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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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6 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.


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