Exhortation Does Not Interrupt Exposition

On page 238 of his NTL commentary on Hebrews Luke Timothy Johnson uses the word “interrupt” to describe the transition between exposition and exhortation starting in Hebrews 5:11. In a way I’m nitpicking here, and because I am, I must also note that overall I find Johnson’s commentary nearly the most useful I’ve read, and if I were just talking about theological reflection, I would call it the best.

I have a couple of objections to use of the word “interrupt,” however. First, it seems to me that calling the transition an interruption divides the text without consideration for the author’s purpose in writing. There is no exposition here which stands alone, and which can then optionally be applied to the hearers via an exhortation. Rather, the intention is exhortation and the exposition underlies the exhortation and is illustrated and illuminated by the nature of that exhortation.

Second, the exhortations also help raise questions for the further exposition that follows. In the case in question (Hebrews 5:11-6:12), the question of the faithfulness and reliability of God is raised, which will be answered in Hebrews 6:13ff. This is also the critical question of the entire book. God has provided the final High Priest (logically and temporally), who will offer the final sacrifice, and will provide the way back to the presence of God. Since this is all final, human beings are presented with this final choice, in the view of our author. If you reject this, what means can God provide for you?

Without exhortation, the exposition would be dry, pointless, and incomplete. The exhortation is an integral part of developing the topic.

I emphasize this because of some of my experience in studying Pauline epistles in college and graduate school. We would make it through the theological exposition in the beginning of the book, but when we got to the practical admonitions, those were treated as something of an afterthought by Paul. “Here’s your theology of salvation, and oh, by the way, there are a few things it would be a good idea to do …”

But for Paul those admonitions grow out of the theology he has presented. The practical elements are not appendices to letters that are otherwise theological treatises. It would be better to call the theological exposition introductory matter to the practical sections. Perhaps this explains why Galatians and Romans seem to get so much more treatment from a theological viewpoint than 1 & 2 Corinthians.

Sometimes I think the worst thing about biblical scholarship is that it is carried out by biblical scholars. Their interest is in extracting theological propositions and historical data. The writers, especially Paul, are writing pastorally. The two don’t always work well together.

At least that is the view from someone who took Romans (through chapter 8!) and Galatians (through chapter 4!) in school. As far as I could tell, the professors were happy with that.

Hebrews 4:12 – ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ

What a mess my office is!

What a mess my office is!

I want to make a short comment on this, and the use of λόγος again in 4:13. I’m not going to go through all the arguments. I’ve just re-read David L. Allen (New American Commentary), Luke Timothy Johnson (NTL), James Moffatt (ICC), and Craig R. Koester (Anchor Bible), and the combined number of references and arguments is really quite astonishing and excellent.

They differ on the referent of ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ. There are good arguments for using this as the “personified word,” and for not reading it as a reference to Jesus, but again, as I have time and again over the years, I end up disagreeing. I think this forms an excellent tie back to the prologue, which clearly outlines a high Christology. Now we have definitely been reading arguments taken from the written word, and references to spoken word (Hebrews 2:1-4). But the prologue points us to Jesus as God’s ultimate communication with humanity.

This, in turn, points us to Hebrew 4:14-16, which summarizes one side of the coin of the high priesthood of Jesus. Here we are told, based on the arguments of chapters 2 & 3, that we have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weakness. He is our brother (2:11). This will be brought together with the other side of the coin in Hebrews 7:26-28, which tells us that his brotherhood with us does not diminish his status in all ways with God. But right here it’s the one who is our brother, who can sympathize with our weaknesses, who is the one to whom we must give account.

And there you can see how I think λόγος should be rendered at the end of verse 13. I think we do have a play on words, but we should also look beyond a gloss or even a simple dictionary definition, and note that Jesus is giving an account to us of God, while we give an account of ourselves to God. Except not so much. Because we have such a high priest who is able to take us all the way in to the throne of grace.

This doesn’t take the written word of God, nor the word of God spoken by the prophets or apostles out of the equation. Wherever God’s word is, it is “alive and active,” but its ultimate representation is in the person of Jesus. To the question, “Is this the written word of the prophets or is it Jesus?” I’m saying “yes.” But mostly Jesus, because that’s where our author is pointing us everywhere.

