Tuesday, December 30, 2008

SBL Boston, Book Review of David Parker, An Introduction to the NT MSS and Their Texts, pt. 2


We have come to Bart Ehrman’s response in the book review session (SBL 24-32) of David Parker’s An Introduction to the NT MSS and Their Texts (CUP). By this time we had relocated to a large hall where all interested could join the session. The picture actually shows the smaller room which we left after Epp's presentation.

Bart Ehrman started with a few positive words about the book. It contains some astounding material and depth. No one can master the whole field, but some come very close, like David Parker. Ehrman emphasized this since, the critique he was going level might suggest otherwise (“and it will” he added), and therefore he wanted to express his view at the beginning that Parker is the leading text-critic in the world. The book is the best introduction to MS as artifacts. It is unparallelled in its discussion of many contemporary issues (like using computers, and making editions). However, Ehrman has serious reservations about the book, especially as an introduction to textual criticism. He thinks it is idiosyncratic and incomplete, and that it presents a biased picture.

The first problem Ehrman brought up was Parker’s idiosyncratic use of terms like “document,” “New Testament,” and “textual variant.” Why does he choose to problematize these terms? Why not problematize the term “text” which he uses in a number of ways himself. This would matter much. Another problem are the omissions. According to Ehrman, Parker often has a set of blinders, which would be proper in a monograph when you deal with a thesis, but the genre of introduction does not allow for such omission of what would be very important. Then Ehrman brought up examples of serious omissions. Why, e.g., mention just the Gospel of Barnabas (not other gospels or Apostolic Fathers.)? Ehrman suggests that the book is an idiosyncratic discussion of issues instead of an introduction. Parker has expressed in the book that he sees no point in repeating things that has been said better by others, at those points he refers to others. But we are led then to conclude that those issues which are discussed are discussed better here. But then it is not an introduction, it has to be used along with other books. How many books does one need? Parker’s grounds for including points seem arbitrary: he does not include issues he has not been asked about, teached about, or felt inclined to look into.

There is no discussion of palaeography! Nothing about book production. No discussion of early NT MSS (he does not tell which they are). No history of the discipline. No discussion about the goals of textual criticim, nothing about manuscript classification (for example, the Claremont Profile Method is mentioned without explanation). There is nothing about the quantitative method or the Comprehensive Profile Method. Nothing about external vs. internal probabilities. How is it possible to write an introduction for students without telling this? The introduction to versional and patristic evidence is very sparse. For example, the series NT in the Greek Fathers is mentioned in one sentence (and nothing about why it is important). There is nothing about scribal habits, nothing about the use of textual criticim for the social history of the NT, or how the Christological controversies have affected textual transmission, which is probably the hottest issue since 15 years (because of Ehrman’s own contribution, implied). Then there are terms included like “corona,” “hairy sides,” “palimpsest,” “catena,” etc. which are not defined. A glossa is provided, but it includes only 45 terms and is idiosyncratic. For example, it indicates what papyrus is but not parchment. Here Ehrman began to take his critique too far ridiculing some of the less well formulated statements in the book, which is unnecessary to cite here. The ironic tone became rather embarrasing for the audience, not to mention the author. Ehrman concluded that these examples of problems could easily be multiplied. This shows that the book is idiosyncratic and not useful for students.

Then Ehrman said that he “wanted to mention some substantive critques.” Ehrman brought up the contempt Parker shows against the quantitative method. Parker seems not to understand what he is attacking (and e.g., why singular readings are removed in this procedure). Parker apparently paves the way for Mink’s method (CBGM), see p. 169. It is not Lachmannian. However, the CBGM is based on the use of external and internal critiera, which Parker does not discuss (except the note on p. 169). The CBGM presupposes that we know what is the initial text in each passage (based upon common text-critical reasoning). Here I think Ehrman went way too far in his critique, probably because he had not understood the CBGM entirely (very few have I should add). For example, the CBGM involves several steps and an iterative process that controls the individual decisions, and, in fact, the first step involves a kind of quantitative analysis (which Ulrich Schmid pointed out in the discussion).

Significantly, Parker says an author’s text cannot be established, and no editor tries to do it, but in this regard Ehrman shows more optimism, especially appealing to internal criteria. In some respects Ehrman actually seems to “fight himself,” since he sometimes expresses an agnostic view of the initial text, since what we have are "copies of the copies of the copies," etc. (the mantra being “we just don’t know"). In this session I got the impression that he has become somewhat more optimistic about the initial text. Just before the meeting, during November, we were involved in a long debate on the Textual Criticism discussion-list on this and related topics (here and a number of subsequent messages in some separate threads).

