Tuesday, November 29, 2016

James White and the Ecclesiastical Text - Part 2

          Today I am briefly wrapping up my consideration of James White’s recently expressed objections against the Ecclesiastical Text advocates’ approach to the text of the New Testament.  Among the most prominent of his objections in the second half of his video-lecture is the objection that the Ecclesiastical Text contains Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11, and one of those two passages [39:17] “is not found in a manuscript prior to the fifth century.”  This objection has three (at least) problems:
          ● Heavy dependence upon early manuscripts contradicts the often-mentioned notion of an “embarrassment of riches” of New Testament manuscripts.  It involves the frequent rejection of the testimony of the vast majority of Greek manuscripts in favor of the testimony of only about a dozen Greek manuscripts (or less, depending on which passage is being addressed).   
          ● Heavy dependence upon early manuscripts sets the stage for a probability-based objection against the integrity of the text.  Suppose that we possessed a manuscript of chapters 1-10 of the Gospel of John that was produced in the 100’s.  If we gave this manuscript special weight due to its age, and reckoned that it contains ten unique readings that are original, then we could deduce that its non-extant pages probably also contained ten or eleven unique readings that were original.  And, if it is granted that there were ten (or 20 or 30) other manuscripts in the 100’s of equal importance which are no longer extant, then the loss of dozens and dozens of original readings may be extrapolated. 
          ● Heavy dependence upon early manuscripts unrealistically minimizes the input from ancient patristic sources, from versional sources, and from groups of manuscripts for which it is reasonable to assume an ancient line of descent.  In addition, because the early papyri have survived primarily due to the low-humidity climate of Egypt, heavy dependence upon early manuscripts effectively puts blinders on textual researchers, so that they focus on the text in Egypt, although there is no strong basis for the theory that the text in the manuscripts from Egypt in the 100’s-300’s was the same text being used in other locales.  

          When White referred to Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11, he was guilty of cherry-picking the evidence that he chose to mention to his listeners, but in the interest of brevity I will move along to the rest of his comments about the Ecclesiastical Text, or Confessional Text, position.  At one point, he quoted a statement that said, “the doctrine of Scripture is being attacked by unbelieving academia,” and responded by asking, “What is ‘unbelieving academia’?”.   
          It’s a fair question – but perhaps White should answer it concretely rather than rhetorically.  By White’s standard of orthodoxy, were Roger Omanson and Bruce Metzger believers?  What about Stephan Pisano and Carlo Martini?  And what about David Trobisch, who is presently listed as a member of the Nestle-Aland compilation-committee and as a member of the secularist Center For Inquiry?  If White feels as if some criticisms are aimed in his direction, perhaps he should consider who he is standing beside, and consider whose compilation-work it is that he is defending.       
          White would argue, I suspect, that if a compilation is indeed the original text of the New Testament, it doesn’t matter if the devil himself endorses it, because its authority is inherent.  What White seems to fail to see is that Confessionalists believe this, too (at least the ones with the best case for their position).  They just also believe (as adherents to the Westminster Confession) that God has not inspired a Greek text that means one thing, and let His church collectively use a Greek text that frequently means something different, that is, a text that was impure. 
          What White calls a “poisoning the well” tactic is a logical implication of the Confessionalists’ belief that the Greek text of the New Testament has been kept pure in every age, because if the Greek text used in the Reformation-era is pure, then a text that frequently means something different is not pure, and therefore is not the original text.  Granting that manuscripts attesting to the Reformation-era text of the New Testament are lacking from the 100’s and 200’s, that need only mean that such manuscripts from those centuries have not survived, which one would not expect any manuscripts to do outside Egypt in light of those regions’ higher humidity-levels (and other factors such as waves of Roman persecution).
          In the late 300’s, a text-form closely resembling the Confessional Text (not perfectly identical to it, but resembling it rather than the Alexandrian Text) was in use in multiple locales – which is just what one would expect if (a) the Ecclesiastical Text very closely resembles the original text, and (b) the New Testament manuscripts spread “all across the known world,” as White states that they did.  We would see a relatively uniform text in use in multiple locales.  Yet White habitually rejects readings in the New Testament text that have widespread attestation, in favor of readings attested primarily in the local text of Egypt.
          Finally, White asserted that the Confessional Text position renders it impossible to resolve text-critical questions.  This is simply untrue.  Confessionalists resolve text-critical questions; they just do so in a way that White apparently does not consider valid.  Confessionalists take it on faith that the Greek text used in the Reformation-era means what the text of the autographs meant.  The acceptance of this premise reduces the amount of meaningful variation in the manuscript-record exponentially, so as to remove readings that are distinctly Alexandrian, Western, or Caesarean from contention if they yield a meaning that diverges from the meaning of the Confessional Text.        
          While this leaves some unanswered questions where two or more rival variants convey the same meaning, such points of instability are also present in the Nestle-Aland compilation, so if White were to insist that this is a small weakness in the Confessional Text position, it must be acknowledged that it is a much larger weakness in his own position, which favors a compilation that, after 100 years, remains provisional and tentative.  For example, the compilers of NA28 rejected a variant in Second Peter 2:18 that previous NA-compilers had regarded as “certain,” and in Second Peter 3:10, the NA28-compilers adopted a variant that is not attested in any Greek manuscript.
          White’s advocacy of the Nestle-Aland compilation means that he runs the risk that the Greek compilation that he regards as the original text today will be changed in the future by David Trobisch & Company, and the edition published tomorrow will say something that today’s edition does not say.   The Confessionists run no such risk.  While their approach is thoroughly unscientific, it is not difficult to see its theological appeal.    

