Friday, February 15, 2019

James White and the NA/UBS Compilation

            “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, and another version does not have it, that’s 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, and more:  not only are there some differences in manuscripts that involve the inclusion or non-inclusion of entire verses, but also hundreds of differences in manuscripts that involve important phrases and words.  (There are hundreds of thousands of trivial differences in the manuscripts, involving word-order and spelling, but the ones that involve non-synonymous differences in the wording of the text are the ones that tend to get the most attention.)    
            How can ordinary Christians confidently 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, this is something one takes on faith, since there is no way to scientifically prove that the reconstructed archetype of the text of all witnesses is the same as the text of the autographs.  But that does not mean that one’s position about specific readings should be selected at random, rather than via careful consideration of the evidence.    
            When that careful consideration has been made, though, what should one do with one’s conclusions?  You might think that after scribal corruptions have been filtered out via text-critical analysis, 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 of the Nestle-Aland and UBS compilations of the Greek New Testament (both of which present the same text) ever being more than provisional and tentative.  As the Introduction to the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece 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 and UBS compilations. 
            The built-in instability of the NA/UBS compilation 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 somewhat 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 regard a particular verse, or a particular phrase, or a particular word, as authoritative, on the grounds that the compilers of the NA/UBS compilation have declared it questionable.  Even if a reading is included in the text today, the compilers might change their minds about it tomorrow, and therefore, it has been proposed, readers should not put much weight on such readings.
            Instead of producing a compilation in which every textual contest is won, the NA/UBS compilers often advise readers to treat a contested passage as if its original contents cannot be known – in which case, none of the rival readings can be safely treated as Scripture.
            For example, James White said this regarding Luke 23:34a (“Then Jesus said, ‘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 stated the following, referring again to Luke 23:34a:
            “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.”
Speaking for myself, I think the original text of the New Testament ought to be the basis for Christian theology, whether it was perfectly perpetuated by scribes or not.  While there are textual contests which are extremely close (close enough to justify a footnote providing the alternative reading), the number of such cases is not as high as the compilers of the NA/UBS text make it out to be.  There is a clear danger and weakness in the approach being advocated by White and by whoever else proposes that “We shouldn’t build theology upon a disputed text”:  the danger of relegating parts of genuine Scripture to a non-authoritative status merely because they have been questioned by textual critics.
Is White aware of how much of the New Testament has been questioned by textual critics?  Here are some passages in the Gospels which, if White’s approach were used consistently, would go into a “Do Not Use for Theological Purposes” category, and their subjects: 
Mt.  1:7-8 (Was Jesus descended from Asaph and Amos?  Or, were the names of Asa and Amon spelled the same as the names of Asaph and Amos?)
Mt. 1:16 (Was Joseph the father of Jesus?)
Mt. 1:18 (Was Jesus already Christ when he was born?)
Mt. 1:25 (Did Mary have other children besides Jesus?)
Mt. 9:34 (Did Pharisees accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the ruler of the demons?)
Mt. 12:47 (Did someone tell Jesus His mother and brothers were outside?)
Mt. 13:35 (Did Matthew say that Isaiah wrote Psalm 72, which is ascribed to Asaph?)  (Or to put it another way:  Did Matthew err?)
Mt. 16:2-3 (Did Jesus say this?)
Mt. 17:21 (Did Jesus say that prayer and fasting were needed prior to casting out a particular kind of demon?)
            Mt. 18:11 (Why did Jesus come?)
Mt. 18:15 (Is the subject about any sin, or about when one is personally wronged?)
Mt. 19:9 (Is remarriage permitted after divorce?)
Mt. 21:31 (What did the crowd say to Jesus?)
Mt. 21:44 (Is this verse original?)
Mt. 23:14 (Is this verse original?)
Mt. 26:28 (Did Jesus say “new covenant” or just “covenant”?)
Mt. 27:16 (Was Barabbas also named Jesus?)
Mt. 27:35b (Is this verse original?)
Mt. 27:49 (Was Jesus pierced with a spear before He died?)  (Or to put it another way:  Do Matthew and John contradict each other?)
Mt. 28:19 (Did Jesus advocate baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”?)