Ehrman’s conclusion: Parker’s monograph is a very valuable book, but as an introduction for beginners to the field, it is wanting. I agree with this general conclusion, but I think the way in which this review was presented was unfortunately also wanting. Cf. Jim Leonard’s summary of Ehrman’s response here. I heard afterwards that some in the audience were “put off” by the heated attack and felt they had better avoid the field of textual criticism, which I of course think is sad. I pointed out to some that this attack should probably be seen in light of a previous very critical review of Ehrman's revised version of Metzger's introduction to Textual Criticism by Parker in an issue of JTS, but of course the polemic went too far. In any case, Parker got a final word of response, which was good for the session. As the gentleman he is, he managed to make a constructive appeal that we should not linger on in the obsolete, but move forward and accept the new discoveries and developments in the field. These are exciting times for textual criticism.

In the time for questions I responded to Hurtado’s previous response. I perceived that Hurtado was expressing that there has not been so much recent development in terms of external evidence—we still depend on much of the same data. I pointed out that the CBGM actually provides a better way of evaluating the external evidence. Ever since the days of Westcott and Hort we depend on a procedure where we go from internal evidence to external (manuscripts are found to be good because they contain good variants in individual passages, although other purely external features like age play a certain role). I view the CBGM like a “calibration” of this procedure, moving from internal to external evidence in a much more controlled way. We are able to see how our decisions cohere with the larger picture of the global stemma of textual flows.

My next response was to Parker. He has expressed the view that the CBGM can help us get a snapshot of the earliest attainable stage of textual transmission. In the Pauline corpus this is a reconstruction of a collection. We know there was a prehistory but we cannot reach it. I disagree with Parker. The same issue was debated in the Münster colloquium earlier this year (see here). I think our evidence may take us beyond this stage for two reasons. First, we make use of internal evidence, and I think this criterium means we are moving beyond the collection (see further my correspondence with Ehrman on the discussion list). Second, I have a strong suspicion that the CBGM results on the Pauline corpus, which we have not seen yet, will be analogous to the situation in the Catholic Epistles where the separate books seem to reflect a somewhat distinct history of transmission, i.e., the “snapshot” seems to take us back to a stage when the books circulated separately. Slightly different MSS show up at the top of the stemma for each book (although Vaticanus is the only MS always among the top MSS). Interestingly, letters like 1 and 2 Peter have more in common, suggesting that they traveled together earlier on in the transmission. I anticipate similar results for the Pauline corpus.

I agree with Parker that times are exciting for New Testament textual criticism! This is also a good summary of the blogging year of 2008. I take the opportunity to wish all our readers world wide a HAPPY NEW YEAR!


  1. Thanks for these posts, Tommy!

    Forgive my ignorance, but can you point us to something (or perhaps post something) that gives a simple explanation of "the CBGM"?



  2. Jim,

    perhaps there is no simple explanation of the CBGM. But the best explanation is:

    Gerd Mink, “Problems of a Highly Contaminated Tradition: The New Testament. Stemmata of Variants As a Source of a Genealogy for Witnesses,” in Studies in Stemmatology II (ed. Pieter van Reenen, August den Hollander and Margot van Mulken. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2004), 13-85.

    Luckily, this item is available on-line (you might have to install a special reader plug-in to your browser):


    I hope the link still works.

    Then you can always search our blog for "CBGM" to see some references and discussion.

    Good luck!

  3. Tommy, you've done a great job on summarizing the SBL sessions, including this part of the review of David Parker's book. Thanks so much for your work on this.

    In Christ,


  4. Happy New Year to you too, TW.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

  5. Oh, and, did anyone ask Dr. Parker to explain his statement that the Byzantine Text "began to be formed from the sixth century"?

    James Snapp, Jr.

  6. James and Bill, thank you!

    No James, I don't recall that the statement about the Byzantine text was brought up.

  7. I know this sounds a bit "off" regarding the main theme of this particular thread, but I can't seem to find (so as to buy) Colwell's book on the Methodology of Textual Criticism of the New Testament. Does anyone of you have a clue as to where/who I can buy it from or how? Thank you.

  8. Dear anonymous, I think that book is out of print, in which case you have to get it from an antiquarian bookdealer. The best deal I found is: http://www.antiqbook.com/books/bookinfo.phtml?nr=329786711

    It is an important book. Good luck!

  9. Here's a brief intro to CBGM:

    And here is a working link to Studies in Stemmatology II: