Made Up Definition of the Day

This one comes courtesy of Derek Ashton:

The goal of textual criticism is to painstakingly work back toward an inerrant original, to discover its actual contents as best we can.

Inerrant original? Where’d that ‘inerrant’ come from? Let’s see how some textual critics define it, shall we?

Emanuel Tov:

Textual criticism deals with the origin and nature of all forms of a text, in our case the biblical text. This involves a discussion of its putative original form(s) and an analysis of the various representatives of the changing biblical text. The analysis includes a discussion of the relation between these texts, and attempts are made to describe the external conditions of the copying and the procedure of textual transmission. Scholars involved in textual criticism not only collect data on differences between the textual witnesses, but they also try to evaluate them. Textual criticism deals only with data deriving from the textual transmission—in other words, readings included in textual witnesses which have been created at an earlier stage, that of the literary growth of the biblical books, are not subjected to textual evaluation (see chapter 7). One of the practical results of textual analysis is that it creates tools for exegesis. (Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 2nd rev. ed., 1-2)

Paul D. Wegner:

Briefly stated, textual criticism is the science and art that seeks to determine the most reliable wording of a text. (A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible, 24)

Bart D. Ehrman:

At Moody, I learned the basics of the field known as textual criticism—a technical term for the science of restoring the “original” words of a text from manuscripts that have altered them. […] The more I studied Greek, the more I became interested in the manuscripts that preserve the New Testament for us, and in the science of textual criticism, which can supposedly help us reconstruct what the original words of the New Testament were. (Misquoting Jesus, 5, 7)

Bruce Metzger:

The textual critic seeks to ascertain from the divergent copies which form of the text should be regarded as most nearly conforming to the original. […] The science of textual criticism deals with (a) the making and transmission of ancient manuscripts, (b) the description of the most important witnesses to the New Testament text, and (c) the history of the textual criticism of the New Testament as reflected in the succession of printed editions of the Greek Testament. The art of textual criticism refers to the application of reasoned considerations in choosing among variant readings. (The Text of the New Testament, 2nd ed., v-vi)

David Parker:

Because two copies of a text will have wording in common between them, in practice a variant reading describes the places where the common text ceases, and each has its own form. ‘Variant reading’ is in fact a simple tool for breaking down the differences between two or more copies into manageable units. […] Textual criticism is the analysis of variant readings in order to determine in what sequence they arose. (An Introduction to the New Testament Manuscripts and Their Texts, 4, 159)

No need to belabor the point, which again, is simply the fact that textual criticism has no concerns about inerrant originals.


16 thoughts on “Made Up Definition of the Day

  1. Nick,

    I agree, but we can see what is the point that our brother Derek is seeking, the original autographs are themselves inerrant! And though good textual criticism cannot make that, we can at least try to gain a better Greek Text (at least for the NT).

  2. Thanks, Nick. But you’ve taken my words out of context.

    I wasn’t trying to define “textual criticism” broadly, as a science. Those guys you listed can do that well enough, and I’m not that ambitious. I was merely stating the goal of textual criticism, from an inerrantist’s viewpoint, and showing how things can go off track if inerrancy is jettisoned. Obviously, a “higher” or “form” critic is not looking for anything inerrant (other than his own opinions, perhaps). He has a different goal, though his methodology might be similar. That, actually, was my point. Without the conviction that there is an inerrant original, the textual critic can dream up just about any meaning he wants for a disputed text. Just ask Dr. Ehrman, he dreams up all sorts of illusions.

    Thanks, btw, for reading and linking to my post. ;-)


  3. Fr. Robert: I’m not concerned with the point of his post so much as this novel definition of textual criticism.

    Derek: I’ve just re-read your post and I don’t think that I have taken your words out of context; at least not in a way that would change what you said. In the midst of a section entitled “Original Manuscripts” you talk about God being able to inspire inerrant originals because he’s the all-powerful Creator and then you say this:

    Had he studied more classical and conservative sources… he might have discovered why we have every reason to think the available manuscripts are slightly different from the originals. We have textual variants that must be accounted for. Where did they come from? Which variant is more likely to match the original? The goal of textual criticism is to painstakingly work back toward an inerrant original, to discover its actual contents as best we can. How does one launch a public challenge against inerrancy without understanding these basic facts about hermeneutics and Biblical transmission?

