John Warwick Montgomery, in his recent debate with Jeffrey Kloha, raised a concern that the thoroughgoing eclectic method tends to destabilize the text, risking the production of a “Designer New Testament.”
Montgomery criticized Kloha
for stating, “We now have a text of the New Testament that makes no claim to
being fixed and stable, for it is subject to continuous improvement and
change.” But anyone can read the
introduction to the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland compilation and
read a similar statement from the compilers themselves: “This text is a working text (in the sense of
the century-long Nestle tradition); it is not to be considered as definitive,
but as a stimulus to further efforts toward defining and verifying the text of
the New Testament.”
Kloha cannot be faulted for mentioning that parts of Novum Testamentum Graece are unstable, unless one is willing to imply that the editors of the NA-text are also at fault. Montgomery acknowledged that thoroughgoing eclecticism “doesn’t differ greatly from reasonable eclecticism,” by which he meant to refer to reasoned eclecticism, the term which is used to describe the method of New Testament textual criticism that has yielded the base-texts of the
NLT, NIV, etc. Montgomery
may not realize it, but most of his objections apply to the Nestle-Aland-28
compilation too. In the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland compilation, the text of First Corinthians differs from the 25th edition at 24 places (not including instances where brackets were either added
or removed). These are actual changes to
the compilation. So when Kloha
recommends a few more changes, why is this a problem?
Similarly, compared to the text of NA-25, the compilers of NA-27 introduced ten changes into the text of the first five chapters of the Gospel of Luke.
has raised no objection. But when Kloha suggests one more change – “the main illustration” of why Montgomery
considers thoroughgoing eclecticism problematic – Montgomery
called it a threat to inerrancy.
Montgomery and Kloha both want Christians to be able to read their New Testaments with confidence that they are reading the Word of God, not man-made corruptions. The difference (or, the main difference) is that
Montgomery recommends that when the external evidence
overwhelming favors one variant against its rival variant(s), there is a simple
way to settle the contest: “Go to the
best text, for goodness’ sake.” But this
is circular. The best text is the correct
text – the reading that is the same as the original
text – and that is precisely the question:
at this particular point, which reading is the best? It simply would not make sense to say, “To
discover what is the best text of Luke ,
go to the best text of Luke .” Yet that is the essence of the method that Montgomery
seems to propose.
The thoroughgoing method employed by Kloha may reveal points of instability in the text which reasoned eclecticism might not (because a reasoned eclecticism might not consider variants with very poor external support to be significant). This raises a question: how is a method that increases (however slightly) the number of uncertain or unstable points in the text consistent with the goal of increasing readers’ confidence that the text is the Word of God?
The answer is when thoroughgoing eclecticism favors readings which have very poor external support, or even no Greek manuscript-support at all (as in the case of Kloha’s suggested reading in Luke ), the method invites uncertainty which future discoveries and future research might vindicate. This is preferable to the alternative of feeling certain about specific readings that future research might show to be scribal corruptions. Thoroughgoing eclecticism yields a loss of confidence at some specific points where other methods do not – but this is more than compensated for by the net gain in confidence for the rest of the text, where external and internal evidence interlock.
The uncertainty that thoroughgoing eclecticism invites at specific points in the text has been occasionally vindicated, yielding a compilation that more accurately resembles the form of the original text. For example, Erasmus suggested that the original text of James was και ζήσομεν και ποιήσομεν even though the Greek manuscript evidence available to him supported και ζήσωμεν και ποιήσωμεν. Subsequently, manuscripts became available that had the reading that Erasmus had suspected was correct, including Alexandrinus, Vaticanus, and Sinaiticus. The Nestle-Aland compilation now reads και ζήσομεν και ποιήσομεν (although most Greek manuscripts read και ζήσωμεν και ποιήσωμεν). Erasmus also suspected that the final phrase in John in his manuscripts (“as I said to you”) was an interpolation. The Nestle-Aland compilers agree, along with Papyrus 75, Sinaiticus, and Vaticanus.
Erasmus and/or Theodore Beza expressed several other suspicions, including the following:
● In Matthew 3:4, the original text might have referred to wild pears, αχκράδες, instead of ακρίδες, locusts.
● In Matthew 28:17, the original text, written in uncial lettering with no spaces between the words, might have said that the apostles did not doubt (ουδε εδιδασταν) rather than that some doubted (οι δε εδιδασταν).
● In First Corinthians 6:5, the Vulgate might echo the original text better than the Greek manuscripts.
● In James 1:11, the original text might have read πορίαις instead of πορείαις, because “in his abundance” fits the context better than “in his pursuits.”
● In James 4:2, instead of “You commit murder” (φονεύετε) Erasmus proposed that James wrote φθονειτε in light of the mention of jealous desires in verse 5.
Similarly, Hort mentioned 60 New Testament passages where he suspected a “primitive corruption” had resulted in a scenario in which no extant manuscripts display the original text. My point is not that all of these suspicions are justified; rather, it is that what
Montgomery condemns in
Kloha’s work as dangerous and reckless has been an aspect of New Testament
textual criticism for over 400 years.
Kloha stated in the debate that he regrets using the word “plastic,” even though that term fits the Nestle-Aland compilation at hundreds of points. A better term is “uncertain,” helping readers understand that thoroughgoing eclectics do not aspire to creatively shape the text; their goal is reconstruction.
There is something in the King James Version’s preface, The Translators to the Reader, that is highly applicable here (though it was initially written about margin-notes that supplied alternative meanings, rather than alternative readings). Referring to cases where a term (especially rare terms referring to plants and animals) could mean more than one thing: “Fearfulness would better beseem us than confidence, and if we will resolve, to resolve upon modesty with S. Augustine, (though not in this same case altogether, yet upon the same ground) Melius est dubitare de occultis, quam litigare de incertis, it is better to make doubt of those things which are secret, than to strive about those things that are uncertain.” And: “As it is a fault of incredulity, to doubt of those things that are evident: so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgment of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption. They that are wise, had rather have their judgments at liberty in differences of readings, than to be captivated to one, when it may be the other.”
A similar desire – that one’s judgment may be at liberty, where a contest between two rival variants is difficult to decide, and the textual critic is unsure if the original text is one or the other (or a conjecture) – means that when one affirms Biblical inerrancy, one will not be 100% certain about the form of the text that one is affirming to be inerrant. But why should that be problematic, when we routinely grant that we are less than 100% certain about the meaning of the text, often even when its form is certain? In addition, a compilation dogmatically affirmed to be 100% flawless (as some affirm about the Textus Receptus) is incapable of being refined by future discoveries and analysis, whereas a compilation compiled by the principles of thoroughgoing eclecticism, with resultant points of instability, is more readily refined so as to resemble more accurately the authoritative original text.
Certainty about the original text is good. Certainty that something that is not the original text is the original text is bad. Injudicious use of thoroughgoing eclecticism (for example, inserting a reading with no Greek manuscript support into the text, as the compilers of NA28 have done in Second Peter 3:10) risks decreasing the former, but to prohibit thoroughgoing eclecticism would be to risk the latter. I consider it better to allow textual critics to be free to support the readings of small minorities of witnesses (which is very frequently done by the compilers of NA28) and to suggest conjectures, rather than to treat “the best texts” as if they are always the best, even in specific cases where they may not be.