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How to Think Like a Text Critic

CRITICISM. Magnifying glass over different association terms.I launched a few posts back into a discussion of the scholarly handling of Isaiah 40:3 in both the Hebrew texts and the Greek texts.

In the Hebrew, a voice cries out for someone to prepare a path in the wilderness for the coming dignitary—God—twice. The Greek translations remove the desert component of the second poetry line and cause scholars to divide the poem differently. In the common handling of the Greek, a voice in the wilderness cries out for someone to prepare a path for the coming dignitary—still God.

The problem is that the New Testament writers uniformly quote the Greek rendering.

In order to go forward in addressing the tensions between two different traditions about how the text should be divided, a text critical question needs to be answered—which text has the correct reading.

In order to answer a complex text critical question, I need to lay the groundwork for understanding how text critical work is done. Too many people (particularly King James Only Adherents) have powerful misconceptions about both WHY and HOW text critics do their thing.

In my last post, I gave a bit of insight into the WHY of text critics. Today, I’d like to give just a peek into the HOW of text critics. Text criticism is after all both a science, having a body of rules, and an art that requires skill, nuance, and sensitivity as to how to subtlety balance these rules in each text.  I want to teach you how to think like a text critic. This won’t be complete, given I only have some 1000 or so words to work with, but it should give you a start.

How do text critics evaluate the worth of particular text’s reading? Here is a quick list of the 9 big rules by Hort and Westcott… [which is to say, in the minds of King James Only adherents, the big rules by Satan and Beelzebub].

  1. Older readings, manuscripts, or groups are to be preferred. (2.59; cf. 2.5-6, 31)
  • The gist is that more time and the multiplying of copies from copies affords more chances for making mistakes.
  • This also means families of texts. A single copy might be older, but another might be part of an older family of texts maintained by better scribes. See rule #9.
  1. Readings are approved or rejected by reason of the quality, and not the number, of their supporting witnesses. (2.44)
  • The most copies of a text exist when non-professionals made them. Non-professionals make more mistakes. We don’t count, we weigh manuscripts.
  1. A reading combining two simple, alternative readings is later than the two readings comprising the conflation, and manuscripts rarely or never supporting conflate reading are text antecedent to mixture and are of special value. (2.49-50).
  • i.e. poor scholars used to try to do text criticism by taking any differences in readings that they found and weaving them together in their own copies. They combined rather than judged the readings. Text critics don’t trust these texts because they can’t trust the judgment of their copyists.
  1. The reading is to be preferred that makes the best sense, that is, that best conforms to the grammar and is most congruous with the purport of the rest of the sentence and of the larger context. (2.20) and 5. The reading is to be preferred that best conforms to the usual style of the author and to that author’s material in other passages. (2.20)
  • These rules are held in tension with rule 7.
  • This is the easiest principle to abuse. Authors tend to have theolgocical, grammatical and stylistic consistency, but that creates anticipation in a copyist who second guesses a text and makes a mistake. The result turns out TOO conforming, being what the copyist wanted rather than what the author wrote.
  • That said, authors are rarely incomprehensible and blatantly contradictory. Biblical authors were highly skilled communicators.
  1. The reading is to be preferred that most fitly explains the existence of the others. (2.22-23)
  • There is a whole branch of study that considers the kinds of mistakes that copyists tend to make with their eyes, when looking back and forth between their original their copy, and with their ears, when one person reads a text to a room full of copyists.
  • There is also a branch of study that considers the kinds of confusions that arise from look alike characters in different scripts… like mistaking a d for b, or l for I.
  • There is also a tendency for “sound alike passages” to bleed into each other because a copyist anticipates a common reading from another text. Like sticking “Let he who has ears to hear hear” in place that it wasn’t originally found because the copyist “expects to find it” and writes it without thought.
  1. The reading is less likely to be original that combines the appearance of an improvement in the sense with the absence of its reality; the scribal alteration will have an apparent excellence, while the original will have the highest real excellence. (2.27, 29) and 8. The reading is less likely to be original that shows a disposition to smooth away difficulties. (2.28)
  • Some call these the “most difficult reading is to be preferred” rule.
  • Who, after all is likely to write something difficult when a simple reading is sitting in front of him. A copyist is far more likely to “fix” a “problem” straightening out an ambiguity rather than to create one.
  • Like exchanging the antecedent of a pronoun for the pronoun to make the text clearer. This causes many KJV only folks to accuse text critics of “taking Jesus out of the text” when an older, more dependable reading has a pronoun that refers to Jesus rather than the noun Jesus itself.
  • Of course, an impossible reading resulting from copyist fatigue would be the most difficult of all… placing this rule at odds with rules 5 & 6.
  1. Readings are to be preferred that are found in a manuscript that habitually contains superior readings as determined by intrinsic and transcriptional probability. Certainty is increased if such a better manuscript is found also to be an older manuscript (2.32-33) and if such a manuscript habitually contains reading that prove themselves antecedent to mixture and independent of external contamination by other, inferior texts (2.150-51). The same principles apply to groups of manuscripts (2.260-61).
  • This returns us to rule #1. Some “families” are trusted more than others because they have proven themselves to have kept faithful to older readings by staying out of the hands of clods and in the hands of careful scribes.

When working with translations that seem to point to alternate text traditions, alternate readings… Like the LXX Greek Translations, the Latin Vulgate, The Syrian texts, the Aramaic Targums, the old Arabic translations, etc… It becomes difficult to re-create the Hebrew manuscripts they might have had in front of them, and to distinguish “different original Hebrew reading” from the multitude of issues that are created by translation philosophy, mistaken interpretation, and theological overriding of the text.

Since none of these are iron clad laws, but rather general rules based on anticipations of the kinds of things that tend to go wrong under different circumstances, the text critic, like the police investigator, needs to examine each situation in its own context, considering both these tendencies and the unique demands of each piece of evidence that speaks to it.

If a police investigator looked at every murder saying, “The butler did it!” or “Follow the money!” he wouldn’t be much of a detective. Though, the truth is that experienced investigators learn to read situations and people and have years of observing patterns of human behavior that tend to guide them. So do skilled and experienced text critics.

Its never about how they want a text to read, but, rather about how the evidence in each instance, playing off the patterns learned over many lifetimes of text critics work together to point the text critic in one direction or another.

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