Monday, December 11, 2017

Haldane's critique of an "open" view of canon: "and a fixed standard they never have"

Image: Robert Haldane (1764-1846)

I’m continuing to review Robert Haldane’s The Books of the Old and New Testaments Proven to be Canonical (1830; Sprinkle reprint, 2014). After my recent review of THGNT (here), I was struck by this statement by Haldane on the problem with adopting an “open” view of the canon:

If we displace from the canon any one of those books that have been sanctioned by the recognition the Lord Jesus Chris and his Apostles, we overturn the authority on which the rest are held, and invite evil propensities of our nature to quarrel with any thing in the Bible to which we find disrelish. Those who hold that the question of canon is open to discussion, and who set aside any part of it on the ground of either external or internal evidence, cannot be said to have a Bible. Their Bible will be longer or shorter according to their researches; and a fixed standard they never have (83-84).

Haldane puts his finger here on a major fault in the modern reconstructionist approach, the lack of a fixed standard. When I first read the above paragraph, I thought, I agree completely, but I only wish Haldane had addressed not only the books but also the texts of those books. I supposed that he did not address these issues because at the time of his writing (1830), the modern critical text’s full on assault of the TR, and accompanying texts like the ending of Mark or the PA, was not yet in full stride. Lachman’s Greek NT was published in 1831, Tregelles’ work was completed in 1872, and Wescott and Hort’s in 1881.

Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised to find Haldane skate a bit closer to the issue, not only of the books but also the content of the books (text), as he mounted a defense, in particular, of the antilegomena of the OT. So, he observes:

If, then, in a book recognized by the canon, as the Song of Solomon, we find matter which to our wisdom does not appear to be worthy of inspiration, we may be assured that we mistake (85).

He adds:

This question of the canon, then, proceeds on infidel and irrational principles, which, if carried to their legitimate length, must, in the end in complete unbelief (85).

Haldane appeals to Augustine’s comments on those tinkering with the canon and offers this quotation (unfortunately without specific attribution):

“According to your way of proceeding, the authority of Scripture is quite destroyed, and everyone’s fancy is to determine what in the Scriptures is to be received and what not. He does not admit it, because it is found in the writings of so great credit and authority; but it is rightly written, because it is agreeable to his judgment. Into what confusion and uncertainty must men be brought by such a principle!” (86).

Haldane closes this discussion by questioning the wisdom of sowing doubt about canon among believers:

Of the divine original of the Sacred Scriptures, as we now possess them, we have evidence of the most abundant and diversified. It is this distinguishing characteristic of the Gospel, that it is preached to the poor, and God has so ordered it, that the authenticity of that word by which all are to be judged, should not be presented to them as a matter of doubtful disputation (86-87).


Saturday, December 09, 2017

Word Magazine # 84: Review: Tyndale House Greek New Testament

Note: I have recorded and posted WM 84: Review: Tyndale House Greek New Testament.

The Tyndale House Edition of the Greek New Testament (THGNT) is a newly published edition of the Greek New Testament produced by several scholars at Tyndale House, an independent Christian study center founded in 1944 with an evangelical Christian heritage and located in the university town of Cambridge, England. The work is edited by Dirk Jongkind, the Academic Vice-Principal and a Research Fellow at TH. The associate editor is Peter J. Williams, the Principal (Director) of TH. This work reflects the fruit of more than ten years of collaboration and study by the editors.

The THGNT is published by Crossway and will also eventually be freely available in an online edition.

This edition is noteworthy on several levels. Detailed scholarly discussions might be held on the textual and apparatus decisions reflected in this edition, and, indeed, many of those have already begun and will, no doubt, continue. My review will not attempt to delve into the minutia but offer a general overview from the perspective of a pastor who hold to the Textus Receptus. Two other reviews I have found helpful: Peter Gurry and James Snapp.

The work is organized in five parts: (1) Frontmatter; (2) Preface (pp. vii-viii); (3) the Greek text of the NT (pp. 1-504); (4) Introduction (pp. 505-524); and (5) Acknowledgements (pp. 525-526).

I will look at each of these and share some reading notes in order:

First Part: Frontmatter:

1.    Published by Crossway, 2017

2.    Produced by Tyndale House, Cambridge

3.    Editor, Dirk Jongkind; Associate Editor, Peter J. Williams; Associate Editors: Peter M. Head and Patrick James.

Note: Jongkind is a Dutch scholar who had a previous career in Holland in horticulture (see his TH bio). He completed a PhD in NT at Cambridge in 2005 and his dissertation was published as Scribal Habits of Codex Sinaiticus (Gorgias, 2007). His scholarly interests, of course, are reflected in this edition.