Monday, November 21, 2016

James White and the Ecclesiastical Text - Part 1

          Recently, apologist James White (of Alpha & Omega Ministries) made some comments about the Ecclesiastical Text approach to the text of the New Testament in a video-lecture.  In this post I offer a response.  First, however, it is important to know what the Ecclesiastical Text approach is, and to an extent, that means knowing what the Ecclesiastical Text approach is not:  it is not a text-critical technique.  The text recognized as authoritative by advocates of the Ecclesiastical Text approach is not established primarily via the analysis of the relative strengths of external and internal evidence supportive of rival variants.  
Paragraph 8 of Chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession (1646)
          Instead, Ecclesiastical Text advocates seek to establish the New Testament text via the application of the premise that the Greek text of the New Testament preserved by the church is pure and authoritative.  This premise is primarily dogmatic rather than scientific.  Because its fundamental premise is virtually identical to what is stated in the eighth paragraph of the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of 1646, and because the term “Ecclesiastical Text” has been treated in the past as a synonym for “Byzantine Text,” perhaps a more appropriate and more focused moniker for this approach would be “Confessional Text,” because it emanates from part of a formal creed.  I will take the liberty of using this term here, and the term “Confessionalists” for its advocates.
          By affirming that the Greek text of the New Testament has been kept pure in all ages by God’s singular care, Confessionalists greatly simplify the task of establishing the New Testament text, because if the text is pure in every age, it is also pure in any age, and thus what was used by the church in the age of early Protestantism (in the 1500’s and early 1600’s) sets a sufficient standard, if not for the exact form of the text regarded as authoritative, then at least for the authoritative meaning of the text.  Thus the text-critical enterprise facing Confessionalists is so small as to be almost trivial, consisting of decisions between rival variants which convey the meaning of the Greek text that was in use in the Reformation-period.
          Against that position, James White objects that if one is going to say that a text is established via church use, then one needs to ask, “Which church?”.  However, which church, before the Reformation, ever endorsed White’s favorite compilation – a Greek text without Mark 16:9-20, John 7:53-8:11, Luke 22:43-44, Luke 23:35a, etc.?  A Confessionalist who advocated the Nestle-Aland compilation would be compelled to admit that if such a Greek text is pure, then the Greek pure text was used somewhere in Egypt for a few centuries but later, the churches everywhere else, and in all other centuries, used something else – but thus the Westminster Confession’s affirmation is denied, because such a Greek text is not attested to be in use by the church in all ages. 

(It seems to me that the person who wishes to uphold the Westminster Confession while advocating the Nestle-Aland compilation must reckon that whether one includes, or excludes, two 12-verse passages in the Gospels, and whether one includes, or excludes, over a dozen other one-verse or two-verse passages, and regardless of how one decides hundreds of variant-units involving contests between different phrases and different words, it all yields no meaningful effect on the purity of the text.  However, if one were to concede this point, then why insist on pursuing a technically exact form of the text at all, if it is granted that the text that is observed to have been used in the Reformation-era is pure?)

