He told them: "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things" (Gospel of Luke 24: 46-48)

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Bart Ehrman on New Testament Textual Criticism: Has the Text Been Lost in the Process?

A common misconception among the common individual is to view the present New Testament scripture to be the result of centuries of scribal errors, caused by continuous trends of scribal weakness, which consequently changed its text and meaning, rendering the original text as completely lost.

However, the common reader might reach this conclusion by misunderstanding the common terms and wording within the field of textual criticism and hence they misrepresent the actual of view of textual scholars such as Bruce Metzger, Bart Ehrman and F.F. Bruce among others.

Yet has the New Testament text undergone any serious changes due to centuries of scribal copying? And have scribal errors caused the original text and meaning to vanish; lets consider the wording of the popular textual critic Bart Ehrman:

Ehrman writes:

Most changes are careless errors that are easily recognised and corrected. Christian scribes often made mistakes simply because they were tired or inattentive...In spite of the remarkable differences among our manuscripts, scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the oldest form of the words of the New Testament with a reasonable (though not 100 percent accuracy) (Barth Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battle for the Scripture and Faith We Never Knew, pp. 220-21).

Ehrman agrees in his later book Misquoting Jesus:

For my part however, I continue to think that even if we cannot be 100 percent certain...that it is at least possible to get back to the oldest and earliest stage of the manuscript tradition...This oldest form of the text is no doubt closely (very closely) related to what the author originally wrote’ (Barth Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, p. 62)

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Why I accept Form-Criticism but don't buy the Form-Critical theory

Just a few words on the Bible and form-criticism.

Form criticism as a method is not necessarily an enemy of Christianity as often presumed.
In fact form ciriticism has privileged us to recognise and study the variaty of forms and genres in the Gospels.

However Form criticism as a theory is a different matter.

While Form Criticism applies the methods that may be reasonable for Christians to take on board, the theory also carries a number of presuppositions (which I would call blunders) that Christians need to be aware of.

Firstly, it presupposes that the society of the first century was utter chaos, for example, that people generally, were unable to read, passive and unable to memorize and preserve information, unable to remain united or to organise themselves.

However, this description of the early Christian community is utterly wrong.

The ancient world was highly concerned about preservation even among the illiterate.

Secondly, people in both the Greek and Jewish world were able to read and write. In fact the highest literacy in the first century existed among Jews.

Thirdly, the practicse of memorization, recitation and transmission via a chain of successors was a common practice among both Greeks and Jews.

This simply renders the entire Form-critical postulate on this matter futile and false.

Form criticism also presupposes that a variaty of forms or genres necessarily idenfies a variaty of sources. This idea has continually been utilized by atheists and muslims alike in their attack on the Bible.

For example: Jesus taught individuals (source 1), Jesus taught the crowds (source 2), Jesus spoke in parables (source 3), Jesus spoke wisdom (source 4), Jesus healed the sick (source 5), Jesus travelled back and forward (narrative) (source 6), Jesus died and resurrected (source 7).

Form-critical scholars tend to assume that because these vary in their genre, these must therefore derive from separate sources that the gospel writers must have compiled from various locations, individuals and from different eras of the first century.

Yet is this a reliable conclusion?

Imagine a surgeon who practicing in a university hospital is involved with both teaching and practice.

Let's say that for one day he will be accompanied by an individual who will record every detail, word and deed for this one day only.

1. In the morning he chats with co-workers, students, friends and patients (this is source one).

2. Prior to lunch he gives a tutor session to a student (source two)

3. In the afternoon he lectures to a group of twenty students (source three)

4. Just before take off home, he is called to do an emergency surgery (source four)

5. He drives home (and of course he drow to work in the morning) (source five)

6. Unfortunately on the way he ends up in a serious road accident, which sends him to the hospital, he nevertheless recovers after two weeks (source 6).

If this particular day was to be published in a book and we decided to apply the theory of form criticism in our scrutiny of it, we would certainly agree that we had a number of genres combined, which to general reader simply reveals that the person engaged in a number of situations and activities, each which in their descriptions required their own identical genre, which suggests that this is one on and the same person, yet, from which the form-critic if he applies his methods concludes that this is not the same person.

There you have it: none of us (if we apply form critical methods on the records of our lives) can apply more than one genre to our life, and hence an individual cannot exist.

Examples of Oral Transmission in Clement of Rome, Polycarp and Irenaeus

Prior to the writing of Mark, the Christians utilized a oral transmission, which today is included in the four Gospels. However, memorization in the first, second and third century church continued to utilize the oral transmission alongside the written transmission.

The early church father Ireneaus (120-190 AD), the disciple of Polycarp (70-150 AD) who himself was a disciple of John the apostle (died 90/95) the disciple of Jesus, records a number of details relating to memorization and oral transmission. In his Against Heresies, Book 3, chapter 3 and verses 2-3 he records from the line of Roman successors and narrators:

‘...the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul...The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles... To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him...

