Thursday, March 10, 2016

ETC Interview with Chuck Hill: Part 1

I am pleased to introduce our next interviewee in our ETC interviews series. Dr. Charles E. Hill completed his PhD on eschatology in the early Church at the University of Cambridge under Lord Rowan Williams of Oystermouth (yes, they still use such fantastic titles in England). More recently Dr. Hill has turned his attention to issues of NT text and canon in his Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy (2010) and The Early Text of the New Testament (2012) which includes several contributions from our ETC bloggers. He is also a member of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas and is currently the John R. Richardson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Florida. Thanks to Pete Head for some of these questions.

PG: Few people probably know that your first degree was in fine art and you worked for a period as a graphic artist (a fine job to have, if I may say so). Is there any particular piece of art that you find yourself coming back to again and again?

CH: Not really, though I would say that I find myself being more and more fascinated by the beauty of creation. I can stare at trees and clouds for a long time (hopefully this is not just a sign of aging). I still have favorite artists: Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Dürer, Caravaggio, and now, my kids. Somebody else who heard of my art background and didn’t realize that I’ve been out of it for the past several decades actually invited to give a lecture this spring on Salvador Dali before leading a tour through the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, FL. That ought to be an interesting experience.

Readers of this blog will probably be familiar with your more recent text critical work, but your Cambridge dissertation was on the topic of eschatology in early Christian thought. Having worked on that topic, what led to your interest in textual criticism?

In the early nineties I was given a book on the Muratorian Fragment to review. At the time, I didn’t know very much about the formation of the NT canon per se. But having spent a great deal of time in the second century for my dissertation, I found several of this author’s conceptions about the second-century writers to be at odds with those I had developed. The experience of writing that review, along with some other things that were happing in scholarship at about that time (Bart Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, for example), convinced me that the issues of canon and text were ones where there might be a real need for scholarship.

Shortly after that, I came to RTS, where teaching both NT textual criticism and the NT canon happened to fall to my lot. From very early on I also had an interest in manuscripts. I think the art background was certainly part of that, not only because of the aesthetics of the manuscripts, but also the artefactual, material-culture aspect. Maybe for all these reasons, and because I was not trained as a textual critic, my particular interest has not been so much on what you might call textual criticism in the traditional sense, the art/science and methods of establishing the text. I’ve been most interested in what happened with the text in the process of transmission, in how Christians were using the text, and in what the NT manuscripts as material objects can tell us about those things. We live in very exciting times, as you know, with more and more discoveries and with the wonderful increased access to digitized images. I hope this will lead to a real renaissance of manuscript and textual scholarship.

Your work on eschatology in the early church and on the canonization of the Gospels has made you quite at home in the second century. Do you think of yourself more as a New Testament scholar or a Patristics scholar? 

When applying to graduate schools I couldn’t decide whether to focus on NT or early Christianity. At Oxford my proposal was in NT, at Cambridge patristics. Cambridge accepted me (clerical error or not…). Ultimately, and long-term, I was most interested in teaching the NT, but I was also very much attracted to the early, post-NT church and its writers and wanted to study them. I also had this idea that the best NT scholars I knew of—at least in past generations—were also patristic scholars. Cambridge was a great place to indulge that notion. Where else could you go and pick up books in the Divinity School library that once belonged to J. B. Lightfoot or B. F. Westcott and read their marginal notes, walk up the stairs and hear papers read in the old Lightfoot room under the gaze of the namesake’s portrait (condolences to Cambridge students who came after the old building was abandoned), then bike by Westcott House on the way home? Having the privilege of being around a number of great NT and patristic scholars working in and around Cambridge at that time did nothing to refute the idea that a person could be a patristic scholar and still be quite competent in NT studies, or vice-versa. 

What have you found the value of patristic studies for the New Testament? Is it an area where more New Testament scholars ought to be engaging?

From the early patristic period you learn a lot about the continuities and discontinuities of the Christian faith as it developed, and a lot about how the first readers of the NT books understood those books. This often creates important pathways back to the text. Seeing the early impact that Jesus and his message made in the Greco-Roman world can help correct the sometimes anachronistic suppositions we bring to the text. I think there is always a tendency for NT scholarship to get cooped up and even ingrown in its own debates.

Taking a wider-angle view, seeking to encompass both the world leading up to and contemporary with the NT (we typically do a better job at that in seminary and in NT studies) as well as the world as affected by the coming of Jesus and the NT message, I think, is a great benefit. These days it’s more and more difficult to have multiple competencies. But I think the ideal should never die, and if I can play any part in keeping that ideal alive for others, I’ll be happy. So yes, I do think it is a focus that more NT scholars ought to have.

Most of your writing is directed at the academic community and, in many ways, this sets you apart from many other Evangelical scholars. What have you found to be the benefits and downsides of such a focus and would you advise other Evangelical scholars to follow your example?

