Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Doing Textual Criticism In Greek Courses

I think it's really important to show students how to do exegesis, not just talk about it. We learn from seeing and doing, not just hearing, especially when the hearing is all abstract. And Greek courses need to be focused on the doing––tasks that are geared towards how people will be expected to incorporate knowledge into their everyday lives. For Greek this means more than paradigms and rote translation (which often produces nothing more than what someone could find in one of the so-called "literal" and "word-for-word" translations). The focus needs to be on exegesis, even in an introductory course. We still cover the grammar––in fact, all of my students will work through all 26 chapters of David Alan Black's Learn to Read New Testament Greek in just twelve weeks––but the focus is on a conceptual understanding of the grammar in order to open up half of the time to practicing exegesis, developing certain skills, and introducing and incorporating tools devoted to Greek language study.

Textual criticism is perhaps the hardest part of Greek exegesis for our students. Most students bring some knowledge about word studies and theology into a Greek course. Syntax is a different story because most students are lacking in just a basic knowledge of English grammar. The students that excel the most when it comes to syntax are generally those who have studied a language beyond their native tongue before taking a class on Greek. Syntax is difficult, but it's because syntax is basically everything when it comes to a language. But textual criticism is something else entirely and most students come into a class with even less knowledge about it than they do syntax.

I'm actually finishing up a little book on textual criticism right now. The focus of this book isn't to reach the scholars of the world and the experts in all things related to the transmission of the New Testament texts. Nope. There are plenty of those books and I might even write one later on, but for now I'm focusing on the church and helping individual believers understand why in the world we have notes at the bottom of some of the pages in our English Bibles talking about some manuscripts saying one thing while other manuscripts say something else. The crazy thing is most Christians have never ever heard anything about manuscripts of the New Testament and divergent readings that exist among them. I'm sure there are multiple explanations for why this is so, but the scariest reason to me is that leaders in local churches think that people's faith in biblical inspiration and inerrancy might be seriously hurt if they started talking about this stuff. Of course, the number one reason the topic never comes up in churches is probably because the equippers of those churches have little to no knowledge about all this. You gotta know about it before you can talk about it, though admittedly there's a lot of talk in churches by people who don't know what they're talking about (i.e., lack of real study translates into lack of real teaching).

But back to the fact that we don't hear anything about this in local churches: Does it seem a little strange to you that Christians by and large have not heard anything about this issue? It does to me. And to be honest with you, if someone said it looks like Christians aren't getting told the whole truth or that they are being shielded from some information, I might tend to agree . . . in part. If we just look around and observe the way this issue is treated in most Christian circles, it looks like the verdict is out that Christians apparently can't handle the truth about the transmission of the New Testament texts. I can imagine someone saying, "If Christians just believe that there's no question about the original wording of the New Testament, then just let 'em believe it. Better that they think that than for someone to have to explain that there is a question about the original wording of the New Testament in certain places and they end up thinking that they can't trust their Bible." I disagree. I think they can handle it. I think the issue needs to be discussed more in our local churches so that no one gets the impression that it is being hidden from the faithful and, more importantly, so that every Christian will be strengthened (1) in their faith in Jesus and (2) their devotion to the Scriptures that make him known. Discussing textual criticism can anchor believers, so that they won't be bounced to and fro in their trust in the sufficiency and total veracity of God's Word, especially should they encounter someone who is super familiar with a book like the The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture or Misquoting Jesus and the arguments found therein. Does everyone need to be a text-critical scholar? No. But should a knowledge about textual criticism be relegated to a select few? Nope. We need more. We need better.

So I'm hoping to see a turn in the ministries of these students that successfully make it through two of the hardest courses they will ever take in their lives. Equipping these men and women to do exegesis––even the hardest steps like textual criticism––is the primary focus. It's not enough to just read a book and take a quiz. I want to see that they can analyze a textual issue for themselves, and I want to guide them through the process, correct them when they miss something or make a mistake, and prove to them how important it is for them to be able to wrestle with and explain such issues for themselves given much of their attention is going to be focused on the study of biblical texts.

Remember, by the time these students do their textual analysis, they have only been studying Greek for seven weeks. Seven. Just seven. Seriously, only seven weeks. Do they get it all right? No. None of us do. But as I told one student in the discussion: "You all have done a fine job thinking through this issue. I have never met a single pastor in person who has done what you all have done this week."

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