So this semester, I am taking an Introduction to New Testament course. This is a 200 level course and I’m pretty excited about it so far (if only because I predict an easy ‘A’). While I anticipate a good grade (I’ve been studying the subject independently for years now and have published on the subject), I have an excellent professor–who is both clever and attentive to the details–and am guaranteed to learn much from her as the course progresses throughout the semester.
The one gripe I have–of course there is always one, right?–is that we are using Bart Ehrman’s The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (5th Edition). Don’t get me wrong, it is an excellent ‘introduction’ book in some respects, especially when dealing with Textual Criticism. For the average student in the class who is only taking the course for kicks, because they think it will reinforce their beliefs, or because they need it as a prerequisite for another course, I imagine it works out just fine as it covers the mainstream view nicely. But it has some factual errors and glosses over too many important details that I feel are rather important. On the plus side, my professor recognizes the books shortcomings.
Anyway, some important subject matter before going forward.
One of the really fantastic things about this class is that it really gives me a new take on exactly what it is that the general person knows about the Bible. As someone who has been involved in academia for going on five years now and who is intricately involved in the Biblioblogging community, it is easy to lose sight over the little things–for example, there are many who still get hung up on how to define ‘manuscript’ or ‘variant’ (something I see as common knowledge). Even New Testament terms like ‘Textual Criticism’ are old hat for me. So being *in a class* and listening to conversations from fellow students (many of whom have not been as involved as I have) is a really important learning experience for me.
Since I am blogging through the class, I should state some general practices of the blog here for the reader so they know where I stand. First, I will not be giving away any test or quiz information about the course (sorry to all the students who will be taking the same class in the years to come). Second, all opinions expressed herein are mine alone. All feedback and comments are welcome, so long as you follow the comment policy.
Now, some thoughts on this past week’s readings and conversations. We started off by reading about Textual Criticism and the state of our current textual evidence. Nothing here is necessarily new to me, but perhaps some of you will enjoy it.
Textual Criticism (briefly defined):
- Textual Criticism is the academic process of analyzing the thousands of variant manuscripts in an attempt to locate the most recent context based upon our manuscript attestation.
Bulleted list of some benefits and problems with Textual Criticism:
- Textual Criticism (TC) plays a big part in our conversations over the next few weeks. It’s very important and, in my mind, supports our understanding of the manner in which the transmission and reception of the New Testament texts occurred throughout the early Christian centuries. But there are some factors that limit TC as a firm and (always) useful methodology.
- We don’t have the autographa. So one has to ask: How accurate are our manuscripts? How can we even begin to answer this question?
- Without the autographa, we have no direct knowledge of what the original texts might have said–or how much was added or removed, or how ‘controversial’ it might have been compared to our accepted textual representation.
- All the current Bible’s are the products of scholarly reconstruction. In other words, the Bible we now possess (or more accurately, the version of the Bible you use) is not ‘the original word of god’ but the result of scholars picking and choosing (voting is often involved) on which particular variant is accepted into the volume. Some variants disagree on rather important details (i.e., whether or not Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ in Lk 23.34–some ancient manuscripts omit this and many believe this was a later addition to the Gos. of Luke; or it may have been removed and then later re-added, but who knows for sure?). So this process can–with the example given in class of Paul writes (or is portrayed to have written) “women must be silent in church”, it’s inclusion or removal from a version can produce an edition of the New Testament that is more suitable for a feminist or more suitable for a misogynist (it is crazy how extremely dichotomous the texts can be, the implications of how this might impact exegesis notwithstanding).
- TC also takes much for granted (i.e., it doesn’t analyze the reasons why a text might have been altered in a specific way, or if it does, it neglects imitatio or reception criticism). The function of the text is lost. For example, the very definition of ‘variant’ presumes a standard by which all other manuscripts have deviated–it implies, essentially, that a variant is ‘wrong’. This, in my humble opinion, is not how ancient texts should be read. “Right” and “wrong”, “standard” and “deviated” are terms that are not helpful, and perhaps should not applied anachronistically. That isn’t to say that anyone in particular is making such an argument (though some do), simply that such language has the context to evoke these sorts of thoughts about the manuscripts. Besides, it is the function of the text that is most relevant to the conversation, since we do not have any of the originals–all we have are the representations of copies of originals and at best that can only give us an understanding of what later Christians valued (certainly not the first ‘Christians’). We can only refer to the books of the New Testament as ‘the version we now have’; this limits our understanding of the history of Early Christianity (to the point where one has to question if we have any evidence of the period at all).
- This also means that using this method to date texts is essentially useless. While we can see how the texts we have were altered and transmitted, what we don’t have is a grounding for the composition of the texts (since, again, we don’t have the originals). How were these texts composed, when, and with what narrative constructions in mind? Was this originally a vocal/oral narrative? If so, how much had that original performance changed in its telling prior to someone writing it down? What was added between its performance form and its written form? Did it start as just a passion play or did it evolve into that? Did the original narrative contain an infancy or birth narrative that is now lost from our version of Mark (probably not, but who knows)? Without answers to these questions, all dating is tentative and even textually it is impossible to know how late or early our Gospels are (though there are many tentative arguments).
- As an example to the above, Mark 13 is used often to date Mark after (or before, depending on your particular theological beliefs) the fall of the Temple since he “predicts” the fall (the argument goes: Mark must have written this in after the destruction of the Temple, after 70 CE, to give Jesus credibility as a prophet). But parts of Mark 13 have already been altered in the manuscript evidence (e.g., 13.14), and our earliest copy of this passage comes to us via the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, dated to the 4th Century (so far as I’m aware). between the time the Gospel of Mark is alleged to have been written to the time we have our earliest extant attestation to this verse, we have roughly 250 years or more. To put that into context, that is almost as long as we have had the Declaration of Independence (approx. 237 years). Between that time there had existed hundreds of competing theologies, vying for a chance to win out over the others. Establishing ones theological framework using texts seemed to have been a common motif during this period, and what better way than to have your variant having a Jesus portrayed as foretelling events. I’m not saying this is certain, or even probable, but it is likely and with no means to compare it to an original how can one use this as a definitive dating of the composition of a Markan Gospel? Certainly we can say, “After 70 CE is when this variant of the text originated” but can we really say that ‘Mark composed his Gospel immediately after 70CE’? I’m not so sure. Even if this fragment were original to the text, there may be a relative function to it (i.e., Jesus may not be predicting the fall of the current Temple but repeating an ancient motif relating to Solomon’s Temple–a thematic element commonly found in the Hebrew Bible). Again, this may be why using TC to date may simply be a waste of one’s time.
Awesome moment of the week: The professor used a stack of paper to demonstrate the variants and where most of the manuscripts fall in a timeline. She set up an impromptu timeline on a desk representing the first four centuries in the Common Era. Using the paper she immediately “discarded” about 90% of it. What she had left she leafed out mostly after the 3rd Century CE and then tore up some sheets and spread a few here and there throughout the second and third centuries. The visual aid was brilliant and clever and I’m sure that anyone in the class who had questions about the manuscript attestation had them solved with this one demonstration. It was very nicely done.
Addendum: ‘Clogging’ = ‘Course Logging’ or ‘Class Logging’.