I’m curious about whether any of you pastors and scholars have opinions on how textual criticism finds its way into sermons on Sunday. Perhaps the question needs to be stated as Should preachers talk about textual criticism?
Some of you might be wondering what, on God’s green earth, is textual criticism. That is a great question! The Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies has a decent summary:
“The scholarly discipline of establishing the text as near to the original as possible or probable (also known as lower criticism). Since we no longer have any original manuscripts, or “autographs,” scholars must sort and evaluate the extant copies with their variant wordings. For example, errors commonly occur when letters are confused (in Hebrew the dālet [ד]and the rȇš [ר]are easily confused), when letters and words are omitted (haplography; homoioteleuton) or written more than once (dittography), and when letters are transposed (metathesis) or juxtaposed from parallel words or texts. The textual critic not only sorts through manuscripts and fragments for copyist errors but also considers early translations (such as the Vulgate or Peshitta) and lectionaries for their witness to the text. For example, the Septuagint sometimes has a reading that appears older or closer to what scholars think was the original text of the Hebrew Bible and can form the basis of an emendation (a correction of a text that seems to have been corrupted in transmission). It is not always clear, however, when an ancient translation is preserving a different text or rendering a word or verse in a more comprehensible way. Textual criticism is often seen as the most objective of the various biblical criticisms because there are clear rules governing the establishment of texts. However, judgments regarding any textual reading involve an element of interpretation, so disagreements remain.
Obviously, if a pastor does his exegetical work in preparation for a sermon, he is going to encounter issues related to textual criticism. For example, should Mark 9:29 read, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” or “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting”? The differences are subtle, yet one can imagine how some people might begin to take a different perspective on the necessity of fasting based off of one reading versus the other.
Or perhaps we can consider whether we should even preach from texts such as John 7:53-8:11 (the woman caught in adultery) or Mark 16:9-20 (the longer ending to Mark). Many scholars doubt that those portions of the text are actually original to the biblical authors. I personally do not believe they are original, so the question then becomes: should I preach through what isn’t original to John or Mark? (I would say “yes” on John and “no” on Mark)
The bottom line is that most people who are sitting in the seats and listening to our sermons probably don’t have much of an understanding on things like textual criticism. Some of them might be interested, but in my experience, people are less likely to find this scholarly discipline of much interest. Hence, my question remains: should preachers discuss it?
I personally don’t think we can say that textual criticism isn’t important. That is a foolish idea. We also can’t say that people aren’t asking difficult questions related to the formation of the Scriptures. If we are trying to instill a trustworthiness in Scripture, ignoring this issue won’t make that happen, especially if people read any of the works by skeptics such as Dawkins, Harris, or Ehrman. Those folks are constantly attacking the truthfulness of the Bible and they often do so byway of textual criticism!!
With that being said, if one is not careful, a poor handling of the issue of textual criticism will easily not serve to help the Church. If one doesn’t present the facts, what we do know, than people can easily become suspect of whether they can trust the Bible as God’s book written by his people to testify of his works and ultimately of Jesus and his life, ministry, death, and resurrection (and return!!).
So there is a right and wrong way to do it, if we should do it (how is that for laying my cards while not showing them all?).
One example worthy of mention, I think, would be how John Piper handled the Johannine text previously cited (read sermon here). It is important to state thatnPiper’s congregation is far more biblically informed and theologically inclined than other congregations, so what he does here is not something that every pastor should attempt. Yet I think he does a splendid job of dealing with textual criticism on a Sunday. I probably went be as detailed myself, but perhaps I should!
What do you think? Have you ever spoke on the subject? If so, how did you talk about its. Did people walk away having a better understanding or did you feel like it was too confusing?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.
OK, I think ultimately its unavoidable. Many Bibles in the hands of the congregation discuss alternative readings based on variants. Many people still have the KJV or NKJV with passages/readings not in modern translations. As you said the New Atheists are talking about it. For sermons I don’t think you necessarily even have to say the phrase “textual criticism” or go into any kind of depth on the topic – but you will need to explain at times that older manuscripts lead us to believe some traditional texts or readings aren’t correct. There should be something available for people to learn more about it if they have further questions or interest. The Credo House just taped a full semester’s worth of lessons on the topic by Dan Wallace. Also, I am teaching a New Testament Introduction class at my church this Fall and Spring where we will spend at least an hour and a half discussing this topic alone for the NT.
a couple thoughts: 1. some of those questionable passages like John 7-8 may not be original to their present location, but have been part of the Jesus stories (i.e. the gospels) since a very early date. that adulterous woman passage has been shuffled around in more than one gospel and has always been considered a true Jesus story; the question is thus, how do we use it? 2. I think some of the ecclesiologies that see the church as a classroom (according to Karkkeinen, restoration movement churches, reformed churches or the like) may be more appropriate places to natively discuss textual criticism from the pulpit than are others. From my experience, when the Davinci code and some other films came out, there were some very appropriate times to discuss textual criticism, in a way that really edified church members – and also drew some popular attention and helped make inroads for the gospel. Unfortunately, the time invested in order to discuss this properly was exorbitant.
