New Testament Textual Criticism: Science, Art or Religion?
All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree (Albert Einstein)
Michael Polanyi, the Hungarian philosopher of science, once wrote an interesting essay about why scientific beliefs, as he labelled them, persist (The Stability of Beliefs, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 3:11, November, 1952). His argument was that certain beliefs – scientific and pseudo-scientific alike – are sustained by the construction of an elaborate framework designed to make the belief doubt-proof. The value of this system is that any doubts expressed about the validity of the belief in question are not only accommodated but converted into additional proofs of its general excellence.
Polanyi’s memorable example is that of the Azande belief in the power of the poison-oracle. The poison-oracle is used to answer questions through the administration of a certain natural poison to a fowl. However, the poison is only believed by the Azande to become effective after the witchdoctor has performed a ritual incantation over it. It is how the Azande reinforce their belief in the poison-oracle that interested Polanyi.
‘Suppose that the oracle in answer to a particular question says ‘Yes’ and immediately afterwards says ‘No’ to the same question. In our eyes this would tend to discredit the oracle altogether, but Zande culture provides a number of ready explanations for such self-contradictions. Evans-Pritchard lists no less than eight secondary elaborations of their beliefs by which Azande will account for the oracle’s failure. They may assume that the wrong variety of poison had been gathered or a breach of taboo committed, or that the owners of the forest where the poisonous creeper grows had been angered and revenged themselves by spoiling the poison; and so on’.
Polanyi showed the blindness of the Azande to the absurdities and contradictions of the poison-oracle by citing a particularly distressing example. A man, after initially having strenuously denied that he had turned into a lion to devour a workmate out of envy at his workmate’s more successful day’s honey-hunting, eventually confessed. Believing so implicitly in the poison-oracle and having no place for accidental death in his worldview, the man eventually remained true to his belief in the poison-oracle and admitted the crime despite the awful penalty and the fact that, of course, he had never really turned into a lion.
Polanyi went on to address the means by which certain beliefs insulate themselves against scepticism. Polanyi used the Azande as an example of the intellectual ingenuity and vigour with which certain belief-systems reason. It is here that we shall find fruitful insights into the modern practice of New Testament textual criticism.
Polanyi gave three features that marked the Azande method of reasoning. The first was circular reasoning. That is, when one piece of the framework is doubted, it is supported by reference to another piece of the framework, and so on until the circle is completed by returning to the original piece that was called into question. Of course, the larger the loop executed in such circular reasoning, the less obvious is the fact that circular reasoning proves precisely nothing. The Azande explanation for why their magic did not work by reference to some other magical notion would hardly impress someone who did not already believe in their magic. But the explanation, by enlarging the loop and building in some coherence, can keep up the appearance of intelligence for a little longer. The Azande explanation is simply a statement of faith at heart.
Polanyi’s second feature was the development of secondary elaborations that ‘cover almost any conceivable eventuality, however embarrassing this may appear at first sight’. Here is the real heart of the coherent framework that makes the belief doubt-proof. A circular reasoning system cannot operate without some fall-back option if the first option misfires, as in the eight explanations Azande give to explain away a contradiction between two attempts at the poison-oracle.
Thirdly, Polanyi referred to the principle which he called ‘suppressed nucleation’, by which he meant that an established belief will tend to suppress the construction of any rival coherent framework. Because the new, rival conception involves ‘thinking outside the box’, as we say, it will be very difficult for someone used to the familiar and much-loved idiom of their own coherent framework to try to think in a completely new language. Imagine a chemist trying to explain chemistry without being allowed to refer to the Periodic Table or any of its elements. If you cannot imagine such a thing, you now understand the confused and contemptuous indifference the Azande displayed towards Europeans telling them they were wrong in non-magical terms of which they had no conception. Instead of trying to think in a new way, certain people presented with a new idea will almost instinctively try to suppress the attempt to ‘connect the dots’ that bind different pieces of information into a new framework. Instead of listening long enough to allow a new rival framework to become fully constructed, the individual arguments that make it up are attacked one at a time. No quarter is given to any attempt to adduce any secondary elaborations that would explain anomalies in the new framework. In short, the principle of suppressed nucleation means that people are very reluctant to listen to any elements of a new idea that can really only be understood as a coherent whole.