4.    Table of Contents: Order of books changed from standard printed order: Gospels, Acts, Catholic Epistles, Pauline Epistles (with Hebrews last), Revelation.

Note: Robinson and Pierpoint in the Byzantine Greek NT (2005) follow a similar order with the Catholic Epistles before the Pauline epsitles, though they place Hebrews after 2 Thessalonians and before the Pastoral epistles and Philemon.

Second Part: Preface (vii-viii):

1.    Edition based on Samuel Prideaux Tregelles 19th century Greek NT.

See Robert Hull’s sketch of Tregelles in The Story of the NT Text (SBL, 2010): 79-82. He calls Tregelles (1813-1875) a “blue collar scholar,” noting that he was a lay researcher, without university degree, who labored in the iron works by day and studied Biblical languages and texts by night (p. 79). He produced his NT by subscription from 1857-1872. Hull notes Tregelles’ significance as being the fact that in his Greek NT he used “ancient sources” to construct his text, “disregarding the Textus Receptus altogether” (p. 80). Using Epps military analogy, he says, Tregelles was “a brigadier general in the campaign to defeat the Textus Receptus” (p. 81).

2.    It “aims to present the NT books in the earliest forms in which they are well attested.” This is an interesting statement. Note: The goal is not to reconstruct the original but the earliest and best attested.

3.    It does this by using “careful analysis of the scribal habits and typical transmission errors of individual manuscripts.”

4.    It points to some of the distinctive editorial decisions on paragraphs, layout, spelling, grammatical markers, book order, and critical apparatus that will be discussed in the Introduction.

5.    It includes a confessional aim, which begins, “The focus of these sacred scriptures is, of course, on the person of Jesus Christ, presented on page after page as the unique Son of God.”

Third Part: The text of the NT (1-504):

1.    Inset text to left margin (rather than indenting) to mark paragraphs. This is later called ekthesis in the Introduction (p. 512).

2.    Each book begins on right hand page. Legible font. Designed for a good reading experience.

3.    Matthew 6:13: Omits doxology and lists as variant in the apparatus.

4.    Mark 1:2 reads “as in Isaiah the prophet” rather than “in the prophets,” which it lists as a variant.

5.    Mark 16:8 includes a scribal note in Greek from minuscule 1. It is translated in the apparatus: “In some of the copies, the evangelist finishes here, up to which (point) also Eusebius of Pamphilus made canon sections. But in many the following is also contained.”

Note: Minuscule 1 is not listed among the main witnesses used for this edition but listed with other “witnesses which have been consulted in the preparation of this edition” (p. 523). No date is given for it in the THGNT. The NA 28 lists it as XII century and in Basel.  In other words it is late and only acknowledges earlier textual controversy over the ending dating back to Eusebius (see my forthcoming article on “The Ending of Mark as a Canonical Crisis” in PRJ (January 2018). Indeed, Erasmus apparently had access to this minuscule, but this note did not deter him from including Mark 16:9-20 as part of the text.

Mark 16:9-20 is not in brackets and the shorter ending is not in the test, though it is listed in the apparatus with reference to its appearance in codices L and Psi.

W is listed in support of vv. 9-20, and the “Freer Logion” of W is not in the apparatus at v. 14.

6.    Luke 23:34: It includes the prayer of Jesus without brackets but lists the omission as a variant and marks with a black diamond.

7.    John 1:18: It has the traditional reading “only begotten Son [ho monogenes huios]” rather than the modern critical “only begotten God [ho monogenes theos],” which it lists as a variant. No black diamond!

8.    John 5:3b-4: Omitted from text and lists as variant.

9.    John 7:53—8:11: It omits from text. In apparatus it notes mss. that omit, including four that leave space open (L, Delta). It notes that minuscule 69 inserts the PA at Luke 21:38, thus subtly perpetuating the “floating tradition” idea. It lists only three mss. supporting inclusion: D, K, and 1424 marg.

Note: Minuscules 69 (the Leicester Codex) and 1424 are the only two minuscules listed among the chief witnesses (p. 523). 69 dates to XV century and 1424 to IX/X century.

10. Acts 8:37: Omits; list as variant in apparatus.

11. 2 Peter 3:10: Contra NA 28 it does not include the conjectured negative particle oux, but it does follows the NA28 in using the verb eurethesetai [“laid bare” from heurisko], rather than the TR’s katakaesthai {“burned up” from katakaio]. Here is evidence in the THGNT of departure from the CBGM.

12. I John 5:7b-8a: It omits the CJ but provides extended discussion of variants in the apparatus. The fact that it provides the discussion in some detail is, at least, encouraging to some degree.

