Textual transmission (and the transmission of a text about that very thing)

An interchange of comments on another blog amounted to a text-critical look of a modern text that was about textual transmission!

A thoughtful blogger was probing the notion of God’s providence/guidance in the transmission of scriptures.  I don’t share his particular concerns in this area but do greatly appreciate his transparent questions.  We will come back to those, but I will first share a passage from the 2nd edition of Dr. Neil Lightfoot‘s book How We Got the Bible:

The New Testament books have been handed down to us by means of thousands of copies.  Although God inspired the New Testament writers, he did not miraculously guide the hands of copyists.  Textual or Lower Criticism seeks to counteract inevitable scribal errors and recover the true form of the text.  Many mistakes in the manuscripts crept into the text unintentionally, and are difficult to detect.  Other textual modifications were made intentionally, usually by a well-meaning scribe, and these do not stand out so clearly. . . .

– Neil Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible, 2nd ed., pp. 65-66 (chapter 5, “The Text of the New Testament”)

I have resisted the urge, perhaps as a well-meaning scribe myself, to delete a superfluous comma above.  I’m also paying attention to edits made by the author.  On the aforementioned blog, Londoner Steven Colborne had shared the following version of the passage from the 3rd edition of the same book:

It is a fact that the New Testament text has been transmitted to us through the hands of copyists.  It is also a fact that, since these hands were human, they were susceptible to the slips and faults of all human hands.  It is not true, therefore, that God has guided the many different scribes in their tasks of copying the Sacred Scriptures.  The Scriptures, although divine, have been handed down through the centuries by means of copies, just like any other ancient book.

– Neil Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible, 3rd ed., pp. 95-96 (chapter 9, “Significance of Textual Variations”)

In the course of an interchange with Colborne, I discovered that Dr. Lightfoot’s chapters were apparently renumbered in the 3rd edition, perhaps with new material inserted, and that the passage Colborne quoted had been moved from the end of a chapter to the beginning of the succeeding chapter.  I’m intrigued by the emendations Lightfoot made.  It’s quite a different pot of parsnips, actually, in the new version!  It seems to me that the later edition is more emphatic in this area, using the expressions “it is also a fact” and “it is not true.”  Although the passages are not entirely parallel, I’d say bit of extra emphasis also exists in the latter on the human “copyists”—who appear where the “copies” (the inanimate product) had formerly appeared.

Speculative commentary
I might speculate on the reasons that led to these changes. . . .  Was an anti-intellectual bent developing among churchgoers (that I also saw represented in comments by two or three of Colborne’s other blog readers)?  A few years down the road, in view of developments in “Christian” culture, Lightfoot might have felt a heightened need to support the academic reality here:  sound text criticism does not always consist in disbelieving fabrications by liberal theologians; some of it is quite scientific, dealing largely with empirically derived data.  (In my view and presumably in Lightfoot’s, text criticism can support faith!)  Too, the Lightfoot passage would naturally have needed different emphasis when it became the lead-off verbiage of a new chapter.  In any event, the variants do exist, and it is clear, based on papyrology and etymology and linguistics and paleology and other -ologies, not to mention Textual Criticism, that human errors were involved in transmission.  Calling them “variants” might ease the tension, but the reality remains, and Lightfoot rightly calls attention to it.

For my part, I very much like Lightfoot’s “susceptible to the slips and faults”; I find that phrase suggestive of God’s open interaction with His humanity.  On the other hand, I’m not so sure about Lightfoot’s assertion that “it is not true . . . that God has guided the many different scribes in their tasks of copying.”  In context, that statement seems to affirm the “dictation theory” with respect to the original manuscripts, even as it denies God’s direct influence on the copyists.

Now for the deeper questions . . . .
The crux of the problem, for many including Colborne, rests in philosophies and theories, including the view that the divine will always subsumes the human will.  Underneath that lies a theory of how scripture was conceived and produced.  One who subscribes to an absolutist position on sovereignty¹ will be required to think that God specifically caused scribal errors to occur.

