Monday, 7 April 2014

PREACHER PITFALLS: TEXTUAL VARIANTS


As promised, here is the first in an occasional series of articles on some of the common pitfalls that the preacher needs to be wary of when preparing sermon material. It is also linked to in the "Pastors" section above for future reference.



Let’s face it. If we are looking at the pitfalls that can befall the preacher’s ministry then there are few things that can go more badly wrong with your sermon than to discover that you were preaching on something that isn’t actually in the Bible! 

And it happens more often than you might think.

 How many preachers (including me!), for instance, have over the years waxed lyrical over the grace and forgiveness shown by Jesus to the woman caught in adultery; contrasting it vividly with the hard-heartedness of her accusers (Jn 7:53-8:11)?

 Yet this passage (known by theologians as the pericope adulterae, or the Adulteress Passage) is described by New Testament textual scholar Daniel Wallace as his favourite passage not in the Bible!

Another classic example is the Comma Johanneum (John Passage) in 1 Jn 5:7-8,
There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth…”

  These words are unquestionably an addition made by a later scribe and not part of the original epistle. Unfortunately ignorance of this fact has led to many a believer attempting to use the verse to prove
the Trinity, and being shot down in flames by a knowledgeable opponent!

 Factor in the controversy surrounding the longer ending of Mark (Mk 16:9-20), which simply does not appear in the earliest manuscripts and you begin to see the problem.   

 This alerts us to the fact that a preacher who simply prepares material from an “old” King James Bible (no footnotes) without any regard for the potential textual issues involved, risks doing a grave disservice both to the Word of God and to the congregation.  

Textual criticism is the disciplined investigation of the handwritten manuscripts of the scriptures with the objective of reconstructing the original wording of the sacred text. A textual variant is any place where one manuscript’s reading  is found to differ from another during this process.

 It is important to realize that textual (sometimes called lower) criticism, unlike certain other forms of theological criticism popular today, is not a product of 19th Century German Liberalism. In fact it is generally conservative evangelical scholarship which is most interested in doing it. Liberals often aren’t that bothered what the reliable reading of the Bible text is since they don’t believe what it says anyway!

 Many people who object to the process of textual criticism do so on the assumption that the Authorized or King James Version (KJV) they grew up with is the Bible and they simply wish that the modern versions would stop “taking things out” of it.    

 It is true that the text which the KJV is based upon (the so-called Majority Text) is significantly larger than the “modern critical” text which is heavily dependent upon earlier, Alexandrian manuscripts, hence the accusation that they have removed verses.

 What needs to be stressed at this point is that the scriptures clearly warn us not only about removing things from the Word of God but also about adding things to it (Rev 22:18-19)!

 The Majority Text utilizes manuscripts that are much later than the papyrii documents that have been uncovered (most notably at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt) during the last hundred years or so. And if later documents contain more text than earlier ones then there is the obvious danger that the extra material will not be original. If the Majority Text has actually added to the Bible in certain places then we certainly need to know about it.

The important principle here is that we must not allow a 17th Century English translation to serve as the “default setting” for the text of sacred scripture. Instead our task is to get as close as possible to the original documents in order that we may determine what the writers actually said.

This can be a complex (and often emotional!) subject and one that needs to be handled sensitively by pastors when presenting it to their congregations. It is certainly important to ensure that you have a reasonable grasp of the issues yourself before attempting to do so.

So what do we need to do in terms of preparation?

I would recommend this as a good, accessible introduction to the topic. It covers most of the things that you need to know, both in terms of background information, and for help in dealing with the counter-arguments deployed by those who doubt the modern Bible versions. 

 When it comes to sermon preparation, a preacher must be making at least some use of a solid, modern version such as the NIV or ESV. This could then be supported by employment of the New King James Version which, whilst still based on the Majority Text, does offer limited textual information in the footnotes*.

Comparing two or more literal translations in this way is a good practice in any event (sorry, but paraphrase versions should not even get a look-in when preparing sermons).

 However in addition I would highly recommend two standard reference books on the subject which are Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament and Philip Comfort’s New Testament Text and Translation Commentary. I would say that at least one of these books ought to be in the personal library of every pastor, and that he be in the habit of consulting it as a part of his sermon preparation.

