Challenges in New Testament Textual Criticism for the Twenty-First Century
Wallace, Daniel B., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Thirty years ago, NT textual criticism on this side of the Atlantic seemed to be on its last legs-so much so that Eldon Epp could write with a straight face an essay entitled "New Testament Textual Criticism in America: Requiem for a Discipline"-an article published in the Journal of Biblical Literature.l Five years earlier, he lamented the fact that there were probably more textual critics working at the Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung in Münster than there were in all of North America.2 (The INTF is responsible for producing the Nestle-Aland Greek text; there are about half a dozen fulltime textual critics working there.) What Epp described was a sad state of affairs, but the postmortem reports were nonetheless a bit premature.
In the last decade and a half, the cadaver has come back to life3 and is stronger than ever. Who could have predicted that a book on textual criticism would ever make the New York Times Bestseller list? Yet Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, published four years ago, did just that. A large part of the reason it did so was because its thesis was that the proto-orthodox radically changed the text to conform to their views. Misquoting Jesus gave the impression that everything was in doubt and nothing was certain. The book was a sensation, creating a Chicken Little effect; countless people abandoned the faith because of it.
When Misquoting Jesus hit the stores, questions were raised that many biblical scholars were not prepared to discuss. That is because most scholars have only gotten a taste of textual criticism, often on the assumption that all the work has already been done. All they needed was their Nestle-Aland text and they have got the original.
Much of what Ehrman said was a simplifying of his Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, a first-rate academic piece published in 1993. But he had also gone through a theological shift in the last decade and a half, and Misquoting Jesus began to reflect that shift. He was more provocative and less cautious than he had been previously. Most importantly, he took his argument to the public square rather than to peers. This was not an oversight; it was part of his strategy. In one of his interviews, Ehrman spoke about a new breed of biblical scholar, stating with approbation that they are bypassing peer review and going straight to the public arena to market their ideas.
Along with two other well-known textual critics, Eldon Epp and David Parker, Bart Ehrman is leading the way toward a new skepticism about recovering the wording of the autographa.
As I said, this discipline has been given new life in recent years, but there are some doubts that what was resurrected is the same thing as that which was buried. To put it bluntly, NT textual criticism has changed in some dramatic and even drastic ways. This article offers an analysis of two aspects of that change, proposes desiderata for the discipline, and concludes with why evangelicals should contribute to the field.
II. POSTMODERN INTRUSIONS INTO NEW TESTAMENT TEXTUAL CRITICISM
The first aspect to investigate is a hybrid of cultural and philosophical shifts, or what may more specifically be labeled as postmodern intrusions into the discipline.
There are three specific ways in which postmodern thought and its cultural milieu have affected NT textual criticism: defining the goal of the discipline; assessing the role of certainty; and promoting the need for collaboration.
1. The goal of NT textual criticism. Until the 1990s, there was little question that the primary objective of NT textual criticism was to examine the copies of the NT for the purpose of determining the exact wording of the original. In 1993, Bart Ehrman's provocative book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture appeared. He opens the discussion by offering his thesis: "scribes occasionally altered the words of their sacred texts to make them more patently orthodox and to prevent their misuse by Christians who espoused aberrant views. …