Saturday, June 24, 2006

"Reinventing Jesus" and Textual Criticism

Of the making of responses to The Da Vinci Code there is no end. (In fact, Roger Overton has a very useful comparison chart as a result of reading and reviewing 13 book-responses to the DVC.)

Well, not only have I not read the DVC, but I haven't read all the way through any of the book-length responses--though I welcome and applaud their appearance. I'm convinced that one of the purposes within God's providence for the appearance of doctrinal error is to awaken the church afresh to restate and redefend the faith delivered once for all.

I do want to highlight on this blog one of the anti-DVC books, namely, Reinventing Jesus: What The Da Vinci Code and Other Novel Speculations Don't Tell Us, by J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace (Kregel, 2006).

I didn't read the whole book, but I did read part 2 ("Politically Corrupt? The Tainting of Ancient New Testament Texts") and part 3 ("Did the Early Church Muzzle the Canon?"). The reason I read these sections--and the reason I'm commending this book--is that I'm convinced that we in evangelicalism need to learn more about, and defend with vigor and nuance, issues related to textual criticism and the formation of the canon. In what follows, I'll reproduce some notes related to textual criticism for your information and as an encouragement for you to get the book for further details.

Textual criticism "in general is the study of the copies of any written document whose original is unknown or nonexistent in order to determine the exact wording of the original" (54). Why is textual criticism needed? Because "(1) the original documents (known as autographs) no longer exist, and (2) no two copies agree completely" (54). Furthermore, for every word in the Greek New Testament--there are about 138,000 of them--there is on average two variants. "A textual variant is any place among the manuscripts of the New Testament where there is no uniformity of meaning" (54).

Combine all this together and the case looks pretty grim that we can know what the biblical authors actually wrote. But that's why we need to read books like this.

All variants are not created equal. We can break them down into the following categories--in order of how frequently they appear: "(1) spelling differences and nonsense errors; (2) minor differences that do not affect translation or that involve synonyms; (3) differences that affect the meaning of the text but are no viable; and (4) differences that both affect the meaning of the text and are viable." Well over half of the variants are essentially insignificant and fall into category 1. Only about 1% of the variants fall into category 4.

Dan Wallace (whom I assume is the author of this section given his expertise in this area) cautions us that there are two attitudes to avoid when it comes to the text of the NT: (1) absolute certainty, and (2) total despair. (Examples of the former would be the KJV-only crowd; the latter would be the radical skeptics like some on the Jesus Seminar.)

It's helpful to keep in mind that "The New Testament is far and away the best-attested work of Greek or Latin literature in the ancient world" (71), and "approximately fifty-seven hundred full or partial New Testament manuscripts are known to exist at this writing" (71).

There are three categories of materials that textual critics have to work with: (1) Greek manuscripts; (2) ancient translations (or versions) of the New Testament into other languages; and (3) quotations from the New Testament in the writings of the church fathers.

So what methods do textual critics use to sift through these materials? (1) external evidence, and (2) internal evidence. The overriding principle is: "The reading that gives rise to the other readings is most likely to be the original reading" (84). The three external criteria used to judge which variant is original are: (1) date and character, (2) genealogical solidarity; and (3) geographical distribution. In examining the internal evidence, they use guidelines like (1) the harding reading is to be preferred, and (2) the shorter reading is to be preferred. They also seek to weigh things like (1) transcriptional probability (what the scribe was likely to do), and (2) intrinsic probability (what the author was likely to write).

The external and internal evidence are combined to arrive at a conclusion regarding which variant is likely to be the original.

One thing that's important to keep in mind with regard to textual criticism is that no theological truths are at stake with regard to the variants. In other words, "no doctrine is jeopardized by textual variants" (110).

Finally, it is important to realize that "there is virtually no need for conjecture about the original wording. That is, the wording of the original text is almost always to be found in the extant (remaining copies)" (117). "...New Testament textual criticism is a very exacting discipline, with several checks and balances. It is not a bunch of chimps randomly picking from a list of options. Frankly, when skeptics try to make the claim that we simply have no clue what the original New Testament text said, one has to wonder what drives their dogmatic skepticism, because it certainly isn't the evidence" (109).

So I commend to you Reinventing Jesus. All Christians should know this material, which is presented at an introductory, accurate, and accessible level.