Monday, November 28, 2016

A Precise Science?

I couldn't help but take notice of this sentence in the MacArthur Study Bible this evening:
"Through the centuries, the practitioners of textual criticism, a precise science, have discovered, preserved, catalogued, evaluated, and published an amazing array of biblical manuscripts from both the Old and New Testaments." (NASB edition, xx, emphasis added)
Does that strike anyone else as a bit of an odd thing to say? Precise? Science, yes, but precise? This isn't the same thing as calculating the circumference of a circle or measuring the temperature of a patient in the hospital or checking one's own heart rate. There's some interpretation going on with textual criticism. There is some subjectivity involved. What evidence is stronger evidence––external or internal? Is wider geographical distribution able to overthrow an earlier reading? Things like that. It's hardly precise. I know what John and the team wanted to do by saying what they said. They wanted to make sure everyone knows that they can trust their Bibles. The problem is just telling them "there's nothing to see over here" is not exactly that forthcoming with the evidence and how we think through the evidence. That's unfortunate, if you ask me. I think we need more. I think we need better.


  1. Maybe by precise they mean "careful about details." That's at least one of the options in the dictionary I consulted this evening. But I have to say, when I think precise, that's not the definition that comes to my mind. If I had to choose a synonym for this word, it would be "exact." And textual criticism is not "exact." It's not as clear cut as 2 + 2 = 4.

  2. I think at times we use stronger language than we should in trying to support the reliability of scripture. I run into this mostly when I want to tell people that modern translations of the Bible are generally quite good, and that they can study their Bibles without fear. Then I turn around and complain about a wide variety of renderings in just about any Bible translation I have at hand.

    So I need to explain that I mean this within the general parameters of translating, and reasonable ideas about studying a text from a translation, not in the sense that translation committees don't make mistakes or that one might not do better with the original text.

    But I think that quite often we have a context in mind (at least I do), but we don't share that context frequently enough so that those without access to the languages, textual criticism, etc. can have some basis for making sound decisions.