Jesus does not replace the written word. Rather he completes it. The New Testament doesn’t supersede the Old. It builds on it. If you’ve read Hebrews thus far, getting to the end of Chapter 4, you’ve experienced the work of someone whose respect for the Hebrew Scriptures is very great and shows clearly through. One should remember this when one gets to passages that talk about something old vanishing, such as Hebrews 8:13. The very foundation of his argument is not vanishing.

He’s going to make the case that Jesus is the perfect High Priest (and we see functions of that priest in 12-13, God->Us, Us->God), that Jesus is the perfect sacrifice, and subtly, by the texts used in making those cases, he will let us know that Jesus is the perfect King.

Yep! I read Hebrews 4:12-13 Christologically.


Deuteronomy and Introductions Redux

Study Bibles and CBCA second law and a second note on introductions to biblical books. Goes together, no?

I completed my reading of Numbers along with the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary yesterday and today read the introduction from the section on Deuteronomy. In it the author, Eugene H. Merrill (professor at Dallas Theological Seminary) argues forcefully for Mosaic authorship and for an early (1446 BC) date for the exodus. In school I learned 1445, but the majority position is that the exodus occurred in the mid to late 13th century, and critical scholars in general would reject at least direct Mosaic authorship in favor of a date of writing in the 7th century BC.

In the course of presenting these positions and his basis for them he makes the statement (p. 449) that “there is absolutely no objective evidence that compels a late provenance for the book.” I would first point out that it is useful to realize that evidence rarely compels, especially in historical situations such as this. Secondly, there is evidence that would point to the composite nature of the book and some that would suggest a later historical setting. Certain Merrill, along with many others, has provided explanations for this apparent evidence, but having provided an alternate explanation, however convincing it may be to the one providing it, does not make the evidence go away.

I like to look at introductions in various study Bibles. I’m not sure why, as the usual result is simply to raise my blood pressure a bit. In this case I have at hand The Oxford Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, and the NLT Study Bible. Out of these, only the NLT Study Bible would tend to agree with Merrill. That count is not important, however, because it doesn’t constitute a good survey of quality scholarship on the issue.

The problem with the lot of these is that they each assert their position with confidence and provide a couple of notes on things that favor that position, but give very few reasons why anyone might disagree. If you read the conservative introductions, you might well conclude that the critical scholars who disagree are just perverse, while if you read the more critical introductions, you might not be aware that there are modern conservative scholars who would hold to such views as a 1446 BC date for the exodus or Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy around 1406 BCE.

You may think I’m being unfair, as each introduction must be short, especially in the study Bibles. Merrill’s can be somewhat longer as he is writing for a substantial commentary on just three books of the Bible. But my point is not to chastise the scholars for their positions or for espousing them in their introductions. I do find their language a bit intemperate, and I would also point out that it doesn’t take many words to indicate that other scholars disagree with at least some indication of why that might be.

My interest is in what you do about it. I’d suggest strongly that you don’t surround yourself with books that agree with you and that come from scholars that are in your own religious/denominational tradition. I am generally convinced, though I wouldn’t use “compelling” for any evidence, that the Pentateuch, including Deuteronomy, is a composite text containing some ancient traditions, but built up with case law and later additions and adaptations. Yet I will carefully read Merrill’s commentary as I also read through the Hebrew text. What’s more, I can predict right now that I will learn a great deal from Merrill’s work.

The reason I can do that is that I’ve read this introduction, and while I disagree with the dating and authorship section, it is followed by a discussion of structure and themes that is extremely helpful. I frequently encounter the idea that a certain writer is just a liberal, or too conservative for me, so why should I read his material. We could go for “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17). But I think perhaps Provebers 27:21 is better:

The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold,
    so a person is tested by being praised. (NRSV)

Or as I translated it for a Tweet (I like literal in this type of poetry):

I really need to read someone saying that there is “no compelling evidence” for the position I hold. If I only read The Oxford Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, and The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, I would never be pushed to look more closely at the evidence.

I think it is particularly important in using study Bibles, because people seem to get the idea that whatever is in the notes is what “scholars” believe regarding the passage. They often also decide that if “scholars” believe it, then they must too. But scholars as a group rarely agree on anything. It’s one of their best features, because they all want to refine things and find some new, good ideas. The results are sometimes crazy, but nothing like as bad as the results of not doing so.

Introductions are hard to write and often don’t prove that useful. But using a range of them can be quite enlightening!