Mk. 1:1-3 (Are these verses original?)
Mk. 1:1 (Did Mark consider Jesus to be inherently the Son of God?)
Mk. 1:2 (Did Mark blend together two passages, one from Isaiah and one from Malachi, and introduce them as having been written by Isaiah?)      
Mk. 1:40 (Did the man with leprosy kneel to Jesus?)
Mk. 1:41 (When requested to heal the leper, was Jesus angry, or was He filled with compassion?)
Mk. 6:22 (Was the dancer at Herod’s court the daughter of Herodias, or the daughter of Herod?)
Mk. 7:4 (Did Mark refer here to immersion, or to pouring?) 
            Mk. 7:16 (Is this verse original?)
            Mk. 7:19 (Did Jesus declare all foods to be fit to eat, or did He describe what happens to food after digestion?)
            Mk. 8:38 (Did Jesus refer to His words, or to His followers?)
            Mk. 9:29 (Did Jesus say that fasting was needed prior to casting out a particular kind of demon?)
            Mk. 9:44 and 9:46 (Did Jesus emphasize the eternal nature of suffering in hell?)
            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?)
            Mk. 11:26 (Is it necessary to forgive those who have sinned against us?)
            Mk. 13:14 (Did Jesus affirm that Daniel was a historical character?)
Mk. 14:24 (Did Jesus say “new covenant” or just “covenant”?)
            Mk. 15:28 (Is this verse original?)
            Mk. 16:9-20 (Are these 12 verses, including their record of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, and His command to go into all the world and preach the gospel, original?)
            Lk. 1:46 (Was it Mary, or Elizabeth, who sang the Magnificat?)
            Lk. 2:14 (Did the angels say “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” or “Peace on earth upon those favored by God”?)
            Lk. 3:22 (Did Luke describe the Father’s voice as if Jesus had become His Son at His baptism?)
            Lk. 4:44 (Was Jesus preaching in the synagogues in Galilee, or in the synagogues of Judea?)
            Lk. 5:39 (Is this verse original?)
            Lk. 6:48 (Is the final phrase in this verse original?)
            Lk. 8:26 (To what region did Jesus and His disciples go?)
            Lk. 8:43 (Is part of this verse a scribal corruption?)
            Lk. 9:26 (Did Jesus refer to His words, or to His followers?)
            Lk. 10:1 and 10:17 (Did Jesus send 70 individuals, or 72?)
            Lk. 10:42 (What did Jesus say to Martha?)   
            Lk. 11:13 (Did Jesus refer to gifts in general, or to the gift of the Holy Spirit?)
            Lk. 11:42 (Did Jesus affirm the regulations of the Law of Moses?)
            Lk. 14:5 (Did Jesus refer to a donkey, or to a son, or to a sheep?)
            Lk. 17:36 (Did Jesus emphasize that one shall be taken, and another shall be left?)
            Lk. 18:11 (Was the Pharisee praying “with himself”?)
            Lk. 18:24 (Was Jesus very sorrowful when the rich young ruler did not accept His offer?)
            Lk. 19:25 (Is this verse original?)
            Lk. 22:43-44 (Did Jesus’ body produce drops of sweat like blood?  And did an angel appear to Him in Gethsemane, strengthening Him?)
            Lk. 22:62 (After denying Jesus three times, did Peter depart and weep bitterly?)
            Lk. 23:17 (Is this verse original?)
            Lk. 23:34a (Did Jesus ask the Father to forgive those who were responsible for crucifying Him?)
            Lk. 24:3 (Did Luke specify that the women visiting the tomb did not find the body “of the Lord Jesus”?)
            Lk. 24:6 (Did Luke state that the men said to the women at the tomb, “He is not here, but is risen”?)
            Lk. 24:12 (Did Luke write this verse, which reports that Peter ran to the tomb and saw the linen cloths?)
            Lk. 24:36 (Did Jesus greet His disciples by saying “Peace unto you”?)
            Lk. 24:40 (Did Jesus show His disciples His hands and His feet?)
            Lk. 24:42 (Was Jesus given a piece of honeycomb to eat, as well as fish?)
            Lk. 24:51 (Did Luke say specifically that Jesus “was carried up into heaven”?)
            Jn. 1:18 (Did John call Jesus “only begotten God” or “the only begotten Son”?)
            Jn. 1:34 (Did John the Baptist affirm that Jesus was the Son of God, or that Jesus was the chosen one of God?)
            Jn. 3:13 (Did the verse originally end with the phrase, “the Son of Man who is in heaven”?)
            Jn. 4:9 (Did the verse originally end with the phrase, “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans”?)
            Jn. 5:3-4 (Did John write an explanation of why sick and infirm people were gathered at the pool called Bethesda?)
            Jn. 6:23 (Did John write the final phrase of this verse, mentioning that the Lord gave thanks for the bread?)
            Jn. 6:36 (Did Jesus say that whoever comes to Him will never hunger and that whoever believes in Him will never thirst?) 
            Jn. 6:47 (Did Jesus say that whoever believes on Him has eternal life?”)
            Jn. 7:8 (Did Jesus say He was not going to the feast, or that He was not yet going?)
            Jn. 7:39 (Did John say that the Holy Spirit was not yet given?)