    But even your explanation here is incorrect. One’s view on inerrancy shouldn’t drive their text critical methodology. And I’m not aware of any professional textual critics who affirm the inerrancy of Scripture who would define the goal of textual criticism the way you have. Daniel Wallace is a top tier textual critic who affirms inerrancy and yet he (along with Ed Komoszewski and M. James Sawyer) defines textual criticism this way (I’m inserting a picture because I don’t feel like typing it all out):

    (Reinventing Jesus, 54)

    The point is that textual criticism for anyone, inerrantist, errantist, Christian, atheist, whoever, is to reconstruct the original wording of a given text (religious or non-religious) to the best of their ability with the evidence they have to work with. And for the record, I’m not criticizing your post in total; just pointing out this one flaw in it. And I’m glad to have discovered your blog. :-)

  4. Derek,

    I read your post, and I would say that theology and inerrancy are more than biblical science, but also an attitude. And of course we must have an attitude of real humility, but also of great conviction, in God and His grace. And we must always work in both God’s truth, and also our own. I enjoyed it over all, thanks!

  5. Nick,

    “The textual criticism of the Gospels is a scientific task which has two goals. The primary goal is the reconstruction of the text of each Gospel in its original form, that is, the form in which it was initially received by the church. The secondary goal is the reconstruction of the transmission-history of the text.” That’s my definition, at the beginning of the essay, “Equitable Eclecticism: The Future of New Testament Textual Criticism,” which was recently posted as a five-part series at the King James Only Debate Blog.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

  6. I’m wondering if even the word “original” is problematic for the task of textual criticism. “Early” or “earliest” would seem to be more agreeable to the task. Not to say that there wasn’t an original of any given text! However, textual criticism will never be able to tell us precisely when we have reconstructed or arrived at an original.

  7. Fr. Robert:
    Thank you for taking the time to read my argument for inerrancy (I know you’ve read better ones!), and thank you very much for your insightful, gentle, and wise exhortation.

    You’ve made something out of nothing. I offered no definition. I simply stated the goal, the motivation, the reason for consulting/applying/studying textual criticism, from an inerrantist’s point of view, in the hermeneutical process. Consider my statement from this context: it was made in response to Robert Jimenez’ claim that “the manuscripts we have are extremely reliable and no reason to think they differ from the Original Autographs.” I pointed to textual variants as proof that we have “every reason” to believe the current manuscripts differ from the originals. I further noted that we engage in textual criticism (or apply the results of textual criticism, if we must be that precise) in an effort to get back toward the content of the original, as far as that is possible. I also noted that the conviction of inerrancy has a huge bearing on how we handle the application of textual criticism. For example, if we believe in an inerrant original, and we have, say, a synoptic situation where there are 700 charioteers killed in one passage and 7 thousand in the parallel account, we are going to reason that the Holy Spirit inspired the correct number in the originals but a scribal error was introduced at the transmission stage. If we don’t believe in inerrancy, we have an open field to come up with all sorts of fanciful theories, perhaps saying that one author was more pro-Davidic and inflated the numbers on purpose, or that he was anti-Davidic and purposely lowered the count (stranger theories have been made, just look at the absurd JEDP Documentary Hyposthesis). Apart from the conviction of inerrancy, we may use the science of textual criticism (which, again, I have nowhere defined) in ways that seem sensible but treat Scripture as less than genuinely divine in origin (just look at what the German “higher” critics did in the early 20th century, and the effect it had on the mainline churches). Read the FULL context of my words, and you will see that I qualify this later in the paragraph (beyond the short section you quoted in your comment), by saying that inerrancy “is the solid rock on which conservative textual criticism is built, and Biblically faithful exegesis depends on it.” Conservative being the key word.