I think it is mostly a matter of the needs and opportunities you see around you, and how these interface with your gifts (or, as in my case, limitations) and what you think you are called to do. A former colleague used to ask me all the time, ‘Why don’t you write a popular book?’ My answer was always ‘Because I don’t have any popular thoughts.’ The bottom line is that I think I’ve been given opportunities that most people don’t get, so I think I’ve had a responsibility to pursue those opportunities. It does require being deliberate about that focus when other opportunities come along, but the way I see it, there are a lot of people who can do the other things better than I can.

So, I can’t really advocate a focus for anyone else, except to say that I do think it is tremendously important that evangelical/confessional scholars participate as fully as they can in the larger scholarly enterprise. Today more than ever in my working lifetime I think there is potential for evangelical scholars changing the conversation at various points. So, I would encourage young scholars who are at the beginnings of their careers to place a high priority on developing their scholarly interests and publishing, for the sake of the kingdom.

As to the downsides of focusing on addressing the academic community, well, maybe you won’t be as marketable to many evangelical institutions if you don’t do as much speaking or produce as much writing that is accessible to a wider audience. And, unless you live in a place like Cambridge, a lot of your friends, family, fellow church members, or institutional personnel won’t understand what it is that you do! Most people have heard of people who write as part of their profession, but they are puzzled to no end when they find out you don’t make any money doing it. You have to believe in the value of it, even when most people you know may not.

But again, I think so much depends upon the particular needs you see and the opportunities you encounter.

How do you cope with the emotion of reading reviews of your own work, both those that praise and those that criticize? Can you share any advice with younger Christian scholars on how to appropriate the reactions of other scholars to your own work?

First try not to get emotional, which is tough, because people who review your work badly are always ignoramuses who just didn’t understand what you were doing! Try to ignore and not respond to the minor and sometimes petty criticisms and try to make the substantive criticisms constructive, even if they weren’t meant that way. And try to take a long view of your work. If you are convinced that your work is important, keep at it. Concentrate on quality rather than quantity.

If you get a good review, say a prayer of thanks and then move on to the next project.

In your view, how did the process of canonization affect the New Testament’s textual transmission?

I imagine you might be referring to the question of whether the appreciation of a work as Scripture would enhance the careful reproduction of a book or detract from it. Well, cases have been made for both opinions, and I think it is actually a fairly complex question. A common idea, expressed by Koester, Petersen, and others, is that nobody particularly cared about copying any NT books very carefully until maybe the very late second century or early third, because nobody thought these books were that important. Therefore, freedom (Petersen: ‘chaos’) reigned until the need for some stability finally began to assert itself. Colwell on the other hand thought that the ‘canonicity’ of a book led to more rather than fewer intentional alterations, because the stakes were higher.

There are a number of ways in which the recognition of a book as Scripture, ironically, must have led to the introduction of variations in the text. Some of these were ‘theologically motivated,’ but I think that was fairly rare. One of the chief causes of variation is simply the number of times a book is copied without really meticulous correction. The books most highly valued will tend to be copied more, both by churches and by individual Christians who wanted their own copies for personal use. Hence the relatively high proportions of variations in the Gospels as opposed to some of the less ‘popular’ or less-widely-recognized books. Another cause of changes was the assumption that the sacred text must show consistency. Harmonization between Gospels, a phenomenon we see in some of our earliest Gospel manuscripts, presupposes that these Gospels were being read together and, if done consciously, must have been based on the assumption that these Gospels cannot really disagree. The tendency to correct the grammar or vocabulary of the text to something more ‘readable’ was perhaps justified by an assumption that a sacred text must have that quality and that a previous scribe must have flubbed. Other changes probably resulted precisely from the practice of turning the copying over to ‘professionals’ who may not have been believers, and who may have smoothed out the text grammatically or otherwise simply because that’s what professionals tended to do. Barbara Aland has suggested that was the case with P45.

As to the idea that nobody cared enough about our NT books to copy them carefully and accurately until the end of the second century, I think that is demonstrably false. Leave aside the term ‘canonical’ for the moment; it is undeniable that certain texts, books and letters, were highly prized in the Christian churches from the beginning. There are many good reasons for thinking that the works that make up our NT were received, at least by some, as Scripture, or as bearing apostolic authority that was tantamount to that of Scripture, from the start. And in any case, we have clear documentation from 2 Peter, 1 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, Aristides, and others that churches kept archives that included Paul’s letters, Gospels, and no doubt other written materials. The books in these collections were the common property of stable social groups that maintained their existence throughout the period. There was recurrent and, in some cases, practically continuous interface with these books. Their reading and exposition were done publicly. Not only this, but there was communication between geographically dispersed churches that referenced many of these books. Clearly all of these things presume a need for relative textual stability from early on. These social realities, which are authenticated by the historical sources, do not, of course guarantee that texts were always reproduced accurately. Nor was there any way to prevent copies that were out in circulation (not kept by the communities in archives) from being copied more carelessly, and modified in various ways for various purposes. What these things do indicate, I think, is that there were always factors at work in and among the churches that ensured a need and promoted an ideal of stable copying of books that were in common use among a dispersion of Christian communities.

