Thursday, January 8, 2009

New Insights on Text Criticism

Every once in awhile, I'll refresh myself as to what's going on in New Testament textual criticism, the attempt to understand the history and development of texts of New Testament documents. Just this week I encountered one of the most intimidating scholarly works I've ever seen, James R. Royse, Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri (New Testament Tools, Studies and Documents 36; Brill, 2008 -- 1051 pages, $369.00!!!). That's right; three hundred sixty-nine bucks.

Needless to say, this is a book I scanned rather than read, but it's a book that offers two important claims. Each claim contradicts the way I was taught to do text criticism back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and each is plausible.

First, a little background. This book is so huge because it involves an intense study of the six earliest NT manuscripts available in papyrus (not the little fragments, but major manuscripts), some of the most ancient witnesses to the transmission of the NT texts. As an index of the kind of research involved consider this: the chapter on papyrus 46 is over 160 pages long and has 866 footnotes.

Here are the two claims. First, almost all of us were taught that scribes are more likely to add material to their source manuscript (Vorlage) rather than omit material. After all, with sacred texts, wouldn't scribes be reluctant to lose any material at all? A good example might be John 7:39. The original probably read, "Now he [Jesus] said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified" (NRSV). But some manuscripts read, "Now he [Jesus] said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet the Holy Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified." Since the first reading did not conform to emerging orthodoxy (the Holy Spirit is eternal), so some scribes rendered it doctrinally harmless with a longer phrase.

Royse shows that the earliest scribes, usually accidentally, omitted material far more often than they added it. Therefore, we should offer good reasons when we judge a longer reading to be more ancient than a shorter one. Such good reasons would include conforming a text to its parallels within the New Testament or theological considerations -- as in the example above.

Second, scholars have long noted that some scribes harmonized one Gospel story to its parallels in other Gospels. Modern translations of Mark 10:7 will include footnotes that show how scribes conformed this verse to the language in Matthew 19:5 and Genesis 2:24. Back in the day, we were trained to consider variant readings of certain passages with possible parallels in the canon.

Royse shows that the earliest scribes were far more concerned to harmonize passages to their immediate literary contexts rather than to parallels from other texts. To be honest, I have no idea how that insight will play out for practical textual criticism, at least where clear harmonization to parallel passages has occurred. At the same time, additional sensitivity to immediate context may resolve some questions. One classic case is 1 Thessalonians 2:7, where it is unclear whether Paul describes himself and his colleagues as gentle or as infants. Prior to 2:7, Paul describes his innocence (thus, "infants"), but later in 2:7-8 Paul compares his ministry to the work of a nurse (thus, "gentle").

Though this book is new, Royse's work has been known to text critics for a long time. I'm eager to see what the reviews make of it.