 The basic methodology of textual criticism is that the most likely reading is utilized as part of the main text (and remember that very often there will be no real dispute about the reading) whilst the variants that crop up in the manuscript tradition are discussed in the notation below.  These variants are given a strength classification as to the likelihood of that particular variant being the original reading.

One important point to be borne in mind by the preacher as he prepares is that it is considered to be a highly dubious practice to base any doctrinal position solely upon a passage of Scripture that contains a variant which could affect the meaning.  For if the reading adopted were to be wrong then the doctrinal position derived from it would then be without any scriptural support. Therefore your doctrinal points are best made from the (fortunately very many!) passages where no significant variants affect the meaning.

 If this is starting to sound quite involved, that is because it is...or at least it can be!  

  Textual criticism is a rigorous academic discipline so it can obviously become very complex, nevertheless a basic grasp of the main concepts involved is certainly possible for the average lay-man (such as me!).  

 With a decent grounding any preacher can feel confident in rightly handling those problematic readings that may exist in the text that they have chosen for their sermon. These can then be mentioned, at least in passing, during your preaching (though without belabouring the point).  

 But if the whole matter of textual variants is so emotion-laden then why do we need to bother our congregations with it at all?

 The answer is that this is an area where a little knowledge can prove a dangerous thing. We live in a day when the internet and secular media are pouring out so many half-truths and outright lies on this particular subject that the laissez-faire approach is no longer a viable option for pastors, if it ever was.

 The fact is that if you as the shepherd do not acquaint the people with these issues then someone else –often someone with malign intent - will one day do the job for you. So it is far better that the people hear these things from you first. Better the full truth from their pastor today than a misleading and potentially faith-damaging half-truth from someone else tomorrow.

 The issue of the many thousands of textual variants is frequently cited today by sceptics in an obvious attempt to unsettle the minds of believers and to undermine their confidence in the Bible. The unthinking “King James Only” mindset that prevails in some churches simply cannot deal with these challenges in a plausible and consistent way.  

On the other hand the sensitive introduction of the subject of textual variants (perhaps initially in a bible study setting) will help to guard the flock against attacks upon the scriptures that have now become  commonplace. 

 We ought to aim to impress upon our people the fact that God has blessed the Church with a vast New Testament manuscript tradition, wholly unprecedented in terms of the ancient world, and that actually these many thousands of variants are an inevitable -and actually a healthy - by-product of that.

 If we had only one manuscript of the New Testament then we would have zero textual variants. Unfortunately we would also have zero assurance that it was the original reading!   It is only in comparing and contrasting all of the manuscripts available to them that scholars have been able to obtain the massive confidence in the text that they have today.  

Returning to the specific issue of the pericope adulterae in Jn 7:53-8:11, you will find a good summary of the issues here

 The only thing I would add to it is that the insertion of the Adulteress Passage after Jn 7:52 has served to obliterate a connection with Jn 8:12 that I believe the writer intended us to pick up on.

Near the end of chapter seven the Pharisees are questioning Jesus’ credentials, declaring their belief that no prophet would ever arise in Galilee (7:52).  

 Now if the Adulteress Passage is discounted then the next words are Jesus’ proclamation,
I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (Jn 8:12).

  I believe that Jesus was here drawing upon the prophecy from the Book of Isaiah that declares,
“…in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…” (Isa 9:2).

 I think that John intended to organize his material in this way so that Jesus’ words would act as an immediate riposte to the accusation of the Pharisees that no prophet would arise from Galilee. John was telling them that they did not know their own scriptures. Unfortunately the insertion of the Adulteress passage causes us to miss this connection.

 It would be far better if we were to relegate the Adulteress incident to the footnotes. Here it could take its rightful (and actually I would say unique) place as the record of what is thought very likely to be an authentic incident from Jesus’ ministry; one that has been preserved for us in addition to, and alongside of the inspired scriptures.  

There is simply no other example of such an extra-biblical yet reliable record from Jesus' ministry.  

 In conclusion let me say that, for the modern pastor a degree of familiarity with these textual matters ought not to be seen as a luxury that he can do without. Rather it ought to be understood as being an indispensable part of his role of safeguarding the flock in an unfriendly world.

Whether he likes it or not, being a textual critic is a part of his job!   



*These notes are the “NU-Text reads…” at the bottom of the page which reference where the text the committee has used differs from the Nestle-Aland/UBS Greek New Testament which is the standard text used by scholars today.