Wednesday 4 April 2012

Comparing NA27 SBL WH and other Critical Editions

As part of my research to produce our exegetical commentary on the New Testament variants, I have culled from my overview of the textual tradition information allowing me to compare 10 Greek critical editions to each other on the basis of their texts of 1 Peter 1. This comparison is likely to be expanded to include all five chapters. This is a work in progress; suggestions and corrections are welcome.

Comparison of 10 Greek Critical Editions

Monday 30 January 2012

Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament Textual Tradition

The Center for New Testament Textual Studies is producing an exegetical commentary on the variants in the New Testament textual tradition. For more information about CNTTS:

Most Bible students are familiar with commentaries on the New Testament. Sometimes these commentaries will mention variants and comment on why they are not original, giving a short version of the kind of information that can be found in Metzger's Textual Commentary on the New Testament. However, most commentaries, including Metzger's, do not discuss the actual meaning of the variants--they usually only discuss the reason for taking the reading to be a variant rather than the original text.

What our free on-line commentary will do is to explain the meaning of the variant. Even though a given reading might be patently non-original, early and medieval Christians may not have known that it was non-original. Our commentary will explain how they interpreted their text as it occurred in their copies of the Bible.

The on-line commentary is designed for inquisitive Sunday School teachers and ministers who are well educated but may not know Greek. However, we also anticipate a version for specialists as well. Through interactive links to additional information, we anticipate that inquisitive Bible students will grow in their understanding of Greek grammar and textual criticism if they regularly consult our commentary.

The format is being developed by a professional web developer. At the end of the article, follow the link to a sample of my raw data. Here's an explanation of my own format.

I put four English translations of a given verse in four parallel columns. Underneath, in parallel rows, I list the Greek text of 10 different critical editions. The 10 rows of Greek are not meant to intimidate the non-Greek user. Rather, since the words are lined up in parallel to each other, even non-Greek users will see that in almost every case, all 10 Greek editions are very, very similar.

This has an apologetic value. In an era when some scholars claim that there are so many variants that we can never hope to reconstruct the original text, the 10 rows indicate a huge amount of agreement by various scholars ranging over the last 150 years. If the textual tradition is as hopelessly convoluted as some scholars say, then why is there so much agreement between the critical editions?

After the text of the 10 critical Greek editions, I give an overview of the textual tradition. I cite the number of manuscripts that have been checked for the given verse (for 1 Peter, there are about 150 Greek manuscripts). Then I indicate how many of them have the same exact wording as our most commonly used critical Greek edition, NA27. I also indicate how many variation units are found in the textual tradition, with additional details on how well these variation units are supported.

The overview includes inferences from the textual tradition on what elements in the original text may have been problematic for scribes to copy accurately. Additionally, differences in the textual tradition are identified as reflecting stylistic alterations, theologically or pastorally  motivated alterations, or alterations for other reasons.

The overview usually concludes with a comment stressing that the textual traditions is free of wild divergences, and that there is insufficient evidence to hypothesize a text significantly different from that of NA27. Again, this emphasizes the commentary's support of Christian apologetics.

After the overview, the "meat" of the commentary is found in the next section which discusses those variants which differ in meaning from the text found in NA27. The vast majority of textual variants do not affect meaning, and this is evident in that any given verse will have 20 or more different readings, but only 2 or 3 merit discussion in the commentary. Again, note the apologetical value.

In an attempt to make the commentary more user-friendly to non-specialists, where possible I have avoided Greek words in the discussion column (column 3) of the commentary section. I do include them in the initial column of the commentary section, but even here they are de-emphasized by their gray color. The second column provides a list of manuscripts which support a given reading. In the final version, I anticipate that users can click on any manuscript that will link the user to a short biography of the manuscript; for now, I have put footnotes on the manuscripts in which a poorly supported reading is found.

This pdf version includes our internal data. These include all the readings which were not mentioned in the commentary section. I cite the reasons why these readings were excluded from the commentary.

I am looking for feedback to make this project better. In particular, I would like to hear your assessment on how usable it might be for well-educated non-specialists who are inquisitive students of the Bible--such as the one or two Sunday School teachers in your church who put some serious effort into studying their lesson.

Text in blue are meant to be hyperlinks to more detailed explanation; these are not yet functional.

