Saturday, October 17, 2009

Quotes on Textual Criticism

As something of a companion to my post last week I present here four quotes from men of acknowledged acuity on the subject of textual criticism. The first quote, from St. Jerome's commentary on Isaiah may appear a bit opaque (and I apologize for any shortcomings in my rather hurried translation), but what I find interesting about it is the highly theological methodology he applies to a problem of textual criticism. The second quote, from John Calvin, addresses directly the problem of the story of the woman caught in adultery, and consequently other passages of scripture whose provenance we may be inclined to believe is unauthentic. The last two quotes, from medievalist Frederick Klaeber and novelist James Joyce, consider, each in their own way, what the psychology must be of those who delight in cutting ancient texts up into various strata of authorship and redaction.

1. St. Jerome (commenting on Isaiah 2:22)

Rest therefore from the man whose breath is in his nostrils: for he has been considered exalted. This the Septuagint has left out and in the Greek exemplars there has been added from Origen (in Aquila's edition) with asterixes what we read in the Hebrew...Where we have said "he has been considered exalted," Aquila has translated it "in which he has been considered." The Hebrew word Bama, is either ὒψωμα, that is, "exalted," which we read both in the book of Kings and Ezekiel, or perhaps "in which," which is written with the same letters Beth (B), Mem (M), and He (H). As to the nature of their arrangement, if we wanted to read "in which," we write Bamma; if rather "exalted" or "exaltedness," we read Bama. Therefore the Jews, because they do understand it to be a prophecy of Christ, have taken the worse reading, so that it appears not to praise Christ, but to have no real force. For what is the purpose of the words, and what logic or sense is there, if we say, when these circumstances were so, and the day of the Lord was to come, in which the whose state of Judea is to be overturned, and all things ground underfoot, "I warn and instruct you, that you rest from the man, who breathes and lives just as we humans do, because he is to be reckoned as nothing"? Who would praise any person in such a way, and say "Beware lest you offend him, who is altogether nothing."? Therefore it must be understood in the opposite way: "When these things are all to come upon you and are proclaimed by the spirit of prophecy, I warn and instruct you to rest from him who, although he is a manaccording to the flesh, and has a soul, and breathes and draws breath from his nostrils as we humans breathe and live, yet according to his divine majesty is also exalted and considered so and believed to be so. I rack my mind and I cannot find a reason why the Septuagint did not wish to translate so clear a prophecy of Christ into Greek. Now the others who translated it but drew the ambiguous phrase into an impious sense, it is no wonder why they interpreted badly, and did not want to say anything about the glory of Christ, in whom they do not believe, I mean the Jews and Semi-Jews, that is, the Ebionites. Yet because Christ is "highly exalted" or "the Most High," who is in another phrase called Elyon among the Hebrews, we read in the 86th [87th] Psalm "Shall not Zion say 'one man and another were born in her, and the Most High himself founded her.'" And in the Gospel "And you, O child, will be called prophet of the Most High." And, so that I don't draw too much line (for in the exposition of Holy Scripture we ought to follow truth and not controversy) Bama in this place is not read as "exalted" among the Hebrews, but "exaltedness," that is, "heighth" or "loftiness," as if we were to say of someone that he is not "divine," but "divinity," not the "creek," but the "spring," not a "human" but "humanity." Origen interpreted the passage in the following way: Because it speaks in the singular about one man, it can be referred also to our Lord the Savior. Thus the Prophet orders that they should rest from him who has been considered in some great matter, although he appears for the present to be a human being and to have breath in his nostrils, just as other human beings breathe.

2. John Calvin (commenting on John 8)

It is plain enough that this passage was unknown anciently to the Greek Churches; and some conjecture that it has been brought from some other place and inserted here. But as it has always been received by the Latin Churches, and is found in many old Greek manuscripts, and contains nothing unworthy of an Apostolic Spirit, there is no reason why we should refuse to apply it to our advantage.

3. Frederick Klaeber (Introduction to his edition of Beowulf)

It has been the fate of Beowulf to be subjected to the theory of multiple authorship, the number of its conjectural 'makers' ranging up to six or more. At the outset, in this line of investigation, the wish was no doubt father to the thought.

