Theology and Textual Criticism

The textual critic... is a scholar who respectsneither familiarity nor tradition insofar as texts and readingsare concerned.

-- P. Kyle McCarter (Textual Criticism, Fortress Press, 1986, p. 11)

The tendency to make the Bible read what we want it to read is strong. Let'stake an example: Matthew 19:24 (and parallels). The vast majority of texts readthat it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a richperson to enter Heaven.

For Greek καμηλον,camel, however, a handful of authorities read καμιλον,a rope.

The witnesses for this reading? In Matthew 19:24, they are 579, 1424,the Armenian, and a handful of lectionaries. In Mark 10:25, the listis family 13, 28, 579, and the Georgian version. In Luke 18:25, the listis S, family 13, 180, 579vid, 1010, 1424, and the Armenian andGeorgian. Streeter would perhaps call this reading "Cæsarean."But surely we would recognize it as simply an error -- either an itacism ora clarification.

And yet, I recently had someone tell me that she had heard this readingwas original. This is, be it noted, a modern who was hearing it from someonewho claimed knowledge of the text.

I've also heard this reading explained in terms of the "eye of aneedle" being a very narrow entry into Jerusalem. The clear tendency seemsto be to try to explain away this reading: It's tricky for the rich to get in,but There Are Ways.

No doubt there are, on the principle that "all things are possible withGod." But modifying the text to make it easier is surely an example oftheological bias -- and surely to be avoided.

Theology has affected textual criticism for a very long time. Origen,in doing his textual work, adopted readings which he felt Christianityrequired. So, for instance, he rejected the reading "JesusBarabbas" in Matthew 27:16-17 because he didn't believe the nameJesus could be applied to evildoers.

An even more extreme instance is shown by Justin Martyr, who quoted thefirst line of Psalm 95:10 LXX (=96:10 Hebrew) as "the Lord reignedFROM THE TREE." The key words "from the tree" do not appearin the Hebrew, nor in our major LXX manuscripts. But Justin accused theJews of mutilating this verse, because it was so useful to his theologicalunderstanding. There is no question at this point; these words are notoriginal. But theology led Justin to claim that they were.

More recently, we have seen various sects claim divine inspirationfor their particular translations, rather than seeking the originaltext. The Catholic church long canonized the Clementine Vulgate;perhaps even more absurdly, there are many fundamentalist sectsin the United States which give direct adherence to theThe King James Bible.This may not seem like a theological issue, but it is:"God spoke to us, using this version."

To what extent should theology affect textual criticism?This is a truly complex question, which has been answered inseveral ways. (It doesn't help that some who have followedtheir theological opinions have concealed it under the guise offollowing the author's style or the like.)

To demonstrate how important all this could be, considerthe Longer Ending of Mark. This passage contains (16:16) theonly NT passage explicitly linking baptism with salvation.All others refer to baptism as a cleansing of sins or theequivalent -- obviously worthwhile and desirable, and a tokenof membership of the church, but not a requirement forsalvation. Does it not follow that, if critics allow theologyto influence their criticism, then those who consider baptismimportant (e.g. Baptists) will tend to include the ending of Mark,while those who consider baptism less important (e.g. Quakers)would be inclined to omit it?

There are also historical implications. Consider the issue ofwhether Jesus was crucified on Passover or Passover Eve. On oneside, we have the date in John. On the other, we have the dateof the Synoptic Gospels, which essentially means the tradition ofMark. One witness on each side. Except that there is a singlepassage in Luke which may come from his special tradition:Luke 22:16. The Byzantine tradition has a reading which implicitlysupports the Markan date; the Alexandrian tradition implies theJohannine date. A particular bias might lead one to support one orthe other reading on non-textual grounds.