We may boil Polanyi’s three features down to one: circular reasoning. But we may also add four other more subtle features that suggest themselves from Polanyi's essay, although Polanyi did not make explicit reference to them. The first two are the power of authority figures and cultural traditions. The witchdoctor had a certain authority over the people, and the cultural cement of the racial heritage and homogeneity of the tribe also had a certain power. In the case of the man accused of turning into a lion, not only was the poison-oracle against him, but also the authority of the witch-doctor who administered it was against him. But underpinning both the authority of the witch-doctor and power of the magic was the confidence of the entire tribal community in these their cultural traditions. Both the appeal to authority and the appeal to tradition are usually classified among logical fallacies, not that this has ever diminished their modern popularity. Thirdly, another feature of pseudo-science is that instead of being subject to normal standards of evidence gathering or empirical testing, pseudo-science substitutes story-telling to explain phenomena. That these stories are not submitted to normal requirements of proof means that they are properly classified among myths, legends and fables rather than science. Such story-telling as seen in the tale of the man turning into a lion is not limited to primitive superstition. As Polanyi's essay remarks, unsubstantiated story-telling is a feature of modern forms of pseudo-science such as Freudian psychology, Marxist history and, as Polanyi elsewhere noted, Neo-Darwinian biology. Fourthly, these modern pseudo-sciences have clothed their story-telling in high-sounding terminology and jargon: Marxism's dialectical materialism, Freud's psychoanalysis and Neo-Darwinian mutation and natural selection. This jargon has the two-fold purpose of intimidating outsiders and helping initiates feel superior to those not acquainted with these terms. The ability to dress stories in scientific language answers the question of how these pseudo-sciences have been able to shelter under the authority that science confers and even shield themselves from the criticism that science invites.
In some people's definition of science, an idea is not considered scientific unless it passes peer-reviewed publication. In other words, some people’s idea of something unscientific is the fact that the majority of certain other people do not agree with it. Science could therefore be defined in the following logical loop. One, science consists of things that are discovered by experimental investigation and held to be true. Two, scientists are those people who are competent to judge whether certain explanations are true. We could shrink the loop and say that science is what scientists believe to be true. It would seem difficult to formulate a definition of science that does not include the element of belief on the part of certain people described by the tautological term scientists. Science is, at its heart, a belief – a faith.
Polanyi, please understand, was not really trying to differentiate between science and pseudo-science. His point was precisely that both science and pseudo-science are characterised by certain similar features. Nor was he trying to sink the good ship science by such a comparison. On the contrary, he affirmed his ‘belief’ in science. He was warning, however, that sometimes what is called science is no more than psuedo-science. He was also making the point that sometimes science struggles to adjust itself to new discoveries – just like certain people’s faith does - because science involves an element of faith.
New Testament textual criticism, to which we now turn, has an element which some would call scientific. Some physicists might perhaps disparage textual criticism as nothing more than stamp-collecting. However, textual critics would have every right to say, in reply, that physicists are simply collecting stamps of a different sort. Employing for the moment a working definition of a science as the systematic examination and understanding of a certain area of reality, textual criticism clears the bar with ease.
However, as we have seen, the words 'examination' and 'understanding' in our definition involve a human element in the enterprise of science and, in this, textual criticism is no different to any other 'science'. Some have used the word 'art' to describe this human side of textual criticism, and an important part of textual criticism involves the art of presenting a cogent argument. However, the use of the term 'art' is rather unfortunate. It implies, to modern (or post-modern) ears, that artistic licence is an essential part of textual decision-making, and what artistic licence really involves is stretching the truth for the sake of art; pandering to the prejudices of an audience or indulging one's own. The worst of prejudices do of course come out in textual criticism. In fact, they cannot be hidden. Textual judgements continually force the critic to betray (and try to defend) them. And what is it that ultimately shapes our personal preferences and prejudices? It is our underlying personal philosophy, our world-view, our outlook on life, our 'religion', or to use Polanyi's word, our beliefs. The use of the term 'religion' in this chapter is not meant to be restricted to our theological leanings, although this sort of prejudice is inseparable from any text-critical work on the New Testament. We all have a theological world-view, indeed there is no one in the world without such a world-view, whether it be theistic, anti-supernatural, or even feminist.
