Lecture 05: Attempts at Changing the Goals of New Testament Criticism | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 05: Attempts at Changing the Goals of New Testament Criticism

Course: Textual Criticism

Lecture: Attempts at Changing the Goals of New Testament Criticism


A. Recent Attempts to Change the Goals of NTTC

1. Definition of New Testament Criticism

These attempts are by people who are working within Textual Criticism. We will talk about the definition of textual criticism which up until 1993 the definition and goal were considered identical. This is for any ancient text. The definition is the study of the copies of any written document whose autograph is unknown or non-existent, for the primary purpose of determining the exact wording of the original. Until 1993, this was assumed also for the New Testament. I want to stress that New Testament scholars have been changing what the goal should be for the New Testament text. For the most part and in fact almost entirely, is this going on in other disciplines and with other ancient literature? If it isn’t then, is this something that is a kind of bazaar spin-off in what is happening in New Testament studies. Frankly, in biblical studies you often get some bazaar views that don’t agree with other disciplines of ancient text. Frequently, historians of other classical text will say and think that New Testament historians are doing this completely backwards. You have such a strong skepticism toward the text as we Greco-Roman historians would say that this really happened. In Biblical studies we especially get people who are highly skeptical about what their studying, far more so than in other disciples. There is a comment in regards of the three primary countries that do Biblical Studies: Germany, Britain and the United States. It has to do with new theories and views and hypotheses about all sorts of issues. For example, the Germans create it while the British correct it and the Americans corrupt it. I think that fairly accurate for a lot of this stuff. You have Germans that will create some higher critical views in regards to source criticism, reform criticism and redaction criticism; they are the leaders in that. And the British will moderate what the Germans have done; they think it may be too liberal and therefore want to have a more of a solid base for it. Americans then wreck the whole thing. I think it has to do with their educational background. In Germany for example, the students are known for their study of philosophy but the British study history because they have an interesting and deep historical past. But Americans watch television or whatever is going on these days. This generation will go down in history along with education.

2. Three Major Influences

The scholars that are proposing these changes are two Americans and one person from Britain. The first person is Bart Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption of Scripture published in 1993 is arguing that early traditions are as important in recovering the original wording. He is basically saying that we should not privilege or favor the autographs. He was focusing on the early orthodox corrupted text. Even though it is a brilliant study but it is flawed in many respects. But this is where he was going. He was also saying that he doesn’t want to privilege the autographs. Later he gave an address at the Society of Biblical Literature in which he spoke about the myopic concern of modernist to get back to the original text. This is the same kind of wording that Elden Effie’s used in one of his books, as if to say that we should not be so concerned with trying to get back to the original text. There are other interesting things that we should note. Then David Parker, the Englishman in this list, wrote in 1997, the Living Text of the Gospels. It is a small book, published by Cambridge Press, yet a somewhat significant book; he is probably Britain’s leading textual critic of the New Testament whose is alive today. I would have said that J K Elliot was, but he retired just a few years ago and not as active in the discipline as he was before. So David Parker is probably the leading New Testament textual critic in Britain now. He says that textual criticism is in essence the act of understanding what another person means by the words that are laid before me. This strikes me as being somewhat bazaar. Whether I understand what the words are or not, I thought the goal was to try and establish what the original wording was, even if it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to us. So, what Parker is really saying is that he is shifting from the original text to the various copies. His definition is almost a reader response definition. How am I going to understand those words? I will put them into other words as if I’m a scribe. And so, it is an unusual definition or at least until he says that nobody comes close to defining textual criticism in this way. It actually looks like a definition for exegesis in some respects. In trying to understand the text is actually exegesis, not textual criticism. He goes on to discuss this in some very interesting ways. He even says that he is not so sure that we have an original text that should try to be recovered. So, what does he mean by original text? He is not even sure that we know what that really means.

Then, there is Eldon Epps’s article, The Multivalence of the Term ‘Original Text’ in New Testament Textual Criticism.’ We talked about this in a previous lecture; this was published in Harvard’s theological review in 1999. So that decade, the 90s, had three major works that helped to redefine what textual
criticism is by three very important New Testament critics. Do they represent all textual critics? No, they are not, they don’t even come close. Are they marginal critical critics? Not at all, these guys are very central to the discipline. So these are some interesting points that we need to understand. Steven Cuvier, when he interviewed Bart Ehrman on his show, was talking to him about his book, Misquoting Jesus. It was a fascinating interview. Ehrman talks about how we have the original text and have these copies with mistakes, and he talking about the woman caught in adultery which is almost all his first illustration that he likes to use. He says, well that story is probably not authentic, it was added later. Cuvier says well, I am not so sure that we should be interested in the original text anyway; that is just the first draft. The latest one is the one they got right. That is almost the way that David Parker thinks about these.

