Monday, December 26, 2005

New Testament Textual Criticism

As a note of introduction and personal testimony, the following information is intended to encourage faith not take away from it. But at first it may shake your faith some. I know it did me at one time. It was like a demon to be avoided. With variant readings, could somebody have tampered with the text and changed it? Did we really have the Bible as it was meant to be? Or had someone or some groups changed the text? If this does cause us to feel slightly uneasy, it may a good thing. For the removing of those things which can be shaken [is] so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. However, after understanding textual criticism I am more confident than ever before that we have the revelation of God to us in the Holy Scriptures by the Holy Spirit. Our Bibles can be trusted. And even though not every translation is equally good, God has blessed us with translations that reflect his revelation. But before we can translate the Bible into our heart language, we must construct the text behind it. That is what textual criticism is.

This information comes from an article by Michael W Holmes New Testament Textual Criticism from the book entitled Introduction to New Testament Interpretation and class notes from my Greek classes. The subject concerns New Testament Textual Criticism, which is important in establishing the Greek behind the NT. Don’t get bogged down by the details.

There are many copies of the NT text but no original documents. And in these copies there are at times different textual variants. Therefore, the original text must be reconstructed in order to have a working text to translate from. In other words, you’ve got to have something reliable on which you translate.

Textual Criticism is the art (and science) of trying to account for the differences in various Greek manuscripts (MSS). And the method most often used allows for each variation to be assessed separately. This guards against extremism where on one side you have almost a pure internal investigation and the MSS are simply “storehouses of readings,” and the other side you have almost a pure external investigation that gives weight to what the majority of MSS say. The former is of little use since it does not fairly take into account other readings. The later is of little use since the majority of known manuscripts are simply reproducing more of the same (and that may be an inferior reading at times).

The variant that most likely explains the rise of the other is more than likely to be the original reading. This will be the guiding agent behind the work.

Usually the NA 26 will be used to examine variant readings. However, the USB 3 at times render solid listings (just not every variant is dealt with).

The various MSS come to us in several forms. There are papyri, uncials, minuscules, lectionaries, versions, and patristic citations. By examining papyri, uncials, and minuscules, one can usually obtain a fairly good amount of evidence to determine which variant is original.

There are four major areas of inquiry. The Date of the witness, geographical distribution, genealogical relationships (i.e. Alexandrian, Western, Byzantine (or Majority Text), and the quality of the witnesses.

In order to find out which variant is likely to have produced the others, one has to look at the scribe’s errors. Obviously, most variant readings are due to scribal error either intentionally or unintentionally. Why would a scribe make an error? The unintentional error is easy to explain. If you have ever tried to copy a document word for word, you may have noticed how easy it is to skip a word. Or if the same word appears close together you may have skipped to the second word leaving out part of the text. But why would a God fearing scribe intentionally mess with the text? That is unimaginable to think. Or is it? First, the scribe was a God fearing man. This was not a job done by someone wishing to purposefully change God’s word. His desire was to preserve it. And because of his high regard for the word of God, there were safeguards that helped preserve the text. If a scribe purposefully changed the text, he may be trying to explain an archaic term or smooth out the text or even make it fuller or give clarity to the expression. Thus, the more difficult reading is usually preferred since it is more likely to be original. As well, the short is preferred unless there is obvious homoioteleuton (moving to the end of a word with the same beginning). If the more difficult reading is too difficult, then it can be eliminated as the original reading. But more often, people do not try to make their writings more difficult, they try to make them easier.

There are other guidelines, but this should suffice for the moment.

A word of encouragement. Out of the hundreds of variant readings, there is not a single one that affects a major doctrine of Christianity. So, if someone says to you that we can not trust the Bible because it has been copied by humans, you can say no major doctrine of Christianity has been affected by any possible human error. Then, turn the question around and ask about the Qu’ran. Could it stand the same kind of textual critique the Bible has? No. Because when variants were found they were destroyed in order to give the appearance of an unified text.

4 comments:

Kc said...

Pech this is some great insight into the history of our translations.

I also want to say I love the new look! It's clean, fresh and easy to navigate. In a word, kewl! ;-)

Matt said...

Good stuff Pech-
I wish more Christians were aware of these basic manuscript insights-I think it would stop a lot of pointless nitpicking. As you noted, no major doctrines are affected. I see God in that, too, and I think that the discrepancies are a reminder not to worship the book instead of the deity it tells us about.

audrey` said...

May your 2006 be filled with love, joy, peace, good health and rich blessings from our Lord!

Happy New Year!

pecheur said...

Matt,
this is correct