Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Strengths and weaknesses of evangelical textual criticism

Perhaps we should reapproach the question of what tasks need to be performed by an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of evangelicalism within textual criticism. It seems to me that it is useful to mention weaknesses, since these are the areas that will require research and some problem solving. I'll start with one strength and one weakness. The weakness is variants that are hard to resolve. These present evangelicals with the problem that they claim authority for a text, but they're not sure which text they're claiming authority for. The strength is the converse: the great amount of text for which a massive array of witnesses show no variation. This means that very many copying events have gone on without corruption of the text. This suggests the basic reliability of those transmitting the text. These assertions are a bit short on detail, I admit. But let's leave that to the discussion.


  1. The problem of not being able to recognise the autograph if it bit us is esp painful in the OT, isn't it? Choosing 'pristine MT' rather than any other stage of the text 'Cos it's the Hebrew text' don't impress me much.

    However, at least in theory, we do want to obey the text in asmuch as we have it, which has to be a good thing.

  2. I'm not sure that evangelicals need to be interested in the autograph, only in the text of the autograph. If we talk of the (consonantal) text transmitted by the Masoretes then it is not clear that we are talking of a 'stage' of the consonantal text that need be different from the 'stage' the text had reached at the time of the autograph.

  3. Pete,

    Do not numerous evangelicals advocate that the various shades of text in front of us today are approximations of the original text?

    But does this not raise certain difficulties? For example, how can we say John 1:1 is close (or approximate?) to the original text when, in reality, the original text is utterly unknown? Nobody knows with certainty what the original text said, so how can it be approximated? How do we known how accurate/approximate our 'approximateness' is?

    Surely (from a pascalian viewpoint) it is impossible to approximate an unknown value?

    Abu Abdur-Rahman

  4. Dear Abu Abdur-Rahman,
    First thanks for the question which I will answer below. I should, however, make clear that the purpose of the blog is primarily for public inner-evangelical dialogue and co-operation, not for evangelicals to provide justification of their position to those who do not share it.

    There are plenty of apologetic forums, and this is not one of those.

    I really am not sure what you mean by saying the 'original is unknown'. You might be saying that so long as one cannot in an argument based on secular premises preclude the possibility that something has got in and changed the text then the text cannot be known. By this canon of course all ancient texts except for autographs are 'unknown'.

    This is, however, not far off a nihilistic approach. Similar doubts could be raised about whether I exist. As yet I know of no proof which works from all secular premises that would demonstrate my existence. Now provided we leave nihilism aside, which of course we do every time we write on a blog, we do indeed find ourself in a world in which things are known.

    The text of John 1:1 is one such thing. There is no significant variant of any kind in any major or early witness. I don't even know if there are significant variants in later witnesses. We have P75 (see http://www.earlham.edu/~seidti/iam/tc_pap75.html) and P66 (see http://www.earlham.edu/~seidti/iam/tc_pap66.html) both showing us the exact same lettering of this verse in manuscripts written within a century of the original as was printed by Erasmus and probably every printed Greek NT since. Early versions (Latin, Syriac, Coptic) and various manuscripts confirm the same. The text is not therefore in doubt. The sequence of Greek letters given by Erasmus or Nestle-Aland is, I believe, not an approximation to the original text, but the original text itself.

    You said, 'Nobody knows with certainty what the original text said, so how can it be approximated?' Here I disagree. Many/most(all?) text-critical scholars have no doubt about this text. Moreover, from evangelical premises we could say that God knows (with certainty) what the original text is/was (and He ain't nobody). He underwrites faith, which is a way by which humans can obtain like certainty.

    This is not to say that there are not other places where the text is in doubt - your example of John 1:1 was not a good one to make your point. However, we must not confuse the subjective position of humans being in doubt about something with whether the matter is one which intrinsically resists certainty. The fact that there are thousands of things that I don't know about the Greek manuscript tradition does not mean that there isn't all the information out there for all of my ignorance to be done away with.

    The sentence 'The text of the original is uncertain' can bear various meanings 'I am uncertain about the original text' and 'The text of the original cannot ever be known.' This final pessimistic attitude is widely found amongst textual critics, but the grounds for pessimism have in my view never adequately been demonstrated.

  5. Pete,

    I believe the rules of the blog allow non evangelicals to comment, and, given the title of the topic was ‘strengths and weaknesses of evangelical textual criticism’, I tried to make what seemed to me to be a relevant point, although I concede that others may not share this view. I certainly was not asking you to justify your position.

    With regard to John 1:1, you said that the sequence of Greek letters given by Erasmus or Nestle Aland is the original text itself. However, is this not based on the unproven assumption that the best archetype for the NT manuscript tradition is identical with the autographic text? Is this not exacerbated by the (comparative) lack of documentary evidence for the 2nd century, and, consequently, the contradictory theories regarding the transmission/state of the NT text in this time frame?

    One of the strengths of evangelical textual criticism, I believe, is the consistently held high view of divine providence.

    Kind regards,

    Abu Abdur-Rahman

  6. Dear Abu Abdur-rahman,
    Thanks for your clarification. Of course it is easy to get cross-wires over the web, and I apologise if I misread your intention. Of course a certain amount of justification of views must take place, particularly under a heading such as 'strengths and weaknesses of ...'. My point about this not being a forum for evangelicals to justify their premises was mainly because I could foresee us getting inundated with questions that could easily get in the way of the blog's aims.

    I'm not really sure why you think that the attestation of John in the second century is poor. It is, after all, far better attested than other works of comparable age.

    I admit that the assumption that where the earliest mss agree we have the NT text is an unproven assumption, but that is only because it is not possible to 'prove' anything about ancient texts. I would prefer the word 'warrant' to 'proof'. I believe that the assumption that we have the autographic text present in the earliest papyri, Erasmus and NA27 is indeed warranted.