Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"Recent Trends in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament"

 I'll confess that I have fallen behind the curve in the area of NT textual criticism. I was reminded of this when I read the article by J. K. Elliott in the new, free, peer-reviewed online journal, BABELAO*, devoted to oriental studies. If you want to get up to speed, I recommend his article, "Recent Trends in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament: A New Millennium, a New Beginning?" (Free PDF download HERE.)

I was aware of Ehrman’s work and his pessimism about the text, but in my one class session for textual criticism, I have been teaching a rather traditional approach to text criticism. What this has meant for me is that:
  • I provide an introduction to the dissemination of texts, 
  • talk about families of text-types, 
  • acknowledge the priority of the Alexandrian family (especially Vaticanus and Sinaiticus), 
  • show how critics weigh internal/external evidence, 
  • conclude that we can basically rely on NA27, 
  • show how to use the text critical apparatus, and 
  • encourage use of the NET Bible notes (and/or Metzger’s commentary) to help make sense of the significant variants.
In the article, JK Elliott completely dismisses text-types, blasts Kurt Aland, says Metzger is only for "the nostalgic or curious,” and indicates that textual criticism may be more helpful in tracing the social and theological history of Christianity. Elliott is aware of the problems, but he is advocating a thoroughgoing eclecticism.

The new approach with its avoidance of concentrating on one text-type as having the monopoly of authorial readings and its hesitation to establish a critical text which discourages the study of the ‘secondary’ readings jettisoned or abandoned in the apparatus criticus means that, just as Parker or Ehrman do, we may now look at our textual heritage in the round and as a totality. In its entirety one may now discern in a full apparatus much information relevant to church history, or fluctuations and fashions in Christian doctrine let alone the more recherché pursuits of the development of the Greek language and, indeed, the plotting of our New Testament text’s own histories. (pg 14 of PDF, pg 130 in BABELAO)
He seems fairly confident that most of the textual decisions can be made on internal grounds: which text can explain subsequent ones and which one is most consistent with the rest of the author’s composition.

I’m actually a bit relieved about these developments. Elliott broadly refers to the tremendous possibilities technology offers to the field, especially software for collation of manuscripts and online sharing and updating of work. Most of my students have found the NA27 apparatus hopelessly confusing, and I have hated to require them to spend time on mastering its complexities. And now that we have something like BibleWorks9 which can display something like this, I'm not sure whether I want to bother with it at all.

BibleWorks9: Note that the left window provides a view of both mss and edited texts. Sinaiticus is even morphologically tagged. The center window shows the work of the CNTTS Apparatus. It is even more complexly annotated than NA27, but at least every abbreviation is a click away from an explanation. The right window shows the work of the BibleWorks Manuscript Project that allows for collation of texts and images of a number of the actual mss.
(BTW, Accordance offers help with the critical apparatus, but they have done a particularly fine job of implementing the CNTTS data. Check out their two videos here and here giving a fine overview of what Accordance can do. Logos offers the NA27 critical apparatus but lags behind in displaying mss texts.)

So, I’m trying to rethink how to go about teaching NT textual criticism in the very brief and introductory way that I have time for. With BW9, it's quite easy for students to see the differences in the mss. Focusing on internal evidence would allow me to draw attention to the text and to the author rather than on a knowledge of manuscripts and text-types.

To this end, I'll concur with Elliott who closes his article by quoting Ehrman (Orthodox Corruption of Scripture  [New York - Oxford, 2011] p. 361; pg. 20 of PDF; pg. 136 of BABELAO)

 This (shift in orientation in New Testament textual criticism) is a movement away from construing the task of a textual critic in narrow terms as establishing some kind of ostensible “original” text of the New Testament. The material and textual data at our disposal – that is the surviving manuscripts and the texts they contain – can do far more for us than help us know what the authors of the New Testament originally wrote. They can also help us understand the social history of Christianity in many of its forms, some of which are seriously underexamined as yet. They can help us know and appreciate the work, concerns and ideas of otherwise unknown and anonymous scribes. And they can help us appreciate the theological, polemical and other ideological contexts out of which these early Christians (sic) copyists worked and lived as they produced the texts that have come down to us as treasures from the past.”
*Regarding BABELAO (statement by David Phillips on the Hugoye List-Syriac Studies Group, Digest #1983)
The name BABELAO means « Bulletin of the Abelao », more precisely « Bulletin de l’Académie Belge pour l’Etude des Langues Anciennes et Orientales » (Bulletin of the Belgian Academy for the Study of Ancient and Oriental Languages). ABELAO (www.abelao. be ) is a non-profit organization which seeks to promote teaching and research in the various fields of ancient and oriental culture and languages, especially by means of summer-courses on the campus of the University of Louvain (Louvain-la- Neuve, Belgium).

Its Bulletin, BABELAO, is conceived as a scholarly journal. It covers the various fields of oriental studies : philology, palaeography, history of the ancient and oriental world, language history, comparative literature, edition of texts, etc. Its Editorial Board, the members of which are recruited internationally, brings together scholars who are able to provide expertise in all the required fields.

Web hosting for BABELAO is provided by the Université catholique de Louvain (Louvain-la- Neuve, Belgium). Issues of BABELAO here.

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