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biblical criticism

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative

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We now come to the third (and final) major section of the current series entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition (cf. the Introduction). The first part of the this series was devoted to a detailed examination of the Baptism of Jesus. The second part dealt with the Galilean Period of Jesus’ ministry, especially as an organizing principle within the Synoptic Gospels. I had noted previously this basic two-part structure of the Synoptic narrative—(i) the Galilean ministry (Mk 1:28:30), and (ii) the journey to Judea/Jerusalem and the events there (Mk 8:3116:8). Luke, through his expanded treatment of the journey to Jerusalem, has a three-part division (+ the Infancy Narrative):

  • [The Infancy Narrative]
  • The Galilean ministry (3:19:50)
  • The Journey to Jerusalem (9:5118:34)
  • The time in Judea/Jerusalem (18:3524:53)

The Judean/Jerusalem period may likewise be divided into two main sections, along with shorter introductory and concluding episodes:

All three Synoptics essentially follow this basic outline, though it has been modified and expanded in places by Matthew and Mark (especially the Resurrection episodes in Luke). We may outline the Passion Narrative itself as follows:

  • Narrative Introduction (Mk 14:1-2)
  • The Anointing Scene (14:3-9)
  • Excursus 1: The betrayal by Judas introduced (14:10-11)
  • The Passover: Jesus with his Disciples (14:12-25):
    —The Preparation (vv. 12-16)
    —The Passover scene at mealtime (vv. 17-21)
    —Institution of the “Lord’s Supper” (vv. 22-25)
  • Excursus 2: The denial by Peter foretold (14:26-31)
  • The Passion Scene in Gethsemane (14:32-52)
    —Jesus’ Passion and Prayer (vv. 32-42)
    —The Arrest of Jesus (vv. 43-52)
  • The Jewish “Trial”: Jesus before the Sanhedrin (14:53-72)
    —The Scene before the Council (vv. 53-65)
    —Peter’s Denial (vv. 66-72)
  • The Roman “Trial”: Jesus before Pilate (15:1-20)
    —The Scene before Pilate (vv. 1-5)
    —The Judgment (vv. 6-15)
    —The Preparation for Crucifixion (vv. 16-20)
  • The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus (15:21-40):
    —The Crucifixion Scene (vv. 21-32)
    —Jesus’ Death (vv. 33-40)
  • Narrative Conclusion (15:42-47)

There are six principal episodes, each of which will be discussed in turn, beginning with the Anointing Scene (Mark 14:3-9 par).

It is generally felt by most scholars that the Passion Narrative was the first (and earliest) part of the Gospel Tradition to be given a distinct narrative shape. This can be glimpsed by the early Gospel preaching recorded in the book of Acts, as well as by the kerygmatic elements common throughout the New Testament (especially the Pauline Letters). The death and resurrection of Jesus formed the center of the Gospel message, so it is natural that those traditions would be the first to take shape as a simple narrative, to make the details easier to communicate and commit to memory. This also means that a number of these traditions are relatively fixed, and evince less development than in other portions of the Gospel. Details such as Judas’ betrayal or Peter’s denial of Jesus simply had to be included in any telling of the story. Even so, each Gospel writer handles the material in his own distinctive way, “ornamenting”, if you will, around the core traditions.

In analyzing the Passion Narrative, I will continue utilizing the method I have adopted for this series. For each passage, narrative, or set of traditions being studied, I examine—

  • The basic Synoptic narrative (as represented primarily by the Gospel of Mark)
  • The so-called “Q” material (shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark)
  • Traditions and details preserved only in Matthew and/or Luke (so-called “M” and “L” material), as well as original (literary) contributions by the authors
  • Johannine tradition and the Gospel of John

Generally speaking, this order of study is chronological, reflecting ‘layers’ of development—but not strictly so by any means. Indeed, there is some evidence that the Gospel of John, usually thought of as the latest of the canonical Gospels (c. 90 A.D.?), contains early/authentic historical traditions in a form that may be older than those of the Synoptics. Wherever possible, I will attempt to trace the manner of development in the Tradition, and how/why it may have taken place.

The next daily note in this series will begin examination of the first episode of the Passion Narrative—the scene of Jesus’ Anointing.

Saturday Series (Introduction)

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This post inaugurates a new Saturday Series on this website. In it I will be taking a somewhat lighter, introductory approach to the study of Scripture. Readers who may have found the level of (scholarly) detail in the notes and articles on this site a bit daunting, will, I think, appreciate the approach to be taken in this series—which will feature a new article each Saturday. Overall, the focus will be the same: biblical criticism and what has been called the grammatical-historical method. It may help to define both of these terms.

Biblical Criticism

The word “criticism” in modern English can be quite misleading, as it typically suggests something negative, even mean-spirited. But this is scarcely how the word should be understood here, in its proper sense. The word, ultimately derived from the Greek verb kri/nw (krínw), refers to judgment and discernment—i.e., the process of analysis, sorting, sifting, separating (the fundamental meaning of the verb). A person engaged in Biblical criticism is simply examining and analyzing the text of the Biblical passage in detail—separating out the words and phrases, the grammar, historical background, the purpose of the author, how the original audience would have understood it, how it has been understood and interpreted throughout the years, and so forth. Each element or aspect of the text is studied and analyzed in turn, so far as one is able, and to the extent that relevant information (for comparison, etc) is available.

Grammatical-Historical Method

This refers to a particular mode or orientation in the analysis and interpretation of Scripture. The first word (“grammatical“) means the language of the text, i.e. its syntax and grammar—the particular words and phrases, and how they are used. This really requires that the text be studied in its original language (Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament, Greek for the New). One cannot properly engage in Biblical criticism working from a translation. This presents a problem, since many Christians who earnestly desire to study the Scriptures at a deeper level do not know Hebrew and Greek, or have only a rudimentary familiarity with those languages, perhaps just beginning to learn them. One of the main purposes of this website is to help guide interested readers and students through those difficult first steps of Biblical study—the examination of the text in its original language. Here in the Saturday Series, I will refer to the Hebrew and Greek less often, focusing on specific verses in more detail, giving more explanation—through the use of both literal (glossed) translation and more conventional renderings—to the basic meaning of the words and phrases as they are used in context.