13. Jude 5: It follows NA 28 in reading “Jesus” rather than “Lord,” which is listed as a variant, along with “God” and “Christ.” It is marked with a diamond.

14. 1 Timothy 3:16: It reads “he” rather than “God.”

15. Revelation 22:19: It reads “tree of life” rather than “book of life” and no variant in listed in the apparatus.

Fourth Part: The Introduction (505-523):

So, in this edition, the introduction comes at the end! Though brief, this introduction is very dense and requires close attention.

1.    It begins by noting it seeks “the best approximation to the words written by the NT authors” (505). Note: Not the exact, but the best.

2.    It notes the standard that a reading had to be contained “in at least some Greek manuscripts” (505). So, there are no conjectures. This reminds me of Calvin’s approach and his seeking Greek ms. support.

3.    The formatting seeks “to constrain editorial choice” as “a check on editorial fallibility and eccentricity” (505). Is this a critique of the CBGM?

4.    The work began as a revision of Tregelles, which was used by Wescott and Hort and has been, in the editors’ opinion, “undeservedly ignored,” so this edition, in part, attempts “to compensate for this oversight” (505). The editors note two major advances since Tregelles’ time: (1) papyri discoveries; and (2) study of scribal habits (506). The revision became “more thoroughgoing” and resulted in “a completely new edition” (506).

5.    In keeping with Tregelles, this edition required each reading to have at least two Greek witnesses, at least one of which had to be from the fifth century or earlier (506).

6.    A textual commentary will be presented later (506).

7.    The most prominent scribal tendencies include: (1) “influence from text elsewhere” and (2) “the habit of copying text in the form that requires least energy to retain” (506).

8.    Attention was also given to “tendencies of individual mss.” (507).

9.Like Wescott and Hort’s NT, the value of this edition is not in the apparatus but “in the text itself” (507). The apparatus does not include versional or patristic evidence. Though the editors acknowledge the influence of this evidence in their thinking, they conclude; “Nevertheless, we have not felt at any point that their witness was strong enough to change the decision we made on the basis of the Greek manuscripts” (507).

10. The editors note that their focus on early Greek mss. departs from the current CBGM being used to produce the modern critical text. That method allows that later mss. may reflect earlier readings. The THGNT editors acknowledge “that at times a late manuscript may contain a text that is logically prior to and ancestral to that in the earliest extant manuscript,” but contend that their aim was to produce “a text with a high degree of directly verifiable antiquity” (507). Summation: “Throughout the text, the editors sought to consider the most ancient Greek testimony wherever feasible” (507).

11. The discussion of orthography is on pp. 508-512. It is noted that this edition relies on spellings from mss. of the fifth century and earlier. One example is the use of episilon-iota for iota, so that the verb ginomai is written as geinomai (see futher examples on p. 509). This is typically the reading of the earlier manuscripts. It is noted that “the modern habit of printing the NT in a form in which the spelling is almost entirely uniform gives a misleading historical impression….” (511).

12. This edition does not make use of the nomina sacra, but it does leave open the possibility for such usage in future editions. The usage of some such words is not consistent and it would be against the principles of the edition “to impose uniformity in a global way” (511).

13. To “optimize readability” the lower case is generally used, including with the title christos (511).

14. The discussion on “Order of Books, Paragraphs, Breathings, Accents, and Punctuation” appears on pp. 512-515.

15. It suggests the Catholic epistles after Acts as “the best attested order” but concedes that a good case can be made for Hebrews after 2 Thessalonians (512).

16. It notes the paragraph divisions by ekthesis may seem “eccentric,” but add, it is “according to ancient custom,” and it is “at least equal in elegance to modern indentation” (512).

17. As regards breathings and accents, the editors note they have sought “to print what is consistent and attested in the manuscripts containing accents” (512), while acknowledging that the study of these matters is “in its infancy” (513). They further acknowledge that choices here were made, in part, based on easiest access to manuscripts online (514).

18. The editors note their attempt “to present the Greek text with as little interruption as possible.” (515). Thus, they add, “We have avoided scholarly signs within the text as well as brackets, dashes, or marking of perceived citations by special typefaces” (515). The latter means, among other things, that unlike in some editions, OT citations are not set off in a special type to alert the reader to this phenomenon.

19. As for punctuation marks, the edition uses full stops (periods), raised points (equivalent to a semi-colon in English), and commas. It also uses the Greek question mark (a semi-colon) “even though this postdates the NT by the best part of a millennium” (515).

20.Notes on “The apparatus” appear on pp. 515-523. It explains the choice of variants listed in three categories:

(1)  Variants that were in the eyes of the editors extremely close contenders for consideration for the main text. In some cases the editors were in doubt as to the correct decision. These are marked by a diamond.
(2)  Variants which have a high exegetical importance.
(3)  Select variants which illustrate scribal habits (515).

