Monday, May 27, 2019


            “So do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.” – Hebrews 10:35 (EHV)

            When one version of the New Testament has a verse that is not in another version, that is something worth looking into.  When one version of the New Testament has 40 verses that another version doesn’t have, that’s definitely something worth looking into.  Textual criticism involves the investigation of those differences.  There are also hundreds of differences in manuscripts that do not involve entire verses, but involve important phrases and words.  (There are also hundreds of thousands of trivial differences which involve word-order and spelling, but non-synonymous differences in the wording of the text are the ones that tend to get the most attention.)    
            How can ordinary Christians maintain confidence that the New Testament they hold in their hands conveys the same authoritative message that was conveyed by the original documents of the New Testament books?  To an extent, that is something taken on faith:  even if there were zero variations in a reconstruction based on all external evidence, there would still be no way to scientifically prove that the earliest archetype does not vary from the contents of the autographs.  But that does not mean that one’s position about specific readings should be selected at random.  There is evidence – external evidence, and internal evidence – to carefully consider.    
            After the evidence has been carefully analysed, though, what should one do with one’s conclusions?  You might think that after scribal corruptions have been filtered out, the obvious thing for Christians to do would be to treat the reconstructed text as the Word of God, a text uniquely imbued with divine authority.  However, if one is to do something with one’s conclusions, one must first have conclusions.  
            And here we have a problem, because there is no sign that the Nestle-Aland compilation of the Greek New Testament will ever be more than provisional and tentative.  As the Introduction to its 27th edition states:  “It should naturally be understood that this text is a working text (in the sense of the century-long Nestle tradition):  it is not to be considered as definitive.”
            Anyone who wants a definitive text of the New Testament should abandon all hope of such a thing emerging from the team of scholars who produce the Nestle-Aland compilation. 
            The built-in instability of the Nestle-Aland text is understandable.  Nobody wants to say, “We are resolved to ignore any new evidence that may be discovered in the future.”  But it is also problematic:  it has caused some apologists, such as James White, to effectively nullify the authority of some parts of the New Testament.  Christians are being told that they should not have confidence about a particular verse, or a particular phrase, or a particular word, on the grounds that its presence in the Nestle-Aland compilation is tenuous.  The reading is in the text today, but the compilers might change their minds about it tomorrow, and therefore, it has been proposed, readers should not put much weight on such readings.
            For example, James White said this regarding the passage where Jesus says, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” – “In Luke 23:34, there is a major textual variant.  And, as a result, you should be very careful about making large theological points based upon what is truly a highly questionable text.”  In another video, White said this, referring to the same passage:
            “When you have a serious textual variant, you should not, in an apologetic context, place a tremendous amount of theological weight upon a text that could be properly and fairly questioned as to its specific reading.  And so, I don’t think that you should build a theology based upon this text.”
Notice the reasoning:  it’s not, “This verse is not original, so don’t use it.”  It’s “There is a textual variant here, so do not depend on it.”  There is a clear danger in such an approach:  the danger of effectively relegating parts of genuine Scripture to a non-authoritative status merely because they have been questioned by textual critics.
Is James White aware of how much of the New Testament has been questioned by textual critics?  I could easily list over a hundred passages in the Gospels where the interpretation of a passage changes, depending on which textual variant is in the text.  I will settle for listing twenty-five:

1.  In Mt. 12:47, did someone tell Jesus His mother and brothers were outside?
2.  In Mt. 13:35, did Matthew erroneously say that Isaiah wrote Psalm 72?
3.  In Mt. 17:21, did Jesus say that prayer and fasting were needed prior to casting out a particular kind of demon?)
4.  In Mt. 19:9, is remarriage permitted after divorce?
5.  In Mt. 27:16, was the criminal Barabbas also named Jesus?
6.  In Mt. 27:49, was Jesus pierced with a spear before He died, contradicting the account in the Gospel of John?
7.  In Mark 1:1, did Mark introduce Jesus as the Son of God?
8.  In Mk. 1:41, when Jesus was asked to heal the leper, was Jesus angry, or was He filled with compassion?
9.  In Mk. 6:22, was the dancer at Herod’s court the daughter of Herodias, or the daughter of Herod?
            10.  In Mk. 10:24, did Jesus say that it is hard to enter into the kingdom of God, or that it is hard for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God?
            11.  At the end of the Gospel of Mark, do the verses which mention Jesus’ bodily post-resurrection appearances, and His command to go into all the world and preach the gospel, and His ascension into heaven, belong in the Bible, or not?
            12.  In Lk. 2:14, did the angels say “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” or “Peace on earth to men who are favored by God”?
            13.  In Lk. 14:5, did Jesus refer to a donkey, or to a son, or to a sheep?
            14.  In Lk. 11:13, did Jesus refer to the gift of the Holy Spirit, or to gifts in general?
            15.  In Lk. 22:43-44, did Jesus’ body exude drops of sweat like blood?  And did an angel appear to Him in Gethsemane, strengthening Him?
            16.  In Lk. 23:34a, did Jesus ask the Father to forgive those who were responsible for crucifying Him?
            17.  In Lk. 24:6, did Luke state that the men said to the women at the tomb, “He is not here, but is risen”?
            18.  In Lk. 24:40, did the risen Jesus show His disciples His hands and His feet?)
            19.  In Lk. 24:51, did Luke say specifically that Jesus “was carried up into heaven”?
            20.  In Jn. 1:18, did John call Jesus “only begotten God” or “the only begotten Son”?
            21.  In Jn. 1:34, did John the Baptist call Jesus the Son of God, or the chosen one of God?
            22.  Did Jn. 3:13 originally end with the phrase, “the Son of Man who is in heaven”?)
            23.  Does the story about the woman caught in adultery, in Jn. 7:53-8:11, belong in the New New Testament, or not?
            24.  In John 9:38-39, did Jesus receive worship from the formerly blind man, or not?   
            25.  In John 14:14, did John depict Jesus referring to prayers offered to Him, or not?