The surprising thing about some people's textual criticism of the New Testament is that they are so philosophically unsophisticated as to believe that their particular brand of textual criticism is 'scientific' and untainted by any 'theological' stance. This is as empty-headed and self-deceived as the person who says that he holds no opinion on the issue of slavery or racial discrimination, for there is nobody without theological opinions. However, as mentioned before, the word 'religion' is used here - for sake of convenience - in an even broader sense. It is used to highlight all the personal factors which shape and make up a textual critic's 'belief-system'. These may include, in addition to their theological preferences, their political leanings, social background, academic history, family relationships, work experience, friendships and other things beside which influence their outlook - sometimes even vendettas and taboos. Some are born traditionalists whilst others are raging revolutionaries; some gullibly accept everything they are taught by someone with letters after his name whilst others critically question the received wisdom; some have insatiable egos, some are irenic. Listen to the words of Vincent van Gogh, who knew whereof he spoke: 'I must tell you that with evangelists it is the same as with artists. There is an old academic school, tyrannical men who wear prejudice and conventions'.
The human element is not simply an unavoidable leaven in science. It is extremely important, indispensable to the success of the scientific enterprise. Whilst most scientific breakthroughs are the result of a flash of inspiration, a brilliant guess, a clever experiment, an accidental discovery or just old-fashioned perseverance, on the other hand, most scientific mistakes are the result of human sins like haste, pride, laziness, bias, deception or greed. Furthermore, as it is unavoidable, the human element must be kept out in the open, under maximum surveillance. Textual critics must be open, honest and above board about the world-view that shapes their textual preferences, not trying to pretend they have none or that they are beyond their influence. Therefore, the human element in textual criticism is not to be eulogised as art. Instead, it is better to realise that it is to our 'belief-system' that we will sometimes flee for refuge when difficulties overtake us.
It is to the human element we must turn for an understanding of how NT textual criticism has come to the state it has. At present, NT textual criticism is divided into three camps, broadly speaking. All are undone by their underlying belief-system.
Firstly, there are those who place little emphasis upon manuscript evidence and instead rely heavily upon Internal considerations. The result is that sometimes a reading only found in a few MSS is chosen, or even a reading only found in a Church Father. This policy is dangerous for the simple reason that External evidence provides a safeguard against the adoption of readings that happen to satisfy our preferences - theological, denominational, academic, social, whatever. This method diminishes the counter-balancing safeguard of External evidence to an unhealthy degree.
Secondly, there are those who are the reverse and who place almost unreserved faith in one strand of the manuscript evidence - whether it be the Byzantine/Majority-text advocates or the unreconstructed Hortians who faithfully follow Vaticanus (although Hort himself argued the excellence of Vaticanus by an uninterrupted appeal to subjectively interpreted Internal Evidence). This has been called the 'cult of the best manuscript' by J. K. Elliot, and everybody denies it exists - so it must be true. It is a sort of religious faith reposed in some element of external evidence. This is again unbalanced for the simple reason that sometimes the internal evidence may override the external evidence. The reason for this is that textual critics today possess only a small part of the external evidence that has existed down through the centuries. We do not have all the external evidence we need to absolutely guarantee some text-critical calls. Therefore, to suppose that one strand of the limited available external evidence will be a completely accurate guide to the original reading of the New Testament is a leap of faith.
Reasoned Eclecticism, in contrast to the first two approaches, is the mainstream method by which most textual critics claim to divine what the original reading of the New Testament was. Some people might not approve of – might even try to suppress – the mention of Reasoned Eclecticism in the same sentence as the poison-oracle magic of the Azande. But it is undeniable that some of the features mentioned above in relation to the magic of the Azande are found in it. Nevertheless, good things are found in You, Reasoned Eclecticism. To these we must, like Paul writing to the Corinthians, first pay brief compliments.
