Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Goal(s) of New Testament Textual Criticism

Recently, my co-blogger Peter Gurry participated in a conversation on the topic of how Christians should approach textual criticism and textual variation in manuscripts in a podcast hosted by Josh Gibbs (here and here).

In the wake of the debate between the participants, Jeff Riddle, a reformed baptist pastor in Virginia and proponent of the Textus Receptus, appeals on his blog (here) to my recent book (with Jennifer Knust) To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story (Princeton, 2019) as proof of David C. Parker’s great influence on the discipline in recent years, and more particular, “the postmodern shift that has taken place in contemporary text criticism and the abandonment of any certainty with respect to the reconstruction of the autograph.”

It is true that the focus of our book is not on the initial text of the pericope adulterae (to reconstruct the text of this story), although we do touch on that matter. Neither is the focus on the initial text of John, although we make very clear our opinion that the pericope adulterae is not a part of the initial text of John and why, where and how we think it entered John at a later stage. The authenticity of the pericope adulterae, on the other hand, was the focus of a symposium at SEBTS a few years ago, where I actually met Jeff Riddle in the audience (conference volume here).

In To Cast the First Stone, however, we are interested in how the pericope adulterae traveled in the history of transmission as we explain in the first chapter:
Our interpretation therefore begins not with the search for an original or initial text but with the available textual objects, each of which tells its own story, and with the readings of these distinctive objects by the communities that produced and interpreted them. (p. 46)
The point I would like to clarify in this blogpost – which I also had to clarify in the review session of the book at the SBL in Denver 2018 in conversation with Bart Ehrman – was that I think it is a big mistake to think that one perspective, or goal of textual criticism must exclude the other. For me it is not an “either-or” but rather it is a “both-and.” I am interested in both the initial text and the whole history of the text. I pointed out that my other recent book, the introduction to the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method, co-written with Peter Gurry in 2017, is very focused on the initial text, as we explain the new method used for the Novum Testamentum Graecum Editio Critica Maior (and in extension future Nestle-Aland editions) to reconstruct the critical text of the Greek New Testament.

I have had to repeat this point over and over again, because there are clearly scholars who are “either-or”-oriented on both sides and want to play out their perspective against the other. There are those who stick to their reconstructed or received text and pay less attention to textual variants (they are of binary character, to use Eldon Epp’s language, either in or out), and, conversely, there are scholars disinterested in the classic goal of textual criticism – to reconstruct an initial (or original) text – and this is true for textual criticism in general. With a renewed focus on material culture, ancient media studies, New Philology and Digital Humanities we have seen a resurgence of interest in manuscripts (texts and paratexts), scribes and textual variants (as “windows”into the social history of Christianity), etc., but I would like to see this as a broadening of the field where different perspectives can be mutually fruitful.

I am now delighted to see that the current issue of Early Christianity is devoted to “New Testament Textual Criticism: The State of the Question.” In the opening article, “New Testament Textual Criticism in 2020: A (Selective) Survey of the Status Questionis,” nestor and co-blogger Michael W. Holmes, describes the field, incidentally by focusing on two recent publications, the Editio Critica Maior of Acts and To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story.

I want to conclude this blogpost by citing from Holmes’ fourth section, a discussion of the scope or goal(s) of New Testament textual criticism, where he eloquently expresses what I am trying to convey:
The “debate” about whether New Testament textual criticism has a single goal or multiple goals – in effect, a conversation between those who tend to lose interest in variants once they prove to be secondary, and those who view the “afterlives” of (at least some) secondary readings as a worthy topic of research – is unlikely to reach a definitive conclusion, largely because it involves a matter of opinion rather than fact. Furthermore, the conversation goes astray to the extent that it frames the debate as an “either-or” question. To be sure, determining the form of the earliest text(s) to which we have access will usually carry some degree of diachronic or logical priority in that it provides a point of reference from which to discern and assess later developments in the history of the text. At the same time, the study of the variant forms of texts that influenced and shaped the individuals and communities that read and valued these texts is no less worthy of investigation; indeed, as Knust and Wasserman demonstrate, sometimes the variant forms had far more impact than the earlier form(s). That the study of the variant forms may at some point seem more wirkungsgeschichtlich than text-critical does not change the fact that both creation and reception are important aspects of the life of a text, and equally worthy of study. The decision to focus on one, the other, or both is a matter of personal preference: those who wish to focus on a single goal, per the tradition, are free to do so, as are those who prefer to define the matter more broadly. (p. 13–14)


  1. Interesting as may be the intellectual/social/etc history of the (reception of) the text, by far the most important thing for both committed Christians serious non-Christians, is whether we have the original text nor something very nearly approaching it.

  2. Tommy Wasserman4/24/2020 8:12 am

    And one of the points here is that to reach that text it is rather important to understand textual history on the whole.

    1. Dr. W.,
      I believe this is a point that those who, like Dr. Riddle, hold to a confessional text position ignore or misunderstand. I, for one, hold to a position that still believes that the goal of TC is ascertaining the original text, yet I also believe that each manuscript, with all of it’s variations, is necessary to that endeavor. First, each manuscript is and was the Word of God to its readers. Second, each manuscript gives us further evidence to evaluate these variations as they were passed down through time and importantly used within the Church.

  3. While every manuscript has its own story and *may* in some manner reflect possible emphases of the scribe(s) and/or community producing and utilizing such, it is obvious that current emphases on these mostly ephemeral aspects have clearly overshadowed, obscured, and almost totally replaced the original intent and goal of NTTC, namely to recognize and establish as firmly as possible the closest approximation to the autographic text. The gains in this regard do not appear to outweigh the resultant losses in my opinion.

    1. What would you say is the overall goal of the ECM project?