April 18, 2007

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

On Methodologies of New Testament Textual Criticism

Not long ago, I was finally able to read the debate between Gordon Fee and Zane Hodges, which took place in a series of articles in the March and June 1978 editions of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. (Fee's article, Hodges' response, Fee's rejoinder, Hodges' "surrejoinder") The debate concerns the general methodology of New Testament textual criticism. Fee supports a method known as "reasoned eclecticism," whereas Hodges supports what is known as the "majority text method" or some such. (Contrary to the charges sometimes leveled against it, the majority text method is not just a rationalization for continued use of the Textus Receptus.) A long time ago, when I first began to examine the issue, the majority text method looked very reasonable to me. However, for quite some time now, I have been pretty agnostic about the whole thing. Reading this debate hasn't changed that. It has, however, allowed me to get a clearer grasp (I hope) on the issues involved in methodologies of textual criticism, and I'm hoping that if a post on it, others will come along and help to further clarify these issues.

From this debate, the introduction to The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text (ed. Zane C. Hodges and Arthur L. Farstad), and the introduction to The New Testament in the Text of the Great Church of Christ (A Facsimile Reprinting of the Edition of 1904), I think I've picked out four distinct methods. Before I attempt to outline these, however, the last of the sources needs a bit of a disclaimer. The title I've given it above is my rough translation of a Church Greek title, which may in fact be wrong, since I don't know Church Greek or have a proper dictionary for it (in particular, I'm unsure of the meanings of the following words: egkrisei, translated "text"; photoanastatike, translated "facsimile"; and anatuposis translated "reprinting"). Likewise, the introduction is in Church Greek, and I have looked through it, and I think I understood at least their general method (the syntax of Church Greek is, at least, very simple, and the morphology is still very much like Koine, as far as I can tell). The text itself is a 2004 facsimile edition, produced for the hundredth anniversary of the release of the Patriarchal Text, and contains an exact representation of the first edition of the Patriarcahl Text. While the text is online at the above link, I am not aware of the introduction being online anywhere, or having been translated into English. I'd like to take a stab at translating it sometime to get a better grip on it. At any rate, here are the four methods (as best I can determine them - please offer corrections and/or clarifications):

  1. Rigorous Ecleciticism (E. D. Kilpatrick and J. K. Elliot). According to this view, we simply look at all the possible variants and determine which ones are easiest to explain as scribal errors, and which ones are possible readings given the known stylistic habits of the original author (based on undisputed passages). Readings that fit with the authors usual style and/or are unlikely to have arisen by scribal error are taken to be original. This has a few problems. Firstly, it doesn't always uniquely determine some one reading. Secondly, and I haven't seen anything said about this in what I've read, it requires assumptions about who was copying the text and under what circumstances. For instance, it is very likely that a scribe who was a native speaker of Greek, or at least highly literate in Greek, would tend to regularize orthography and morphology, and in some cases even word order, etc., to the standards of the dialect with which he was most familiar. However, many classical texts (I don't know about the New Testament) come to us through scribes who are barely literate or even completely illiterate in Greek. This gives rise to different types of variants: a scribe may skip a line in the manuscript, misspell words, or even just skip a few letters. Scribes also sometimes insert scholia into the main text. (Imagine that you don't read or speak English, and you are copying by hand from an English study Bible - how easy would it be to accidentally include the commentary notes, cross-references, etc. in the main text of your copy? After all, you barely have any idea what you are copying!) So it is difficult to follow a method like this that doesn't seriously account for the origins of the particular manuscript in question.
  2. Reasoned Eclecticism (Gordon Fee, and the vast majority of other New Testament scholars). According to this view, we start by practicing rigorous eclecticism in the cases where it gives an unambiguous answer. Using these results, we can determine the scribal habits that are apparent in the various different manuscripts and determine both what errors were likely to arise in particular manuscripts, and how reliable certain manuscripts are. We then use this to help determine the ambiguous cases, and so on. Contra Hodges' claims, this cycle is 'virtuous' rather than 'vicious' - we "go around" the cycle several times and gain more information each time. It is easy to see, I think, why this would be better than rigorous eclecticism, but I should be careful, because rigorous eclecticism is the only one of these four views I haven't read a proponent of.
  3. The Majority Text Method (Zane Hodges and Arthur Farstad). What has not yet been mentioned is that the proponents of reasoned eclecticism have 'determined' that the vast majority of Greek texts - what is called the 'Koine', 'Majority', or 'Byzantine' text-type - are not particularly reliable. In the 19th century, Westcott and Hort famously claimed that a rescension had occurred early in church history, and that the product of this rescension became the official text of the Greek speaking Church, and so has a majority of manuscripts. Essentially everyone now agrees that this is an historical impossibility. So the question is: how did this text-type become the majority? The so-called majority text method (which, as we will see, isn't the most accurate name it could have) says that in order to determine what the original text says, we need to reconstruct the "genealogy" of individual manuscripts, and determine what they were copied from, and how they are related to one another, and so forth. This will allow us to see (within error bounds) where each error creeped into the line of descent, and so determine the original text (again, within error bounds). Until this is done, the best approximation is to take the reading of the majority of manuscripts. Why? Because it is prima facie reasonable to suppose that the higher up something is on a genealogical tree, the more descendants it has. In many cases, of course, this supposition will fail, but if it does fail, someone has to explain why some particular line of descent has dominated the others, or why some line of descent has died out. Fee doesn't do this satisfactorily at any point in the debate. Another problem for Fee, which I haven't seen addressed, is that the method of reasoned eclecticism has 'determined' that Mark 16:9-20, John 7:53-8:11, and some other passages, are not original. If they are not original, I would like to know, where did they come from? The Johannine Comma (in 1 John 5:7-8) is clearly not original, but it's a small passage. It could be the insertion of a scholium (not that I know where it came from - I'm just pointing out that explanations could be provided). The passages mentioned above are, however, quite lengthy, and their origin is more difficult to explain. Perhaps someone has offered an explanation, but I haven't seen it.
  4. The Patristic Method (the Eastern Orthodox Church - I made up the term for this one; I don't know if there is an established term for it). While the preceding methods all purport to follow the "science" of textual criticism, and use general methods applicable to just any ancient text, the patristic method is explicitly theological. The idea is that God is supernaturally preserving the true text through the true Church, so the thing for the New Testament textual critic to do is to figure out what text was being used by legitimate, orthodox Christians who used a Greek text throughout the ages. For Eastern Orthodox believers, this mostly means the early eastern Fathers. We analyze the quotations made by Christian writers and try to determine what text they have, and this is considered to be correct.

