Monday, October 20, 2014

Textual Criticism, Explained by Dr. James White

Textual criticism, like any of academia's black arts, can serve many masters. Filtering the scribal errors from the Bible's manuscript tradition in order to recover the original text does not inherently breed unbelief. Many textual critics contend, however, that the vast number of variants between the ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts make it impossible to determine what the original manuscripts said. Bart Ehrman, the most prominent scholar on the subject, has published 27 books that include these flamboyant titles:

"Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why"
"Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are"
"How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee"

James White, the founder of Alpha and Omega Ministries, thinks that the evangelical church has done a very poor job of explaining the manuscript tradition of the Bible. I have to agree; most of the Christians I've known display little grasp of the subject. The problem, according to White, is that the evangelical student enters college a firm believer in inerrancy, convinced by the sermons he (or she) has heard and the worldview seminars he's attended--but knows nothing about the manuscript tradition. Then he reads a book by Bart Ehrman--or has a roommate who's read Ehrman--and is thrown for a very serious loop.

Instead, White contends, we Christians need to deal with the manuscripts as they exist, not as we wish they existed. If we believe that God cares about the truth, then we shouldn't be afraid of the manuscript tradition, warts and all. And indeed, a careful examination of the subject reveals that we have nothing to fear.

When White debated Erhman a few years ago (video here, transcript here), he made these following key points:

1. While there are more variants than words in the Greek New Testament, the vast majority are either insignificant (e.g., spelling errors) or not viable (i.e., they are not attested in any of the best and most ancient manuscripts). Only 1% of the NT words are subject to any significant variants.

2. The variants that remain do not rise to the level of calling into question any of the orthodox teachings of Christianity. For example, it is hard to discern on the basis of Greek manuscripts whether Jesus responded to the leper in Mark 1:41 with anger or with compassion. But in either case, neither of the possibilities change our view of Jesus. (Here's how my analysis runs: if Jesus responded with anger, then he discerned that the leper was bitterly accusing him of not wanting to heal. We see Jesus in other passages responding to willful doubt with anger, so our understanding of Jesus would not change. And of course if Jesus responded with compassion, that would be consistent with many other Gospel passages as well.)

3. Scribes had a bias toward keeping what was passed down to them. They occasionally made errors of various kinds (such as spelling errors), but there is no evidence that scribes just omitted or deliberately skewed passages they didn't like. This means that we can carefully reconstruct the original text, since one of the variants in a passage has preserved the original, even if other variants are in error. White compares the manuscript tradition to a 1000 piece puzzle with 1010 pieces: with due care, you can assemble the puzzle while discarding the extra pieces.

4. The rapid distribution of NT documents across the world, as attested by the manuscript tradition, made it impossible for anyone in a central location--say, Rome--to corrupt the text. They had no way of hiding or destroying all the existing copies, thousands of which we possess today. In other words, libraries get it right when they put Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code in the fiction stacks.

On the other hand, Ehrman makes an interesting case for our inability to prove that we truly have the original text. Could it be that the manuscripts we have today only go back to a second or third generation copy? This certainly seems possible. And since copying was an imperfect process, Ehrman continues, maybe that second- or third-generation source of our manuscripts was not identical to the original.

However, that argument does not seem winning to me, at least in the sense of destroying orthodox Christian faith. As we have seen, 99% of transmission errors we know about are irrelevant (e.g., spelling mistakes), and none of them influence doctrine. Since the numerous transmission errors we know about are so innocuous, there is no reason to conclude that a transmission error we don't know about might somehow have been nefarious. To re-use a metaphor, just because one or two pieces are missing from a 1000 piece puzzle doesn't mean we can't feel confident about the picture we assemble. Also, Catholic and Orthodox scholars would hasten to add that the church itself, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, assured the faithful transmission of the gospel of the kingdom during the hundreds of years before the canon was finalized.

Before I conclude this post, I do want to express a couple of important disagreements with White. First, when he attacks Peter Enns' scholarship, I feel he does so unfairly. After noting that Enns thinks the Genesis creation accounts "breathe the same air" as the Babylonian creation myths, White states that it's irrelevant because the Genesis account, unlike the Babylonian, presents a God who existed before anything in the universe, a God who created everything out of nothing by simply speaking it into being, and who both loves and holds everyone human accountable. But in fact, Enns also notes these same key differences between the Biblical and Babylonian accounts. So White must not have read Enns very carefully.

Secondly, White regards evolution as terrible stumbling block. He thinks it impossible to love God and obey Him radically if you believe what scientists say about evolution. As I have stated previously, the equation of Biblical inspiration with young earth creationism does a great disservice to the church, especially our young adults.* When the topic is textual criticism, White has the right attitude: we should accept the facts of the manuscript tradition, because a deep understanding gives us nothing to fear. I wish White would also accept the facts we learn from biology, geology, and astronomy, because a right understanding of our magnificent 13.8 billion year old universe, and the evolution of life over these past 3.5 billion years, likewise gives us nothing to fear. Scientist-theologians like John Polkinghorne and apologists like Vern Poythress aver that a right understanding of the science can lead us to marvel at our Creator and worship Him more deeply; I concur wholeheartedly.

With these two caveats, I commend James White's scholarship to you.**

What do you think? Do we need to understand the Biblical manuscript tradition, warts and all? Can we believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture, even today? Leave a comment!

* I am not saying that YECs are heretics, or hate God, or anything like that. The disservice is the converse: a lot of YECs (such as Ken Ham) claim that those who disagree with the YEC position are in terrible peril, heretics, or fundamentally disobedient to God. This stance, repeated vehemently and frequently, leaves someone who wants to be faithful to God--while dealing with scientific evidence authentically--in dire straits.

** A tip of the hat to my blogging friend whitefrozen (Josh Gillies) for pointing me to James White's material on textual criticism.