Note on the End of Numbers

Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (CBC)I’m about to move from the section on Numbers in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary and from there go on to reading Deuteronomy. I’m reading this in parallel with a reading of the Hebrew text.

I’ll first note that I find this commentary very helpful, and I believe it would be helpful to a person preparing lessons or sermons on these books (Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), which are not that easy to work with. The authors of all three sections provide good theological reflections on the passages, which I find helpful despite the fact that they are somewhat more conservative than my own theology.

One of the keys for Christians reading the Pentateuch is being open to the questions and looking for the answers. It is much less important to have a set of “good” answers at hand when you finish. It’s OK to admit that the culture reflected is very different from modern culture, and is hard for us to apply. As I have noted before, and recently read in Luke Timothy Johnson’s NTL commentary on Hebrews, modern Christians don’t really understand the idea of sacrifice, amongst other things, and so see the entire tabernacle/sanctuary service/cult as a foreign land.

Numbers 35 illustrates some difficulties. Here we have the concept of the avenger who will kill the person who has killed (even accidentally) a relative. So the cities of refuge are provided. There the killer can find refuge provided the killing was inadvertent. (Just how “inadvertence” is defined is up for some discussion.) In this passage we find the rule requiring at least two witnesses for a capital charge.

So we have a mitigation of vengeance killing, yet even if the person is found innocent of capital murder, he will be restricted to the city of refuge. Having been found not guilty, he still suffers exile. But modern readers may miss what many commentators see as the reason he remains until the death of the high priest. The death of the high priest is seen as atoning. I find the argument for this latter point less compelling than some, but nonetheless a serious possibility, and one which might well impact our understanding of Jesus as both high priest and sacrifice in Hebrews.

Which leads backward, in a sense, to the idea that the land itself is polluted by murder and that atonement must be made in order to remove this pollution. The atonement for intentional, premeditated murder can only be made by the death of the murder, and no ransom can be accepted. There is no indication in the text of what happens in case of doubt, when two witnesses cannot be produced. There would be no atonement. Clearly, people are not expected to atone for a sin they cannot determine existed.

We have here a tension between what we would see as Christian principles and a society based on vengeance. There is mitigation, and yet there is considerable accommodation as well. I think it is a good example of how God works with people. It’s easy for us to say that God should make things absolutely right (as we see it) in an instant. But it is not that easy to change a culture and a society.

Yet if you look at Judaism today, you see an amazing edifice built on just this kind of material, and Christianity grew out of this same soil with some interesting outside influence!

A Note on Translations and Commentaries

CBC based on the NLT

Are we veiling the commentary with the translation used?

As I’ve been reading a commentary based on the New Living Translation (NLT), it has been interesting to note how the commentators differ from the readings of the translation on which the commentary is ostensibly based.

For example, as I finished reading the section on Numbers today (pp. 217-443), written by Dale A. Brueggemann, I noted two important translation notes.

  1. 35:12, in which the NLT refers to “relatives” rather than to the singular “goel” or avenger/redeemer, a translation that the commentator says “… may be misleading” (p. 426n). Certainly potentially misleading and may cause one to miss connecting thoughts built on this concept.
  2. 35:20, in which two points are noted. First, the NLT adds “a dangerous object” which is not in the Hebrew source, and also omits “while lying in wait,” which is in the Hebrew. The latter omission the commentator calls “this telling qualification” (p. 427n).

It’s not surprising that a commentator will work for the source text, of course, but it’s interesting to note. You’ll find this sort of disagreement in almost any commentary where the author is required to use a particular translation. Sometimes one could almost say “with the ___ version included” rather than saying it’s a commentary on that version.

With a dynamic equivalence translation, however, the odds are greater that there will be a certain tension between commentator and English text. This is not really surprising. Is it problematic? For many, this disagreement is an argument in favor of more formal equivalence translations.

It seems to me, however, that a formal equivalence translation, besides allowing for misunderstanding, such as when it verbally translates some idioms, also simply leaves greater room for one to imagine the translation agrees with one’s own approach, even when it’s simply a bit ambiguous.

It’s valuable for lay persons who read scripture to become aware of the fact that there are differences in the way translations are done. That’s why I frequently recommend reading from more than one translation. For example, a good counterpoint to the NLT might be the New Revised Standard Version (which also provides from more theological diversity in the translation committee) or the English Standard Version (with an evangelical team similar to that of the NLT).

