Friday, October 30, 2015

Discussing A Textual Variant In John 3:13 With My Greek Students

If you take a Greek class at Capital Seminary and Graduate School, you will learn how to do more than just translate some simple Greek sentences. We want our students to be able to do more than just trade gloss for gloss in translation. We want our students to do those things that they will be doing for the rest of their lives in whatever ministry context that God has them. When we study the New Testament and we dig a little deeper than just a glancing look at our preferred translation and an expository-focused Bible commentary, we will inevitably encounter some textual issues that are worthy of some serious consideration. "Some manuscripts," a note will read at the bottom of our New Testament, "read such-and-such." Or, maybe they'll find a note that says something like, "The oldest manuscripts do not have" a word or a clause. Maybe we are trained Bible students and we have grown accustom to looking at more than one translation (which I applaud!!!); do so, and you might see some differences between say what the New King James has and what the New American Standard has. I'm not talking about different ways we translate particular words. I'm talking about when we find whole words, phrases, clauses, sometimes even whole paragraphs that are called into question. Maybe the word is found in the text, but accompanied by a footnote that talks about manuscripts. Maybe a clause is not present in the text, but mentioned below in a footnote. Maybe it's a whole paragraph and we find some brackets around it in our translation followed by a footnote. Folks, if we want to study the New Testament, this is an issue that we need to think through. And our students at Capital do.

My students are seven weeks into studying Greek. They got introduced to all the steps of exegesis in their first week. Then we focused on lexical, syntactical, and structural analysis as they worked through the indicative mood over the next five weeks. Then when they work through week six they read a short, but extremely helpful, book on textual criticism by David Alan Black. It's short and to the point. After they do that, they watch just a few short videos on textual analysis that are available on my YouTube channel. And then, lo and behold, they get to work on a significant textual issue on their own and discuss it as a class. Their first stab at it isn't perfect; nothing I've ever done was perfect the first time I did it. But it is a successful first attempt. No question about it. And we learn way more in the discussion than we do in the initial attempt anyways. We get to answer questions. We get to correct where we missed something. And most importantly, we get to flesh out why it matters and how we should handle issues like this (1) as we prepare to teach and (2) when people ask about textual issues, for example, in a Sunday School classroom or a home Bible study.

That's where we are at right now in our Greek class. We are discussing John 3:13 and  whether the words ὁ ὢν ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ ("who is in heaven") are original or not. The students have made their charts, assessing date, quantity, and geographical distribution, and they've written up an analysis that takes all of that into account, as well as the issues of internal evidence. And the discussion has begun!!!!!