3. Two Major Premises

At times it is impossible to recover the wording of the original text and therefore this should no longer be the goal. David Parker likes to deal with the passages in the Gospels where Jesus speaks about divorce. To him, it seems impossible to recover the wording of the original text and what Jesus really taught on that. What is really interesting, just this last year, one of my student’s, Peter Gury did his Master’s thesis on the divorce sayings and he argued that even with such a very problematic passage, he thinks he can recover the wording of the original. Peter is now working on his doctorate in New Testament textual criticism at Cambridge University. Even this extreme example, I am not so sure that it is impossible to recover the wording. We may not be certain that we have done but still the wording in somewhere there among the manuscripts. The second major premise is that the variants provide a window on church history, and this is an area that has been largely neglected by textual critics. That is definitely true; variants do provide a window on church history. We know how the text was being viewed and treated in certain regions and in certain times. So, this is an area that has been neglected by textual critics because they have been focusing more on trying to recover the wording of the original, they haven’t wrestled with these other concerns. But the secondary concern should not be our primary concern. Just because there is something we neglected doesn’t mean that we overturn our primary
concern. If we do that, then what we are doing with New Testament textual criticism is completely different from how it is viewed for any other ancient document. Do we really want to be that weir and odd when it comes to these things.

4. The Multivalence of the Term ‘Original Text’ by Eldon Epps

He says that recognizing the multivalence of the original text ensures that New testament textual criticism will certainly diminish and possibly relinquish its myopic concentration on an elusive and often illusive target of a single original text. Frankly, I don’t think his article demonstrated any such thing. He gives these various definitions of what the original text is, yet the most commonest accepted definition that textual critics still use and has used is that the text that left the hands of the author when he dispatched it to his audience. That is what we mean by original text. And so it is the final form that the author was satisfied sufficiently to send it out. It is not the form that gets to this group and how they have changed it nor is it the preliminary drafts that it went through before he published it. All of the books of the New Testament were documents, as far as we can tell, that were dispatched from one place to another place and it is at the moment of dispatch when it is no longer under the author’s control. The original text existed when it was under the author’s control. And just because Epps came up with a number of definitions of original text, it doesn’t mean there are a number of different definitions that anyone would really be satisfied with using or has ever used. That has always been one fundamental definition that we use.

5. Parker’s Living Text of the Gospels

He says that the book has been written with the growing conviction that, once the present approach has been adopted, much else in our understanding of the Gospels requires revision. That is a fairly bold statement to say that this thin little volume is going to cause us to retool everything that we believe about the Gospels. So far, it hasn’t been as successful as Parker was hoping. But then he goes on and asked, are the Gospels the kinds of text that have originals? And so, the rest of his book argues that they do not. To say that he doesn’t think they have originals is trying to make us skeptical about what an original text actually can be and what it can mean. In one of my debates with Bart Ehrman, he said that we don’t know how many copies Paul made or wrote to the Galatians as he could have sent out several drafts of that letter. He is assuming that was the case. My response, I am sure that was right because when John wrote the Book of Revelation to the seven churches, he wrote one copy to each one of those churches. It doesn’t take much imagination to think that he sends out one copy and tells them to circulate them among the churches. It is one original text that he sends out. For Paul to have written Galatians multiple times; he got some bazaar views. This is where these guys are; whether it is an original text or multiple original texts; which one do we consider to be original. Park goes on to say that the question is not whether we can recover the original text, but why would we want to. So, why should we even be interested in retrieving the original text? He argues that the texts of the New Testament have been used by ancient churches throughout its history and what they see as that text which has a number of different changes; this is the living spirit in the community of faith who is working on these various people and that is just as meaningful as what the apostles wrote. I think that is simply designed spirituality. It is not really true to say, yes, what the Spirit is doing is inspiring textual variants which is away from what the apostles wrote. What theology would suggest that; that is not what we are dealing with?

