What is an original when it comes to the Bible, Part Deux

Aleppo Codex
Aleppo Codex – Courtesy WikiCommons

Last week, we briefly looked at some of the textual difficulties with the Book of Acts and the fact that the early church essentially considered two distinct versions as canonical.  If this was case, how does one decide which recension is the actual inerrant version? This question is frequently answered by saying something to the effect that the differences don’t make any real difference in the meaning. That may or may not be the case and unfortunately, we’ll have to hold off dealing with that until later. Suffice it for now to point out that if it is “the very words,” as stated in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, that are inspired, then the differences do matter. But again, we must hold off dealing with that for a bit.  This week and next we will turn our attention to the Hebrew Scriptures and the difficulties they display in determining an original. Today we will begin by focusing on a brief overview of the earliest groups of textual witnesses.

Methodologically, the problem of determining an original text of the Hebrew Scriptures is distinctly different from that of the New Testament. With the NT, we have many manuscripts (relatively speaking) and fragments of manuscripts written in Greek, sometimes going as far back as the second century. We also have citations from many early Christians to compare to.  With the Hebrew Scriptures, however, outside the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), we have almost nothing older than the 10th century AD (almost 1000 years after Christ!) written in Hebrew.  Two of the oldest relatively complete Hebrew manuscripts we have are Codex Leningradensis and the Aleppo Codex. Both of these come out of what is called the Masoretic tradition, which is the scribal tradition that added vowel points to help with vocalization. (And for whom I and seminary students everywhere are eternally grateful, since without them, learning Hebrew would be extraordinarily more difficult!) These medieval texts are collectively referred to as the Masoretic Text (MT), which is the basis for virtually every English language translation.

Now, we do have manuscripts from much earlier written in Greek, such as those that are part the great uncials, Vaticanus (B) and Sinainiticus (א), dating back to the third or fourth centuries after Christ. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures is usually referred to as the Septuagint (LXX), although technically, the LXX is only the translation of the Pentateuch. However, these are translations, which according to the CSBI, are ruled out, a priori, from being inspired even though they appeared to be treated that way by the NT writers. In fact, it brings up an interesting question in that, how can translations not be inspired when the inspired NT writers relied upon them? A sticky issue for sure! For our purposes, though, what is interesting is that they show clear evidence that the texts have indeed changed, often in small ways, but not always. In fact, there are times where these changes are indicative of distinct versions. And sometimes the small changes end up having profound ramifications. More on that next week.

A final witness to the Hebrew Scriptures is what is known as the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP). While the textual tradition is not so well known, many may be familiar with the Samaritans from the references in the Gospels such as the famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30) or story of the Samaritan Woman (John 4:4).  They were (and still are) a branch of ancient Israelite religion. The most well known divergence between the them and the Jews regards the location of the Temple, which the Samaritans believe God ordained to be on Mount Gerizim (Dt 11:29) as read in their textual tradition. The SP is written in a descendant of paleo-Hebrew script instead of the square script of the MT and is vocalized quite differently than is the Hebrew of the Masoretic tradition as well (although vowel points were not added to the SP tradition). Neither Christians nor Jews have recognized the SP as canonical.

Up until the middle of the last century, the LXX manuscripts were our oldest witnesses to the Old Testament. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran in the 1940s and 50s gave us access to much older witnesses to the Hebrew Scriptures than we’d previously had and many of these were not translations, but written in Hebrew. The discovery literally revolutionized our understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. Additionally, there was a treasure trove of sectarian writings in Aramaic and a few Greek Old Testament manuscripts giving us insights into the theology and culture of the Qumran community. After the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls a more methodical search of caves and excavations was commenced. Excavations at Masada, although much less well known, subsequently uncovered more scrolls (or at least scroll fragments) that can be dated to no later than the fall of Masada in 70AD.

That’s a summary of the main witnesses to what Christians call the Old Testament. Our next post will look at how the text critical issues presented by such diverse witnesses affect how we understand the complications of determining an purported original text.

What are your thoughts about the different manuscript traditions? How does the wide variety of textual witnesses affect your understanding of what Scripture is?