21. The primary focus in the apparatus is evidence from papyri and majuscules. The only minuscules consistently cited are 69 and 1424 “since these are diverse and significant textual witnesses” (516).

22. For two variants (1 John 5:7 and Hebrews 2:9) “manuscripts are listed only for the occasion of that specific unit” (516).

23. Sometimes codex D is not cited due to its “substantial recastings of the text” (516).

24. A partial list of papyri are included (518-520). These include three new finds not listed in NA 28 (p129, p130, p135). NA 28 lists only 127 papyri.

25. This is followed by a select list of uncials (pp. 520-522), two minuscules (69 and 1424) (523) and some select witnesses used (523).

Fifth Part: Acknowledgements (525-526):

The edition ends with a note on how the work began in conversations “during famed tea and coffee breaks” at TH, and notes that Jongkind did “the bulk of the work” (525).

Final Evaluation:

This is a physically attractive printed edition of the Greek NT. It is being promoted by Crossway, the masters of evangelical marketing and merchandizing. Witness their promotion of the ESV and the ESV Study Bible among Calvinistic and other broad evangelicals. There is already this slick video for the edition (look here). It will apparently be offered for free online and appear in various Biblical software formats.

As acknowledged it is inspired by Tregelles and focuses on the earliest extant Greek manuscripts (papyri and uncials). This means that it rejects the Textus Receptus. It also departs, however, from the current trends manifest in the application of the CBGM in the Editio Critica Maior and now in the critical handbooks being produced by the Institute für Neutestamentliche Textforschung in Münster. See the comments in the Introduction on the effort “to constrain editorial choice” as “a check on editorial fallibility and eccentricity” (505). There has long been a history of both Anglo adaptation and dissent from German higher criticism.

Any edition of the Greek NT will be, by definition, a specialty publication aimed at a limited audience. Greek texts are usually read by pastors, scholars, Bible translators, and theologians, and also by seminary and Bible students aspiring to those callings. It seems unlikely that this edition will gain a strong following or usage among these. Scholars will probably continue to prefer the editions overseen by Münster, and mainstream Protestant and evangelical seminaries will also continue to use the NA/UBS handbooks. The THGNT has enough peculiarities to it (the ordering of the books, the ekthetic paragraph divisions, the lack of versional and patristic citations in the apparatus, the removal of traditional passages like the PA from the main text) to make it more of a “boutique” edition of the Greek NT.

Another question would be about any larger purpose. Will there be a new vernacular translation based on this text? Will Crossway’s ESV be adapted to it? If so the ESV would undergo some serious changes (cf. John 1:18; John 7:53—8:11, etc.).

Though we can be thankful for some things in this edition, like the acknowledgement of the NT as a Christ-focused religious text in the Preface, the assumption of traditional readings in places like John 1:18, the lack of bracket around the traditional ending of Mark, etc., in the end this remains yet another Enlightenment-influenced, modern critical text. For those who hold to the traditional, confessional text, it serves to illustrate some of the wider problems we perceive to be inherent in modern academic reconstructionist text criticism. Despite all the erudition and scholarship, by virtue of its methodology it does not and cannot yield a stable text but only a scholarly approximation of an ever-evolving text, devoid of consideration of providential preservation.


Text Note: John 6:8 and Mark 16:9

Image: Mary Magdalene, by Frederick Sandys, c. 1860, Delaware Art Museum

Mark 16:1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.

Mark 16:9 Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.


John 1:40 One of the two which heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother.

John 6:8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, saith unto him,


Last week as I was preparing to preach through John 6:1-14, the account of Jesus’ Feeding of the Five Thousand, I came across the reference to Andrew in John 6:8. What interested me was the description of Andrew as “Simon Peter’s brother.” This same description had appeared in John 1:40 when Andrew first entered the narrative. Why does John repeat this reference? Surely the reader would remember who Andrew was.

This reminded me of one on the “internal” arguments against the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20. It is suggested by those who reject the passage as spurious that the description of Mary Magdalene in Mark 16:9 as one “out of whom he [Jesus] had cast out seven devils” (cf. Luke 8:2) is incongruous with the fact that Mary had previously been introduced in the narrative (15:40, 47, and most importantly, in 16:1). This supposedly “proves” that Mark 16:9-20 had been tacked onto the narrative at a later stage with the addition’s repeated introduction making for a clumsy transition. Would such interpreters also suggest, however, that John 6 is a spurious addition to John, since Andrew is re-introduced in the narrative, after making his original appearance in John 1:40?

