Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Halloween Special: Textual Diversity in the 300s

            A few days ago, a video by Jonathan A. Sheffield appeared on YouTube entitled, “A James White Halloween Special:  The Textual Frankenstein of Modern Critical Text Theory.”   Since this 21-minute animated video has a text-critical focus, I thought it might be a good idea to offer a few observations about it.  I recommend watching the video (which can be viewed here) but for those who would rather have it summarized, here is a summary:   

After a few minutes of amusing cameos (by Bart Ehrman, Dan Wallace, and others) the stage is set for James White to go on a Halloween-themed time-traveling journey with Family Guy character Stewie, in a role comparable to Doc Brown (from Back to the Future, complete with a DeLorean time machine).  Stewie – Sheffield’s proxy throughout the video – tells White that past events have created “a mess” where the text of the New Testament is concerned. 
            Stewie points out that White, on his program Dividing Line, has tended to overlook the real problem with the modern critical text:  the weakness of Hort’s reasons for rejecting the Byzantine Text.  After the DeLorean time machine lands, Stewie summarizes Hort’s theory that Chrysostom used an essentially Byzantine text that had been created around A.D. 300 by an editor – perhaps Lucian of Antioch – who selected readings from older texts.    Hort, Stewie explains – as Hort is represented onscreen by a wizard – reduced the weight of all Byzantine manuscripts – “thousands of independent witnesses” – down to one.
            Stewie then says that Hort’s theory implies that for 1,500 years after Chrysostom, Greek, Syriac, and Latin-speaking churches throughout the Byzantine Empire used “the wrong type of text.”  White objects, stating that no bona fide textual scholar still subscribes to Hort’s theory – except maybe Dan Wallace.  Stewie replies that although White rejects Hort’s theory about the Lucianic Recension (called the “Lucan Recession” in the video), White still promotes Hort’s conclusion that the Byzantine text ought to be rejected. 
            About nine minutes into the video, Stewie explains that Hort, guided by principles of “German rationalism,” replaced the text of Antioch with a text “of unknown provenance.”  Earlier textual critics – Jerome, who produced the Latin Vulgate, Thomas of Harkel (who produced the Harklean Syriac version) and Ximenes (who oversaw the production of the Complutensian Polyglot) – used ecclesiastical texts, but Hort did not.  By preferring readings from manuscripts of unknown provenance, Hort created a “textual Frankenstein” which cannot be shown to have been used by any apostolic church before 1881. 
            Twelve minutes into the video, the subject turns to the Coherence Based Genealogical Method.  Dr. Peter Gurry confirms that there was no Lucan (i.e., Lucianic) recension.  A little later, after Stewie summarizes the concept of text-types (Alexandrian, Byzantine, Western, and Caesarean) and their importance in the argumentation of the late Bruce Metzger in his defense of the heavily Alexandrian UBS compilation, Gurry offers an important pronouncement:  the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method implies that “text-types are unhelpful for making textual decisions.” 
            This gives the impression of invalidating the basic text-critical approach that has guided the field of New Testament textual criticism for over a century, and Stewie runs with this statement; the basic premises that drove pro-Alexandrian textual criticism throughout the 1900s, Stewie says, have been a “phony baloney sandwich from the start.”
            Around 17 minutes into the video, James White is pictured on the floor with his arms curled around his legs, in a state of shock at how thoroughly the foundation of his position has been destroyed.   Then Stewie, Igor (Dr. Gurry’s assistant), and White undertake an examination of the “oldest and best manuscripts” upon which the Nestle-Aland text is based.  James White briefly takes on the persona of Gollum as he looks at Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, saying, “My precious.” 
            A little later, White objects to treating Vaticanus and Sinaiticus as if they have no provenance, stating that they were clearly used by the churches.   In response, Dr. Tommy Wasserman steps out of the background and affirms that the origins of Vaticanus and Sinaiticus are “elusive.”  Stewie proceeds to contrast the elusiveness of the origins of Vaticanus and Sinaiticus with the known provenance of the text that was in use in apostolic churches in Antioch, North Africa, and Rome in the fourth century.  The Vulgate, Stewie explains, opposes the critical text promoted by James White. 
            Stewie then asks why the CBGM’s promoters and the editors of the Nestle-Aland text continue to use unprovenanced manuscripts as the primary basis for their compilations.  Onscreen, there is a picture of two individuals:  one has a hat on which “Nestle Aland” is written, sitting on a pile of money; the other one, holding money, wears a suit with a tag that says “UBS.”  Stewie then raises a question:  why do these editors continue to spread the Nestle-Aland/UBS compilation even though all the premises supporting it have been falsified?  He then says, “Is it because when you move off these mixed texts, and have to resolve the differences between the Vulgate,  the Byzantium, and the Peshitta, it leads us back to the TR?”
            James White finally speaks:  “That is heresy, Stewie!”  But Stewie resumes, and proposes that since the Textus Receptus is in the public domain, the primary reason why the scholars and publishers responsible for the NA/UBS text continue to make new editions is financial.  White protests that he does not want to hear this, but Stewie continues, mentioning that without new critical editions, White could not make new Halloween costumes modeled after the latest edition of the critical text.  White screams in frustration. 

