Interviews With the Authors: Myths and Mistakes—Gregory R. Lanier

Series Introduction: Leigh Ann Thompson | Interview: Madi Cannon and Gregory R. Lanier

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!

Greg Lanier is an associate professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando and associate pastor at River Oaks Church. His research interests include canon and textual criticism, the Synoptic Gospels, the use of the OT in the NT, the Pauline epistles, and the Septuagint. He also serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies, and he maintains a blog.

In Lanier’s chapter, “Dating Myths: How Later Manuscripts Can Be Better Manuscripts,” he explores how the dating of a manuscript is related to its quality and reliability, and especially among the Byzantine form, a later-dated text form. 

What prompted your interest in New Testament textual criticism?

It‘s difficult to retrace the steps exactly, but I believe I first caught wind of the whole issue when I was a layperson member of a church in Charlotte, NC, where Dr. Mike Kruger (president of Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte) served as associate pastor. At the time (ca. 2007–2009) some of his Sunday school materials reflected the research he was doing that resulted in Canon Revisited (Crossway, 2012). That was when I was first exposed to the idea of textual variants, copyists, manuscripts, and so on. As with many who discover the field in their adulthood, there was a dual sense of “wow, this is really fascinating” and “wow, how tragic it is that no one has ever told me about this in church before.” The scholarly interest in textual criticism subsequently developed further during seminary and doctoral studies. Though textual criticism was not the explicit focus of my PhD thesis, it played a large role (both LXX and Greek NT) behind the scenes. I also worked out of Tyndale House, Cambridge, where I was surrounded by text critics, including Peter Gurry (co-editor of Myths and Mistakes). Peter and I, in turn, met Elijah Hixson (the other editor) at a paleography course in Oxford. At RTS-Orlando I have the privilege of working with Dr. Charles Hill, so together we get to try to convince students of the importance of the field!

You explain that later scribes would occasionally copy or correct their text using much earlier manuscripts. Why do you think a distinction should be made between the actual physical manuscripts and the text within manuscripts?

Imagine a world in which, say, a 1990s Hollywood movie project was organized not based on the content of the movie itself, but, rather, based on the various formats in which it would appear: a DVD division, a Streaming division, a Blu-ray division, and a VHS division. And let‘s say that film critics and viewing audiences generally assumed that the VHS division always had the better copy of the movie, while the Streaming division was sort of suspect because it came along later. We would, after thinking it through, realize that this kind of privileging of a given format of the movie doesn’t really make sense. There‘s nothing about VHS that inherently means it has a more authentic copy of the movie; it could very well have been copied poorly and accidentally chopped out some scenes, while the Streaming version could have gone back to the archives to get the original director‘s cut. While the format (DVD, VHS, or whatever) is no doubt important, you have to separate those factors from the movie content itself. 

While this is an imperfect analogy, it gets at the issue we face in NT textual criticism. Textual critics have long recognized that it is a bit awkward that the field tends to organize the data based on (a) material on which a manuscript is copied (papyrus or vellum), (b) handwriting of the scribe (uncial/majuscule vs. cursive/minuscule), and (c) estimated date of the production of the manuscript, which is related to (a) and (b). Each of these factors is important, obviously, but focusing on the combination of these features can lead to a kind of mysticism about the material artifact itself: i.e., that papyri and early majuscules are somehow always magically “better“ (helped, of course, by more memorable labels like P75, א, B, and so on). But, as other essays in Myths and Mistakes point out (along with mine), the combination of material + handwriting + dating of a given manuscript does not magically make it “better“ (or “worse“) in terms of the text that is written on it. Just because a witness is a papyrus manuscript doesn‘t infallibly mean its scribe was more competent than others, or that its exemplar was superior to others, or that its resulting text is more accurate. As with the Hollywood analogy: in terms of understanding and reconstructing the wording of the NT, then, we need to distinguish the wording itself and the artifact that carries it.

This becomes clear, as you mention, in the case of some later minuscule manuscripts that we know consulted earlier manuscripts, church fathers, etc. as they copied their exemplar. If you automatically default to the view that “later“ is worse, you might downplay these manuscripts simply because of their handwriting/date/etc. But the text on that manuscript may reflect what you find centuries earlier. In other words, you have to maintain a distinction between the date of the physical artifact and the date of the wording it contains.