Clearly, the ancient writer did not think it inappropriate to offer descriptions of characters later in the narrative who have already appeared earlier in the narrative. So, John’s treatment of Andrew illumines Mark’s treatment of Mary Magdalene and supports the traditional ending’s authenticity.


Friday, December 08, 2017

The Vision (12..8.17): Understanding the Feeding of the Five Thousand

Image: CRBC young folk help on church leaf raking day (12.1.17)

Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday's sermon on John 6:1-14.

So the men sat down, in number about five thousand (John 6:10b).

We must beware of false interpretations and applications of this passage. Let me mention two:

First: The social gospel interpretation:

I wonder how many “social gospel” messages have been taken from this text. How many times has Christ’s question in v. 5b “Whence shall we buy bread that these may eat?” been taken merely as a summons to some sort of social responsibility.

Indeed, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves and to do good unto all men (cf. Gal 6:10). There is a place for mercy ministry. But we need also to remember that the same Jesus who fed the five thousand will also say, “For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always” (John 12:9). This same Jesus when tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread, responded, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

Christ cared for the bodies of men, but he cares even more for the souls of men. Above all, he seeks his own glory and honor. I recall reading of an Indian evangelist who wrote of ministering to indigent and dying men and telling them, I have nothing physical to give you, but I can give you something of infinitely greater worth. I can tell you about the Lord Jesus Christ who can save your soul.

Second: The moralizing application:

This type of false interpretation often centers around the lad with the five loaves and the two fishes.

How many have made this account into a stewardship lesson about how if you just give what you able, then God will not only receive it but also bless you? But, surely that it not the point. The focus is not on the boy’s generosity with his loaves and fishes but on the God who multiplied these things and made them abound.

There is nothing humanistic about this narrative. It is not a guideline for our generous behavior. It is about the power and compassion of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Toward a more accurate understanding:

If we cannot interpret this account as an example of the social gospel or as a moralistic proverb, what are we rightly to make of it?

We might meditate on the contrast between the weakness and emptiness of men and the vastness and richness of Christ. It is about how he takes the very meagre, weak, and insignificant talents, resources, and gifts we possess—things of which the best we might say, “what are these among so many?” (John 5:9)—and he uses them to manifest his own glory and to demonstrate his own power.

It is also yet another example of the patience of Christ with his own disciples, who tend to think only in humanistic and man-centered terms and neglect to remember that the one whom we worship made heaven and earth and is sovereign over all things. Let us not neglect to consider the power of Christ. When you are faced with what seems an insurmountable difficulty, an impossible challenge, an unwinnable war, remember the one who is your Master. Calvin says that this account is a confirmation of Christ’s exhortation in Matthew 6:33 to seek first his kingdom and all other things will be added to us.

Indeed, it shows how Christ faithfully provides for and feeds his people. He provides not only our daily bread, but, most importantly, he feeds us spiritually. In this age, he does this through the ordinary means of Word and Sacrament (anticipated here in the teaching of Christ and in his giving the elements of loaves and fishes). And in the age to come we will be in the glory of his presence.

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Friday, December 01, 2017

The Vision (12.1.17): Search the Scriptures

Image: Scene from Ralph's Christmas tree farm, Nelson County, Virginia, November 2017 

Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday's sermon on John 5:31-47.

“Search the scriptures” (John 5:39a).

In John 5:31-47 Jesus presents a fourfold witness to his identity as the Son of God: the witness of John the Baptist (vv. 32-35); the witness of his own works (v. 36); the witness of the Father (vv. 37-38); and, finally, the witness of Scripture (vv. 39-47). Jesus begins his description of this final witness with the statement: “Search the scriptures.” This could be taken as an indicative: “You search the scriptures”, but it might also be taken, as translated here, as an imperative: “Search the scriptures.”

The verb used is eraunao, which means to study, to examine, or to do research into something. In this command we have warrant for all the forms of careful Bible reading and studies pursued by believers, from personal devotional reading, to small group Bible studies, to the production of scholarly commentaries. By this command, Christ mandated that his followers would be a people of the book.

Luke will commend the Bereans in Acts 17:11 as those who “searched the scriptures daily, whether these things were so” [though the verb for “search” here is anakrino, the sentiment is the same].

The Protestant Reformers often cited this command to justify their emphasis upon the Scriptures, a principle later known as sola scriptura.

When the Puritan William Whitaker (1547-1595) composed his masterful work A Disputation on Holy Scripture in 1588 he began with Christ’s command here in John 5:39 as justification for his work. He explains Christ’s words:

He bids them go on to “search the Scriptures;” he inflames in every way their zeal for the scriptures, and sharpens their industry. For he exhorts them not only to read, but search and thoroughly examine the scriptures: he would not have them content with a slight perusal, but requires an assiduous, keen, laborious diligence in examining and investigating their meaning, such as those apply who search with anxious toil for treasures buried in the earth (p. 25).

