Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Role of Tradition in New Testament Textual Criticism

            Yesterday, Joshua Gibbs of the Talking Christianity podcast hosted a round-table discussion on the subject of the role of tradition in New Testament textual criticism, with guests Jeff Riddle (representing a Confessional Bibliologist approach), Peter Gurry (representing a Reasoned Eclectic app, and myself (representing an Equitable Eclectic approach).  A looong discussion commenced.  Here it is in two parts.  (At one point my internet connection died, but then it got better.)

Part One:

And Part Two: 

Sit back, grab some popcorn, and enjoy!

Here is the text of my closing statement:
          In closing, I’d like to briefly consider three different approaches to the role of tradition in the compilation of the text of the New Testament. 
          One view is to look at how much agreement there is, along all transmission-lines, and conclude, “Textual variants do not matter.  Everyone agrees that you’ve got the basics of the gospel if you use the Textus Receptus.  So let’s use that, for the sake of stability.” 
          Another approach is to focus on the disagreements.  A person might say, “This is very complicated, and we just can’t tell what the original readings are.  The safest course of action is to just go on using what the church has traditionally used.” 
          If one defines “the church” in terms of what emerged from the Reformation, that approach will provoke the adoption of the Textus Receptus.  If one defines “the church” in a wider sense, the traditional Greek text is the Byzantine Text.  Ecclesiastical approval is on its side.
          But both of those approaches are basically appeals to authority:  authority in the form of tradition.  And an appeal to authority is not the same as an appeal to evidence.  A reading is authoritative because it is original – not simply because it is thought to be original.  Except for scribal blunders, practically all major readings were thought to be original by somebody; that is why they are in the manuscripts.  It takes more than being accepted by someone to vindicate a reading.
          When dogmatic statements are used instead of arguments from evidence, it’s like saying, “We have been using mumpsimus, so mumpsimus is what should be said.”  But readings do not become authoritative by being used.  An original reading is authoritative at the point of its inspired creation.   And scribal corruptions are never authoritative, because they are not inspired – no matter how many people like them.       
          There is also a third view, in which someone says, “If ecclesiastical usage is what endows a reading with authority, then all readings are valid, because they all have at least a little bit of ecclesiastical usage in their favor,” and this provokes a temptation to clutter the margins with a multitude of textual variants.  Not only does this render the text more unstable than ever, inviting readers to pick and choose, but it is the exact opposite of what textual critics are supposed to do, which is, make decisions about textual contests. 
          I suggest that tradition does have a valid role, though, in certain cases:
          ● if two competing textual variants both have strong external support, and
          ● they convey two different messages, and
          ● neither is shown by internal considerations to be non-original, and
          ● one or both readings says something that is not confirmed in other passages,
that is a situation that merits a footnote. 
          But which reading goes into the text, and which one goes into the margin?  After those qualifications are met, there is something to be said for the principle that possession is nine-tenth of the law.   If one reading consistently dominates the other, in terms of widespread and longstanding use, then, instead of having a relatively brief Council of Bishops to break the tie, we have a very long Council of Use.  This approach might not resolve every case, but it will help keep textual instability to a minimum, without giving tradition the right to veto the original text.


Timothy Joseph said...

First, obviously you have been raised to not talk over others, which is a beautiful thing! Second, it is apparent that all the evidence ever in existence would not matter to JTR and other ‘confessional text’ proponents. The actual position they hold is ‘reformation era printed text’ is the actual God-Breathed scripture based solely on it being printed during the Reformation! Third, while while I hold to different text critical method than you or PG, I believe all three of our positions are based on empirical evidence and the differences are how we interpret the evidence.

Timothy Joseph said...

Just a thought from viewing the 2nd video as well. JTR has shown over many articles and videos that while evidence doesn’t matter in his view, he is not above joining with those who do use evidence, such as you, to appear to believe evidence matters. This is what he did on the inclusion of the PA. You both may include the PA as scripture, but you do it based on evidence, JTR does not. I think in this case, you allowed your certainty on the PA, to blind you to the fact that you and PG are closer on the basis for including or excluding the PA than either of you are to JTR believing the PA is scripture. I wish you had joined PG on pushing the point of the differences in the printed TR’s instead­čśÄ

Pastor Jack said...

I agree with both of Timothy Joseph's comments above, especially about your courtesy and patience, and the observation that you and Peter are much closer in your approaches to textual criticism than either of you are to Jeff. Jeff made it increasingly clear that he does not believe in textual criticism as textual criticism since the "text" itself, like the confessions he adheres to were "frozen" in time in the 17th century. Jeff was quite plain in insisting that the "received" or confessional text is not subject to criticism or revision, and that the textual basis is studied only for historical purposes. I thought that your concluding remarks especially were well done. Peter's questions of Jeff were spot on, and not answered persuasively if at all by Jeff to the point that Peter had to ask how they can even converse on the subject. What you and Peter agreed on in your various "eclecticisms" ended up being in sharp contrast to Jeff's confessional "closed door" to textual criticism.

Cory Howell said...

This discussion was fabulous to watch, so thanks for giving us the opportunity to do so. As others have remarked, I too was impressed by James's patience in not talking over the other two who tended to dominate the discussion a bit. I found Jeff Riddle's position to be confusing and frustrating in the extreme, especially when he cast some pretty serious aspersions on James and Peter's "negative influence" on others in the church. Whereas Peter and James obviously disagree on several points, both of them were quite concerned with actual evidence in the manuscripts, while Jeff continually fell back on the TR as a providentially preserved text, ignoring (or flat out rejecting) James and Peter's sensible objections to that position. Still, it was a fascinating conversation to follow. Well done!