You challenge the myth that later dated manuscripts are less reliable because they are later. If scholars no longer privilege older manuscripts, can you foresee any issues arising?

I would perhaps rephrase the arguments this way: later manuscripts are not necessarily less reliable simply because they are later, nor are earlier manuscripts necessarily more reliable simply because they are older. What is needed is a more nuanced approach to the witnesses than simply “older-is-better and later-is-worse.”  

I wouldn‘t necessarily say that scholars are no longer privileging older manuscripts, full stop. Individual text critics will still value, at some level, P46 and Vaticanus, as examples. The mindset shift, rather, is that those manuscripts should be appreciated not simply because of material considerations (i.e. papyrus=reliable), but because the text has shown to be reliable and/or important for textual criticism. It is true, however, that the Coherence Based Genealogical Method (CBGM) tends to disembody, so to speak, the text/wording from the artifact, at least at certain steps of the method. This may adversely impact our understanding of the history of the text, since ultimately physical artifacts were the means by which the text was passed on. But this would be a bigger can of worms than we can address here.

If the date of a manuscript is not always an indication of its quality, what are some characteristics of better quality manuscripts?

To be clear, we‘re not suggesting that date is irrelevant—just that it needs to be discussed more accurately. “Better” depends, of course, on the goal. And in modern textual criticism there may be more than one valid goal. The traditional goal has been to reconstruct a text that approximates as closely as possible what the NT author wrote/dictated (or, according to more recent discussion, the form of the text that stands as the wellspring of the textual tradition in the church, i.e. “initial text” or Ausgangstext). According to that goal, the quality of a manuscript more or less amounts to how closely its wording matches this reconstruction. As an example, Vaticanus agrees with the Editio Critica Maior text of Acts (2017) at a rate of 96.5% in toto (the highest of any single witness). Importantly, this way of approaching “quality” depends on the reconstruction you believe to be most accurate (the benchmark, so to speak). For those who prefer the Byzantine text, the quality of a manuscript would depend on how well it matches up to that reconstruction (and, in such a case, Vaticanus may not look so good).

There are other goals. One could be to use textual variants as a window on early Christian reception and/or scribal culture. In this realm, a given textual variant in a manuscript may be judged inferior in terms of the aforementioned goal, but it could be quite interesting for understanding how the text was passed on and what factors influenced that. As an example, I‘ve been working on a minuscule that is “regularly cited” for the Gospels but is not going to be at the top of anyone‘s list in terms of importance or overall quality. But at many points its text, corrections, and marginal annotations are very interesting in terms of understanding the scribe‘s behavior in what is otherwise a largely Byzantine manuscript. Thus, it may be “low quality” for reconstructing the text but “high quality” in understanding scribal culture and reception.

How do you hope your chapter will influence pastors and apologists?

In many ways the chapter is somewhat technical, and the manuscripts discussed will likely be unfamiliar to many, for the very  reasons mentioned above (and because minuscules have boring numerical labels!). But my overall goal is pretty simple. For a long time in textual criticism, there has been a standoff between the pro-“Alexandrian” group (who favor, say, the NA/UBS text or others like the SBL edition or the Tyndale House edition, which still fit in this vein) and the pro-“Byzantine” group—with pure eclectics floating between. The former camp either tends to state explicitly (or at least insinuate) that most readings found in the Byzantine (or Majority) text, or in later minuscules by-and-large, are probably inferior and secondary; and the latter camp states the opposite. There is an unfortunate apologetic downside to this (particularly when you think of, say, Muslim apologetics): each side treats the other as corrupt, secondary, inferior, untrustworthy, etc., thereby sending the message that millions of Bibles based on that text are problematic. (For instance, many Greek students are taught basically to discount altogether a reading they find in their apparatus with the 𝔐 or Byzantine label). There is an unfortunate factual downside to this as well: the distance between these two poles is far less than often admitted or realized. Yes, we will keep debating the “adulterous woman” story or the ending(s) of Mark (though the debates on those might benefit from more level-headedness and less dogmatic assuredness). But on the whole, the wording of the NT has been passed on with tremendous stability across all streams, even the two (“Alexandrian” and “Byzantine”) often viewed as most polarized. Pitting the two against each other is apologetically counterproductive and, in fact, not terribly well-grounded when you actually look at the data. Put more simply, pastors/apologists who support an “Alexandrian” text should show the “Byzantine” tradition more love, and vice versa.

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