We see the same ideal manifested in two more sets of evidence, each of which has a bearing on both ‘text’ and ‘canon’. First there are the actual statements in literary sources from church leaders of the time, for instance Dionysius of Corinth, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, who, in their complaining about bad or mischievous copying, show a clear and consistent concern for preserving the authentic text of ‘the Scriptures of the Lord’ (Dionysius’s expression). Dionysius is writing probably in the 170s but the same underlying attitude is reflected in Polycarp’s condemnation of anyone who would ‘pervert the oracles of the Lord’ (Phil. 7.1, whether he is talking specifically about copying those oracles or not). And even earlier is the documentary clause of Rev. 22:18–19.

Second, there are the physical properties of the early NT manuscripts themselves, as people like Eldon Epp, Larry Hurtado, Scott Charlesworth, and others have helped us to appreciate. No matter how the use of the codex among Christians originated (I favor the idea that it began with Paul’s own collection of his letters kept in notebook form), its virtually wholesale adoption by Christians for their sacred books probably reflects an intention to distinguish them from other books. This would mean there was an implicit notion of canon at work even before you could say there was a consensus agreement on the exact boundaries of the Scriptures. The effectiveness of this way of distinguishing books would fade, because competitors could imitate the codex and because it was beginning to catch on in the wider culture. But the early adoption suggests a high valuation of the books, and a high regard for the text (why would you go to the extra trouble of constructing a codex if you didn’t plan to put a good text in it?), particularly when we see that Christians were transmitting Greek OT texts in this way as well. The scribally-produced ‘readers aids’ that we see in many of our earliest manuscripts also suggest a public reading context, which in most cases (because of what we know from literary sources) would be suggestive of liturgical contexts. What I don’t think has been so well appreciated is that the early attempts to mark by various visual means the textual divisions of the NT books (we see this already in P4, P64+67, P77, P90, P66, P75) was modeled on Jewish copies of their Scriptures, both in Hebrew and in Greek. This ‘sacred Scriptural’ background (rather than the documentary Greek background assumed by Roberts and others) is another probable indicator that these NT books were being treated like Scripture.

So the appreciation of a book as Scripture, on the one hand, probably helped protect the book from major rewriting and helped ensure careful copying and checking, especially in ecclesiastically controlled contexts. But on the other hand it may have generated a higher number of minor errors due to frequent copying, while also giving rise to the impulse to produce a text ‘worthy’ of its sacred status. This seems consistent with what Mike Holmes has said about there being a great deal of macro-level stability but also significant micro-level variation in our NT textual tradition.


  1. Anachronism warning: "Dr. Charles E. Hill completed his PhD on eschatology in the early Church at the University of Cambridge under Lord Rowan Williams of Oystermouth."

  2. Point of information: the portrait of J.B. Lightfoot still dominates the new Lightfoot Room in the new(ish) Faculty Building. Admittedly it is a little lacking in romance compared with the old Lightfoot Room in the Old Faculty building, but at least everything works.

  3. "People who review your work badly are always ignoramuses who just didn’t understand what you were doing."

    So have I always thought.

    As a corollary, invoking Will Rogers: One hardly ever meets a reviewer that actually liked a book.

  4. "Try to ignore and not respond to the minor and sometimes petty criticisms and try to make the substantive criticisms constructive, even if they weren’t meant that way."

    I think that's great advice.

    Part of the problem though is that people make petty and minor criticisms in the first place.

    I used to do that all the time. I think I picked up the idea in highschool debate club. It seems to be part of the "win at all costs" mentality: throw everything you've got at 'em.

    So if you disagree with an author, fine, dispute their main point. But don't just stop there! Make sure to point out every other little problem you can find too, even if it doesn't actually affect the main point one way or the other. Any points you can score are good points, right? The result will still be to paint them cumulatively as incompetent, which will then call the main point into question by proxy, right? right!

    Wrong, of course.

    It was my college literature professor who finally pointed out to me that my cheap shots - "kitchen sink arguments" he called them, i.e. throw everything at them including the kitchen sink - were really just thinly disguised ad hominems.

    Ever since then I've tried, and hopefully succeeded, to refrain from that kind of thing.

    I wish everyone would.

    But, so long as some reviewers insist on pointing out every minor mistake or typo in a vain attempt to appear more clever than an author with whom they disagree but cannot otherwise disprove, then I think Hill's advice to ignore them is the very best. Engaging them would only encourage them.