Monday, 11 August 2008

Developments in Textual Criticism and the Münster Colloquium

25 years ago, people were writing articles about the death of textual criticism, as if everything that could be said about the field had already been said.

Now, we are experiencing some important developments in various aspects of the field. Specifically, we are facing a major attack on the reliability of the transmission of the text, as well as a new method behind the publication of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament text.

Last week, the Institute for New Testament Text Formation Research (INTF) held a major colloquium in which about 55 of the very best text critics were present. If you care to know, I'm talking about people such as Eldon Epp, Larry Hurtado, Barbara Aland and all the Münster people, David Parker and the Birmingham [England] people, the Tyndale House people, Dan Wallace, Bill Warren, Tjitze Baarda and the Amsterdam people, Joel DeLobel, Paul Foster, David Trobisch, Maurice Robinson, Michael Holmes.) No, Bart didn't come.

I was the junior-most member present. I was entirely star-struck, but all the legends of the field were so gracious and warm and welcoming. We all stayed at a hotel which had a couple of lounges which were conducive to sitting down and chatting over coffee, even to the late hours of the evening. We had our meals together too. These personable conversations were so good that the conference was worth attending even if you didn't attend any of the sessions.

Early on, it became obvious that a good number of people think that the transmission of the text from about 80 C.E. to 170 C.E. was so wild and erratic that we will never be able to backtrack from our oldest manuscripts (late second to early third century) to the "original" text.

My PhD project focuses on this particular issue as it is reflected in one particular "wild" manuscript which is one of the oldest manuscripts of Matthew's Gospel.

The other major issue is the new method for assessing textual variation being used by the INTF which produces the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament text. This is THE critical text which serves (more or less) as the basis for all our recent translations of the New Testament, as well as most commentaries.

INTF has developed a computer program which charts the relatedness of a given textual variant to other variants in the same variant unit. They call it the Coherence Based Genealogical Method (CBGM), although some people are simply calling it the Münster method. The method is probably too complex for me to understand, let alone explain. In fact, one of the concerns is that so few outsiders understand it well enough to be able to critique it. Nonetheless, the Nestle-Aland 28th ed will be corrected against it in the Catholic Epistles (i.e., James-3 John) when it comes out in 2010.

An interesting result of the Münster method is that it is finding more and more individual Byzantine readings to be more plausible. This accords well with the general flow of textual criticism over the last 20 or 30 years. I should hasten to say that this does nothing to help out the theory of the priority of the Byzantine text, but simply reinforces the notion that one cannot dismiss a reading simply because it is Byzantine.

One would have thought that Maurice Robinson--one of the world's only Byzantine priortists--would have been pleased to hear that the Münster method was pushing for more Byzantine readings. I talked to him about the issue on several times. Prof. Robinson has to be one of the very nicest, most engaging, and most interesting personas in all of textual criticism.

If I understood him correctly, Prof. Robinson says that he has read every article written by Gerd Mink (the brains behind the Münster Method) whether in German or in English. While many were hesitant to accept the method on the basis that they really didn’t understand it, Prof. Robinson was stating that he opposed the method precisely because he did understand it. He claimed that if he were to feed his presuppositions into the computer’s programming, the Münster method would spit out a Byzantine Priority schema.

To be sure, Prof. Robinson often has a way of seeing the otherwise overlooked elephant in the room. However, condemnation from one corner of the room probably is not enough to dismiss the Münster method. It will be interesting to see how people like Dan Wallace (Dallas Seminary), Bill Warren (New Orleans Baptist Seminary), the Tyndale House people, and Epp and Holmes react to it in the coming years. David Parker and Birmingham seem to be solidly behind the method.

One wonders if all this will lead to a competing edition of the Greek New Testament.

For a more robust review and discussion of the colloquium, go here and to the blog posts prior to it:

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