What is an Original? – Part 1

 

4 book of Maccabees (Codex Sinaiticus).jpg

Codex Sinaiticus via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, we looked at problems with considering the very words of the Bible to be inerrant, what is also known as verbal plenary inspiration. This week and next (and maybe beyond) we will get into some of the problems presented by having different texts. In all honesty, looking at this stuff is what started me down the path toward a full-blown faith crises, but I recognize that a lot of people just don’t care that much and I’m fine with that. Please feel free to skip ahead.

The one caveat the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy applies to inerrancy is that it only applies to the originals. Here’s what the CSBI has to say in Article VI.

We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.

First off, a point that is acknowledged by every one is the simple fact that we don’t actually have any originals! Not one. Not even close. At best we have copies of copies of copies (of copies of copies…). So in one sense, referring to purported originals to satisfy any potential problems isn’t very helpful, since we don’t have any of the originals to help arbitrate.  The CSBI attempts to mitigate this in Article X.

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission. The verdict of this science, however, is that the Hebrew and Greek text appear to be amazingly well preserved

Ignoring the very real question of why God would choose to inspire an inerrant original without superintending its transmission, the second question is, just how well does what we have today actually preserve the words of this original. But of course before we can deal with that, we have to deal with what exactly is an original? Now maybe it seems obvious to you what an original, or in somewhat more academic speak, an autographic text, is. But is it?

In some cases it probably is pretty straightforward. For instance, the original of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be the first edition of the book published in 1884. But what about Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist? This was originally a “serial-novel,” meaning it was published in installments. But Dickens was known to also change the earlier chapters as he went along. So, just what is an original in this case? If Oliver Twist were inspired, what would be the original that could be considered inerrant?  Would it be each chapter as it was published? Or would it be the final product, brought together in a single volume, including all the changes? Likewise, what is an original when it comes to the books in the Bible?

So the question becomes, which model fits the individual books of the Bible better, the Huck Finn model or the Oliver Twist model? I am convinced that for most of the Hebrew Scriptures (AKA, the Old Testament or, the First Testament), the Oliver Twist model works better much of the time. In the New Testament, however, many, although not all of the books, seem to follow more along the lines of the Huck Finn model. In saying that, I also recognize that this is disputed among biblical scholars who find multiple sources, especially in the Gospels, as well as in other books. But for the other books, at least, we have very little hard (textual) evidence.

For this post, though, I want to only focus on the textual issues in the book of Acts, in part for brevity and in part, because it highlights the difficulty of identifying an original in one of the New Testament books. To summarize the textual issues with Acts, we have two distinct recensions, or versions, commonly referred to as Western and Alexandrian (Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 222-235; Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary, xviii-xix). The Western text is nearly 10% longer than the Alexandrian text and Comfort describes it as “more colorful and filled with added circumstantial details.” But the changes are not limited to descriptions alone. As Metzger notes, “sometimes the shorter form contradicts the longer form” (Metzger, 225).

There are several theories about how to explain the two distinctive editions we find that circulated in the early Church. One is that the author, who we will call Luke, following tradition, wrote two distinct editions: an earlier one (although it is unclear which recension might actually be earlier) and a later one. If this were the case, then which text should be considered the original? They were both written by Luke. They were both accepted as scripture by the early Church. From the standpoint of the CSBI, we cannot consider both as originals and they contain contradictory details in places (e.g., Acts 21:16), anyways.  Most English Bible translations follow the Alexandrian text, usually considering it the earlier and therefore, superior edition. Some, such as the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) and, to a lesser extent, the New English Bible (NEB), are more heavily influenced by the Western recension.

Other theories have later scribes, maybe even some of Luke’s close colleagues, adding to the text, possibly just after Luke’s death or possibly more than a century after the initial edition. Regardless of the theory, one thing is clear: Both editions circulated widely in the early Church, with some of our oldest papyri as well as such luminaries as Cyprian and Augustine attesting the Western recension, whereas the great uncials (Greek texts in all capital letters – lower case hadn’t been invented, yet) Vaticanus (B) and Sinaiticus (א), our oldest copies of the New Testament, as well as several very early papyri, reflect the Alexandrian text.

