Friday, November 04, 2005

The Original Text and the Harder Reading Canon

[This message is posted on behalf of Andrew Wilson. Members of the blog may occasionally post messages from non-members as a means of generating discussion. Nothing is to be infered about the position of the blogger from this.]

Evangelical text critics believe that the Original Text of the NT was without errors due to a belief in the inspiration of Scripture. Many non-evangelical text critics do not hold to such a position, but not simply because of unbelief in the doctrine of inspiration.

The reason such people hold to the idea that the 'original NT text' may have contained errors is that they have become increasingly disappointed by efforts to satisfactorily ascertain what the original NT text was.
The fault largely lies, I believe, at the feet of the lectio difficilior canon. Because of the lectio difficilior canon, the text critic is frequently confronted with a situation of textual stalemate. On the one hand, s/he is told to prefer the reading that makes better sense in terms of the author's intent, theology and context - the superior reading. On the other hand, the lectio difficilior canon dictates that s/he should prefer the inferior reading. The result - unless other factors decide the matter - is textual gridlock.

I believe that the lectio difficilior canon is the real cause of the problem here. Most standard proofs of lectio difficilior involve 'cherry picking' an instance or two where scribes tried to relieve the NT of a difficulty or improve its sense. Others appeal to 'common sense' ("a scribe would be assumed to have removed difficulties rather than to make them") which is really begging the question, isn't it? (See Scrivener for these two approaches, vol. 2, p. 247; read the entire page).

Can anyone think of a way in which it would be possible to put the lectio difficilior canon to the test?


  1. I'm not a fan of lectio difficilior, but we do have the rather ironic situation that some of our 'Heroes of Evangelical Textual Criticism' are hereby implicated, including Bengel and Scrivener. Of course, for Bengel it was never a soundbite and only meant 'difficult for the scribe who was removed by some centuries from the original culture and therefore did not understand that the text really did make perfect sense'. This is quite different from its present day application as a soundbite to the habits of second century scribes who were reasonably close to the original culture. As a casual observer I'd say that the problem tends to occur more in commentaries than in manuals of textual criticism.


    Actually, strangely enough, for Bengel it was a soundbite!

    In 1725 he announced (among other things) that he had reduced all the text-critical principles to ‘a single rule for distinguishing the true reading from every other.’
    'This rule', he said, 'may be expressed in four words'.

    But he didn't reveal the rule at that point.

    In his edition of 1734 he revealed the four-word soundbite: Proclivi scriptioni praestat ardua.

    So the lectio difficilior is absolutely fundamental to Bengel. For me too, I think. Perhaps the only qualification I would suggest would be that Bengel is faced with a very monolithic smooth Byzantine text. The principle which allowed him to get behind that to earlier forms of the text may not always be as good for choosing between different earlier forms of the text.

  3. Peter, I really don't think that it was a soundbite of the same order. Bengel's four words in 1734 are part of a whole Latin sentence, they are not emphasised over the rest by italics. In short, they stand out less than lectio difficilior does in an English sentence now. Of course, he was good by the marketing strategies of his day.

  4. Ah, I forgot to mention the other two ways lectio difficilior is commonly defended: (1) name-dropping (aka, the appeal to authority) and (2) bait-and-switch definition-morphing (i.e. when the canon is challenged, allege that the definition is really more nuanced than at first defined. BTW, there would be nothing wrong with such a nuanced definition if it was substantiated in some way with evidence of some sort).

    These two defences tend to be conflated: eg. what so-and-so actually meant was ...

    Any other defences?

  5. Andrew,

    You wrote:
    The reason such people hold to the idea that the 'original NT text' may have contained errors is that they have become increasingly disappointed by efforts to satisfactorily ascertain what the original NT text was.

    Do you have any supporting evidence for this?


    PS More wisdom from Bengel: 'in any passage where there is a variety of reading, I take it for granted, I admit, that the reading which is contrary to that which we should have expected is the true one'

  6. Let's retrovert: praestat lectio inopinata. Catchy, eh?

  7. I was prompted to write about errors in the original text by some of the posts over on the Yahoo TC group.

    But there is a logical inevitability about the matter. Consider the Alands' (and Metzger's similar) attempt in their 10th rule to argue that lectio difficilior does not mean we should adopt lectio difficilima.

    This is a Canute-like attempt to hold back a logical inevitability, for if scribes are supposed to have tried their hand at improving difficulties, we can be virtually certain that they would have tried to remove nonsense and other sorts of obvious errors in the original text. Therefore, the fact that a variant is nonsensical is no proof that it is not original.

    So, we return to our original question. Where is the evidence for the belief that scribes tried to improve the text? How does Bengel try to justify his canon? Is there anything more than a soundbite (I don't know - I don't have access to his writings)? As someone who considers it fundamental, Peter, how would you attempt to justify lectio difficilior?