Wednesday, March 23, 2016

ETC Interview with Chuck Hill: Part 2

This is part 2 of our interview with Chuck Hill. Part 1 is here.

In The Early Text of the NT, you suggest that David Parker “gives the impression that concern for the original text is simply a religious phenomenon, driven by pressure from churches who desire an ‘authoritative text’” (p. 4). You point out, rightly in my opinion, that religious belief is hardly the only motivation for seeking a work’s original text. But what is the relationship between a high view of Scripture (as found, say, in the Westminster Confession) and the quest for the original text? Is such a view of scripture viable without the concept of a single original text?

Having a high view of Scripture, as you pointed out, is not the only motivation for seeking an original text. I don’t know why anyone would make that assumption. But is a high view of Scripture viable without ‘the concept of a single original text’? The short answer, I suppose, has to be ‘yes’, but it depends, of course, on what is meant by ‘the concept of a single original text.’ You can, of course, make a distinction between the original text (let’s just define it as the text as it left the author’s hands for the last time, with the author’s intent for release) and the ‘Initial text’ or Ausgangstext (the text we reconstruct as the source of all the known readings). But even the ‘Initial text’ is a form of the text that originated with the author. Different compositional stages of a book (e.g., a book before the author added a prologue, or decided to insert new material, etc.) are not different editions of the book, and it just seems like obfuscation to bring them into the picture.

The main, possible complication, I suppose, would be if the author did make a second edition (as some people have argued for the text of Acts). Let’s say (for the sake of argument) Paul sent a letter to the Roman church and kept his own personal copy, then later modified his copy in some way, intending to make this revised copy the basis for copies that would be more widely distributed to the churches, perhaps along with a collection of his letters. In this case you could say there are two ‘original’, authorial texts of Romans, essentially two editions.

Each of these would have originated with the author with his intention to be ‘released’ or published. Each one, I think we would have to say, was inspired, written by Paul in the exercise of his apostolic ministry. So here we would have two ‘originals’. In my opinion, the natural standard we would be seeking (if we could tell the difference) would be the final version that left Paul’s control, as representing the author’s final, intended ‘original’, even if it was not the ‘original’ original.

Or, let’s say that the ‘release’ of a book like Revelation, or even one of the Gospels, for that matter, was marked by the sending out of several ‘initial’ copies as part of the release. What if there were minor scribal differences between them? In this case, presumably there was still one single master copy from which other copies were made, which would be the logical ‘original’. But what if this, or any other, first exemplar itself contained errors that were made and somehow not corrected, in the inscription process? Then the ‘original’ text, or the normative text, would presumably go back to the author’s intention, no matter what happened between thought and words appearing on a page. This is why Warfield, in his book on NT textual criticism, identified the original text as the text intended by the author.

You teach in an institution that holds the Bible to be “absolutely and finally authoritative as the inerrant Word of God.” How do you respond to critics who say that such a belief is necessarily restrictive and even incompatible with the academic study of the Bible? Does belief in inerrancy restrict your scholarship in any way?

Yes, I’m sure it has restricted the number of stupid things I would otherwise have said. I can’t say I feel restricted in a negative way. Inerrancy can be defined in unhelpful ways but I see it not as ‘a thing in itself’ so much as simply a corollary of a couple of very basic articles of the Christian faith: that God is true and cannot lie, and that Scripture is his word. If we were starting over today, perhaps we would have found another word besides ‘inerrancy’ because it seems so prone to misunderstanding. But it has entered the theological vocabulary and it does have its value – and not to affirm it sounds a lot like not affirming God’s truthfulness. God speaks in a way that is ultimately true, not false. For me, that doesn’t predetermine very much about what the text must say or look like; God might speak, and speak truly, in ways and in forms I don’t expect. Human language (which God seems happy to employ, thankfully, because we are humans) is full of surprises.

It’s true that my convictions about God and Scripture will make me loathe to declare historical or theological problems in Scripture to be real errors or material contradictions, preferring instead to lay out options and sometimes withhold judgment until more evidence is in. But I don’t know why that should be judged to be incompatible with academic study. The ability to jump to conclusions should not be considered an essential attribute of academic scholarship. (I know that might be controversial.)

I think those who have a high appreciation for the divinity of Scripture will often look at a text much more carefully and insightfully than those who don’t, who might be satisfied with (or even eager to take) a shallower and less sympathetic treatment. And, of course, I think we would have much, much deeper problems without such a God who has spoken to us in Scripture.

If you had a particularly gifted student who wanted to pursue graduate work in textual criticism or canonicity (or both!), are there any particular issues you might want to steer them toward? Any you would advise them to avoid?

Studies of particular manuscripts are now starting to come into their own, and this is a good thing that should be encouraged in every way. I think the study of textual division is one area that holds a lot of potential (see on next question).

Sorting out the issues behind what has been called the ‘Western’ textual tradition, in my view, would be helpful, particularly the relationship between the early Latin and Syriac translations and their presumed Greek Vorlagen. How much of what has been attributed to a Greek Vorlage is really a result of translation technique? I don’t think the Greek fragments of Irenaeus that contain Biblical citations have been adequately analyzed and compared with the Greek manuscripts and the Old Latin translation(s).

More work is being done on early patristic appropriations of Scriptural texts, and that is a welcome sign, but more can still be done. More attention could be given to early Christian book collections, of churches or of individuals. There are a number of signs that Christians in the second half of the second century already believed that Scripture consisted of a ‘closed collection’ of books. These could be explored further.

I can’t think of any to avoid, except anything that won’t hold your interest for years of study.

2016 Academic Lecture  |  Listen here

Dr. Charles E. Hill, delivers the Spring 2016 Academic Lecture at RTS Orlando on the theory of the early development of the NT text. Offering an alternative solution to long held views.

Can you share any of your current research projects with us?

Of most interest to readers of this blog might be the work I’m doing on textual divisions in early manuscripts. For the Michael Holmes FS I did an investigation of early manuscripts of John, focusing on what appears to be a very early template for textual division, best preserved in P75 and in B. Among other things, I think it indicates that the scribes of Vaticanus probably had access to a very early copy, or copies, of John. My paper at SBL last November (2015) carried the study through to the other three Gospels, and I’m hoping to take this research further.

Following up on the work begun in ETNT, I’m working on updating the prevailing theoretical model for the early development of the NT text. Extending work on the Johannine Corpus (The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church) I’m also working on a book on the composition of John, in which I’m revisiting theories of multiple editions of the Gospel. Also I’m writing something on the socio-theological context of 13 John. If I should live long enough, I’m hoping to write a commentary on John.

Dr. Hill, thank you so much for your time and experience.

Thank you for your interest!


  1. It is interesting that Warfield defined the text of a work to be 'the original, or better still, the intended [i]ipsissima verba[i] of the author'. It seemed that Warfield distinguished between what the author thought and what the author actually wrote: 'The author himself fails to put correctly on paper the words that lie in his mind.' (quoted from Pete Williams' essay in the Enduring Authority (ed. D.A. Carson, 2016), 398-399.

  2. The “author’s final intent” has sometimes been the stated goal in the editing modern works where the author may have been involved in multiple stages of the work or where an editor has made additional changes. But it can get tricky trying to identify where one person’s intent stops and another’s starts.