Wisdom from Peter Williams on Textual Criticism
Peter Williams is a treasure. These lectures contain some absolute gold, and they give me that lovely feeling of being right, of being validated by someone smarter than oneself. Indeed, some of his key points are things I have come to realize on my own—though he states them so much better, and he bases them on greater quantities of nerdy gumshoeing in primary sources. (For example, he went digging in Erasmus’ Annotations in order to show that he was aware of a huge number of textual variants that we know about.)
Here is a point that I have made, and one Randy Leedy has kind of made, too:
I would say, when we’re involved in the Greek New Testament at Tyndale House, we’re only editors. My job is not to restore a Greek text that God hasn’t chosen to give us. My job is to use the manuscripts that God has given us to do the best job of presenting [a printed text] to people. But when I present it to people, I say, “This is my editorial decision; I’m not saying that I’m infallible at this point.” And if you’re a translator or an interpreter, you’re explaining the Bible to people, it’s exactly the same. That’s all you are: your job is to do what a scribe does. A scribe tries to pass on as well he can; your job is to pass on as well as you can.
Here’s the related point Leedy made:
My own weaknesses as a reader expose me to far more significant misunderstanding than the manuscript differences do, so by far the greatest problems that God must overcome in order to talk to me are within me, not within the transmission process.
This is all a corollary of the overall viewpoint of those who use the critical text: the differences between the major options out there are not nearly as significant, doctrinally speaking (actually, they’re not doctrinally significant), as the fallenness and finiteness of interpreters. Leedy makes a positive point: Christians of every conceivable theological perspective write theological books in which they cite Scripture texts (John 3:16; Rom 5:8) without specifying which translation or text readers should look it up in. I could say it negatively: there were plenty of theological problems before 1881, the year of the release of the first critical text.
Williams then makes another comment that draws together threads in my own thinking. I’ve seen this, too:
It’s an interesting thing that people nowadays have more doubts about the text of the New Testament than they’ve ever had. And yet the gap between our earliest New Testament manuscripts and the time of writing is getting smaller and smaller. So, in other words, the amount of doubt is inversely proportionate to the amount of evidence!…
He makes then a wise comment that I hadn’t thought of, surrounding a thought I did have. What I did realize some time ago is that challenges to the Greek New Testament which claim that it suppressed other variants that didn’t support the “orthodox” party are asking today’s orthodox to prove a universal negative. There is simply no evidence that substantially different versions of the Greek New Testament ever existed. Check out how Williams responds to unbelieving critics. I found this very helpful:
There’s always going to be a gap. Even if I had a photo of Moses coming down the mountain with the tablets from God, you could always say, “What did he do before he came around the corner?” There’s always a gap. People can always say, “What happened before the earliest thing?” But what I want to say is, “Look, I cannot prove that there’s been no change. I don’t need to prove that there’s been no change, because that’s a proving a negative, and you can’t prove a negative like that. I can say that there’s absolutely no reason to believe that there has been change. And I can also say that based on everything we know about transmission, if we extrapolate that back—rather than say, “Before our earliest witnesses, everything was very different”—we see a huge amount of stability. What skeptics want us to do is say, “You’ve got all that evidence for centuries of stability, but just before your earliest witness, someone did something really mischievous.” And the thing about that is that they’d have to be really clever and really well financed in order to do something so mischievous that they could mess things up for future generations.
That last one is something I’ve thought, too—how exactly is someone supposed to change the Greek New Testament without leaving any evidence that another version existed? This party would have to have utterly immense money and power—and the faith of every last professing Christian who had any part of the Greek New Testament in his or her possession. Observe how angrily the ancient congregation responded when a Latin translation changed the word for “gourd.” There’s no way you could get away with large-scale changes of a sacred text used by people spread over a huge geographical area.