Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Comment from Greenlee

After an enjoyable visit to Duke University for David Parker's Kenneth W. Clark lectures (only the first; I was not able to attend the second), I returned to find a comment by J. Harold Greenlee regarding the highly negative review of his latest book by Keith Elliott (previously mentioned and linked on this blog). Greenlee's comments are reproduced with permission:

"I'm surprised by Elliott's comments, because it seems to me that he is denouncing me for not doing things that the book had no intention of dealing with. I wrote it almost exclusively to help ordinary laypeople to understand how the NT was handed down through the centuries, and what do footnotes like "other manuscripts read..." mean. Most of what he is objecting to was not even in my thinking, and evidently not in the intentions of the people at Hendrickson's who helped. Perhaps I should at least be encouraged that Elliott regards the book as worthy of such a lengthy denouncement!"


  1. It must be somewhat difficult to give a positive review when a few of one's own works were given such.

  2. Elliott's review, mentioned in the original post, may be viewed here:


  3. Elliott remarks, quoting Greenlee: “'One of his ways to answer readers’ concerns is to offer palliative platitudes. Among such pacifying remarks are 'The great majority of textual variants involve little or no difference in meaning' (83), and 'The vast majority of the most theologically significant passages of the New Testament have no significant textual variations' (117), a blatantly unsustainable assertion that tests the gullibility of the readership."

    Didn't Hort, and most other scholars, make the exact same statement as Greenlee has made? Reading Greenlee's comment carefully, if there are 5,000 theologically significant statements in the NT, then how much would constitute a "vast majority" with no "significant" textual variation?


  4. Elliot does touch on what I find to be a sticky issue, but is it a matter of platitudes, or just intended audience?
    I have often noticed that some textual critics, including myself, tend to focus more on the integrity of the text when talking to lay people or church groups, lest we cause unnecessary religious discomfort. When speaking in academic circles, on the other hand, we focus more on the corruption of the text. I remember one of the most startling aspects for me of reading Parker's Living Text was the table that listed the percentage of variant-free text in the gospels. The figures he gave were all around 50-70%, iirc, and I remember that after years of studying variants and spouting truisms like "no two mss are identical" and "over 300,000 variants!" I was shocked to see percentages so high!

    Another issue is how we define terms like "significant" or even "theological" when we refer to variants. Recently I finished a paper defending Erasmus' conjecture in Jas 4:2 emending phonos to phthonos - murder to envy. When discussing it with a layperson friend, his confused response was "ok, but either way, we still can't do either of those, right?" Obviously I think the change is significant, significant enough to spend 40 pages on it, but equallz obvious is that there are layers of significance, and that many people would need me to clarify which layer I was shooting for!

    Ryan Wettlaufer

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Despite all of this, Elliot is still to be respected and taken seriously, although these are certainly flaws. I have problem with Elliot's thoroughgoing eclecticism and I have a hard time taking it seriously as an effective text critical method. But at the end of the day, Elliot is a distinguished scholar and he deserves the credit therefore.

  7. "Despite all of this, Elliot is still to be respected and taken seriously..."

    I must say it is rather difficult to respect Elliot after reading the disrespect, if not contempt, he displayed toward Greenlee and evangelicals in his review. Certainly his works are valuable, but this leaves me questioning his judgment. In the review, he seems so irritated by the Christian overtones in Greenlee's *revised* book for laypersons (most likely Christian ones) that he can't seem to figure out for himself just how much detail or lack thereof he really expects. And many of the his criticisms seem more like mean-spirited jabs at Greenlee's Christianity, certainly aware that some of his suggestions run counter to the very evangelical theology to which Greenlee likely holds.

    Was Greenlee responsible for such a scathing review on Ehrman or Elliot that I am unaware of? Is this a case of seemingly childish tit-for-tat in defense of Ehrman?

