Saturday, June 09, 2012

A Student's Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible, by Paul Wegner.

This is a book review!

This book is assigned reading for the next semester of Hebrew.  I decided to buy it and read it before the semester started to make it easier to focus on the language studies.  This book is a summary of all the different sources for the Bible, both old and new testaments, and the methods for comparing various texts and searching for best readings.  The end result is that a single verse can be compared to thousands of texts including Hebrew and Greek, but also Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian and others.  Each language has its own peculiarities, and there are also multiple text traditions, so that the comparison process along with the weighting of significance becomes amazingly complex.  Yet at the same time, professor Wegner is quick to assert that there is not a single point of Christian doctrine that hinges on any of the variant readings.  Instead, there are large quantities of simple spelling differences, additions or removal of articles, and a vast quantity of other meaningless changes.  Where there is something of substance, it is on the order of a name changed like Asa to Asaph. At the beginning of the book of Ephesians, there is the phrase, "To the saints in Ephesus", which was likely originally written merely as "To the saints".  The end result is a clear vindication of the accuracy of the transmission of the text that has come to us over the thousands of years.

The book is well written and covers much territory.  As always, I can find some things to fuss over.  For example, there is on page 63 there is a quote from Daniel 9:2: '"in the first year of his [Darius II] reign, I, Daniel, understood from the books ... "'.  The [Darius II] note is added in by a scholar.  The problem is that the book of Daniel begins with "In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it." - Daniel 9:1.  Nebuchadnezzar captures the city and carries Daniel and his friends off to Babylon, but this happened in 598BC.  Darius I reigned from 522 to 486BC, so an elderly Daniel could certainly have served him,  but Darius II doesn't become king until 423BC.  Thus, the clarification note is problematic.  The final problem is that there is almost no information regarding Darius II available to historians, so to make such a link between Darius II and Daniel can only be done via a seance and spiritually consulting the dead.  But this is a minor quibble with what is really an excellent book.

Another curious note is with regard to the Arabic translation of the Bible in Islam controlled lands: "Since translation of the Bible into Arabic was outlawed, Jews and Christians had to translate it undercover, and therefore a number of independent versions arose."  I would love to see the original sources for that statement, but it would require me to buy the references and read through them.  This is a general gripe of mine that scholarly works generally give precedence to scholarly sources when an original source is really what we are interested in.  This just wastes time.  The only missing item that I can think of is a note from Eusebius regarding the Byzantine version of the New Testament in Greek. There is a point where a misunderstanding on my part was corrected:  The story of the translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek - the Septuagint - first begins with a "Letter of Aristeas".  I would have said Josephus.  It is always good to be corrected.  

Overall rating:  Thumbs up.

4 comments:

Rummuser said...

You might like to read Timothy Beal's
"The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental
Book."

Looney said...

I took a quick glance. It looks like he comes from the hardcore atheists pretending to be theists camp. His wife is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church USA organization, which is the fastest declining religion in the world! According to the statistics, the last member should leave about the year 2020.

This does have me wondering if there are teachers who claim to be serious scholars of the Vedas, make a show of being good, faithful Hindus, work hard to make a living as professional spiritual leaders, and then only tell their disciples that the Vedas and Hinduism are a bunch of worthless crap?

That is roughly the formula being used by the PCUSA, which may have something to do with why they are declining so quickly.

Rummuser said...

1. There is no religion called Hinduism. Hindu is a word coined by Alexander to identify the people living around the river Indus. From that root came India.

2. Indus now flows in Pakistan.

3. The word Hindu does not feature anywhere in the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas etc.

4. There is no organised religion as such for the so called Hindus. It is a total anarchy. One can be an atheist and be a Hindu or a temple goer, or a stone worshipper or a Vedantin. No one is there to monitor their conduct and there is no to do or not to do lists in practice.

5. There are spiritual leaders who teach meditation or explain the scriptures and priests who conduct rituals and rites for those who want to do them.

6. This should explain the ultimate aim of the so called Hindu - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashtavakra_Gita

7. And this explains an ordinary Indian's attitude towards God or whatever - "In any way that men love me in that same way they find my love: for many are the paths of men, but they all in the end come to me."  (Bhagavad-Gita 4:11)

8. My referring to Beal was to point out that there is a sceptical school in the West. I do not necessarily agree to his conclusions. My approach to comparative religion is to find similarities in the philosophical content and practices.

9. I am a strong believer of para 7. I respect each individual's right to approach God in his own chosen way.

10. As a counterpoint, would the fastest growing religion in the world, Islam (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2007/05/13/the_list_the_worlds_fastest_growing_religions) mean that it is the best?

Looney said...

Thanks for the notes. My point wasn't whether or not a religion was the best or not, and I certainly am happy to be corrected on their characteristics and beliefs. At the same time, I expect a Buddhist teacher to take her scriptures seriously, as I would a Muslim Imam. This isn't a statement on whether I believe the scriptures to be valid or not.

The "skeptical school" has been around for about 250 years now. I tend to view them as anti-Christian fanatics - like Richard Dawkins - but many of them go on to become preachers and seminary professors! Thus, it is nearly impossible for anyone in the West not to be exposed to their teaching. This tends to be the driving dynamic for much of Western Christianity over the last 200 years, and Beal is no doubt observing some of the symptoms of this chaos, although I doubt he would admit the cause.

But regardless, I might find some useful ideas in the book you suggested. A week ago I downloaded the audio of a 19th century book that was written by an anti-Christian scholar:

http://librivox.org/the-origins-of-christianity-by-thomas-whittaker/