Biblical studies: May 2010 Archives

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]

Proverbs and Wives

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Proverbs contains two themes that might seem in tension with each other.

House and wealth are inherited from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the LORD. (Prov 19:14, ESV)

As James says, any gift is from God.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. (James 1:17, ESV)

On another level, there's a human role in acquiring certain kinds of things that can also be gifts of God:

He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.(Prov 18:22)

So both houses/riches and an insightful wife are a gift from God. Both might come by means of some process that doesn't on the surface involve God, but one's own finding might be a significant part of it.

So what's the contrast in Prov 19:14 supposed to be, then? If everything is from God, then why are some things from God while others only from human beings? I puzzled over this for a while. Perhaps it had something to do with coming from God in one sense (the way everything comes from God) and coming from God in another sense (a sense in which only some things are from God).

That's certainly one way to make sense of such a distinction, but it doesn't strike me as the best solution. The most natural way to make such a distinction is between things God intends for the good of the person receiving them and things God intends not for the good of the person receiving them but for some other reason. I can't see how that fits well with this verse, though. Couldn't both things be intended by God for the good of the person receiving the gift?

I have another suggestion. This particular verse speaks of a prudent wife, not just any wife. It's not as if Proverbs only speaks of wives in good terms or anything. There's a long section in chapter 31 devoted to the industrious wife, but there are proverbs here and there about how hard it is to live with contentious wives (as in the previous verse), too, and one of the big opponents of the first nine chapters is the adulterous wife. Critics of the biblical wisdom literature sometimes focus on the negative pictures of wives while ignoring the good ones, usually to argue for some kind of sexism at work. But it takes selective appeal to certain parts of Proverbs to think the perspective behind the book is simply negative toward women and wives. It would be a similar mistake to think it's simply positive toward women and wives. Like the book's attitude toward people in general, including men, it places people into the wise category or the foolish category, and there are some particular ways of being wise and foolish that it emphasizes about how wives can be wise or foolish.

So here's my suggestion. The contrast in Prov 19:14 is not about some gifts being from God and some gifts not being from God. It's about some gifts that can come from people and some gifts that can only come from God. If my is right, then Prov 19:14 is about how parents can leave you possessions, and they can set it up so you get pretty much what they intend you to get. They might give you a spouse, but they can't guarantee a good spouse. Only God can do that. That's not to say that an inheritance isn't also a gift from God. It's hard to read Proverbs as a whole, never mind the rest of the Bible, and get that impression. But even if parents can arrange a marriage, there's part of the gift that can only be arranged by God, and that's something that requires depending on him. For anyone about to arrange a marriage, this is something to keep in mind.

At various moments in my life, it's occurred to me that the people who have been most important to me or most influential in bringing me to a certain point or simply those who have been most enjoyable for me to be around have not always been the people I would have chosen. They simply were around at the same time I was, and circumstances worked themselves out. To those who accept a sufficiently strong view of divine providence, then, it seems impossible to see such events as anything but the hand of God, and the same should be true of the events leading to a marriage, even if nowadays it's a lot less often from the organizing hands of parents and may even sometimes be simply due to two people finding themselves together often enough and finding that they want to continue spending time together in a deeper way.

Jesus the Jew

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Prov 19:17 says those gracious to the poor are lending to God. It's hard for anyone familiar with the New Testament to think about such a statement for very long without being reminded of Jesus' discussion in Matthew 25, where he says, "whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me."

It amazes me how far people will go to find sources outside the Hebrew tradition for some of Jesus' ideas. So many of his statements are steeped in the language and conceptual framework of the Hebrew scripture. The extent of these connections don't often enough get noticed, and not all of them are as obvious as others, but enough of them are transparent enough that I have to wonder if the people who make such statements know the Hebrew scriptures very well.

Christians will look at this example as a proverb in the Hebrew scriptures teaching a principle that would come to be exemplified in Jesus' teaching about himself, with the implication that Jesus is according himself divinity by taking on a feature the Hebrew scriptures reserve for God. But even those more skeptical of such notions should at least admit that Jesus' teachings are so strongly influenced by the Hebrew Bible and that it's contextually insensitive to take Jesus to be primarily something more like a Roman Stoic or an adherent to the teachings of some kind of eastern mysticism. Where there might be similarities there, his actual background, language, and cultural milieu serve as a far better explanation even of the teachings that are fairly distinctive in the gospels and not found with such close parallels such as this one.


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