            Stewie – that is, Sheffield – thus makes five proposals:
(1)    Preference for Alexandrian readings began with Hort and his German rationalism.
(2)    Since Hort’s theory that the Byzantine Text originated as a recension is incorrect, there is no reason to adopt non-Byzantine readings.
(3)    The very use of the Alexandrian Text is problematic because we don’t know where it came from, unlike the texts used by Jerome in the late 300s, by Thomas of Harkel in the early 600s, and by Ximenes in the early 1500s.
(4)    If researchers were to compile a text on the basis of the Byzantine Text, the Vulgate, and the Peshitta, the result would be the Textus Receptus.    
(5)    The researchers involved in the production of the Nestle-Aland and United Bible Societies’ Greek compilations are primarily motivated by financial gain.

            All five of Sheffield’s proposals are wrong, and his whole approach seems like an excuse for maintaining 100% of the Textus Receptus.  Let’s consider these points one by one.


            No.  Researchers before Hort, such as Bengel, Griesbach, Scholz, Lachmann, and Tischendorf (and, even earlier, Walton) saw the advantage of collecting readings from all areas where Christianity spread in its early centuries.


            No, for two reasons:  first, the Textus Receptus has hundreds of translatable differences from the Byzantine Text.  Even if we were to say, “Let’s just reconstruct the text that Chrysostom used,” this would generally yield something like the Byzantine Textform, rather than the Textus Receptus.  Second, Chrysostom’s text does not represent the only ecclesiastically utilized form of the text from the 300s.  (Nor is it a purely Byzantine text:  in Stephen Carlson’s edition of the text of Galatians (2015) he records non-Byzantine readings supported by Chrysostom in Galatians 1:3, 1:4, 1:11, 1:12, 2:6, 2:16, 3:7, 5:17, 6:13, and 6:17.  And – to give just one more example – according to UBS4, in John 20:23, Chrysostom supports ἀφέωνται where the Byzantine Text (and the TR), the Vulgate, and the Peshitta support ἀφίενται.)
            Other forms of the text were used in other places.  Eusebius’ text of Matthew, at Caesarea, for instance, was mainly Alexandrian; Augustine’s Latin text in North Africa contained many non-Byzantine readings.  The Old Latin translation(s) also contained many non-Byzantine readings.  It would be arbitrary to ignore these other ancient local texts.
            Without Hort’s Lucianic Recension in the picture, the Byzantine Text deserves to stand as an essentially independent local text, but that does not mean that its exact form is always correct, or that the effects of mixture (i.e., mixture with other local texts) and liturgically motivated adjustments cannot be detected in it. 