Firstly, it must be understood that there has never been a decent edition of the Greek New Testament that has not been eclectic. Even the Textus Receptus, whichever different one that we eclectically choose to so name, is based on a choice of readings from a number of manuscripts. There is no avoiding eclecticism, because as no two MSS are the same, so no MS is perfectly correct. Secondly, reason is also necessarily involved in making choices between variant readings. One should be able to give a reason for the hope that is placed in a certain reading as the correct one. Thirdly, Reasoned Eclecticism’s policy of choosing readings based on a balance of both external and internal criteria is the right way to go. Both external evidence and internal evidence must be allowed to play their part in helping us come to textual decisions, for the simple reason that they are both legitimate varieties of evidence. Things have come to a dangerous state of affairs when judges suppress legitimate evidence. Therefore, there is no way that we can criticise a reasoned eclecticism of this modest nature. No, in its essential points we must praise it. However, there is a difference between reasoned eclecticism and that eclecticism that proclaims itself as the authoritative voice of reason, Reasoned Eclecticism.
To understand what is wrong with Reasoned Eclecticism, we must look into its history. If we may be forgiven for over-dramatization, we shall characterize the history of NT textual criticism over the last 400 years as a battle between conservatives and revolutionaries. The conservatives have supported the traditional text found in the later Byzantine MSS while the revolutionaries championed successively earlier MSS as they came to light. The revolutionaries eventually triumphed in 1881 with the adoption of a Hortian text for the English Revised Version and have been in power ever since.
The basis for the revolutionary challenge to the traditional orthodoxy represented by the Textus Receptus was two-fold: Firstly, there was the extremely powerful and very simple argument of Age. The older the MS, the closer to the Originals it is - not only in time, but also, it was assumed, in text - and therefore, the more respect its readings should be given. For Tischendorf, 'those that excel in antiquity prevail in authority' (Novum Testamentum Graece Editio Maior Critica, Leipzig, 1869-94, 8th Ed, Vol. 3, pp 47-48). However, there was a second argument used to bolster the powerful - but not entirely conclusive - argument from age. This was the argument that Scribal Habits showed that the Textus Receptus was inferior to the earlier MSS.
The scribal habits that buttressed the case were primarily three. Firstly, it was argued that scribes were much more prone to add to the text than to omit. Secondly, it was argued that scribes tended to tidy up the text rather than to make it more difficult to read or comprehend. Thirdly, it was taught that scribes tended to harmonize the text to parallel passages. Textual critics like Griesbach wrote in great detail about the peculiar habits of scribes, arguing that they lengthened, smoothed out and harmonized the NT text.
So, we ask, how did textual critics know that these things were true? Did they perform lengthy, complicated experiments to prove that scribes in the past habitually copied (and mis-copied) the text in certain ways? The answer is No - there were no experiments performed, or at least, published.
F. H. A. Scrivener justified the canons in the following language: 'The canons or rules of internal testimony [are] grounded either on principles of common sense, or on certain peculiarities which all may mark in the documents from which our direct proofs are derived' (Plain Introduction, Volume 2, p247).
G. D. Fee, instead of appealing to common sense, takes up a term used by Hort to justify the canons when he talks about Transcriptional Probability: 'Transcriptional Probability has to do with scribal errors and is based on certain inductively derived criteria' (S&D45, p14,).
But if we are to take the term 'inductive' according to its normal dictionary definition, we are faced with a problem - it is possible to find examples of scribes doing almost anything. To reason from isolated instances to universal rules is what statisticians call 'cherry-picking' and trial lawyers call selective use of evidence. For example, just because one or two scribes can be found introducing bright lights at the baptism of Christ is no basis for introducing a universal rule that scribes tended to heighten the miraculous in the text of the New Testament, or decreeing that henceforth any mention of the miraculous in the New Testament is suspect of scribal corruption.
Instead of reasoning from isolated instances that happen to provide favourable support for some theory, Transcriptional Probability requires that we see proof that certain behaviours are statistically probable because they happen in the vast majority of cases studied.
So, to return to the revolutionaries, how did they know with such assurance that scribes did certain things in certain ways? How did they manage to write about scribal habits in so much detail, as Griesbach did, without ever providing any proof that they had put these habits to the statistical test?
The answer is obvious. The presumed guilt of the Textus Receptus provided the proof. How did the revolutionaries know that scribes tended to add to the text? Easy - the simple fact that the Textus Receptus was a longer text than the earlier MSS proved the issue conclusively. There was therefore no need for experimental verification of the fact. It was a 'proof' driven by their belief in the superiority of the earlier MSS.
