Friday, 8 May 2009

What is the goal of text criticism in a "canonical approach"?

This is the question I was asked in an e-mail recently. Here is my "off-the-top-of-my-head" answer:

This is a huge question and I'm not sure I can sum it up in a few words, but I'll give it a shot.

For a start, Childs' canonical approach is sensitive to the theological witness of the people of God, the "community of faith" (and not, as many seem to think, the witness of a disembodied text). This theological witness is "progressive," extending from the first prophetic utterances to the way in which those utterances were preserved, shape, and passed on to new generations, a process taking place within a dialectic relationship between the people of God and God himself. As such, even editorial changes added after the stabilization of the text, i.e. the phase leading up to the establishment of the authoritative Masoretic text in 1 C.E., ought to be taken account of as part of the theological witness of the whole.

The problem is: "who are the people of God" (as I understand Childs, who I find hard to understand). For Childs, this was and is the Jewish people who are the "authoritative tradents of the tradition," and so he believes that although the text traditions of the various communities that existed (Qumran, LXX, etc.) are interesting and ought to be taken account of, when it comes to formulating doctrine or getting at the "substance" of Scripture, the "vehicle" for such a project ought to be the text form elected by the only Jewish community to have survived till the present. This is why he argues that the goal of text criticism, as far as theological exegesis is concerned, is to reconstruct the MT of the 1st century C.E. The diachronic dimension ought to be taken into account, but only as a means of elucidating the Rabbinic Masoretic Text.

This has been critiqued by people such as Neusner, who argues that if one wants to respect the Jewish way of doing things, one mustn't make the kind of distinction Childs makes between text and tradition. For Jews they are the same thing (or something like that ...). Childs responds that this is a later development (2nd century C.E.) and raises the challenge that in making this move Judaism has distanced itself from some of its earlier traditions, which held to a strong distinction between text and tradition, Scripture and Targum. In fact, I think he believes that the collapsing of text and tradition marks a major moment in the parting of the ways of the two faiths ...

As usual, I may be getting things wrong. So please do correct me.
Update: In the comments, Michael has asked some pretty penetrating questions, to which I have responded.


Bob MacDonald said...

For a smile see today's Velveteen Rabbi post which I read just before yours.

Are the texts what we make of them? Not without our response to the Maker.

yhwhmlk said...

Make sure you pick up a copy of Ulrich's The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible where he interacts with Tov et al.

Anonymous said...

A few thoughts:

If a "canonical approach" understands the text as Christian Scripture, and if "the Jewish people are the authoritative tradents of the tradition," is it sigificant for Childs that the earliest Christians were Jewish?

re: "the "vehicle" for such a project ought to be the text form elected by the only Jewish community to have survived till the present"--does Childs provide a rationale for this decision?

Does Childs take into account (a) the diversity of (Jewish!) textual forms in the 1st century, and (b) the fact that that early Jewish Christians (the ones writing the NT) used a variety of textual families in their quotations of and allusions to Scripture?

Is it even accurate to use a phrase like "the establishment of the authoritative Masoretic text in 1 C.E."?

To be sure, we know that pre-Christian Jewish scribes were adjusting Greek translations toward Hebrew texts. But do you have evidence that what you call "the Masoretic text" was the product of conscious and deliberate choice, i.e. "established" or "elected by" anyone, let alone Rabbis?

And is what you are calling "the Masoretic text" of the 1st century (strictly speaking: what would become what we call the "Masoretic text") textually homogeneous? That is, do all the scrolls that would eventually be called "Masoretic" bear the same scribal tendencies? Text-critically speaking, can you even refer to these various scrolls as "A/The Text" in the 1st c?


Phil Sumpter said...