            No.  We do not know the specific origins of Vaticanus and Sinaiticus but this is true of practically every single parchment codex of New Testament books that has survived from before the 500s, whether Greek or Latin or Syriac or whatever.  The area in which the Alexandrian Text was used is no mystery:  it was used in Egypt, as can be seen by the consistent similarly of Vaticanus’ text with the Sahidic version.  And many non-Byzantine readings were in the manuscripts utilized by patristic authors in Chrysostom’s time and earlier, in other locales.  Granting that we do not know the names and exact locations of the individuals who perpetuated the New Testament text in Egypt, this is also true of the individuals who made Athanasius’ manuscripts, and Jerome’s manuscripts, and Augustine’s manuscripts, and Ambrose’s manuscripts, and Chrysostom’s manuscripts.  Noticing where a manuscript was used is not the same as knowing where its readings originated.     
            Sheffield asserts that ancient scholars such as Jerome and Thomas of Harkel used only “ecclesiastical” texts.  But when we examine the actual contents of the Vulgate and the Harklean Syriac, we don’t see exclusively Byzantine readings; both the Vulgate and the Harklean Syriac have many non-Byzantine readings, as anyone can verify by comparing the Byzantine Text, the Vulgate, and the Harklean Syriac side-by-side-by-side in the General Epistles.  If one grants that the Vulgate and the Harklean Syriac were based exclusively on ecclesiastical sources, it follows irresistibly that the Byzantine Text was not the only ecclesiastical source available.   


            No.  The Peshitta, as initially issued, did not contain the books of Second Peter, Second John, Third John, Jude, and Revelation, and at many points the Peshitta disagrees with the Textus Receptus (and with the Byzantine text).  The Vulgate also has many disagreements with the Textus Receptus (and with the Byzantine text).  And the Byzantine Text itself, as presented in the Robinson-Pierpont Byzantine Textform, has many disagreements with the Textus Receptus. 
            Certainly in many textual contests the Vulgate, the Peshitta, and the Byzantine Text all point in the same direction, uniformly disagreeing with the Alexandrian Text, as we see in Matthew 1:25 and Matthew 20:16 and Mark 15:28 and Mark 16:9-20 and Luke 22:43-44 and John 3:13, etc., etc.  But most of the minority-readings of the Textus Receptus would not be vindicated by such a compilation; in addition, the Byzantine reading is sometimes opposed by both the Vulgate and Peshitta (in Ephesians 5:9 and James 4:4, for example).  Sheffield’s picture of a world in the fourth century where there was one uniform text used in the churches is not realistic; even less realistic is the idea that this uniform ecclesiastical fourth-century text was the Textus Receptus.                


            Sheffield is not the first person to wonder about the motives of liberal scholars such as David Trobisch.  But if anyone wants to see the text of the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland compilation, it is free online, as are many other editions of the critical text.  And not only is the 2005 Robinson-Pierpont Byzantine Textform also free online, but it is a public domain text, prefaced by a statement that “Anyone is permitted to copy and distribute this text or any portion of this text.” 

            In short:  Sheffield’s criticism of researchers who reject the theory of the Lucianic recension, and yet continue to treat the Byzantine Text as if almost all of its distinct readings are secondary, is applauded.  However, if Sheffield’s assumptions about the text of Chrysostom were valid, they would tend to favor the Byzantine Text rather than the minority-readings embedded in the Textus Receptus.  An awareness of the variety of local texts in the fourth century renders Sheffield’s whole approach, undertaken to maintain the Textus Receptus, untenable at every turn.

Readers are invited to double-check the data in this post.


OrangeHunter said...

Sheffield is a supporter of the Patriarchal text from 1904, not the TR.

Timothy Joseph said...

The difference in these 2 texts is minimal. When you compare where they disagree with the critical text these 2 texts are almost completely a single voice. They almost always agree against even the MT where they have differences. James’ comments remain relative!


trshaw said...

An excellent response, but I would have come down harder on one particular bit of cherry-picking. There are four major languages for first millennium biblical transmission. Even if the Vulgate, Peshitta, and Byzantine texts represented a single exemplar, that wouldn't make the exemplar some kind of ecumenical ecclesiastical text. He's arbitrarily excluded the Coptic, probably because it's not Byzantine.