What we have here is what Polanyi might have called a secondary elaboration that sets up a circular argument. Step One: the earlier MSS are superior. Step Two: the earlier MSS are shorter. Step Three: scribes therefore must have added to the text down through the centuries to produce the Textus Receptus. Step Four: the Textus Receptus is therefore inferior. Step Four, is of course, just a re-wording of Step One, ensuring that the circle remained unbroken. The unproven arguments of age and scribal habits closed the logical noose that lynched the Textus Receptus.
The same reasoning process was used in relation to the 'more difficult reading' canon. It was defended on logical (i.e. common sense) grounds, yes, but as we shall see, experimental testing shows that the canon is neither experimentally, nor even logically, true. However, there was never any real need to perform any experiment to prove the logical argument. The Textus Receptus was again all the proof that was needed.
Here we go again: Step One: the earlier MSS are superior. Step Two: the earlier MSS habitually contain more difficult readings. Step Three: scribes tended to smooth out difficulties, thus producing the Textus Receptus.
The 'more difficult reading' canon was simply an additional secondary elaboration that proved the superiority of the earlier manuscripts, while at the same time being driven by that same belief.
Likewise for harmonization. Some of the earlier texts (particularly the Western text found in Codex Bezae) were actually more harmonised than the Textus Receptus, but the favourites of most of the revolutionaries, the Alexandrian MSS, were more eccentric than the Textus Receptus, in that many of their scribally-introduced omissions and 'more difficult' readings resulted in de-harmonised variants.
The three canons themselves are dependent upon each other. Notice, for example, the way that Hort conflates a longer text, a smoother text and a more harmonized text:
The qualities which the authors of the Syrian text seem to have most desired to impress on it are lucidity and completeness. They were evidently anxious to remove all stumbling-blocks out of the way of the ordinary reader, so far as this could be done without recourse to violent measures. They were apparently equally desirous that he should have the benefit of instructive matter contained in all the existing texts, provided it did not confuse the context or introduce seeming contradictions. New omissions accordingly are rare, and where they do occur are usually found to contribute to apparent simplicity. New interpolations on the other hand are abundant, most of them being due to harmonistic or other assimilation, fortunately capricious and incomplete. Both in matter and in diction the Syrian text is conspicuously a full text. It delights in pronouns, conjunctions, and expletives and supplied links of all kinds, as well as in more considerable additions. As distinguished from the bold vigour of the 'Western' scribes, and the refined scholarship of the Alexandrians, the spirit of its own corrections is at once sensible and feeble. Entirely blameless on either literary or religious grounds as regards vulgarized or unworthy diction, yet shewing no marks of either critical or spiritual insight, it presents the New Testament in a form smooth and attractive, but appreciably impoverished in sense and force, more fitted for cursory perusal or recitation than for repeated and diligent study (Introduction, pp134-5, emphasis added).
Did you notice the way that lucidity (a smooth text) and completeness (a full text) go together? Contrariwise, although Hort does not here remark upon it, a short text is usually an abrupt, jagged and more difficult text. Additionally, a harmonized text is usually a longer text, and even when this is not the case, its purpose is to smooth away differences and difficulties between parallel passages. All three of the canons are connected in an interlocking embrace.
The entire argument was a big logical loop, a self-reinforcing, circular argument. The loop, in its complete formulation, including the additional 'explanatory' canon went like this:
- The earlier MSS are superior
- The earlier MSS are shorter
- A shorter text is also a more jagged, abrupt and difficult text
- The earlier MSS are more difficult
- A shorter, more difficult text is also less harmonised
- The earlier MSS are less harmonised
- The shorter, more difficult, less harmonised text is superior
- Shorter, more difficult, less harmonised readings are unexplainable by known scribal habits
- The earlier MSS are superior
If we may co-opt the words of the old Sunday School song: 'Round and round and round and round and round and round and round. One little stone went up in the air and the giant came tumbling down'. That giant was, of course, the Textus Receptus. However, the whole scheme was driven by faith in the superiority of the earlier MSS.