I, on the other hand, must ask why God would dictate (double entendre intended) the existence of such errors instead of miraculously preserving the original papyri, vellum, etc.  It seems to me, rather, that God simply created a human environment in which minor errors would naturally occur.  Humans went to great effort to preserve texts and transmit faith, and while I would say God was involved in that process, I would not go so far as to express confidence that He oversaw it a la today’s buck-stops-here managers, who not only have but exercise the power to override by correction—and even to hire outside vendors if no capable party can be found in-house.  God’s sovereignty, for me, is not sacrificed if copyists were allowed to make errors along the way.  Since the errors/variants do exist, I am left with at least these options:

  1. God caused the errors, or
  2. God allowed the errors, or
  3. A great many conscientious scholars have concocted nonexistent errors

Perhaps it’s my own limited sight, but I cannot conceive of divinely caused errors.  Some might opt for #3 or even #1, but #2 is the only one for me, and it speaks volumes about the nature of God and how He views humanity.  The thesis of Dr. Gary D. Collier in his book Scripture Canon & Inspiration is quite pertinent here:

The Bible is an act of faith, by people of faith, in pursuit of a conversation with God.  (p. 38)

Please read that another time or two.  Perhaps you stumble over the notion of a thing’s being an act.  Viewing the above wording more metaphorically (not in a stickler-y way, as is more natural for me) allows one to hear the crucial message, though, in all its richly expressive symbolism.

Might we consider that . . .

. . . the Bible is the result of many acts of faith, so it becomes, in a sense, an “act of faith” itself?

. . . the “people of faith” are not literally possessed by faith but are governed by it?

. . . these faith-filled people do not “pursue” conversation physically, like a racing chariot driver who wants the Hebrew slaves back?  Instead, these people do many things that lead to the writing, copying, dissemination, preservation, and translation of the texts we label as “scripture.”

All the above are my somewhat weak attempts to draw out the human elements in the production of scripture, none of which are intended to deny the divine ones.  In a comment on his blog, Colborne offered a further demurrer, commenting that if God allows a human element in the creation of scripture, that deprives the texts of their authority.  I prefer a posture of inquiry on this point, not thinking I really have it solved, but appealing to Collier’s more interactive notion, in which I would say the interplay between God and God’s people becomes authoritative in a sense.  I admit that this initially sounds weaker than most evangelical “inerrancy” statements have it.  Anyone who knows me knows I’m on board the “sola scriptura” train—although the most popular ride, over hill and dale, sometimes feels bumpy for me after it switches over onto a traditionally sanctioned bit of track.

To read Colborne’s posting in its entirety (it’s not long), go here.  I find non sequiturs in it (not at all characteristic of his writing, and probably not so in his analysis, based on his view of the will of God).  Specifically, I disagree . . .

. . . that the sovereignty and providence of God require Him to have been directly involved in text transmission
. . . that any involvement of God in text transmission would necessitate that He controlled the hands of scribes
. . . that God’s sovereignty requires that he intends for us to read certain words (as opposed to translated or paraphrased renderings) as scripture²
. . . that my confidence in God’s providence necessarily dissipates if I find Him to have built in some allowances for chance

I have over several months found Colborne to be more logically oriented than I, and I take him to be my intellectual superior.  He is typically patient and gracious, too, so I’m confident that he will support my right to differ on points here.  I’m also confident that neither Colborne’s nor my theories on this topic constitutes the final word on text transmission or God’s providence!

~ ~ Postlude  ~ ~

Neil Lightfoot affirms that “Textual Criticism is a sound science” (p. 66, 2nd ed.).  What I know of Textual Criticism tells me his affirmation is on target.  That doesn’t mean Lightfoot’s wording can’t be off base at times, or that he won’t misuse a comma or say “all of these things are not X” when he really means “not all of these things are X.”  Nor does it mean that text critics won’t have jumped to a false conclusion here or there through the years.  (Incidentally, I started to quote Lightfoot from memory, and I had “solid science” in my head instead of “sound science.”  That would have been a copyist error, but I don’t think it would have altered the import.)

What we have is impressively well-attested texts, but we can still learn from the likes of new discoveries of ancient fragments, continued research into text “families,” and new insights that connect things for us.


¹ Here, I do not intend to “implicate” Colborne in particular, but I suspect he would not react negatively to the adjective “absolutist” with respect to his view on divine sovereignty and human will.

² I have dealt with the issue of translation from language to language in multiple prior postings.  It is an important one for any inerrantist of any shade to grapple with.

  • Here is a posting, now three-quarters of a decade old, in which I’m not all that fond of my tone.  I would still stand by the advice given.
  • Here is a far more brief, on-point posting that include this quotation:  “If you know more than one language, you know that it is impossible to translate a long string of text word-for-word.”
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Odd observations for Easter: “God” in the NT

Now would you kindly think nothing odd
About my use of quotes around “God.”

British writer Lynne Truss has aptly proclaimed that “proper punctuation is …  the sign of clear thinking.”  I think I was thinking clearly (this time, at least) when I put quotation marks around “God” in the title of this post.  Here, “God” is a word used as a word, and that usage needs quotation marks, as my father the English teacher taught me.  (I hope that no one clicked out of this post because s/he thought I was going pantheistic or was unsure about whether God figures in prominently in the NT.  Although I will never comprehend God, I don’t think I’m too confused about the referent of the word “God” in the NT.)

