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How I Discovered Textual Criticism

It was at Moody Bible Institute that I first became interested in the textual criticism of the New Testament.  Let me stress a definitional point that some readers on the blog have not gotten or understood (I’ve said it a lot, so apologies for those who have gotten it! But even though I keep saying this, some people still don’t get it).   Textual criticism is NOT the study of texts to see what they mean.  For the last time (well, probably not): it is not the interpretation of texts.  Textual criticism, instead, is the attempt to determine what an author actually wrote if we do not have his one and only original copy.   It is independent of the question of what the author might have actually *meant* by what he wrote.

Textual criticism is done on all texts – even modern ones.  There are textual critics who work on Wordsworth.  They try to determine if it’s possible to know the actual words of his original poems (given the fact that we have different editions and manuscripts of them).  Textual criticism is very important for someone like Shakespeare, where we don’t have his original plays.  We have different printed editions of them, sometimes highly different from one another (Hamlet!), and textual scholars and editors try to determine which words to print given the options (say, the differences between the Folio and the Quarto editions).

My wife is one of the premier Shakespeare scholars in the country – in the world, I suppose – and she is NOT a textual critic.  She is an interpreter of the texts, not one who determines which text to print in a published edition.  She more or less (except when necessary) leaves the technical text-critical debates to those highly trained in, and interested in, textual criticism.  She is principally interested in understanding the texts, not reconstructing them.

So when I say it was at Moody that I became first interested in textual criticism, I mean it was there that I realized that we have a big problem when it comes to the texts of the New Testament.  There are places where we are not sure what the authors actually wrote.

The kind of fundamentalism we embraced at Moody was not one that advocated the use of the King James Bible, and that only.  On the contrary, we did not use the King James.  We thought that the people who used only the King James were ignorant radical fundamentalists, as opposed to us enlightened reasonable fundamentalists!  That’s the thing about fundamentalists.  Even if you are one, you don’t think you’re crazy like those people to the right of you!  *They* are the nut cases.

We used the …

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    stokerslodge  August 31, 2016

    Bart, what is your view with regard to Paul and James teaching on the doctrine of justification by faith – are they contradictory?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2016

      Ah, good question. I’ll add it to the Readers Mailbag.

  2. Avatar
    bensonian  August 31, 2016

    Very interesting, thanks again for sharing. I would have been the [only] other person in the class who asked those kinds of questions. 🙂 Too bad we didn’t go to the same school, we would have had some interesting conversations. In response to the sections that were added later, what would you have thought about this: Could it be (possibly) that the scribes who added the texts later, were also inspired by God to make the additions (and perhaps changes, corrections, subtractions, etc.)?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2016

      Yes, I seriously entertained that question at the time. (There were church fathers who thought so, most famously Origen)

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  August 31, 2016

    “We thought that the people who used only the King James were ignorant radical fundamentalists, as opposed to us enlightened reasonable fundamentalists!”

    This reminds me of the Denzel Washington movie Book of Eli. If you’re not familiar with the film, Washington is a blind man in a post-apocalyptic world where almost all the books have been destroyed, and Washington has been tasked with carrying his one book in Braille across the country. He ends up losing the book before he makes it to his goal — some place in San Francisco where scholars are trying to preserve as many books as possible. But Washington no longer has his book, but it’s okay, because he has the entire book memorized. As he begins reciting the book for dictation, we get the twist of the film. The book Washington has been carrying and trying to preserve this entire time is the King James Bible. Not the Hebrew TaNaKh. Not the Greek New Testament. The King James english translation of the Bible. That’s what he has preserved for posterity! Now, of course, most people probably think the King James version of the Bible IS the Bible. But since I know better, that ending totally pissed me off, because it made it seem like the original versions of the Bible, in their original languages, weren’t worth preserving, but the King James translation was. What an absolutely horrendous notion!

  4. Avatar
    jhague  August 31, 2016

    I find it amazing that Moody taught you years ago that the story of the woman taken in adultery in John 8 was probably not in the original text, and that the last twelve verses of Mark’s Gospel also had been added by scribes. When I tell my Christian friends information like this, they look at me like I’m crazy and they cannot believe that I would say such a thing. They do not even realize that we do not have any originals of the Old and New Testament books. Most of them think the books are in chronological order.

