Sunday, August 11, 2013

Are the Ancient Manuscripts of Acts Reliable?

Delighted to give a presentation on Tuesday night at Passages in Colorado Springs.  Most of the paper is really on which manuscripts of Acts are most reliable.  If you're in Colorado Springs and don't have anything to do Tuesday night at 7pm...

Here's the paper's train of thought.

1. Nothing to worry about
  • Despite the sensationalism of some like Bart Ehrman, even he isn't really too worried about whether we pretty much know what the original text of the New Testament actually said.
  • I'll review the basics of our situation in regard to manuscripts
2. Better question - Which textual tradition is more reliable?
  • The one in all our Bibles ("Alexandrian" text)
  • One that is 10% longer, the so called Western text?  It's not really in any translation out there, so everyone can relax.  KJV and NIV fans alike will pretty much be on the same page on this one--the Alexandrian one.
3. The most famous variation - Acts 8:37
  • Not in modern translations, not because some conspiracy to take it out but because it isn't in the "oldest and most reliable" manuscripts.  In this regard, the NIV is based on manuscripts that are about 700 years older than the KJV used (Actually, it wasn't even in the text of the manuscripts Erasmus used to compile the Greek behind the KJV.  It was in the margin of one of them and Erasmus figured some copyist had carelessly omitted it). 
  • Best explanation is that it was added out of the sense that the Ethiopian eunuch would have made some verbal confession of faith at his baptism.
4. Lesser known Western interpolations
  • Omission of "strangling" and addition of the Golden Rule in Acts 15 to the list of things the Gentiles need to do.  In general, some (clearly Gentile) reviser has universalized what was originally a list about table fellowship between Jew and Gentile believer.  Big clue.
  • Addition of details about Paul's detainment at Caesarea in Acts 25.  This material further exonerates Paul and perhaps added details of Paul's legal process that seemed reasonable to the copyist.
5. Where does the "Western" tradition come from?
  • Some variations are like all the variations in the New Testament.  There was some freedom felt in the earliest church to clarify the biblical texts when copying them.  We can make sense of this phenomenon in that these were "oral texts," texts meant to be read aloud to Christian assemblies in worship. In some contexts, the goal was apparently more clarity than preservation of exact wording.  The Bible was God's living word, not an artifact. I do this sometimes when I am reading the Bible to my children, paraphrasing the text to help them understand. Eugene Peterson did this on a much more extensive scale than we are talking about here in The Message.
  • The text of Acts has a strand of revisions that are unlike what we have in relation to any other NT book.  One explanation is a very educated, early second century, Gentile reviser who clarified the text somewhere on a quite significant scale. This position is at least superior to the alternatives: 1) that Luke made two versions (Leclerc at first, Blass, Strange) or 2) that the Western text was original and the Alexandrian a shortened version (e.g., Clark).
  • Finally, the most significant manuscript of the Western tradition, Codex Bezae, may have added another layer of variations that were particular to it and passed on from it.  Bezae dates to around AD500.
6. Conclusion
I put a lot of faith in scholarly consensus, especially those that have stood for as long as this one has. The consensus is at least that the Western is not original. We should welcome the occasional outlier like W. A. Strange to keep us honest.  But usually these consensuses hold.  For further reading, see Peter Head's excellent treatment of this issue. The current majority probably does not see a single editor for the second bullet...

I might add that working on this paper confirmed in my mind that my own church, The Wesleyan Church, might be intentional about guiding a small cadre of biblical and theological students to be our "reference works" in Bible, theology, and church history.  These would be individuals "on call" when we get into contemporary issues.  For example, when my denomination looks at issues like divorce or alcohol or homosexuality, we really need experts in Scripture, theology, and church history as part of the input. 

The number we need of such scholars is relatively small.  There is a sizable minority of individuals whose personalities are interested in these areas but who are not necessarily gifted in them.  Thus the benefit of coaching a few who are truly gifted (and objective) with the mechanics, yet who are also Spirit-filled and local church loving.

But we do need a few, a small number, that are actually experts in Greek, Hebrew, textual criticism, critical scholarship, the history of interpretation, contemporary theology, historical theology, philosophical theology. We need them on retainer for when we are talking doctrine and ethics as a denomination. None of our schools is in a position to train scholars on this level or are likely to be so for the foreseeable future.