The framers of our 1689 Baptist confession (and the WCF before them) also put great stock in this command and its implications for believers. They saw this command as a warrant for every believer individually reading the word in a translation of the Bible he could understand. It is cited as a prooftext in chapters one, paragraph 8 when it says the believers “have a right unto and an interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded in the fear of God to read and search them, therefore, they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come…”

Why should you believe in Christ?

You are not asked to make a blind leap of faith. You are asked to believe the witnesses to him. Believe John the Baptist. Believe Christ’s works as evidence of who he is. Believe the testimony of God the Father whom we see in Christ. Believe the Scriptures. Search them. Give time to the reading of God’s word, to meditation upon it, to intake of the Word in hearing preaching and teaching, in reading sound expositions and commentaries, in study to show oneself approved a workman who need not be ashamed.

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Saturday, November 25, 2017

WM 83: Ipsissima Verba or Ipsissima Vox?

Today, I recorded and posted Word Magazine # 83: Ipsissima Verba or Ipsissima Vox? You can listen here.

Here are my notes: 

In the recent Megiddo radiointerview I did with Paul Flynn on the text of the NT, he had asked me about this quote from Dan Wallace:

Scholars are not sure of the exact words of Jesus. Ancient historians were concerned to get the gist of what someone said, but not necessarily the exact wording. A comparison of parallel passages in the Synoptic Gospels reveals that the evangelists didn’t always record Jesus’ words exactly the same way. The terms ipsissima verba and ipsissima vox are used to distinguish the kinds of dominical sayings we have in the Gospels. The former means ‘the very words,’ and the latter means ‘the very voice.’ That is, the exact words or the essential thought. There have been attempts to harmonize these accounts, but they are highly motivated by a theological agenda which clouds one’s judgment and skews the facts. In truth, though red-letter editions of the Bible may give comfort to believers that they have the very words of Jesus in every instance, this is a false comfort. -Daniel B. Wallace

I’ve been wanting to do a follow up response to this idea of the verba/vox distinction and related issues, like whether Jesus spoke Greek or only Aramaic.

So, I want to look at four sources I’ve recently reviewed on these topics, along with some final thoughts conclusions on how believers are to understand the use of modern historical-critical methodology in Biblical criticism.

First: Irving Hexham, Understanding World Religions: An Interdisciplinary Approach (Zondervan, 2011).

A few weeks ago, I noted Irving Hexham’s questions about whether Jesus spoke Aramaic or Greek. See my post here. Hexham suggests that the consensus among modern NT scholars that Jesus spoke Aramaic rather than Greek only came about in the eighteenth century with the rise of source criticism and subtly undermined the traditional view that the Gospels faithfully recorded the exact words of Jesus.  

Second: Paul D. Feinberg, “The Meaning of Inerrancy,” in Norman L. Geiser, Ed. Inerrancy (Zondervan, 1980): 267-304; esp. 301.

This book comes from the evangelical “Battle for the Bible” period. It was written to defend inerrancy against its liberal despisers. In Feinberg’s article he attempts to define inerrancy in such a way that it might remain compatible with the challenges of the modern historical critical method.

Of note is his specific discussion about whether the Gospels record the ipsissima verba (the very words) or the ipsissima vox (the very voice) of Jesus.

Feinberg notes: “Inerrancy does not demand that the Logia Jesu (the sayings of Jesus) contain the ipsissima verba (the exact words) of Jesus, only the ipsissima vox (the exact voice)” (301). He adds:

When a New Testament writer cites the sayings of Jesus, it need not be that Jesus said those exact words. Undoubtedly, the exact words of Jesus are to be found in the New Testament, but they need not be so in every instance.

Feinberg gives two reasons for his argument. First, he says “many of the sayings were spoken by our Lord in Aramaic and therefore had to be translated into Greek.” Second, he suggests that it is impossible which of the sayings are “direct quotes, which are indirect discourse, and which are freer renderings.”

My guess, however, is that most faithful, ordinary Christians (untrained in modern historical criticism) will be puzzled by this viewpoint for two reasons. First, they likely expect that the words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels are, just that, his words, and not merely a close approximation of them. Second, they assume that distinctions between direct and indirect discourse are no harder to discern in the Greek of the New Testament than in English (or any other coherent language). So, for example, when they read John 5:8: “Jesus said unto him [i.e., the impotent man at the pool of Bethesda], Rise, take up thy bed, and walk,” they assume that this is a direct quotation, recording not merely an approximation of Jesus’ words but his exact words. If he originally spoke those words in Greek, and not Aramaic, it would, of course, require no translation.

