Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Why We Wrote Myths & Mistakes in Two Tweets

Twitter is not exactly famous for nuance, but at least it reminds you from time to time of the value of writing books. Today was one such day. Here are two tweets, from different ends of the spectrum that repeat unhelpful myths about the text of the NT. 

If only someone had edited a book correcting such common myths.


  1. It's a bit of an unfair fight, an overconfident layman against a published professor. That being said, what is wrong about what Dan McLellan wrote? His first three bullet points are undisputed, so it must be the last one.

    1. I would push back against the claim, "For almost all NT texts, we can’t cannot account for the first century+ of transmission."

      Not having physical manuscripts that we can confidently date to within the first century+ of transmission does not mean that we can't account for the first century+ of transmission. All of the witnesses we do have from later than that are still evidence that sheds light on that earlier period of transmission. We know that whatever happened within the first century+ of transmission, it resulted in the range of textual variation that we see in the later witnesses, as opposed to a wider or narrower range. It is highly unlikely that the text of any NT book was originally significantly different than what is attested in the wide range of witnesses that we have for it, without that significantly different original text leaving evidence of its existence.

    2. Maurice A. Robinson6/03/2023 4:32 am

      By a similar analogy: given that most of our classical Greek and Latin literature is only found in a relatively complete form after the 10th century, should we doubt it's general accuracy became we supposedly have no clue as to the state of its text for a Millennium or more?

    3. Come to think of it, I don't think his third statement makes sense. What does it even mean to say, "The earlier the manuscripts, the more variants there are."? Variants are a function of multiple manuscripts being compared with one another. A single manuscript doesn't have variants, except inasmuch it has variants in comparison with other manuscripts, in which case the number of variants it has is exactly equal to the number of variants the other manuscripts it's being compared with has over the same span of text, no matter how late or early they are.

      Perhaps he meant to say something like, "The earlier the manuscript the more idiosyncratic its text." If so, this could cut both ways, as it could be taken as a point in favor of the reliability of the later more carefully copied manuscripts.

    4. I think it all depends on the definition we are using for "account" .
      I suspect your average lay person, to the extent that they think about the history of the NT text, would assume that we had actual physical evidence for that first century. I know in the first year intro classes I used to teach, students were frequently surprised to learn about that lack of physical evidence.
      So assuming that average layperson definition, the bullet point is correct: no, we cannot account for that first century with physical evidence.

      That's nevertheless misleading, of course, because we can account for that first century with a solic critical reconstruction, and while that reconstruction is not 100% definite and will of course be subject to continued scholarly revision, it is reliable enough to serve as a basis for theology and church practice, which I suspect would be the final real concern of the layperson anyways.

  2. I would hardly consider Daniel McClellan to be "an overconfident layman". He has a PhD in theology and religion from the University of Exeter, has published his thesis as a book, and is pretty darn good at many languages related to the Bible and much of its historical issues. I appreciate the points that the "Myths and Mistakes" book raises, and from what I know of McClellan, he is on much the same page. For instance, Andrew Blaski's discussion of patristic use of scripture melds very well with McClellan's discussions of theopneustia (reflecting the work of John Poirier). When McClellan talks about variants, in many ways he follows Peter Gurry's own views in the book he links to in the OP "that most variants do not affect the meaning of the text or the Christian faith in general. A few dozen do, however".

    Regarding Dan's statement, "For almost all NT texts, we can’t cannot account for the first century+ of transmission", I can see how he sounds like another hack going to extremes about the unreliability of the text. I might strongly push back against his wording as well, but I can at least see where he's coming from. The best context would be his own words. Consider his 3 minute video, https://www.tiktok.com/@maklelan/video/7063191336924630318, where he mentions textual seams in John and issues surrounding Luke 1-2. In other videos he discusses other issues. He is also possibly just literally focusing on the dearth of surviving manuscripts from the first 2 centuries, but not actually saying anything about what that means about the reliability of the text we do have. I know it doesn't seem that way given the content of this tweet, but if you've seen his other work I don't think his views would conflict much with, say, Larry Hurtado's, on the consistency of the NT textual tradition.

    Hearkening back to the book that the OP is promoting, Timothy Mitchell summarized (of the NT), "the autographs should be conceived of as the completed authorial work that was released by the author for circulation and copying, not earlier draft versions or layers of composition". Whether we're talking about final redactions, or the composition process and earlier revisions, makes a big difference in how much we can say that know versus how much we are uncertain about. I think there is a lot of cross-talk here where one party is thinking about one thing, and the other party is thinking about the other, and both are right but it's apples and oranges.

    It's unfortunate the OP took pot shots at someone who is honestly doing a lot of good for the Mormon tradition he is a part of.

  3. Wendell is the overconfident layman. Maybe he's not a layman, but definitely not a professor.