Numbers 33 and Matthew 1:1-17

Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (CBC)Regarding Numbers 33 and the 42 stations on the route to the promised land, footnote #1 on page 420, (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Numbers), notes that “[p]atristic commentators compared these 42 stations to the 42 (3 x 14) generations in Jesus’ genealogy, but that doesn’t shed any light on ch 33 …”

It is quite true that this comparison sheds no light on chapter 33, but I doubt that there was any intention by the author of Matthew to shed light on Numbers. More likely, if he was making a connection, he was intending to have Numbers 33 shed light on his genealogy. Clearly he went out of his way to get 42 generations and divide them into three groups of 14. It’s very easy to make too much of numerology.

Despite that, I am more and more convinced that New Testament authors quite frequently intended to draw more of the Old Testament narrative into their writing than just what was quoted. One reason for this is that I have noted how the lack of knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament in modern audiences makes discussing certain passages more difficult. The corollary to this is that a greater knowledge would make discussion easier. New Testament writers could count on greater knowledge among their readers than we can today.

What might Matthew be drawing into the text here? I have argued that Matthew 2:15, when it quotes from Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” is drawing the broader story there into his narrative. At first glance, one might accuse Matthew of taking something that is clearly not Messianic and making a prophecy out of it. Hosea 11 continues with telling us that the more YHWH called his people, the more they went away. My initial reaction to this, and the reaction of many, is that Matthew is grabbing a single clause out of context, and making a prediction of something that isn’t actually a prediction. But I’d suggest instead that Matthew is presenting Jesus as Israel doing it right. When God called Israel at various times, they went away, as Hosea is saying. Jesus, on the other hand, when called out of Egypt or when called to the cross, continues to come.

My suspicion is that the use of 42, besides being the numerologically comfortable grouping of three pairs of sevens (and there are so many ways a set of numbers can be presented!), is intended to point us back to the travels of the Israelites in coming to the promised land. I am in no way suggesting that these 42 stops were in some way predictive, nor am I suggesting that Matthew 1:1-17 gives some sort of new or special meaning to Numbers 33. Rather, I’m suggesting that Matthew uses 42 generations as an allusion to Numbers 33 and to Israel coming out of Egypt and to the promised land.

Ham in My Hash Browns

Nearly 20 years ago a waitress at a well-known breakfast chain messed up my order for hash browns by adding diced ham.

If you don’t find anything odd about that sentence, you are, perhaps, a candidate for counseling. But I digress.

I had wanted jalapeños, onions, mushrooms, and cheese. I got all of those. Plus ham.

As a vegetarian, I don’t eat ham. The waitress was very nice and got me a new order with what I wanted, but for years (yes, years) thereafter, I was known to remind the staff at that particular chain that I did not want any meat in my hash browns. None at all.

I was reminded of this last night when I asked Jody if she had done a certain thing, something that we had both forgotten a couple of months ago, but that I didn’t want forgotten again. She said she supposed she’d have to wear forgetting this one monthly task once for some time, considering how long it took me to forget about the ham in my hash browns. Well, I obviously haven’t actually forgotten it. I have quit mentioning it. One step at a time, you know!

I was reminded of it again this morning as I read Numbers 32. The story takes place after the Israelites have defeated a variety of enemies on the east bank of the Jordan River, and are preparing to cross into the promised land. The leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad really like the territory that has been conquered as it is good for their flocks, so they come to Moses and Eleazar and ask for this land rather than a share of the land across the Jordan. Moses is angry with them and reminds them of something that had happened nearly 40 years before. He calls them a brood of sinners. It’s really not a very pleasant conversation.

They reply that they will certainly help their fellow-Israelites conquer the land, but that they like this land just fine. Eventually with that agreement, Moses agrees to grant them the land (somehow the half tribe of Manasseh gets in the mix toward the end), and we get an explanation of what cities they built and what territory each took.

In reading about this, I note that commentators try to decide whether the final decision was a positive one or not. Was it a good idea to let these two and a half tribes settle east of the Jordan? I don’t know of any way to determine the answer. I suspect that there would have been problems either way. But when interpreting stories one thing to remember is that some things in a story, even in a fictional one, happen because they happen. I think it is a mistake to always try to find a moral in a story, even a Bible story. Some things just happened that way, and there is not great moral in it.