4. James Joyce (Chapter 4 of Finnegan's Wake)

Naysayers we know. To conclude purely negatively from the positive absence of political odia and monetary requests that its page cannot ever have been a penproduct of a man or woman of that period or those parts is only one more unlookedfor conclusion leaped at, being tantamount to inferring from the nonpresence of inverted commas (sometimes called quotation marks) on any page that its author was always constitutionally incapable of misappropriating the spoken words of others.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ineunte Anno Aetatis XXIV

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stol'n on his wing my three and twentieth year!
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th.
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth,
That I to manhood am arrived so near,
And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
That some more timely-happy spirits endu'th.
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
It shall be still in strictest measure even
To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven;
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great Task-master's eye.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Thoughts on Textual Variants in Scripture

Talking over lunch with a friend the other day, the topic came up of textual criticism in the Bible, as it of course often does in seminaries and nowhere else. She commented to me that it had taken her aback when she first found out that some things, like the story in John of the woman caught in adultery, "weren't supposed to be in the Bible." My tongue was slow and my politeness ready so I didn't jump on this statement the way I might have in a more argumentative mood. It has given me food for reflection, however. What do we mean when we say such things about those parts of the Biblical canon which are not represented in the oldest and best manuscripts? What does it mean to say that they aren't supposed to be in the Bible? There seem to me to be two main presuppositions behind such a statement and I think both of them are wrong. The first is a historical-literary idea, that the "original" form of a text is the only valuable form of it. The second is a theological offshoot of the same sentiment, that the Bible was inspired by God only at the moment it was written down.

Both these propositions are concerned with essence or nature of the Bible and like all ideologies concerned with essence, they are very insistent that the essence be unique. If I tell them that the Bible may or may not contain the episode of the woman caught in adultery and still be the Bible, they will say that that is impossible, since a Bible with the passage and a Bible without the passage are two different things and the Bible is one thing. They have trouble understanding that both are the Bible even though they are not each other.

Let us take an example. The Bible has been translated into many languages. The one I read most often contains the word "God" quite a lot. If I were to pick up a Latin Bible, however, I would read that word not once. Both of these things are the Bible but they are not each other. Or would you say that anyone reading a translation is not reading the Bible? You might say something like "they're not really reading the Bible," but what you would mean by that would be that they weren't really getting the full sense of it and might be developing mistaken ideas about what certain words or phrases mean. But a poor student of Greek or Hebrew might very well read the Bible in the original language and make just those same sorts of mistakes. If people aren't really reading the Bible because they're reading a translation, then many people who do know Greek and Hebrew aren't really reading the Bible for the same reasons. But we say of all these situations that it is someone reading the Bible, and rightly so. The things read are different but they are all the Bible.

Another example perhaps more pertinent to the idea of privileging the "original text." If St. Paul were asked what books were contained in the Bible, he would respond with a list much shorter than the one we would give. We might even ask him, as he sat down to write a letter to those troubled Christians in Corinth whether what he was writing was the Bible. He would most certainly say "No. I'm writing just writing a letter to the Corinthians. You don't write the Bible, your read it." Would Paul merely be mistaken? Did he just not know that what he was writing was the Bible? Or would it be better to say that what he wrote to the Corinthians was a letter but to us the Bible? You might say that Paul did not intend it to be the Bible and thus we shouldn't read it as the Bible. But what books were written to be the Bible? If the author had to intend for his work to be the Bible for it to really be the Bible, then it seems the Bible doesn't actually exist. But I've got it here on my desk; people refer to it all the time and have for centuries. And if the intent of the author doesn't make something the Bible, it shouldn't trouble us when something like the story of the woman caught in adultery is in the Bible even if it wasn't in John's final manuscript of his gospel.

Another way of expressing this attitude towards scripture would be to say that we can only trust the Bible if it is without change, if it has always been the same down to the letter, the way Muslims claim the Qu'ran has remained the same since it was uttered by Mohammad. In other words there is something about the sort of thing the Bible is which gives it authority and truth. Let us indulge our Thomistic streak a little and work this premise out.

1. The Bible is true and authoritative because of the sort of thing it is.
2. Created things can be true and authoritative, but are not always and necessarily so; by their nature they are not always and necessarily anything, but always changeable. They can therefore be true and authoritative potentially but not essentially; they are not true and authoritative because of the sort of thing that they are.
3. God is the only thing which is uncreated.
4. Therefore, because a created thing cannot be true and authoritative because of the sort of thing it is, anything which is essentially true and authoritative must be uncreated.
5. Therefore the Bible is God (the Bible is Divine).

I am no specialist, but again, similar moves are made, to my knowledge, regarding the Qu'ran in Islam and also the Torah in mystical Judaism. For Christians, however, the Bible does not occupy such a position. For Christians, the Bible is for us, not forever. It is for our edification and inspiration, that is to say, it is true and authoritative for us, not absolutely and essentially true and authoritative; God alone is that. But if that God dwells in us, we will see how surely and singularly the Bible points towards him, and we will return to it again and again and joyfully obey it and submit ourselves to its truth and authority.