Now, to the point and to my higher purpose:  to draw attention to the use of the word “God” in the pages of our New Testaments, following Larry Hurtado, a noted academic and specialist in Christian origins and texts.  Hurtado notes,

The great NT scholar, Nils Dahl, famously wrote an article on “the neglected factor in NT theology,” which was God!  He acutely observed that there were oodles of books on almost every other topic in the NT, but a scant number on “God.”

How interesting that God would be neglected in New Testament theology studies!  In a book of his own, Hurtado attempted to “map the contours” of “God discourse.”  In other words, he inquired how the texts we have appear to refer to God—in the “world full of gods” of the 1st century CE.  As a good biblical and historical scholar, he would attempt to avoid theological presuppositions and worrying about ramifications of anything he might uncover, simply investigating the texts.  In the next excerpt, on one level, Hurtado does deal in theology, but he is primarily making observations based on the textual evidence.

I judge that the discourse about “God” in the NT is “triadic” shaped, with “God” (often further specified as “Father”), Jesus, and the Spirit all prominent.  More specifically, I contend that in the NT writings “God” is so closely linked with Jesus that any adequate discourse about “God” must include adequate reference to Jesus.

I myself don’t find the Spirit nearly as prominent as the other two (see word counts in footnote below¹), or quite as delineated as most find them, although the Spirit is present.  Perhaps Hurtado’s sense of the relative weight of certain passages comes into play here.  The notion that Jesus shares in “divine glory and rule” surely connects to the Kingdom (kingship) of God as well as to the distinctly Christian doctrine that Jesus Christ is God.  While the Holy Spirit of God acts in Acts and appears elsewhere, the story are more about Jesus as teacher, deliverer, and risen Lord and King.

Also, remarkably, the divine Spirit “of God” (or “Holy Spirit”) in some texts is now also identified with reference to Jesus (e.g., Romans 8:9; 1 Peter 1:11; Philippians 1:19; Acts 16:7).  This must surely be a consequence of the NT claim that God has exalted Jesus to share in divine glory and rule.

The discourse about “God” in the NT is triadic in shape, but, interestingly, the worship-pattern (emph. mine  -bc) is dyadic.  That is, “God” and Jesus are invoked, prayed to, reverenced in worship, etc., whereas the Spirit doesn’t figure in the same way.  – L. Hurtado

I’ll bet oodles of evangelical Christians would be surprised at the “dyadic” bit in the last paragraph.  I’m not.  To date, my textual examination in this sphere has not been systematic or in any way scientific, but I’ve found the same absence of examples and suggestions of Spirit-worship.  Years ago, I stopped singing a couple of 3rd stanzas such as “Spirit, We Love You; we worship and adore You.”  I do not seek to downplay the action of God’s Spirit in the world as portrayed in Acts and other places; on the other hand, I do wish to shine a spotlight here on the lack of what we could have been termed a “triadic worship-pattern.”

Find Hurtado’s complete post here, and please feel free to comment here (or there).

Today, tomorrow (Easter Sunday), and beyond, consider Jesus’ willing, intentional, God-ordained sacrifice.  Then consider that God is presented as having raised Jesus, (see Hurtado’s prior post Jesus’ Resurrection: Act of God).  May we worship God the Father and God the Son, all the while seeing such expressions as “Spirit of God,” “Holy Spirit,” and “Spirit of Christ” with new clarity.


¹ Word counts in the NT (based on Greek root-word searches, except where noted):

God—1321
Father—436
Son of God—122
Jesus—911
Christ—536
Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus—224 (Gk. phrase searches)

Total Father/Jesus/Son/Christ references:  >3,200

———–
Spirit (includes other uses of pneuma as breath, wind, etc.)—408
Holy Spirit—23
Spirit of God—3
Spirit of Christ—2
Spirit of His Son—1
Spirit of Jesus (Christ)—2
Spirit of (your) Father—1

Total # of Spirit references:  430 (at least seven of which refer to breath or wind, not deity)

Based on the above, most Christians would assume that there are as many as 415 instances of “Spirit” that refer to a 3rd God-being.  (I do not assume that.)  See for example material presented here:

How would one describe the Indescribable?

Garrett et al on “trinity”

Software will find instances of words near other words.  These stats are interesting, but I don’t suggest that they are the only way to “slice and dice” the verbiage:

  • “Spirit” NEAR (“God” OR “Holy” OR “Jesus” OR “Christ”)—366
  • (“Jesus” OR “Son” OR “Christ”) NEAR “Spirit”—101
  • (“Father” OR “God”) NEAR “Spirit”—150

One must decide for oneself how many different entities are referred to in some passages.  In any event, the “Spirit” references appear far less frequently than Father or Son/Jesus/Christ references.

