8/28/2019 1 Comment
A Commentary on the Current State of Affairs of New Testament Text-Critical Scholarship
Recently my friend suggested that I should read a book entitled To Cast the First Stone, co-authored by Tommy Wasserman and Jennifer Knust, if I wanted to contribute to the discussion on the authority of the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:11) in a helpful way. I took his advice and picked up a copy. Much of the evangelical world is unaware that there is an ongoing debate on whether or not this passage belongs in the text of Scripture. Dan Wallace even calls it, “My favorite passage in the Bible that’s not Scripture.” In this article, I want to offer some insights on the epistemological framework that is found in the opening chapters of the book. This framework seems to be the consensus of those conducting New Testament Text-Critical Scholarship so it should provide valuable insight into the world of modern New Testament textual criticism. At the outset of this article, I want to state that my commentary on the content within this book do not extend to the author(s) themselves. I have heard wonderful things about Tommy Wasserman in particular, so please do not take my critiques on the material itself as an attack on him or his faith.
I thought this article necessary because this book represents the major opinion on the text of Scripture that is held by those that are producing Greek New Testaments and translations that Christians read. The only camps that really disagree with the opinions and theories put forth in this book are perhaps the majority text advocates and those in the received text camp (These are two different positions). I am positive that many non-”traditionalists” would find objection to many of the ideas presented if they knew about them, so hopefully this article provides some helpful insight.
The Current State of Affairs of Modern New Testament Text-Critical Scholarship
Many Christians do not see it necessary to understand the current state of affairs of modern New Testament Text-Critical scholarship because they believe that the product of this scholarship does not affect doctrine. It is often said that the differences between Bibles and editions of the Greek New Testament are slight and that these editions “basically agree.” That perspective of course depends on who gets to decide what “basically agree” means. Many scholars on one hand declare that the canonical text cannot be found, or that it is not inspired by God, and on the other hand are providing theological commentary on what is, or isn’t important. Christians repeat the claims of these same scholars, that “no doctrine is affected”, yet the content of this book demonstrates just how important even one textual variant can be, “To tell the history of the pericope adulterae is to tell the history of the Gospels, and vice versa” (9). This is a welcome admission. What Christians need to know, and the purpose of this article, is to demonstrate that the best that modern scholarship has to offer is often at odds with conservative views of inspiration and preservation. Take a look at this perspective:
“It is possible to acknowledge the intricacies of New Testament textual transmission while still attempting to describe this transmission accurately, to accept the contingency of meaning making while making meaning claims anyway, and to regard material Bibles not as problems waiting to be solved but as witnesses to the kaleidoscopic and ever-changing character of human communities and the stories they tell” (12).
“Books and the texts they preserve are human products, bound in innumerable ways to the circumstances and communities that produce them. This is true of the New Testament, despite its status as a uniquely transcendent, sacred text, held by some to be inspired by God...Even if the text of the Gospels could be fixed - and, when viewed at the level of object and material artifact, this goal has never been achieved - the purported meanings of texts also change.” (15-16).
Christians who accept the scholarship of those supporting this perspective may not be fully aware that those producing the most cutting-edge research on the text of the New Testament may not agree with them on the nature and character of the Holy Scriptures. The best intentions of believing advocates of this method cannot negate the reality that textual scholarship is founded on historical-critical methodology that views the text of Holy Scripture in the same way that one might view Homer’s Iliad. To those that might say this is an unfair leap, the author(s) themselves highlight the clear connection between enlightenment thinking and the textual work of Karl Lachmann, Constantin von Tischendorf, and Westcott and Hort before explaining that the pursuit of knowing the canonical Jesus has been abandoned for the pursuit of the historical Jesus (16,17).
We were once asked, “Don’t you think we’d know it if the ghost of Schleiermacher was roaming the halls of our seminaries?”
Yes, you’d think we would. Yet his ghost roams freely and loudly in lecture halls of nearly every seminary alongside the ghost of Bultmann.
