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Did You Hear the One about the Monk . . . ?

2006 May 23
by Mike

I’m taking a short course right now with Dr. Jeff Childers on the history of textual criticism. It was one of the studies I loved a quarter century ago in grad school, and I’m enjoying getting back into it this week.

The field of textual criticism is so important because we don’t have any of the original copies of New Testament (or Old Testament, for that matter) books. We have copies of those books. Actually what we have is copies of copies of copies of those books. As you might expect once you realize that we’re depending on so many scribes in so many places, these manuscripts don’t exactly agree all the time.

So textual critics study the available manuscripts — along with early versions in other languages and references from early church leaders — and try to determine to the best of their ability what the original text said.

When the King James Version was translated, we didn’t have the early manuscripts we now have. So, in all likelihood, the translations we have today are much more reliable (if by reliable we mean that they more likely reflect what was originally written).

Another aspect of textual criticism is that you get to peek at the way the living word of God spoke to various communities of faith over time. It spoke with power, provoking deep conviction.

It’s not exactly an area that will produce a future sermon series. But it’s nice to jumpstart my brain; it’s nice to spend a day with a good teacher, sharp students, and an open Greek text. For the past couple days we’ve been reading pages from some of the earliest manuscripts, which is hard BECAUSETHEYUSEDALLCAPITALLETTERSDIDNT

Textual criticism by day. Little league coaching by night. It’s a good life.

38 Responses leave one →
  1. May 23, 2006

    My granny emails with all caps and no punctuation. I have to print out the email and mark it with a pencil to be able to read it!

  2. Jeff Ingram permalink
    May 23, 2006

    Couldn’t agree with that last sentence more Mike! I just finished teaching textual criticism (on a pretty basic level) to my high school juniors and seniors here at Boyd-Buchanan school in Chattanooga and then got to coach my 8 year old son’s baseball game tonight (we lost to the evil Grasshoppers who are the only undeafeated team, but it was a close game). God is good 🙂

  3. May 23, 2006

    Brings back memories of Carol D. Osburn and Jack P. Lewis hanging our souls over purgatory for a few years in the 70’s (for which hanging I have been thankful every time I pick up text critical materials!).

    Thanks for keeping the irons hot in text crit. Inspires us all to keep our skills sharp for the important task of presenting ancient texts and thoughts to today’s listeners.


  4. May 23, 2006


  5. May 23, 2006

    I love TC, but I had already read all the materials (and many more) on the subject, by the time I took the class from Osburn; therefore, the most interesting aspect for me was the paleography section of the class. Greek paleography is fascinating because of the shorthand and ligatures (methods of joining letters), not to mention the illuminated manuscripts. In addition, I have found, through F.M. Cross’ Leaves from an Epigrapher’s Notebook that I enjoy Hebrew and West Semitic Paleography as well.

    Enjoy the manuscripts (and don’t neglect the notes in the margins).

  6. May 23, 2006

    Mike –

    You are in a SO much better a place than this time last year, and for this all of us are very happy for you.

    So – are you being graded on this endeavor, or is it strictly for for fun?

    Either way, glad you’re enjoying your week both as a student and as a coach. That’s a pretty good place to be this 3rd week of May, 2006.


    P. S. I could not write that last sentence above without going back and taking out every space between each word as I typed it. Can’t imagine writing in all caps with no spaces. That would take a LONG time to learn!


  7. May 23, 2006

    Mike, I just blogged about unacknowledged prejudice in a congregation that might look familiar to you. I know how busy it gets, but, if you get a chance, please stop by.

  8. vtc3po permalink
    May 24, 2006

    I was in Jeff’s class at the Pepperdine Lectures and it was AMAZING. I guess that if it’s possible to make textual criticism interesting, Jeff would be the one who could pull it off. 🙂 The idea of “knowing” is intriguing, but, man, it is one tedious undertaking! But, to each her/his own — Enjoy!!!

    Speaking of baseball — Pujols is just amazing! Unbelievable!