    So, I can respect the fact that Elliot has scholarship which is worthy to reflect upon, but I cannot respect the attitude he displays in this review. And it cannot help but force someone who disagrees with some of his points to also become quite irritated. ;-)

  8. Inspired by Elliot's review, I picked up Greenlee's little book (it is rather small, just a hundred pages in large type) and read it last night.
    What are my thoughts?
    As much as I cannot abide by the harsh tone of Elliot's review and find it terribly disrespectful, if we could completely set aside that tone and language for a minute, I have to admit that I would have trouble calling the substance of his review false. Though terribly expressed, he is in fact quite correct.
    Having read the book, I think Elliot's review might be the kind of thing that I might write in my first draft, just to get the frustration off my chest, before deleting it all and writing a proper review.
    It seemed to me that as Greenlee told the story of our field, every point of the explanation was not intended to be an explanation of textual criticism per se, but rather an explanation of why textual criticism absolutely was not a threat to traditional evangelical piety. Every other line, it felt like, was infused with cloying reassurance. Yes, as well, there was much over-simplification, but that is justified by the intended audience. The real problem was the perspective revealed by all that constant reassurance: you only have to provide reassurance about something if you start with the presumption that it is a threat, a possible danger. From my faith perspective, I don't think that's a premise I could accept.

    Ryan Wettlaufer

  9. Just a reminder: Comments are more than welcome, but please avoid ad hominem remarks. I have just removed one of the comments because it contained such (at least in my impression), albeit just a few lines. I understand that it can be tempting when responding to a harsh review, but try to keep the good tone.

  10. I'll admit that the deleted comment lacked much substance, as it was more of a gut reaction to the undeserved review, but "ad hominem"?. I must disagree.

    The comment was intended to emphasize Elliot's over-use of alliteration which may quite reasonably be taken by the recipient as rather condescending.

    And the final comment, and the one most likely objected to, was the valid opinion (it was not asserted as an "ad hominem" fact) of a Christian layperson with a strong interest in textual criticism who also feels like a target of the review.

    The tone of Elliot's review was offensive not only toward Greenlee but toward intelligent Christians as well and is not worthy of respect (regardless of his academic acumen). And with all due respect, that is certainly not "ad hominem". Regardless of a scholar's renown, they should be held to the same standard of decorum as the rest of us. Am I wrong?

    (Of course, I am probably more strongly stung by the review than others because I attended the same church as Greenlee's daughter for several years and met the kind man who did not deserve such mean-spirited criticism.)

  11. Dear anonymous, most of that comment was certainly not "ad hominem," and I sympathize with your "gut feeling." I may be subjective, but, neverthelesss, the way you applied alliteration to Elliott did not sound entirely respectful to me (I may be wrong, but I perceived that part as an ad hominem remark). Now I personally wouldn't mind being called "pretty," etc but in this context...

  12. Tommy, I believe you misunderstood my own alliteration. :-) I was not calling Elliot "pretty", but I called him "apparently pretty passionate". Perhaps this was a bit coloquial..."pretty passionate" means "quite passionate" or "very passionate" to most Americans. My alliteration was an intentionally silly "plea" to Elliot to think a little longer and harder before writing something that sounds so "pompous" and condescending toward a peer.

    Perhaps my comment was a little too much "from the gut", but hopefully this clarifies it a bit more.

  13. Ryan wrote: "The real problem was the perspective revealed by all that constant reassurance: you only have to provide reassurance about something if you start with the presumption that it is a threat, a possible danger. From my faith perspective, I don't think that's a premise I could accept."

    Neither is textual criticism a threat to me (nor, mostly likely, to Greenlee), but I have had the interest and time to learn ancient languages and read heavily in the field. I have been able to form my own opinions about the variants and their relevance or lack of relevance to my own faith. However, it is my belief that we may be in the minority.

    I have brought up text critical issues in Bible studies before, and it has honestly made me feel bad to see some of the "deer in the headlights" looks that I receive.

    Many Christians, regardless of the footnotes in their Bibles, have grown up never once being confronted with the fact that there are ancient manuscripts of the Bible or that they disagree in places. I don't believe this is through any fault of their own as their Bibles were usually handed down to them by people they trusted, and we all have busy lives to lead that don't always include ancient languages and technical studies about the Bible.