To those that believe that the text-critical work done in the modern period has had no effect on the text of Scripture and the doctrines contained within, I present this perspective of those writing authoritatively on the subject, “Advances in textual criticism brought material changes to the text(s) printed in these various editions, altering both texts and the attitudes towards them...and there are noticeable differences among these many critical editions” (29). The claim that “no doctrine is affected” is certainly comforting, but it does not align with the reality that doctrine is affected in both major and minor ways.
To further demonstrate this point the author(s) continue, “Still, even small textual changes become significant when the Gospels are in view… ‘God’s word’ may be quite capable of transcending material texts and therefore also human history, culture, and technology. Nevertheless, major historical shifts have clearly invited material changes to the Gospel texts” (35).
It may be time to approach the works and conclusions of these authorities with careful apprehension when they decide to put God’s Word in quotations when discussing the Holy Scriptures (35).
A Significant Change Since A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield
One of the most significant changes in attitudes towards these Biblical texts is the indisputable fact that almost every text critic believes that the original cannot be found. The pursuit of the original is an antiquated novelty of an idea that is no longer the objective for most scholars in the New Testament scholarly community. “[...] but nineteenth-century scholars asserted that the ‘original’ or ‘authorial’ text was an appropriate and achievable goal” (25). This nineteenth (and even 20th) century pursuit has been largely abandoned and even considered foolish by most of the authorities working in New Testament Text-Critical Scholarship today. That is not to say that some scholars are not attempting to get back to the original, but that is a small voice in the discussion.
Instead, the scholars are looking to the theories of Christian feminist authorities to help them ascertain the historical significance of the PA. “Scholars like Letecia Guardiola-Saenz and George Aichele have challenged readers to reevaluate their desire for canonical and historical authority; in their interpretations, the pericope adulterae is an especially provocative example of the multiplicity, fluidity, and diversity of all meaning claims” (43). The authors then point the reader to a work entitled, “Adultery or Hybridity? Reading John 7:53-8:11 from a Postcolonial Context” where the author puts forth the idea that “the story itself crosses boundaries of race, identity, and gender, opening up the possibility of change” and “challenges the readers to acknowledge the inaccessibility of God’s (final) Word” (Footnote 88).
The time has come and gone when the trusted authorities are the theologians of the faith. They end what I consider to be the prolegomena of the work with this revealing statement:
“This reframing of the story and the issues it raises fits well within a guild that has gradually retreated from both optimistic attempts to reconstruct ‘the original text’ (text critics now prefer to speak of the ‘initial text’ [Ausgangstext] i.e., the ‘text that stands at the beginning of the textual tradition’) and from straightforward claims about ‘the historical Jesus’ … Our interpretation therefore begins not with the search for an original or initial text but with the available textual objects, each of which tells its own story, and with the readings of these distinctive objects by the communities that produced and interpreted them. Texts alone cannot possibly communicate either the full range of investments in gospel stories or their standing as beloved gospel tales, but they can point to the assumptions and priorities of those who copied them” (46).
The abandonment of the pursuit for the original text in exchange for the Ausgangstext is a clear departure from the historical, orthodox view of the Holy Scriptures. Despite what many believing advocates of this methodology might say, Christians need to know that the scholars actually producing Bibles and related materials have abandoned the pursuit of the Divine Original. This was the inevitable outcome of moving from a theological view of the text to an empirical view. If we do not have the originals, then extant copies are the only pieces of data that are relevant, and since those extant copies only date to the third century, that’s as early as scholars are willing to go. Since the earliest data can never be proven to represent the original with a scientific method, the only true observations that can be made about extant manuscripts is what they can tell us about the people who penned them, and what the text looked like in those select extant manuscripts.
It is impossible to assert that John Owen or Francis Turretin would ever have adopted this epistemological framework.
