כל־האדם

Why Text Criticism? Evangelicals Can Surprise Us—and Yet Disappoint

Posted in Textual Criticism by Joseph Kelly on April 22, 2014

I was reading in a book recommended to me long ago on lexical semantics, and I found something I was not expecting for a book written by an evangelical scholar. The recovery or reconstruction of an Urtext or original text has long represented the primary if not the sole purpose for many evangelicals who engage in textual criticism. If your theology is predicated on a doctrine of biblical inerrancy (true of many evangelicals, but not all!), you need a critical tool like textual criticism that enables you to explain away errors found in biblical manuscripts as foreign to your theologically constructed “Bible.” Since these errors could not be original to the text, they must have been introduced into the text subsequent to its production. Consequently, evangelicals often evaluate text forms that betray late scribal activity with suspicion. This pluriform textual tradition must represent a divergence from the singular and pristine (i.e., inerrant) original text of the Bible.

Both because of the evangelical commitments of the author and because the subject matter (lexical semantics) was not immediately relevant to the question of textual criticism, I was not expecting the author to make the following argument:

The study of textual transmission should not be restricted to the recovery of the autograph. On the contrary, we must appreciate that to reconstruct the textual history of a passage is to produce something of intrinsic value, quite independent of its usefulness for establishing the original form. (147-8)

The author, Moisés Silva, identifies two reasons for scholars and Bible students to engage in textual criticism. He does not dismiss the more traditional goal of recovering an autograph (an original text traced back to a singular author). This aim remains for him a valid critical goal. To my surprise, he not only identifies an additional goal—reconstructing the textual history of a passage—but he considers this goal independent of the first. One need not be beholden to notions of an original (inerrant) text in order to find value in the enterprise of textual criticism. He attributes intrinsic value to the reconstruction of the textual history of a passage. This goal is an end to itself, though not an end that necessarily precludes other ends (e.g., recovering/reconstructing an original text). Because he identifies two independent goals of text criticism, I found the footnote to the quoted material above ironic.

It is quite an exaggeration, however, to suggest that the restoration of the autograph is a useless goal that would only occur to theologically motivated scholars. . . . Why would a Thucydides scholar (who does not believe that the author was verbally inspired!) do textual criticism if not to determine as accurately as possible how the ancient historian himself interpreted the events of his time?” (148n27, emphasis original)

I concede to Silva that, given certain assumptions about textual production (which I do not share), one can embrace both goals of text criticism he identifies. But since these two goals are “independent” and each produces “something of intrinsic value,” Silva’s question falls flat. Why would a Thucydides scholar do textual criticism if not to recover the original text? Simply because there is intrinsic value in producing the textual history of the text in question! Silva’s question implies that the recovery or reconstruction of an original text is a necessary goal for textual criticism. But if this implication were true, Silva’s earlier claim regarding the independence and inherent value of producing a textual history fails. Such an aim must necessarily be derivative if an original text is a necessary condition for text criticism. In the end, one cannot have it both ways, and evangelicals must decide if the original text is an inherent aim of text criticism or not.

Silva’s parenthesis about verbal inspiration demonstrates a desire to establish the original text as a secular (i.e., objective?) goal of text criticism. This does not mean that Silva lacks theological commitments, but it demonstrates a desire to defend these commitments on non-theological grounds. Many evangelicals turn to Emanuel Tov’s now classic handbook on textual criticism to defend their position from outside their theological commitments. But this is problematic insofar as Tov’s allegedly non-theological commitment to an original text does not produce an original text consistent with the theological commitments of evangelicals who hold to inerrancy: “The wish of some scholars to create a perfect text is unrealistic because the presumed original text would have contained mistakes and illogical elements” (p 169). This is not merely Tov’s opinion, but the logical conclusion of the process by which Tov’s original text is produced. Tov’s model must be altered if evangelical inerrantists are to adopt it, and this raises the question of whether a truly secular approach to textual criticism can exist and produce a text consistent with the theological commitments of biblical inerrantists.