Where are good places for this very small number to train?  I continue to think that the British schools are quite good and faith-friendly, places like St. Andrews, Edinburgh, King's College-London, Durham... We have a Nazarene connection in Manchester.  Asbury now has a PhD in Biblical Studies. Duke will do, although it's not really training so much these days in historical exegesis.

Something at least someone should be thinking about, I think...

18 comments:

jamesdowden said...

AIUI, if we're playing the text types game, the KJV is "Byzantine" (or more helpfully, a mixed type). So like the Western text, it has extra instances of concatenating "Lord Jesus Christ", but there are occasional omissions (e.g. "agitating" at 17.13).

Ken Schenck said...

Yes, my point is much more limited, that on the whole, the Byzantine team is mostly rooting for the Alexandrian team in their match up against the Western text of Acts. The subtext is this--KJV types often break out into hives at the mention of the Alexandrian textual tradition. But on this one, KJV fans in the audience should be rooting me on...

Anonymous said...

I hope not to be too readily dismissive, but I must say I’m genuinely puzzled as to how it might be that exegetes of the Bible, let alone textual critics, could assist in addressing the problems surrounding divorce, alcoholism, and homosexuality. What difference does it make exactly what the Bible says about these problems? How does anything it says begin to match the utility of what Amato or Wallerstein, Philip Cook, or Corvino or Sullivan have to say? Or what might be gleaned from historians of marital and sexual practices and drug usage? Or philosophers by trade who’ve illuminatingly addressed these topics?) If a couple in distress presented themselves, or a struggling alcoholic, or a trouble homosexual--and I sought to address their concerns, it seems to me the sources I’ve cited and others like them would be immensely more pertinent, instructive, and elucidative than any occasional unsupported and unexplained Biblical admonition or command that’s directly on point. I can see that one might find in the capacious pages of scripture some larger framework within which these matters could be approached--say, for instance, Jesus’s acceptance and embrace of the despised and rejected. But such frameworks are not superior to those devised by Aristotle or Kant or Mill, nor are they informed by the particulars discovered by Amato and the like.

It seems to me that the squad of exegetes and theologians you’d form up would arrive at the fire with nothing in hand that might douse the flames but an empty hose.

Ken Schenck said...

I certainly understand where you're coming from Anon, but I don't think you understand the nature of faith communities "of the Book." You sound like you are in a context where you can write off how the majority of American Christians think on issues such as these. I suspect you have the constitutional frameworks of Western nations on your side as well as the trajectory of history.

But no one will be able to engage the majority of Christian faith communities in America without engaging the question of Scripture. It is a fundamental reality that cannot be dismissed for anyone who wishes to engage them. This would be another kind of ridiculous.

Susan Moore said...

Do you see The Common Language of God fitting into any of those last couple of paragraphs you wrote? It's a linguistic meta-language that acts like an exoskeleton of a bug: It protects the contents, and gives textual definition to the form of the being so that the being can be more easily seen and identified.
Susan

Anonymous said...

When it comes to divorce, how do those who say they rely on and believe in what the Bible says--what do they do or say that's sets them apart from anybody else? If they say anything distinctive, how is it informed by scripture (where Jesus, looking past later softening of the message, flatout prohibited divorce--sans rationale, sans discussion of Galilean circumstances).
When it comes to alcohol and its ills, what's said?
When it comes to homosexuality, what's said that's anything but a present-day source of grief and misery? (Said, that is, on the particular topic of homosexual practices--granted, Jesus’s last-shall-be-first message, and his embrace of the rejected, can be brought to bear as well.)

Anonymous said...

I'm writing nothing off. I'm admitting I don't see that there's anything to be written off. There's no there there. Cite me something from the Methodist annual meeting or the like that's really based on scripture and really morally defensible. A tax on alcohol--good idea? Requiring couples who get on decently with each other and have children to (a) have to hear from a representative of the children's interests and (b) delay their split--good idea? Gay marriage--good idea? What in the world does the Bible have to say about these questions that's of any use whatever? At least in comparison to sources like the ones I mentioned?

Ken Schenck said...

Let's assume you are right, Anon, that there's no there there. Then in such cases, would it not be valuable to have experts with the hermeneutical insight to show this to the majority who thinks there is?