  5. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  August 31, 2016

    You stated that you were amazed by your friends’ lack of interest on such important matters. I had similar issues with Christians, and after a while, church became very monotonous and boring. Everyone seemed to behave as automatons. I distinctly remember being in the middle of a worship service and wondering if millions of people were believing in a delusion. That gave me a very unsettling feeling.

  6. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  August 31, 2016

    I think you’re rare among Fundamentalists (when you were one) that you were honest with yourself and did not deny that there were problems with the text. Was it difficult to recognize that given the belief in the inerrancy of scripture?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2016

      I still thought God was behind it all somehow. But I was very interested in knowing the “how” of the somehow.

      • Avatar
        Hormiga  September 5, 2016

        The “how” is a worthwhile thought exercise. At age 70 I have yet to discover a religious bone in my body and have minimum high regard for scripture(*) and the established churches. But, just to stretch the brain a bit, assume that all of this stuff is somehow *true*. How could that be? What would it imply about the nature of reality, God, humans, etc.?

        (*) Though considerable interest, which is why I’m here.

  7. Avatar
    hmltonius  August 31, 2016

    I’m trying to figure out where my church was in the spectrum of fundamentalism. KJV only as “it’s from the original Greek”, with Bob Jones University as a preferred choice for post-secondary education. I cringe but would that be to the right of Moody?? Not necessarily by Moody alumni but by protestants in general?

    I’m lucky to have discovered Stephen Jay Gould and natural selection at a young age, then later Dawkins, Dennett and now your scholarship (which has been the most practically influential to me) that sowed the seeds that eventually took root. Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2016

      At the time we thought of Bob Jones as about the same level of religious belief and commitment, though maybe not quite as hard core and enlightened as we were.

  8. TWood
    TWood  August 31, 2016

    Good post! I’m also amazed (and admittedly angered) at the total lack of interest in these subjects by fundamentalists… they are fundamentalists in the sense that they ignore the most fundamental questions… I think they’re actually anti-fundamentalists in that sense (they’re presuppositional asserters). I think their label actually comes from BIOLA’s 20th century essays, is that correct?

    My real question has to do with Mark 4:31… Does the phrase “the smallest of all seeds on earth” mean what it sounds like it means in English? Or is there some nuance in the Greek that allows for something like “smallest seed that Palestinian Jewish farmers plant”? I know that’s a possible interpretation, but what does the Greek actually say? (e.g. maybe the Greek for “on earth” can mean “in the land”).

    Also, how did B.B. Warfield’s (Princeton’s) definition of inerrancy differ from MBI? He seemed to allow for accommodation (in Genesis for example) where Moody didn’t… is that basically right?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2016

      Yes, smallest of all seeds means just that, in Greek — THE smallest seed. Warfield was a bit more accomodating, and I moved to his view my first year at Princeton. (AT that point, among other things, I believed in evolution)

      • TWood
        TWood  September 2, 2016

        Just to be clear, I get that you’re saying the seed is THE smallest… but are you also saying ON EARTH (the planet) cannot be taken to mean IN THE LAND (Palestine)? I think you’re saying the Greek restricts “on earth” to mean “on the planet” but I want to make sure… thanks!

        • Bart
          Bart  September 3, 2016

          The text doesn’t specify. But you probably shouldn’t be too nit-picky about it; otherwise you could say something like, “Jesus meant it was the smallest of all seeds — that he was holding at the time!”

          • TWood
            TWood  September 4, 2016

            Yes, I agree… I just want to know what the fundies might say in return.

  9. Avatar
    jgking61  August 31, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I am hooked on this series, and each day I anxiously await your next post. I think an autobiography should be in your future. Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2016

      I suppose I’m doing it in the present, here on the blog!

  10. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  August 31, 2016

    hello Bart

    you have said before somebody has to be trained know Greek in order to interpret text , but there are some christian apologists who say that early fathers did not have any college degrees and yet they interpreted the text so how will you respond to that

    thanks

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 1, 2016

    Great questions you were asking as you still do.

    I did not realize that there are “textual” questions about the works of Wordsworth and Shakespeare. That s fascinating. If we can’t get those writings completely straight, how can we be expected to get much older writings straight?

  12. Avatar
    Jeff  September 1, 2016

    What I identify here is the contrast between your ongoing curiosity at Moody to the other believers passive attitude or acceptance of “God’s Word”. Even today I find it common among my conservative Christian friends – this lack of drive or curiosity. (Unless it’s a relative or two who thinks they are an apologist – which is a different matter since they appear only to mimic a William Craig type – ending the conversation in some crazy conspiracy theory) Anyway, thanks for your personal accounts. I believe this is a strong asset of your blog.

  13. Avatar
    JoeRoark  September 1, 2016

    Which translation is the most similar to how you would, in general, translate the New Testament?

  14. Avatar
    rburos  September 1, 2016

    Does your drive for the original text stop at the original Greek text or (having determined that) would you be more interested in any possible Aramaic gospel/text/source (whatever the heck that would even be)? Eventually one would have to arrive at collections of oral stories–is there any attempt to reconstruct them?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2016

      I don’t think there were “original” Aramaic texts behind the Gospels. But certainly if you want to know what Jesus actually taught, you’d have to be able to translate the Greek words attributed to him back into Aramaic.

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 1, 2016

    Many decades ago, my career choice was strongly influenced by an splendid autobiography entitled “The Making of a Psychiatrist.” I think your recent blogs could serve as the start of your own autobiography entitled “The Making of a Bible Professor.” Such a book, of course, could include a summary that puts together in one volume your main ideas about religion including textual criticism, Bible contradictions, historical discrepancies, the debate about the divinity of Jesus, and the theodicy problem. Since your personal blogs are your best blogs, I think such an autobiography would be quite interesting and helpful.

  16. Avatar
    Jason  September 1, 2016

    You aren’t planning an auto-biography beyond “God’s Problem” after the next trade book, are you?

  17. Avatar
    ask21771  September 1, 2016

    What’s the best evidence for the origins of apocalyptic literature and dualism

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2016

      The apocalyptic texts themselves, starting with Daniel, continuing on into other Jewish and Christian apocalypses of the period.

  18. Avatar
    FocusMyView  September 1, 2016

    So many people try to use their own version of what a Greek or Hebrew word meant in a certain verse, to get the meaning they want from that verse….
    No wait, that is interpretation, not textual criticism, lol. It is hard to always remember the difference.

  19. Avatar
    Tempo1936  September 1, 2016

    One of the strangest aspects of Christianity is the claim that Jesus was born as Devine, but didn’t do anything for about 30 years.
    after Jesus started his ministry the people ,who would know him very well in Nazareth, as it was a small rural town Didn’t think he was God.
    1. Mark 6:3. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.”

    even his mother ,Mary ,and family thought he was crazy
    2. Mark 3:21
    And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.” ( she must have forgotten the Virgin birth story)

    Then Jesus denies his own family for not believing he is God
    3. Mark 3:33
    And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

    Then Jesus says love your enemies but hate your mother and family (strange).
    4. Luke 6:35 But love your enemies, and do good…..“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. ”

    Professor, which ,if any ,of these 4 scriptures reflect the historical Jesus?

  20. Avatar
    Boltonian  September 2, 2016

    Not apropos really but a fascinating (and unanswered) question on Twitter posed by the historian Tom Holland. ‘Why is Israel so called rather than Israyahweh?’ Any ideas?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2016

      Uh, easier to pronounce?

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 3, 2016

      This may seem like just a silly question, but most people aren’t aware that El and Yahweh were often interchangeable in ancient theophoric names (i.e. a name in which a part consists of the name of a god; e.g. Apollo in ‘Apolloduros’ or Hera in ‘Heracles’). And there are actual names in existence today that belong to actual people, who aren’t aware they there are two (or more) versions of their name. For example, Jonathan and Nathaniel are, technically, the “same” name, with the “same” meaning. Jonathan comes from the Hebrew Yahonathan, which means “Gift of Yahweh”, and Nathaniel comes from the Hebrew “My Gift is God”. A popular example from Jesus’ day is combining the Hebrew for “grace”, chanan, with either El or Yahweh — with the resulting name meaning “Grace of God” or “God’s Grace”. Three names were common at the time, the most common being Yahochanan — which is our name John — and two other less well-known being Chananyahu (or Ananias in the Greek) and Chananiel (“God is my grace”).

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