I like her poetry, thanks for the tip.


from what I remember of Ulrich, he is not intrested in a canonical approach to textual criticism (i.e. one theologically loaded in the way I understand it). But he is certainly important for grasping the diversity of text traditions and the limitations of our knowledge.


thanks for your probing questions. I'll do my best to respond but please do point out where I'm fudging something. I'd also like to know your view on the matter!

is it significant for Childs that the earliest Christians were Jewish?Sure, "salvation comes from the Jews." I'm not sure how this question relates to what I wrote ... The point is that the earliest Christians never sought to establish an alternative Scripture to the Jews (as the Samaritans did) but rather always tried to fit to the demands of the various Jewish communities they encountered. Justin Martyer even complained about the rabbinate excluding text traditions that favoured a Christian reading, but he went along with their version anyway (cf. Waltke, NIDOTTE).

"the "vehicle" for such a project ought to be the text form elected by the only Jewish community to have survived till the present"--does Childs provide a rationale for this decision?Yes: the Jews are God's chosen people. You can explain the fact that only Pharisaic Judaism survived into the present how you want, but it did and that this the reality that Christians have to reckon with. I know that there is a lot of work to be done on this issue - at least, I haven't read too many other people making such a point. I do find it interesting and am strongly sympathetic to it.

Does Childs take into account (a) the diversity of (Jewish!) textual forms in the 1st century ... Sure, but only the proto-MT was elected, so this is the one that we ought to privilege.

... (b) the fact that that early Jewish Christians (the ones writing the NT) used a variety of textual families in their quotations of and allusions to Scripture?Sure. What counts is the principle involved, namely, that they chose whatever text tradition the current Jewish community was using. At the time a lot of the used the LXX, so so did the Christians. Today they just use the MT of the Ben Asher family, so so should the Christians (though as a "vehicle," which nuances the issue a bit).

Is it even accurate to use a phrase like "the establishment of the authoritative Masoretic text in 1 C.E."?Why wouldn't it be? That's the kind of thing I keep reading. Tov says: "on a socio-religious level this text has a unique character, since at a certain stage it was preferred to the others by a central stream in Judaism (the Pharisees?)." (Textual Criticism, 24).

do you have evidence that what you call "the Masoretic text" was the product of conscious and deliberate choice, i.e. "established" or "elected by" anyoneI think the consensus at the moment is that no-one really knows what went into the decision. It was likely a mixture of theological, political, and sociological factors. As far as I understand, this is one reason why a lot of nuance is needed in doing "canonical textual interpretation," nuance which is contained in the word "vehicle" (Childs is happy to emend texts. He does so in his Isaiah commentary. However, even he saw that his Isaiah commentary did go as far as he would have like theologically. In other words, I think that a more adequate theological wrestling with the text would not just emend MT to the likely original, but what factor MT into an account of the whole. I'll be doing this for Ps 14:4, for example, with the awkward 1st. pers. pronoun "naphsi."

And is what you are calling [the "proto-MT"] textually homogeneous?I would have thought so. Tov says: " ... M came to preserve the biblical text in the exact form in which it was current at a particular time in a particular circle; it preserved such minutiae as scribal points above or below letters and other para-textual elements." (24). Admittedly, the issue is not 100% clear. Tov goes on to say: "It is difficult to know whether there ever existed a single archetype of M, and, even if such a text had existed, it cannot be identified or reconstructed." However, he also says, "However, such lists of differences create an optical illusion, since the agreements between the members of the group of M are more numerous and idiosyncratic than the differences between them. Therefore, one should stress the internal unity of this group rather than the differences between its representatives" (25). I'm not sure whether focussing on MT as a vehicle of revelation rather than as absolute revelation in itself frees us from having to worry too much about these minor (consonantal?) differences ... I would have thought so.

I wonder if it is useful for נַפְשִׁ֑י (or naphso) in Ps 24: 4. The נַפְשִׁ֑י tradition is very old ... (cf. LXX Alexandrinus).

Where do you stand on all this?

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,

1. I can't see how "the Jews are God's people" > "Rabbinic Judaism is the only surviving community" is in any sense a rationale for the choice of one textual family over another for theological reflection. Did the Jews who used Greek Scripture, or some of the 4QSam manuscripts stop being "God's people" just because over the course of time mss with these readings were no longer used by later Jews? Seems like a non sequitur to me.

2. Again, you keep using phrases like "the proto-MT was elected" and "what went into the decision". . . this is precisely what I am asking you to establish. Was there any "decision"? Was there an "election"?