The second word (“historical“) can be taken several ways. Primarily it refers to the original historical context and setting of the passage (and the book) being studied. This means that attention must first be given toward, not what the text means to me, but what it meant to the author and (so far as it can be determined) to the original audience. Secondarily, “historical” refers to the historical background of certain words, phrases, images, and ideas in the text. Here it is important to consider, whenever possible, parallels in other writings contemporary with the Scriptures. It is also useful to examine how the meaning and significance of words and forms may have developed over time. This helps to highlight the specific and distinctive way the author makes use of them in a particular passage or setting. And, thirdly, some attention must be given to the process of composition of a text—how it has developed and taken shape over time. This is especially important because many of the books of Scripture are to be characterized as traditional literature;  that is to say, they are comprised of numerous traditions which have been passed down, in oral and/or written form, from person to person, generation to generation. This last aspect touches on a specific type of criticism, usually referred to as historical criticism.

This is not the only way to study and interpret the Scriptures. Other methods and approaches may be taken; however, it is best to begin with a thorough grammatical-historical approach to the text. From there, on that solid foundation, one may venture into more imaginative and creative modes of study.

The first study in this series will begin next Saturday (March 9th). Before you embark on this series with me, I strongly recommend that you read through the three-part article (“Learning the Language”) I wrote for this site some time ago. It covers all the main topics and terminology related to Biblical Criticism (and, in particular, Textual Criticism). It may help you to understand better the approach I am taking; and, if you have any fears or apprehensions about the idea of “Biblical Criticism”, that article may alleviate them.

Please consider joining me on this series, and I hope to see you here next Saturday.

Blessings, in Christ

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Ministry Period

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This is a good moment to stop and re-set the current series entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition (cf. the Introduction). The first part of the this series has been devoted to a detailed examination of the Baptism of Jesus. This was chosen because it provides an ideal case study (using extensive evidence from all four canonical Gospels) for analyzing how the early (historical) traditions came to be developed and adapted over time, leading to the composition of the Gospel narratives as we have them. It was demonstrated rather clearly, I think, in these notes, how the account of Jesus’ baptism (and his relation to John the Baptist) were preserved (independently) in multiple strands of tradition. Each Gospel writer gave his own interpretation and treatment of the material, but was essentially obligated to hold to a basic narrative, and to the preservation of certain fundamental traditions.

The remaining two parts, or divisions, of this series will be focusing on: (1) the Galilean Ministry of Jesus (Pt  II) and (2) the Passion Narrative (Pt III). These are also useful as divisions since they reflect the basic two-part structure of the Synoptic narrative—(i) the Galilean ministry (Mk 1:28:30), and (ii) the journey to Judea/Jerusalem and the events there (Mk 8:3116:8). The other Synoptics have more complex structures; indeed, Luke rather clearly has a three (or four) part division:

  • [The Infancy Narrative]
  • The Galilean ministry (3:19:50)
  • The Journey to Jerusalem (9:5118:34)
  • The time in Judea/Jerusalem (18:3524:53)

However, it is easy enough to see how the core Synoptic narrative has been adapted and expanded. In the case of Luke, the Infancy narrative (chaps. 1-2) has been added and the journey to Jerusalem (Mk 10) has been filled out by including a wide range of sayings/teachings of Jesus, and other episodes, most of which do not occur in the Gospel of Mark (i.e., so-called “Q” and “L” material).

Here is a preliminary list of some of the areas and topics I will be addressing in the next set of notes (for the remainder of February and into March), dealing with the Galilean Ministry of Jesus, traditions and passages related to:

  • The call of the Disciples
  • Jesus’ relatives and family
  • The Sabbath Controversies
  • Collection/joining of sayings, parables, and miracle stories
  • The Feeding miracle(s)
  • The Son of Man sayings

The next several notes will deal with the first topic—the Call of the (first) Disciples of Jesus.

It is worth mentioning, that these Galilean ministry passages and traditions are, for the most part, exclusive to the three Synoptic Gospels. The main reason for this is that a large percentage of scenes and dialogues in the Fourth Gospel are set in and around Jerusalem, so there is less material with which we can definitely work. However, it may be surprising how many parallels we will find between the Synoptic and Johannine traditions, and that the latter may well have included (and reworked) numerous episodes and traditions which are set in the “Galilean” section of the Synoptic narrative.

It may also be helpful to remind readers of the method I have adopted for this series. For each passage, narrative, or set of traditions being studied, I examine—

  • The basic Synoptic narrative (as represented primarily by the Gospel of Mark)
  • The so-called “Q” material (shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark)
  • Traditions and details preserved only in Matthew and/or Luke (so-called “M” and “L” material), as well as original (literary) contributions by the authors
  • Johannine tradition and the Gospel of John

This order of study is roughly chronological, reflecting ‘layers’ of development—but not strictly so by any means. The Gospel of John certainly contains (separate) early/authentic historical traditions which are not found in the Synoptics. However, more often than not, the Fourth Gospel also shows the most evidence of extensive development, adaptation, and interpretation, of Gospel tradition. Indeed, this is a primary reason why it is usually regarded as the latest of the canonical Gospels—often dated around 90 A.D., in the form it has come down to us.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition

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This series, entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition, will be a feature on this site, running throughout the winter and spring up through the Lent/Easter season of 2019. A number of upcoming articles and daily notes will be devoted to this subject, which, in my view, is central to any proper study of the New Testament. Before proceeding, I would recommend that the reader consult my earlier article in which I discuss the meaning and use of the term “tradition“, as well as the expression “authentic tradition”. When specifically referring to “Gospel tradition”, this may be understood several ways:

  • Traditions related to Jesus which became part of the early Christian preaching and proclamation (kerygma) of what we call the Gospel—the “good news/message” of Christ.
  • Traditions which were combined and integrated to form a core Gospel narrative regarding the life and teachings of Jesus.
  • Traditions which came to be part of the written Gospels, as we have them.