Parker uses a couple of illustrations from Shakespeare and Mozart to make his point. There are just different texts from different stages of production, thus, there is no original text. He says that Shakespeare wrote plays that were performed in the Globe in London and he continued to tweak them as they were in production. So which form of the play would we say is the original text by Shakespeare? Well, that is a great question, what form would be the original text? Would it be the first one, the second one or the last one? Which one would be considered the original? In many respects, all of them would be. But is that the same as the New Testament text? Which form of the Gettysburg Address is the original? There has been some doubt that a key juncture in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln mentioned God but the journalists that were there universally said yes, here is where he mentions God in the Gettysburg Address. So what is the original form of the Gettysburg Address? Is it actually what Lincoln wrote or is it what Lincoln uttered? So there are some differences there. It is the same when F D Roosevelt on December 8th got up to speak about the attack on Pearl Harbor and what he put in at the very last minute was the statement, ‘a date which will live in infamy; that was not in the original draft but it was still in the delivered draft. The final draft when he delivered it, when he spoke it; that was the final form in which he wanted it to be. That was the same with Lincoln and Shakespeare; there are different forms and maybe he was tweaking it for different reasons. Is this how the New Testament is?

And then he used Mozart. Well, Mozart wrote and he conducted operas in Saltsburg and he continued to tweak them while he had the production run. So which one is the original text of Mozart? Is this what the New Testament is like?

6. Critique – Parker’s Living Text of the Gospels

For all of them, we are dealing with authorial control verses a loss of control via dispatch when it comes to the New Testament. Authorial control with Shakespeare continually tweaking his text while the play is being done at the Globe; every one of those would be considered an original text. When it comes to the New Testament, once the author dispatches it, the original text was that last form. Dispatched once is not dispatched every night for six weeks as a player for multiple years. Secondly, copyists wanted to retain the authoritative voice of the apostles. So none of this dribble about the designer spirituality where we want to have the Spirit inspiring textual variances. No, it is the voice of the apostles, what they had to say became important. We know this from the 2nd century when Tertullian, the church father says to go over to these churches where you can see the actually original manuscripts that Paul wrote to the Ephesians and Romans, etc. Whether Tertullian was right or not, most scholars would say that he wasn’t sure what he was talking about. Here is the point: he recognized the importance of getting back to the original text. Within a hundred years of the completion of the New Testament, here is a church father who is saying that the apostle’s text needs to the original text being privileged over textual variants. That is not a modernist way of thinking but instead a very ancient way. This is how the church fathers thought. And it wasn’t just Tertullian; Irenaeus wrote a chapter in one of his books about the number of the beast in Revelation 13:18. It was a very short chapter but nevertheless it was a chapter. And what he said (writing at the end of the 2nd century), there are some manuscripts that have the number of the beast as 616, other manuscripts have the number of the beast as 666. He goes and discusses that and says that 666 is the correct number. How do I know this? First of all, he gives a spiritual value to 666, a kind of allegorical interpretation.

But secondly, he says I have looked at copies of the Book of Revelation and the more ancient ones have 666 whereas the more recent ones have 616. Whether this is true or not, what Irenaeus is saying is that he is giving preferential treatment to those manuscripts that are closer in time to the original; presumably because they are closer in wording to the original. Why else would he talk about the more ancient text? And here, Parker wants to say, no, we don’t care about what the earliest text is or what the apostles wrote. All we care about is how the Christians used the text. And textual criticism is my attempt to understand the words that are put before me by somebody else. This is simply rubbish. That is not what textual criticism is. In regards to aesthetics verses spiritual authority, when it comes to Mozart and Shakespeare, what they are dealing with is aesthetics, beautiful literature, plays and operas that fill the soul with emotional responses. But, does our life depend on them and what they say? Is it something that going to affect my eternal salvation, my eternal destiny? The words of the New Testament are in a different class than the words of Shakespeare and Mozart. For many people, they may not be as inspiring but they are inspired. But aesthetics are true in the case of Mozart and Shakespeare; but spiritual authority is not; that is true for the New Testament and consequently if you want the spiritual authority to appeal to the textual variants that occurred centuries down the line, where is the authority in that? So, those are three critiques.