Scripture is a thing ordained by God to be a guide and comfort to his people on their way to him. Any explanation, therefore, of its authority ought to begin not with the nature of scripture in se, but the nature of God's action in scripture. Hence the presupposition I spoke about earlier, which asserts that God inspired scripture only at the moment it was written, is properly theological. It begins with the action of God as a way of establishing authority and truth for scripture, as though he infused those qualities into certain texts and then left them alone to operate in the world with their special qualities. This view demands that the texts remain exactly the same, because it was in their original shape that God graced them with authority and truth.

It is easy to see how this theology moves in the direction of asserting those things which we have refuted above, and it is for this reason that I have called it an offshoot of the secular proposition: it shares the same basic assumptions about what scripture must be in terms of uniqueness and immutability. Any book which is not precisely the same as the texts which God inspired is not scripture, or at the least is corrupted scripture, and therefore not really authoritative. Yet the experience of the church resists these ideas about the essential authority and truth of scripture. Many Christians throughout the centuries have heard the Word of God in different, often differing words of scripture. Many secular scholars today have an impressive mastery of the Bible's original language and contexts, but for all that they have far more trouble hearing God's words there than the simplest pious Christian using his dinosaur of a King James and some prayer. As Jesus said to some Jews who were disputing with him, you cannot understand how the scriptures are true if the truth of God is not in you (John 5:37-39).

Is is thus necessary on the witness of the church to say that, although the scriptures were certainly inspired as they were written, they were not inspired only then. For if the truth they impart to us were tied to a particular form they once took, we would not be able to receive that truth if we encountered them in another form. The inspiration of the scriptures is not the infusion of grace into certain texts but rather God's promise to speak to us in those texts, a promise he makes good on to his faithful every hour. If we understand the inspiration of the scriptures in this way, that, like the creation of the world, it is not a one-time act, but, rather, like all God's faithfulness, is 'new every morning,' these textual problems which can deeply trouble a certain conception of scripture have no hold over us. If God be for us, who can be against us? Certainly not textual variants.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Confession

God does not give the Spirit to the Son, nor does he measure it, for God is not measured by God.

O Father, you sent forth your Word and your Spirit moved upon the face of the waters; by your power, O Spirit, was the Son made one of us, and we saw the Father; on our supper is the Father’s Spirit poured out and yet we taste your flesh, O Son. What is there on earth or in heaven that does not depend on you? What is there that exists that is not one? What is there that is one that does not draw from Oneness? And yet what is there that exists that does not exist in your Threeness, O One in whom we live and move and have our being?

Where was the Spirit when the Father said to his Son “I have begotten thee?” Where was the Son when the Father gave forth his Spirit? Where is the time when these things were not so? It is no time, it cannot be found; the mind of God cannot search it out, nor can the imagination of the world’s Creator envision it. Where is the place where we shall meet our God? In a tabernacle of darkness where my Lord has made his dwelling place.

O Father how was it to your Son that you said “I have begotten thee,” when that very Speech is the Son of your begetting? Almighty Word, what is your own, when even your breath is the Breath of another? O Giver of Life, how long life have you received to proceed from two infinities?

But you, O Lord, do not measure your Spirit, nor does God measure God, for what do we measure, but what we do not know? Does a man know his stature till he has measured it? Does a man know he is 'tall' till he has lain the word along himself and found it fitting? So we measure by what is not ourselves that which we do not know of ourselves. Yet what is of yourself unless all knowledge? And with what shall you measure yourself? For what is like yourself, as a chart has height like a child, which is not yourself? Or what is God that is not You, what is divine that you are not? Or shall we sunder God from God to measure God?

But Lord, I say to my hand, you have five fingers, I have measured you out, proportioned you and counted your members; shall you not say to your Son “I have begotten thee” and measure him by your Word? Yet what measurement is it to say I am as tall as I am? So it is for the Word to speak of himself. Was not God in Jesus Christ, reconciling the world to himself? Let us measure him. And what, shall we tell God that we have measured him? But God of all men knows the stature and the going out and the coming in and of the man he was not least.

Ourselves we cannot see without a mirror, but your ways are not our ways, O Lord. By our thoughts alone we can conceive of who we are, but your thoughts are not our thoughts, O Lord. You that are One and do not divide in being Three, shall you divide to know yourself? Shall you set apart the Son to measure the Spirit, shall you reckon without your Reason and breathe without your Breath? Or can what is from the beginning be no more? Shall you dissect the One that has no parts, shall the knife of your Reason measure out the portion of the Father, and the law of your decree specify the property of the Son? Shall the Spirit be poured into jars until the God gives out? And shall we then count the jars, that have contained what contains all? How shall we make these jars, when the Maker of the world shall be their contents? Where shall we put these jars, when the resting place of eternity will rest in them? From whom shall we buy these jars, which are the words of truth, the measure of God? To whom shall we go, O Lord? You alone have the words of truth.