When cited with capital letters—i.e., “Gospel Tradition”—it should be taken to mean that all three elements, or phenomena above, are included for consideration. An important aspect of this study, which I will especially be exploring in this series, is the development of the Gospel tradition. Contrary to the view, perhaps, of some traditional-conservative Christians in generations past, the four (canonical) Gospels as we know them did not come down out of heaven fully formed; rather, they are the product of a definite process of transmission and creative/artistic adaptation. Any serious view of the divine inspiration of the New Testament must take this into account. The three components of Gospel Tradition, listed above, hint at this developmental process; however, I would outline it even more precisely, here below, as follows:

  1. The words and actions of the historical Jesus and his contemporaries
  2. Jesus’ words/actions, etc, passed down (from eye/ear-witnesses) and transmitted orally among the first generation of Christians—i.e. early oral tradition
  3. Collected sayings of Jesus, and stories/episodes involving him, joined together thematically (catchword-bonding, etc) into somewhat larger traditional units—transmitted orally, but early on they began to be written down as well
  4. The first coherent and developed Gospel narratives and other related written texts. Many scholars would include the Gospel of Mark, as well as the so-called “Q” material, in this category (cf. below).
  5. The written Gospels—certainly Luke, Matthew, John, and perhaps others surviving (as fragments) from the 1st century. These larger, more complex works incorporate earlier existing source documents, as well as (perhaps) various developed oral traditions.

Admittedly, this sequence is largely theoretical, but there are many indications of it, I believe, preserved in the text of the Gospels as they have come down to us. Sometimes this requires a little detective work, but, as often as not, the process of development can be traced to some extent. What is unique about the New Testament—and the Gospels in particular—is how quickly this development took place, and how well documented it is, relatively speaking, for us today. If we consider the period of Jesus’ ministry as taking place during the few years around 30 A.D., the Gospels had all come to be written, more or less as we have them, by the end of the first century (c. 80-90 A.D., for the latest of them)—only a generation or two (30-60 years) after the events they record. The vast preserve of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (including a fair number from the 3rd century), along with the many versions (in Latin, Syriac, et al), and scores of citations in the early Church Fathers (2nd-3rd centuries), allows the dedicated scholar the unusual opportunity of studying the Gospels at a level of detail unparalleled for texts from the ancient world.

If we were to consider the five layers above from a chronological standpoint, they would be, roughly speaking:

  • Layer 1: The actual words, etc, of Jesus and the historical events—c. 28-35? A.D.
  • Layer 2: Early oral tradition—the period c. 30-50 A.D.
  • Layer 3: Gospel tradition, collected sayings and narrative units—sometime before 50 A.D.?
  • Layer 4: The first developed Gospel narratives and written texts—c. 50-60 A.D.
  • Layer 5: The written Gospels as we have them—60-90 A.D.

Throughout this series, I will be looking at many examples—passages in the Gospels—where this development may be studied. Why is this important? One of the great failings of a strict traditional-conservative view of Scripture, in the case of the Gospels, is that it tends to treat Layer 1 as essentially identical with Layer 5, often ignoring (or even denying) the layers of development in between. But it can be demonstrated rather clearly, at hundreds of different points, that the Gospels evince various layers of adaptation and interpretation, by which the historical words and events (taken in their concrete, documentary sense) have been transformed into something far greater than a mere stenographic record. I would maintain that any approach which downplays or ignores the developmental (and creative/artistic) process, risks severely misunderstanding and misreading the Gospels. I hope to encourage students of Scriptures, along with all other interested believers, to look at the Gospel narratives in this light, with a fresh perspective, so as to explore more fully the depths of the truth and beauty which they possess.

I begin this study where the Gospels themselves begin, on the whole—with the account of the Baptism of Jesus. This episode, found in all four Gospels (and also in Acts), serves as an interesting and appropriate test case for our examination. This is particularly so since, as we shall see, the narrative of Jesus’ baptism preserves numerous historical details and associations which seem to have largely disappeared from Christian tradition during the first century. On the one hand, this confirms the fundamental historicity of the Gospel tradition(s); on the other, it makes it somewhat easier to distinguish between historical details and elements which possibly indicate an early Christian interpretation of them.

When referring to the four Gospels, in terms of the Gospel Tradition, scholars and commentators generally recognize three main strands: (1) the core Synoptic tradition, represented primarily by Mark; (2) the so-called “Q” material, common to Matthew and Luke; and (3) Johannine tradition, i.e., traditions preserved only in the Gospel of John.

As a method of study, I will be adopting the following approach whenever possible, examining in sequence:

  • The Synoptic tradition, as recorded in Mark
  • The “Q” material in Matthew-Luke
  • Details unique to Matthew
  • Details unique to Luke
  • Johannine tradition as developed in the Gospel of John

In preparing for the notes dealing with the Baptism of Jesus in the Gospel Tradition, I will be using the following outline, which, first, isolates three primary components of the Baptism narrative—

  1. The ministry of John
  2. The relationship between John and Jesus
  3. Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah), in comparison with John

and then, secondly, I will explore the place that the Baptism has in the structure of the Synoptic narrative—the two-part division, and the parallels between the Baptism and Transfiguration scenes.

The daily notes for this next week will follow the sequence indicated above, beginning with an examination of the ministry of John the Baptist (Mark 1:3-6 par).



Yeshua the Anointed: Supplemental note on the Son of Man Sayings

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There is nearly unanimous agreement among scholars that the expression “the Son of Man” ([o(] ui(o\$ [tou=] a)nqrw/pou) in the Gospels, derives from its use (originally in Aramaic) by Jesus himself. All but a handful of the 80+ occurrences of “Son of Man” are from Jesus’ own words in the Gospels. By contrast, the expression only appears four times elsewhere in the New Testament, and only once as a title for Jesus (Acts 7:55-56, which is a reflection of Gospel tradition [Lk 22:69 par]). It is equally rare in the earliest extra-canonical Christian writings, the so-called Apostolic Fathers (c. 90-160 A.D.)—Ignatius, Ephesians 20:2; Epistle of Barnabas 12:10. In both of these passages “son of man” is understood in something like its generic sense (“human being”) to emphasize the human nature of Jesus—Ignatius stresses Jesus’ dual-nature (“…the [son] of Man and son of God”), while ‘Barnabas’, on the other hand, stresses that Jesus was not simply a human being (“see again Jesus: not son of man, but [rather] son of God”). We find “Son of Man” a bit more frequently in subsequent writings of the early Church, but usually in the context of commenting on, or attempting to explain, the use of the expression in the Gospels (or in Daniel 7). The most noteworthy occurrences in the 2nd century, are in the apologetic works of Justin Martyr—Dialogue with Trypho §§31, 32, 76, 79, 100, 126; and the First Apology §51.

