Textual Criticism

29 Jul

This next post will be in 2 parts.

Textual Criticism: Defense of My Position


In my undergraduate days I was exposed to textual criticism on a very superficial level.  We may have been given one or two lessons on the topic and it has been through the years since then that I have had more dealings with the topic.  Suffice it to say that more through experience, the reading of the Bible and the reading of other works has helped me develop my position on how to deal with the ancient Biblical manuscripts (mss.).

This paper, or essay, is a presentation of what I have come to believe but I will present and defend it through questioning and examining what has been said in the book, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible by Paul D. Wegner. This format makes it easier to talk about different aspects of this topic and my position as it provides the information I need to start presenting my views.

There will be no pre-set order which I will follow in presenting my defense as the issues involved in this subject are not chronological but permeate the whole field of study at the same time. Since this is an essay of my position, and not a research paper on the topic itself, quotes and references will be minimal.

In order to set the tone of this paper, I will make the statement that I believe in finding the truth and my position is what I have come to believe is the truth.  I rely on God’s word which tells us He wrote the Bible through human authors thus there is a ‘source’ the biblical authors used it just wasn’t human.

Also I believe that God keeps His word and when he says he will preserve it to the end then we can have confidence we have the correct words. In regards to adding and subtracting words from the Bible, it is done by those who do not believe and want their own way, while those who do want to believe, God has used over the centuries to preserve His word so that all people

  1. Original Manuscripts

It is often stated that we do not have the original autographs or if you prefer, books or letters, of the Bible. Bart Ehrman made this one of the reasons why he lost his faith {Ehrman 2005:14ff} and Dr. Wegner’s book makes the same claim on pg. 29 when he says, “Since no autographs are available today of either the Old or New Testaments…”

I contest this idea simply because if God used and trusted humans enough to write the originals, He would be able to use and trust copyists to maintain His word.  After all, it is His promise on the line, why would He take the time to have His words written, only to allow them to be altered as time went on?

What this position tells me is that people do not trust God to keep His word, nor do they trust they Holy Spirit lead them to the truth.  It tells me that something was impossible for God to do or that He is incapable of protecting His own words, which in turn tells me that one cannot rely on God for there is something stronger than Him—a copyist.

God does not play games, He is fair and just which means that He would have His exact words available for all people of all generations, even though some people would not hear the gospel, but that is another story for another time.

We must have the original words available to us right now and throughout history, if not, then how could we have hope that what we read is telling us the truth?  This emphasis on the original autographs is taking people’s eyes of God and His word and as we see by Dr. Ehrman’s example, when that happens Satan wins.

By thinking that we do not have the original words, we are allowing doubt to enter into the believer’s lives and we open the door for evil to work its destructive manipulations and draw believers away from God.

We have seen from example to example, the silver amulets, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and many other mss. that God’s Word has not changed from the very beginning and if we see that these words, or their message, have not changed then we must conclude that we have at least one original autograph per book in our possession.

How can we trust the Bible if we think otherwise?

  1. The Purpose of Textual criticism

The textbook for this course tells us on pg. 24 that ‘textual criticism attempts to establish the most reliable reading of the text.’ There are two problems with this idea, if one believes we do not have the original autographs.

  1. How will the scholars know if they got it right if they do not have the original words to compare with their work?

This is actually a huge problem for it means that what we are reading in the Bible are not God’s words but some human scholar’s best guess.  This attitude undermines the credibility of the message then, for how would the common person realize that they may be reading someone’s ideas and not God’s word? They would be following some human’s ideas not God’s revelation.

This already happens today and has happened in the past with cultic re-translations and other alterations yet life gets darker if the one true Bible has its lights put out because no one can trust it is carrying the truth.

  1. Subjectivism and culturalism. By not standing up and saying that we have the original words of God, and they are found here, we have opened the door for a scholar or ancient language expert to translate the Bible any way they see fit. The can put their own ‘spin’ on the controversial passages, changing the message to accommodate those who do not want to comply with God’s standard.