    Their faith goes to the heart of who they are and to be confronted with textual criticism without detailed explanation and reassurance (something a non-Christian and some liberals Christians probably wouldn't understand) can be quite disconcerting. At least that's been my experience.

    It is a difficult balance for evangelical Christians. I am for God and truth, so I have no problem presenting textual criticism and the issues involved. It does not harm my faith. However, I see that it is threatening to some, especially to those who do not have the time or interest to learn much more than what they could get from an introduction like Greenlee's book.

    I suppose it brings up a good question for Christian intellectuals and Evangelical Textual Critics. Is textual criticism a valid topic within the church or for Bible studies? I tend to think so, but I can also understand why it is routinely discouraged and not usually presented.

  14. And just to clarify... These Christian laypersons to which I refer are not backwoods rednecks without an education who believe anything they're told (which seems to be the normal caricature of evangelical Christians these days). These include many highly educated people. My own Bible study group is made up mostly of engineers, some with advanced degrees. We aren't dummies, and don't appreciate such condescending tones as displayed by Elliot in his review.

  15. Anonymous: "Tommy, I believe you misunderstood my own alliteration. :-) I was not calling Elliot 'pretty', but I called him 'apparently pretty passionate'."

    Yes, I clearly misunderstood, Swede as I am. But since you said there wasn't much substance anyway, I will not try to reinstate it (honestly I don't know how to do it).

  16. Tommy, what an interesting linguistic misunderstanding! This is precisely what form critics did with the text of the Bible, was it not? Just joking... I'm pretty sure the original authors would tear apart some of our exegetical texts on their writings :))

  17. Isn't the problem modern text critics (even some of you) have with Greenlee's book is that it is interpreted and presented in light of Biblical Theism and Inspiration, whereas Elliot's trajectory is geared toward what we are all trained toward today: Atheism (i.e., the field is significant within itself; to gear it as significant to a religious worldview, such as Orthodox Christianity, is to no longer be academic--i.e., Atheistic)?
    I know the comment seems like it's out of nowhere; but it's something I've thought about a lot lately. What is the real beef with someone gearing and interpreting their textual decisions toward any other belief besides one which only considers a non-theistic, human-centered and chaotic explanation?

  18. Bryan,

    No, I don't think that is the case. First, I'm not sure I'd accept the premise that secular text critical training is necessarily geared towards atheism, but setting aside that for a minute, I do think the issue is part of the classic question of how traditional faith can and should engage critical studies. One way, of course, is for faith to attempt to deny the validity of the questions raised by critical studies, and to pretend that problems are really not problems. The other way would be to admit to the reality of those problems and acknowledge that yes, they do present real obstacles to a traditional faith perspective, but then seek to find a way to reformulate the faith that can accomodate the truth of those problems while still being faithful to the truth of God.
    Obviously, by the biased way I formulated the options, I favour the latter option, and the problem is that in this book Greenlee seems to have chosen the former. He goes to great pains, for example, to argue that textual variants do not affect the overall meaning of the text. He blatantly denies, in fact, that there was ever any ideological modification of the text whatsoever. And he claims as fact the imaginative notion of divine preservation. Such claims might be theologically comforting, but they are simply not honest reckonings with the evidence. The facts are that many variants do affect the sense significantly, that many scribes did alter the text in accordance with both orthodox and heterodox agendas, and that the state of the manuscript tradition is not supportive of a doctrine of divine preservation. Those are simply truths, and as the truism goes, all truth is God's truth. Rather than trying to deny that truth in order to protect traditional theology, I think a more evangelical approach would be to accept that truth and move forward in theological reflection on why God might have decided to work that way, and what that decision tells us about his nature.

    Ryan Wettlaufer

  19. Ryan wrote: "He blatantly denies, in fact, that there was ever any ideological modification of the text whatsoever."

    I believe this is an incorrect representation of the views expressed in Greenlee's book. Perhaps you meant to say that Greenlee does not seem to believe in "Orthodox corruption" of scripture, but even that perspective may not be quite correct. You'd have to ask him.