All of this to say that the expression is found so frequently in the sayings of Jesus, and then virtually disappears from early Christian tradition—this makes the authenticity of its use in the sayings secure. However, when it comes to the eschatological Son of Man sayings by Jesus, where he appears to identify himself as a divine/heavenly figure who will appear at the end-time Judgment, critical scholars tend to be a bit more cautious and skeptical. The authenticity of these sayings (as we have them in the Gospels) has been questioned, generally on the basis of two factors:

  1. They have been “Christianized” to varying degrees—that is to say, a number of the sayings have been tied in contextually to believers’ faith in, and confession of, Jesus (e.g. Luke 6:22; 9:26 [Mk 8:38]; 12:8). For critical scholars, this indicates that, at the very least, the sayings have been colored or modified in light of early Christian belief and practice.
  2. Jesus never specifically identifies himself as the “Son of Man”—this only occurs once in the Gospel tradition (in Matthew’s version of the first Passion prediction, Matt 16:21), and may be attributed to the author/narrator rather than Jesus. According to the view of a number of commentators, in the eschatological sayings, Jesus is referring to a separate divine/heavenly figure (“the Son of Man”, cf. Dan 7:13-14ff; 1 Enoch 37-71), and not to himself. In early Christian tradition, references to this figure were then interpreted as referring to Jesus and his end-time (second) coming, as we see in Matt 24:3.

With regard to the first point, the extent of the “Christianization” of these sayings certainly can be debated. If we consider the core sayings in the Synoptic tradition—Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62 and parallels—there is really very little evidence for this. The saying in Mark 8:34 has a more obvious “Christian” context, but, since the sayings in 8:34-9:1 have likely been appended together as part of the earliest Tradition, and need not have been uttered by Jesus in sequence on a single occasion, it is questionable whether one should equate it with the (original) context of v. 38. The same may be said for the narrative framework of chapter 13 (the Olivet or “Eschatological” Discourse), which is best understood as a collection of sayings, which may have been uttered by Jesus on different occasions, combined together on the basis of a common theme and subject—i.e. eschatological teaching and sayings by Jesus. Verses 9-13 are a prophecy of the persecution early believers will experience, and the “false Messiahs (or Christs)” in vv. 21-22 are connected with people claiming to be Christ (i.e. Jesus) in v. 6; however, only Matthew’s version of this discourse specifically connects the coming of the Son of Man (Mk 13:26 par) with the future/second coming of Jesus (Matt 24:3). In none of the Synoptics is the Son of Man saying itself modified or glossed, nor do we see any sign of this in Mark 14:62 par.

It is interesting to consider that Luke’s Gospel, apparently written for a wider Greco-Roman (Gentile) audience, and which occasionally translates or simplifies elements of the Gospel tradition into more conventional Greek language, never does this with the Son of Man sayings, even though the expression “the Son of Man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou), as Jesus uses it, would have sounded strange indeed to Greeks unfamiliar with the Semitic idiom. Luke has considerably more eschatological sayings than Mark—in addition to the three core Synoptic sayings (cf. above), there are those in Lk 12:40; 17:22, 24, 26, 30; 18:8; 21:36 (and cf. the parallels in Matt 24:27, 37, 39, 44). Not once, however, does the author narrate or explain the saying in such a way as to clarify that the coming of the Son of Man means the coming of Jesus himself. While early Christians may have assumed or understood this automatically, some in Luke’s intended audience likely would not have. That the Son of Man sayings were left ‘unexplained’ indicates that they were so deeply rooted and fixed in the Gospel tradition, the author simply could not alter them.

This brings us to the second point—that in these Son of Man sayings Jesus originally was not referring to himself, but a separate heavenly figure (“the Son of Man”). There are several problems with this view:

(a) There is little, if any, formal difference between the eschatological Son of Man sayings and those elsewhere in the Gospel tradition (i.e. Mark 2:10, 28 par; Luke 7:34; 9:58 par, etc), in which it is generally admitted that Jesus is referring to himself, perhaps using “son of man” idiomatically as a substitute for the pronoun “I”. Even in the context of the Passion, and the predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 par) which critical scholars might regard as ex eventu prophecies produced by early Christians, there is little doubt that “the Son of Man” refers to Jesus himself. It is natural to assume that the eschatological sayings also are meant as a self-reference. If there was any intended distinction between the usage in these sayings, it has become completely confused in the Gospel tradition. In fact, there is some indication that Jesus’ use of the expression actually was confusing to some in his audience, if we accept the detail recorded in John 12:34.

(b) There is no clear evidence that the expectation of an end-time figure called “the Son of Man” was widespread or common at the time of Jesus; indeed, the situation is quite the opposite. As I indicated in Part 10, there is only one surviving document, likely contemporary with (or prior) to the time of Jesus, which describes a specific divine/heavenly being called “the Son of Man”—the so-called Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71). This “Son of Man”, also identified as “the Righteous One”, “the Elect/Chosen One” and also “the Anointed One” (i.e. Messiah), will serve as Judge over the nations at the end-time. This figure, like the “Son of Man” in Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62, is clearly inspired by, and derived from, Daniel 7; however, the Similitudes do not specifically emphasize his glorious appearance on earth at the end-time. There is little reason to think that Jesus was referring to common and popular image, though educated and devout Jews certainly would have recognized an allusion to Daniel 7:13-14. Turning again to John 12:34, we see that Jesus’ audience seems to understand “the Anointed One” (i.e. Messiah/Christ), presumably in terms of an end-time Davidic Ruler (cf. Parts 68), but they are noticeably less clear about the Son of Man (“…who is this ‘Son of Man’?”).

(c) If we combine the arguments of (a&b), along with the fact that there is little sign that any of the eschatological Son of Man sayings has been altered or glossed for the sake of clarity or as part of a Christological interpretation (cf. above), then there appears to be little reason to treat those sayings differently from Jesus’ use of the expression “the Son of Man” elsewhere. Even in the textual transmission, there is surprisingly little evidence for substantive variant readings involving the expression “Son of Man” (i.e., using a more familiar title “Lord”, “Christ”, “Son of God”, or even the pronoun “I”), one notable example being found in John 9:35 (“Son of Man” vs “Son of God”).

