A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Misquoting Jesus: Chapter Four (5 of 9)

The Quest for Origins

The main thrust of this chapter is to survey the development of the methodology of the discipline of textual criticism in recent centuries and to highlight in particular some of the more significant individuals involved in the discussion.

He begins with Richard Simon whose Critical History of the Text of the New Testament (1689) did not deal per se with variant readings, but rather analyzed �textual differences in the tradition, in order to show the uncertainty of the text in places and to argue, at times, for the superiority of the Latin Bible, still held to be the authoritative text by Catholic theologians� (102). According to Simon, the earliest Greek manuscripts prior to Jerome cannot be trusted. Jerome had to revise these �degenerate� copies to produce the �superior� text that was used for the Vulgate. Such a position has not received much scholarly support. It is difficult to accept an argument that states the oldest manuscripts cannot be relied upon, but the later revised documents are trustworthy.

Once again we run into Richard Bentley, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Using the early fifth-century Greek New Testament, Codex Alexandrius, and the oldest copies of the Latin Vulgate available to him, Bentley made a detailed comparison of both. In so doing, he discovered that the early Greek text agreed often with the Vulgate, but not with most of the later Greek manuscripts dating from the Middle Ages. Ehrman states, �The logic behind the method was simple: if, in fact, Jerome used the best Greek manuscripts available for editing his text, then by comparing the oldest manuscripts of the Greek New Testament�one could determine what the best texts of Jerome�s day had looked like�and skip over more than a thousand years of textual transmission in which the text came to be repeatedly changed. Moreover, since Jerome�s text would have been that of his predecessor Origen, one could rest assured that this was the very best text available in the earliest centuries of Christianity� (107).

Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752) was very much concerned with the thirty thousand variants of Mill�s newly published apparatus as he viewed them as raising questions in reference to the basis of his own faith. Ehrman notes, �Bengal was a classically trained, extremely careful interpreter of the biblical text� (109) whose work centered on a trust in the words of Scripture.

After noting that Bengel�s study of Scripture led him into a kind of Hal Lindsey/Tim LaHaye apocalypticism, Ehrman cites two contributions by Bengel that have forever changed the methodology of textual criticism: his criterion that when one is faced with two variants, the more difficult reading is to be preferred, and his recognition that manuscripts can be classified into �families.�

Johann Wettstein (1693-1754) caused great controversy in his textual studies arguing that most of the early Greek New Testament texts used to demonstrate the divinity of Christ were, in fact, altered in order to exhibit the doctrine in conformity to the Latin Vulgate. It was his view that the later Greek texts dating from the Middle Ages should be given priority, but as Ehrman notes, �No leading scholar of the text subscribes to this bizarre theory� (116).

The great contribution of Karl Lachmann (1793-1851) to the field of textual studies was to produce a new version of the Greek New Testament from older manuscripts not related to the Textus Receptus, the Greek text (based on twelfth century manuscripts) used in the translation of the King James Bible (1611). The manuscripts he used were eight hundred years earlier, giving the scholarly world a text superior to its predecessor.

While scholars were defining and refining their text critical methodologies, Lobegott Friedrich Constantine von Tischendorf (1815-1874), made his mark in the discovery of New Testament manuscripts. Ehrman observes, �Tischendorf was an inordinately ardent scholar who saw his work on the text of the New Testament as a sacred, divinely ordained task�. This sacred task he sought to fulfill by locating every manuscript tucked away in every library and monastery that he could find� (118). His two greatest discoveries were the fifth-century Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus and the Codex Sinaiticus dating from the fourth century.

In conclusion, Ehrman turns his attention to perhaps the most famous scholars of textual criticism, Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901) and Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828-1892) �that modern textual critics owe a debt of gratitude for developing methods of analysis that help us deal with the manuscript tradition of the New Testament� (121). In 1881 they published The New Testament in the Original Greek a work in two-volumes: volume one was the actual edition of the Greek New Testament, and volume two was a survey of methods and materials (written by Hort); and while the discipline of textual criticism has moved beyond them in many ways, their �basic methodology� (125) is still influential.

Two brief observations:

First, chapter four is a very helpful survey on the development of the discipline of textual criticism. In discussing some of the major players in the history, Ehrman puts faces on what is, for many, quite an uninteresting area of biblical scholarship.

The only concern I would mention is his use of the phrase �error-ridden copies� (105). This is not the first time it appears in the book and it is such a charged phrase, Ehrman should define what he means in using it. It leaves a negative impression that the text of the New Testament as we have it is not trustworthy, which may be the impression he intends to give. One could prefer the phrase variant-ridden, but even the term �ridden� carries its own baggage, that I think is not helpful in the midst of this discussion.

1 comment:

Ted M. Gossard said...


Thanks. Good information. And I agree that both Ehrman's terms are loaded. I wish he'd just lay out facts. And then his conclusions based on them, showing why he sees it as he does.