    Go Sox — Beat Yankees.
    Go Mike and Chris’ Team — Beat Whoever.

  9. Mike Riley permalink
    May 24, 2006

    My goodness, don’t you realize what heresy you are speaking to even suggest that MODERN (gasp!) translations could possibly be more reliable than the KJV?
    Seriously, even at my tender age of early 60’s, I continue to be amazed at the level of ignorant prejudice on this subject. I’ll never forget the bumper sticker I saw on a church van proclaiming “IF it ain’t King James, it ain’t Bible”.
    Thank you for using this pulpit to take an enlightened stand. I am thankful God blesses you with the ability to provide meaty thoughts consistently.

  10. Traci permalink
    May 24, 2006

    Maybe those early manuscripts were written by third graders!

  11. May 24, 2006

    “these manuscripts don’t exactly agree all the time.”

    Yeah, but the good news is that the people who read them always do.

    Okay, the real good news is that sunflower seeds, split finger fastballs, and stretching doubles into tripples is WAYBETTERTHANTEXTUALCRITICISM.

  12. May 24, 2006

    Ty Frost!

    I couldn’t agree with you blog entry any more if I’d written it!!

    It attests to the love extended by the members of the unnamed congregation that some of us suffer through pain and discomfort each time we have to sit in those horrid stadium seats.

    My poor injured back screams and hollers at me for half a week, rests for couple of days and then comes the next torture session. Yipes. Surely am happy that about half the service time is spent standing while singing, greeting, etc. giving a rest from the seat’s torture. 😉

  13. May 24, 2006

    When I was selling Bibles and children’s books in the summers when I was in college, primarily in the south, there was often concern to whether the Bible was KJV. One of my favorite responses to the KJV was, “Son, if it was good enough for Paul and the Apostles, it is good enough for me!” (Why would you want to criticize the text?)

  14. May 24, 2006

    The textual criticism by day and little league by night sounds like Heaven for an avid Greek fan like you, Mike. Rumor in the undergrad department was that you took 14 semesters of Greek during undergrad/grad school? True or no?

    Side note: what is a kind way to explain to people that the KJV is probably not that quality of a translation? (Defining quality as you did reliable)

  15. Radec permalink
    May 24, 2006

    I was reading aloud in our Romans class on sunday using the TNIV bible. Afterward a lady came up to me and asked if it was me who was changing “Man” to “human” in some passages. I explained it wasn’t me, but was kind of a new verion of the NIV. Her response was rather surprised that someone would “take that much liberty when translating the scriptures”. Just thought the comment was a bit strange.

  16. May 24, 2006

    Mike – I was taught in a Shakespeare class in college, that he was a possibility for having transcribed (or translated) the KJV, since he was “on staff” for King James. Did you learn of any such possibility in your studies?

  17. May 24, 2006

    Carroll Osbourn memory — I saw him in the ACU bookstore one day when Chad was in grad school and in the middle of Greek. Carroll came up to me and whispered, “Don’t tell Chad, but he’s doing very, very well in my class.”

    Of course I told him!

  18. May 24, 2006

    Beaner – Haven’t heard that. It certainly had some people working on it who understood beautiful poetry.

    Chris – I took seven semesters of Greek in undergrad. Then I had a class each semester of grad school. So, I guess that’s 13 semesters. But that’s deceptive. It’s not like every year you’re taking something more advanced. (“Advanced, Advanced, Advanced Greek Grammar.”) Most were reading classes. James Walters and I have a funny memory of one class we were in together where we read through Blass-Debrunner. I mean just plowed through the grammar. On the other question, Chris, that’s an emotional thing with many people. Sometimes it helps to talk about what flimsy, late evidence the KJV was based upon (the textus receptus). But if they have constructed their faith on a certain understanding of inspiration and preservation — well, it’s just very difficult to discuss.

    Ty and Kathy – The unnamed church whose identity we are so carefully protecting — 🙂 — does have a ways to go with making the building more accessible for larger people. The whole auditorium needs to be redone. We were so thankful that in the last renovation we were able to finally become handicap accessible.

