THE DEBATERS CROSS-EXAMINE EACH OTHER
As the Tors-Costa debate about rival methods used to compile the text of the New Testament reached its third stage, peripheral subjects took the spotlight. Quite a lot of time was consumed by a discussion about whether or not Matthew referred to a statement in Zechariah 11 as if it was a statement from Jeremiah; Costa argued that this was indeed the case, while Tors insisted that nothing requires such an interpretation and that it is better to regard the statement as something that Jeremiah literally spoke rather than wrote. Costa responded to Tors by claiming that the words cited by Matthew are “an exact quote from Zechariah in the Septuagint.” (It certainly is not an exact quote.)
(The discussion about Matthew 27:9 barely touched the main topic of the debate – it came up as part of Costa’s argument that the Alexandrian reading in Mark 1:2 is not an error – so I will not dwell on it further. Things spun further and further away into apologetics-related questions, such as why a rabbit is considered to be a cud-chewer, and why bats are classified as birds, and why a whale is called a fish – all with the purpose of showing that it would be unfair to impose modern standards of accuracy (such as Linnaean zoological categories) upon ancient writers. Tors seemed completely willing to affirm this general point; he simply denied that it was ever an ancient custom to attribute one person’s writings as the work of someone else.)
Thankfully the discussion veered back toward the main subject when Tors asked Costa if he was concerned about the instability of the Nestle-Aland compilation. Costa didn’t seem to have an answer to this problem, except to say that the compilers are doing the best they can, and that the Byzantine Text is also unstable.
There was then a brief disagreement about whether the Byzantine Text is indeed unstable; Costa basically said that he would explain it to Tors later, and they moved on. (Tors may have missed an opportunity here. What Costa pictured as instability in the Byzantine Text is more like stable indecision: at some points there is no majority reading (i.e., the textual contest has more than two rivals represented by significant amounts of manuscripts). But a textual road that occasionally splits in two (like a highway that is occasionally divided) is not unstable. Meanwhile, the Nestle-Aland compilation is more like a road that is constantly unmade and remade, sometimes taking the traveler in a different direction than before (as we see in the 28th edition in Jude verse 5, Second Peter 3:10, etc.).
Next, Costa abandoned the announced subject of the debate by asking Tors if he would be willing to use the Majority Reading approach for the Old Testament. In the process of asking the question, Costa mentioned that the New Testament quotes predominantly from the Septuagint. Tors replied that he does not grant that the New Testament writers quoted from the Septuagint – and this began a long detour. (The thing to see is that Tors’ basic answer was in the negative; the data for the Old Testament is very different and a Majority Reading approach would be difficult to apply.)
Costa considered it “alarming” that Tors would deny that the New Testament writers quoted from the Septuagint. In the course of the next several minutes of the debate, Costa offered examples of the New Testament writers’ use of the Septuagint, and provided examples of disagreement between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, such as in Psalm 22:16. And suddenly Costa declared that if a Majority Reading approach were to be applied to the Old Testament manuscripts, “serious problems” would result – “In fact, we’re going to be delving very closely to Marcionism. Where Marcion simply threw out the Old Testament and said, ‘We don’t need the Old Testament.’”
(Confession: at this point I kind of stopped taking Costa seriously – not just because he left the announced topic of the debate, but because he resorted to such a flagrant “straw man” argument. It was like listening to someone criticize a baker’s baking-technique by saying, “How can you say that your baking method is correct? Would you treat a can of gasoline the way you treated those cake-ingredients? Ladies and gentlemen, if we were to treat a can of gasoline the way he treated those cake-ingredients, we would have serious problems. We would be acting like an arsonist. Therefore there is something wrong with his baking method.”)
Tors then asked Costa a question about an Islamic debater who frequently declares that the New Testament text is unreliable: if the Majority Text was used as the authoritative text, how much weaker would that Muslim’s case become? Costa answered that it didn’t matter, because the Muslim would still resort to a “divide and conquer” approach, taking advantage of whatever disagreements he could find among Christians.
Tors replied that Costa had not really answered the question. Then Tors’ cell phone rang, momentarily interrupting the debate. Tors reframed his concern: the Muslim apologist typically focuses on readings in the critical text that are supported by a small number of manuscripts, such as at the ending of Mark – and then the moderator announced that it was time for closing statements.
Tors went first, and with an anecdote about a scientist who tragically died due to coming into contact with two drops of a toxic chemical, proposed that although the differences between the Majority Text and the critical text are small in terms of quantity, they are extremely important. Like those two drops of poison, the errant readings in the critical text are fatal to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, and this has contributed to a spiritual decline in the church. Combined with historical criticism and Darwinism, the rationalistic approach to textual criticism that presumes that scribes freely and frequently altered the text is a destructive method.
Apologists attempt to explain why the errors in the critical text are not errors, and (Tors continued) some people find their explanations persuasive, but many others see through them. This could be avoided if we used a valid method to reconstruct the New Testament text, namely, the Majority Reading approach. Tonight we have seem that the approach that was used to produce the critical text is built on sand – the canons are wrong and the foundational assumption that scribes freely altered the text is wrong. What can you do about it? Stop buying the Bibles that have errors in them.
Costa went second, and declared that the spiritual decline that is going on is not happening because more churches are using versions based on the Nestle-Aland text; it is happening because people are spiritually dead. Man is a rebel. That is the problem. Look at Bart Ehrman (a well-known atheist who was previously Episcopalian) – he became apostate because he was puzzled by a passage in the KJV, in Mark 2, about what happened “in the days of Abiathar the high priest.” There are answers, but that is what it did for Bart Ehrman, and guess where it was found? It was found in the King James Bible.
(Costa is mistaken again. Ehrman (in his book Misquoting Jesus) describes his experience, and says that it happened in the course of his study of the Gospel of Mark at
Princeton Theological Seminary, in a class taught by
Cullen Story. Ehrman quotes the
crisis-eliciting phrase twice. The form in which it appears in the KJV is, “in the days of Abiathar the high priest.”
He quotes it as “when Abiathar was the high priest,” which more closely
resembles the NRSV (though the NRSV does not have “the”). And I don’t think anyone would
deny that the critical text was the go-to compilation at Princeton when Ehrman attended.)
Costa then gave his personal testimony as the final evidence in his case for the reasoned eclectic method. He has been following the Lord for 40 years. Using the critical text has made him a stronger, more confident Christian. He knows that the word of the Lord endures forever.
Textual variants (Costa continued) do not affect any of the cardinal teachings of the Christian faith, either in Byzantine manuscripts, or in Alexandrian manuscripts. The method of “counting noses” is not a good method by which to reconstruct the New Testament text, because truth is not determined by majority. Many times, it’s the minority that’s right.
Costa returned to the theme that the sinfulness of the human heart is the real problem, not puzzling readings in the Alexandrian Text, but then he hit the five-minute limit (so I will not comment on what was done out of bounds).
Next: Part 4: Questions from the Floor