It appears to me that all four of these views have their merits. Does anyone have a better idea of where to look next? Are there other important considerations I've left out?

Posted by Kenny at April 18, 2007 4:18 PM
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Hi Kenny,

Here is a bit from an article by Wallace in response to a presentation by Wilbur Pickering who is both a majority text advocate and a preservationist, somewhat similar to your so-called Patristic school.

In textual criticism there are three cateogories of external evidence: the Greek manuscripts, the early translations into other languages, and the quotations of the New Testament found in the church fathers writings. If the majority text view is right, then one would expect to find this text form (often known as the Byzantine text) in the earliest Greek manuscripts, in the earliest versions, and in the earliest church fathers. Not only would one expect to find it there, but also one would expect it to be in a majority of manuscripts, versions and fathers.

But that is not what is found. Among extant Greek mansucripts, what is today the majority text did not become a majority until the ninth century. In fact, as far as the extant witnesses reveal, the majority text did not exist in the first four centuries. Not only this, but for the letters of Paul, not even one majority text manuscript exists from before the ninth century. To embrace the majority text for the Pauline Epistles, then, requires an 800 -year leap of faith.

When Westcott and Hort developed their theory of textual criticism, only one papyrus manuscript was known to them. Since that time almost 100 have been discovered. More than fifty of these come from before the middle of the fourth century. The Westcott-Hortt theory, with its many flaws (which all textual critics today acknowledge), was apparently still right on its basic tenet: the Byzantine texttype - or majority text - did not exist in the first three centuries. ...

Many hypotheses can be put forth as to why there are no early Byzantine manuscripts. But once again an ounce of evidence is worth a pound of presumption. In historical investigation one must start with the evidence and then make the hyposthesis.

*Wallace, D.B. The Majority Text and the Original Text: Are They Identical? Bibliotheca Sacra. Vol. 148 #590. April-June 1991.

It may seem very cheeky of me to quote Wallace on this, when I disagree with him on other matters. However, I shared thesis supervisor with Pickering and my familiarity both with his views and the counter-arguments go back a long way. By this, I mean to suggest that Pickering's thesis supervisor was not in wholehearted agreement with Pickering's thesis. Therefore, my agreement with Wallace on this matter predates the Junia debate by a considerable length of time. ;-)

Posted by: Suzanne McCarthy at April 19, 2007 3:28 AM

Thanks, Suzanne. I think the issue is a bit more complicated though. Hodges notes that there is good evidence that in the scriptoria of Eastern monasteries it was standard practice for a scribe to destroy his exemplar - that is, when a text begins to wear out, a scribe copies it, then destroys the original. This is born out by the fact that when we have found huge collections of Bibles in Eastern monasteries, none of them have seemed to be "siblings" - they were all copied from different exemplars. In some cases, they were copied very close to one another in time, but this was still the case. Hodges argues that, in order to explain all the variation within the Byzantine text-type, we have to posit many generations of Byzantine manuscripts before the ones that survive, but, at the same time, the Byzantine text is a well defined text-type and must have a common ancestor. Hodges thinks (and this seems to me to be the most questionable part of the whole discussion) that this ancestor is probably the autographs.

Now, the degree to which the majority text method and the patristic method agree is clearly highly relevant for both of them: was the text of the earliest fathers the same as the text of the Orthodox Church in the Byzantine period? There seems to be evidence that it was not, and this is a problem for both the majority text and the patristic method.

Posted by: Kenny at April 19, 2007 11:13 AM

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