Despite the fact that I’m unable to decide one way or another on the value of having some of the Israelites settle to the east of the river, I do see some potential questions, and perhaps resulting lessons in the story. One might be that there is no reference in this chapter to seeking the will of the Lord. It’s entirely a human decision. Given the frequency with which Moses consults with the Lord before taking action, is it possible that the writer here is trying to make a point?

But one of the values in stories is that they can connect to different aspects of our lives, and today Moses’s response connected for me. Here come these poor tribal elders, much younger than Moses, one of the few survivors from those who left Egypt as adults, and they are coming to one who is now a revered leader. I suspect there was a bit of fear and trembling going on. They ask what seems to be a simple question: Could we have this territory?

Now consider. The territory has been conquered. It’s going to go to someone. All the tribes are going to get some land. It might be a good idea to occupy the territory, in fact. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with their request. It’s perfectly reasonable. They don’t even say they won’t help with the conquest of the promised land. They just haven’t mentioned it.

The CBC commentary I’m reading right now calls the solution involving them joining the other tribes in the conquest while leaving their wives and children in fortified settlements a compromise. But I see no delay and discussion. It looks to me as though they already had that ready, but hadn’t managed to roll it out.

Moses reacts. Forty years ago other Israelites did this, and it’s right at the top of his mind. He remembers those people and those lessons, and he’s not about to let anyone forget the lesson.

About 40 years before some other people had sinned. In fact, their actions were only similar in a superficial way, but Moses had learned the lesson well. Perhaps too well. Someone could put ham in his hash browns once, but never again! He calls them a brood of sinners while reminding them of past failings.

It may seem that I’m being a bit disrespectful in my treatment of Moses, a man who spoke to God face-to-face. But if there’s anything we learn from the broader story of scripture it’s that every human being has weaknesses. Scripture is not afraid to take note of those weaknesses. Now Moses becomes a special case. I was working through Hebrews 3:1-6 this morning as well, and the argument that Jesus is greater than Moses. That argument must be made because of the great respect we grant Moses as Christians.

The thing is that having learned his lesson, he applied it where it didn’t really apply. The continuing discussion makes it clear that these elders are not opposed to conquering Canaan, nor do they want to shirk their responsibilities. They’re simply proposing a plan for making good use of this land.

Moses, to his credit, calms down, considers the situation, and they all agree to a plan. It’s a reasonable ending to a story.

But for me, it’s a reminder that sometimes we do need to forget the faults and failings of others. Our own as well! And we don’t need to fit everyone into the narrative of past failures. The failure Moses remembers was real and it was important. It was a failure that did not need to be repeated. But Moses misapplied it to these elders.

Brood of sinners? No, just looking for a good place to care for their flocks.


Pattern Building in the Mind

We like meaning and connections, and we’ll sometimes find them even when they’re not there. People who understand this can deceive you. The Improbability Principle from Neuroblogica is a very good summary of this.

Numbers 31 – An Unsatisfactory Response

Since I have been reading the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy along with the text, I wanted to place a short note about the response to this passage in that commentary. (The author of the Leviticus portion is Dale A Brueggemann.)

He notes the command to slaughter all the males, including the children, and all the women who were not virgins, then on page 403 he says:

This slaughter was not the result of “collateral damage” in the heat of battle, or even an outrage committed in the heat of war’s bloodlust. It was purposeful judicial slaughter after the battle was already over. In fact, this action fits the modern definition of ethnic cleansing or possibly even genocide. The conquest was a holy war aimed at driving out an entire human population from Canaan (33:50-53), annihilating everyone there to purge idolatry and remove its temptations (Deut 20:16-18). …

He continues (p. 404) to note that Israel was promised similar judgment if they did not follow God and stay clear of idolatry. It’s interesting to note that at this point the chapter turns to the issue of ritual purity, specifying purification rituals for the spoils as well as for the warriors who, at God’s command, have come in contact with dead bodies. Dale Brueggemann notes (404):

… Even glorious battles fought and won with God’s blessing cause death, which doesn’t belong in the presence of the God of the living.

