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.
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:
- God caused the errors, or
- God allowed the errors, or
- 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.”