If, then, we accept the general authenticity of the Son of Man sayings by Jesus, and that they have been preserved with very little modification or alteration, it becomes necessary to step back and consider how the eschatological sayings fit within the overall use of the expression. I have already discussed this in prior notes and articles, but I will summarize the points here:

  • As a Hebrew/Aramaic idiom, the expression “son of man” simply refers to a human being or to the human condition. The poetic and formal usage in the Old Testament typically is related to the idea of human limitation (or weakness) and mortality, especially compared with the divine/heavenly nature of God and his Messengers (Angels).
  • Subsequently in Hebrew and Aramaic, this generic sense of the expression—i.e., a(ny) human being—merged into the specific use of the idiom as a self-reference, a substitute or circumlocution for the pronouns “I” or “you”. However, it is still debated whether, or to what extent, it was commonly used this way in the time of Jesus.
  • In many of the sayings, Jesus appears to use “son of man” as a self-reference, but in terms of his identity as a human being. Within the Synoptic tradition, see especially, Mark 2:10, 28 par; Luke 9:58 par.
  • This identification with human beings (and the human condition) also has a distinct soteriological emphasis in a number of sayings, both in the Synoptics and John—cf. Mark 10:45 par; Luke 19:10; John 3:13; 9:35.
  • He also identifies specifically with human weakness, suffering and death, expressed in the Gospel tradition in the context of his Passion (suffering/death) and subsequent resurrection—esp. the Passion predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34 par), also Mark 9:9, 12; 14:21, 41 par; Matt 12:40; 26:2; Lk 22:48; 24:7, and cf. in the Gospel of John (Jn 3:14; 6:27, 33; 12:23, 34; 13:31).
  • Finally, he identifies himself with the “one like a son of man” (i.e. resembling a human being) in Daniel 7:13-14, as a divine/heavenly figure who will appear as God’s representative at the end-time Judgment—Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62 par, etc. Jesus draws on tradition and imagery (from Daniel 7) similar to that found in the Similitudes of Enoch (probably contemporary with Jesus’ time). In the Gospel and early Christian tradition, this Son of Man reference blends together with the idea of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God in heaven (Mark 14:62 par; Acts 7:55-56 etc). This exaltation motif is expressed somewhat differently in the Gospel of John, as a return, stepping (back) up into heaven to be with the Father—Jn 3:13; 6:27-52; 12:23; 13:31.


“Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative”

By | Biblical Criticism, Definition and Explanation of Terms | No Comments

I have regularly used the labels “Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative” as a short-hand description for two general approaches to handling and interpreting Scripture. The reality is more complex than the labels would suggest, and, of course, there is a wide middle ground of opinion and analysis; however, fundamental differences exist which are distinct enough to warrant some basic form of demarcation.


For the term “criticism” in general, I would recommend the three-part article I posted more than a year ago, introducing the subjects of Biblical Criticism and, in particular, Textual Criticism. “Criticism” of Scripture simply means informed judgment and analysis of the sacred Writings, in terms of: Text, History (and Historicity), Literary Form and Genre, Composition (and Redaction), Authorial Purpose/Intent, Development and Transmission, etc.—that is, everything meaningful which one could study and analyze about a particular literary document. All commentators engage in “criticism” at some level. What distinguishes a specific “Critical” approach, as such, to Scripture, is the willingness to apply to sacred Writings the same methods and techniques one might apply to any other writing from the ancient world. In so doing, there is no doctrinal presumption, no resort to supernatural agency in explaining how the text came to be—for the most part, entirely ordinary, natural means of production and development are assumed. On the one hand, this allows the commentator freedom in analyzing the text—every aspect (authorship, historical accuracy, theology, etc) can be examined apart from any religious doctrine regarding the text. On the other hand, this detachment can blind the commentator to the very religious and spiritual dimension which caused the text to be preserved and treated as sacred in the first place. Indeed, it is unfortunate that one can read page after page of critical commentary without any suggestion of unique, Divine inspiration (however one understands this precisely) at work in the text of Scripture.


As the label indicates, there are two aspects which I emphasize:

“Traditional”—This implies that the Christian tradition regarding the Scriptures is generally accepted, unless there is strong reason to reject it. This is opposed to the “Critical” approach, which tends to be skeptical, willing to question and examine every tradition (before accepting it outright). In particular, traditions regarding authorship (Moses for the Pentateuch, Matthew/Mark/Luke/John for the Gospels, etc), are assumed. See also the separate article on “Tradition”.

“Conservative”—Because of the highly polemical, partisan nature of this term in many circles, I use it somewhat reluctantly. I mean by it the tendency to accept—to take at face value—everything one finds in the Scriptures. This may be driven by a theological/doctrinal viewpoint, a religious/credal viewpoint, or both. Especially, when authorship is indicated in the Scriptures (e.g., Isaiah, Daniel; Paul in the “disputed” epistles [Pastorals, Ephesians]; 2 Peter), it is accepted more or less without reservation. Most controversial are questions regarding the historicity/factuality of the Old Testament and Gospel narratives; much of modern-day “apologetics” is devoted to defending the details of the Scriptural narratives against critical-skeptical ‘attacks’.

The Traditional-Critical view, at its best, demonstrates a sensitivity to the value of tradition, and to the religious/spiritual environment which produced the Scriptures (with recognition of the reality of inspiration); at its worst, however, it tends to close off important paths of inquiry, and risks distorting and misrepresenting the very sacred text it seeks to defend.

To demonstrate a basic difference between the two approaches, consider the concept of Gospel tradition in relation to the canonical Gospels which have come down to us. The Critical approach generally assumes multiple layers of development in the Gospel tradition, during which many modifications, accretions, interpretive expansions, etc. have occurred:

  • Stage 1: The words and actions of the historical Jesus and his contemporaries
  • Stage 2: These words and actions as described and transmitted orally among the earliest believers
  • Stage 3: Early collections of sayings and narratives (oral or written, perhaps translated into Greek)
  • Stage 4: Early Gospels (or Gospel fragments)—sayings and narratives connected within a larger framework
  • Stage 5: The sayings and narratives as recorded in the four canonical Gospels

The Traditional-Critical view, by comparison, would tend to compress these layers so that Stage 5 is more or less equivalent to Stage 1—i.e., the Gospels as we have them preserve (with minimal modification) the words and actions of Jesus just as they originally took place.