Alright then …

It is here that I must note that this passage presents an interesting problem for those who want to quote the Qur’an and use texts, apart from their interpretation by representatives of any branch of Islam, to demonstrate that Islam is not a religion of peace. The Bible has similar passages which can be interpreted, and indeed have been interpreted by some, as justifying violence. Our commentator in this case calls this action a “holy war” and then a “glorious battle.” Apart from your particular means of reading this passage, could you blame someone not involved in your particular hermeneutic for concluding that Judaism or Christianity are not religions of peace either?

There are a number of ways of looking at this passage, some of which I enumerated in my article in Sharing the Practice, Preaching an Unpreachable Passage. Very few Christians would use this passage today as a justification for this sort of act of war. Reasons range from “that’s the Old Testament,” though it should be noted that few Jews would use it to justify slaughter either, to such violence is only at God’s specific and rare command, to noting that it was a violent time, and God worked with people as they were.

I must confess that I find the explanation give in the CBC on Numbers to be extremely unsatisfactory. The Canaanites were so wicked that the Israelites were justified in slaughtering everyone including the baby boys? Note as well that the women were not spared due to mercy. They were spared as spoils of war. I discuss my own responses in the article linked above, but I think that there is a requirement that we see a process of learning going on in scripture, that this was a way in which people behaved in the past in a world in which that behavior was standard, but that we have been told better (by the Prince of Peace, among others), and we have (I hope) learned better by now.

Most importantly, in our relations with other faiths, I would suggest that we need to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” We would object to the statement that Christianity supports genocide based upon this passage. We would reject interpretations by others that say this is so. We’d present our hermeneutic in support of our position. Just as we would like others to allow us to use our scriptures in our way, we should allow them the same privilege.

Taint None of Us Perfect, Never, Nohow

(Leave Christology out of it!)

Reading the post A Similarity Between Reasoned Eclecticism & Byzantine Priority over on the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog (HT: Dave Black Online, Monday, June 6, 12:35), set me to thinking. Fair warning: This will be a bit rambling. These are thoughts triggered by the post, not largely in response to it.

The limited number of comments focus, as might be expected, on New Testament. In fact, it seems to me that most discussion of textual criticism tends to focus on the New Testament, and this sometimes leaves the wrong impression. For example, to a query about the reliability of the biblical text an apologist might respond with the number of manuscripts we have … of the New Testament. But what about Hebrew Scriptures?

If I were to answer the question posed (and if it’s not obvious, I’m not a practicing textual critic), I would have to say that when looking at a passage in the Greek New Testament I’m going to look at the external evidence first, and then the internal. This is for practical reasons. With the number of New Testament manuscripts, versions, and quotations available, one hopes to find the best reading somewhere in the external evidence. Internal evidence can help refine one’s choice, but in practical terms, most of the actual readings are likely to be contained in some manuscript somewhere.

I wouldn’t argue that all readings that ever existed are to be found in one of our extant manuscripts. There is a theoretical place for a conjecture. So I wouldn’t say that the external evidence places a fixed limit on where we can go with the internal evidence, but I would say that it sets a pretty fair boundary. I would require substantial evidence to go with a conjecture, and even then, it might be a conjecture about an original reading that would generate the external evidence as we have it. So it’s a line, but it’s a line in the sand. It can be moved. In my experience, however, it is rarely necessary to move it.

But when we turn to the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament, the situation is much different. The manuscripts we have come from a time much more removed from the composition of the texts involved, and there are less of them. I think the time between the composition of a text and the first extant manuscript receives too little attention in discussions, because the time before a text is established as sacred is when I suspect much of the variation will occur. It’s quite possible that there are a number of New Testament variations that we don’t consider simply because they are no longer represented in the manuscripts.

The shift to Old Testament textual criticism was rather interesting for me, as it seems to some extent that you travel to a different world. There are necessary differences because the nature of the external evidence is different. There are even more differences because there are more texts that are obscure. In reading commentaries, one might think that for OT texts lectio dificilior is turned on its head as one runs through possible readings, including conjectures until one finds a reading that “works.” Nobody is going to quite say it that way, but that is how it often feels. And, of course, lectio dificilior has its problems in that it’s quite possible that a difficult, yet translatable, reading could be introduced by error. So it’s not an absolute.

In the Hebrew scriptures we have more cases in which a passage is truly obscure. Nobody really knows how to translate or interpret. So you get a translation and footnotes. I had a professor in graduate school who absolutely hated the idea of conjectural emendation. He simply wouldn’t accept any. But he’d accept some very wild conjectures on how to translate the text that is actually there. He and I went a few rounds on what the difference was between arbitrarily conjecturing a text that you could then translate or arbitrarily choosing some English words you could say were a translation of the text. In either case, the meaning presented by your translation is a conjecture.

