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An Interesting Conversation About Textual Criticism

November 6th, 2012
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Recently, as I mentioned in this post, Dr. Jeff Kloha at Concordia Seminary posted an interesting article about the latest edition of the standard version of the Greek New Testament, the Nestle-Aland edition, now in its 28th edition. In the footnotes of this book are indicated all the little minor differences we find between the myriad of copies of the Greek New Testament. In not a single instance does any of these textual “variants” change anything the New Testament teaches.

Here is the dialogue that resulted when I responded to Dr. Kloha’s article, which I think you may find helpful and interesting. And, as always, thanks for overlooking some of my typos, etc.

  • I’m looking forward to Dr. Kloha’s further articles on the NA28. I am not sure I can part with my trusty NA used throughout college, seminary, etc. recovered, et. Glad to hear of the online options.

    The “Nestle-Aland” text is the one most frequently used by students, pastors and scholars. It provides a large amount of data in the footnotes indicating minor textual differences, called “variants” that exist between the various copies of the original documents of the NT, known as the “autographs” — none of which we have, of course.

    Some would use this reality to propose that somehow we have an uncertain, unreliable or shaky knowledge of what the New Testament actually contains. Not true at all. Anytime you hear anyone using the matter of textual variants to dispute or try to refute the doctrine of inspiration or inerrancy you need to know you are dealing either with a person who has no real awareness of what he speaking about, or, as is sadly more often the case, a flat-out liar trying to deceive you.

    Keep in mind that there is not an iota (see what I did there?) of Christian doctrine that depends on, or is contradicted by, a textual variant.

    In spite of the myriad of textual variants, we do in fact have a reliable text of Holy Scripture.

    Ironically, it is perhaps the text of the NT for which there is more attestation than any other document from the ancient Greek/Roman era.

    It would be dangerous to suggest that there is some vast distinction between the form of the text and the material brought forward by the text (forma and materia). So, while our confidence is in the material content of the texts we do have we can also be confidence that God in His providential care for His Church has allowed us to have, to this day, the form of the texts that he gave by plenary, verbal inspiration, inerrantly, to those penmen who were moved along by the Holy Spirit, writing the very God-breathed words that the Lord wants us to have and to know.

    Therefore the faithful can know that the text of the NT is not some sort of obscure, hidden text that finally can only be trusted to the extent that the latest and greatest version of a critical edition like the NA makes available every few decades.

    Also, I also caution folks not to get caught up in rather foolish speculations about the canonical authority of those texts the Church has always received, for instance, speculations that, for example, the Book of Acts perhaps should not be counted among the homolegoumena, should be put into that category of ideas that, as my friend Jim Voelz likes to say, “Makes for an interesting journal article, but is wrong.”

    • Jeff Kloha says:

      Thanks for the comment. This essay, and the comment by Rev. McCain, was cross-posted on concordiatheology.org, though the comment has slight variations. I’m not sure which version of the comment was the “original text” and which was the copy, so I’ll leave the same reply on each site.

      A few thoughts in reaction:

      1) When I’ve given presentations on the text of the NT to lay audiences, which I’ve done on many occasions, I find that they do not need things “simplified”; they are well aware of the issues and appreciate careful presentations that are honest with the challenges and realities of the history of the text. In fact, I use virtually the same presentation for a lay audience that I do for pastors. So, indeed, we do not wish to cause any doubt. But I’ve found that the best way to avoid causing doubt is to be as thorough and clear about the manuscript situation and the textual problems as possible.

      2) The comment raises issues about how we express the authority of the Scriptures in light of the differences in the manuscripts. I hope that we as Lutherans can have some helpful conversations about the way that we express this (though I’d doubt that an internet forum is the best place for that to happen). I’m not entirely convinced that using Aristotelian and Thomistic categories of “Material” and “Formal” are helpful; these categories are not used in the early fathers when discussing the authority of the text, nor are the found in the Reformation period or in the Lutheran Confessions. I suspect that we’ll be better served if we reinvestigate the way that our early fathers viewed the authority of the text, because they were dealing with a similar phenomenon of text that we now have: Rather than the seemingly fixed, immutable, printed text known to the post-Reformation and Modernist church, we today have a transient transmission of the text, much like the Reformation and early church had. In any case, I was hoping to elicit conversation, and thank you for offering your thoughts. I hope the discussion continues in a helpful manner.

      3) I understand why you introduce language like this: “God in His providential care for His Church has allowed us to have, to this day, the form of the texts that he gave by plenary, verbal inspiration, inerrantly, to those penmen who were moved along by the Holy Spirit.” However, this is precisely the question: Which of the thousands of manuscripts, printed editions, translations, etc. carries, precisely, the plenary, verbally inspired, inerrant text? Does the authority of the Scriptures rest solely on having possession of such a text? And, are these the only alternatives available to us: 1) “we have the absolutely perfect wording of the text as left by the penmen” or b) “we have nothing”? I think those are false alternatives, and neither alternative accurately or faithfully addresses the situation of the text.