True and false bits from Isaiah

A Bible study last week reviewed Isaiah 51 and 52 in less than an hour.  This was a bit too quick but better than most.

Being far less familiar with the Old Testament than I should be, it was new to me that “Rahab” can by symbolic of Egypt.  I did a little software “homework” and found that the instances that refer to Egypt occur in Isaiah and the Psalms.  In the history book Joshua (accounting for all the other OT uses), Rahab is not Egypt but is the woman of some fame.  In the New Testament, there are but three instances, and they all refer to the same woman Rahab.

I also learned that, while Isaiah prophesied to the Southern Kingdom (Judah/Benjamin), Jeremiah prophesied to the Northern Kingdom.  That bit didn’t sound right, and sure enough, on checking a source or two, it appears to be false.

It’s also false that the tribes of Judah and Benjamin are found reconstituted in the modern nation-state of Israel.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard it put quite so blatantly, although it is commonly held (but also false, I believe) that modern Israel has biblical, prophetic, and/or theological significance.

It is commonly supposed, that the book we call Isaiah had multiple authors.  Deutero-Isaiah (2nd Isaiah), beginning in our chapter 40, was likely written by at least one other person other than Isaiah—and probably centuries later.  This likelihood was not acknowledged during the study.  More significantly, the nature and identification of the “Servant” character in Isaiah 52 was assumed to be singularly foretelling the Messiah.  I had previously learned that that cannot be the case all the time.  One source identifies a seemingly sensical range or “pyramid” of possibilities for the “Servant”:

  1. The collective nation of Israel
  2. A remnant from among the nation
  3. A single figure

The single figure is particularly easy to interpret as speaking prophetically of Jesus Christ, but it is good first to let the text be heard as it would have been heard in, say, the 8th or 6th or 3rd century B.C.  The nation of Israel was first to be a light and a servant to other the nations.

Story and narrative

It’s an age-old problem—distinguishing between stories on the one hand and stories on the other.  (Yes, that’s what I meant to say.)  The problem is precisely that the word “story” can be used in more than one way!

“Let me tell you a story about the storied history of a three-story house.”

Do you think a story that begins that way would be just a story, or will it be history?  The plot might thicken, or it might not.

Children’s bedtime stories might include “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Curious George Goes to the Fair” and “Peter Rabbit” and “Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” and Bible stories and something about pigs and pancakes.  How will a child learn to distinguish and interpret all this?  (Then there is the comparison between stories about Santa Claus and stories about Jesus, but that’s another story.  I worry about this off and on, but I don’t recall having trouble separating fact from fiction as I moved into preteen years, so I guess my son will be okay, too.)

As skeptics are quick to point out, not every element in a biblical story may be “true” as a 21st-century western mind conceives of “true.”  To be sure, some discrepancies and inconsistencies appear.  I think some of the difficulties may be traced to textual provenance and editing concerns—i.e., we don’t have the original text or even a 2nd-generation copy of it, so we can’t pinpoint how a new word or different spelling crept in.  Other incongruities indicate that ancient writers weren’t concerned with the accurate reporting of “fact” in the same way we are.  Yet the narratives in our Bibles were written to convey important truths, and they are largely structured around historical realities such as the Herodian dynasty, the 2nd/rebuilt temple, the Philistines, or ancient Egypt.

In interpreting narrative, it is both important and helpful to pay attention to the tools of the storytelling trade, such as . . .

  • the presentation and development of characters 
  • the pacing of a story—where it slows down and spends time, and where its gaps occur
  • the setting 

In the area of “setting,” I recommend this short video produced by The Bible Project

So in a flood, which would you read?

So.

Increasingly, the conjunction “so” seems to be used to launch a comment rather than to connect it to something that went before.  News reporters and interviewees seem often to start commentary with “So . . ,” and it sometimes strikes me as though the interviewer is little more than a necessary prelude, interrupting the interviewee’s presumably superior, ongoing observations.

Q:  “Kristi, what are you seeing there at Comdex?”
A:  “So it’s quite the melée this year.  People everywhere.”
Q:  “What is the best new technology you’ve seen?”
A:  “So this great new app by BlitZGen Creations filters out interviewers’ questions, allowing us more knowledgeable commentators to be heard uninterrupted during the livestream experience.  It’s, like, the coolest thing since the mute button.”

Yeah, yeah.  Whatever, Kristi.