          When it comes down to it, James White believes that the decisive factor when considering whether or not a specific variant is authoritative Scripture is not a matter of which congregations used it, but is, instead, a matter of what was in the autographs before the church began to perpetuate their contents.  I concur with such a view – but I do not see how one can believe that, and believe that the Nestle-Aland compilation extremely closely resembles the original text, and believe that via God’s singular care and providence, the form of the Greek text of the New Testament has been kept pure in all ages.
          White’s preference for the Nestle-Aland compilation answers his Which church? question for him, because the Nestle-Aland compilation, at points where the Alexandrian Text disagrees with the Byzantine Text, is at least 98% Alexandrian.  A little over halfway through his video-lecture, White asserts that the individuals who made the early papyri did not have Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11in their manuscripts.  To those who are familiar with the testimony of the papyri, the problematic nature of White’s heavy dependence upon this assertion is demonstrated two ways:
          ● First:  if the papyri are to be given a decisive role, then why doesn’t White adopt their readings at the many points where they disagree with the Nestle-Aland compilation?  Is White willing to accept all of the readings found in P45, P46, P66, and P72 that disagree with the Nestle-Aland compilation?  Surely White, like any sane well-informed person, would answer “No,” because those papyri have so many singular readings.  So it is unrealistic to say, “We appeal to the papyrus court!” and think that this is sufficient; nobody considers the testimony of the early papyri, in and of itself, to be decisive.  Furthermore, to what early papyrus manuscript of Mark 16 is White referring?!  Surely he is aware that no such papyrus is extant. 
Bear in mind that Irenaeus quoted Mark 16:19,
and Jerome stated that the story about the
adulteress was found in many manuscripts,
both Greek and Latin.
          ● Second:  why does White treat the papyri as if their testimony echoes a variety of locales?  Or to put it another way:  how does White, or anyone, know what was at the end of Mark 16, or in John 7-8, in papyrus Gospels-manuscripts that were used outside of Egypt in the 100’s?  The early papyri are exclusively from Egypt. This is a mere side-effect of Egyptian low-humidity climate, which is especially friendly to papyrus-material. One might as well say, “Let us make our textual decisions on the basis of which manuscript experienced better weather,” or, “We should adopt the readings found in the best manuscripts, by which I mean, the ones which were made the farthest to the south.”
          By rejecting the testimony of other locales, White focuses on essentially one locale’s text – a text used in Egypt – to answer the “What church?” question.  His approach assigns a crucial role to the churches in Egypt, as if one cannot ascertain the original text without their input.  But we know next to nothing about the Egyptian congregations in 100-200, and even less about the historical connection between those congregations and these particular papyri. 
So:  if no one locale's text is decisive,
then why does the Nestle-Aland compilation
heavily favor Alexandrian readings
even when they stand virtually alone?
          This creates an apparent inconsistency with something that White says later in the video-lecture.  Although White says that the mechanism that God used to preserve His Word was the sudden spread of the text to multiple locales, so that the transmission of the text was never under the control of any one group, when it comes to deciding textual contests, White almost always favors the text from one particular locale, namely Egypt, thus introducing the exact opposite mechanism.  Although White claims to employ an eclectic approach to the evidence, he endorses a compilation which is, in the Gospels, Acts, and Pauline Epistles, 98% Alexandrian.
          Confessionalists believe that the Greek text used in the 1500’s is a sufficiently pure representation of the contents of the autographs.  White believes that a Greek text used in early congregations in Egypt fits that description.  It is generally easy (except where the Confessional Text contains readings for which there is minimal support, and which convey a different meaning than their rival or rivals) for Confessionalists to maintain their view that a text closely resembling the Confessional Text has been in use in all ages; they need only grant that there is a lack of evidence for the existence of that text’s use in the early centuries of Christendom (which is true about any New Testament text in the early centuries of Christianity in a lot of territory outside Egypt).  It is not so easy, however, to maintain that the Greek Alexandrian Text has been preserved in all ages in any reasonable sense, inasmuch as there is abundant evidence that a different Greek text – the Byzantine Text – was used instead, as attested by at least 85% of the extant Greek New Testament manuscripts.        

To be continued.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Kloha-Montgomery Debate - Final Thoughts

          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 ESV, HCSB, 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.  Montgomery 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 1:46, go to the best text of Luke 1:46.”  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 1:46), 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 4:15 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 10:26 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.

So:  Is The Text Plastic?
From one of Dr. Kloha's slides.

          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.