            Jn. 7:53-8:11 (Are these 12 verses – the story about the adulteress – original?)
            Jn. 8:59 (Did Jesus go through the midst of the people, and so pass by?)
            Jn. 9:38-39 (Did the man who had received his sight say, “Lord, I believe,” and worship Jesus?)
            Jn. 10:8 (Did Jesus say that all who came before Him are thieves and robbers?)
            Jn. 12:8 (Is this verse original?)
            Jn. 12:32 (Did Jesus say that He would draw all people to Himself, or that He would draw everything to Himself?)
            Jn. 14:14 (Is this verse original, and if it is original, does it depict Jesus referring to prayers offered to Him?)
            Jn. 17:11 (Did Jesus refer to the elect – “those whom You have given Me” – in this verse?)
            Jn. 19:29 (Was a hyssop-branch, or a javelin, used to offer wine to Jesus?)
            Jn. 20:31 (Did the Gospel of John originally end at the end of 20:31?
            If I were to delve into the rest of the New Testament, more such passages could be listed, such as Acts 20:28 (did God purchase the church with His own blood?), First Corinthians 14:34-35 (Did Paul say that women are to be silent in the churches and are not permitted to speak?), Galatians 2:20 (Did Paul say that he lived by faith in the Son of God?), Galatians 4:25 (Is the first part of the verse a scribal corruption?), First Timothy 3:16 (Did Paul state that in Jesus, God was manifest in the flesh?), Hebrews 2:9 (Did Jesus taste death “apart from God”?), and Revelation 13:18 (Is the number of the beast 616 or 666?). 
            Does anyone think that this is how the Holy Spirit wanted these passages to be treated when He inspired the writers of the New Testament?   Christians confidently believe (or ought to confidently believe) that all Scripture is profitable for doctrine – but it can’t be profitable for doctrine if its authority is not recognized.  Few are moved by the declaration, “Thus saith the Lord, maybe.”  
            An objection might be raised:   “But it is not as if those readings have been arbitrarily declared dubious; the passages you listed have been properly and fairly questioned.”
            Who says?  Does anyone have transcripts of the conversations that led the NA/UBS compilers to almost habitually reject the reading of the vast majority of Greek manuscripts where it diverges from the Alexandrian Text (usually in the Gospels, the Byzantine Text is favored by a majority of over 85% of the Greek manuscripts, frequently over 95%, and sometimes over 99.5%), and to regularly prefer the readings of Codex Vaticanus even where it stands in a very small minority and disagrees with the oldest evidence?  James White does not think the BA/UBS compilers were correct when they introduced a conjectural emendation (that is, a reading with no Greek manuscript support) into the text of Second Peter 3:10.  But clearly the previously accepted reading of Second Peter 3:10 is now disputed; White, if he consistently refrains from using disputed passages for theological purposes, will stop using it.  Does anyone not see a problem here?  Almost anything – the disagreement of a single Greek manuscript, or the opacity of a reading to the compilers – has been used to justify disputing readings that are supported by evidence that is early and abundant and widespread.
            The NA/UBS compilation is unstable and it is very likely to become more unstable.  And if anyone optimistically imagines that only readings that the UBS compilation-committee previously assigned a “D” rating are unstable, think again:  in the 28th edition, the editors reversed what had been assigned an “A” rating in Second Peter 2:18.  That is, it is not only readings which the compilers regard with “a very high degree of doubt” which are now considered questionable; readings which in previous editions of the NA/UBS compilation were considered “virtually certain” are also vulnerable to change.      
            It is not my intention here to defend every one of the inspired readings which James White regards as unsafe to use as Scripture.  I merely observe that the approach he currently endorses – in which all that is needed to justify voiding the authority of a passage is for some textual critics to declare that after properly and fairly exploring the issue, their verdict is a shrug – is bound to introduce more and more instability into the text, and to consequently encourage readers to lose confidence in more and more passages – not because the passages have been shown to be non-original, but merely because they have been disputed.  This is not as large a problem as the Nestle-Aland compilation’s rejection of many original readings.  But it is a problem.


Daniel Buck said...

He's begging the question, as clearly by "disputed" he means "disputed by Metzger." Any given verse of the NT has variants in at least one manuscript.

Unknown said...

Just wanted to say that I totally agree with what you're saying in your article. At what point do we just have to trust that God has provided with His Whole Word? How can creating doubt regarding what is/is not scripture help increase anyone's belief/faith?