      4) Acts is antilegomena? Who’s smoking crack?

  • Just a couple follow ups to Dr. Kloha’s remarks. Yes, the textual transmission of these comments is a bit uncertain, no doubt a critical edition might be helpful, but for now…

    The major point I was attempting to make is that while we definitely both can, and should, explain the fascinating subject of textual criticism to the laity, we must never leave them with the impression that we do not have a NT text that is uncertain due to the myriad of variants. And in so doing create the impression that finally we need to try to figure out what might be the closest to the original so that we can finally know what the NT is trying to teach. I do think it is critical to assert, from the very start, that there are no textual variants that alter any point of doctrine and that the text, in spite of variants, is more than adequate for establishing sedes doctrinae. We must take never to lapse back into creating a chasm between “the Word” and “the inscripturated Word.” Those were not good days for our church body. I say no more.

    And, I do think it is worth pointing out how NT text is perhaps the one text from antiquity for which we have the greatest manuscript attestation. And I would also respectfully disagree that we can not point out the providential care of God for His church in providing the text of the Bible that we do have and use today.

    And finally, I would encourage Dr. Kloha to reconsider the very useful distinction between materia and forma, used quite brilliantly by Lutheran Orthodox dogmaticians to set apart Lutheran Biblical interpretation from competing views, used to make clear that in whatever form the Word comes, as long as it is based on that authoritative text of the Sacred Scripture, it is delivering the “goods” whether it be in a sermon, hymn, etc.

    And of course, Dr. Kloha knows that I never suggested we have today a “perfect wording of the original text from the original penmen.” But, on the other hand, we do have a perfectly useful and adequate and certain text from which we do draw our doctrine. We never want to suggest in any way, shape or form, otherwise. I’m sure he would agree.

  • Jeff Kloha says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, and the tone.

    Just one comment to the comment: We are trying to accomplish the same thing, that is, to allow the Scriptures to do the work of the Spirit, without causing doubt and uncertainty. Whether we need to defend the Scriptures by articulating one specific way of defining that authority is where I think we differ. And, given recent history, by failing to provide our congregations with an adequate way of understanding the authority of the text in light of the uncertainty of the text and canon (Misquoting Jesus, Gospel of Judas, Davinci Code, etc.), we have allowed uncertainty to creep in.

    This is where I’d like some conversation, where you say: “we must never leave them with the impression that we do not have a NT text that is uncertain due to the myriad of variants. And in so doing create the impression that finally we need to try to figure out what might be the closest to the original so that we can finally know what the NT is trying to teach.” It is the terminology that concerns me. The “text” is actually “uncertain.” That cannot be denied. Is it so uncertain that the voice of the Shepherd is lost? No, and this is where we might point out the ancient attestation of the text (though, of course, we all wish we had far more manuscripts from the earliest period). It is not a “clincher” argument, and, in its limited way, is helpful.

    But rather than talking generalities, a good “test case” is the ending of Mark. What do we do with that, and how does that reflect our view of the authority of the text? Luther used Mark 16:16 as a sedes doctrinae for Baptism in the Small Catechism. He did not, nor did anyone of his day, know of any manuscript or patristic evidence that would call that passage into question, nor that there were other “endings” to Mark. We now can be as confident as we can with any other major textual question that Mark 16:9-20 was not written by the same person who wrote what we now call Mark 16:9-20, nor for that matter di that person write the “Intermediate Ending” of Mark nor the various combinations and permutations of those endings (there are actually at least five different endings in the manuscript tradition). So, in this case, a sedes doctrinae is called into question by a textual problem. Now, other passages in Scripture teach that baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation, so the teaching itself is Scriptural (indeed, there are passages that teach these things perhaps more clearly than does Mark 16:16), but should we use that passage (Mark 16:16) as a sedes doctrinae? I would suggest not, that we do in fact want to distinguish the words of God from the words of men if indeed those words have been added to the scriptural text. A parallel example is where Luther himself specifically rejected the use of the comma Johanneum as a sedes doctrinae in 1 John 5 because he did not think they were written by the Apostle, even though those words were common in Latin manuscripts and editions and in later printed editions of the Greek NT. He did not translate that text in either of his editions of the German Bible. So, I will respectfully disagree with the statement that it is *incorrect* to say that “we need to try to figure out what might be the closest to the original so that we can finally know what the NT is trying to teach.” If we believe in the authority of the Scriptures, I think that we are required to do exactly that.