The author(s) present an interesting view on the ability of modern text-critical methods in finding the original. The material extant data can only shed light on the perspectives of the scribes that copied these manuscripts. This is because the scientific method employed by such scholars is ineffective in finding an original, or even proving the authenticity of the PA. They admit as much in the second chapter:
“Prior to fourth century, we simply cannot be certain that the passage was present in John at all. We are therefore left with a conundrum, wanting to know something that cannot be known on the basis of the surviving evidence. Still, of this we can be sure: By the fourth century, two different Gospels of John were circulating, one with the pericope adulterae and one without it” (50).
So they admit that those that support the authenticity of the PA stand on equal empirical grounds as they do, and even though they build a “probable” and “likely” case against it, “probably” and “likely” can be equally employed in the other direction (See resources at the end of this article for more information).
Everybody is a Theologian, Even Scientists and Scholars
The uncertain epistemological starting point of modern textual scholarship is its greatest weakness. They openly admit that while they do not believe the PA to be original to John, they do believe that it was received by the church as canonical - though there is no way of determining, based on their methodology, if the story was original to John or added later. See this valuable quotation by Maurice Robinson:
“The various eclectic schools [of textual criticism] continue to flounder without an underlying history of transmission to explain and anchor the hypothetically ‘best attainable’ NT text which they have constructed out of bits and pieces of scattered readings. In the meantime, the Byzantine priority theory remains well founded and very much alive, despite the orations and declamations which continue to be uttered against it” (34).
To the author(s) credit, they admit that biases are inevitable, “The wide variety of published New Testament texts therefore preserve not only texts but also the deeply held convictions of those who produce them” (35). It is greatly appreciated that the authors, while aiming that comment at those who adopt a Majority Text or Traditional Text position, allow in their analysis for the critique that the modern eclectic view of the text - which also carries with it deeply held convictions that the handful of Alexandrian texts (which do not represent the thousands that we have) are “earliest and best”. As Maurice Robinson aptly commented, that the readings that those texts are propped up on are “bits and pieces of scattered readings”.
All throughout this book, the view that God inspired His Word and preserved it is discussed as a sort of novelty, which is important to note. While this may not represent every scholar in the community, it certainly represents the majority of them. The author(s) do give recognition to the defenders of the PA, however. “It is simply not true that the Textus Receptus is dead, and among those who defend it, the pericope adulterae has always been - and will always be - canonical” (35).
The author(s) of this work on the PA have provided an invaluable contribution to the corpus of literature available on New Testament text-critical studies. They have shown that the opinions of scholars like Chris Keith, Jan Krans, David Parker, Bart Ehrman, and Eldon Epp (xiv) provide the epistemological starting point for all modern text-critical studies to which current scholarship owes its gratitude to. That is not to say that all text critics align theologically on every other issue with these authorities, just that they share the same (or a similar) view of the text. What Christians need to know about the current state of affairs in textual criticism can be summed up in a quote by David C. Parker, who the work is dedicated to:
“The text is changing. Every time I make an edition of the Greek New Testament, or anybody does, we change the wording. We are maybe trying to get back to the oldest possible form, but paradoxically we are creating a new one...There is never a final form of the text.” ( As heard on the BBC program, “The Oldest Bible,” broadcast October 6, 2008. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/theoldestbible/ )
The main idea that I wanted to highlight in this article is that the methods of these textual scholars begin with viewing the text as a purely human product, a window into the kaleidoscopic communities that produced it - and are fine with parts of the text of Holy Scripture being “accidentally lost” (23). The current scholarship has demonstrated that it has long abandoned the pursuit of restoring the original text, and is now meandering through manuscripts attempting to find the “historical Jesus” or simply trying to discover what the extant manuscripts can tell us about the scribes and communities who penned those manuscripts.
At some point, it has to be recognized that the “consistent” methodology of reasoned eclecticism has led scholars to abandon the historical doctrines of Inspiration upon which the entirety of the Christian faith rests (though there are scholars who try to hold the two ideas together). This methodology produces a text that cannot be verified to be original, a text that changes with each new edition in ways that affect doctrine and even the way that people view Scripture itself. The methods of Modern New Testament text-critical scholarship cannot determine what John wrote, nor are most of the scholars who employ these methods attempting to find what he wrote. They are simply commenting on a version of John that existed in the fourth century and are trying to glean insights on the communities that produced that version. The product and methods of this same scholarship is being taught at nearly every major seminary. Christians often get caught in the weeds of defending various readings against a system that is not designed to determine which reading is canonical. What Christians ought to be doing is examining the epistemological starting points of the methods that produce these modern readings.