So in the livestream of my life, I am unable to keep up with much.  I always seem to get plenty to eat, to my detriment, but parenting items and household tasks and Bible studies and music projects and other things seem to stay in piles in my head—and also in puddles in the corners of life.  Just when I’d completed a couple tasks, so that things looked better this week (life has a way of balancing out like this), a pipe burst, and we got water in our basement.  Since there is no drain, it took hours to mop and sop up an estimated 25-30 gallons, and we’re grateful for the help of a friend yesterday evening.  We will lose a few items like area rugs and maybe a laptop, but many people have had it much worse.  The actual costs involved will doubtless amount to less than our insurance deductible.  In other words, our monetary losses will not be absorbed (ha) by the insurance company.  The impact on us is probably more to time, morale, and strained backs and hands.  Ah, well.

So as thoughts flood into my mind, in an effort to think about something other than the mess and the work ahead, I read a bulletin about a conference on Linguistics and NT Greek.  Then I clicked on a link about a Discourse Analysis lecture and found it took me to a festschrift in honor of one of the lecturers.  So here are the contents of the book (which is lovingly and beneficently marketed by the Logos folks here):

  • “Discourse Analysis as an Aid to Bible Translation”
  • “Why Hasn’t Literary Stylistics Caught on in New Testament Studies?”
  • “Let Me Direct Your Attention: Attention Management and Translation”
  • “How Orality Affects the Use of Pragmatic Particles, and How It Is Relevant for Translation”
  • “Organization and Allusion in Ezekiel 20”
  • “Breaking Perfect Rules: The Traditional Understanding of the Greek Perfect”
  • “Greek Presents, Imperfects, and Aorists in the Synoptic Gospels: Their Contribution to Narrative Structuring”
  • “The Verbal Aspect of the Historical Present Indicative in Narrative”
  • “Particles and Participles: A Helpful Partnership”
  • “The Semantic Effect of Floating Quantifiers in New Testament Greek”
  • “The Discourse Function of ἀλλά in Non-Negative Contexts”
  • “Information Structure Issues in Copular εἶναι Clauses”
  • “Evaluating Luke’s Unnatural Greek: A Look at His Connectives”
  • “The Use of the Article Before Names of Places: Patterns of Use in the Book of Acts”

So which chapters catch your eye?  Which would you read, and why?  I don’t yet know enough about some of those things to satisfy myself . . .

For there is much to learn . . .

Yet I do not tend to learn what I want to learn. . . .

So I will put my own five choices in the comments, hoping a few readers will do the same.


This has been a blogpost brought to you by the alternative/nonstandard use of coordinating conjunctions (and maybe a couple of adverbs).

Gaps

In reading a new John Grisham novel (about my 10th, but the first in several years), I notice a technique used skillfully by the author.  Grisham likes to leave things to the imagination by leaving gaps in the narrative between chapters.  One chapter will end on a dramatic note or with some sense of “what in the world is going to happen with that situation?”  The next chapter start will somewhere entirely different, and the reader understands, within the first couple sentences, that other things have transpired in the meantime.  The gaps are eventually filled in . . . or they might not be materially filled in at all.

Image result for four gospelsThis technique reminds me of the writers or compilers¹ of the gospels—in the unique genre of literature we find in the historic-theological narrative of the four gospels.  The gospels, of course, aren’t legal suspense novels, nor are they intended as historical in terms of news incident reports or history texts today.  The gospels do relate real events that occurred in history, but there are gaps.  I might wish I knew what, if anything, transpired between Matthew 21 and 22.  Part of me longs to know what happened between John 9 and John 10.  I must be content, though, with not knowing whether it was the same crowd of Pharisees.  These “gaps” do not occur only at the ends of “chapters.”  There were no chapters or verses for quite some time, and the ones we have today can be problematic in some instances.  Are we sure that no time transpired between Matthew 4:23 and Matthew 5?  If none did, it affects the interpretation of the so-called “sermon on the mount.”  What about between Mark 8:21 and 8:22, as the reader enters the literary core of that gospel?  There are literary markers that give clues, but in most cases, I’ll have to be content in the un-knowing.

It is important to realize that the Jesus-narratives retained in our four canonical gospels amount to selective literary portraits, not exhaustive documentaries in a meticulous, 21st-century sense.  As such, the gospels tell selected things, putting them in certain orders for their own purposes.   There are gaps in, and re-orderings of, the respective storylines.  The reader should know that time might pass between two events, or the second might have occurred before the first.  Did the “cleansing of the temple” occur late in Jesus’ life, or early in his ministry, as the “contra-optic” John has it?  Did the Nicodemus conversation occur soon after that, or was there a gap of weeks, months, or even years between the two?

I wish I could fill in more of the gaps in the life and teaching of Jesus, but I think I have my hands full with what I already have in my head and heart.


