Thursday, November 03, 2005

Writing a NT commentary

I have this insane idea for biblical studies. Why is it when scholars write a commentary on a NT book that they inevitably use either UBS4 or NA27? The fact is that no extant manuscript conforms to the text of UBS4 or NA27 so they are writing a commentary on a manuscript that does not physically exist. Let me qualify that: (1) I believe that it is worthwhile to comb the various witnesses and try to establish what is probably the original autographs; (2) I'm not advocating the superiority of any one particular textual witness like the Western Text or anything like that.

But why doesn't someone take, say, the earliest manuscript on Galatians (p46, ca. 200 I think) and write a commentary on that manuscript and argue in the footnotes passages where they think other readings are to be preferred. I put this forward because, although I believe in the eclectic approach, at the end of the day there will always be an element of doubt as to our ability to reconstruct the original autographs with any certainty. Alternatively, p46 is a real manuscript not an imagined one, and the question that can be asked is to what degree does p.46 legitimately represent the original autograph.

Is using a real manuscript (as opposed to a hypothetical one)as a template for the text of a commentary an act of textual critical heresy; or am I onto something?


Jim said...

Maybe your red hair has made you particularly tempermental. ;-) Anyway, the question you raise is an excellent one. The Hebrew Bible most scholars use is based on a single text and variants are duly noted. The newly produced 4 in 1 Greek New Testament does the same thing- using TR and offering tons of variants where they occur. I have never understood the eclectic textual tradition beneath NA and UBS and have always thought they should just pick a text, like Alexandrinus (my personal favorite) and then offer variants as needed.

As to commentaries, again, you are right. Commentators should pick a text, any text, and use it as the basis of their work. Maybe you can start a trend in that direction- a long overdue one.

Ben Myers said...

This sounds like an excellent point, Mike, and, in practice, a commentary like this would still be able to give full consideration to textual variants.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Reuben Swanson's New Testament Greek Manuscripts series uses Alexandrinus as its base text and lays variants out against it. Pretty cool stuff.

Older technical commentaries on the NT (I'm thinking stuff from Lightfoot, Westcott, Swete, et. al.) would routinely use a Greek text with an apparatus of variant readings as the base text -- but they'd typically start with a text (e.g. Westcott & Hort or Tischendorf) and list significant variants and perhaps even emend the text, offer conjectures, etc.

Rick Brannan

Michael Pahl said...

The goal of most modern exegetical commentaries is to offer a historical/theological reconstruction of the world behind the original text in order to illuminate the meaning of the original text itself, thus it needs a parallel text critical reconstruction of the original text to do so. Of course, as you point out correctly, this is only a reconstructed text, not any actual extant manuscript. But that doesn't invalidate that textual reconstruction any more than the historical/theological reconstruction is invalid. It just means we always must remember that, as Crossan said, everything is reconstruction.

If you focus on one extant manuscript, you are inevitably focusing on one precise historical situation beyond the time of the original text, because that version of the document reflects the way in which the document was read at that later time and situation. Again, this is not an illegitimate undertaking, but it should not be confused with offering an exegesis of a reconstructed original text in view of a historically/theologically reconstructed world behind that text. In this approach you are moving into Wirkungsgeschichte.

This distinction is, I think, especially true with the Gospels, which underwent some significant changes as they were transmitted in the first couple centuries (see D. Parker, The Living Text of the Gospels). This distinction may not be as helpful with the Pauline epistles.

My two pence, for what it's worth!

Chris Tilling said...

Thought provoking.

"write a commentary on that manuscript and argue in the footnotes passages where they think other readings are to be preferred. "

I guess the priority given to the historical reconstruction of the most likely 'authentic' text is a very 'western metaphysics' project: and Derrida may complain that this is just the perpetuation of the myth of the priority of origin …

But when another reading is to be preferred, and this gives us a window in to the that which is likely to be more 'authentic', who would want to spend time exegeting a likely variant and later reading in the main body, relegating the likely more authentic version to a footnote? Furthermore, though we may end up with a more consistent understanding of, say, P46, this may not be the same as an understanding of, in this case, Paul's historical letter to the Galatians. To take it a step further, we could then end up with a theology of P46, but not that of Paul.
All the best,

Sean du Toit said...

Hmmm, I see here a covert attempt by a teacher to make things extremely harder for poor students who just beginning to "get" the UBS4th edition, and understand the Apparatus, and NOW YOU want to change everything?

Insane yes! Worthy of more reflection and insight, unfortunately - yes. Thanks for making me think - again! The Skeptic in me thanks you. But the fact that this induces tomes of thought and fresh problems into my various equations = not happy!


Anonymous said...

Some has tried to engage with this at

Alan S. Bandy said...

Michael your creative and fresh thinking is much needed in biblical studies. Your idea is fantastic, insane, but fantastic. Considering that the early church did not have the UBS4/NA27, it would bring us closer to the historical situation facing nascent Christianity. But which MS do you chose? What if the oldest is incomplete or contains illegible portions? What about the age old debate about text types? Would this commentary then function more like a textual commentary?
I will eagerly await your commentary on Galatians or Mark.

P.S. Do you want to meet over a cup of _____ (tea, coffee, coke)during ETS?

Stephen C. Carlson said...

What you're proposing resembles a "copy text" approach in non-Biblical textual criticism. In this approach, a manuscript is selected for the base text and then "corrected" against the readings of the other manuscripts.

One could argue, perhaps, that the modern critical text is pretty much already a copy text of Codex Vaticanus. This is even more the case after Aland's preference for the B-text over Hort's "non-Western interpolations."

P.S. (Vaticanus, not Alexandrinus, is the collation base for Swanson.)