Thursday, January 03, 2008

Textual Criticism and the Historical Jesus

What role does (or should) textual criticism have for study of the historical Jesus? I ask this for three reasons:
(1) Very few text critics write on the historical Jesus. The exceptions being perhaps B.F. Westcott in his book An Introduction to the Study of the Gospels and Bart Ehrman in his book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. (Our co-blogger Peter Head has also written an article for Journal of the Study for the Historical Jesus, but it had nothing to do with textual criticism).
(2) Many books on the historical Jesus have as part of their introduction a discussion on the nature of the oral tradition beneath the Gospels and the theological creativity of the Evangelists in shaping the traditions within the Gospels; but very little attention is given to the nature of the textual tradition that transmits the Gospels to modern readers. One might argue that there was a reliable stream of oral tradition from Jesus to the Evangelists (e.g. Gerhardsson, Riesner, Hengel, Bauckham, et. al.) and that the Gospels, though clearly theological biographies, have not so theologized the tradition to make all history irrecoverble. But all that is of little consolation if we do not have a reliable textual tradition to work with. We cannot automatically assume that UBS4 or NA27 takes us back to the historical Jesus even if there was a reliable oral tradition and even if the Evangelists and their sources were not too creative in shaping the tradition. Some like Bultmann eschewed the quest for the historical Jesus for theological reasons (it is tantamount to seeking "Christ according to the flesh") but one of Bultmann's students, Helmut Koester, has seen the quest as impossible partly due to the nature of the Gospels. Koester himself writes:
"[T]he text of the Synoptic Gospels was very unstable during the first and second centuries. With respect to Mark, one can be fairly certain that only its revised text has achieved canonical status, while the original text (attested only by Matthew and Luke) has not survived. With respect to Matthew and Luke, there is no guarantee that the archetypes of the manuscript tradition are identical with the original text of each Gospel. The harmonizations of these two Gospels demonstrate that their text was not sacrosanct and that alterations could be expected ... New Testament textual critics have been deluded by the hypothesis that the archetypes of the textual tradition which were fixed ca. 200 CE ... are (almost) identical with the autographs. This cannot be confirmed by any external evidence. On the contrary, whatever evidence there is indicates that not only minor, but also substantial revisions of the original texts have occurred during the first hundred years of the transmission" ("The Text of the Synoptic Gospels in the Second Century," in W.L. Petersen, ed., Gospel Traditions in the Second Century, p. 37)
In other words, one needs to establish that the textual tradition is just as stable as the oral tradition in order for the quest to be possible!

(3) Most historical Jesus book say very little about textual criticism and when discussion does occur it is usually confined to comments on well-known variants link the pericope de adultera and are usually dependent upon Metzger's textual commentary when they do make comments.
What I propose then is that textual criticism can contribute to historical Jesus studies in the following ways:
First, a prolegomena to study of the historical Jesus requires some statement on both the nature of the oral tradition and the nature of textual tradition. For this reason I find it odd that Bart Ehrman argues for the orthodox corruption of Scripture while at the same time writing books about the historical Jesus, Paul, Peter, and Mary Magdalene. He cannot have it both ways.
Second, researchers could make greater use of the agrapha found in textual variants as part of their source material. To my knowledge only Joachim Jeremias and Marvin Meyer have made significant use of this material. The agrapha are conveniently listed at Text Excavation as:
Matthew 3.15: The baptismal light.
Matthew 6.8: Before you open your mouth.
Matthew 6.25: What to drink.
Matthew 9.34: By the authority of demons.
Matthew 12.47: Someone said to him.
Matthew 16.2b-3: The signs of the times.
Matthew 20.28: The conspicuous places.
Matthew 21.44: Falling upon this stone.
Matthew 27.49: Water and blood.
Mark 1.2: In the prophets.
Mark 10.2: The testing Pharisees.
Mark 14.39: Saying the same word.
Mark 16.3: Angels descending and ascending.
Mark 16.9-20, [21]: The endings of Mark.
Luke 3.22: Today I have begotten you.
Luke 5.38-39: Old wine and new.
Luke 6.5: On the sabbath.
Luke 9.55: What kind of spirit.
Luke 10.41-42: Need of one.
Luke 12.21: Not rich toward God.
Luke 13.7-8: A basket of dung.
Luke 22.19b-20: In my memory.
Luke 23.5: Not baptizing as we do.
Luke 23.17: To release one man.
Luke 23.34: Father, forgive them.
Luke 23.48: Woe to us.
Luke 24.3: Of the Lord Jesus.
Luke 24.6: He is not here.
Luke 24.12: Peter at the tomb.
Luke 24.36: Peace to you.
Luke 24.40: Hands and feet.
Luke 24.51: Borne up into heaven.
Luke 24.52: Having worshipped him.
John 4.9: Jews and Samaritans.
John 5.3-4: The stirring of the water.
John 7.53-8.11: The pericope de adultera.
Third, textual criticism can also be used to inform certain discussions in the life of the historical Jesus. The one that comes to my mind is where did Jesus exorcise the Demoniac in the vicinity of the Decapolis, was it Gedara, Gergesa, or Gerasa (see Mk. 5.1 and par.)?
Any other possible contributions of textual criticism to the study of the historical Jesus?


