Monday, October 21, 2019

Lessons from a Neglected Variant

Last week I was asked to present some research to doctoral students in Southern Seminary’s 1892 Club. I presented on work I am currently doing on Eph 5.22 (see here). For this audience, I wanted to draw out some specific text-critical lessons aimed at budding NT scholars. Here’s what I told them.
  1. Don’t assume that all text-critical work is done. The NA editors are clear to say that their edition is a “working text.” It should not just be accepted as correct de facto. Nor should we assume that it must be right because its editors are better text critics than we are. They may be, but they too have blind spots, they make mistakes, they may overlook evidence. As Martin West writes, “editors are not always people who can be trusted... [the reader] should be prepared to consider the facts presented in the apparatus and exercise his own judgment on them. He must do so in places where the text is important to him for some further purpose” (Textual Criticism, 8–9). 
  2. Do not be afraid to challenge the consensus. Too many commentators do little beyond parroting Metzger on textual issues or (worse?) they simply repeat the commentators who came before them. Others show only little awareness of the details of textual criticism. Most have never spent serious time—if any—with a NT manuscript. Their knowledge of the mechanics of scribal work is almost always secondhand.
  3. Even the best manuscripts have plenty of mistakes. The temptation of external evidence is that it seems so objective when it is not. When facing doubt about the internal evidence, it is often easiest to fall back on the “earliest and best manuscripts.” But even the earliest and best manuscripts have many mistakes! We may not know that because they are not all recorded in our NA apparatus. But there are plenty. There is no reason to think that P46 or B are infallible. They are not. No manuscript or group of manuscripts is. None should be sacrosanct in our text critical work.
  4. Not all variants are insignificant. Finally, it is a good and important apologetic point to make that the vast majority of our variants do not affect the meaning and therefore do not affect Christian doctrine or practice. But this variant is a clear example of how some—admittedly very few—variants can and do have bearing on our theology and practice. [More on this point in my chapter here.] The lack of a verb in Eph 5.22 is cited regularly in evangelical debates about the nature of marriage. It is almost always used to clinch the argument that Paul commands mutual submission rather than unilateral submission in marriage. In other words, the textual decision has direct bearing for many on the very practical question of how spouses should relate to one another in Christian marriage.
  5. Textual criticism is necessary to engage in. It cannot simply be left to the experts nor can it be set aside as a completed project as if there is nothing left to do. You too can correct the Nestle-Aland!
My thanks to Jonathan Pennington for the invitation and to the students and faculty for their questions and insights. 

1 comment

  1. Dr. Gurry,

    Thank you for the very interesting post! There's a couple of statement's which you make that have me thinking. They are, 1.) "...even the earliest and best manuscripts have many mistakes! We may not know that because they are not all recorded in our NA apparatus." and 2.) "...knowledge of the mechanics of scribal work is almost always secondhand."

    Considering that Swanson is about the best (and most affordable) source to consult and gain knowledge on either of these two matters. My question is, does anyone have any information on a/the future completion of Swanson's all too valuable work? I thought I had read somewhere that this project has been picked up with the intention of finishing the work on through Revelation. Thanks. -MMR