But inasmuch as secular opinions matter (and Silva apparently thinks they do), evangelicals must continue to attend to and engage secular scholarship on this question. With that in mind, I cite at length a quote from an article about text criticism (using the text of Don Quixote as a test case) that reinforces the insight of Silva above, that there is intrinsic value in producing a textual history of a text:

What romance scholars have long known, i.e. that medieval texts live “in variants”, in perpetual change, has also been applied to other periods, and today it is generally believed that mouvance is a basic condition of texts: each edition, each version, is a separate entity on an equal footing with all the others. While Rezeptions-Aesthetik had insisted upon the role of the reader, today it is emphasized that a text is, to a great extent, a social product, by a collective author: it is born, grows, and reproduces itself under conditions which are not merely individual ones (from language and literary influences to ideological and pragmatic factors). Thus, the shapes a text may take, once separated from the individual author, are all “authentic” and deserve equal importance. Until few years ago, it was said that literary communication differed from everyday language because it only occurred in one direction. . . . On the contrary, today the general view is that there are few works which are not made and re-made through an exchange with the public, influenced by specific addressees, exactly “as in conversation.

Francisco Rico, “Scholarly Editions and Real Readers,” Variants 5 (2006) 1-13, quote from 6

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9 Responses

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  1. Nate Johnson said, on April 22, 2014 at 11:43 am

    When you say:

    “Why would a Thucydides scholar do textual criticism if not to recover the original text? Simply because there is intrinsic value in producing the textual history of the text in question!”

    I don’t quite get your point here. Surely one does not need ‘the motive nor the act’ of getting to the original texts to do textual criticism. In that sense, Silva is correct. Certainly one could focus on the textual change in the ‘decade of’ because the change had enormous impact on such and such. That interest alone justifies an individual act. No problem there.

    But the discipline itself would seem to have on its horizon ‘the original text’ for it would be an interesting point in time all to itself, so why not state that it is a necessary part of the discipline? Certainly if the original text were ‘inspired’ in a way that the rest of tests are not, then this would ‘add’ to the necessity of the search, but such a view does not seem dependent upon it. Even with an ‘uninspired’ text, why wouldn’t the originals be of interest to the discipline of textual criticism? They too are riddled with error? So? Still no less of importance than those that follow, right? That’s why I don’t think your conclusion follows:

    “Silva’s question implies that the recovery or reconstruction of an original text is a necessary goal for textual criticism. But if this implication were true, Silva’s earlier claim regarding the independence and inherent value of producing a textual history fails.”

    • Joseph Kelly said, on April 22, 2014 at 12:54 pm

      Nate, great question. Setting aside for a moment the question of whether it makes any sense to identify one text-form as the “original text” (which I don’t think it does), I agree with you that a hypothetical original text would be “an interesting point in time all to itself” and “no less of importance than those that follow.” Still, just because it is no less important does not mean that it is more important. You can engage in text critical research without necessarily reconstructing an original text. For example, what do the text fragments from the Dead Sea teach us about the textual traditions of the book of Exodus during the late Second Temple Period in the Qumran community? A hypothetical original is completely beyond the horizon of this text critical project, and yet the project produces something of intrinsic value that is not diminished because it neglects the question of an original text-form. If this is a truly “independent” product of text critical research, then Silva is inconsistent when he suggests that textual criticism must necessarily aim to produce an original text.

  2. Richard said, on May 3, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    I thought Tov had ditched the idea of an Urtext in his later work.

    • Joseph Kelly said, on May 4, 2014 at 3:10 pm

      Richard,
      The original text is alive and well in Tov’s 3rd edition (2012) of Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. I don’t see a clear linear progression in Tov’s work. His views strike me more like the ebb and flow of the waves at the beach front.

