Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Textual Criticism: Why Bother?

In a recent article published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Dan Wallace discusses the challenges to New Testament Textual Criticism. He responds to (a) attempts to move textual criticism away from seeking the original text and (b) a more detailed charge that the notion of an 'original text' is "modern":

When all is said and done, we still must affirm the following as the primary goal of NT textual criticism: the study of the copies of the NT for the primary purpose of determining the exact wording of the autographs.

Further, this is not just a modernist goal, as [Bart] Ehrman claims; it reaches back to Origen, Ireneaus, Tertullian, Eusebius, Jerome and a host of others. All of them spoke about textual variants and they all commented on the priority of the origianal text as that which had authority. That the fathers may not have always executed their approach to the text well does not mean that recovery of the original wording was irrelevant to them. Indeed, it is only in recent times that a new model has been proposed. To speak of the modernist preoccupation with origins is only half true: this was also a concern to pre-modern Christians. Every generation of the church, in fact has been concerned with determining the wording of the originals--until now.

The worst aspects of postmodern textual criticism thus are that it is anchorless, detached from history; it is isolationist, because it divorces itself from the concerns of the community of Christians--a community that has been around for two millennia; and it is self-defeating because it has to presuppose an original text in order to blue the distinction between it and any secondary text. In short, the quest for the wording of the autographa is still worth fighting for. Dan Wallace "Challenges in New Testament Textual Criticism" JETS 52.1 (p.85)
Quite frankly, some of what Dan Wallace says could be extend to discussions of postmodern theology and postmodernism as a whole. There is a sense, which some have argued in more detail, that postmodernism is really hyper-modernism. Despite all the appeals to 'community' that we hear coming from within there still remains a lack of deference to a larger community particularly a community that extends back through history.

More to the point, the endeavors of textual critics is important and should not be ignored by those in the church. In fact, later in the article Wallace points out that it is the derth of discussions of textual criticism in the church that have led to popular books like Barth Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus to be a sort of bombshell to far too many. It is unfortunate that so many are unaware of such basic issues within Christianity and that fact that the truth does not undermine orthodoxy as some would have us believe.

Textual crticism has as historic legacy in the church. Indeed, we should all be as concerned with both the makeup and the meaning of the text as men and women have been down through the history of the church. Indeed, the Bible contains nothing less than words of life to us since it is the Word of God. The history of the church has been marked by a zeal for the Word of God. This zeal has laid Christians to engage in study and historical enterprises knowing that we worship nothing less than a God who has stepped into space and time to reveal Himself.

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