The Ecclesiastical Text - Take 2

So I finally finished finished Theodore P. Letis’ The Ecclesiastical Text, which I commented on a bit ago. As I reported before, I loved the first two chapters of the book. The book is worth a good bit with just those chapters, nevermind the rest of the material (and I only paid $5.98 at Half Price Books!). The rest of the book was generally worth reading, but not as useful as the first two chapters.

Random Thoughts

The chapter entitled "The Revival of the Ecclesiastical Text and the Claims of the Anabaptists" was pretty interesting. I get a kick out of it when a person or group, like the Dean Burgon society, take as a namesake someone who wouldn’t really agree with them. Always funny.

Even if he can sound a bit rude and pompous at times when talking down to his opponents (even though in some cases he is surely more qualified than those he critiques), I enjoy the writing and general tenor of the book. I personally hate to be rude, but there is something to be said about being direct and saying exactly what’s on your mind.

His essay "The Protestant Reformation and the Philosophy of Bible Translations" had some various interesting points, but I do not at all share his disdain for highly idiomatic translations. I do agree that having the vast multitude of translations that we do have can be confusing and harmful in some ways (standardization can certainly be a good thing) but I do not find his arguments convincing (I will not enumerate them the book if you can find it). My main beef comes from a thought that I think is fairly obvious, and that is that the writers of the New Testament were trying to communicate something and I imagine they were trying to be as clear as possible in the colloquial language of the day (except in certain circumstances, like with parables). His arguments are worth reading and if you intend to deal with the issue this is a resource that would do you benefit to consult.

A Canonical Approach

You can see throughout, sometimes only in the background, a way of approaching textual criticism in this book that I am not at all comfortable with. Letis quotes Brevard Childs (I don’t own this book of his, but perhaps should), and I will quote the same here:

The canonical approach to text criticism applies a very different methodology in its use of the textual history in the pre-stabilization period. It does not attempt to establish a ‘better’ text than the Masoretic, but chooses to remain with the canonical text and thus identifies the level of literature with which it is concerned. Nevertheless, the canonical approach is vitally interested in all the evidence from the recensional history of the pre-stabilization period. It simply uses the evidence in a different manner towards achieving a particular goal, namely, the understanding of the canonical text. (Letis, 102)

Let me restate Letis and his approach to see if I am interpreting him correctly (and possibly Childs, but I cannot say for sure without reading him). When it comes to determining the text of Scripture to be used in the church, the church should turn to the text ultimately ratified by the church, i.e., the Greek text found in the Greek manuscripts of the later church. Looking at differences that occurred before that time is instructional for interpreting the later text and whatnot, but is not a concern for establishing the sacred text with which the church is to worship. This allows the church to have a text and it doesn’t have to worry about the intellectual mood swings of the academy and the changing text that would result from that.

Devotionally, this makes a lot of sense. The average churchgoer should not need to worry about the academics changing their scripture all of the time. And though the text of the New Testament is darn reliable, we really cannot say that about the text of the Old Testament (from a purely historical/text-critical perspective) and so it makes it a lot easier just to pick a text and go with it.

Intellectually, this approach makes no sense to me whatsoever, and for four primary reasons:

First, you are setting up an edited text as authoritative, and I don’t think the locus of authority is in the church. It is in God (first) through revelation (second) which is passed on and guarded by the church (third). By picking a later recension of a text (assuming that the later text is in fact some sort of recension, which is something he is certainly implying) you are putting authority in the (at many times accidental) editorial hands of the scribes.

Second, and I am quite sure he would seriously dislike me using these terms, essentially he’s saying there are two texts, the one the church has, and the real one (that may always be partially hypothetical), and we should go with the former. In other words, there is reality, and we should ignore it for the purpose of piety. I cannot see how this approach can lead to any other conclusion than that.

Third, the western church did ratify something through use as Scripture; it’s called the Latin Vulgate. We have more Latin manuscripts of the Bible than Greek and Hebrew combined. If we are looking for the text that the church used for the longest period of time, that is a good candidate.

Fourth, what text ended up winning is also related to which regions survived under Christianity and which came under Muslim rule. The majority of our manuscripts from the 9th century and before (this is not my data, but I have not seen anything that contradicts it) are Alexandrian, not Byzantine. If the Muslims had not conquered North Africa the text that would have won in the end very well might have been Alexandrian. This would be even more likely true if the Muslims would have conquered Europe and left Africa alone.

But he is right that there is a problem. We do not know exactly what the original text was and we most likely never will. We may be 98% there (not a number he put out) but we will never be 100% there because we will never get all of the evidence we would need. And, on top of that, because there is a subjective element to piecing together the original text, we will forever be using a ever-so-slightly-subjectively-constructed text.

Where does that leave us? Well, in some ways it leaves us in a rather uncomfortable place. How are we going to resolve this? I’ve got some thoughts, but I can’t say I can make all of the uneasy questions go away. But I do know that I find this approach rather dissatisfying. We will have to talk about this more some other time, shall we not?