Wednesday, November 06, 2019

The "Canonical" text

There's a reactionary movement afoot in some Reformed circles to reject the mainstream NT textual criticism and modern translations like the ESV in favor of the Textus Receptus (hereafter TR) and the KJV. Recently there was a Text and Canon Conference which promoted that position. I generally avoid live presentations. That's an inefficient way to process and reference information. I have read a few articles by Jeff Riddle, but I'm going to use two posts by Taylor DeSoto as representative samples of the rationale for this position:

1. At one level, the significance of this issue is easily overblown. The text of the NT has enormous multiple-attestation. Even if you opt for the Byzantine text, there's not much that can go wrong. 

2. At another level, it is a big issue. What's at stake is convincing Christians to believe their faith hinges on a particular text tradition like the Byzantine or the TR. That's the "canonical" text. This leaves them poised for a gratuitous crisis of faith if they develop doubts about the TR. In this case, their faith in the Bible becomes inseparable from faith in the TR and the KJV. That's apostasy waiting to happen. DeSoto is going down exactly the same road as Bart Ehrman. The same all-or-nothing mentality. The same false dichotomies. 

3. Because we have so many copies of the Greek NT, copies with many, mostly trivial variants, it's important although not strictly necessary to produce a critical edition of the NT. That's not unique to proponents of the eclectic text. Astute proponents of the Byzantine text also appreciate the need to produce a critical edition of the NT, using internal and external textual criteria. For instance:

4. I myself subscribe to mainstream textual criticism and the eclectic text approach. I don't have a firm opinion about CBGM. Certainly we should take advantage of computers to digitize our MSS, then compare them. Stanley Porter is a critic of CBGM. 

I'd add that it isn't necessary to choose between CBGM and traditional textual criticism. You can compare the results of both, and the reasoning behind their choices. Metzger's textual commentary explains how traditional text critics made their choices. And there will be a textual commentary for the CBGM edition when that project is completed. 

5. Opting for the Byzantine tradition would be more defensible than opting for the T.R. That's not my own position,  but there's a respectable argument for that alternative. 

6. From what I can tell, all the Reformed proponents of the TR and the KJV are dabblers and dilettantes. They have no formal expertise in textual criticism. In fairness, they might say the same thing about me. But that proves my point. I admit that I'm an amateur when it comes to OT/NT criticism. And I don't object to amateurs having opinions about range of specialized issues. I don't think we should abode unconditional confidence in the judgment of experts. 

But it's because I'm an amateur that I don't need to get my information from another amateur. If I want an amateur opinion about textual criticism, I can just consult my own opinion! 

By the same token, I don't get my information about biology and physics from amateurs. Rather, I study what the professionals have to say. I might still dissent on philosophical or theological grounds. Or I might dissent if I think their discipline has become politicized, which skews their assessment.   

This also goes beyond formal training. Some scholars like Bruce Metzger, Peter Williams, and Emanuel Tov have an exceptional skill set and natural aptitude that many scholars lack. 

Reformed proponents of the TR might also say that since mainstream NT criticism is so compromised, it's a good thing that they lack formal training in that discipline. But that begs the question. 

7. A basic problem with canonizing the KJV is that most Christians aren't English-speakers, most Christians were never English-speakers, and within the foreseeable future, most Christians won't be English-speakers. So it's absurdly ethnocentric. 

8. Another problem is that we have a better understanding of Greek and Hebrew than the KJV translators. We have a wider sampling of ancient Hebrew than they had. And we have a wider sampling of ancient Greek than they had. For instance, Greek papyri give us access to non-literary Greek. That gives us access to Greek slang or Greek words with slang meanings. In addition, computers enable us to make exhaustive comparisons in vocabulary and grammatical constructions.  

9. It's true that earlier MSS aren't necessarily better than later MSS. Obviously an 8C MS isn't automatically better than a 9C MS. But when we're talking about the NT papyri, I do think there's a presumption that earlier is better because they are so chronologically close to the Urtext.  

10. Reformed TR proponents operate with an arbitrary notion of divine providence regarding the preservation of the text. They act like special providence singles out the TR rather than the Byzantine text or the NT papyri or the DDS or Codex Vaticanus. But why would providence only extend to the preservation of the text in the TR? 

Likewise, the reason OT textual critics sometimes prefer the LXX to the MT is because the LXX translators had an earlier text than the Massoretes. So they had a text that might well preserve the original reading in some cases where the MT lost it.  

11. I'm no expert (something I share in common with Reformed TR proponents), but it seems to be that appeal to the Majority text is a statistical fallacy. If more MSS were produced by a particular locality, and more of those survive, that just means our extant MSS oversample a local textual tradition. Their numerical preponderance in itself creates no presumption that it's more representative. Rather, that may simply be a geographical and historical accident. So the larger sample is an arbitrary sample. The fact that we have a larger sample of that textual tradition is random in the sense that it's a coincidence of geography and the ravages of time. The Majority text may well be unrepresentative because a local textual tradition is overrepresented. 

12. It's often said that despite all the textual variants, the true reading is contained somewhere in our "5000" extant Greek MSS. But that bare statement can be misleading. This isn't like finding a needle in a haystack. It's not like our MSS are riddled with indetectable mistakes. 

i) Words are parts of sentences. If a scribe uses the wrong word, that usually makes the sentence nonsense. And it's easy to spot which word is messing up the sentence. Moreover, it's usually easy to figure out what the right word was, even if you only have that MS to go by.

We do this all the time. Email and text messages frequently contained recognizable typos, but we can usually figure out the intended word. 

ii) But suppose we can't figure out what the original word was. So we consult other MS. The right word isn't indetectable. If another MSS has the same sentence, but with a different word, and the sentence makes sense, then that's probably the authentic reading. 

ii) Suppose I have two independent editions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Both editions contain typos. But they contain different typos. Suppose one edition contains a sentence with a typo, and I can't figure out the original word. So I consult the other edition, where the parallel sentence makes sense. So that probably preserves the original word. 

13. Opponents of the eclectic text allege that editors are "creating" the text. But that's deceptive. It doesn't mean they are inventing sentences. It just means they use more than one witness to the text. Since we know for a fact that scribes introduces changes into the text (usually inadvertently), we can't rely on a single MS as it stands. It's necessary to make corrections. And we do that by reference to other MSS. 

14. In general, biblical teaching is redundant. It doesn't hinge on one particular passage. Major doctrines are multiply-attested. The life of Christ is multiple-attested (four Gospels). 

15. The way Reformed TR advocates cling to the Long Ending of Mark is hypocritical. If they truly believe that's the original ending, then they ought to belong to charismatic, snake-handling churches. 

16. What does God require of us? To be faithful to the best text we have at our disposal. Surely he doesn't require us to be faithful to an unattainable word-perfect text. Even in the 1C, Christians copied originals. The originals were inerrant but the copies were not. 



  2. I wonder if their reasoning could be extended to a "canonical denomination". If so, wouldn't that make Catholicism the true denomination since it's the largest denomination compared to all other denominations combined?

    1. Hi, no we would not. Matters of church government in dogmatics are usually handled at the end of a system. Scripture is handled first. The Reformed confessions give definitions for both in separate categories. We affirm against Rome, like the Reformers.