Monday, April 20, 2009

Why do textual criticism?

“He [Ehrman] asked why men like Daniel Wallace invest so much time and money in studying textual variants if those variants aren't significant.”

I lifted this sentence from Jason Engwer’s review of the White/Ehrman debate. I’d like to respond to it myself.

1.The fact that most variants are insignificant is a conclusion of textual criticism. That’s not something which could be known in advance.

Although it may sound paradoxical, we often have to investigate something to find out whether it’s worth the time to investigate.

A reporter may sink a lot of man-hours into investigating a potential scandal to see if there’s anything there. Sometimes his investigation turns up nothing of consequence. No one did anything wrong.

2.Ehrman’s objection is also hypocritical on his part. One reason we have to keep revisiting text-critical issues which have already been settled is because militant apostates like Ehrman act as if there’s a problem with the textual transmission of the Bible. So we are forced to cover the same ground time and again.

3.Like any other field of knowledge, textual criticism is a value-laden exercise. Traditionally, textual criticism drew a bright line between lower criticism and higher criticism.

It took for granted the initial existence of an urtext. The objective of textual criticism was to recover, as far as possible, the urtext. To produce a critical edition of the Bible which approximated, as far as possible, the wording of the urtext.

The underlying assumption went something like this: Luke dictated his Gospel to a scribe. Luke inspected the draft transcript, and then directed the scribe to make whatever changes were necessary. The scribe then produced a final draft. That’s the urtext. Maybe Luke also kept a copy for himself.

An authorized copy was sent to Theophilus. As a Roman official, Theophilus had his own scribe, so he probably had some copies made for his friends.

However, if you’re a theological liberal, then you call the underlying assumption into question. Lower criticism merges with higher criticism, for “authorship” becomes a moving target.

On a liberal view, the Gospel of Luke passed through various stages of composition, with various redactors along the way, making their creative contributions to this evolving tradition. There is no bright line between an author and a scribe. There is no final draft or finished product. It’s a work in progress.

On this view, the final stage is when the church decides to canonize a particular book. That becomes the official edition.

On this view, there’s no fundamental difference between canonical books and apocryphal books. That’s an arbitrary demarcation, superimposed on a wider collection of books by the all-powerful church–which represents the “winners.” Canonical books are books sponsored by the winners, whereas apocryphal books are books by the losers.

On this view, textual criticism becomes a way of rediscovering the rival “Christianities” in early Christendom. On this view, the NT itself represents one anthology of competing “Christianities.” The aim of textual criticism is not to recover the text, but to uncover the long-lost history of the winners and the losers–which the winners suppressed.

This approach to textual criticism is appealing in another respect. Textual criticism is a pretty dry field of study. One way to spice it up is to turn textual criticism into a detective story wherein the textual critic exposes the dishy palace intrigues that allegedly fed into the NT as we have it today.

That’s a lot more fun than tracking the frequency of the movable-nu in 5000 Greek MSS.

So one reason we need to spend more time on textual criticism than we ought to is that textual criticism has been politicized. It’s becomes an allegory for class-warfare. Instead of the Contras against Sandinistas, with the CIA arming its favorite faction, it’s the Ebionites and Marcionites and Gnostics against the “Proto-Orthodox,” with the Almighty Church arming its favorite faction.

4.Finally, you always need some scholars in each generation who study the primary sources. Even if Metzger’s textual commentary on the NT is more than sufficient for our needs, you’d want some scholars in every generation who do their own fact-checking. Who go back to the sources and reexamine scholarly conclusions. In many cases the effect may be to confirm scholarly conclusions, but you wouldn’t want a situation in which everyone relies on second-hand scholarship.

1 comment:

  1. It is a very cynical "question", isn't it?

    Textual criticism is a systematisation of ad-hoc ways to heal damage in transmitted text. Whether the damage are significant or not (to the historian or user) is irrelevant; we can't know that, until we look. The process of ensuring that a text is as accurate as possible is not related to our expectation of damage.

    We might ask in return why do textual criticism, if you don't believe that the original text is there to be found? Indeed why do textual criticism, if your intention is to prevent the transmission of the text, rather than facilitate it?

    But Ehrman seems to be a disgusting individual. What else can one say of a man who lives by scholarship while trying to make it stink in the nostrils of those who pay his wages?