    The church long before Lutheran Orthodoxy was able to hear the voice of the Shepherd in the Scriptures, even though they knew full well that their hand-made copies were different from one another. They certainly tried, to best of their skill and knowledge, to “figure out what might be closest to the original.” There are numerous discussions of specific textual problems in Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius, Jerome, Augustine, etc., etc. In fact, in Augustine’s De doctrina christiana, his hermeneutics treatise, he says specifically, “The first task of the interpreter is the correction of the copies, so that the uncorrected ones give way to the corrected ones.” It is not just modern-day critics who know that there is an uncertain text. And the early church and the Reformation was able to teach faithfully even though there was textual uncertainty. So, I do think that we might find helpful (better?) ways of describing the authority of the text in the Reformation and early church.


  • Dr. Kloha, I too appreciate this conversation and welcome the chance to clarify.

    “The “text” is actually “uncertain.”

    Perhaps you and I are using the word uncertain in a different way, in fact, I think I’m quite certain we are using uncertain differently.

    When I speak of certainty in this context, I’m speaking of certainty that the teaching of the New Testament, drawn from the very text itself, is not uncertain because of textual variants. That is, there is no doctrine from the NT that is cast into doubt because of the various variant readings, which are, as I’m sure you would agree, in the overwhelmingly vast majority of the cases, in fact, minor in a major way, if you will.

    You are coming at it, perhaps, if I’m understanding you correctly, from the position that in fact the study of textual variants does present us with changes in word order, or verbal forms, or things added, or things taken out, and so, in that sense, I can see how you are asserting that the text is uncertain.

    Even in the examples you cite, can we say that due to what is perhaps the most “notorious” textual variant (rare indeed, to be sure) that regardless of which ending is “most original” we have nowhere else in the NT which would establish the doctrine covered there? Or likewise in the other infamous example you cite, again, a rarity when viewing all the variants we are considering, changes or alters the doctrine of the Holy Trinity? I think not. That’s my point.

    So, perhaps we would each want to be establish precisely what is certain or uncertain about the text.

    In other words, perhaps I find manuscript differences in different historical transmission of Caesar’s commentary on the Gallic wars (Commentarii de Bello Gallico), and since I have no hope of ever having the actual autograph from the pen of Caesar himself, I have to rely on copies, which have differences.

    Is the text therefore “uncertain” in the sense that we can not be certain we know what Caesar would have had us know and understand from the text? No. Is it uncertain in the sense that we can not have in our hands a text that we can all agree is precisely what Caesar himself wrote? Certainly so.

    In other words, in spite of variants, is it no longer to be certain that Caesar did write that all of Gaul is divided into three parts?

    Did he say: Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres or did he write Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est. Does that “textual variant” change anything that is asserted in that text? No, I do not think so.

    Similarly, that’s how I regard the study of textual variants in the New Testament.

    I hope that offers some clarification of what I’m trying to assert here, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify my own thinking on these things.

    I’m looking forward to your further ruminations on this issue in your forthcoming articles on NA 28.

    Cordially, in Christ,

  • A final thought, Dr. Kloha, and I certainly do not mean to drag this out any further, but here are some thoughts I’ve had whenever I again take up some study of textual criticism, which I personally find utterly fascinating, and I’m grateful for NA28.

    I’m glad someone investigates all of this but I cannot personally or professionally get stirred up about it. If one reads canonically—Scripture interprets Scripture—worry about the variants evaporates. If one reads like a splitter, then no text is safe. I am concerned that the way you frame these issues might come off as a sort of “splitter” modality, which I do not find is helpful.

    I guess I would ask whether any of this moves the Lutheran Church away from the ancient practice of Scripture interpreting Scripture.

    Do the variants observed make the canon less canonical for us?

    Do they change or alter any doctrine of the Church, which the Church must always draw from the text proper as the norma normans?

    Respectfully, and cordially, in Christ,

  • Jeff Kloha says:

    Well, since you don’t get stirred up about textual criticism, Paul, I’ll get stirred up for you, so you don’t have to worry about it. We all bear our own, unique, burdens.

    I think we’ve clarified quite a bit here. We do need to make a distinction between “wording of the text” and “the dogma of the church” (to use Sasse’s preferred phrase). The creedal teaching transcends any single passage (and, as a result, any single textual problem). So, no, textual criticism does not affect, in a major way, any single “doctrine,” but it does affect which passages we use to teach those doctrines. Is that fair?

    It follows, then, that arguing that “the text is certain” and “doctrine is certain” are two different arguments, and each rests on different claims and evidence. Is that fair?

    No need to reply, I just don’t understand this question: “Do the variants observed make the canon less canonical for us?”

