Friday, December 10, 2010

Ben Witherington on TC

Ben Witherington graciously put himself on the record in a video interview with Simon Smart (about 4 months ago) here: Witherington Interview.

Starting on minute 4, Ben begins to give us a sketch of his TC position:
"I agree with professor Metzger, when he says, that 'only about 2 to 5% of the textual variants are of any theological or ethical significance at all;' and, he goes on to say, 'and there are no major doctrines that are in any way compromised by these textual variants', - because, there are other texts where there is no doubt about what was the original text, or a very high degree of certainty about the original text where you find the same theological or ethical idea, - so no."
Dr. Witherington is obviously a Metzgerite, but is he a Hortian? Apparently so. He gives a description of textual criticism, which, however brief, plainly takes the standard Hortian view:
[5:55] "Well there's a whole scientific process of critical sifting that you go through to decide what the original reading is, I mean, we have a whole series of rules that we follow when you do textual criticism;

One of them which would be 'Our earliest witnesses, are likely to be our best witnesses:' the closer to the source, the more likely its going to be accurate.

Another rule would be, 'A multiply attested witness', a witness that we find in an Alexandrian text, and in the B manuscript [Vaticanus], and even in the Western text over here, in other words, geographical spread in where these manuscripts were copied: When we find the same reading in a variety of places, its more likely to be original than a 'one off' reading that came from Syria, okay?

[6:48] Or another good example would be, 'the reading that best explains the other readings' is more likely to be original because what you try to do is, you create a sort of stemma or tree, to get back to the root, and the root is going to be the one from which all these other readings could have come, - these other readings couldn't all be the root, you see, so that's another way of looking at it;

[7:14] And lastly, we have the rule of 'the more difficult reading is likely to be original', I'll give you a good example; In the vast majority of our manuscripts of Mark [Mk. 10:18] at this particular juncture, a young man comes to Jesus and says "Good teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?" and Jesus just about bites his head off: - in our best text it reads "Why do you call me good? Nobody's good but God alone!" Wow! he he, you know now thats a difficult text, thats a hard reading; is Jesus denying that he's good? Is Jesus denying that he's God? The more difficult reading is likely to be original. Why? Because we know that devout pious Christian scribes were likely to wittle off the hard edges of the text.
[8:00] Some texts read: "Why do you ask me about the 'good'?" - not 'why do you call me good?', - 'why do you ask me the philosophical question about 'the good'?' Well that is definitely an ameliorating reading. Its this like "whew, we're glad Jesus wasn't denying He was good." So the scribe is sort of wiping his brow and saying 'okay I saved Jesus that faux paus.' Well yes, you do have some of that, its true that scribes were very concerned about a clear picture, uh, an orthodox picture of Jesus, and so there is some editing, ameliorating tendencies.

[8:40] That's why, um, to me one of the most exciting things I can tell you about NT studies in the past 150 years, is that we are closer now today to the original text of the Greek NT than at any time in human history since about the 2nd or 3rd century A.D.
[8:56] We now have over 5,000 whole or partial MSS of the GNT, we even have some bits of MSS from the 2nd century papyri, we are getting closer and closer to the original text. And the value textual study, textual criticism, is we are reconstructing the original text and we are becoming more and more certain about what it actually said so more and more of the variant textual readings are falling by the wayside, and uh, you know and probably not in my lifetime, but perhaps in the 21st century, we may well have a condition where we've got 99% of the original text of the Greek NT established with a high degree of certainty. Well that's exciting, you know, we're getting there but its a work in progress. "
Well, Witherington is wise enough to carefully skirt quoting the infamous canon: "prefer the shorter reading". He is well aware that this 'Canon' has been all but abandoned quietly by contemporary textual critics. See for instance Royse, here: Royse on Shorter Readings

But he has no qualms riffling off another four dubious 'canons' of NT Textual criticism, and claiming "scientific" status for the current state of the art.

- It is as if these four 'canons' simply and easily solved the majority of Variation Units, and there was no doubt or challenge to the textual emendations of the last 150 years by Unitarian and Rationalist critics.

But his handling of his four 'Canons' is itself suspect:

(1) Oldest reading: Of course the logic seems undeniable: purity increases as we get "closer to the source". But first, Witherington knows that the age of a manuscript does not coincide with the age of the text it contains, and these are often quite different. Manuscript Age is not a reliable indicator of the text. Second, there is a difference between physical distance in time and copy-generational difference. A manuscript could be 5th or 6th century (as with many Old Latin copies) but might only be a few copies away from their 2nd century source. Third,even the oldest manuscripts may be many generations away from the original text, while later copies might in fact be much closer. Codex Bezae (5th cent.) is an example, where many critics have assessed it to contain a very early (2nd cent. Western) text.

(2) Multiple Attestation: Witherington equates this to geographical spread. But the justification is weak. Copies traveled throughout the Roman Empire via traveling preachers like St. Paul and Luke. In his example, he only uses it to dismiss Syrian readings, even though the Old Syriac reaches into the 2nd century, and its a whole Version with multiple MS and Patristic support, not just a single manuscript. Why not use the same principle and argument to dismiss the peculiar readings of Aleph/B, and embrace the widely supported Traditional (Byzantine) text?

(3) The Reading that explains the others: This is in reality little more than a pipe-dream, part of the wish-list of textual critics. Most Variation Units simply don't cooperate by presenting features that account for variant readings. This would only work for accidental readings anyway, but many edits, as Witherington concedes, are deliberate. His quote of Metzger's "2-5%" is ridiculously unrealistic, and the real percentage is probably more in the 40-50% range for accidental/deliberate.

(4) The more 'difficult' reading: When originally proposed, Bengel, Griesbach etc. intended this to apply to theologically difficult, in the context of later controversies and scribal concerns. It cannot apply to accidental errors, which according to Witherington amount to some 95-97% of variants!!! What a useless rule, that can only deal with 2-5% of variants...

The rosey picture Witherington paints of "readings falling by the wayside" is in fact just a falsification of the true deplorable state of affairs.

In fact, what has been happening, is that publishers of modern critical Greek texts have been dumbing down the apparatus, and omitting hundreds of important variations, while secretly embracing the Westcott/Hort text. Its now a game of 'hide and seek', with textual critics pretending to have established the text, while covering their Hortian tracks. Textual critics have taken a cue from ethically immoral corporations, building layers of disinformation and isolation to push the consumer further and further away from discovery of the true quality of the product and their unethical standards.

His position is clear from his statement about being,
" the original text...than at any time...since about the 2nd or 3rd century"
that is, Dr. Witherington is 90%+ Hortian, and believes the current crop of critical texts, all standing in about 90% agreement with Hort's text (against the Traditional, Byzantine, and/or TR) and based on the Aleph/B and Alexandrian papyri, are closest to the original text.

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