Textual Optimism: A Critique of the UBS4

I’m on the plane to Tampa and I’m reading Textual Optimism: A Critique of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament by Kent W. Clarke, part of the JSNT monograph series now edited by Stanley Porter,

The opening chapter on the history of (mainly modern) textual criticism is a fine summary, and it would make an excellent class reading assignment. Westcott and Hort get the most space, but that material is readily available elsewhere. Those familiar with it may want to skip to the history of the UBS GNT (and how it relates to the Nestle-Aland series of GNTs).

The focus of this work starts in the second chapter. Here Clark examines the textually optimistic shift in the A-D rating system from UBS 1-3 to UBS4.

Did you follow that? Briefly, the UBS GNTs rate each textual variant unit with the following system:

  • {A} The text is certain.
  • {B} The text is almost certain.
  • {C} The editors had difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text.
  • {D} The editors had great difficulty arriving at a decision.

The remarkable set of statistics Clark has compiled show clearly that while the overall number of treated variants went down slightly from UBS3 to UBS4 (1444 to 1431), the number and percentage of A and B ratings went up significantly while C ratings dropped significantly. The D rating is now almost non-existent: the 144 D’s in UBS3 have decreased to just 9 in all of UBS4.

This could be because the UBS4 has chosen to treat different variants, but Clark rejects that as a sufficient explanation. Here are some of his key summary statements:

“There is…an astonishing upgrade in the UBSGNT4 and, therefore, a newly proposed quality of text.” (90)

“There is a strong tendency for each biblical book (excluding Mark) to move towards an increasing degree of certainty regarding debated readings, and thus, an overall upgrade in the quality of text. These UBSGNT4 modifications progress at an inconsistent rate and are incongruent with those alterations made throughout [previous editions].” (90)

Here are some key stats detailing the shift from UBS3 to UBS4 (the number of ratings is followed by the percentage of the total):

  • {A} ratings: 126 / 9% to 514 / 36%
  • {B} ratings: 475 / 33% to 541 / 38%
  • {C} ratings: 699 / 48% to 367 / 26%
  • {D} ratings: 144 / 10% to 9 / 1%

More exciting statistics to come, D.V.

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A Clear and Present Word by Mark D. Thompson

I’ve been reading a fantastic book called A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture by Moore Theological College’s Mark D. Thompson. It’s part of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, edited by D.A. Carson.

Moore Theological College brings a few names to my mind: Peter D. O’Brien, Graeme Goldsworthy, and a new name whose work on verbal aspect (the latest volume in the Studies in Biblical Greek series) I have to admit is beyond me right now, Con Campbell. Ah, yes, and John A. L. Lee. He wrote a very entertaining volume in the SBG series on the history of New Testament lexicography. The Brits/Aussies seem to write their academic literature with a bit more verve than we Americans do. Maybe I’m wrong.

Back to Thompson’s book…

Thompson makes probably one major point: God goes with His Word. This truth makes the author-reader relationship for the Bible totally unique. Obviously, this truth does not guarantee that all Bible readers will arrive at the same—correct—interpretations. Sin enters the mix through the Fall’s noetic effects. But we can have real confidence (con+fide; i.e., faith) that God’s word is understandable despite modern and postmodern challenges to that faith.

I hope to make some more comments on the book in future posts.

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Answer Not a Fool / Answer a Fool

Prov. 26:4-5, ESV
Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.

The Majority View

D.A. Carson, in a long review of three recent bibliology books, says he has often used the verses above “to demonstrate the way proverbs work: they are not universal case law. The formal divergence in this instance powerfully embraces more comprehensive reflection than either proverb alone could have done.”

I agree with his conclusion, but my jury is still out on whether or not these verses are a good example of it.

Under Carson’s view, the warning could be understood two different ways (cf. UBS Handbook on Prov.): “This verse is a warning, either against taking a fool at his own estimation and giving him a serious reply, or perhaps against speaking to a fool in the same foolish way as he has spoken to you. By doing so you share in his foolishness.”

The Bible Knowledge Commentary, too, says it takes wisdom to know when to apply v.4 and when to apply v.5. Likewise Matthew Henry, the New Bible Commentary, and the New American Commentary. Garrett (NAC) summarizes this view well: “On the one hand, one should not deal with a fool on his own terms lest the imitation of folly become habitual. On the other hand, one must sometimes answer fools in the words they understand in order to reprimand them effectively.”

