Series Introduction: Leigh Ann Thompson | Interview: Joy Singh and Elijah Hixson
In November the book Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism—edited by Peter Gurry and Elijah Hixson— hit the shelves. Each chapter in the book considers a “myth” about manuscripts and the text of the New Testament and offers a response with helpful information for apologists and lay people who are interested in how data about manuscripts influences our understanding of the reliability of the text of the New Testament.
Some of the authors of Myths and Mistakes have kindly participated in interviews with the CSNTM interns about their contributions. Over the next few weeks we will post these written interviews here on CSNTM’s blog. We hope you enjoy learning from the book’s contributors, and we highly recommend purchasing the book for yourself!
Elijah Hixson is the co-editor of Myths and Mistakes, and he also wrote a chapter on “Dating Myths,” that explains the methods scholars use to date manuscripts and the significance of a manuscript’s date. Elijah works as a junior research associate in New Testament Text and Language at Tyndale House, Cambridge. He earned his doctorate at the University of Edinburgh and contributes to the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog.
What inspired or got you interested in the field of New Testament Textual Criticism (NTTC)?
It was really a combination of things that got me into NTTC. For one, I grew up in a church that used a Textus Receptus-based Bible, and most of the churches around us in our area were either KJV-only or liberal. The KJV or at least NKJV were just the default versions that a person used. My youth pastor was KJV-only as well, even if our church wasn’t (though we did use the KJV until I was 12 and then the NKJV after that). I knew that if I broke from this, I needed to be serious and know my stuff really well, because God’s Word is important. Running in parallel to that is that I majored in chemistry as an undergraduate, and I like measuring things and working in a lab. With manuscripts, I can still do that to an extent. It’s more hands-on to argue that a spot of ink is an α not a λ than it is to argue what Paul meant in a random verse in Galatians. Add to that the fact that I realized in seminary that I don’t have a good personality for being a pastor, but I wasn’t bad with Greek, and I loved manuscripts. Everything just came together into NTTC.
You talk about the discrepancy in citing the variants. How do you define a variant? And how does the existence of variants add or detract from the claim to the reliability of the text?
I would define a variant as any place where a manuscript of a work has a different reading than another manuscript/edition/etc. of that work. I don’t think the existence of variants matters very much about the reliability of the text. It would be suspicious if we had no variants—that would look like someone has messed with the text to craft a version of it that they wanted to promote and to silence the opposition. But we don’t see that. What we see is consistent with the way Paul describes our stewardship of the Gospel in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (ESV). We see copies of the Scriptures that have mistakes from the copyists, but God never allowed so many mistakes such that God’s truth is lost. A great example of this is that you could have someone using the KJV and someone using the ESV in the same local congregation. In that scenario (a very real one that happens), you’d have two people using two ‘forms’ of the New Testament that are about as far apart as they can be, yet not only are both of them Christians, both of them are part of the same local church. To me, that is a powerful illustration that we do have a reliable text—we can be certain about the vast majority of it, and where we lack complete certainty, it is not as though we have no idea what the original text was. Where there is uncertainty, there is still certainty that the text is usually one of two or (in exceptionally rare cases) three competing readings, and when we start looking at specifics in those places, we realize that nothing in those differences is enough to make a difference in an overall system of belief. In short, the New Testament that we have is reliable.
Robert Price used words and phrases like “probabilistic arguments, ambiguous evidence which is impossible to verify,” to describe his faith-shattering experience of the uncertainty of the text at hand. How would you as the author describe the text at hand today?
At the end of the day, we believe what we want to believe. Yes, God works in mysterious ways and uses different kinds of things to bring different kinds of people to faith, but if someone wants to cast aside the Scriptures, there are always excuses for it. But that’s the same with everything, isn’t it? Just last night, someone told me that the only way I could even attempt to make a believable case about an issue was if I responded page-by-page, evidence-for-evidence to every bit of a very specific 300-page book written on that subject in the 1800s. Well, “A fool hath no delight in understanding, but that his heart may discover itself” (Prov. 18:2 KJV). If someone is setting up that specific and exhaustive a standard, then he or she is almost certainly not interested in the truth. It’s similar to people who claim manuscripts are fake because they’ve never been scientifically tested—but testing is often destructive and destruction is against the policies of nearly every library. Without credible reason to subject a manuscript for testing, it will never be needlessly damaged. No amount of evidence is enough to convince someone who is thoroughly committed to disbelief. Only a work of God in someone’s heart can do that. I would say that we can be certain that we have not lost God’s Word, and though there may be cases when the process of textual criticism cannot at present decide between two competing readings (and many of these places are not translatable differences), we can even in those cases be certain that the original text is one of those options (and for a good estimate of how many places those are that make any kind of real difference, simply look at the footnotes in a few modern Bibles that say things like “some manuscripts say…”). And honestly, that’s consistent with the experience of many Christians before the printing press—if a manuscript had a correction where the corrected and the uncorrected reading were sensible, how could a reader know with certainty which reading was correct? Well, you simply had faith in Christ, that he will not let you down, and you trust that one of those readings is correct, and you do what you can in faith, and you trust that whatever you do will not be enough to snatch you out of Christ’s hand.
What impact do you desire to see in the Christian world through this book?
What impact do I desire to see through this book? I would hope that it has a long-term trickle-down effect of helping those who defend the New Testament’s reliability sharpen their arguments. Richard Porson said, “To use a weak argument in behalf of a good cause, can only tend to infuse suspicion of the cause itself into the minds of all who see the weakness of the argument.” Would that we could avoid that!