The thoughtful and sensitive student of Scripture will recognize the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches—by holding them in balance, in true humility, and under the guidance of the Spirit, we may faithfully explore and expound God’s Word in the Scriptures (and the Scriptures as God’s Word).

Learning the Language

By | Biblical Criticism | No Comments

Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows how rewarding and satisfying it can be, but also how difficult at times — it has been said it takes a lifetime truly to learn a language. Consider the student—the young scholar or minister—struggling in the first efforts to learn Biblical Hebrew or Greek. But there is another “language” that serious students of Scripture should learn: the language of Textual Criticism. Like any scientific (or artistic) discipline, Biblical Criticism (and Textual Criticism, in particular) has developed a kind of language, a technical terminology that is vital to understand, but which can seem most confusing at first. It takes patience and devotion to study, in order to gain experience and facility with this language, but the rewards are great: for it can result in a much better appreciation and understanding of the text of Scripture.

To begin with the very word criticism: from the Greek (kri/si$, noun; kritiko/$, adj.; kri/nw, vb.; and other related words). Kri/nw (krínœ) has the basic meaning “select”, “decide”, “judge”; kri/si$ (krísis) is usually translated “judgment”. Indeed, this word group has a similar range of meaning as “judge/judgment” in English; it can be understood: 1) in a positive sense, i.e., to use or offer good/sound judgment; 2) in a legal or neutral sense, i.e., to pass/render judgment on an issue; 3) in a negative sense, i.e., to judge harshly/unfairly. The words “criticism/critical” can also be understood in a similar way. Often it is meant in a negative sense (to criticize someone), but it also can have an objective or positive meaning (to think or analyze critically). When referring to Biblical Criticism, it is in this latter sense: to offer informed, sound analysis regarding different aspects of Scripture.

Biblical Criticism can be divided into a number of specialized fields of study:

* Textual Criticism: Analysis of the text of Scripture.
* Historical Criticism: Analysis of the historical background of a book or passage, this may also include: a) an examination of the historicity of any events or details recorded; b) study of the historical development of the writing itself.
* Literary Criticism: Analysis of the book or passage within its literary context (i.e., as a written work). This term can be understood narrowly, or broadly, touching upon the following related fields:
Form Criticism (Formgeschichte): Study of the form, function, and purpose of a passage, usually at the level of an individual section (pericope), including a determination as to the literary type (genre) and “life setting” (Sitz im Leben).
Source Criticism (Urgeschichte): Examination of the (possible or likely) sources used by the Biblical author/editor; these may be earlier documents, or other traditional (oral or written) material.
Redaction Criticism (Redaktionsgeschichte): Study and evaluation of the way the Scriptural text may have been put together, generally assuming the use of various (oral or written) sources, by the author/editor(s). This term is largely synonymous with “Composition Criticism” (Kompositionsgeschichte), which examines authorship more generally. See further below on “Redaction”.
Rhetorical Criticism: Analysis of a passage (or book as a whole), according to the standards and practices of ancient rhetoric. This ofter refers more narrowly to Greco-Roman practices shared by New Testament authors, but can also be used broadly to cover a wide range of literary devices (esp. figures of speech, and the like).
* Canonical Criticism: Study of the passage (or book) within the context of the established, traditional Canon of Scripture. This looks specifically at: (a) a book in its final form, as it would have been transmitted through Church history, and (b) its role in the development of doctrine, liturgy, etc. within the wider Christian community.
* Other specialized terms could be cited, but these are the most familiar and widely used.

In the past, one might occasionally refer to texual criticism as “Lower” (i.e., simply examining the text), and other types of study (especially historical and source criticism) as “Higher” (i.e., questions of authorship, date, historicity, etc.). However, this distinction was never very helpful, and has long since been abandoned. The label “Higher Criticism” has survived—largely as a term of derision—only within Traditional-Conservative circles.

It should be pointed out that a gulf still exists between Critical and Traditional-Conservative scholarship. This is less of a polarity than it is a continuum—scholars today would ‘fit’ somewhere between the extremes. This also applies to Evangelical Protestant scholars, who typically adopt and apply most basic Critical methods (if not always accepting their premises). It is in the area of Textual Criticism that there is most common ground, largely free from thorny (and often contentious) questions of authorship, historicity, nature/extent of inspiration, and so forth. And yet, for Protestants, at least, who accept the maxim Sola Scriptura, can there be a more vital, fundamental area of study than the text of Scripture?

What follows below is a kind of “Outline Introduction” to Textual Criticism.



An Outline Introduction to Textual Study and Textual Criticism

Basic Terms:

  • TEXT: Latin textus, from texere (“to weave”); the common word “text” can be defined as “the content of any written document”; or, perhaps better, “the written content of any document”, to distinguish text from accompanying visual illustrations, and so forth. A text is generally understood as a literary (written) product, but for ancient texts there is often an aspect of oral production and transmission as well (see below).
  • Document: Latin documentum (“lesson, instruction, proof”) from docere. Any written record of information. The “text” is the verbal, literary content of any specific document.
  • Text-form: The specific form or shape of any text, the (complete) content of any literary or written document. The term refers to any unique written product (e.g., an individual book such as the Gospel of John), or any smaller writing which makes up a larger work (i.e., a source used by the Gospel).
  • Original Text: Sometimes referred to as the “autograph” (see below): the original authored (or redacted) text, either in the sense of a documentary draft or original published version.
  • Final Text: This term sometimes means the same as “Original Text”, that is, the “final” authored or published form of a text, from which all copies and authorized versions would be made
  • Established Text: May mean the same as “Original Text” or “Final Text”, with the sense of having been “established” as correct by later scribes or scholars.
  • Authorized Text: An authoritative copy, sometimes referred to as a “Textual Archetype” or “Archetypal Text”; synonymous with the term “exemplar” (see below); careful scribes would normally make copies from an established authorized copy
  • RECENSION: From Latin recensere, recensio (“review, enumerate, enumeration”); “recension” is the common term to describe a significant or major revision of a text, generally in the sense of a secondary modification of an established text or literary work.
  • VERSION: From Latin vertere, versio (“to turn, turning”); “version” has a broad range of meaning; here it normally refers to a (secondary) description, adaptation, arrangement, or translation of a text. Generally speaking, a “recension” is closer to the original text than a secondary version; however, occasionally “version” is used to refer to a form of the original text. As indicated below (under “Textual Witness” and “Manuscript”), the term often has a specific technical sense of “Foreign Language Version” (translation).