New Testament textual criticism had become a fully-fledged religion with its own faith-based formulation.
Whilst most modern textual critics seem unaware that Reasoned Eclecticism largely consists in placing faith in a circular argument, some textual critics instead argue that this is perfectly acceptable since, they claim, science regularly employs circular reasoning. Maybe it does, but this hardly provides reason for any appeal to its authority. Nor does it greatly engender faith in the text critical merry-go-round called Reasoned Eclecticism. Even a spiral staircase has to be based on some solid ground.
The problem for Reasoned Eclecticism is not simply that its reasoning process is circular, but the fact that certain elements, particularly the scribal habit arguments, are erroneous. These secondary elaborations are no longer able to provide any support for the faith-based statement that the earlier MSS are superior. In fact, the scribal habits now seem to argue against the superiority of earlier MSS. We can state categorically that the traditionally formulated canons of scribal habits are actually the exact reverse of the truth. This means, too, that the assertion that 'those that excel in antiquity prevail in authority' can no longer simply be assumed to be correct.
To be sure, this does not mean that we can now summarily dismiss the earlier MSS as inferior. All it means is that we have a more difficult situation to deal with. On the one hand, the greater age of the earlier MSS argues for their superiority. But on the other hand, the character of their text argues against their superiority.
Whether we choose for or against the earlier MSS will now more than ever be a matter guided by our gut instincts, our preferences and prejudices, a matter of our personal text-religious faith. Some hard-line party faithful will never abandon the revolutionary cause, just as some conservatives never abandoned their Textus Receptus.
It must also be understood that although Reasoned Eclecticism heavily favours the readings of earlier MSS, one of the chief glories of this religion is that it has enough built-in flexibility that it may be employed to justify belief in any MSS - even, with a bit of twiddling of the secondary elaborations, Byzantine MSS. This is so because Reasoned Eclecticism provides a toolbox of textual tricks that are available to meet and handle virtually every eventuality. As E. C. Colwell pointed out, 'the more lore the scholar knows, the easier it is ... to produce a reasonable defense of or to explain almost any variant'.
How does this happen? Because of the fact that the authoritative rules of Reasoned Eclecticism are self-contradictory. The 'best' external evidence is often divided. The external evidence will often contradict the internal evidence. The reading more in keeping with the author’s theology or vocabulary is very often in conflict with other rules. The more difficult reading is virtually always in conflict with some other rules. (Prefer the more difficult reading is the Reasoned Eclectic's trump card). In short, in the great majority of cases, there will always be some rules on either side of the evidence. To this criticism, seasoned initiates and stewards of the mysteries of Reasoned Eclecticism shrug the contemptuous shrug of the Azande, whose belief in their magic was not in the least disturbed by the fact that it frequently threw up contradictions. In fact, they were unable to disguise their incredulity that European critics could be so sceptical of the power and proven results of the poison-oracle.
It is nearly always the case that there are more than one ‘canon’ that can be invoked, some on the side of one particular reading, some on the side of the alternative reading(s). E. J. Epp noted that ‘it is not clear whether the term "eclectic" refers primarily to the selection of readings from here and there or to the choice of criteria from among the many and various ones available’ (The Eclectic Method in New Testament Textual Criticism: Solution or Symptom?, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, 1993, pp 141-42, emphasis in the original). Reasoned Eclecticism will frequently result in a Mexican stand-off situation between the two readings and their supporting canonical evidence. The result will be that the textual critic will have to intervene to adjudicate, because the evidence will not decide the issue on its own.
Colwell, paraphrasing Hort, said that ‘genealogical method can trace the tree down to the last two branches, but it can never unite these last two in the main trunk – it can never take the last step’ (Genealogical Method: Its Achievements and its Limitations, Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the New Testament, 1969, pp 66-67). The same is true when the text critic is faced with the analogous choice between two competing ‘canons of criticism’. There is no sure way of deciding which of the two readings is really true. The reason for this is that there is often no sure way of telling which ‘canon’ is weightier or more applicable in a given situation. The result is that Reasoned Eclectics will frequently disagree among themselves over the correct reading. Hence it is that Amphoux could use Reasoned Eclecticism to produce a largely Western text. Hence it is also that the Byzantine Priority position can use a form of Reasoned Eclecticism to produce an exclusively Byzantine text. Hence we have the literally hundreds of textual changes over the four editions of the eclectic United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament. But what is it that allows this diversity and freedom? The problem is that there are so many ‘canons’ that a clever operator can end up justifying whatever choice they make by invoking an authoritative canon.