Conjectural emendation has a bad name, and there is a good reason for this. Critical commentaries on Old Testament books are often filled with conjectural reconstructions of the text that have very little basis in either an internal analysis of the text and transcriptional probabilities or in any external evidence. Often the emendations simply make the book fit some theory of composition, or better represent the theme that the commentator believes, for whatever reasons, must have been intended by the author or redactor.

Nonetheless, in theory, it is possible that a reading not contained in any manuscript could be the correct reading. The problem is always making a solid case that it is. Few conjectures have managed to gain the support of a strong consensus of scholars.

Does any of this make any difference to you and me as we try to study our Bibles? Well, yes and no. The problem, as I see it, is to acknowledge the value of textual criticism without believing one must get to that elusive “original text” in order to have good theology or be a good disciple.

I would suggest that it’s important to seek the best text of scripture simply because it’s important to seek out the best information we can on any subject. At the same time I don’t think we need to be concerned about variants, even substantial ones. We tend to take the biblical data in a selfish way, as though all the manuscripts exist in order to provide us with an accurate view of scripture. But each one of those manuscripts was (part of) someone’s Bible at some time and place. I can worry about whether the Hebrew text behind the Septuagint (LXX) is better or if the Masoretic Text is better, but early Christians lived and did theology with the LXX and the Reformation (not to mention Judaism) thrived on the MT. These aren’t just witnesses to which text I should use; they are Bibles, sacred texts, used by real people.

The much criticized Vulgate, abandoned by protestants in pursuit of the sources, was nonetheless the Bible for many people. So in modern times was the Living Bible, as flawed as I think it was as a translation.

If God desired the kind of precision that some of us seem to think is required of the biblical text, I think God would have taken a different approach. But instead of a clean process in which we can give absolute or near absolute answers to all questions about the text, we have a variety of materials produced in different ways. While we long for perfection, for the inerrant text, we don’t actually have it. The claim of inerrancy is made for the autographs, not for any text you have or are likely to have in your hands.

Which, incidentally, is why I have little use for the doctrine of inerrancy, one way or the other. And let me be clear that I do mean as expressed in the Chicago Statement. I just don’t care whether the autographs were inerrant or not. If God was happy to use an error-prone process of transmission, why must I conclude that he somehow protected the original manuscript.

Let me illustrate. Supposing that Ezekiel (my very most favorite prophet) is hearing from the Holy Spirit, and he slips and writes the wrong word on the page. It’s a mistake. The manuscript is now no longer inerrant. The autograph is flawed. Oops!

Now suppose instead that the first scribe to copy the book made the very same mistake, after which the original was destroyed. Now we have only one copy of the book of Ezekiel, and it has the very same error.

The first scenario is considered problematic. The second is OK. It’s a copyist’s error.

I disagree. God has chosen to provide God’s Word to us in written form with every evidence of human involvement all along the way. I find it amazing that the text has been preserved as well as it has been. I find it more amazing that it has been available, used, and defended by people in so many places and at so many times. Many of these people were defending texts that various modern scholars would call “corrupt.” They might have been preaching from a manuscript copied by a careless scribe. And yet preach they did! And they lived out their faith as they knew how.

It’s not just thousands of witnesses to the text. It’s thousands of Bibles used by many more thousands of people.

We ask the question of whether we can rely on the text. I think it’s the wrong question. The question is whether we can rely on God who, through the Holy Spirit, has been speaking since before anyone conceived of a Bible and who is ready to talk to us today. We’re not perfect. None of us. We don’t have perfect texts. None at all.

But we can work through the multitude of materials available to us and so communicate not only with God, but with the community of faith that God has established. It’s a community that extends across time as well as space. It’s made up of people who were never perfect but always trying and hoping.

Now don’t let the fact that we can’t get 100% of the original, perfect text keep you from getting as much of it as you can. And don’t let the fact that you can’t really know all there is to know about God keep you from trying to get to know God better.

I think that God has set this up so that in trying to know God better (vertically?) we also need to get to know and appreciate one another (horizontally). It is in community that we come to know.

Or better, it is in community that we keep on the journey toward knowing.