¹ Not one of our four gospels retains a definite authorship attribution, and the names we have associated with each one are based on tradition—strong tradition in some cases, but tradition nonetheless.  I tend to think that each of them was tied in some way to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Perhaps most of the inscribing and compiling of selections of written fragments (and oral traditions) was ultimately the busywork of groups of believers that surrounded each of those men.

Manuscripts, data validity, and textual criticism

More and more, I ponder the nature and provenance of scripture.  Until a few days ago, for instance, I had never stopped to consider that there might have been abbreviations in the original manuscripts of Paul’s letters.  After all, it is clear that he used an amanuensis, and such a methodological setup could easily have involved abbreviations that were later expanded into full forms of words.  This possibility does not threaten my notion(s) of scripture, but it does expand my thinking a little.  If any such thoughts make you uncomfortable, I’m sorry, but please read on.  I think you’ll find that the bits below¹ serve more to shore up than to wear away any moorings.

We have multiple copies of scripture documents from the same period of history, and when we use these copies to check one another, the bottom line is that we have extraordinarily stable and reliable scripture texts.  (The scenario is quite different with most classical, secular works of which perhaps one to three medieval copies survive.)

Agnostic scholar Bart Ehrmann has sensationalized the reality that tens of thousands of manuscript variants exist.  It might well be difficult to put that fact in perspective, if one is ignorant of the fact that 10,000 or more fragmentary manuscripts exist, and that all of them were copied by hand.  And after all, it must be expected that minor variants would exist, especially given that the copies were made over a period of more than 1200 years.  We exist these days in a photocopier world in which minor variants occur only in terms of toner density or pieces of lint that fall onto the glass platen, but the ethos fostered by our duplication scenario was simply inconceivable to the ancients.  Although textual variants were a part of ancient reality, again, according to Hurtado, the percentage of insignificant variants is high—higher than 95%.  These variants do not deserve much individual attention, relatively speaking.  Of the remaining ones, many are very intriguing, but none alter the reality of the Christian faith.

Here is an exceedingly interesting point that makes a good deal of common sense:  when fragments make up the documentary evidence for our sacred texts, the aggregate weight is more convincing if they are randomized than if the selections had been neatly and intentionally chosen.  In other words, if I am a scribe in the 5th century and I want to make a point, I might choose, say, John chapter 6 and part of chapter 7 with a neat beginning and ending.  I might copy that text and disseminate it, wanting my selection to serve a particular purpose and giving it a designated beginning and ending.  On the other hand, if two surviving fragments begin in the middle of different paragraphs and end at different points—one of them, say, ending in the middle of a word, the very fact that the fragmentation has occurred without forethought can help in the process of validation.

Speaking now of more complete copies, as opposed to fragments . . . according to Larry Hurtado, John’s gospel boasts more early, surviving manuscript copies than any other New Testament “book.”²  Hurtado, a recognized expert in the field of Christian origins, also

  • states that there were early Christian “copy centers”—for instance, in Antioch, where master versions were held for the express purpose of making copies for dissemination
  • frequently asserts the generally “bookish” nature of early Christians, even going so far as to say that some early Christians were textual maniacs

I infer from such insights as Hurtado’s that early Christian devotees—either consciously or by providence (or both) were in their writings and disseminations setting forth solid evidence for generations to come.

For a related post on Hurtado’s blog, try here for starters.


¹ Many of these thoughts come from notes I took while listening to a podcast featuring Dr. Larry Hurtado.

² However, Matthew’s gospel seems to have been quoted the most frequently by “church fathers” in the succeeding centuries.

Faith qua allegiance (part 2)

For me, allegiance is a central Christian concept, and it has been throughout my adult life.  In this first post on the word-concept allegiance, I traveled through a bit of personal historyreferring to the relationship of allegiance to human government, songs by Ray Boltz and Rich Mullins, and the influence of Lee Camp.  In the last two years—and especially in the last few months—the place of allegiance has been bolstered considerably in this believer’s thinking.  Allegiance has been inextricably connected to faith itself.

Life can bring great serendipities, synergies, and dovetailings.¹  I note the following that have come in the same phase of my life:

  • a heightened awareness of theological positioning around the word “faith” (and also sovereignty and free will), due in part to a men’s discussion group
  • persistent thoughts about allegiance to God’s Kingdom in a group study of Matthew
  • our home group’s study of Galatians
  • an academic blog’s feature of Dr. Matthew Bates’s 3rd book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Amazon catalog reference here).

Product DetailsWhile I have been mentally and hermeneutically challenged in all of the above, the connections are nevertheless satisfying.  Prior to applying this to my present study of Galatians, I’d like to highlight key portions of the lengthy interview with Matthew Bates (see here for part 1).  Here are the lead paragraphs:

Not since the Reformation has there been a challenge to the five solas as persistent and potentially persuasive as Matthew W. Bates’ third book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).  This book has generated a groundswell of controversy that continues to build as more theologians, pastors, and laypeople are exposed to Bates’ nuanced proposal.