  3. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III said, on May 11, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    “What romance scholars have long known, i.e. that medieval texts live “in variants”, in perpetual change, has also been applied to other periods, and today it is generally believed that mouvance is a basic condition of texts: each edition, each version, is a separate entity on an equal footing with all the others. While Rezeptions-Aesthetik had insisted upon the role of the reader, today it is emphasized that a text is, to a great extent, a social product, by a collective author: it is born, grows, and reproduces itself under conditions which are not merely individual ones (from language and literary influences to ideological and pragmatic factors). Thus, the shapes a text may take, once separated from the individual author, are all “authentic” and deserve equal importance. Until few years ago, it was said that literary communication differed from everyday language because it only occurred in one direction. . . . On the contrary, today the general view is that there are few works which are not made and re-made through an exchange with the public, influenced by specific addressees, exactly “as in conversation.”
    1. The first sentence above gives two presuppositions for understanding textual criticism: a) variants, in perpetual change also applies to other periods (I take it to also apply to the autographs); b) that change or variance (mouvance) is a basic condition of texts that is applied to each edition, version and is of an equal footing with all others (again, I take this to mean that is also places copies, versions, editions to be on equal footing as the autographs).
    2. The second sentence presupposes that a “collective author” is responsible. That is still up for debate. This “collective author” is another way of pushing “Redaction Criticism.”
    3. The third sentence makes the text = copy as authentic once separated from the individual author. Thus, as is stated above, of “equal importance.” The autograph and the copy are both of equal importance. I don’t think so. For example: The Declaration of Independence on display is one of the original copies NOT the autograph.
    4. The last sentence creates the idea that the communication in the text is two ways. In real life that may be so, but since we do NOT have the understanding nor the original audience of the addressees of the autographs, then communication is necessarily one way. We have to extrapolate what the addressees would have been thinking, saying, etc. is order to understand what the text says.
    5. The idea of Tov, Silva, et al, to get to the “utext” is another form of “Source Criticism.” I would think, though, that would create a slight problem with the autographs.
    6. Finally, I do not see how searching for the “urtext” is independent of the other goal since both are used to get as close to the autograph as is possible.

    • Joseph Kelly said, on May 11, 2014 at 6:11 pm

      Bryant,
      The quote I end the post with obviously generated within you a number of reflections and concerns. I am happy to respond, but I must admit that I find most of your comments difficult to understand. I say this to clarify why I am only going to respond to your sixth enumerated point. I’m not ignoring or dismissing your other points, I simply don’t understand what you are trying to say. My apologies for that.

      As to your sixth point, “the other goal” is not “used to get as close to the autograph as is possible” as you suggest. That is why this other goal is independent. One need not believe some kind of official first draft of a text ever existed (e.g., autograph, original text, first edition, etc) in order to pursue this other goal.

  4. jmnielsen7 said, on September 24, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    Hi Joseph,

    Your brother pointed me to your blog so I decided to check it out. Interesting title for your blog. Is ‘kol’=voice and ‘ha’adam’=mankind, or am I way off?

    Anyway I had a few thoughts, some along the lines of other comments that have been made. Please pardon the length. Your blog post here affords an opportunity to reflect not only on methodology but also on motivation and even philosophy of a discipline to an extent, so I have a few ensuing thoughts. Naturally, as you mentioned, “reconstructing the textual history of a passage” is a valid goal in the broader field of the historical study of documents period, be they Roman annals, Scandinavian sagas, Herodotus, Eusebius, Tacitus, Josephus, etc. Thucydides was used in Silva’s example (I have his book BTW), but I think the point is that the methodology for study of documents and their transmission is generally the same no matter what the particular object of study is, and I say that as to not conflate it with ideas and issues that specifically attend biblical textual criticism, though you obviously know that.

    That being said I too, with Nate, believe that as an enterprise in historical studies, searching for an original is not invalid by any means, because obviously all documents had an original whether we have extant copies or not. Would an original manuscript of Tacitus’ writings possibly provide us a variant reading that answers some heretofore puzzling historical question? That then brings me to my first real point, to point out that we have two separate things here: methodology and questions/motivations. Though the methodology may be the same there is no necessary limits on what historical questions you can ask about a text or even a prohibition to having different intellectual goals or motivations for what you would like to learn from the study of the texts. Frequently historians who share the same topic of study will have different motivations for their historical study, but as long as it does not taint their methodology it is actually beneficial to the field to have differing takes on the interpretation of requisite methodologically sound analyses of the texts.

    So say an evangelical like Silva does his duty as a textual critic and analyzes and surveys the various forms a text takes according to accepted methods, he then would seem to be free to investigate why each text takes the form it does (as to variants) as well as discuss the original form, which can only be hypothetically reconstructed given extancy does not go back to the contemporary time in which it was written. That is his (legitimate) prerogative, is my point, whether or not it is for all textual scholars. Also I would not deem it fair to say that asking “What did Paul write?” or “What did John write?” are invalid historical questions that CANNOT be addressed by textual criticism to some degree (obviously not answerable with 100% confidence though – Craig Evans addresses this though).