Here I would suggest reading Albrektson and Ulrich:

Albrektson, Bertil. "Reflections on the Emergence of a Standard Text of the Hebrew Bible." VT Suppl. 29 (1978): 49-65.

Eugene Ulrich: "The stabilization of the text, which in a developed form is inherited as the Masoretic textus receptus, was--not religiously speaking, but textually and historically speaking--an accident of history. I am not aware of any evidence which demonstarates that, for each of the books, the choice of specifically those textual forms which were included in the Masoretic collection was made on any kind of literary, or theological , or other objective criteria", p. 291, ft 76 in "The Canonical Process, Textual Criticism, and Latter Stages in the Composition of the Bible," in "Sha‘arei Talmon": Studies in the Bible, Qumran, and the Ancient Near East Presented to Shemaryahu Talmon, ed. Michael Fishbane and Emanuel Tov, 267-291 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1992).

3. re: "textually homogeneous"--you don't see what I am getting at. Of course there is textual diversity in the medieval MT tradition; no one doubts that. Nor am I raising the issue of a single archetype. I'm talking about the consonantal material that is IN what came to be known as "the MT" (rather misleadingly, which is why we are having this conversation).

What I mean is: when you read e.g. Genesis and Samuel even in your BHS, you can clearly see that these two books are not textually homogeneous. In other words, the number and kind of distinctive textual features (e.g. harmonizations, assimilations, plusses, minuses, etc.) in the consonantal form of these two books are quite different, suggesting that they did not go through an identical transmission process. So: while you can talk about the MT of individual books (MT Samuel vs. some Samuel in other text type), "The MT" as a whole is NOT a text type. It contains books that very diverse in textual character.

Does this help?


Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Michael, thanks for getting back to me (sorry about the delay).

1. They didn't stop being God's people, which is why it was OK for the NT to cite from the LXX. That was the text used by God's people at the time. The question of which text tradition ought to be authoritative is relative, i.e. relative to the community that is around. Jews who treasured LXX/Qumran etc. don't exist anymore, therefore we don't need to refer to it as a norm. Rabbinic Judaism does, so therefore their Bible ought to be our norm. It's not about the purity of the text, it's a theological issue of who is the "tradent of the tradition." I admit that there is still a lot of thinking that needs to go into this and I myself find it an intriguing concept ... but that doesn't make what I'm saying a non sequitor, does it? From what I can see, Catholics make similar arguments for the Vulgate and the Orthodox for the Alexandrian tradition of the LXX.

2. How else do you explain the fact that only the MT was used by the vast majority of Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple (beforehand it was highly honoured by many, including those in the centre of spiritual authority: Jerusalem)? It simply became the authoritative text tradition. How this decision was made I don't know (does anyone?), but surely something must have been done. In short, I don't get why my use of the language "elected" is a problem, as long as it isn't taken too strongly as the result of some kind of council.

The Ulrich quote was interesting, but it is saying something different to what I am saying. OK, I think I said that one of the criteria may have been religious, i.e. it wasn't pure accident, but either way it is not central to what I am saying. Choosing MT from a Christian point of view has nothing to do with the quality of the text (e.g. its originality or in this case, any particular theological qualities), it is simply a matter of who treasures it. The Jews do, and so so ought we. Let me know if this is still not making sense, I really learn through being probed by people like you!

3. they did not go through an identical transmission process. Maybe I am missing something. I can agree with this and still feel it does not challenge my position. It doesn't really matter whether what came to be accepted as authoritative in the 1st Centuary had a unified textual development behind it. My point is simply that in the 1st Centuary this particular constellation was chosen to be authoritative, and so it ought to function in turn as our regular fidei. Maybe I ought to stop speaking of the whole Old Testament as belong to one text type (could you point me to some articles where that is discussed, or is the discussion already in the books listed above? I won't be able to read the second as our library is lame enough not to have it), but I still don't think this is relevant to the question of the goal of a specfically confessional Christian textual criticism. Or am I still missing something ... ?

Thanks again for taking the time (and for your patience!).