Thursday, November 26, 2009

Panel on Textual Criticism and Exegesis in New Orleans III

Jim has already posted on Larry Hurtado's presentation. Next was my presentation, entitled "Surrounded by a Cloud of Witnesses." I have already described it briefly here, but to rehearse a little, my main point was this:
Variants that are judged as textual corruptions of the initial text, nevertheless stand in a direct or indirect hermeneutical relationship to the initial text, and as such they are more or less valuable for understanding that text.

I used Luke 10:41-42 (Jesus' response to Martha) in order to illustrate the point. The NASB text reads:

But the Lord answered and said to her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but {only} one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her."

My own interpretation of this passage is the following: Jesus is saying to Martha that there is one thing in life that is more important than everything else, and that is to be in his presence. That is what Mary has chosen and she should not be blaimed for doing so. According to the poll here on the blog 29 responses agreed with this interpretation, whereas 9 responses disagreed, so the small sample at least indicates that this is a common interpretation.

Now the UBS committee thought that the third reading, which is reflected in the NASB translation, is the most difficult reading because of the absolutenss of ενος (one thing) which can be perceived as a strong rebuke of Martha – scribes asked: Weren’t Martha’s preparations necessary? and so the other smoother readings originated.

As a result of the absolute interpretation on the part of some scribes, the first change that happened in the textual tradition according to the committee was a substitution of ολιγων (a few things) for ενος, in order to stress that Martha’s activity was also important, although Mary made a better choice (την αγαθην μεριδα). This is the second reading. Then the fourth reading developed as a conflation, that is, a combination of the second and third reading, combining ενος and ολιγων, with ”disastrous results as to sense” but is this scenario really likely from the viewpoint of external evidence?

Is it possible that the fourth reading, attested by a wide array of important witnesses including 𝔓3, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, could have developed from the second reading extant only in one Greek minuscule, 38, and some versions? Theoretically, it is not impossible, but it is very unlikely. Besides, even the word order of the fourth reading speaks against this possibility.

Gordon Fee has argued persuasively that the real choice is between the third and fourth readings, one is clearly a revision of the other. The real question is which variant that can best be explained as the revision of the other. The choice must be made on internal grounds given that both readings are so well attested.

What then is the meaning of the fourth reading, ”but few things are necessary, or only one”? Jonathan Borland drew the attention to a 19th century commentator, Wilhelm Meyer who thought it originated because of the explanation which takes the passage and the word ENOS as referring to one dish. Martha worried about many things, but just a few or one dish was necessary to prepare. However, Fee follows Godet’s interpretation which is less culinaric, ”few things are necessary,” that is, for the body, ”or only one,” that is, for the soul. Fee identifies this as the more difficult reading which led a scribe to clarify by omitting the perplexing reference to a ”few things,” because ultimately only one thing is necessary and that is what Mary chose.

Fee further thinks the variation between γαρ and δε among witnesses in the third reading reflects the fact that the fourth reading, where γαρ makes more sense, is original. The γαρ introduces an explanation, ”but few things are necessary, or only one, for [γαρ] Mary has chosen the good part...”

Okay, but if the fourth reading is initial, and the third reading is smoother, is there another way of interpreting it than a strong rebuke of Martha? Otherwise we just have one difficult reading originating from another difficult reading. Fee does not answer this question clearly in his treatment. In fact, when he concludes his argument for the fourth reading he says that "if we accept the fourth reading then the text is not so much a ’put down’ of Martha, as it is a gentle rebuke for her anxiety." So in the end Fee implies that he still interprets the third reading as a "put down," which hardly makes it a smooth reading. He does, however, point out that the third reading never seems to have given anyone trouble in antiquity among those who comment on the text.

So is there an alternative smooth interpretation of this reading? I suggest the following:

Jesus could have meant that Martha worried about many things when only one thing was necessary for the moment, that is, focus on what you are doing and don’t worry about the many things that you cannot attend to now. And then he went on to say that Mary focused on one thing and that was the good part (or the best part if you will).

In conclusion, external and internal evidence in my opinion suggest that the fourth reading has priority. Notwithstanding, the study of the readings in the passage made me aware of several alternative interpretations, specifically a smooth interpretation of that reading which is now adopted in NA27.

Finally, if any reader was there at NOBTS and took a picture of us, I would be grateful to have a copy.


  1. Why do you want to avoid a rebuke? That is what one expects. It fits well.
    What the scribe/editor wanted was a clear, straightforward text. That's what we have in the txt reading.

  2. Hi WW. Let me clarify: I am not wanting to "avoid" a rebuke. I am looking at different possibilities of interpreting the passage, which has bearing on the question of transcriptional probability, and the general exegesis of the passage.

    If the txt reading is a rebuke, don't you think it could have been offensive to some scribes? Was Martha wrong to prepare the meal? On the other hand, if the longer reading is initial, as you suggest in your textual commentary, could the third reading, that developed from the fourth reading, be something else than a rebuke? Is the alternative interpretation that I suggest another possible "straightforward" interpretation, which is an even smoother reading? Would that possibility not affect transcriptional probability?

    Bottom line:
    - the fourth reading is obscure and therefore difficult
    - the third reading may be a straightforward rebuke, which could have caused offense to some scribes
    - the third reading may also be a straightforward statement to focus on one thing and not worry about many things
    - there have been different ways of interpreting the passage and its readings, on the part of ancient scribes and modern readers. It is important to explore these interpretations.

    Does this make sense?

  3. If the txt reading is a rebuke, don't you think it could have been offensive to some scribes?
    Otherwise I agree with you.