    Ryan wrote: "And he claims as fact the imaginative notion of divine preservation."

    "Imaginative"? This is relatively standard evangelical theology, is it not? Perhaps there is a misunderstanding of exactly what is preserved. I doubt Greenlee believes in the perfect preservation of the manuscript tradition...he's a textual critic after all. I would imagine that he believes in the divine preservation of God's message to humanity, which does not require 100% perfect textual transmission (which would negate faith anyway).

    Ryan wrote: "Such claims might be theologically comforting, but they are simply not honest reckonings with the evidence."

    We should probably avoid such emotionally inflammatory terms and phrases such as "blatantly denies", "imaginative notion", "not honest reckonings". Greenlee is every bit as honest in his "reckonings" as any other text scholar.


  20. Ryan,
    Your actually proving my point. You read them as contradictions, problems, non-preservation, etc. precisely because your training has lead you to remove the metaphysical aspect from your critical analysis. You only put it back in after you have evaluated the evidence from a purely physical worldview. The evidence doesn't "say" anything. It's data. We put an interpretation to that data. I don't know that Greenlee would say that a variant reading doesn't change the text as much as he might say that God has preserved the theology of the Bible (and even the Biblical text)through even the variants. That's a much different take on the data than what has been presented thus far by your evaluation.
    The problem, as I see it, has to do with the fact that our education in general (thus including the science of textual criticism) removes the metaphysical in its evaluation of data, as a traditional enlightenment notion would have us do, primarly because the physical evaluation is seen as neutral or unbiased, whereas the metaphysical is seen as bias and geared toward proving one's own view. This is simply nonsense, as both Naturalism and Christian Theism are alternate worldviews. The former is not the unbiased interpretation of data and the latter biased. Your comments show to me how steeped we are in our educational conditioning to think the opposite.
    For instance, how is Greenlee's interpretation of data as unproblematic due to divine preservation less of a scholarly analysis than Ehrman's, which holds the textual variants to indicate chaos of a text without preservation? One is based on the historic Christian view and one on Ehrman's Philosophic Naturalism.

  21. Dear "C"

    I'm happy to bring the book to the office tomorrow and post cites for you if you would like, but I promise you I have not misrepresented his position in that book in the slightest. As for language and whether it is emotionally inflamatory, we will have to agree to disagree on that. I read his denial, it was very blatant, hence I described it as a blatant denial.
    His discussion of preservation was equally startling. In his earlier Introduction to Textual Criticism he was at least theoretically open to (though not inclined towards) the possibility that the text had experienced total corruption at some points, but in this latest book he appears to retreat from that entirely, saying something like (I'm paraphrasing from memory here) the Holy Spirit must have worked to preserve the original text somewhere in the manuscript tradition at all points because otherwise it would open up the text to emmendation wherever people just didn't like the message of the text. A shift in his thinking? Perhaps, I couldn't say, but he did definitely argue it in this latest book. Let me know if you want those cites.

    Ryan W

  22. Dear Hodge,

    It's not that I necessarily disagree with your point, but I will need you to explain for me further how you see it applying here specifically.

    Taking divine preservation, for example.

    Actually, let's lighten things up a little first by taking a silly example. Let's talk about meatball subs, since it's dinner time, I am hungry, and as soon as I'm done here I intend to go get one.

    The naturalist would not believe that there was any possibility of a meatball sub miraculously appearing on the desk beside me in a minute. They would believe this, of course, because they deny the possibility of miracles.

    Alternately, the one with a supernatural worldview would have to admit that it was perfectly possible for God to make a meatball sub appear beside me. God is a God of miracles, after all, and as miracles go a meatball sub is a rather small and easy one (easy for God anyway, myself not so much).

    Now, as an evangelical I do have a supernatural worldview, which means that I am open to the possibility of the meatball sub miracle, but I will nevertheless hold that miracle up to scientific scrutiny. That is, I'll examine the desk beside me and investigate whether or not there is a meatball sub on it.

    Having just done that, I can tell you that, unfortunately, no meatball miracle has occurred. And I am sure of that too - I am sure because I have examined the evidence and it has told me so.

