Greco-Roman publication, a definition is proposed: in reference to the NT, the "autographs," as often discussed in biblical inerrancy doctrinal statements, should be defined as the completed authorial work which was released by the author for circulation and copying, not earlier draft versions or layers of composition."

    https://www.academia.edu/26445779/_What_are_the_NT_Autographs_An_Examination_of_the_Doctrine_of_Inspiration_and_Inerrancy_in_Light_of_Greco-Roman_Publication._JETS_59_2_June_2016_287-308

    And I wanted to begin a conversation to formulate a working re-definition of the CSBI article X;

    http://thetextualmechanic.blogspot.com/2017/05/an-errant-working-inerrancy-statement.html

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    1. Thanks, Timothy. I wasn't aware of your JETS article, so thanks for pointing that out. It seems to touch on similar issues raised in Larsen's JSNT article from 2017 (which Gurry linked to the other day): namely, how to think about publication (and the preceding stages), and what it means to point to something and say *this* is what we're talking about when we are talking about "Scripture," or *the* epistle to the Romans, or what have you (and the attributes attached to it: inspired, inerrant, authoritative, infallible, etc.). Your blog post on CSBI is also helpful. Will need to do some more thinking on that. There may be merit in pushing for more precision around terms like "autograph." What I'm ultimately after, I guess, is a comprehensive "theory of everything" that accounts in a more robust way for the data as we have it (both OT and NT).

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    2. Thanks for your comments Greg and I appreciate the work your doing. I wasn't able to attend ETS last year, only SBL, so I am disappointed that I missed your presentation.
      As far as a "theory of everything," I am right there with you and have a few ideas that I have been kicking around but have yet to write down.
      As far as Larsen's article goes, yes, I do address the issue in a similar manner (though I come to an opposite conclusion). At the time I was unaware of Larsen's work but now have had the opportunity to meet him and read his resent JSNT publication.
      I wish all of us lived closer and we could talk over a pint or a cup of coffee (sorry Gurry).

      Cheers

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    3. Gurry would have to drink some kind of fruity concoction.

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    4. That doesn't sound too bad. Gurry and I will take a Capri Sun please...

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    5. Smoothie King at ETS/SBL?

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    6. Dude I would totally be in, but won't be making SBL this year...bummer...hopefully next year.

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  3. I still haven't read the most recent JETS, but I did see this article when I glanced over the journal when it came in the mail. This really is a topic which seminaries need to be figuring out in dialogue with pastors. Terminology is incredibly important, but we need to find simple ways to explain this that can overcome the expert blindspot. For over 100 years this battle has been raging about what inerrancy, authority, inspiration, and perspecuity, but we still have not come closer to having good statements for the lay person.

    I can have a dialogue about having a fluid canon, the difference between infallable and inerrant, or talk about how to handle literary devices and how verbal plenary does and does not mean various things, but this is because I have inside of my vocabulary an arsenal of words at my disposal. To the average person in my congregation, the very word "theology" sounds large and discouraging. The words hermeneutics and exegesis are Greek to them.

    I hold to biblical inerrancy. I am fine with the debate and discussion. But we pastors must walk our congregations through exegetical and hermeneutical discussions in our sermons and demonstrate how to study the Bible. But a major obstacle is basic biblical literacy. Many in my congregation have yet to read the entire Bible, so for me to have a discussion of literary sources with them is about 10 steps away.

    Right now what is going on at Moody Bible Institute is a perfect example of how this dialogue needs to be furthered still in the academy. Some professors are being skewered by other conservatives because they are not conservative enough in their view of inerrancy. Are we too philosophical in our discussions?

    Sorry for the rambling comments. I will dig into the journal article after I am done writing funeral eulogies and messages this week. I state that contextual remark to help the academy see that our discussion of Scripture must never take away the reality that it is the greatest gift we have when counseling a grieving widow. When I was with a man on his deathbed yesterday, it was not the sources of the Psalms that gave him, his wife, and his son comfort. It was the transcendent God who was seen and heard in Psalms 23-31.

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  4. Good reminder, Benjamin—and thank you for your work in shepherding.

    There is indeed a huge gap between the guild (and even the evangelical guild within the broader guild) and "normal" people on these topics, and my sense is that it's getting wider. But most of the folks reaching the pew on this stuff tend to be those who approach it from a different, typically post-Evangelical perspective (e.g., Enns and others). Their popular reception, among other things, proves that laypersons *are* actually interested in these issues.

    They want to know, in their time of need, that they have a trustworthy Bible. So our work on these incredibly complicated issues *does* have a pastoral upshot (at least, it's a big motivator for me, in my associate pastor role at a local church, where I'm regularly and pleasantly surprised that regular folks do think on these matters, at least at some level—sometimes even more than seminary students!).

    The challenge is that engaging in a serious way with issues like this requires an insane amount of effort.

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    1. I think God guides some people to specialize in certain areas (they will even enjoy, for the most part, the insane amount of effort!). Some of these people will be led to write at least one book on the popular level to give nonspecialists a hand. The body of Christ has various members, and they help each other out!

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    2. These issues are vitally important and even apologists and seminarians sometimes state whatever view seems to appease them
      or their target audience to their detriment. We need to be honest
      to everyone on these issues and better explain the background before giving our main thesis. However we must not get caught in
      minutia while displaying the big picture that the manuscript evidence is on the side of the Christian.