Three other points include the connection to divine history is what we have when it comes to the New Testament and thus, the autographic text should be sought. What I am really trying to say, when we examine the text of the New Testament, we are not doing so on the basis of theological opera that says that I have to try to get back to a particular look of the text where it has to agree with inerrancy or has to do with this or that. We are looking at this historically, and I think that honors Christ more than looking at it in some other negative way. Let’s examine it historically and look at the evidence and go where the evidence leads. The incarnation is God becoming man in space-time history and did so in order to subject himself to historical inquiry. Just as the Bible is the only religious book of any major religion of the world that subjects itself to historical investigation. It puts itself at risk as it speaks about times and places and people that you can investigate. The primary sacred text of all other religious documents is not narrative, but rather they talk about head theology; from the Quran to the Gospel of Thomas which by the way doesn’t mention any place names or miracles or even places associated with his deeds; there is some prophecy in it. It is only talking head theology which makes it extremely more difficult to place in a time and place; it is the kind of thing that makes it times but also not subject to historical inquiry. Can you figure out when it happened? But the New Testament places itself within history through the mention of secular people, places and things that has happened. When Pilate was in Jerusalem, we know that he was there only from AD 26-36. So we know, we have certain facts and thus we know that Jesus died sometime between Ad 26 and Ad 36. But you look at these other ancient documents and you can’t tell the historical relationships of it. When it comes to the New Testament, this is divine history and those changes that are made later are going to affect that and not for the better.

In Artistic preferences verses Polemics; biblical authors are writing in polemical ways at times against the culture of their day, against the false apostles that were spreading their Gospels. And so everything rides on the why and it is very important to get back to that original wording. If the alteration of the original text takes the form of changing the meaning, then to that degree it also dilutes the authority of the original author’s message. David Parker is a wonderful scholar and a true gentleman, but I just think his definition of textual criticism is completely wrong. It just doesn’t make any sense and it is moving us in a different direction.

7. Moises Silva on Epp, Parker and Ehrman

Silva wrote a response in Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism in 2002, Baker. This was edited by D A Black. It included a dialogue between Epp, Homes, Elliot, Robinson and Silva, all well know textual scholars. Silva says that ‘he would like to affirm – not only with Hort, but with practically all students of ancient documents – that the recovery of the original text…remains the primary task of textual criticism. Of course, it is not the only task. The study of early textual variation for its own sake is both a fascination and a most profitable exercise. And it is also true that we have sometimes been sloppy in our use of the term ‘original text’. But neither of these truths nor the admittedly great difficulties involved in recovering the autographic words can be allowed to dissolve the concept of an original text. Nor do I find it helpful when David Parker, for example, sanctifies his proposals by a theological appeal to a divinely inspired textual diversity – indeed, textual confusion and contradiction – that is supposed to be of greater spiritual value than apostolic authority.’ Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean that it is theoretically a gold that we shouldn’t have. Is it difficult for someone to run a three minute mile? I would say that theoretically it would be impossible, but yet runners are trying to get closer and closer. Just because it is an impossible goal doesn’t mean that they want to improve their time. ‘But even apart from that, for us to retreat from to shooting ourselves in the foot. Anyway, my exhibit A is Bart Ehrman’s brilliant monograph ‘The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture’, which by the way his book on ‘Misquoting Jesus,’ was based on; it was a lay treatment of the orthodox corruption of Scripture. Although this book is appealed to in support of blurring the notion of an original text, there is hardly a page in that book that does not in fact mention such a text or assume its accessibility. Indeed, Ehrman’s book is unimaginable unless he can identify an initial form of the text that can be differentiated from a later alteration.’ How can you talk about the scribes changing the text unless you know what text they changed? So, it ends up to be too circular, Ehrman proves too much to defeat his own argument if you go too far in this whole discussion.

8. General Critique of the Ehrman-Parker-Epp View

If it is seemingly impossible to recover the exact wording of the New Testament in every place, not to try is a counsel of despair. Since when does the non-attainability of perfection in others endeavors mean we should throw in the towel? That is not what we do elsewhere! Secondly, the neglect of one area in the past does not mean that we should now neglect another. Two wrongs do not make a right.

9. To Sum up

And finally, the primary goal of New Testament textual criticism, like the textual criticism of all other literature, must still be the recovery of the wording of the autographic text. The second goal of gaining a window on the ancient church in various times and places must not be neglected, but it must never replace the primary objective.

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