    Does this mean I have an anti-supernatural world view? Of course not. I am quite open to the possibility that God could make meatball subs appear, I am just also admitting that the evidence so far indicates that God is not choosing to work in that way.

    The same goes for preservation. I am happy to admit that if God had wanted to, he had more than enough power to preserve the text completely. When I come to a decision on whether or not God did that, I am not making any judgement on what I think God can or cannot do, but rather what the evidence suggests God chose to do.

    If God had chose to preserve the text perfectly, then we should expect to find a perfectly preserved text. Since we do not find a perfectly preserved text but instead find a text where all evidence indicates that the original reading has not survived in any manuscript, then the evidence compels me to conclude that God did not choose to act in that way, even though I know he could have had he wanted to.

    Why did God choose not to preserve the text? That's a fascinating question for theological reflection I think.

    Ryan W

  23. Ryan wrote: "He blatantly denies, in fact, that there was ever any ideological modification of the text whatsoever."

    I still doubt that Greenlee "blatantly denies...that there was ever any ideological modification". It seems I remember him talking about heretical variants, and I'm sure he would consider those variants "ideological modification". Perhaps this is a nit-pick. However, I own Scribes, Scrolls, and Scripture (not the new revision), so I welcome any correction.

  24. I am pretty sure that I remember his denial being very explicit, but, you never know, I am getting old and I am still hungry for that meatball sub, so who knows what tricks my memory could be playing. I'll bring in the book tomorrow to check for certain.

  25. "He blatantly denies, in fact, that there was ever any ideological modification of the text whatsoever"

    Greenlee: "Although much less numerous than the unintentional changes, intentional changes comprise a significant number of errors."

    His point is not that there are no ideological modifications, but that orthodoxy has been preserved through them (INTTC 58-59)
    He further argues that the doctrinal changes (which he acknowledges on pp. 60-61) tend toward stronger orthodox readings rather than heretical ones. In what way is he denying ideological changes then? He is only denying that heresy has been preserved instead of orthodoxy.

  26. Ryan,
    You're making me hungry.

    OK. First of all, let's deal with the analogy. It's actually not comparable. We're not talking about something suddenly appearing, but something that has come through natural means (someone shows up to your door with a meatball sub). The question then becomes: Why did they make this sub for you at this time and in this way. So I don't disagree that you look at evidence and then ask questions. My problem is that your "evidence" is heavy laden with your interpretation of that evidence, and there seems to be a confusion on what is data and what is interpretation.
    For instance, concluding that there is a text is not preserved stems not from evidence, but a reading of the evidence. The only evidence that would "prove" such a thing is if you had the originals in order to show that the extant variants did not preserve it. Of course, if you had the original it would be preserved. Hence, universal negatives from silence are self refuting. You can say that according the worldview in which you have been trained, the text's preservation is null and void because there is no divine oversight of that text to preserve it (largely because there is no divine oversight period--thus my atheism comment earlier); but you cannot say that the evidence points you in that direction. Again, data says nothing. We put the story to it, and that story stems from our presuppositions.

    Again, you say that you look at the evidence first and then ask the question, "Why did God not choose to preserve the text?" I would state again that that very statement first assumes the Naturalistic interpretation of the text and subsequently tries then to reformulate Christian doctrines around it. Hence, when you evaluate the evidence, you are an atheist, but when you want to become "theological" as a private religious opinion, you become a Theist. Do you see what I've driving at here. I know it is difficult for all of us to separate data from interpretation, but there seems to be a great need of it due to the dogmatism scholarship has taken when presenting interpretation as fact.

  27. Ryan wrote: "Why did God choose not to preserve the text? That's a fascinating question for theological reflection I think."

    Again, I think there is a distinction that should be made here between the preservation of the physical manuscripts and the preservation of God's message for humanity.

    Were the texts of the Bible preserved 100%? No. This is not in dispute. Was God's message preserved? I believe it was.

    Also, if between 50% - 70% of the Biblical text is "variant-free" as mentioned earlier in this comment section, then can we really say that God "chose not to preserve the text"?