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  5. Greg,
    After reading your article, as an Evangelical Pastor-Teacher who believes in inerrancy, I would say much. First, an amazing amount of research and work obviously went into this article, thanks for that. Second, I wonder, how important it is that the correct word order is determined for an Evangelical view of Scripture , even one like mine, that believes in verbal, plenary inspiration. Third, as for authorial, ausgangstext or initial, of course our goal should be the initial text, even while acknowledging we may not in some/many cases be able to determine it. Finally, being willing to see the text being apart from its artifact, the manuscripts, lets me believe that it is not just the autographs that are inspired or inerrant, but the text we have today in the NA/GNT, either in the text line or in the variants below. Is TC still necessary, of course, but God’s perseverance of His Word is sure, even in and particularly because of the number of manuscripts and the variance of the text within.
    Tim

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    1. Tim,
      Thanks for the reply. As to your second question—yes, there's not a *ton* of skin in the game with this particular instance (commandments 6-8), though as I pointed out in the article some interpreters (Philo, for instance) *do* draw theological conclusions from, say, adultery being first (and therefore the central sin of that section). But there are other places where many folks draw somewhat precise theological conclusions or preach a passage a certain way based on sequencing of verses or chapters they receive as inspired (but about which there could be some open questions—think, proverbs and psalms).

      As to (3), I think most would agree that is the goal, and for the majority of text critics some version of that remains the common pursuit. But it seems that some of the more recent critiques (e.g., publication theories) have suggested not only that we cannot determine an A-text due to our limited data, but that there never was one. Rather, that there is a plurality from the beginning (drafts, etc.).

      As to four, yes, most of us would say that the reconstructed *text* reflects the inspired *text* regardless of the material upon which it was (back then or now) written.

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  7. Thinking somewhat out loud here, would this be a roughly accurate taxonomy of the basic positions on 'original' at present?

    (1) There were singular inspired autographs, and we can reconstruct them with a high degree of confidence though with a few open questions (folks holding to CSBI, Westminster, or some version thereof)

    (2) There may have been singular autographs, but we do not have them so we can have no real confidence in reconstructing much of anything (the early Ehrman fallacy, as so often rebutted by PWilliams)

    (3) There may have been singular autographs, but based on extant data we cannot reconstruct them, only an approximation of initial text(s) used by various churches at some point downstream (Parker, Holmes, Epp, later Ehrman [?])

    (4) There were no singular autographs to begin with, but rather multiple layers of drafts, revisions (by author or followers), personal copies of the writer, etc. until things somehow coalesced in some published, canonical form

    Does this cover the waterfront?

    If so, it seems to me that those who hold (1) (as I do) have responded well to (2), have somewhat engaged with (3) (Gurry in his thesis, for instance), but have not done a lot with (4) as of yet (TMitchell's article being an example), at least to my knowledge.

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    1. Thanks for this Greg.
      I think that your comment is a fair assessment of the various issues. And I do hope to address the issues under #4 better in the future. I feel that the JETS article was an okay start, but the argument could be greatly refined and improved.

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    2. Greg,
      I do think you have covered the ‘waterfront.’ I hope you will address #3 and #4 more thoroughly in the future.
      I look forward to more from Timothy Mitchell as well, his JETS article was more than a fair start. Tim was one of the few voices who was willing to address many of the concerns involved with the original, authorial, published, ausgangstext etc.

      Tim

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    3. Thanks for your generous comments Tim.
      Cheers

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    4. Just had a helpful offline conversation with Mike Holmes that clarified this further. In my attempt at simplifying I unfortunately grouped him with the very folks he has critiqued or further nuanced on this front. So my apologies. This might be a better way of articulating it (though making it further complex)

      (1) There were singular inspired autographs, and we can reconstruct them with a high degree of confidence

      (1.5) There may have been singular autographs, and if so, based on the extant data, we may be able to reconstruct them, but only after taking an additional step (<- Holmes would fit here)

      (2) There may have been singular autographs, but we do not have them so we can have no real confidence in reconstructing much of anything

      (3) There may have been singular autographs, but based on extant data we cannot reconstruct them, only an approximation of initial text(s) used by various churches at some point downstream; thus, the distinction between autograph/original and initial is essentially meaningless

      (4) There were no singular autographs to begin with, but rather multiple layers of drafts, revisions (by author or followers), personal copies of the writer, etc. until things somehow coalesced in some published, canonical form

      This is still probably imperfect, though!

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    5. Greg,
      Imperfect it may be, but it is important that we define these positions, so that clarity can be gained when individuals like Dr. Holmes interact with them. Thanks for the update and I hope to see further clarifications.
      Tim

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    6. I’m guessing the last qualification in #1.5 is because Mike wants to leave room for conjecture. If so, I don’t see how #1 precludes that. The matter of multiple autographs is an interesting one, but very hard to demonstrate positively.

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  8. This is a really interesting textual problem that I dealt with a couple of years ago in my (Ulrich B. Schmid)
    Old Greek and New Testament Versions of the Mosaic Law: The Intersection of Oral and Written Tradition, in: XIV CONGRESS OF THE IOSCS, HELSINKI, 2010, ed. by M. Peters, Society of Biblical Literature: Atlanta 2013 (Septuagint and Cognate Studies 59) 587-604.

    For what it's worth, I argue that the sequence A-S-M in B-Exodus is not "original". (Veneration of B is not always warranted). There are only two versions (M-A-S and A-M-S) of the decalogue sequence that have created an impact in the the text traditions across, between and outside the two parts of the Bible. Hence, we should stick with them and treat the solitary B-Exodus sequence as a scribal error, the mechanics of which I outline in my essay.

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    1. Ah...wish I had come across that in my research! The pitfalls of edited volumes, I suppose. It was unintentional, at any rate. And you're correct, A-S-M is certainly the least attested across the tradition. I'll need to procure your article to take a look.

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