    It also devalues the whole historical enterprise I think to say that original documents don’t matter, whether or not we have to cope with the form we are in now. Let’s not mistake having to deal with later forms of the text as superior to how the very first readers (people who knew Paul and John personally) would have read the text at that time. Same for Latin or Greek texts. Whether we are studying some derivative work like the Diatessaron or a modern translation (paraphrase) like the Message Bible, perhaps indeed we could say they “are all ‘authentic’ and deserve equal importance”, but what questions are you trying to answer in the study of each iteration or version of the text [much less could you imagine spending a scholarly career analyzing why the Message Bible takes the form it does? ;-) ].

    Lastly I would like to ask a more personal question of you specifically, and that is: Given that textual criticism as a discipline “is a valid goal in the broader field of the historical study of documents period” (as I said above), what makes you want to exercise your particular application of that discipline in biblical studies versus the writings of, say, Thucydides, Tacitus, Josephus, or Medieval scholastic scholars? The motivations you bring to why you study in the particular area you do in my mind is no different in principle than motivations evangelicals may have for hoping to arrive at even a “more original” text, or even heretofore unstated or unthought of motivations or goals which may appear in the future as new historical questions arise. I think it is the nature of textual study and historical disciplines to ask things of the text from different angles and seek answers to those questions. Textual criticism is a tool, but tools don’t do things on their own, and while they serve their purpose they can be put to use toward goals beyond the tool itself (just as a tool can help build a house, a car, and airplane, a boat, etc. where the applications and outcomes of the “project” or “question” that used the tool are different in each case).

    In any case I hope this is some useful food for thought or alternately fodder for discussion!

    ~Josh

    • Joseph Kelly said, on September 24, 2014 at 2:06 pm

      Josh,

      I do not use this post to discuss my reasons for rejecting the theoretical integrity of “original texts.” These reasons are implicit in my dissertation. I have not yet tried to express those reasons formally. My point in this post is to draw attention to the contradiction in 1) claiming that textual criticism can be considered a legitimate enterprise independent from a commitment to the notion of an original text while 2) also insisting that the pursuit of an original text is a necessary condition for textual criticism.

      People studying ancient texts (and in some cases more modern texts—see the Don Quixote article) must choose which form(s) of the text they will use as the basis of their research. This is why I use textual criticism as a tool for studying biblical texts.

      • jmnielsen7 said, on September 24, 2014 at 2:38 pm

        Hi Joseph,

        Thank you for taking the time to reply. I think in your following points:

        “1) claiming that textual criticism can be considered a legitimate enterprise independent from a commitment to the notion of an original text while 2) also insisting that the pursuit of an original text is a necessary condition for textual criticism.”

        That the word “necessary” is the hinging factor here. As I stated above it is, in my opinion, a legitimate prerogative but not a technical necessity to seek an original reading, because you can only work directly on the form of the text you have, not on the one you wish you had.

        That being said, and though it does touch on a multidisciplinary area, I think it is a very legitimate question to ask “What did the text mean to the original contemporary audience who first received the text?” (to whom we cannot deny consideration – lest we regard modern reception above ancient reception). Perhaps someone will suggest it is impossible to know what the earliest community of faith thought about the texts, but it does not mean that no answer should be attempted (as dubious as the claim of ‘impossibility’ may be).

        Say from a strictly New Testament studies perspective that one were writing a book on the 1st century church and the reception of the gospels and epistles, along with a historical survey of then-contemporary Christian thought and culture. It would be negligent to leave a hole in one’s analysis to not even mention the question (whether or not you answer it) of what the text said then (a.k.a. as it was originally penned) and how it was interpreted in the faith communities at that time (because surly it was). It is no doubt a very specific and targeted question, which does not marshal or demand all of textual criticisms’ resources and attention to answer, but it is in fact one of potentially hundreds of questions that textual criticism *could* equally be used to attempt an answer, and not necessarily one of low priority.

        This touches in some fashion on the idea of a “canon”, and canon formation, but that branches off into another area, though is still relevant in the overall interdisciplinary nature of textual studies. And also it is good to note that a text always has a context, and does not necessarily stand alone apart from its intended audience. Luke for example had a very specific audience, as do most of the NT epistles. How it changed over time though via transmission is indeed another important question, because it affected how later audiences understood it.

        Thanks for your thoughts.

        ~Josh


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