    By way of illustration, imagine you overhear a fisherman say, “The reason a guy has a boat is to get where the fish are biting.” You go home, look up 7 definitions of the word “boat” and publish an article in the local newspaper, challenging the fisherman’s “definition.” Only one problem: he wasn’t giving a definition, he was giving a reason. Specifically, a fisherman’s reason. A conservative inerrantist’s engagement in textual criticism most certainly has the goal of discovering the content of the inerrant original. To quibble with the word “inerrant” in this stated goal is pointless and only begs the question. It IS his driving presupposition, whether or not he ever states it. I am contrasting this with the goal of the “higher” critic who doesn’t believe in inerrancy. He has a different goal. Going back to the boat illustration, he might want a boat so he can kill the fish, go diving, enjoy a pleasure cruise, or perhaps ram into the fisherman’s boat just for fun. In any case, the “higher” critic’s rejection of inerrancy produces a completely different hermeneutical result. This was my only point, and I must say again very clearly that I DID NOT OFFER ANY KIND OF DEFINITION. Context, context, context.

    I never said we could arrive at an original autograph. All I said was the GOAL of textual criticism (as applied in an inerrantist’s hermeneutic) is to move TOWARD (i.e. in the direction of) the original (which he believes to be inerrant), discovering its actual contents to the greatest extent possible. As noted above, Nick’s response is built on the erroneous assumption that I was offering a definition. In reality, I OFFERED NO DEFINITION OF TEXTUAL CRITICISM. :)

    In case anyone missed it: I have neither defined nor attempted to define the science of textual criticism in any of my writings.

  8. Derek: No need to be so touchy. No matter how you try to defend it, what you’ve stated is simply incorrect, that’s not what textual criticism is, period. It’s not a big deal. But to say that you’ve offered no definition of textual criticism is a bit ridiculous. You’ve certainly defined it, even if only how you intended it, which is fine, but incorrect nonetheless. But let’s take the word “define” or “definition” out of the equation, alright? What if I just said that you’ve incorrectly stated the goal of textual criticism? Would that be better? In any event, no need to belabor the point, thanks for stopping by.

    Seth: Makes perfect sense to me.

  9. Nick, continuing to assert that my statement was somehow incorrect while escorting me to the door is just plain bad manners.

    How’s this? I’ll accept your point that what I said is incorrect (at least in your eyes), if you’ll accept my point that what you said is incorrect (at least in my eyes). No point in arguing further.

    [slips out quietly]


  10. Derek: I really think you’re taking this a bit too personally. I welcome your comments here but if we’re going to keep going in circles on this then there’s no reason to keep going. So I’ll accept your compromise — we can both be postmodern and say that each one of us is right in our own way. ;-)

  11. Well, there’s also the fact that modern New Testament textual criticism (unless something has changed over the last few years that I’m not aware of) doesn’t aim for the originals of each of the books. It aims to establish a putative “first edition” of collections of books (Gospels, Paul, Catholic Epistles) that was widely disseminated, placing this sometime around the middle of the second century. That’s as far as they (at least used to) dare go. The Apocalypse falls into a separate category, as it simply wasn’t as widely published as the others in manuscript. This is in part tied up in the recognition of grouped readings exhibiting the characteristics of a consistent editorial technique. I’m sure that Metzger describes this concept, though I’m much too lazy today to look for the place in which he does so. But it is certainly a misprision to think of textual criticism in terms of recovering the autograph of any document of the NT. “Earliest recoverable edition,” yes, but “original autograph edition,” no.

  12. that was a very interesting post and comments! Proving once again how pointless most talk of inerrancy actually turns out to be, but why are there all these semi naked men hugging each other at the bottom of the screen?

  13. Jonathan: To start, I prefer to think of them as semi-clothed, and (B) they’re not hugging; they’re fighting! I couldn’t imagine greeting someone in church with a hug like that! ;-)

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