  19. May 24, 2006

    After studying the with Allen Black at HUGSR in one class and talking aobut how we got the present day scriptures, I decided that the Bible must be a complete hoax or the true inspired word of God…I choose to believe that it is the true inspired word of God. How else would we have it today in spite of all those copies of copies and pieces of copies passed down from generaton to generation and lack of punctuation and all caps if God did not have His hand in it?

  20. May 24, 2006

    Tammie – Of course that’s a decision of faith — not a conclusion from “facts.” I know you know that — and I’m with you! As I wrote in my series earlier this year on the B-I-B-L-E, learning about the history of scripture has enriched my faith, not eliminiated it! (All right, it’s also challenged it over and over.)

  21. May 24, 2006

    Thanks, Mike 🙂

    One clarification though, it isn’t so much a case of size [huh? 😉 ] as it is a case of physical limitations, in my case at least. Getting in and out of those seats with a compromised back is a real challenge. But I wouldn’t trade the unnamed congregation for all the more accessible seating in town.

  22. May 24, 2006

    You guys living in Abilene get to have all the fun. Textual Criticism classes for the fun of it. Wow! For me fun is tee ball on Saturday with Matthew my 5 year old. Last game I asked him what his favorite part of the game was. He told me waving at you Dad. What a great day for this 50 year old Dad.

    As a large person, 5’10” , 310 pounds squeezing into small auditorium seats is tough, but so is sitting on airplanes, buses etc. Thanks to Ty for his empathy.

  23. elisabeth permalink
    May 24, 2006

    Ty, we need to have a bond election in our churches to vote in pews. I’m feel sure if we did this at Highland it would pass.

  24. Leland permalink
    May 24, 2006


    As you study the Greek text, what are finding out you didn’t already know? Is there something earth shattering revealed? For instance if we took a closer look at the Greek, we might have women elders?

    Do think what is gleened from this textual criticism is “nice to know” or is critical to our current way of doing things?

    Simply put, we used to do or think “A” but upon further review of the Greek text we now don’t do “A.”

  25. May 24, 2006

    Textual criticism is a field that fascinates me. I wish I had the expertise to “do” it myself, but as it stands I only have a rudimentary appreciation of all of the issues that are involved.

    A related issue that interests me is this: if we conclude that a particular segment of text was NOT a part of the original writing (say, the latter part of Mark 16 or John’s account of the woman caught in adultery), should we still consider that text to be canonical? In other words, if the original writer didn’t write it, should we think of it as “part of the Bible”?

  26. Matt Young permalink
    May 24, 2006

    Hey, Mike. I just started reading your blog and I really like it. Although I have to say I’ll just leave the textual criticism to you. I’m glad you like it, and I’ll just trust you as my pastor to preach it right.

    I think I’ll stick with the good ol’ TNIV.

  27. Jeff permalink
    May 25, 2006

    It’s always a bit intimidating to be with someone like Mike in the classroom. For one thing — he’s way older than I am, and it shows. But also, he’s just really sharp and thoughtful. He gets all the deep issues of NT textual criticism. If he hadn’t been lured away by the seductive glamor of the pulpit, he could have made a fine textual critic…

  28. May 25, 2006

    Few Biblical scholars can preach consistently as well as Mike. It may be because it is a gift to be able to know what an audience needs to hear, as oppossed to what a scholar wants to preach. We need both! Lynn Anderson wrote a very good article on this in Wineskins several years ago. We need both. Occassionally you will hear a scholar that really should be a preacher, and a preacher who really should be a scholar.

  29. May 25, 2006


    If you have the time, can you let me know what translation most likely reflects what was originally written, according to most scholars?

    mail: jeff (at)

    Thank you!


  30. May 26, 2006

    I couldn’t quite fathom why having text in all capitals with no puncutation could cause difficulties until one of my Bible instructors pointed out an example in English:


    Okay, which is it?

    Now here?

    Or nowhere?