Here's just a few snippets from the discussion, in no particular order, just to give you an idea of what we are talking about and some questions we are asking each other. (Note: These are not sequential, well, except in two cases.)
TWH: Class, did you notice that Charlie referenced how the editors "graded" this variant issue in his discussion. He writes, "That the issue is not very straightforward, or easily solved, is highlighted by the UBS decision to upgrade the shorter reading from a "C" in their third edition to a "B" in the fourth edition." So the editors are helping you figure out how confident they were as a committee when they dealt with these variant issues. Between the time the third edition came out to the time the fourth did, they apparently got more confident in the matter, which is why they made it a "B." But it still ain't an "A." And that is interesting. When you consult your Greek New Testament apparatus (which is not yet included in our Capital Seminary package in Logos), you should take note of the letter grade they assign the variant issues.
TWH: Charlie writes this, "And in a situation such as the one presented by the variant reading of John 3:13, where the weight of evidence can, at least reasonably be seen as being comparatively equal in most regards, the decision ultimately comes down to a philosophy of textual criticism more than anything else." At the end of the day, all of us have to decide what we think about the evidence. Is geographical distribution "stronger" evidence than say quantity or date? Is internal evidence more important than external? I want you all to think through this as a class. What evidence is more important: internal or external? Then once you get there, is there something inside of those two groups that is more important for you? Can we ever hope to really, really, really look at this objectively and consider a variant in the light of all of the evidence? 
TWH: Charlie, just a quick question for you. Do you think the longer reading is original or not? I just want to make sure I know where you land your plane. Thanks.
Charlie: Hi Thomas, thanks for giving us this passage; it really does make us have to consider things more deeply than if you had given us a passage that was more clearly weighted to one side or the other. Sorry for not being more clear myself; I tried to convey my thought in my last sentence. I do not have any ready explanation for the absence of the shorter reading in any other than the Egyptian witness. That being said, I do not find any of the arguments that seek to militate against the importance of the attestation of the best and most reliable manuscripts for the shorter reading to be persuasive. I did have a presupposition about textual criticism heading into the task-I think that earlier and better quality witnesses trumps volume and even distribution. In this case, I think that the quality of the witnesses for the shorter reading outweighs its lack of distribution. If I had found the internal evidence for the longer reading more compelling, of if the shorter reading did not agree equally as well with John's testimony, then I think I would have found the longer reading the more probable. So, to be clear, even though the longer reading also has a good argument for its acceptance. I think that the shorter reading is to be preferred.
Charlie (writing to another student): First off, good job! You did a nice work with your research, and your argument is well constructed. We do, however, seem to have fallen on different sides of the debate. I appreciate your focus on the internal evidence, and there is no doubt that the longer reading accords well with John’s theology. I question, though, whether this is really significant. That is, although the idea expressed by the longer reading is theologically sound, the passages in John that actually speak to Christ’s ascension or present state do not seem to be exactly parallel to 3:13, and, consequently, do not seem to have much bearing on the issue at hand. (Admittedly, this is part of the debate, and you obviously see the internal evidence as compelling. I am simply bringing up an opposing point of view.) Too, although you did a very good job of presenting the strengths of the longer reading, apart from referencing that the shorter reading has the earlier attestation, you did not give much attention to the strengths of the shorter reading. The manuscripts attesting to the shorter reading (P75, Vaticanus (B), Sinaiticus (א), P66) are considered to be some of the most reliable witnesses. I would have been interested to read your interaction with this part of the evidence.
TWH: Everyone, look at the textual apparatus on the second page of the PDF I gave you for this assignment. In the ms evidence for the longer reading, find the word "Byz." When you see that, you are basically talking about a whole set of manuscripts. When you see that, it is saying basically all of the Byzantine manuscripts include the longer reading. Remember, the apparatus is only a sampling of the evidence. There are over 5,000 Greek manuscrips known to exist today. It's impossible to put all of that in the apparatus, not to mention for every verse. So the editors are only giving you a sampling. Be sure to look up any symbols you might not be familiar with. Nubmers are generally manuscripts. Other notations could be what they call "families" of manuscripts (i.e., they share so much in common), or church fathers, etc. In the manuscript evidence, do you all remember seeing a couple that were written f1 and f13 (with the numerals superscripted)? Those are actually whole "families" of manuscripts. They represent a whole number of manuscripts, not just one single witness. That's important for when you are thinking about quantity of manuscripts for a reading.
TWH: How would we discuss an issue like this if it came up in a Sunday School class?
Chuck: That’s a great question, Thomas. I’m not a pastor, but I do run a fellowship. I think it is important for people to understand that, while there are a few difficult passages in the Bible, this verse alone is not sufficient to bring our theology into question. In fact, I think any Christian who is involved in apologetics and evangelism should be prepared to address these issues, because you can bet some atheist will eventually bring them up and say that the Bible is unreliable.
Jose: An analysis of the external evidence shows that the reading without ὁ ὢν ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ is the reading attested by the oldest manuscripts. These are P66, P75, and Origen, which date to the 3rd century. The oldest manuscript that attests to the second reading (with ὁ ὢν ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ) is dated in the 5th century. However, for John 3:13, the preferred reading cannot be selected by the date of the oldest manuscript alone. The geographical distribution of the text would suggest that the preferred reading is the one that includes ὁ ὢν ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ. The length and difficulty of the passage alone does not provide any additional information that would favor one reading over the other, therefore, a look at the internal evidence is necessary.
They are off to the races. Lots to think about here. My own position on textual analysis is external evidence is primary, internal is secondary, but all of it has to be considered. All of it. And there is no such thing as a wholly trustworthy text-type, just as there is no such thing as a wholly trustworthy manuscript witness. No preferential treatment, in my world, is given for any particular manuscript. And, at the end of the day, you really have to wonder if a reading is confined to a single geographical region.

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