  1. Michael is spot on when he observes that "(3) Most historical Jesus book say very little about textual criticism". One recent exception is: The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, by Paul R. Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd (Baker Academic, 2007). [To declare my interest: they are both colleagues of mine here at Bethel.] They are certainly aware of the significance of the topic: "The final foundational issue we will briefly address concerns the textual attestation of the Synoptics. Obviously it makes no sense to explore seriously the question of the historical reliability of an ancient work unless we are confident that, from the texts in hand, we can reconstruct a reasonably close approximation of what was originally written" (p. 364).
    They then devote pp. 380-389 to a discussion of the topic of textual criticism, focusing in particular on the questions raised (or implied) by Epp and Ehrman. One topic to note in particular (one in keeping with a major focus of their book, the early oral Jesus tradition, to which they devote Part 3 of the book) is their (brief) discussion of "Adaptation of Living, Textualized, Orally Oriented Traditions" (pp. 386-7), where they bring to bear on textual criticism the significance of issues raised by, e.g. J. D. G. Dunn's recent work on Jesus (Jesus Remembered).
    Mike Holmes

  2. If you are interested you should look at Stan Porter's two papers:
    SEPorter & MB O'Donnell, ‘The Implications of Textual Variants for Authenticating the Words of Jesus,’ in Authenticating the Words of Jesus. Ed. Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans. New Testament Tools and Studies 28.1. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998: 97-133

    SEPorter & MB O'Donnell, ‘The Implications of Textual Variants for Authenticating the Activities of Jesus,’ in Authenticating the Activities of Jesus. Ed. Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans. New Testament Tools and Studies 28.2. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998: 121-51

  3. Thanks M.B. for your interesting post and M.H. and P.H. for the references! I will spend some time the following months thinking about this very subject, specifically how it relates to the Gospel of Matthew. As I said in a post a while ago, I was invited to speak at a conference in Århus, Denmark on the follwing subject:

    "Implications of Text Criticism for Understanding the 'Original' Texts"

    To what Michael says, one can add that this often neglected area (and era) where oral and textual transmission interrelate is also treated in D.C. Parker's little book, "The Living Text of the Gospels."

    The suggestion of Koester that Michael relates, that the archetype cannot automatically be assumed to be the "original" is reflected in the recent shift in terminology from "Original" to "Initial Text" ("Ausgangstext"). Personally, I am far more optimistic than Koester, Petersen, Ehrman & Co. that the "Original" is in reach among the extant evidence, but I still think it is proper to speak about the "initial text." Nevertheless, it should be noted that as soon as we use the internal criteria of what an author is likely to have written we move beyond the external manuscript evidence towards the notion of the original text.

    On another point of Michael's, there can be a problem when a scholar reconstructs the historical Jesus on the basis of the same text that he or she deconstructs. I don't know whether this is a problem in Ehrman's work since I have not examined his work on the historical Jesus and how it relates to his text-critical views, but a similar paradoxical problem occurs in his reconstruction of "orthodox corruption" when there is no external evidence to back it up. The identification of such assumed corruption seems to be based on an optimistic reconstruction of an original text, that we supposedly cannot recover.

  4. Also Hyeon Woo Shin, Textual Criticism and the Synoptic Problem in Historical Jesus Research: the Search for Valid Criteria (CBET 36; Leuven: Peeters, 2004)

  5. Thank you very much for starting these very important points. This reminds me of an article by Kurt Aland, who demonstrated some decades ago that theories about the literary development of the gospels (and these may also touch the historical Jesus-question) which do not have any relation to Textual Criticism are nothing more than that: (more or less) clever speculations, which may be or not be (to a certain extent) justified. He took John 21 as an example: There is no manuscript which definitely lacks John 21 - so the transmission of the gospel of John evidently started with John 21. Even if chapter 21 betrays discrepancies in style, vocabulary etc., these data in themselves are not enough to say anything definite about another author who may or may not have appended them, or if John himself appended them, etc. So, going beyond the data (especially the NT-text and its variants) handed down to us via the NT transmission means: walk on thin ice. See K. Aland, "Glosse, Interpolation, Redaktion und Komposition in der Sicht der neutestamentlichen Textkritik" in: ANTT 2, Berlin: de Gruyter 1967, pp. 35-57.

  6. I personally doubt that textual criticism contributes very directly to historical Jesus studies. I certainly don't think the Agrapha are of much more than curiosity value in any really historical quest (although they are of great interest for the remembered/interpreted Jesus and reception history). I'm not convinced that manuscript transmission is very illuminating for oral transmission (although some have thought so). Only Mike's last point is of any great significance, i.e. individual text-critical decisions do have an impact on historical Jesus questions.

  7. Re Koester's views of the textual transmission of the gospels: in 1988, at the Notre Dame conference whose papers were published as Gospel Traditions in the Second Century (ed. W. Petersen; U. of Notre Dame Press, 1989), I was sitting next to J. Neville Birdsall at the opposite end of the table from Koester while he made his presentation, arguing basically the point that MB has summarized--to which JNB responded with a sotto voce "Rubbish!" (Regretably, the moderator did not pick up on the disagreement so as to bring Koester and Birdsall into discussion of the matter; it might have produced some interesting theatre, if nothing else.)
    Mike Holmes