    I don’t know if it is what you refer to as “splitting” or not, but your example from Caesar is an example of a change that pretty much does not matter. The “meaning” is the same, though the “text” is different. But, I think we can agree that the ending of Mark, 1 John 5:7-8, and other less significant textual problems do, quite often, affect the exegesis of a passage, and as a result what we may teach from that passage (emphasis on “what we teach from that passage”; I did not say, as noted above “affect doctrine”). For example, in John 1:18 is Jesus the unique Son or the unique God? The difference between those two is a single word, but the exegesis of that passage, and hence the teaching drawn from it, will be different. But, whether or not Jesus is the Son of God does not rest on that textual decision. Is that fair?

    But, your previous comment (10:52am) sounds pretty much like what I would say, so its good that we’ve had a chance to clarify.

    I don’t want to throw textual criticism entirely under the bus, though. Take, for example, issues regarding the role of women in public worship. There is a significant textual variant at 1 Cor 14:34-35; another at Romans 16:7; another at Gal 3:28-29. All those are critical for discussion of this issue. So, I’ll keep working at this stuff, just in case . . .

  • Thanks, Dr. Kloha, I certainly do not wish to give the impression I’m overly critical of textual criticism, but as Dirty Harry wisely pointed out “textual criticism has got to know its limitations” … at least that’s what I remember him saying, or something like it.

    Thanks for the exchange.

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  1. Joanne
    November 6th, 2012 at 15:25 | #1

    Textual criticism is a good and useful tool when done from below the Biblical texts, and bad when done from above the text, as one who knows more than the authors, or to prove a new or false understanding.

    Textual criticism needs to be done with all works that we have in multiple editions, even English novelists. I worked once in the LSU rare book room where scholars were doing just that with Tristram Shandy. We collected exhaustively on any and all pre-20th century English novelists, though this was not our primary collection. No two editions were/are the same, something even slightly different can indicate a real or a fake publication in London or Dublin, no matter what is on the “lying ?” title page.

    We understand that only the autographs (the hand written copies of the originals) carried the initial promises of inspiration and inerrancy, but not the copies. We don’t have a promise anywhere that the copyists were verbablly inspired and inerrant. But we do have the promise of the Holy Spirit that we do have the words of God, that he protects from copy to copy to give us the teachings and the message he has and is giving in the texts, even the errant copies. Man cannot sustain perfection, even our weak efforts to keep variants is caused by sin. Yet the Holy Spirit maintains that you have what you need to do and know in the texts that you do have.

    And the strongest help we have is the memory of the church. Since God and his Word never change, and it’s parts agree with each other, and we have built-in redundance (information theory), we know a new or false teaching right away because it is new, or a change from that received, or has already been refuted in every century for almost 1900 years. Ceasar’s work on the criminal genocide of the celtic Gauls would be about 80 years older.

    Through redundance, the sin and inadequacies of the copyists, we get a great ratio of text to noise. And, we have the Holy Spirit guaranting that He is controling that ratio to give us the pure Word of God. It’s a faith thing. The reduncancy is necessary to get through our sins and imperfections.

    Textual critism from below with the Holy Spirit equals the pure Word of God in some noise.
    Textual critism from above without the Holy Spirit equals the word of men. You can do Ceasar’s writing this way, but you have no help from God to ever get the pure word of Julius Ceasar, the Gaul slayer. And isn’t it highly likely that he made mistakes himself while writing or dictating these entries on the atrocious genocide. Did prudery in later editions leave out some of the bloodletting?

    • November 6th, 2012 at 21:05 | #2

      The point that Dr. Kloha has not acknowledged is that textual criticism changes not a single point of doctrine drawn from the TEXTS of the New Testament. I hope he comes around on this point.

  2. November 7th, 2012 at 13:12 | #3

    I am certainly glad that no major doctrine hangs on a textual variant and I really appreciate the ESV. On the other hand, I wonder if we have moved away from the historic Christian position by placing so much authority in original autographs that nobody has. The confessions that came out of the Reformation seemed to place authority in a text that people actually have. It really wasn’t until Warfield’s battle with liberalism that Christians who find their roots in the Reformation began to appeal to the authority of the inerrant autographs (that nobody has) in place of the infallible apographa (infallible manuscripts that we do have). Warfield would appeal to the autographs when there was an apparent contradiction in the text. Since nobody has the autographs nobody could prove him wrong. But this approach taken to its logical conclusion could also result in things like the Jesus Seminar. It seems to me that authority should be placed in a text such as that used as the lectionary in the Greek Orthodox church that has lived and breathed in the church rather than on an artificially reconstructed text based on assumptions that the church is the corruptor rather than preserver of the text. When Jesus and the Apostles they very freely quoted from the LXX most of the time. They didn’t seem to have much concern about the original autographs of the Old Testament.

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