Love your comments, Mike. Totally agree that it depends upon the ecclesiological form and methodology…
I think in the end the congregation needs to understand textual criticisms. Whether this happens on Sunday or not is not important. I think Churches need to be disciplining people to a fuller understanding of scriptures.
Of course we would not have this the problem is people just stuck to the correct Greek text, you know the Byzantine text 🙂
How cute! Some one is claiming the Majority Text as “correct”! I didn’t know many of you people existed! I want to electronically pinch your cheek! 😉
People like me have existed for atleast 1600 years. The Alexandrian text
is only from the last 200 years. In the new creation you will have a
lots of cheeks to pinch 🙂
I would love to know how you figure those numbers out 😉 The Alexandrian text has manuscripts dating to c. 200AD, which means it is much older than “from the last 200 years.”
Of course, if we are talking archeological discovery or whatnot, cool.
But like I said, it is fun “discovering” you people still exist, haha!
Thankfully, advocates of the Alexandrian Text existed in the Patristics, so we got some folks up in heaven to do all the cheek pinching!! 😉
Of course, just to be clear, I am tongue-in-cheek here 😉 As in jesting… 🙂
I guess i should explain my numbers. Anyway this thread has degenerated into a Byzantine vs Alexandrian text :).
I do understand the two views and that a lot really depends on how you come about in-errancy. One view is trying to answer the questions, “what was originally written”? The other view tries to answer the question, “what text was canonized”? I don’t think there is an easy answer, but i obviously lean towards answering the question, what was canonized. So, that is where i get the 1600 years from. The 200 years for Alexandrian might be unfair, because i left out the coptics who maintained that tradition from patristic times.
Since it’s my blog, I shall allow the degeneration, ha ha! It’s not very often that I get to have a fun conversation about textual criticism. The subject was a significant portion of my seminary education, as I took as many electives on the subject as I could! I thought it’d be more important than it has proven to be for this pastor, ha ha!
Anyway, I actually agree with you regarding the issue evolving from “what the traditional biblical author is though to have written” to “what has been the accepted reading throughout the history of the church.” In other words, it’s far more complex than just picking either the Majority or Minority Text. After all, even those text families have their own differences from within. As you probably know, within the Byzantine family, there are numerous differences.
That’s why I can say that I would preach through John 8 with no problem and that I believe it was both not written by John but is a true story. I would not, however, preach through Mark 16 as if it were the inspired text because I think it can demonstrated both textually and historically that it’s somewhat “suspect.”
So I’m with you on the need to consider the canonical issues!
I’m curious, Luke. If you accept the story in John 7:53–8:11 as canon on the basis that it is a true story, regardless of its authorship, why do you consider the canonicity of Mark 16:9–20 to be dubious on textual and historical grounds? Is it being true (side note: I invite you to elaborate on what you mean by “true” in this context) or being original that makes a passage canonical?
Jon, here’s a quick response (I’m in the middle of trying to finish organizing my library!!):
First, I would actually want to qualify the words “canon” and “canonicity” here because I think, as Samuel pointed out earlier, there are issues here that we often lump together. Whether something is “original to the author” or not, in my opinion, is not the test of canonicity. As anyone who knows anything about textual criticism knows, the text had later editors. I have no problem assuming those later editors were actually used by the Spirit (e.g., http://thinktheology.org/inspired-author-editor/). So I don’t tie “infallibility” or “inerrancy” directly to whether or not something can be traced back to a specific author.
Anyway, my answer to your question is simply a hunch, ha ha! I “accept” the Johannine text as a reliable story about something that historically happened, although I also acknowledge that my acceptance is more of a “hunch” or “risk” than other texts that I’m more convinced upon.
My hunch regarding Mark 16 is a bit different. I think someone probably just tried to tie up the end of the story. It’s not that I find it demonic or anything like that, just not as likely as what I read in John.
Of course, that’s kind of a hunch, and as I think about it and read the text a bit more, maybe I would treat Mark 16 the same as John 8… not sure. I’d have to think about it more. Mark 16 has always just raised a lot of textual concerns for me, whereas John 7-8 hasn’t so much.
That’s my current thoughts… that might change if I spend more time on the subject.
back to organizing…
I make it a general rule to avoid including such things in a sermon unless ABSOLUTELY necessary. For most congregants, discussions of syntax, semantics, transmission history, redaction, textual variations, etc., are at best just gobbledygook and at worst downright disconcerting. The preacher needs to understand all these things and to let them inform his or her sermon, but the sermon itself should present the fruit of that research, not a summary of the research. There are always exceptions, of course, but those are few and far between.
Luke – how you possibly ever consider accepting Jn. 7:53-8:11 but not Mark 16:9-20?? What is your basis for currently rejecting Mark 16:9-20? Metzger??
Yours in Christ,
James Snapp, Jr.