Link: Exegetical Commentary on the Textual Tradition of 1 Pet 1:12

Friday 10 June 2011

Scribes Didn't Make as Many Mistakes as Some Suggest

I am sometimes surprised at where there is little or no variation in the New Testament Greek manuscript tradition. In preparing the CNTTS exegetical-textual commentary, I came across two such examples in 1 Pet 3.

Continue to read at Evangelical Textual Criticism.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Reliability of the New Testament Text and Pastoral Concerns

We have about 5800 New Testament Greek manuscripts. However, if everyone of these were suddenly obliterated, we could reconstruct the New Testament from the early versions with considerable confidence. For example, we have about 15,000 Latin manuscripts.

I myself specialize in Coptic manuscripts. If I only had access to the New Testament in Coptic, none of my theology would change an iota, and none of the story of Jesus would change either.

I sat in on the Classics and Divinity combined PhD seminar at Cambridge one day. A paper was being presented on the neo-Platonic philosophers. They were discussing the nature of the soul as taught by these philosophers of late antiquity. I could hardly refrain from laughter as the other students made confident assertions about the beliefs held by third century philosophers such as Plotinus and Porphyry, as if the manuscript tradition were indisputable and rock solid. In reality, we have so few manuscript copies of their works (perhaps a handful)--and the few that we have are separated from them by a 1000 years and more, and perhaps only available in a secondary translation. The New Testament manuscript tradition is incredibly rich by comparison.

I don't want to exaggerate the strength of the New Testament manuscript tradition. For example, only about 15% of Matthew's Gospel is attested by manuscripts of the second and third centuries. But even so, we have good evidence of a strict line of transmission from the fourth century to the second century. My own PhD thesis strengthens this conclusion significantly.

There have been some influential works written lately which undermines the reliability of the New Testament textual transmission. These books are being assigned in colleges, and many college students are being led to the conclusion that we can't trust the Bible because we don't have the original manuscripts. Pastors are often woefully inadequate in responding to our college students, and I'd like to do what I can to support pastors and our college students facing such skeptics in the university.

Friday 27 May 2011

Translation of the Lord's Prayer from an Early Coptic Manuscript

I have just submitted my PhD thesis. The thesis dealt with an early (4th century?) Coptic manuscript. Here is a literal translation of the Lord's Prayer from the manuscript. Note that the long form of the Lord's Prayer (for thine is the kingdom, glory, and power) developed later as a befitting conclusion to the prayer and was not a part of the original text of Matthew's Gospel.

As for you, therefore, it is in this way that you should ask:

Our Father in heaven, may your name be hallowed. May your kingdom come to us. That which you will, may it be; as it is in heaven, may it be done upon the earth. Give us our bread of tomorrow today. Forgive our debts in the way that we, for our part, are forgiving the ones indebted to us. Do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us [lit., you certainly shall deliver us] from evil.

Monday 8 December 2008

Marty Foord on Theology of Canon

My good friend, scholar, and all around good guy Martin Foord of Trinity Theological College, Perth Australia ( shared some thoughts and interacted with us Tyndale House Text and Canon members on the theology of Canon today.

The issue is how do we know which books should be in the Bible. Marty set the discussion in the context of polemics with Roman Catholics and those of the Orthodox faith who claim a different set of books than Protestants, and for different reasons. This is an important and difficult question. One of our members is from a Greek Orthodox tradition and is constantly having to defend herself against traditionalist in her country who perhaps even accuse her of being a heretic for denying Apocryphal books such as 1 and 2 Maccabees or Judith, etc. Thus, one must ask, How does a person properly argue for the 66 books?

Marty’s basic method in answering the question is to ask, “What does the Bible say about itself?” Sure, 2 Tim 3:16 says that the Bible is inspired, etc., but nowhere does the Bible say that these 39 Old Testament books are in, and these 27 New Testament books are in, but the others are out. However, Marty argues that the Bible does say some things about what books are authoritative and which are out.

Marty’s primary text is John 17 which speaks of Jesus sending the 12 into the world, and having been taught his word. This is bolstered by such passages as Eph 2:20 which refers to God’s household being built on a foundation laid by the apostles, and the passages in the Pauline letters which refer to Paul’s associates as his fellow apostles who co-author the letters.

This is strongly connected to the notion of apostolicity as the basis for what books should be in the canon. If an apostle wrote the book, Marty argued, it should be included in the canon since Jesus says that he has sent the apostles and given them his Word.