One group of textual workers (I hesitate to call them scholars)base their whole method on theology. These are the ProvidentialPreservationists. So, for instance, Wilbur N. Pickering, "I believethat God has providentially preserved the original wording of the textdown to our day... I see in the Traditional Text ('Byzantine') both theresult and the proof of that preservation" (The Identity of theNew Testament Text, First Edition, 1977, pp. 143-144.)

But, as Harry Sturz notes in reacting to Hills (another exponentof this doctrine), "Hills fails to show whythe sovereign God must act in a particular way" (Harry A.Sturz, The Byzantine Text-Type & New Testament TextualCriticism, 1984, p. 42. Italics added.) Even if one acceptsProvidential Preservation, one must admit that it is arguingfrom theology back to the text, rather than from the text totheology.

It's also worth asking why Providential Preservation wouldpreserve a text-type, as opposed to an actual text. If God weretrying to preserve the Biblical text, would not God have givenus one manuscript which is absolutely correct? Yet the Byzantinemanuscripts do not agree entirely. How does one decide which manuscripthas the exact text? Might it not as easily be B, or 1739,or 33, as opposed to K or 861 or whatever manuscript contains theByzantine standard? And if God is going to hit us over the headwith such a patent giveaway as preserving the exact text of theNew Testament, wouldn't God also offer a few other obvious tokensof existence, such as would be available to ordinary people whodidn't read Greek? (It will be evident that I consider ProvidentialPreservation not only false but quite insulting.)

Not all who believe theology has a place in criticism go tothis extreme. Most would, in fact, be angered by comparison toa Providential Preservationist. Most consider the manuscriptsinvolved, the context, the nature of the variant, etc. (Note:This is not the same as considering the author's theology.Knowing the author's theology is obviously a tool for evaluatinginternal evidence. But that's not the same as considering thecritic's own theology.)

I will admit, at this point, that I get lost. How can oneconsider theology in assessing a variant reading? You're tellingGod what God should have written! If one takesthe Protestant view that the Bible is the determiner of faith,then you are applying an ex post facto judgment: The text should betelling you what to believe; you should not tell it. And even ifone takes a Catholic/Orthodox view, with stress on church tradition,does not the fact that tradition has a place mean that the Bibleis not a complete and perfect repository of the truth? This impliesthat it could have readings with false theological implications --meaning that the original reading might not be "theologicallycorrect."

Since I cannot understand the viewpoint of the theological critics,I will not attempt to take this point further. I will simply makethe observation that a scientific criticism must necessarilyreject any theological approach. But we should note that there hasnever been a scientific New Testament textual critic. Some have usedmathematical methods -- but as tools, not final arbiters.

A quote from A. J. Ayer is relevant here, though not directedat textual criticism: "A man can always maintain his convictionsin the face of apparently hostile evidence if he is prepared to makethe necessary ad hoc assumptions. But although any particular instancein which a cherished hypothesis appears to be refuted can always beexplained away, there must still remain the possibility that thehypothesis will ultimately be abandoned. Otherwise it is not agenuine hypothesis. For a proposition whose validity we are resolvedto maintain in the face of any experience is not a hypothesis at all,but a definition" (Language, Truth, and Logic, p. 95).

I'll make one more appeal to logic. Several people have told methat they feel we must consider theology in editing the text.Some have, in fact, told me that I will be damned for not followingtheir version of the New Testament text. Unlike them, I am notwilling to pass such judgments. (I might be willing to allow thatthey are fools, but folly is surely not sufficient reason fordamnation, else Hell is going to be very crowded indeed!) But I amwilling to say that I would never trust a New Testament such aperson edited. And they would never trust a New Testament I editedaccording to my theological principles. Is it not better toedit without reference to such principles, which would result inevery editor producing a different New Testament? It might be differentif somehow we all agreed on our theology. But we don't (and if wedid, what need for the Bible anyway?).

Or try it another way: Would you want me, with my theologicalprinciples, editing the Bible according to my theology? If no,then why should anyone else want you to edit it accordingto your principles? There is an ancient name for this: It's called"heresy."