Waltke Weighs In

But Waltke (NICOT) argues for a different position. He specifically opposes the view that sees these as applying at different times (the NLT clearly takes this interpretation, leaving no ambiguity). They both apply absolutely at all times, he says; and both proverbs (v.4 and v.5) actually call for the wise son to reply to a fool. The first one (v.4) warns him not to be like the fool in his answer–that is, don’t be malicious or self-conceited or what have you. The second one (v.5) tells the son to go ahead and answer the fool with wisdom that flips his world upside down: no longer is he the wise one; he is the fool.

Waltke argues this based on the flexibility of the K (kaph) preposition. It points to an element of similarity, but leaves the point of similarity open to some interpretation: “Joshua is like Moses” could be pointing to his likeness as being a leader or as being a prophet. Interestingly, the LXX seems to support Waltke: it uses different Greek prepositions to render the K. I’m not sure what difference that makes in Greek–perhaps “Do not answer a fool with that foolishness [he just used]” and “Answer a fool against his folly”? I just checked out BDAG on προς (v.4) and κατα (v.5), and I’m not at all sure I can land on renderings which support Waltke’s reasoning. However, that’s due more to my inexpertise in pinpointing prepositional meaning (though what expertise I do have leads me to say that context would be the determiner anyway and that Koine doesn’t get that specific), and the point stands that the LXX chose different prepositions to render the exact same phrase.

One other argument that inclines me toward this view is the simple fact that “Do not answer” is qualified by something rather than nothing. It’s like the difference between saying “Don’t cross the street” and “Don’t cross the street without looking first.” Likewise, “Don’t answer a fool” and “Don’t answer a fool with the same kind of reply he typically gives.” The first command in each example is absolute. The second not only allows the action but actually commends or even commands it.

Murphy (WBC) does a good job bringing up parallel passages, but I find him ultimately unhelpful. He points out that in 17:12 the son is warned that it is better to run into a she-bear robbed of her cubs than to run into a fool. This would seem to support the “Don’t answer at all” position, but that can’t work with the very next verse (26:5)! Vv. 4 and 5 need to work together. They can’t be analyzed discretely. In 26:12b there is “more hope for a fool” than for someone who is “wise in his own eyes.” So maybe there is hope for a fool before he becomes wise in his own eyes.

Waltke seems to be the only commentator who bothers with the actual grammar of the passage. Murphy makes a passing reference to it and others tell us what the kaph preposition “literally” means, but that’s another argument in favor of Waltke.

In sum… I’m close to willing to see the LXX as decisive. But because it could have been style or sloppiness or some unnecessarily fastidious translator who chose the two different renderings, I’m in a strait betwixt Waltke and Carson but leaning slightly toward the former.

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Fair Is Fair

Ok, I caught the NAS adding some interpretation into its translation at a place (Prov. 26:5) where the NIV (and TNIV) were more literal:

NAS Answer a fool as his folly deserves, That he not be wise in his own eyes.

NIV Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.

Yes, the TNIV was more literal than the NAS in the particular phrase I’m focusing on, but look what it did with the gender-neutral third-person singular masculine pronoun:

TNIV Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.

I don’t like changing the number like that. I would honestly be afraid to do such a thing.

For good measure, here are the other major translations I use in BibleWorks:

ESV Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

KJV Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

NET Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own estimation.

CSB Answer a fool according to his foolishness, or he’ll become wise in his own eyes.

NLT Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools, or they will become wise in their own estimation.

NKJ Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own eyes.

LXX: αλλα αποκρινου αφρονι κατα την αφροσυνην αυτου ινα μη φαινηται σοφος παρ εαυτω

Next up: a post on this verse and the preceding one, a famous pair.

New York Times’ Kristof on Evangelicals

Nick Kristof is a very entertaining and informative columnist/opinion-writer/humanitarian/world-traveler. I was quite excited when the New York Times made its “Times Select” online content available free to students because I knew it meant I’d finally be reading Kristof right when his material came out!

Kristof has literally given his blood for the poor of the third world. He doesn’t care so much about the label worn by those who join him in this work. Though he speaks openly of his liberal views, he gives much more than grudging respect to his opponents when they deserve it.

This is just what he has done in his latest opinion piece in today’s NYT. Kristof praises evangelicals for some of the changes which have taken place in their public and private faces.

You’ll need to decide for yourself whether the moves Kristof praises are all truly praiseworthy. Evangelicalism’s move into social issues can either be a social-gospel liberalization which bodes (more) ill for the movement, or it can be a robustly theological call to the gospel-moored, full-orbed “good works” that Paul enjoins over and over again in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim. 2:10; 5:10, 25; 6:18; 2 Tim. 3:17; Tit. 2:7, 14; 3:8, 14). I tend to think it’s a lot of the former and a little of the latter.

All the same, a prominent non-Christian for whom I have real respect has just shown major cross-cultural, cross-aisle grace. This should not go unnoticed.