My intent here is to highlight that the issue of originals is not straightforward and the CSBI, while appearing to deal with the issue, does so quite inadequately. And from my perspective, this gets far more complicated in the Hebrew Scriptures, which we will look at next week.  For now, though, we’ll leave it at that.

Does the issue of originals concern you? Does the transmission process undermine your confidence in Scripture? Which do you think is the original of Acts? Why?

Leaving Inerrancy

Trying to understand what the Bible is (and is not) frequently becomes a significant stumbling block for many Christians. I know it has been for me. When I was a young Christian, I heard people say things like, “If you can find one error in the Bible, the whole thing is worthless.” Now, after close examination, what’s a believer to do who finally decides that there are several problems and inconsistencies? Well, in short, their faith can all fall apart because if you’ve been taught that the Bible is the core of your faith and has to be inerrant to fulfill that role, there’s little alternative except to either ignore the problem or watch the foundation of your faith crumble. And when it crumbles, do you completely walk away or do you struggle to find a way to rebuild your faith? From my perspective, the problem has to do with how an inerrant Bible is the center of faith for Evangelicals.

What is it about biblical inerrancy that leads Evangelicals and Fundamentalists to say “that to deny it is to set aside the witness of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit and to refuse that submission to the claims of God’s own Word?” At it’s core, it’s a foundationalist claim about what we can know. But when I see how the doctrine of inerrancy is used, it serves more as a shibboleth to determine who is in and who is out. While it is meaningful to those who accept a host of presuppositions, those presuppositions lack evidential support. At least as articulated in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, the presuppositions are simply ungrounded assertions. The purpose of this series will be to look more closely at problems with the doctrine of inerrancy as described in the Chicago Statement and to propose some solutions that better fit the phenomena of the Bible itself.

First off, I should probably let it be known that I’m okay with the idea the Scriptures are the norming norm for the Church. My problem is not necessarily with the Bible, but more with how it’s understood, what exactly it is, and its role in the formation of the faith community and the individuals who inhabit that community.

The place I see the biggest issues with inerrancy, as defined in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and one which I believe undermines inerrancy as a coherent doctrine, begin to show up in article VI.

We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.

There are several questions with this statement. What is meant by “the whole of Scripture?” Who determines what that is? It’s as if there were uniform agreement on which books make up the Bible. Yet Protestants and Catholics disagree on this issue and other Christian communities through history have had a variety of Canons.  If it is the “very words” that are inspired, how do you justify translations? It seems the very act of translation tells us that it’s not the words themselves that are inspired, but, at best, the message they convey. And if the very words are given by God, what does this mean for the author(s) of the biblical books?

Article VIII does nothing to help clarify this.

We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.

What do these two articles logically imply? I find the implication that God dictated the scriptures inescapable. If the “very words” that God wanted written is what’s in the Bible, then how can it be otherwise? And if the very words were God’s words, then how can he not have overridden the author(s) personalities? The answer, which is really nothing more than a fideistic assertion, and a weak one at that, is “The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us.”

In other words: Punt.  The men who drafted the CSBI seem to recognize that this is logically incoherent, but it has to be this way, otherwise they end up with a God who overrides human agency. It also causes problems when there are multiple narratives of the same event and they don’t happen to match up in every detail.  How can this be if the “very words” are what God determined should be written? I’m not saying that we can’t learn about God from these narratives, only that they cause problems for those who hold to this particular doctrine of Scripture.

I will leave off for now, but next week, I want to look at the issue of “the original” and the “autographic text.” There are assumptions regarding what an original is that I don’t believe are consistent with the evidence we have of the phenomena of the Bible, by which I mean how the the texts actually come into being (as opposed to descriptions of phenomena in the Bible).

What roll has the Bible played in your faith? Have you run into problems that you found insurmountable? What were they? What did you do?

A fast from God?

One of the things about the Year without God project is that it really wasn’t a year without God. The center was completely about God. God was the subject of the entire thing. Yes, it was about trying to find out whether this God could still be real for the author. But that’s the thing about so many of these Ex-Christian blogs and books: they still focus on God.  

My question is, what would it be like to have no discussions about God? To not read about God? To not read the Bible? Or pray? Or listen to a sermon? Or write a blog post? To spend a day, a week, a month without doing anything that involves God? What would it be like to essentially fast from God?