Charity and the Hardest Reading

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It strikes me that two principles commonly used in textual criticism can actually cancel each other out.

1. Charity to the Author: Other things being equal, it's generally better to be charitable to the author when we can do so. If we find two readings in manuscripts, where one makes a lot more sense for someone to have written than the other, then we might favor the one that we might more easily expect someone to have written and try to find some other explanation for the divergent reading.

2. Hardest Reading: Other things being equal, textual critics generally prefer a reading that is less likely to be what you'd expect to find, because copyists can see something and auto-correct it as they are copying. If they find something they consider to be grammatically, semantically, historically, or theologically incorrect, they might fix it. So the harder reading is often taken to be more likely, because we can explain why the manuscripts with the easier reading exist, when it's much harder sometimes to explain why the manuscripts with the harder reading would have arisen from the easier reading if that had been original.

These principles do seem to me to go in opposite directions, since charity seems to support the easier rather than the harder reading. I haven't done a lot of textual criticism myself, but I've read plenty of instances of authors writing about particular cases, and I have to wonder if sometimes people might choose one or the other of these in order to justify the reading they prefer, since charity supports the easier reading.

Does this make textual criticism completely subjective, at least in cases where these two principles are the only relevant ones that apply? Not really. I tried to state the principles carefully enough to hint at how the potential conflict can sometimes be resolved. Charity leads us to look for an alternative explanation for the harder reading, one not having to do with authorial intention, since it favors easier readings we'd actually expect someone to like. The Hardest Reading principle gives us an alternative explanation for how easier readings could arise, but we still need to make some sense of why someone would have authored the hardest reading, or else we might wonder if it's not original, provided that we do have an account of how the hardest reading could arise. Sometimes a slight different in how one letter is written can provide that explanation. Sometimes the harder reading still makes plenty of sense but requires some more careful explaining to see how it fits with the rest of the passage or some other passage. But in many cases there will be a reason to prefer the harder reading or the more charitable reading because of what we might say about the alternative reading.

I do have to wonder, though, about cases where the harder reading makes absolutely no sense, and the more charitable reading can easily be explained by being copied wrongly from the harder reading. There are hard cases in textual criticism because these principles do run counter to each other.

[cross-posted at Evangel]


Is the principle of charity often used in textual criticism? I would have thought that the hardest reading principle was the controlling principle for determining the text, and the principle of charity was the controlling principle for interpreting the text.

Of course, there are special cases: for instance, if the reading is ungrammatical and we know (or suspect) that we are dealing with, e.g., a Greek text copied by Medieval western scribes who knew very little Greek, then we can assume that it is a copyist error. But do textual critics in general (when dealing with texts that are grammatical but whose sense is difficult, copied by speakers of the language in question) appeal to the principle of charity?

Bart Ehrman thinks he's being charitable when he argues that a textual reading is superior because it doesn't involve Jesus suffering. It's the only time (he claims) that Luke would have Jesus suffering, ever, and the alternative reading doesn't. So to take Luke to have a coherent theology, he thinks you need to go with the alternative reading. The goal is to have Luke conform to his strange standard of what would be coherent, which is a form of the charitability principle, even if his argument that it's more charitable is a bit wacky. He's favoring the reading that he thinks is more charitable, even if he's wrong in his judgment that it's really the more charitable reading. (See Darrell Bock's discussion of this example here for more information. He basically says exactly what I'd been thinking about his crazy argument when I read Ehrman's book.)

I've also seen John Oswalt and Tremper Longman use charitability arguments in cases where the harder reading can be (but often isn't by non-evangelical scholars) explained by a copyist error or a mistaken understanding of the grammar, expecting some other form to be required or some such thing.

A third place it sometimes comes up is among the emendation-happy. They like to emend texts that they can't understand in their narrow understandings of what a text can mean, when the text as it stands might sound funny to our ears. So they propose a modification of a consonant or find a similar form that fits better with their modern sense of how an ancient language ought to work. I don't think very highly of emendation, but it's a pretty standard practice among mainstream textual critics, and it seems to me to be an application of the charitability principle (even if it's gross abuse of it in most cases).

Hmm... So do you think there are any obviously correct uses of the charity principle in textual criticism?

As far as emendations, other ancient texts (and even some modern ones) are frequently emended. It seems to me, however, that it would take much stronger evidence in the case of the NT because there are so many apparently distinct (if not perfectly independent) lines of transmission, and we have so many thousands of manuscripts so close to the date. It seems to me that it is unlikely that the original reading wouldn't survive. But the case is different for, say, Aristotle, where the transmission history is really not so great (small number of mss, many of which have common ancestors far removed from the autographs, a lot of copyists only semi-literate, etc.).

I do think it's fine to use it as a factor when the other factors aren't decisive. So, for instance, you might have a harder reading that is so hard as to make little sense and an easier reading that certainly could have arisen because the harder one is nonsense, but there's also an easier path to the harder reading occurring because of its similarity to the easier reading by only one letter that's similar to its counterpart in appearance. It seems to me that the charitability criterion is appropriate in such a case to favor the easier reading.

its important to remember that OT textual criticism and NT textual criticism are different beasts. the transmission history of the OT and NT is radically different; generally, the harder reading won't have the currency in OT textual criticism that it does in NT criticism on account of the way the manuscripts were copied. one of the more interesting aspects to OT textual criticism for me is the contribution of narrative criticism. things have been explained away in the past that narrative criticism has vindicated


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