Bates’ thesis, at once radical and obvious, is this:  in the New Testament writings, the Greek word pistis, or “faith,” is better translated as “allegiance.”  He does not intend for every instance of pistis in our Bibles to be retranslated, but for him, there are specific contexts, especially in Paul and the Gospels, in which the only reasonable rendering is “allegiance,” as in the kind of fidelity or loyalty that one would give to a king.

Note that Bates is especially focused on the gospels and Pauline letters, and also note that allegiance is connected to divine sovereignty, something to which most Christians would give assent, to one level or another.  Next, here is a crystallization of what I take as the crux of the issue, from part 2 of the interview:

Interviewer:  Of the Reformation solas, only yours seems completely dependent upon human agency.  All the rest are due to God’s agency, whether that be scriptura, gratia, doxa, fides (as a gift from God, Eph 2:8), or Christos. How would you respond to the criticism that your sixth sola fails to meet the standard of the others due to misplaced agency?

Matthew Bates:  First, I am not arguing for a sixth sola, but primarily seeking to advocate for a truer understanding of sola fide (by faith alone).  My exploration seeks to uphold the solas while seeking greater precision with respect to their true biblical boundaries.  I do conclude that sola gratia (by grace alone) and soli Deo gloria (for the glory of God alone) need to be nuanced in particular ways in order to stay faithful to the biblical vision.  This is because grace and boasting have both been misunderstood with regard to works (of Law).  As far as I am aware, I am not seeking to add distinctive shades of meaning with regard to Christ alone or Scripture alone.

Second, in Salvation by Allegiance Alone I never state that pistis is solely dependent on human agency rather than God’s agency.  In fact, quite the opposite:

Grace in the sense of God’s prior activity precedes ‘faith,’ for God first had to bring about the good news before it could be proclaimed and before allegiance to Jesus as Lord could be confessed (Rom. 10:9–14).  Moreover, God is the creator, and every good gift comes from God (James 1:17), so we must affirm God as the ultimate source of ‘faith’ and all else. (p. 105)

What is being claimed is that faith, enabled by grace, is the only contribution that we make to our salvation. (p. 122)

So I do assert that in some sense the ability to render allegiance to Jesus the king is either due to God’s agency, or is at least a gift bequeathed to our libertarian agency in the wake of the Christ-event.  Yet since Scripture puts far more emphasis on our agency with regard to pistis than God’s agency, throughout the book I frequently speak about our own human agency in giving pistis to Jesus the king (emphasis mine, bc).  In so doing I am trying to give the same weight of emphasis that we find in Scripture.  Yet I deliberately leave the nature of God’s agency with respect to our own underdetermined.

This matter of agency is key for systematic theologians whose formulaic approaches almost make it a spiritual crime to acknowledge a human response to God—or, dare I suggest it, a human initiative in some sense.  Yes, “while we were yet sinners,” God took action.  But that notion does not negate the fact that we now owe God allegiance.  If allegiance is something God enables, fine, but as far as I know, I choose to give it, and I am glad to give it, in my human weakness, when I am at my best.

Matthew W. BatesWith respect to the word “gospel” (ευαγγέλιον | euangélion), Bates makes the statement, “We can’t make decisions about what ‘good news’ means on the basis of our feelings about what sort of ‘news’ would be better for us.”  Bates then points as an example to a popular author who “is allowing systematic concerns about what would be better for us to override first-century meanings.”  Taking what I believe would be classified a synchronic (within a time period) linguistic approach, Bates says, “The meaning of first-century words must be determined by first-century usages.”  He would say the same about the word “faith” (pistis | πίστις ).  In other words, it doesn’t really matter what what a 21st-century regurgitation of a Lutheran “faith alone” theology conveys to the modern Protestant ear.  Recovering as much of a first-century sense of “faith” (pistis) as possible is key to understanding what Paul and others meant when they wrote of “faith.”

Whatever one makes of Bates’s book,² there can be no doubt that coming to grips with a fuller range of meaning of “pistis” is key to a more adequate understanding of New Covenant “faith.”  And so, when I come to Galatians and struggle hermeneutically with whether in 2:16 or “pistis” means faith (RSV, ESV, NIV, etc.) or faithfulness (NET Bible and some more recent commentators), I now have another viable option:  allegiance or loyalty.

I might now paraphrastically expand some Galatians phrases to include the allegiance idea.  Consider a few more traditional English renderings, followed by the “new possibility” in each case.