Note on Oral Production & Transmission: From ancient and prehistoric times, down to the present (in some parts of the world), much documentary and narrative content has been modified and transmitted orally, at least to a large extent. The public production or performance of oral material is, in many respects, tantamount to publishing a text. Many ancient texts (such as the Old and New Testament Scriptures) would have had a significant oral component to their transmission and publication, and may also have incorporated oral traditions in the authoring. In ancient times, letters (epistles) and other texts would have been dictated or recited to a secretary or scribe. It is a mistake to think of ancient texts as entirely written products, the way they would be created through writing (or typing) today.

Textual History:

See also the section below on “Establishing the Text”.

  • AUTHOR: Latin auctor, from auctere (“to increase”); here meaning the source or originator of a text. For ancient documents, it is often impossible to establish a single author; likewise, it is generally difficult to determine authorship, as many ancient texts are technically anonymous. Sometimes, scholars will use the term “author” in a broad or generic sense, as referring to any and all persons involved in creating the “original” (or “final”) form of a text.
  • Traditional Sources: In some instances, the original written form of a text may indicate a long or substantial development, involving the inclusion of earlier oral and/or written sources (which may no longer survive). Many ancient religious and narrative texts, in particular, likely contain much traditional material.
  • Transcription: Many ancient texts also were, or may have been, given their original written form by scribal transcription – that is, an oral recitation or production which is recorded by a private secretary or professional scribe. In such instances, the writing style and technique of the scribe can effect the form of the text, adapting an oral form to the conventions of writing.
  • EDITOR/REDACTOR: An “editor”, is one who “edits” – from Latin edere (“to bring forth”); here the term indicates one who prepares a text for public use or presentation (that is, to publish a text). If an ancient author were not a scribe, it would likely be given to a professional scribe for publication, involving corrections and other possible modifications. A “redactor” (or “redaction”), from Latin redigere (“to bring back, reduce, compress”), usually refers to more significant or substantial editing of a text. Sometimes, if an author has shaped previously existing traditional or written sources to form a new original text, such an author is considered a redactor. Occasionally later scribes or editors, may (either intentionally or unintentionally) produce an entirely new recension or version of the text (see below).
  • SCRIBE: A literate writing professional, specifically a copyist (see below), who may also be an “Editor”
  • COPYIST: Scribes throughout history would also be engaged in copying ancient texts; ideally the copies would be made from established authorized texts (or “exemplars”). Throughout the process of hand-copying, numerous changes – many, if not most, unintentional – may be introduced into the text. These hand copies are called “manuscripts” (see below).

Establishing the Text:

A fundamental aspect of studying ancient texts is the recognition and analysis of the textual history of a document or written work, looking at all surviving textual evidence – that is, all forms and versions of the text which exist today (see below on “textual evidence”) – and attempting to establish a reliable form of the text for study. The “established text” (see above on “authorized text”) will ideally be as close as possible to the “Original Text”. Texts surviving from ancient times will have gone through centuries (perhaps millennia) of copying, editing, correcting, and other modifications – over such a long time, with all work done by hand, numerous changes and corruptions naturally occur (see below on “textual variants” and “textual corruption”). A principal goal of textual study and criticism is to (try to) recover the original form of the text.

  • AUTOGRAPH: As indicated above, the “autograph” (from the Greek, “writing from one’s own [hand]”) is basically synonymous with the “original” form of the text; a hand written (or transcribed) copy of the authored text. This may be a draft, by a first documentary hand, or a secondary edition for publication. Very few autographs of ancient texts have survived.
  • EXEMPLAR: Another term for an Authorized Text or Archetype (see above); a reliable and authoritative form of the text (identical with, or close to, the original), from which manuscript copies would be made. After centuries of copying, accurate exemplars would be harder to preserve.
  • MANUSCRIPTS: Hand-written copies of a text. Manuscripts (sometimes abbreviated MS[S]) can be divided into two basic categories:
  • Original Language Manuscripts: Copies of the text (or a recension) preserving the original language in which it was authored. For the New Testament scriptures, these are copies of the original Greek texts.
  • Versions and Translations: These generally refer to copies of the text translated into other languages. For the Old and New Testament scriptures, there are many foreign language manuscripts (translations), which are important for establishing the original text. For some texts, special versions of the original text, in the same language, may also exist.
  • EXTRACTS AND CITATIONS: Portions of a text may also be preserved in other sources, including other written texts. For example, ancient Christian authors quote or cite portions of the New Testament scriptures. In addition, extracts of ancient texts may be written or inscribed on stone, pottery, clay tablets, jewelry, amulets, paintings and works of art, and so forth.
  • PRINTED EDITIONS: Printed editions of texts do not appear, at least in Europe and the Near East, until the mid-15th century (c. 1450 A.D.). Most printed editions are, in some sense “Critical Editions” (see below). Of course, many printed translations of major texts have also been made. Early printed editions (from the Renaissance, 15th-17th centuries) of ancient texts have helped to preserve and transmit texts from ancient and medieval manuscripts which might otherwise have been lost.

Analyzing the Text (with the intent of establishing the text) — Textual criticism proper:

Below are the fundamental terms related to the work of analyzing and establishing the (original) text, which is the primary goal of Textual Criticism.