Marty seems to reject a closed-canon concept. He says that every generation should reconsider which books are in the canon. He suggested that should a lost letter of an apostle be found, we should, by all means, add it to the Bible, bringing us 67 books.

One of the tests of apostolicity of a book pending consideration is how well it fits with the other apostolic books. If it doesn’t fit what the apostles otherwise say, then it must not have been written by an apostle.

In regard to the Old Testament, Marty argued that since we don’t know the history of the development of the Old Testament Canon, then we should be content to accept the 39 books. When pressed if we should accept the 39 Old Testament books (and not the expanded list of the Catholics and Orthodox), Marty suggested that we must not follow the leading of the Judaism of late antiquity; Jesus condemned those religious leaders for their every evil word. Instead, we must accept the Old Testament which the apostles used.

There were many loose ends, and a number of questions seem obvious. First, I’m not entirely certain that John 17 has much to say about apostolicity. Second, we can only say that the author of Hebrews might have been closely associated with Timothy—but perhaps there is reason to think that Timothy may have lacked certain aspects of apostolic authority; and so we can only conclude that the author of Hebrews was a friend of someone who might have been an apostle. Third, I’m not sure that everything that every apostle ever said or wrote was inspired; maybe the lost Corinthian letter was not divinely preserved simply because God did not inspire it. Fourth, the criteria that an apostle’s writing must not conflict with other apostolic books ends up being circular; plus, what about all the “contradictions” in the Synoptic accounts—perhaps Luke should be out of the canon on the basis that the torn veil is a pre-mortem event while in Matt and Mark it is a post-mortem event? Fifth, the apostolic writings don’t confirm all 39 of the Old Testament books; for example, Esther and Ecclesiastes would be out.

Much more could be said. I’m not sure how all this works out. I am pretty happy with Marty’s assertion that canon is closely connected with apostolicity. I do, however, like the concept that over the first several centuries the church was led by the Spirit into a consensus of which books should be included. Unfortunately, this does make the Old Testament a bit trickier since the Apostles seemed to like the Septuagint text better than the Hebrew text, and by implication, would include the books of the Apocrypha.

Ultimately, we’re still struggling to work all this out. I don’t think we have any pat answers here. But Marty’s connection of canon to apostolicity is important, and he provided us with considerable stimulation. I look forward to future discussions.

Inerrancy, "Contradictions," and God's Perfect Text

My prior blog on inerrancy prompted a question regarding the two accounts of Jairus' daughter. Mark 5:23 has Jairus saying that his daughter was near death, whereas Matt 9:18 has him saying that she was dead. How then can the text be inerrant in the face of such blatant contradiction.

There are so many "contradictions" of this sort in the Gospels. My favourite is the ripping of the veil. In Matthew and Mark, it comes consequent to Jesus' death, while in Luke, it precipitates Jesus' death. In such cases, we moderns are prone to impose our concept of exactitude onto the text, as if the disciples set themselves staged on the two scenes with atomic clocks awaiting to see whether the veil ripped first or Jesus' death occurred first, with wireless walkie talkies to communicate the results.

But I think inerrancy allows for such inexactitudes. If you ask me what time it is, I respond, 8:15, when in fact it might be 8:17:04.

The case of Jairus' statement is a little different. Is Matthew allowed to telescope past Mark's detail of the process of Jairus first saying that his daughter was sick and then consequently being informed of her death? I think so. If I were telling the story and wanted to pare it down to its essentials while maintaining good literary form, would I be allowed to change Jairus' words in order to get to the main point that she was dead? I think so--at least by ancient standards. I think if you asked a first century Jew if Matthew or Mark were mistaken in their reports, I think they would say "No."

In the case of the disparities in the ripping of the veil, Matt and Mark's presentation emphasises a theology of judgment: Israel just killed God's Son, and judgment and destruction is consequently inevitable. In contrast, Luke's presentation emphasises the vindication of Jesus: Jesus cried, "Into your hands, I commit my spirit," and God opens the veil in order to welcome him into the heavenly Holy of Holies.

I'm not sure if there are any theological motivations behind Matt's presentation of the Jairus' story. He may have modified it for literary reasons. Matt constantly reduces Mark's story down to the essentials for literary effect. The process will inevitably produce the kinds of inconcinnities as we find in this pericope.

Ultimately, we must ask, "Is the text exactly the way that God wanted it to be?" By faith, I reply, "Yes."