Taint None of Us Perfect, Never, Nohow

Taint None of Us Perfect, Never, Nohow

A manuscript fragment
Credit: OpenClipart.org

(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.

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