  •  TEXTUAL WITNESS: A witness to a particular text(form). Any document which contains (any portion of) the text. For New Testament, the main categories of Textual witness are as follows:
  • Greek Manuscripts — Manuscript copies of the New Testament writings. Which can be divided into:
  1. PAPYRI: The early papyrus copies (codex or scroll), found in Egypt, but representing substantially the text as it would have been known in various locations throughout the Roman world. There have been discovered more than 120 such manuscripts (indicated by the symbol Ë), most of which date between 200-600 A.D., though a few are (or may be) from the 2nd century. Among the earliest and most important of these are:
    The Chesty Beatty Papyri: Ë45 (four Gospels and Acts), Ë 46 (Pauline epistles), and Ë 47 (Revelation)
    The Bodmer Papyri: esp. Ë66 (John), and Ë75 (Luke-John)
  2. UNCIALS: Manuscripts (Codices) written in Uncial letters — large, rounded (“majuscule”) letters, something akin to writing with capital letters in English. This handwriting style dominated codex production 200-800 A.D. More than 300 Uncials have been found, including many of the earliest and best MSS:
    a (Codex Sinaiticus, 4th cent.), A (Codex Alexandrinus, 5th cent.), B (Codex Vaticanus, 4th cent., the earliest complete NT), etc.
    These MSS are numbered “01”, “02”, and so forth, with common letter designations up to “045”.
  3. MINUSCULES: Manuscripts written in a smaller, cursive-style script, which became the dominant style after 900 A.D. The majority of New Testament MSS (more than 2800) are minuscules.
  • Versional Manuscripts — Manuscripts of early translations (i.e., foreign-language versions). For New Testament studies, the most important of these are the (Old) Latin, (Old) Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Georgian. Occasionally Arabic and Gothic versions are also cited.
  • Patristic Citations— The text of the New Testament as it appears in the writings of the so-called Church “Fathers” (i.e., “patristic”), the prominent Christian leaders and writers (bishops, apologists, theologians, monastic figures) of the ancient and medieval periods. The early Church Fathers (c. 150-450 A.D.) especially are a valuable witness for the text; however, analyzing them can be a very tricky business. Older scholarship is rife with unreliable or inaccurate citations. New critical editions of writings of key Fathers, as well as solid studies on their use of Scripture, have helped greatly — but much work remains to be done.
  • Lectionaries — These are the books with lessons (“lections”, i.e., Scripture passages) for liturgical use — that is, for public reading in the churches and monasteries. The lessons are arranged in order, according to the Church calendar. More than 2,000 lectionaries have been catalogued, nearly all from the Byzantine period proper (10th-15th cent. A.D.), but they may often preserve much older liturgical information. The synaxarion portion covers the “regular” holy days of the year, the menologion portion, the days specifically related to the lives of Mary, the Apostles, and other Saints.
  • TEXT TYPE or TEXT FAMILY: Groupings of Manuscripts which are closely related. “Text Type” especially implies a broad grouping, extending back many centuries, and including a large number of MSS. “Text Family” is the more general term to discuss any significant grouping of related MSS. Typically four major Text Types have been defined:
    1) Koine (or Byzantine): Representing the majority of MSS, dating primarily from the Medieval period (10th-15th centuries), from the region of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire. Some scholars today would refer to this properly as a “Recension”.  In older parlance, it was sometimes called the “Syrian” text.
    2) Egyptian (Alexandrian): An early and widespread Type, represented by a number of important Papyri and Uncials (such Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus). It is especially in connection with Vaticanus (B), that this text was called “Neutral” by Westcott and Hort (meaning an especially reliable, “pure” form of the text). With some misgivings, this opinion has been generally confirmed by scholars today.
    3) “Western”: The label is something of a misnomer, and is almost never used without quote marks today. However, this does seem to represent an early and discernible form of the text, most notably in the important (and somewhat peculiar) Beza Codex (D), but also in a number of other MSS, including some of the Old Latin and Syriac versions.
    4) “Caesarean”: Many scholars today are unwilling or reluctant to refer to this as a meaningful Type, as it seems to be represented by a relatively small number of MSS, and even then often of a mixed character.The entire terminology of “Text types” has been, to some extent, abandoned today, in favor of more localized “textual clusters” or “textual groups”. The discovery and detailed study of the Papyri has led to a shift in methodology—instead of starting with later manuscripts (with the assumption of established “types”) and working backward, there is an increased tendency to begin with the Papyri and important uncials, with clusters grouped around these key early MSS. These relationships also must be determined from book to book, rather than for the entire NT. For example, a primary early textual group (at least for the Gospel of Luke & John) would be Ë75-B-Ë66.
    In recent decades, especially following the pioneering work of E. C. Colwell and E. W. Tune in the 1960s, there has also been an increase in quantitative methods (such as the Claremont Profile Method) for analyzing these Manuscript relationships. A basic thumbnail for textual affinity is about 70% agreement between MSS, with a gap of 10% between their neighbors (see Colwell, Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the NT [Leiden: Brill] 1969, p. 59).
    Such relationships are determined by the differences (“variant readings”) which exist between manuscripts.
  • TEXTUAL VARIANT(S): or, “Variant Reading(s)”. Any variation in how the text reads — that is to say, differences between the text, at any given point, between two (or more) textual witnesses. In the case of the New Testament, of course, this refers almost exclusively to differences between the Greek Manuscripts. This topic will be discussed in much more detail in the next part (follow-up article). However, at least one important term will be defined here:
  • Variation Unit: This is a term coined by E. C. Colwell & E. W. Tune (see their 1964 article “Variant Readings: Classification and Use”, reprinted in Colwell, Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the NT [Leiden: Brill] 1969, p. 96-105). A variation-unit is any portion of text, delimited according to the natural (grammatical-syntactical) “elements of expression”, where the Greek MSS present at least two variant forms. These “elements” of expression would typically entail (connected) parts of speech, or a specific phrase. Larger units of variation, such as entire sentences or sections, in instances of major add/omit variants and interpolations, do not as readily apply.
    NOTE on the term “Textual Corruption: Believers may find the term “corruption” unsettling in relation to the Scriptures; for those unfamiliar with the terminology, some explanation is warranted. Certainly no sense of moral or doctrinal corruption is intended—it is entirely an objective, neutral term. Anytime changes (accidental or intentional) are introduced into the text during the process of copying: that constitutes textual “corruption”. This assumes that there was, in fact, a specific original text which was “pure”, and that all variants are evidence of scribal corruption. The primary goal of Textual Criticism is, and should be, to establish the original text; though there is much debate as to how far it is possible to achieve this goal.



Part 2 >