Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration

"...there is a wealth of masterful scholarship to recommend to a Mormon audience, even the more conservative members therein.  The authors are appropriately reserved in their judgments, always seeking to illuminate, never to point accusatory fingers.  Reading [the book] left me amazed"


Title: The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration
Author: Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Bible History

Year Published: 2005
Number of Pages: 384
Binding: Paperback
ISBN10: 019516122X
ISBN13: 978-0195161229
Price: $49.95

Reviewed by Bryan Buchanan for the Association for Mormon Letters

ÂA Bible, a Bible, we have a Bible and we donÂt really care where it came from, thank you very much. Unfortunately, this sums up the attitude of many Mormons toward the Bible.  This is even more surprising given very clear statements from Joseph Smith as to the imperfect nature thereof.  Between the 8th Article of Faith and his personal thoughts: ÂI believe the bible, as it ought to be, as it came from the pen of the original writers (sermon of October 14, 1843 as reported by Willard Richards in *Words of Joseph Smith*, 256), one certainly cannot accuse Smith of holding a view of biblical inerrancy.  As Philip Barlow has concisely demonstrated in *Mormons and the Bible,* subsequent generations of Mormons developed a hands†off position toward textual studies of any portion of the Bible (see chapter 4).  The result is that many are unaware of the fascinating and complex origins of the New Testament, a field that Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman elucidate in *The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration* (hereafter TNT).  Metzger is considered by many the dean of New Testament studies and Ehrman, though his later books have increasingly been written for a popular audience, has amassed no mean portfolio himself.

Though designed primarily as a textbook, TNT does not read like a stereotypical exemplar.  The scholarship, solid throughout, is complemented by just the right amount of mildly tangential back stories and enticing tidbits (in my opinion, what Ehrman brings to the table in this partnership).  At first glance, the first chapter on the production of ancient books seemed unnecessary but, as I read further, I appreciated the value of the intricacies of papyrus scrolls and parchment/vellum codices (plus, being able to outline the sexy lifecycle of a Âpalimpsest never hurts with the ladies).

The heart of New Testament textual criticism is identification and contextualization of the numerous witnesses.  As Metzger and Ehrman point out, New Testament scholars are faced with a relative Âembarrassment of source material compared with other classicists.  They outline three main families of textual development: Western (characterized by a free, often paraphrastic style), Alexandrian (early and preciseÂthey feel this family stays closest to the Âoriginal text) and Byzantine (late and marked by harmonization and Âsmoothing of the text).  Concise descriptions are also given of important individual early manuscripts.  Perhaps more than in any other sections of the book, these portions demonstrate the value of TNT: entire fields of study and centuries of research are expressed in simple prose and understandable conclusions without any dumbing†down.  Though such an effort could easily descend into a seemingly interminable progression of dates and numbers, the authors spice up the ride with details such as the enormous size of Codex Gigas (ÂgiantÂ)Âeach leaf measures 36 x 20 inches!

For me, reading TNT during the 400th anniversary of the King James Version generated increased interest in the tale of the progression of compiling and publishing editions of the Greek New Testament.  The Greek text used by KJV translators descended in large part from Desiderius Erasmus edition of 1516, the first to be published (though not the first printed).  Erasmus used several very late (12th C) minuscule texts and, in some cases, translated portions back into Greek from the Vulgate Âa textual cobbler if there ever were one.  As might be expected, English translations based on great†great†grandchildren of Erasmus production were Ânew wine [in] old bottles (the KJV rendering, of course).  Perhaps the most famous example Metzger and Ehrman give is the explicitly trinitarian Johannine Comma of I John 5:7†8Âfound in a paltry eight Greek manuscripts in a pool numbering in the thousands (though the authors point out that textual witnesses have to be contextualizedÂitÂs not just a popularity contest) but destined for a long lifespan in English thanks in large part to Erasmus.

The successive generations of Greek NT editions developed an increasingly hostile (and inexplicable!) reaction to any hint of anyone veering from the Textus Receptus that, once on its lofty perch, staunchly refused to come down.  In some corners, rebuttals to Âtextual liberals took on a fundamentalist tone.  Metzger and Ehrman summarize the feelings of one churchman thusly: Âif the words of Scripture had been dictated by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, God would not have providentially prevented them from being seriously corrupted during the course of their transmission. Any LDS observer familiar with the staunch pro†KJV stance of post†J.  Reuben Clark Mormonism can well imagine such words appearing in a Mormon forum.  Not until 1831 and the publication of a version of the Greek NT by Karl Lachmann, a German philologist, did someone finally break entirely with the Textus Receptus, a move that earned him the title of ÂBentleyÂs ape. (Richard Bentley, an 18th Century classicist, had devised a grandiose plan for replicating the text of the NT as it would have appeared in the 4th Century through a tedious comparison of variants but unfortunately died before publishing anything.  Thus, rather than lauding Lachmann for improving the scholarship, critics simply derided him for "aping" earlier efforts.) However, from that point onward, scholars began to use the burgeoning corpus of increasingly earlier and better manuscripts to refine and hone the critical text.  Metzger and Ehrman document many hiccups along the way as editors slugged it out in the process of determining the relative value of the many variants available to them.

It should be emphasized that these variants are not what some Mormons might envision: massive chunks overtly proclaiming a corporeal God or organizational charts drawn up by Paul showing where deacons, teachers, priests and presiding General Authorities were supposed to sit at spring and fall general conferences in Ephesus that suddenly disappeared from the New Testament.  As Metzger and Ehrman demonstrate, many variants can be chalked up to simple errors innate in a system of manual copying (misreading, mishearing or accidentally copying marginal notes into the text proper).  Even those variants that are clearly intentional reflect a desire to harmonize or remove historically sticky points (such as those in the birth narratives of the Gospels), not excise entire doctrinal topics in a wholesale manner.

TNT is a masterpiece of both scholarship and brevity.  Metzger and Ehrman manage to contain an incredible amount of detail within two covers without the reader realizing it.  Finishing this Âtextbook felt like running several miles while playing basketball rather than slogging through a 5K in June, the unfortunate taste left in my mouth after many academic texts.  The only thing I would like to have seen done differently deals with the theory of the Alexandrian textual priority.  Some (admittedly in the minority) scholars have criticized this theory, claiming that the evidence is not solid enough to rely so much on this textual family.  Though Metzger and Ehrman do bring up this opposition, I would have liked a more thorough discussion and rebuttal of these claims.  That being said, there is a wealth of masterful scholarship to recommend to a Mormon audience, even the more conservative members therein.  The authors are appropriately reserved in their judgments, always seeking to illuminate, never to point accusatory fingers.  Reading TNT left me amazed at the incredibly intricate work of so many generations of NT scholarsÂas a lazy man, I am perfectly content to cheat off them!

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