If the Christian desires to adopt the most consistent methodology, he needs to look at the methodology that is producing Bibles and determine if it is as consistent as it is said to be. He needs to ask if he should really trust men and women who do not believe that the original is even attainable, or if these scholars should be producing their Bibles and their curricula that is taught in seminary.
I will offer a simple solution, which has been unfortunately poisoned time and time again by polemicists, but I assure you that it is a solution that is consistent (and historic) and offers great comfort, especially in light of the direction of modern textual critical scholarship. Christians who firmly believe that a theological method is required for determining the books of the canon of Scripture (As Dr. Michael Kruger has put forth) can take that method, and apply it to the text of Scripture. If God providentially preserved the book sleeves, He also preserved the content within those book sleeves (Mat. 5:18; 2 Tim. 3:16). It is the only consistent methodology in receiving the Scriptures we read as God’s Word. This methodology stands at odds with the idea that the text of Scripture has been lost, and needs to be reconstructed (which the majority opinion of text-critical scholars is that it cannot be reconstructed).
The result of separating the theological view of Canon from the text of Scripture is the continued deconstruction of Scripture by modern methods of textual criticism. If one wishes to truly, consistently defend Scripture in any meaningful way, he must reject the system that produces a new Bible with each edition of the Greek New Testament. One must reject the system that has, by its own admission, not only failed to produce a text, but boldly declares that nobody has ever done so or will do. These are the authorities that say that the Bible doesn’t exist, only “bibles” exist. If the goal is to defend Scripture against Bart Ehrman and other adversaries of the Bible, one must abandon the methodology that agrees with 8.5 out of 9 points made by Bart Ehrman in his book, Misquoting Jesus.
The aim is not to demean those that hold to a reasoned eclectic view of the text, or even those who are conducting scholarship in this field. It is to critique the epistemology of the view itself and to demonstrate that modern text-critical scholarship is not operating on Scriptural theological foundations. And before somebody says it, the reasoned eclecticism of today is completely alien to the textual criticism done in the Reformation period. The obvious fruit of this is a vast difference between the product of the Reformation era and the product of modern efforts. It is like saying that a cobbler and a tailor are doing the same thing because they are both making products people wear. A shoe is different from a shirt, even though they are both stitched together by artisans.
Many Christians have lost their faith in the Scriptures that God has inspired because of modern scholarship and the perspectives they endorse, and flee to neo-orthodox and “Red Letter” views of the text in order to maintain their faith in God altogether. Many of these Christians are simply unaware that there is another, faithful, position available. This is a position that hasn't changed since John Owen and Francis Turretin. This is a position that aligns with the language of the 2nd and 3rd century church fathers who talk about the text that they “received”.
In these trying times of extreme skepticism, Christians ought to know that they do not need to defend a view produced by skeptics and empiricists. These historical critical methods do not provide a valid defense against the Muslim (See MuslimbyChoice on YouTube), or Bart Ehrman. They are used as ammunition by the Muslim and essentially agree with Bart Ehrman. Instead, Christians should be comforted by the fact that God has preserved His Word, and has kept it pure in all ages (WCF/LBC 1.8), and that God will be “with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Mat. 28:20, KJV). Part of this promise is that He will continue speaking to His people (John 10:27-28) by way of His preserved Word (Mat. 5:18; Heb. 1:1-2). Christians should not be afraid to approach the doctrine of Scripture theologically, like they do with every other area of theology.
Rev. Taylor DeSoto
Agros Reformed Baptist Church
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10/10/2022 09:43:11 pm
Away area hear around loss modern sister.
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