Thursday, September 24, 2020

Some notes from fun reading: Erasmus, Original Text, Shorter Reading, Spurgeon, Al Capone(!)


I’ve been trying to read a few works that have been around for a few years that, for some reason, I haven’t read until now. What follows are some thoughts that are probably old hat to everyone else. It’s a longish post with some tangents and random thoughts.

I. Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism, ed. David Alan Black

Book coverA solid little book. The essays are certainly valuable in themselves, but I wanted to point out a couple of things from Moisés Silva’s response at the end. Silva describes himself as “an unrepentant and unshaken Hortian” (p. 142), but makes the helpful observation that Hort was really not doing anything new. Silva writes (p. 142):

“Keep in mind that what Hort did—in collaboration with Westcott and, less directly, Lightfoot—was primarily to synthesize and logically articulate nineteenth-century text-critical scholarship, which was itself the culmination of intensive work tracing its lineage back to Bengel in the eighteenth century, Bentley in the seventeenth century, and Erasmus in the sixteenth century. Yes, Erasmus, because even the creator of what would later be known as the textus receptus was absolutely committed to the very principles that lie at the foundations of WH’s accomplishments.” 

Silva’s words here stuck out to me because it’s something I’ve been saying for a little while. Was Erasmus doing the exact same thing as text critics today? Well, not exactly the same thing. However, the more I read his annotations, and assuming I have at least a working understanding of how textual criticism is done today (a premise to which I am sure somebody somewhere might object), the more difficult it is for me to escape the conclusion that Erasmus was very much in the same trajectory of what we are doing today. One difference is that it is clear from Erasmus' annotations that it was not always his intention to give the original text [see note at the end of this post]. Some might claim that this is not a goal today [Warning: tangent coming], but 1. it certainly is for some of us, and 2. Even some scholars who might not affirm the importance of the original text still function as if that is something we’re after and also something that basically can be obtained. On this point, Silva points to Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption of Scripture to demonstrate this point (p. 149):

Although [Orthodox Corruption of Scripture] is appealed to in support of blurring the notion of an original text, there is hardly a page in that book that does not in fact mention such a text or assume its accessibility. ‘Why is such-and-such a reading in Mark a later corruption and not original? Because Mark (authorial intent!) would not likely have said such a thing.’ Indeed, Ehrman’s book is unimaginable unless he can identify an initial form of the text that can be differentiated from a later alteration.

Holger Strutwolf has said something very similar nine years later (from “Original Text and Textual History” in Wachtel/Holmes, eds., The Textual History of the Greek New Testament: Changing Views in Contemporary Research):

These considerations show that the concept of an original text of the Gospels is not obsolete but is still useful and even necessary. … In his book The Living Text of the Gospels David Parker has very convincingly shown, for example, how different generations of scribes have ‘written on Luke’s page,’ but even his approach proves how important the quest for the original text still is, because in order to find out how later generations wrote on Luke’s page, it is indispensable to know what was written on Luke’s page originally.

Now admittedly, this attitude about the original text is likely not held by everyone at the INTF, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that the director of the INTF itself once went on record about how important it is to go after the original text.

(See also Bart Ehrman’s remarks in his 1998 review of the ECM1 of James. Again, I admit that 1998 Ehrman almost certainly doesn’t believe the same things as 2020 Ehrman, but it’s interesting to see Ehrman saying “If the primary purpose of this discipline is to get back to the original text, we may as well admit either defeat or victory, depending on how one chooses to look at it, because we're not going to get much closer to the original text than we already are. Barring some fantastic manuscript discoveries (like the autographs) or some earth-shattering alterations in text-critical method [EH: I don’t think the CBGM counts, because it is a meta-method, not a new method itself], the basic physiognomy of our texts is never going to change. … But the reality is that we are unlikely to discover radically new problems or devise radically new solutions; at this stage, our work on the original amounts to little more than tinkering. There’s something about historical scholarship that refuses to concede that a major task has been accomplished, but there it is.”)

Anyway, back to Silva’s contribution to Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism. Also worth a mention is Silva’s remarks about Royse and the “shorter reading” (p. 145):

It is, of course, true that if all we say is that the shorter reading is to be preferred, that is patently untrue in numerous cases, as Royse and others have shown. But I think it is a slander on our text-critical forefathers to even suggest that they had such a naive understanding of the facts. Considering that Griesbach’s classic formulation of this canon is readily accessible in English [EH: here, Silva cites the translation on p. 120 of Metzger’s 3rd edition of Text of the New Testament], there is no excuse for any student to misuse it. Griesbach not only lists the specific situations in which the shorter reading is to be preferred; he also provides an even longer list of situations in which ‘the longer reading is to be preferred to the shorter.’ Indeed, the vast majority of counterexamples in the papyri given by Royse are covered by Griesbach’s qualifications.