In these 25 passages (and many more), the decisions made on a text-critical level will decide how the text is approached at an interpretive level.   And this sort of thing is not confined to the Gospels:  it also occurs elsewhere, for example, in Acts 20:28, and First Corinthians 14:34-35, and First Timothy 3:16. 
            Does anyone think that the Holy Spirit wants Christians to answer these questions with, “Only God knows”?  All Scripture is profitable for doctrine – but it can’t be profitable for doctrine if its authority is not recognized.  And its authority cannot be recognized as long as its content is not recognized. 

            An objection might be raised:   “It is not as if those readings have been arbitrarily declared dubious; the passages you listed have been properly and fairly questioned.”
            Who says?  A horde of seminary professors who know only what they vaguely recall reading 30 years ago in Metzger’s Textual Commentary?  Didn’t Metzger routinely house his arguments in the now-demolished prefer-the-shorter-reading principle?  Didn’t most of the editors of the Nestle-Aland compilation adhere to Hort’s defunct and untenable Lucianic recension theory?  If you have read Aland & Aland’s Text of the New Testament, then you know:  that is almost exactly what they did, and they almost invariably rejected Byzantine readings accordingly. 
            But James White, instead of stepping back from their obsolete theories and biased methodology – a methodology which starkly defies the “multi-focality” that he seems to imagine that it favors – still supports their results. 
           Instability is built into their results in hundreds of passages.  Over and over and over, the advocates of the Nestle-Aland text are obligated to say, “Maybe the original reading is this, and maybe it is that, and so we cannot confidently use either one as authoritative Scripture.”  Furthermore, the direction that the Nestle-Aland compilers (and, by extension, James White) are taking the text is not toward stability; it is toward perpetual instability, and more of it.
            In the approach that James White currently endorses, whether he realizes it or not, the authority of a passage can be nullified if a particular group of researchers declares that they are not confident about what the original reading was.  More and more of the text will inevitably be declared unstable – and thus, unsafe to use for theological purposes – as long as this approach is used.       
           Of course it seems reasonable to say, “Don’t build theology on disputed passages.”  But it is an invitation to chaos when no one establishes parameters to answer the question, “What is the proper basis on which to dispute a passage?”.  Is a suspicion of corruption all it takes?  Is the testimony of a single manuscript, or two manuscripts, a sufficient basis to throw a reading onto James White’s Disputed-And-Thus-Not-To-Be-Used pile?  Shouldn’t researchers resolve textual contests instead of merely observe them?  
            We may think that indecision is merited when Bible-footnotes tell us that “Some” manuscripts say one thing, and “Others” say something else.  But what would we think if the evidence were brought into focus, and we saw that behind the “Some” are a few witnesses, all representing the same transmission-line, and that behind the “Others” are thousands of witnesses, including the most ancient testimony, representing a wide variety of locales and transmission-lines?  
            We might conclude that it is preposterous, or even immoral, to continue to regard readings with excellent and abundant attestation as unstable.  But as long as the Nestle-Aland editors are the ones who get to answer the question, “Should this reading be disputed?” and as long as individuals such as James White say the equivalent of, “If it’s disputed, do not treat it like Scripture,” the door will inevitably open wider and wider for more and more passages to be disputed.  And that will result in having less and less Scripture on which to build theology – that is, less and less Scripture to treat at Scripture.  
            As far as the tasks of interpreting and applying the Scriptures are concerned, the situation will be no different than if those disputed passages were not there at all.  So I feel justified when saying, in conclusion that James White’s approach to these passages, while less shocking than erasing them, will have the same effect in the long run.  If you don’t want more and more of the Bible to be thrown onto the Do-Not-Use-for-Theology pile in the future, maybe you should stop using the new Nestle-Aland compilation, and stop supporting James White’s Alpha and Omega “Ministry.”

1 comment:

Ben Nelson said...

You make a strong point. I've often felt the footnote approach undermines the reader's ability to put faith in the text. At that point, we become double-minded and unable to expect to receive anything from God.