Rant about textual criticism

I had to bow out of a conversation several times the other night because I knew it would do no good. An elderly relation was proclaiming the superiority of the KJV not on the grounds I would give — sonorous beauty, a sense of the English language, and a reliable rendering of the text used — but on the grounds that the KJV, unlike all the modern translations, was based “on the ancient manuscripts themselves”, whereas modern translations are based on Westcott and Hort “who weren’t even believers.”

Honestly — this person has been told that the Rt Rev. Brooke Foss Westcott, Bishop of Durham, and the Rev. Fenton John Anthony Hort (a Church of England priest) weren’t believers. Astonishing. And, even if they weren’t, I do not see how the technical skill of textual criticism and editing is influenced by one’s faith. But, then, I’m a textual critic.

In fact, Westcott and Hort acknowledge the fact that no critical doctrine of the Christian faith is affected by the emendations they made to the work of earlier scholars such as Erasmus and Tischendorff.

I am more astonished by this sort of argument because it argues for the superiority of Erasmus’ and Stephanus’ texts as well as Codex Bezae — not to mention the fact that somehow a few early printed editions and a manuscript are worth more than all the mss of Westcott and Hort combined.

I must say, first of all, that as philologists, few of us today will be as naturally attuned to the ancient Latin and Greek languages as people like Erasmus and Stephanus. This simple fact is both blessing and curse to early modern editors, however. The more interventionist among them were willing to change the Latin and Greek so that it was “correct” by textbook standards. To my knowledge, neither Erasmus more Stephanus did that sort of thing.

Second, however good Erasmus and Stephanus may have been as text editors, the greatest problem facing their text was a lack of earlier, reliable manuscripts, which Westcott and Hort had — including two fourth-century pandects known as Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. They used what they had available — fairly recent, late Byzantine manuscripts.

Third, the idea that we should trust Erasmus and Stephanus with the so-called Textus Receptus always comes from unlikely corners — anti-traditionalists. If we are to accept that late mss of the Textus Receptus are superior to the papyri of Egypt and the mss Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, we must therefore accept that the tradition of the Byzantine Church was so good at textual transmission that the true line of descent from the Apostles was maintained by it — and accept this in the face of older texts that differ from the Byzantine world.

Aside: Even accepting the “better not older” dogma of textual criticism, we need at least to know about the older before we can judge whether they are better.

Fourth, Westcott and Hort produced a critical edition of the New Testament of the variety that any Classicist would recognise. This means that if any preacher or translator disagrees with their readings, they can check and see what the Textus Receptus has to say on the matter. The careful user of a critical edition does not simply read the redacted text in large type up top, but the notes at the bottom as well.

Fifth, even if Lancelot Andrewes and his team had had an edition such as Westcott and Hort at hand, the English language has had some shifts in 419 years. As a result, for those unused to Jacobean English, it can be misread and misinterpreted.

Sixth, Lancelot Andrewes would probably have been happy to use Westcott and Hort.

Seventh, to return to the point about tradition, I find myself continually astonished that low church, non-conformists who reject Anglicanism and tradition not only prefer a traditionalist Greek text, but an English translation produced by Anglican priests.

Eighth, there are unbelievers who know this stuff. And they know it well. Propagating this nonsense is damaging to Christian witness in two ways. First, it makes our religion look like the faith of simpletons and morons that has no room for people interested in the life of the mind and serious inquiry. Second, it makes us look like the bunch of cantankerous, in-fighting idiots we are.

*End rant.*

5 thoughts on “Rant about textual criticism

  1. That’s one of the most edifying rants I’ve read in a while. But I know why you feel like a ranter (albeit not in the seventeenth-century sense), because it can be so difficult discussing or arguing with someone who is either unwilling or unable to recognise or consider their presuppositions. As you say, “I knew it would do no good.” It’s no good for them; and it’s no good for you.

    I am thoroughly familiar with the arguments made by your elderly relative; and over the years have known many “King James Only” believers. Unlike you, I am no philologist; but I have always used the King James for personal reading. Also, it is how I remember scripture, for its beauty of form and its design for reading aloud make it so memorable.

    In all this I have an advantage, lack of philological training notwithstanding. The larger part of my academic specialisms were in seventeenth-century English music; and that meant that I also became very familiar with seventeenth-century literature. A kind of circular familiarity — I became a Christian, read the KJV, read loads of literature contemporary with it (well, at least 80 years on either side), and the two fed one another.

    But I would never expect a congregation of contemporary young people to cope with that language — with only a handful of exceptions. My own favoured contemporary translation is the ESV; and my parish uses the NIV, of which, for many reasons, I am not a fan.

    Your list of objections and arguments is excellent (as is your mention of the incongruities involved in KJV-only arguments.) Thank you for that. And I especially agree with you in number eight — that propagating this stuff in a public forum is damaging to Christian witness. (I hope you’d agree that it’s OK to discuss in private forums.) And yes — the main reasons why it’s damaging are the two you give.

    Thank you. I’ve kept a copy of this in an appropriate computer file, to draw on when I next encounter these arguments.

    • Glad you appreciated this wee rant. And you’re right, these conversations are worth having in private, if not devoting whole websites to in public!

      My own idiosyncrasies run to BCP & KJV, but these are little used anymore…

  2. AMEN! to MJH’s “rant”. Best I’ve read. Kind, thoughtful, rational, knowledgeable and draws the best conclusion, that such intransigent insistence that the ‘KJV-only’ view is indeed the only view damages our Christian witness.
    Thank you,
    Neil Douglas

  3. There was a time when I actively sought out BCP services in preference to those conducted according to more recent liturgies … but no more.

    Why not?

    Well … it’s all down to the 39 Articles, and in particular Article XXIV which says:

    “It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people”.

    Much as I, an antiquarian and scholar, adore the rhythm and cadence of the Book of Common Prayer, we live in the 21st century. Modern spoken English is very different from the English of the 17th century; and in very large measure I believe that the language of the Book of Common Prayer (“dearly beloved brethren, the scripture moveth us in sundry places” … “The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate; and the Holy Ghost uncreate” … “graciously hear us, that those evils, which the craft and subtilty of the devil or man worketh against us, be brought to nought” … “We yield thee praise and thanksgiving for our deliverance from these great and apparent dangers wherewith we were compassed” … “it hath pleased thee to appease the seditious tumults which have been lately raised up amongst us” … “be careful for nothing” … ) is fast becoming “a tongue not understanded of the people”.

    There are, I know, those who would keep the Book of Common Prayer and ditch the 39 Articles (such as the Anglican bishop – I will not name him – who came to our church and preached 7 sacraments); but I cannot help but think that if we are to remain true to our Anglican protestant identity, then what we must do is keep the 39 Articles and ditch the Book of Common Prayer. Alas.

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