Feinberg’s analysis appears not to be aimed at that ordinary Christian reader but at the skeptic who is eager to find errors or inconsistencies in the Biblical text. He believes that by surrendering a vigorous defense of the Logia Jesu in the Gospels as Christ’s precise words, in favor of a more nuanced suggestion that such sayings might only be free renderings by the Evangelists, he has safeguarded the Scriptures against charges of errancy. But has he conceded too much? Does this not buttress the skeptic’s view that the Gospels provide an often creative and inventive account of Jesus’ life and ministry as opposed to a meticulously accurate record of his words and deeds?

Furthermore, does Feinberg’s approach neglect the supernatural aspect of the faithful transmission of Scripture? Its accuracy does not, in the end, depend on the care or skill of the penmen but on the faithfulness of the God who directed them. Consider Christ’s promise to his disciples: “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26).

Third: Darrell Bock, “The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?” in Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, Eds., Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Zondervan, 1995): 73-99.

This essay appears in a volume dedicated to defending the reliability of the NT Gospels over against the hyper-skepticism of the Jesus Seminar. As with Feinberg, however, one wonders if the author does not concede too much to the Bible’s despisers.

Bock suggests three points on a spectrum of understanding Christ’s words in the Gospels: live, jive, and Memorex. The “Memorex view” would be that of the traditionalists who assume that the words recorded in the Gospels are the exact words spoken. Bock rejects this view, however, stating, “It is possible to have historical truth without always resorting to explicit citation” (75). The “jive view” would be that the Jesus Seminar, which holds that the Gospel writers had maximal freedom in inventing or creating the recorded words. The mediating position which Bock champions is the “live” option, suggesting:

This is what the “live” approach is all about. Each evangelist retells the living and powerful words of Jesus in a fresh way for his readers, while faithfully and accurately presenting the “gist” of what Jesus said. I call this approach one that recognizes the Jesus tradition as “live” in its dynamic and quality (77).

Bock then follows Feinberg by insisting on a distinction between ipsissima verba and ispissima vox.  He cites one “universally recognized reality” as making the verba/vox distinction necessary: “that Jesus probably gave most of his teaching in Aramaic” while the Gospels were written in Greek, adding, “In other words, most of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels is already a translation” (77). So, Bock concedes: “Since a translation is already present in much of the tradition, we do not have ‘his very words’ in the strictest sense of the term” (77). The best Bock can say is that the Gospels “give us the true gist of his teaching and the central thrust of his message” (78).

Bock defends this view as in keeping with (1) the practices of Greco-Roman historiography; (2) the oral Jewish culture of remembering; and (3) the nature of historical writing. Regarding the third point, Bock notes: “History is not a static entity” (81).

Again, it seems unlikely that the faithful Christian reader will necessarily share these assumptions. Whatever the ordinary practices of secular Greek, Roman, or Jewish authors or the customary vagaries of ancient or modern history, the believing reader sees the Bible as an extra-ordinary work. Why then, under the Spirit’s direction, should it not faithfully record the very words of Jesus?

Note: When one reviews the examples cited by Bock one notices how thin are the actual citations of perceived variances in the words of Jesus among the Gospels (see pp. 84-89).

Bocks gives attention to variances in the order of the temptations in the temptation narratives, perceived differences in narrative sequencing in the Synoptic Gospels, detail differences in Synoptic parallels, and differences in verbal citations (like the Father’s voice at Jesus’ baptism or Peter’s confession).

When it comes to specific words from Jesus, Bock only cites two examples: (1) Jesus’ question to the disciples at Caesarea Philippi (p. 86); and (2) Jesus’ teaching on the coming of the Son of Man (p. 88).

Bock concludes: “The Gospels are summaries of the teaching of Jesus,” giving the “gist” but not the exact words (89).

This modern, evangelical approach was not, however, the one taken by pre-critical interpreters, who could acknowledge slight variations in the Gospels accounts while still affirming the full reliability of the Gospels in accurately recording Christ’s precise words (and those of others). How did they do this? By making reasonable harmonizations, often assuming that one Gospel writer might have recorded what Jesus (or another figure) said on one occasion or moment while another Gospel writer recorded what he said on another occasion or in another moment, thus explaining the occasional differences in wording. A report of Christ’s words might then be precise but only partial without assuming that the Evangelist had creatively summarized Christ’s words.

Fourth: Robert L. Thomas, “Impact of Historical Criticism on Theology and Apologetics,” in Robert L. Thomas and F. David Farnell, Eds., The Jesus Crisis: The Inroads of Historical Criticism Into Evangelical Scholarship (Kregel, 1998): 356-377, especially 367-372.