If the Majority Text argument has been described as 'counting noses', then Reasoned Eclecticism deserves to be called 'a nose of wax' to be fashioned according to the artist's desire. Just as 'the King's heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water, He turns it wherever He wishes' (Proverbs 21:1), so the evidence is in the hands of the Reasoned Eclectic - he turns it whatever way he pleases. Noses made of wax have their benefits, of course; their major problem is that they cannot perform the primary task for which they were designed by God - to smell. Likewise, Reasoned Eclecticism is such a rubbery methodology that no certainty can be attached to its pronouncements; worse, its major objective remains unfulfilled - ascertaining the original wording of the NT.
Reasoned Eclecticism is a bit like an each-way bet, the classic win-win situation. The Reasoned Eclectic can use whichever canonical horse he needs to win the 'bet' that the reading of his preferred MSS is the correct one.
But even this is not an accurate enough comparison. The way to properly describe this situation is to be borrowed from magic, that is the magic of the Western variety, the magic of illusion. The term that properly describes what is happening here is a 'force'. A force, to quote from my copy of Magic for Dummies, is ‘a standard magic procedure in which an audience member is offered what seems to be a fair and free choice (usually of cards) – but in fact, the magician has predetermined the outcome’.
Let me give an example to show how a force works. When I worked in a certain institution, the staff were occasionally given training days. One day, instead of being given the needful training, some of us were treated to a motivational lecture. One of the tricks the motivator pulled on us was to offer us a series of choices of cards. The first choice, I think, was whether we wanted the red or black cards from the pack. One of us poor dupes made our choice. Then we were offered a choice of one of the two suits remaining. This process of choice continued until there was only one card left in the pack. Having allowed us to make our choice of one card out of the entire pack, the magician walked back to the flip chart, and with a Ta-Da, pulled back the top sheet of paper to reveal underneath a picture of the exact card that we had just chosen. We were impressed. At least, I was. One of the attendees, however, explained to me how it was done.
Every time we were offered the choice, the magician would use one of two different responses. If we picked the pile of cards that he knew the predetermined choice belonged to, he would say, ‘OK, we’ll take this pile that you have chosen’ and he would hold onto it. But if we happened to choose the wrong pile of cards, he would instead say: ‘OK, we’ll take this pile that you have chosen’, but would then proceed to take it away and discard it. We were thus continually being told we had made our choice, but we were not really being given a choice at all. The magician was guiding the decision making process by either accepting or setting aside our choice. A force, therefore, is when someone is offered an apparent choice, but the person offering the choice is really forcing the decision that he or she wants.
So, this is how the force is pulled off – because there are always two or more options offered to the textual critic to choose from. This leaves the textual critic free to choose whichever reading they really want. But this does not explain why it is that forces are pulled off. Why is it that – faced with continual free choices – the textual critic feels free to force the decision one way or the other? The answer is simple: their belief-system. Perhaps we could even be so mischievous as to say that it is not altogether surprising that some Reasoned Eclectics from a South-Western European background prefer the readings of the 'Western' textual tradition, whilst conservative fundamentalists prefer the Textus Receptus or the Majority Text and theological liberals from Northern Europe prefer the Alexandrian UBS text. South-Western Europeans prefer a text closer to their traditional Latin roots (the Western), theological conservatives with a high view of scripture prefer a text that makes sense (the Byzantine) and theological liberals have no qualms about a text that sometimes makes next to no sense at all (the Alexandrian).
At the bottom of such textual preferences and prejudices, ultimately, lies a history of the text. Of course, again, textual critics of different textual persuasions tell the story of the transmission of the New Testament text in a way that suits their preferences. Textual critics with an inclination towards a Western text see it as 'pre-recensional', while Alexandrians point to the importance of the early Egyptian papyri and Byzantine proponents emphasize the absence of any historical evidence of a Byzantine recension. The problems of writing an accurate and adequate history of the New Testament text are obvious, of course: we live two millennia from the most important events and the evidence surviving from before A.D. 200 is scanty. Such realities do not seem to daunt the true believers however.
