A Response to David Parker’s Review of The Early Text of the New Testament

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

December 3, 2013

In late 2012, Oxford University Press released our co-edited volume, The Early Text of the New Testament (ETNT), a collection of essays from 22 leading scholars in the world of textual criticism. It is gratifying to have David Parker’s review of ETNT (JTS 64 [2013]: 642-645) so relatively soon after publication, yet disappointing that most of the criticisms in his short review seem to have mistaken both the aims and the scope of the book.  Here we would like to offer a brief response to some of his comments.

Parker’s criticism can be divided into three main categories: (a) the scope of the project, (b) the nature of the “Münster approach”; and (c) the methodology of the volume.   Parker also criticizes the fact that our volume did not employ Text and Textwert in Section II of ETNT, but since Tommy Wasserman has already offered an excellent response to this issue (see the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog), we shall not comment on it further here.

Scope of the Project

Parker’s first complaint is that the volume lacks third-century authors in Section III, ‘Early citation and Use of New Testament Writings,’ We agree that this would have enhanced the book.  Of course, we desired this but it would have called for another volume, due to the constraints of space placed upon us by the publishers.  We were forced to limit ourselves to the earliest period, the second century.  The second century focus, however, has further text-historical relevance, in that some scholars have theorized that a major recension of NT books was undertaken sometime around 180-200, giving the second-century evidence a particular significance.

Less understandable, in our view, is Parker’s complaint that some manuscripts were treated in Section II, ‘The Manuscript Tradition’, whose dates go beyond the year 300.  The general intent of the book, of course, was to examine, the textual tradition prior to the fourth century.  But, as is well known, hard dating is impossible with all the early manuscripts in any case, and for certain books (Mark and some of the Catholics, for instance) the dearth of certifiably earlier manuscript witnesses justifies the treatment of slightly later texts in order to get the best picture we can of the earliest period.  The variances in available data for each book/corpus call for correspondingly varied treatments.

The Nature of the “Münster approach”

Parker’s second complaint pertains to our understanding of the “Münster approach.” It is unfortunate that Parker’s misunderstanding of one passage in the book led him to charge us with a ‘serious misunderstanding, which could be rectified by a visit to the Institut’s website, in particular the introduction to the CBGM.’  The alleged misunderstanding:  ‘it is clear from p. 9 that Hill and Kruger have confused’ the CBGM ‘with the Alands’ categorization of strict, normal, and free texts, since they write “The Münster approach then is to attempt to classify early manuscripts in three major groups”’.

The confusion, however, is on Parker’s part.  This section of the Introduction (pp. 6-9), is entitled ‘Classifying Early Papyri Readings:  Text Type or Type of Text?’.  It seeks to introduce the reader to two major approaches to the early papyri taken by two schools of thought in the twentieth century, as new papyri discoveries were being made.  One approach is represented by Bruce Metzger, Eldon Epp, et alia, the other by Alands in Münster.  Whereas the former maintained that the existence of text types could be verified even in the second century, the latter eschewed this idea in favor of a theory of spontaneous development of the text, in which some manuscripts were copied with greater freedom and others with greater strictness.  In using the words ‘the Münster approach’ to describe the Aland’s method of classifying early manuscripts (strict, normal, free), not only were we referring back to a phrase used in the previous paragraph that should have made the contextual meaning clear (‘the Alands at the Munster Institut’), we were also reprising the terminology of another expert, Jacobus Petzer, who had published an important essay on this subject back in 1994 (J. H. Petzer, ‘The History of the New Testament Text:  Its Reconstruction, Significance and Use in New Testament Textual Criticism’ in Barbara Aland and Joël Delobel, eds. New Testament Textual Criticism, Exegesis and Church History: A Discussion of Methods. Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1994, cited in fn. 41).  Petzer repeatedly refers to the Aland’s classification system as ‘the Münster theory’ or ‘the Münster approach’.  In the context, there should have been no confusion of this ‘Münster approach’ with the CBGM, which had not yet been invented in the period under discussion, and which has little if anything to do with the classification of the early papyrological evidence anyway.  (While I (Hill) would not expect Parker to have noticed or remembered, I was in the room with him when Gerd Mink laid out the still relatively new CBGM to a group of somewhat skeptical NT textual critics at a meeting in Münster in 2008.)