We see this taking place not only in the paraphrase called ‘The Message’ and the Greek woman scholar’s version {the name of both escape me and cannot be found on a search} but also in the recent update of the NIV.  The last one is changing all male references to multi-gender references while the former two are basically re-writing passages o fit the translator’s sensibilities and beliefs.

Because of this idea that we need to ‘get the most reliable’ reading how can we say the imposter’s are wrong? Are they not trying to get the most ‘reliable reading’ as well? What makes their work and knowledge inferior to the rest? They are changing the Word of God but how would we know, we ‘claim’ we do not have the original words and we cannot pull them out to show everyone where these other works go wrong.

Then with the surge of culturalism in the world today coupled with the mentality of ‘that was the culture of that time..’ how can we be sure we have God’s word because culture is dictating that we change the words of God to meet its standard. It is taking place today, so unless we acknowledge that we have the actual word of God, and abide by them, our receiving God’s revelation and instructions grows dimmer with each new translation or altered version.

I do not believe that we can stop at ‘the reliable reading’ stage for the dangers are too many in number which seek to undermine the purpose of the Bible and destroy its impact.

III. The Science

Also on page 24, Dr. Wegner describes what textual criticism is. He calls it a science and an art. He claims it is a science because the field follows specific rules but acknowledges that that system is too limited in scope for he adds later, ‘…but it is also an art because these rules cannot rigidly be applied in every situation.’

There are many questions that go unanswered if this field is as Dr. Wegner says, a science.  Who set the rules? Why are they the ones who get to set the rules?  What makes them better than someone else? How does fallible man think they can govern what is infallible and dictate what it says? How do they distinguish between heretical works and true Christian ones?

We know that many who claim to be Christian, yet are cultic, make their own translations of the Bible which distort and change what God has said, How do these scholars determine which ones are heretical and which ones are not? Then will they discard the heretical to keep the true Words of God?

The answer to that last question is ‘apparently not’ as Dr. Wegner says on page 249:

“The fact that Marcion was considered a heretic does not come into play since his heresies related to concepts not associated directly with this passage.”

So, despite the fact that a heretic’s beliefs will spoil and influence all that they write, it doesn’t matter because they don’t address all passages of scripture. That is just wrong. One does not include the writings of heretics in textual studies for their works are not of God and do not influence what God has written, they have changed God’s word to fit their own ideas, as Kenneth Scott Latourette wrote:

“Marcion, as we have noted, seems to have been the first to assemble some of the Christian writings into a well defined collection. This, as we have seen, included The Gospel according to Luke, and some of the letters of Paul, edited to make them conform to Marcion’s convictions.” {Latourette 2003:133 (bold mine)}

So it is impossible to use such works to determine what God did nor did not say for one would not know if they were looking at God’s word altered or unaltered. Science is not equipped to deal with such problems for they do not have the criteria structure that allows them to determine right from wrong passages to use. They would use them all simply because the data included, in their minds, provides clues on how to the ancient wrote their languages.

As for being ‘art’, the idea that ‘intuition’, ‘informed judgment’ can be used to determine God’s words is sketchy at best, as such faculties are too easily manipulated by one’s beliefs or lack of them. They are also influenced by the cultural norms that are accepted by the translators. We would do better if we placed options for a meaning of a word or phrase on a dart board and picked the ‘correct’ one by tossing darts via ‘intuition’ or ‘informed judgment’ (the dart thrower was an expert thrower).

In other words, too much is left to guess work and chance in spite of the abundance of evidence that ‘is more than any previous generation had.’ I doubt that the author really knows how much evidence each generation had or if we have the most. It is a little impossible to prove for the late 1st and 2nd centuries most surely had the original works for the New Testament and having the originals trumps all copies no matter their number.

Such claims are rather presumptuous and ignore God’s promise of preserving His word. If modern day textual critics are using both true and heretical works scientifically are they not undermining themselves by resorting to the best guess when science fails? How can one rely on a translation that claims to use the best scientific methods until the problem becomes too difficult for science to solve?

The credibility of the science and its method falls as one questions the validity of the other passages and wonders if science actually got them right. The strength of textual criticism being a ‘science;’ is outweighed and over-ruled by its weaknesses and limitations.

  1. Fluidity and Modifications

Dr. Wegner makes two statements about the changing of the Bible which make little sense and shows the minutia that occupies the time of textual critics while adding little to their argument that the Bible does not contain the original Words of God.. The first is found on page 34:

“It appears that the Old Testament was somewhat fluid (or subject to change) until about the fist century A.D., as seen in the increasing number of matre lectionis added by scribes…”

This implies that the Old Testament message and accounts were altered to fit a certain ideology or religious agenda but what really took place was the addition of letters to make the text easier to understand. This is not fluidity, this is just doing what the modern translators have doing when they adapt the English bible from the King James English to the more modern version.

All that is being done by scribes is the adding of vowels (marte lectionis) to the Hebrew language for clarity sake and so the common man could comprehend God’s law better.  It is highly unlikely that Dr. Wegner would say there was ‘fluidity’ in the English translation because succeeding generations sought to make the Bible more readable for all by updating the language.

He complains, on the same page, that ‘any amount of fluidity makes the text critic’s task more difficult since there are more options to choose from (i.e. it is hard to determine the earliest form of a text if it continued to change)’.

Yet the text did not change, the presentation changed but the words and the message did not. Even if it did, he and other textual critics would not know what the earlier form was for, again, they do not have the ‘originals’ to compare the different texts throughout  history to see where ancient textual critics went wrong.

Tome this is an exercise in futility as the modern textual critic is inventing problems to justify their time spent on examining the ancient works. This is exampled by his words on page 35, ‘ But the problem of a unified text is that earlier and possibly even more accurate variations may have been removed by those who determined which text to retain.’

He is also asserting that the scribes and copyists were free to exercise their own judgment on what God was saying, as if they had the authority to do so. This is assuming a lot and as indicated by the words ‘may have been removed’ a charge that is impossible to prove. We cannot go on assumptions and false charges for then we would be forever spinning our wheels and never find out what God ‘really said’.

I also used the word ‘modification’ in the title of this subsection as Dr. Wegner makes a point of asserting another charge he cannot substantiate on page 37;

“A biblical book may have gone through some modification on its way to its final for, authoritative form, and there may e times when we can identify these changes.’

What he is saying here is that 1. God could not get it right the first time and that re-writes were needed; 2. That the original form that God gave was not the final nor was it authoritative thus the people of Israel were robbed of God’s word from the beginning; 3. He is saying that we may not have God’s word after all because God made mistakes nor could He control His authors.

He uses the example of the town name of ‘Dan’ to make his point. But that is not a modification, but an updating.  People would not remember that ‘Dan’ was originally ‘Lacish’ for as time goes on, the original name slips off into obscurity and all would know the town mentioned.

As an example, my undergrad alma mater was located in the city of Regina, Sk. But very few people knew its original name, Pile of Bones, and to continual to refer to its original moniker in modern day documents would be ridiculous as confusion would set in as to the identity of the city being mentioned. The same for ‘Dan’, God allowed the change to avoid confusion and He is not the author of confusion.

So this name change is not a modification nor is the original form non-authoritative, it is just an update for comprehension. One reason I like my form of textual criticism for with the Holy Spirit one gets the truth 100% of the time whereas Dr. Wegner undermines his science and shows its failures by stating the following:

“The final form of the text that later became canonical may not be obtainable in every case, nevertheless it is a plausible goal in the vast majority of the cases…”(pg.37)

If the ‘final form’ is not obtainable then why use the field? We cannot present a Bible to the people and say, well 90% of it is God’s word and 10% is not. Who wants only 90% of God’s word, the Bible has to be 1005 of God’s words or it is not the Bible. The Jehovah Witnesses have approx. 80-90 % of God’s word yet we reject that as cultic, so why would we accept a Christian version that claims to be non-cultic yet contains the same amount of fallible, subjective human input?

It does not make sense to do so nor does it make sense to produce such an inferior product. We would never know who changed what words and we could never have confidence in what the Bible was saying for the Bible would be placed under a cloud of suspicion and could not be trusted.

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Posted by on July 29, 2016 in academics, Bible, church, comparative religions, education, faith, family, leadership, theology


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