    I think the question (and it is a good one) might be better phrased, "Why did God not perfectly preserve the text of the Bible?"

    I suppose my own suggestion is that perfect physical preservation would remove the need for faith in God and thus also true human freedom. Of course, that is merely theological speculation.

  28. To chime in on that. Preservation depends upon perspective. Leaving text critical issues for a moment, turn to the Synoptics. Why does God purposely choose to preserve His message through variation? That's a more orthodox sounding question. Is it that God is not concerned about the way His message is preserved, just that it is preserved. Is preservation in a single text (like Luke) or meant to be in all of the texts put together? Is it really that God has not preserved the text, or that He has preserved all of it and more in order to convey His message? etc. etc. etc. There are different takes to the textual situation, which include Christian theistic orthodoxy in its analysis.

  29. Alright then, I think the preservation discussion has moved to the new thread, and I'll set aside my charge on the significance of the extent of the variation because that's just too subjective a claim to discuss in this medium (i.e. what dos significant mean?) but I will post one quick follow up on Greenlee's position on ideologial corruption, since I said I would.

    As it turns out, the question is not so simple.

    First, on page 74 Greenlee does have a section titled "did Scribes Intentionally Corrupt the New Testament Text?"

    In this section he says:

    "To admit, as we have, that scribes at times made intentional changes in the MSS they were copying may raise fears in the minds of some people that scribes may have deliberately falsified or watered down the text of the New Testament in some passages. We need to have no such fears. The scribes who copied the New Testament mss, especially in the earliest period when most of the variants developed, were doing so because thez wanted to make the message available to more readers, not to change it. In the later centuries, scribes were often monks who were copying the MSS as part of their religious duties, often without really understanding the Greek they were copying. These later scribes were hardly in a position to introduce subtle heresies into their MSS. I have personally examined some seven or eight thousand New Testament variants wth a good deal of care, and I would be hard pressed to make even a brief list of variants that give evidence that a scribe was attempting to weaken or falsify the message." (pp. 74-75)

    From this passage it really sounds like Greenlee is denying really any ideological corruption. It is not perfectly clear because rather than using the phrase "ideological corruption" (understandable given the readership) he says things like "weaken the message" but if there is a better way to interpret this passage than as a denial of the existence of ideological corruption, then - honeslt - I am open to hearing it.

    However, there's more.

    further down the page Greenlee takes up Ehrman:

    "In recent years it has become increasingly popular for some scholars to exagerate the extent to which early copyists of the New Testament MSS intentionally altered the biblical text to fit their own theological prejudices."

    Now in that line he appears to be admitting the existence of some ideological corruption, but implies that there was only a small amount of it (since its existence is now being "exagerated"). This runs counter to how I naturally read the first passage. He continues though:

    "Some of these scholars argue that these intentional or theological textual corruptions have significantly distorted the mesage given by the original biblical authors."

    This next claim is uncertain in my mind. Ehrman, for example, does certainly argue that ideological corruption exists, but does he argue that it significantly distorted the message given by the original biblical authors?

    Anyway, I promised some cites from Greenlee, and there they are. I look forward to hearing how you interpret them.


  30. Thanks for the quotes, Ryan, but I can't help but feel that you may be performing a bit of eisegesis on Greenlee's text. Regardless, without him here to straighten us both out, further discussion is probably pointless on this issue of theology.

    I, personally, thought Hodges addressed your initial point well enough with his quote from Greenlee:

    Ryan wrote: "He blatantly denies, in fact, that there was ever any ideological modification of the text whatsoever"

    Greenlee: "Although much less numerous than the unintentional changes, intentional changes comprise a significant number of errors."

  31. Anon,

    In the quotes you compare, however, it is uncler to me the degree to which "intentional changes" encompasses "ideological corruption." All B is A, but not all A is B.

    My reading of Greenlee, which could be wrong, is that he sees ideological corruption as having played a very minor role, if any role at all, and having no enduring impact on the text.

    I think you're right though, unless Greenlee should come to clarify, this horse is pretty much dead.