Thomas challenges the evangelical embrace of the verba/vox distinction. According to Thomas, this move “now has the evangelical world wondering what words Jesus spoke. The general impact of that field of scholarship has been on the side of assuming the gospel writers never reported His exact words or the ipsissima verba—the very words—of the Lord” (367).

While conceding that Jesus’ speeches in the Gospels are shorter than the original speeches, Thomas argues that this does not mean that the words which are recorded in the Gospels are not Christ’s exact words.

Thomas offers a direct challenge to Bock, in particular, including his assumption that Jesus spoke only in Aramaic and this had to be translated into Greek. He notes a “growing realization among contemporary scholars” recognizing “the wide use of Greek among the Jews of Jesus’ day,” adding, “The assumption that Jesus never spoke Greek is certainly unfounded” (368).

Thomas thinks it highly likely that the followers of Jesus would have written down and accurately memorized Jesus’ exact words. Regarding the differences in the Synoptic Gospels, Thomas reflects:

If the Gospels do contain the very words of Jesus, what is one to make of their disagreement in wording when recording the same discourse or conversation? The fact that no single gospel records everything spoken on a given occasion furnishes an adequate response to that challenge. It is probable, in fact, that no combination of parallel accounts records the entirety of a speech or dialogue. Christ undoubtedly repeated some of His teachings with slightly differing wording on different occasions. He very probably did so on the same occasion too. So instances where parallel accounts report the same substance in slightly different forms may easily be traceable to different but similar statements on the same occasion, with each writer selecting for his account only a part of what was said (369).

Thomas’ view here reflects that held by the pre-critical interpreters.

He likewise notes the special nature of the Bible as a Holy Spirit inspired work:

Another factor overlooked by evangelicals in the whole issue of literary independence versus interdependence is the role of the Holy Spirit in enabling the memories of the eyewitnesses of Christ’s life….

The Spirit’s work in reminding and inspiring is a supernatural work, guaranteeing a degree of accuracy and precision that is without parallel in the annals of human historiography (372).

Concluding Reflections:

In conclusion, let me share some insights from Alvin Plantinga’s Knowledge and Christian Belief (Eerdmans, 2015). This is a simplified and popular version of his Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford, 2000).

Plantinga argues in that book that there is warrant or justification for Christian belief (i.e., that it is not necessarily irrational to hold Christian beliefs). At the conclusion of that book he addresses three “defeaters” (arguments against his thesis). The three are challenges based on Historical Biblical Criticism; Pluralism; and Evil.

For the purposes of this discussion, I thought his comments on Historical Biblical Criticism (HBC) are worth sharing. Plantinga writes:

So HBC has not in general been sympathetic to traditional Christian belief; it has hardly been an encouragement to the faithful. The faithful, however, seem relatively unconcerned; they find traditional biblical commentary of great interest and importance, but the beliefs and attitudes of HBC have not seemed to filter down to them, in spite of its dominance in mainline seminaries. According to Van Harvey, “Despite decades of research, the average person tends to think of the life of Jesus in much the same terms as Christians did three centuries ago” [“New Testament Scholarship,” p. 194]. One possible reason is that there is no compelling or even reasonably decent argument for supposing that the procedures and assumptions of HBC are to be preferred, by Christians, to those of traditional Biblical commentary. A little epistemological reflection enables us to see something further: the traditional Christian has good reason to reject the skeptical claims of HBC and continue to hold traditional Christian belief despite the allegedly corrosive acids of HBC (103).

I think Plantinga gets it very right here. Modern evangelical scholars have embraced and accommodated the modern historical-critical method to their reading of the Bible (in this case the Gospels) in an effort to defend the faith against objections. The problem is that these are not objections raised by the faithful but by unbelieving skeptics. The faithful, in fact, find the “new” interpretations unconvincing, at best, and undermining the faith, at worst.

So, what can we conclude?

Jesus spoke Aramaic. That is clear from the Gospel quotations of his Aramaic speech. But it is not unreasonable to assume that he also spoke Greek and that the Gospel writers faithfully recorded his words in Greek. Not only did they rely on accurate written accounts and carefully preserved memories, but the Holy Spirit enabled faithful remembering (John 14:26). Agreements in the Gospel record do not have to explained through complex literary dependence theories. Any discrepancies in the account of speech from Jesus or other figures can also be reasonably explained through harmonization (e.g., distinctions between direct and indirect discourse, repetitions, partial citations, etc.) without abandoning confidence in the Gospels as faithfully preserving the ipsissima verba, which is essentially the default understanding of ordinary believing readers who have not been exposed to higher criticism.