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What I learned about textual criticism while transcribing ancient manuscripts

Transcribing from ancient manuscripts into digital formats has shown me how easy it is to make mistakes while copying from another manuscript.

I recently volunteered to be a transcriber for the the HBCE Psalms 1-50 Project. This is an effort to create a critical edition of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) based on the best textual evidence from various ancient manuscripts. They’ve done this for the New Testament for years (I think Erasmus was the first to do this) but not for the Old. This project’s goal is to change this.

Why would I do this?

A while ago (20+ years), when I was in Seminary, I really loved reading the Scriptures in their original language. It not only made me feel closer to the text but slowed me down to catch things I might otherwise overlook. And, if I’m honest, it stroked my pride to be able to do something most can’t.

I recently wanted to regain my skills so I audited two semesters of Biblical Hebrew at my local seminary. This only made me want to do more. It even tempted me toward higher education (a PhD?)- until my professor reminded me that there are dozens of qualified candidates that are desperate for jobs already.

Back to reality, the professor then mentioned that this project was looking for volunteer transcribers. I thought that this might be a way to help without having to go back for more education. Besides, the basic skill I would need is to identify the characters of the text- I wouldn’t even need to understand what I am reading to transcribe it. In fact, it might make my transcription better if I can’t fully understand it because I might not make assumptions from the text.

I volunteered hoping to continue to develop my Hebrew skills. However, I stupidly volunteered that I also knew Koine Greek. I did know Greek pretty well, at one point- even testing out of it in Seminary thanks to learning Attic Greek in college- but it’s been a while. Ironically, rather than put me on the Hebrew transcription team, I found myself transcribing Greek (the Septuagint).

What I’ve learned about textual criticism

Many of the common scribal errors are very easy to make. While transcribing the manuscript I was assigned, I found myself making the following errors:

  • Doubling words. On one line of text I had convinced myself that the word appeared twice- so I added it twice to the transcription. After reviewing it again, however, it was clear that the word only appeared once. These two words were very similar (one character difference) and somehow I tricked my brain into thinking the word was repeated.
  • Skipping lines. I’m working with the Psalms. Even if you read them in your native language you will know that Hebrew Poetry likes repetition. This makes it easy to skip to the next line and skip things. I’ve done this several times.
  • Confusing letters. Everyone has a unique handwriting and my scribe is no different. Sometimes it’s hard to tell between two different letters.
  • Assuming the correct transcription. Along with the previous error I’ve made, there’s always the temptation to assume what the scribe meant. I need to learn to resist this or I might perpetuate an error that has been carried through for a long time.

Now, I’m doing this digitally. That means, if I catch my error I can easily go back and updated it. However, if I were a scribe in the 3rd century AD, it would not have been as easy to change the goat-skin on which I had already written the transcription. Not only were there no erasers, but the page was cost prohibitive to throw-out and do-over.

But doesn’t text criticism undermine the reliability of the Bible?

I have to admit that, for a while, I was scared of textual criticism. I experienced people using this as an argument against the reliability of the Scriptures. Namely, while attending university, the secular religious studies department had a class: Understanding the Bible. They spent the entire semester walking through form and text criticism as an argument against the Scriptures. Rumor had it that the TAs would, at the end of the semester, read and laugh over course reviews accusing them of “destroying my faith.”

Now, however, I believe this is a valuable part of understanding the truth of the Bible. I do hold to a view of the Bible that it is, at least, infallible if not inerrant. That position is not consistent with the understanding that scribes sometimes make mistakes while transcribing it and, over time, some of those mistakes can become accepted and canonized.

I don’t believe this is an inconsistency because of my view of apologetics. I am not an evidentialist but an presuppositionalist. In other words, “believing is seeing” rather than “seeing is believing.”

Because of that, my view of the infallibility/inerrancy is a function of my assumptions of who God is and what he’s capable of. It’s from those presuppositions that I trust the Bible.

Some might say that is a circular argument: a tautology. To that I suggest, yes- sort of. Along with this I’d point out that many conclusions from textual criticism tell us more about the person drawing the conclusion than the “facts” of the circumstance. If they, then, use text criticism to “disprove” the Bible, they are also arguing from a tautology.

So the question becomes, which tautology is correct? Mine, who believes the Scriptures’s authority and infallibility, or the person who uses text criticism to not believe it? That’s the right question! In short, I’d say that the person who uses text criticism to not believe first has to assume the God of the Bible’s existence in order not to believe.

And with that tease of an incomplete argument, I’ll leave you to ponder your assumptions and how they lead you to conclusions as well.

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