  31. May 27, 2006

    Don’t ever get up coaching little league.. during grad school I would go from my theology classes to trying to help a fatherless, low income friend accross treadway believe there was a God who loved him. It did well to balance out the much needed classroom experience…I love it. Textual Criticism and little league. In the middle is a good sermon.

  32. May 28, 2006

    Is the issue of the authority of the manuscripts really that simple—just get the earliest one in the original language and consider it the grandma of the others?

    Yet what was Jerome looking at when he translated manuscripts into Latin as the Vulgate in the 5th Century C.E.? Weren’t the manuscripts Jerome used older than many of the manuscripts discovered later? Additionally, did not Erasmus have access to, and consider and even use, much of the same corpus of manuscripts in delivering the Textus Receptus, which forms the basis of the Authorized King James Version? Can Jerome’s Vulgate be easily dismissed when it is actually older than some manuscripts used in modern translations and in view of the fact that Jerome must have had manuscripts no longer extant when he did his work?

    I’m just trying to learn.


  33. Brent permalink
    May 28, 2006


    Scholars use a number of methods for determining the reliability of a text, age being one of them.

    Concerning the Vulgate and the Textus Receptus, I recommend — by Bruce M. Metzger, Bart D. Ehrman.

  34. Brent permalink
    May 28, 2006

    Ooops. The Text of the New Testament : Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration — by Bruce M. Metzger, Bart D. Ehrman

  35. May 28, 2006

    Thanks, Brent. Good references, + a zillion other viewpoints such as George W. Anderson (A CRITICAL INTRODUCTION TO THE OLD TESTAMENT) and F. F. Bruce (THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS: ARE THEY RELIABLE?). But why the avalanche of translations (in English alone) since the 1940s? Despite the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, is any sane person of a mind that the world is better than it was prior to the RSV? Every time you sneeze someone has come out with another one, complete with preface about the “need” for a new translation. Translations are abounding in inverse correlation to public knowledge of the word of God.


  36. Brent permalink
    May 29, 2006


    Everyone wants a piece of the pie that is the world’s largest seller. We see the same thing taking place with all the publishers that are taking advantage of Dan Brown’s success.

  37. May 29, 2006

    You are tracking well with Hegel and Marx, but the profit margin in Bibles is too thin or nonexistent fully to explain the late 20th century phenomenon of the avalanche of translations. Additionally, the translations which are not under copyright, or for which permission is cheaply delivered, can be obtained free by the consumer.

    In the meantime some communities of Christendom have been experiencing weekly internecine unpleasantness over whether God’s name is “hallowed” or “holy” and describable as “thy” or “your.” If for nigh unto four centuries people have been able to say the Lord’s prayer the same way (at least in the same church), why rattle them? This sort of squabble is a work of the Devil. Virtually all the enduring hymns were written on the phraseology of established translations (“Great is THY faithfulness”). For these and other reasons, much of the effect of the plethora of modernized versions is to help confuse or efface the once-common grasp of biblical quotations and allusions.

    You are indeed perceptive concerning the DA VINCI CODE. In amplification of your empirical observations, let us note certain grammatical, stylistic, organizational, and substantive errors, as well as other peculiarities, together with the frontispiece claim that it’s all “accurate.” Yet a more penetrating analysis–unnoticed since the book’s publication but now coming evermore to light as Brent has probed into the economic motives for the tome and its ecclesiological adherents and detractors–lends credence to a view that the narrative has evolved in various places and times and that it seems to be a blend of at least four different perspectives, contributing to doublets and even triplets in the discourse. This analysis shall henceforth be dubbed the Brent-David documentary hypothesis (BDDH), which began from your self-evident exposure to Hegelian economic theory. BDDH will have absolutely no practical application to the needs of lost and dying humanity, but it will possess the potential to get the Brownians at each other’s throats while it gets our mentees tenure in prestigious institutions laden with eggheads.

    “I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

  38. Dan Smith permalink
    June 17, 2006

    To all,
    About the best book I’ve read on TC is “The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon, revised & expanded edition” by Lee M McDonald, ISBN 1-56563-052-1.

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