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm saying there's no there there in two locales--scriptures pertinent to alcoholism, divorce, homosexuality as we confront them in America today, and in what Christians have to say on these matters in a a scripture-based way. My contention is that you can't cite scripture that's helpful to the troubled alcoholic, couple, gay. In the last case, all you can cite only adds to his troubles. So also the couple, who find (in Jesus) only a blanket barebones prohibition. As to alcohol, --is there anything at all to be found? or is it like abortion, hardly a word? To interpret, you first need a text.

Ken Schenck said...

Helpful is perhaps a different category than what I'm talking about. :-) The Bible is the playing field on which American denominations set their legal boundaries on who is in and who is out, what they can and cannot do. You might be surprised to know how many American Christians think that wine in the Bible was unfermented and use prohibitions about drunkenness to argue that Christians must be teetotal...

Anonymous said...

http://www.gallup.com/poll/1582/alcohol-drinking.aspx

Ken Schenck said...

Religious language is usually not the same kind of language game as science. Wittgenstein, with whom I do not entirely agree on this issue, even went so far to suggest that religious language about God is non-referential, that it has nothing to do with whether or not there is actually a divine Being. I don't agree with him totally but agree that to address religious issues with data or even "common sense" is to talk right past people "of the Book." It's not to speak their language. It is a different kind of ignorance because it can't understand why the religious person can't understand what seems obvious given evidentiary assumptions.

Like the incarnation, you can't communicate with someone unless you first meet them somewhat within their own paradigm and categories. Only then can you move them in some other direction. The only other options I can think of are force and faith trauma.

Susan Moore said...

What do you mean by 'force and faith trauma'?
Susan

Ken Schenck said...

What I was thinking, Susan, is that sometimes a person feels ripped from a particular religious language game by some sudden crisis (e.g., a tragedy) that, at least from their perspective, undermines the whole system violently. By force, I meant that an external power can thrust its language and categories on a religious person to where they must use the language of the external force or face dire consequences.

This is just thinking off the top of my head, not real sociology :-)

Susan Moore said...

Ok. So it seems, then, that your comments mostly address the communication between believers and non-believers and the need to find a 'middle language' if one does not become handy with the other's language.
I say that because it also seems that when the communication is between two believers, then it is the responsibility of the believer with greater spiritual maturity to meet the other person at their level of understanding and grow them from there (as The Word grows us from concrete to abstract; physical to spiritual). In this case, no new 'middle language' is needed, and no one needs to learn the other's language, because the language is in common to them both. It seems that successful discipling occurs in the realm of living out a progressive understanding of Biblical semantics.
Susan

Susan Moore said...

"Like the incarnation, you can't communicate with someone unless you first meet them within their own paradigm and categories. Only then can you move them in some other direction". The Common Language is where God meets us and we meet Him in paradigm and categories common to both of us. In His scriptures He takes what He has made that we can see -tree, water, seed, life...- and teaches us about the spiritual realm, which is the realm that we cannot see. He does that by taking the words of the things that He has made and then embellishing them later in scripture with new, spiritual meanings. The light from day one becomes the glory of the Lord, the light of the sun becomes the eternally illuminating revelation of the The Word, etc... But before we can understand the abstract meanings, we first must understand the elements of creation in their physical identity and meaning. Only after we understand and relate to those initial concrete meanings can we best 'grow in Christ'. We can grow in Christ because the Spirit of The Word is in us. So we 'mysteriously' grow as we gain more heart-knowledge of this linguistic meta-language that forms itself, expresses itself, reflects back on itself, describes itself and grows itself. Therefore, in like manner, we also grow.
The Common Language both describes for us and defines for us all we are able to now understand about the God who calls Himself, "I AM."
What school can I go to that will support my learning, and me mapping out this linguistic meta-language for others to refer to? I need to learn more Hebrew, and Greek. It has to first be mapped out in the original languages.
Thanks,
Susan

Ken Schenck said...

That sounds beautifully poetic, Susan! We do have Greek and Hebrew for ministry in alternating summers, but you might be able to take Greek and Hebrew online somewhere. I would start by looking at Asbury once you graduate from undergrad. There might be somewhere that offers them online for undergraduate too...

Edward Ross said...

Ken, the table fellowship comment in regard to Acts 15 tripped a circuit and lit a light. The whole strangled meat thing makes a bunch more sense in the light of fullfilled Jews and converted pagans eating together as Acts 2 describes. Thanks.

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