This is a point worth remembering—when you read Royse and Griesbach with all their respective qualifications, they are not so far off from each other.

II. Spurgeon’s sermon no. 1,601, “The Judgment Seat of God”, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit 27 (1881): 305–316

I try to read Spurgeon’s sermons regularly, and I read this one a few days ago. I was struck with something about Spurgeon’s discussion of the textual variant at Romans 14:10 here.

1. It is a little shocking that Spurgeon so willingly acknowledges “an error in our version” given how vehemently he opposed higher criticism and admission of any errors in the Bible. The obvious explanation for that is that Spurgeon rightly differentiated between textual criticism and higher criticism (more on that maybe some other time). To Spurgeon, what is the text (ontologically) cannot have errors, but our copies and translations of it are only accurate to the extent that they correctly render for us the original.

2. The date of this sermon is also noteworthy. This is less than three weeks after Westcott and Hort’s Greek New Testament was released (see here) and only twelve days after the Revised New Testament appeared (on May 17th, if my memory is correct). True, Spurgeon had been thinking about textual criticism for a while, and this was not his earliest discussion of a variant in a sermon, but it’s interesting to see him go here so quickly after a different text than what was in common use became widely accessible to the public.

3. To Spurgeon, the meaning is what is important, and the two readings are not necessarily contradictory once the text is correctly interpreted. On the next page, he says, “Therefore, though the reading should be God, the sense is ‘Christ.’”

III. Bruce Metzger’s memoirs, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian

I always enjoy these kinds of writings that include more personal touches than what can be known about someone from his or her published writings. One could read pages and pages of Larry Hurtado’s published work and still miss out on some of the more memorable aspects of his personality and vocabulary. (And if anybody wanted to put together a collection of memories of these kinds of Hurtado stories, I’d buy that book in a heartbeat). Metzger’s memoirs are definitely interesting so far (still reading this one), and he delivers two treasures on the same page early on (p. 39).

1. Apparently Edgar Goodspeed published a mystery novel in 1935, “The Curse in the Colophon,” inspired by the curse at the end of the Rockefeller McCormick New Testament (GA 2400) that invokes the attendees of the Council of Nicea against anyone who would remove the manuscript. Learning of Goodspeed's novel reminds me of other manuscript specialists who published outside the usual genre, like M.R. James’s ghost stories, or our own co-blogger Peter Rodgers’s fun novels about early Christian copyists: The Scribes, and The Sign of the Dolphin.

2. There is apparently a “Gangster’s Bible” in Chicago, and it is L1599. According to the Goodspeed Collection, It was “Brought from Greece to the United States by the family of Michael Biskos, and claimed by him to have been used as an oath book by gangland members during induction ceremonies at a Chicago restaurant.” A little digging turned up a 1993 article in the Chicago Tribune that identifies this restaurant as “Colosimo’s Restaurant”—Big Jim Colosimo, specifically. Another article (this one from The Miami News in 1945) claims that it was “being used by the gangsters in swearing oaths before they went on hi-jacking missions,” adding:

According to the story told, during the Greek revolution of 1820, the great-grandfather of Mike Biskos, manager of a Chicago restaurant, found the manuscript among the ruins of a church, and as an immigrant brought it to this country. Biskos kept the Bible at the restaurant over which Johnnie Torrio and Al Capone had headquarters. When the University of Chicago learned of its existence, they began negotiations to buy. Biskos finally sold for $1,000.

As fun as it is to know (or to speculate) who held/read/used a particular Greek New Testament manuscript, I have to admit I didn’t expect Al Capone to be on that list.

NOTE: I am not saying that Erasmus was (passively) printing the text as it existed in his day accepting that as being (at least functionally) what the apostles actually wrote originally. I am saying that it is clear that at times, Erasmus printed readings in his text that he (actively) thought were not what the apostles actually wrote originally. On this, see Krans, Beyond What Is Written, pp. 18ff.


  1. Thanks for this highly informative post, Elijah!

  2. I use Dave Black’s book in my TC course. It’s very helpful and Silva’s conclusion is a gem.

  3. Thanks for this interesting post! It's always particularly interesting to see how well-known men have handled textual issues at the pastoral level down through the ages.