Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Opening a Can of Worms: The Problems of Textual Criticism

An Introduction to the Problems

Part 1

Recent attacks on Christianity have come from two fronts, namely, the Christological and the textual fronts. Revisionist hypotheses such as Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, attempt to reinterpret the person of Christ and His life. As Christology is intimately intertwined with other salient Christian doctrines, various fundamentals of faith are indirectly affected.

More insidious than this assault upon Nicene Christology is Brown’s egregious denunciation of the historical, biblical canon. This controversy should reasonably be classified under textual and canonical matters, or more specifically, higher criticism. Of late, the subject of lower criticism, also known as textual criticism, has served as fodder for critics of biblical inerrancy.

The arena of textual criticism is, I believe, usually beyond the reach of the rank and file Christian. Consequentially, serious critiques of the text of Scripture, such as Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by North America’s leading textual critic, Bart D. Ehrman, are inevitably difficult for the layman to answer.

Ex-evangelical Dr Ehrman, who once adhered to the inerrancy of Scripture, now questions its veracity in his book Misquoting Jesus:

“How does it help us to say that the Bible is inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes - sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly? What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals!” (Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, page 7.)
Although Dr Ehrman calls himself a “happy agnostic,” and now believes that man simply ceases to exist at death - “like the mosquito you swatted yesterday” - I think his question is a fair one. If what Christians have today is a constantly evolving text called the eclectic text, which is updated every couple of years by textual scholars, is there any practical value in calling the "Bible" inerrant and infallible? In effect, Dr Ehrman is tacitly admitting that: without divine preservation of the original words of Scripture, which is inerrant and infallible, what we have today is a flawed reconstruction of the autographs at best – the demise of which is admitted by every textual scholar.

Tragically, Dr Ehrman’s conclusions are the logical deductions of modern textual criticism. And he is definitely not alone when he claims that the autographs are irrecoverable. Dr Ehrman is simply reiterating the sentiments of various textual critics. Renowned textual critic, F.C. Conybeare, commented in 1910, “The ultimate text, if there ever was one that deserves to be so called, is forever irrecoverable.” (History of New Testament Criticism, p. 129). Again, in 1947, R.M. Grant said, “ . . . it is generally recognized that the original text of the Bible cannot be recovered.” (“The Bible of Theophilus of Antioch,” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 66, page 173).

The naturalistic theory of textual criticism explains that the autographs were lost or destroyed since antiquity, and the only way to reconstruct the autographs is via an indeterminate process of manuscript collation and emendation. According to the Westcott and Hort theory, the oldest manuscripts - which are allegedly closest to the autographs - were only rediscovered in the 19th century. Despite losing these manuscripts for almost 1900 years, the Church has finally recovered these Alexandrian manuscripts, which are nevertheless imperfect. The collation of Greek manuscripts and emendation of the eclectic text for the last few centuries had produce an ever-changing Bible for Christians. Nevertheless, this Bible is still evolving towards a better text, which ought to be closer to the autographs, although it never will be an exact replica of the originals.

To be continued in Part 2

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