The way Hort championed Codex Vaticanus by alleging the continual superiority of its variant readings is, at one level, simply a testament to Hort's reasoning faculties, and no real comment upon the quality of Vaticanus at all. George Salmon of Trinity College Dublin, one of Hort's contemporaries, voiced his unease with Hort's work in the following terms: 'That which has gained Hort so many adherents had some adverse influence with myself - I mean his extreme cleverness as an advocate; for I have felt as if there were no reading so improbable that he could not give good reasons for thinking it to be the only genuine' (Some Thoughts on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, 1897). However, at a deeper level, Hort's veneration for Vaticanus was based upon his reconstruction of the history of the New Testament text. Hort's history of the New Testament text is no longer generally accepted, for the simple reason that most critics suspect that Hort was manipulating that history to promote the claims of Vaticanus and to discredit the claims of any alternative witnesses. Everything that Hort did was geared to the grand task of justifying a faith-based preference for a newly published manuscript that took his fancy, Vaticanus.
We must not be too hard on Hort, however, for there are very few people free from preferences for or prejudices against certain manuscripts or text-types. When a Hort is unable to escape a slavish preference for a certain manuscript, what hope is there for lesser mortals? These textual preferences manifest themselves by the way that different textual critics’ eyes instinctively drop to the reading of the manuscript of choice in the critical apparatus before looking to see what the other manuscripts read.
In fact, the difference between the standard magical force and the text critical force is that it is possible for the text critic to trick herself into believing that her predetermined preference was also supported by the free and fair choice the evidence supplied. The real beauty, therefore, of Reasoned Eclecticism is that it leaves the textual critic free to indulge a prejudice under cover of choosing between competing ‘canons’. Reasoned Eclecticism currently lacks any safeguards to prevent it degenerating into what is better described as Rigged Eclecticism.
What sort of checks and balances might safeguard Reasoned Eclecticism from such a state? Perhaps the best safeguard would be the establishment of scribal habit canons based on comprehensive studies into scribal habits. In particular, what is urgently needed is the total abandonment of the second canon: Prefer the More Difficult Reading. This canon is not only the most statistically erroneous of the three scribal habit canons, and the most counter-intuitive of all the canons, but also the canon at whose feet must be laid the majority of the blame for the fact that Reasoned Eclecticism, as currently formulated, is nothing more than a Nose of Wax. A canon framed in exactly the opposite terms is required: Prefer the Reading that makes the Better Sense. Reasoned Eclecticism could then be summed up in three rules, an External Evidence rule, a Transcriptional Probability rule and an Intrinsic Probability rule:
- Prefer the Reading attested by the Best External Evidence,
- Prefer the Reading that Best Explains the alternative readings (that is, on the basis of scribal habits), and
- Prefer the Reading that makes the Best Sense.
It is because Rigged Eclecticism is sadly mistaken about the canons of scribal habits that it has substituted for Rule 2 the rule sometimes known as Lectio Difficilior (Prefer the Dumber Reading). This brings about Rigged Eclecticism's inner contradiction, because under Rigged Eclecticism Rule 2 and Rule 3 are often self-contradictory.
At its bottom, then, New Testament textual criticism is not simply a Science. New Testament textual criticism, of whatever current sort we wish to survey, is a Religion. Each of the three surveyed brands of textual criticism involve an underlying belief-system and a faith-position. New Testament textual criticism is a religion within a religion. And some sorts of Religion can be dangerous things to deal with. As the Epistle to the Reader from the Translators of the English Authorised Version of 1611, says, 'whosoever attempteth anything for the publick (especially if it pertain to religion and to the opening and clearing of the Word of God), the same setteth himself upon a stage to be gouted upon by every evil eye; yea, he casteth himself headlong upon pikes, to be gored by every sharp tongue. For he that meddleth with men's religion in any part meddleth with their custom, nay, with their freehold; and though they find no content in that which they have, yet they cannot abide to hear of altering'. Suppressed nucleation, to use the language of Michael Polanyi.