Methodology of the Volume

Parker’s complaint that ‘the book does not address a methodology for comparing and analyzing the witnesses, beyond adopting the terminology of the Aland handbook…’ is partly true:  we did not set out to propose or impose an overarching method for the contributors to follow, but left this largely to their discretion, knowing full well that they would not have exactly the same approach.  So, we sacrificed some uniformity in method in order to give freedom to the experts, who were working, after all, on different corpuses that might have suggested somewhat different methods anyway.  We did ask the contributors to include in a Table some basic data about each manuscript treated, such as date, provenance, contents, etc., and we included in that request that the contributors at least note the Aland’s classification for that manuscript (if they gave one), as one piece of data for scholars to interact with.  As one can see, not all of our contributors felt obliged to follow our request, in fact, one of them labeled the Aland’s designations ‘bizarre’.  As editors, we might have then sought to impose a stricter regime (and perhaps lose contributors), but we chose instead to let the judgments of our highly-qualified experts (most of whom acceded to our request) stand on their own, and to let ongoing scholarship take its course with respect to those judgments.

Parker’s methodological criticisms go even further:  ‘conceptually the book does not address the fact that the oldest forms of text may not necessarily be found in the oldest witnesses.  Putting it very simply, is the notional cut-off date of “pre-fourth-century” relevant to textual criticism?’

Rather than seeing this as another accusation of a very basic blunder on our part (a failure to recognize that early readings might be found in later manuscripts) we will choose to read it as simply a provocative way of getting across a text-critical commonplace.  But to think that ‘conceptually’ we should have spent a good deal of time ‘addressing’ this commonplace is to misapprehend the aims of the book.  We’ll come to those in a moment, but first it is worth observing that Parker’s question seems to presume that ‘textual criticism’ is all about finding the ‘oldest forms of text’.  This is a bit surprising coming from Parker, who is prominent among those who argue for an expansive view of what textual criticism ought to be (i.e., texts as ‘windows’ on all sorts of things besides the earliest text).  In that light, if we wanted to concentrate on what the manuscripts tell us about any given historical period (say, the ‘pre-fourth-century’ period), what could possibly be wrong with that?

But the most disappointing thing about this criticism is that it assumes that the book was all about trying to find the most primitive state of the text.  Naturally, we think the book is an important tool that can help scholars working at that crucial task.  But that would only be one of its byproducts.  First, as we said in the introduction, the data for understanding the ‘pre-fourth-century’ period (that is, the period before the great majuscule manuscripts on which the discipline of NT textual criticism has so heavily relied since Westcott and Hort) is growing and is in need of concentrated and detailed analysis.  New discoveries always should merit attention and should stir attempts to integrate them into larger, accepted bodies of evidence, leading to confirmation, adaptation, or replacement of existing theories.  According to Eldon Epp, ‘most textual critics consider those papyri dating prior to the mid-fourth century … as decisive in text-critical matters, mutatis mutandis’ (Eldon Jay Epp, ‘The Papyrus Manuscripts of the New Testament’, in Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes, eds., The Text of the New Testament in Contrmporary Research:  Essays on the Status Quaestionis, second edn. (Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2013), 1-39, at 2).

Second, the book’s primary interest is in what one might call ‘the state of the text’ and ‘the developments of the text’ of NT books in the period before the great uncial manuscripts.  What is happening with or to the text in this period?  One way to view this is with respect to the stability or instability of the text of these books, the changes taking place in the process of copying, the resulting textual complexions and relationships between groups of texts.  But another interesting and important aspect of the text in this period is the physical/artifactual forms they were being given and the scribal features of the manuscripts in which they were being transmitted.  Such forms and features help the historian gain an impression of the role these books might have been playing in the communities who preserved and copied them.  The books of the NT and their manuscript witnesses can also be related to their environment in the world of publishing, circulation, and reading of literature in the Greco-Roman situation.  Potentially, insight can be gained on the forms of the text in the early period by examining the use of NT materials reflected in later Christian writers.  All of these, we think, are important and deserving of attention regardless of the extent to which, or even whether or not, these ‘earliest’ texts can bring us closer to the ‘original’ text or the Ausgangstext.

In sum, we appreciate Parker’s prompt engagement with ETNT so soon after its publication.  While no book is beyond criticism, many of Parker’s specific criticisms stem from a misunderstanding of the scope of this project and its purpose.  It is our hope that the clarifications we have offered here will help address some of these misunderstandings and allow for more productive dialogue on these important issues.

Charles E. Hill
Michael J. Kruger


Discover more from Canon Fodder

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading