Saturday, 31 January 2015

Simultaneous criteria for textual variants in the New Testament - a possible little breakthrough!

I feel slightly excited, as I consider today's post. Although I enjoy wrestling with theological questions and engaging with people's ideas about Scriptures, their assumptions and opinions, I rarely feel like I have come up with something especially new to contribute myself, until just now. The question is how to explain it clearly!

I have been engaging with textual criticism for a little bit, and the two authors, Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace, in particular. Textual criticism is quite scientific actually - it weighs up the various manuscript, historical and archaeological evidence to provide probabilities of textual change direction. This requires us to understand the indisputable claim that there are hundreds of thousands of differences between the extant (existing/found) manuscripts. That is not nearly as bad as it sounds - the slightest difference between any one of the thousands of manuscripts relative to any one other manuscript (e.g. a variant spelling) constitutes a difference.

Actually, of the most significant type of variants in the manuscripts, we can identify a top 7, which include texts like the woman caught in adultery, the long ending of Mark, and an omission in Matthew 24 "nor the son" during the Olivet Discourse and knowledge of the day and hour of the coming of the Son of Man.

It is argued convincingly by Wallace, along with Gordon Fee and Philip Miller and Matthew Morgan and Adam Messer and Tim Ricchuiti and Brian Wright, that Bart Ehrman applies a too systematic and overarching criterion of orthodox corruption of significant variant passages. The person agreeing with Ehrman is basically saying: scribes changed the wording to align it better with the orthodox belief of the time.

As it turns out, Bart Ehrman is so confident of his views, unfortunately, that he does not take the time to properly answer these serious purported flaws in his methodology (see his blog post here).

My basic idea is the following, and is unique, as far as I can tell in their debate, particularly with regard to the variant in Matthew. I believe that it is highly possible for more than one factor to be acting at the same time on a scribe. Whether or not you want to call this multiple causes or multiple factors resulting in a single cause is inconsequential.  What it does do is place this view, and as far as I know, in disagreement with both Wallace and Ehrman (thank goodness I don't know them personally, they would have my guts for garters!) Let me unpack it, as so far I am being vague.

In Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament, on page 36, Wallace states [his italics]: "One cannot have it both ways; there cannot be wild copying by untrained scribes and a proto-orthodox conspiracy simultaneously producing the same variants. Conspiracy implies control, and wild copying is anything but controlled". I basically disagree with Wallace's thesis, although I need to untangle it first. Wallace is zooming in on an observation that Ehrman makes, that copying seems to be less careful the further back you go (I have not yet come across his use of "wild"). On the surface, Wallace's argument quoted above sounds pretty solid, but unfortunately, he subtly and probably unconsciously uses that premise to draw the reader into a false dichotomy that permeates significant portions of the book. I certainly missed it until I re-read his opening chapter "Lost in Transmission" today, and cross-referencing it with Miller in the subsequent chapter discussing the variant in Hebrews 2:9 (p79) and the discussions surrounding Matthew 24:36.

This verse either states that Jesus' death was by the grace of God, or apart from God. Miller correctly points out, as Ehrman should have noted, the very high similarity between the majuscule of the two words in Greek. He rightly notes that it is plausible that the copyist made a mistake and changed it to "apart" from God. What if Ehrman, though, is right, along with the (admittedly fewer) manuscripts? Can he argue uniquely the existence of the "grace" manuscripts based on orthodox corruption? Given the extreme similarity of the words, the answer has to be "no". Given the definite existence of orthodox corruptions, could we rule out the influence of theological commitments? Again, the answer is "no". The point is that Wallace's textual approach (and possibly Ehrman, although I am not so sure) seems to be based on the need to find a single criterion. What is needed here is to invite in new fields of research, notably psychology.

Some fields of psychology attempt to work on the unconscious parts of our minds, which is generally widely affirmed to highly affect our actions and responses. Sigmund Freud was obviously a classic example. For him, it was the unconscious repressed desires of childhood that governed our behaviour. But the area of unconsciousness is now understood to be much wider and more complex than that. Where this interests us is in the area of theological commitment. We all know that theological commitment is an area people feel so strongly about, and it is because it affects our various social groups and helps define our identity. That is some serious unconscious "welly". So why would a scribe, a human, flawed, theologically committed scribe not be doubly affected, both by his brain confusing two very similar words and also by what he would prefer it to say?

I feel so sure that this is significant, because it seems to me it could help us better explain how orthodox corruption might occur, while doing away with any unnecessary pressure to assume that everything was conscious, thus contributing to a rather untenable position that looks conspiratorial.

To conclude, I critique Wallace's methodology to be underpinned by an unspoken mutual exclusivity of criteria - it is far from obvious that this is necessary. I.e. - In the example of Hebrews 2:9 (although John 1:18 would have been a better example), both Wallace and Ehrman can be correct about their hypotheses of causation. It requires further investigation and particularly bringing in specialist psychological research.

Wallace is clear that more than one simultaneous factor is not possible. I am not so sure for Ehrman, and will attempt to find out on his blog in the forum area.

So how migh Ehrman respond? In order of probability from what I have seen of him thus far:
1. Probably not at all - heck, even Wallace is small fry for him!
2. Very short response, dismissive, sticking to his initial guns: it is all about the orthodoxy... kinda (unfortunately, this response will invite a quote from him about how other considerations need to be examined first)
3. Positive, curious, discussion-opener.

How might Wallace respond?
- I have no idea how to interact with Wallace. He seems like an open-minded kind of guy though, so if I ever do get through, I would expect some careful reconsideration of his exclusive view.

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