2:16

ESV:  we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, …

NET:  we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, …

New possibility:  we know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through the Jesus Christ’s faithful allegiance, and we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by Christ’s allegiance, and not by works of the law, . . .

2:20

New possibility:  I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by loyal trust in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

3:2

ESV:  And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, . . .

New possibility:  And the scripture, foreseeing that God would later justify the Gentiles by their faith-filled allegiance to Him, . . .

3:22

ESV:  But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

New possibility:  But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise that emanates from Jesus Christ’s faithful allegiance might be given to those who also believe loyally.

3:26

CSB:  for through faith you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .

New possibility:  for through faithful allegiance you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .

New possibility (expanded):  for through faithful allegiance —first, that of Jesus, and now, your own—you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .

Whether this season is more filled with Santa and snowmen or shepherds and angels for you, consider allegiance to the King.  Perhaps the thoughtless use of phrases such as “newborn king” or “little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay” bothers you a little, as it bothers me.  Still, I affirm that Jesus did become Lord and Christ.  He became King.  And having faith in Jesus implies allegiance to Him as King.


¹ One such dovetailing was when we first engaged in the serious study of Paul’s letter to Philemon—a letter written to a “house church”—with a home fellowship that met in our living and dining room.  What serendipity, right?  (Or providence, if you prefer.)  I’ve written about that more than once.  Try these two:

Community in Philemon
A mini-odyssey with small groups (3 of 6)

² I myself pored over the serial blogposts and am about to order the book but but have not read it yet.

Spot-on advice

Recently published interpretive advice from Dr. Suzanne Nicholson is golden.  I can’t resist extracting bits and phrases for those who may not click the link below.

“Words have different meanings in different contexts”

“looking at the text closely and seeing what is really there”

“not to read 2,000 years of Christian theology into the passage”

“How does the structure highlight the meaning?”

“how does a single passage reinforce the themes of the book?”

“don’t jump straight to application”

The entire post is brief.  Go ahead and read the whole thing.  It will take all of one minute.

Suzanne Nicholson (Malone University) on “What Makes a Good Biblical Scholar or Theologian?”

What? The Qur’an is like the Bible?

A new book aims to introduce the Qur’an from a historical-critical perspective.  I doubt anyone would argue with the first part—the principle of considering a book within a historical frame—but “critical” can set some folks off.  It might help to get over an initial barrier if we thought not about being critical but more along the lines of employing critique

In the publisher’s catalog listing for the new book I noticed a few chapter titles in particular:

4 Literary coherence and secondary revision:  The very idea of examining literary coherence is potentially bothersome to those who discount the human element in their sacred texts—and the suggestion of revision or even developmental phases in the production of said texts, potentially offensive.

6 Intertextuality:  The intertextuality notion deals with the relationship between/among different texts (potentially including non-sacred and chronologically distant ones), as well as others written for altogether different purposes.  Intertextual relationships include both direct and indirect quotations, references, and less explicit “echoes.”

Part Three:  The idea of a “diachronic survey” indicates that it examines through time, taking development into consideration, as opposed to gauging things based on a “snapshot” at one point in time.  I note sub-references to both the “Meccan surahs” and the “Medinan surahs.”  I would have to look up what a surah is, but I have a passing acquaintance with the idea that Muhummad’s ideologies shifted from his early years in Mecca to his later ones in Medina.  See the last part of this post for one key change.

The quotation below is from Larry Hurtado, whose blog was the source for my information.  This is worth sharing on its own merits—for the sake of Christians who care, or at least say they care, about the biblical text.

“No doubt, the book will receive objections from Muslims who imagine the Qur’an to be a miracle, not a historical phenomenon, just as fundamentalist Christians demur from a critical approach to biblical texts.  But, as Sinai notes, an awareness of the historically-conditioned nature of a sacred text doesn’t mean that it’s no longer sacred or meaningful for faith.”  – Dr. Larry Hurtado, https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2017/10/30/a-historical-critical-introduction-to-the-quran/

Postlude:  I once heard of a book titled Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.  I paid little attention at the time, thinking it was little more than a curiosity being shared by a skeptical Episcopalian.  Regardless of certain theologically and socially liberal agendas that the book’s author would appear to support, I focus now on the relationship suggested by the title.  I was not a Fundamentalist even then, and I surely am not now, so it’s not as though I feel the title threatens to wrest something away from me.  The idea of freeing the Bible from certain agendas resonates even more these days than it did a couple decades ago.  I wish this or that fundamentalist view of scripture were seen as a particular type of conservative stance, and not the only viable type.

It would be a good thing if Christian and Muslim adherents alike came to consider the human elements in the production of sacred texts.

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