Hence Clement of Rome the bishop of Rome and an apostolic successor was in position to memorize and recite the apostolic tradition.

Irenaeus himself records in the Fragments of the Lost Sayings of Irenaeus, chapter 2, how he sat under the influence of Polycarp the successor of John the apostle and memorized the traditions:

‘...I then listened to them attentively, and treasured them up not on paper, but in my heart; and I am continually, by God's grace, revolving these things accurately in my mind’.

Indeed Irenaeus records in Fragments of the Lost Sayings of Irenaeus, chapter 2 how Polycarp had engaged in memorization from the apostles, those who were eyewitnesses and hearers of Jesus:

‘...and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracls and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received [information] from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all...

We read here of two lines of successors, both lines leading us back to the apostles and then to Jesus, of which both lines of successors are engaged in memorization.

Of similar lines of successors we could refers to Papias who memorized the ‘The Living and Abiding Word’ (that is information transmitted by an eyewitnesses of the account and under his control) from John the Elder and Eyewitnesses and disciple of Jesus (Eusebius, The History of the Church Book 3, chapter 39).

Irenaeus confirms in Irenaeus in his Against Heresies, Book 3, chapter 4, verse 1, that in 180 AD the oral transmission is still so intact within the church, that even with no Bible the oral preservation of the Gospel would be sufficient to preserve the entire tradition:

For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?

Early Christianity, Oral Transmission and Preservation of the Gospel Account

This is an older post, which I add to this blog due to the field-study emphasized here. I recently completed an MA on this topic and I am currently looking for the possibility to embark on a PhD for more indepth study in this area of research.

I have spent almost two years emerging myself into source criticism, early Christian testimony to the Gospels and early oral transmission. The last three months I have occupied myself with early Christianity and oral tradition. It has been fascinating to study the works of authors, such as Sanders, Riesenfelt, Bultman, Kummel, Kloppenborg, Mack, Streeter, Bauckham and others. Yet I guess the most exciting part of my research has so far been probing into the text and world of the early church fathers.

I personally reject the methodology and approach of Sanders and most liberal critics here. Sanders proposes that the most realistic approach to the New Testament and the historical Jesus is to reject all historical fact and occupy oneself with modern theories. I find it funny that this approach is categorized as something that comes somehow near historical studies. This seems to confirm the words of Etta Linneman that modern Bible criticism is more of a philosophy than historical research. This aspect relates closely to the foundational presupposition of modern critical scholarship, namely the idea that the supernatural is absent from the natural world if it even exists.

I find it funny that intellegent atheists devout themselves to follow such approaches. I find it even more funny that adheres of the religion of Islam whose life and purpose is to undermine and wipe out the Christian, follow these secular theories.

So far I have opted for reading, comparing and devouting myself to the material and facts that are available rather than reading into these a range of modern conjecture created by individuals who were not even present in the first and second century, but seem to imply that they know more about the local details of the ancient world than Jesus, Paul, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Such an approach is extremely naive and virtually foolish, it reveals logical and academic integrity.

So where am I at with my insight into early oral tradition?

Early Christianity and oral tradition can be divided into three eras.

  1. The Oral Period
  2. The Transition Period
  3. The Post Transition period.

Each of these are again sub-divided:

The Oral Period is divided into, three eras:

  • Jesus' transmission to his apostles and training of the apostles
  • The Apostolic fixing of a oral body of information, including narrative and sayings
  • The transmission of the Apostles to the apostolic disciples (successors)

The Transition period is divided into:

  • Oral transmission still dominant but its text in existence (Papia-Polycarp)
  • Text dominant but Oral transmission still in existence (particularly among the illiterate) (Justin Martyr-Irenaeus)

The Post Oral era relates mainly to one aspect, in which oral tradition is a matter of interest (Clement of Alexandria - Origin)

While the use of text is already referred to by Papias in 80-100 AD to Matthew and Mark, and later by Justin Martyr (150). It is interesting that the favour of the written word does not derive until the death of Polycarp, even though Christians read and used them (see Ignatius of Antioch).

The reason being, Christians applied the ancient rule of 'the living and the abiding word', that is history is effective history as long at the eyewitnesses are still alive and are able to transmitt the information and confirm it.

Polycarp was the last of the apostolic disciples and died approximately 140-50 as a martyr.

After Polycarp, the oral transmission is continuous, the Christians turn however to the transmission of the apostles in its written form, as the written form had been written under the guidance of the apostles and the successors (e.g. Luke).

In other words the Gospels are of the same nature as the 'living and the abiding word'.

The study is fascinating and it provides strong historical evidence that the Gospel information could not have been corrupted or fabricated within the first 200 years of Christianity.