Monday, December 14, 2020

Final Video: Shah on the Goalpost of New Testament Textual Criticism


The last video from my TC class is now up at YouTube. In it, Dr. Abidan Paul Shah introduces his new book Changing the Goalpost of New Testament Textual Criticism (2020). Despite the trend among some scholars, he argues that we can and should pursue the original text as our goal in textual criticism. Thanks to Abidan for joining us. Again, remember to subscribe for new videos.


  1. Dr. Shah, thanks for this video, and thanks for being clear about your assessments of both NTTC in general and NTTC in the particular people you focus on in your dissertation.

    There are some unstated things in this whole conversation that I do wonder about though. I think there is probably a danger of simply taking the 'what' without context and then making assumptions about 'why'. In his EC article earlier this year, Mike Holmes wrote: "This shift within the discipline is evident in the work of other scholars as well. There is, for example, the increasing attention given to manuscripts as artifacts in their own right and not merely as carriers of the text inscribed upon them. Recent examples include the work of Peter Malik on P47, of W. Andrew Smith on Codex Alexandrinus, and of Hixson on the deluxe 'purple codices.'" There's a sense in which that's true (and Holmes doesn't address motive), but at the same time, (I won't speak for Malik or Smith) it would be misleading to take my own output and conclude from that that I have shifted away from caring about the original text. On the contrary—the reason I got into TC was because I care about the original text, but I also know that our current editions are very good. The best way forward that I could envision was to contribute a tiny piece of data to the growing pool of knowledge on scribal habits and to focus intensely on a few manuscripts, so that when we get around to revising our current editions and fine-tuning them, we have a better and more complete knowledge base to work from. Even something like a detailed study of a late family of minuscules can contribute to that goal by providing a piece of the sought-after global stemma and showing the relationships among manuscripts in that slice of the tradition. It is perhaps worth remembering that Metzger himself wrote his dissertation "to examine palaeographically and textually a Greek lectionary manuscript of the Gospels [=L303; 12th cent.] that had been gathering dust in the library of Princeton Seminary since 1885" (Reminiscences of an Octogenarian, p. 27).

    1. Thank you for this Elijah. Rather than taking away from the goal of seeking an original text, it builds the necessary knowledge base to advance further towards this goal. As Hort noted (and is oft quoted), "Knowledge of documents should precede final judgement upon readings." This knowledge of documents (manuscripts) necessitates studying manuscripts, scribal habits, church history, etc, topics that don't have at their forefront the goal of an original text.

  2. PG,
    I agree with you that one can hold to an original text and still work on the manuscripts as artifacts, yet it is also evident to me that many NTTC have abandoned the original text as a goal as Dr. Shah contends.
    Nothing wrong with naming names if you are sure!

  3. Matthew M. Rose12/16/2020 9:24 pm

    Do Bentley and Lachmann (especially) ever make it into this conversation? I've always considered the "newer" goal of the "initial text" as a retreat back to Lachmann, ("there is no new thing under the sun,") but only after many key elements of Hort's theories crumbled under the weight of later research. In short, with the exploding of Hort–we also start to see the abandonment of his more optimistic confidence in obtaining the "original Text". Am I the only one who sees it this way?

    1. That gives too much credit to Hort. He was not that influential on this particular issue, and why should he be? There’s no necessary connection between his view of textual history and aiming for the original. Plenty before (e.g., Tischendorf, Tregelles) and after (Nestle, Aland, etc.) pursued the original text. And let’s not forget that Hort believed there were cases of “primitive error,” where the original had not survived. So, no.

    2. Matthew M. Rose12/17/2020 6:03 am

      Perhaps I am giving too much credit to Hort, but mentioning scholarship that was selectively boiled down, incorporated, and ultimately replaced by Hort–and later scholarship that followed him closely doesn't really bring your argument home (although I do appreciate the pushback). My primary point was to identify Lachmann and Bentley (more tentatively) as pioneers and trailblazers of what is now termed the quest for the "initial text." The fact that this type of perspective was returned to by some after Hort was dethroned is saying something...although admittedly I cannot fully put my finger on what.

      And I fully understand that most text critics before (and contemporary with) Hort, as well as many after him sought out the "original Text" as their primary goal. But Lachmann, who can essentially be regarded as the father of the "modern critical text" didn't, and some scholars returned to his reasoning (whether by default or calculated steps) after Hort was discounted.

      You state: "There’s no necessary connection between his view of textual history and aiming for the original."

      Hmmmm, sure there is. His recension theories couldn't properly deal with the mixed textual traditions,–especially important in this regard are those found within the papyri that are older than B/א. Thus, the 'throwing up of hands' by several important NT textual critics, and a minority abandonment of the traditional goal.

      "And let’s not forget that Hort believed there were cases of “primitive error,” where the original had not survived."

      Indeed, and that would amount to 'the exception that makes the rule.'

  4. In agreement with Elijah and Timothy Mitchell, obviously no one should object to research dealing with individual MSS or families of MSS as helping to advance research and knowledge within the field.

    However, when some of the leading players within contemporary NTTC, who advocate such reasonable studies, simultaneously declaim about the original text being beyond recovery — then yes, the goalpost indeed *has* been moved, and we see the results of such in popular and scholarly literature, to the overall detriment and disparagement of "evangelical" Christianity in general.