Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:1ff

In recent weeks, we have examined various areas of Biblical Criticism, using the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 as a case for study. We have looked at:

    • Textual Criticism—Analysis of the Hebrew text, including variant readings, attempts to determine the most likely original form of the text, and how it may have been shaped during the course of copying and transmission. For the Hebrew Old Testament, the Scripture manuscripts from Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) are especially important, when they differ from the Masoretic Text.
    • Form Criticism—Study of the specific form and genre of the passage, as far as it can be determined. What type of material are we dealing with, what are its characteristics, and how is it distinguished from other portions elsewhere in Scripture or in the same book? Specific issues are involved when dealing with ancient Hebrew poetic or psalm/hymn forms, as in the case of Deut 32.
    • Source Criticism—How did the passage come to be incorporated into the book as a whole? Did the writer(s) make use of an existing document or line of tradition? If so, how might it be distinguished from other material in the book?
    • Historical Criticism—Consideration of the (original) historical setting and background of the book, and how it came to be composed. A separate issue involves analysis of the historical accuracy of the material, whether dealing with specific traditions or literary (and narrative) sections. The latter is not merely a question of whether the Scripture is historically reliable (from a particular standpoint), but of how the content of a passage relates to its composition.

We shall now apply these to an examination of the Song of Moses as it has come down to us, looking at specific selected verses or lines of the poem. This will help us to see just how criticism relates to interpretation—here in the case of a famous and influential piece of ancient Hebrew poetry within an Old Testament Scripture. Broadly speaking, this sort of study may be referred to as literary criticism—analysis of the distinct literary form and structure, i.e. the book and passage of Scripture, as it has come down to us.

Before proceeding, it will be helpful to consider the thematic outline of the Song. Such an outline normally would follow the sort of study we are doing, being the result of it; however, in this instance it will help things along to include it here beforehand.

    • 1-3: Opening (exordium)—Call to Creation (heaven and earth)
    • 4-18: God’s covenant with His people Israel, and their violation of the covenant
      —The Creator God (YHWH) as their Father (vv. 4-6)
      —His choice of Israel as His people, becoming their God (vv. 7-9)
      —His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
      —His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)
    • 19-42: God’s punishment of His people, and their subsequent deliverance
      —Punishment for violation of the covenant (vv. 19-25)
      —Concern for how this will be perceived by Israel’s enemies (vv. 26-31)
      —Plans to bring punishment on Israel’s enemies in turn (vv. 32-35)
      —Ultimate justice/deliverance for His people, and judgment on His enemies (vv. 36-41)
    • 43: Conclusion—Call to the Nations

We start with the first verse (and line) of the Song.

Deuteronomy 32:1

The Song begins with a call (by the poet) to all of creation—”the heavens and the earth”:

“Give ear, O heavens, and I will open to speak,
And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.” (v. 1)

This first line (bicolon) demonstrates the parallelism, common to much ancient Near Eastern (and Hebrew) poetry, which runs throughout the song. We examined this in the study on Form Criticism. It is not simply a stylistic device; it also allows the poet to emphasize certain themes and ideas, giving two (or more) variations of a basic motif, the second restating or building upon the first. Here the dual-concept of the universe (creation) as consisting of the pair “heaven and earth” serves to establish the parallelism in the line. This sort of opening is actually a traditional literary (and rhetorical) device, seen in other places in the Old Testament—Isa 1:2-3; Jer 2:4ff; also Psalm 50:4; Mic 6:1ff. It draws upon ancient religious and cultural traditions, including certain conventions associated with establishment of binding agreements (covenants) and treaties, etc. In establishing such an agreement between parties, it was customary to call on deities as witnesses, as way of “hallowing” the agreement, and, in a quasi-magical manner, to bring down divine judgment if it should ever be violated by one of the parties. We see a faint vestige of this sort of practice today in our continued use of oaths in official legal proceedings and public ceremonies.

Of course, in the context of early Israelite monotheism, Yahweh was the one called upon in oaths and the like. In the case of the covenant between God (YHWH) and Israel, the typical custom (of calling upon deities as witness) could not be applied in the same way, nor was it entirely appropriate. Nothing of the sort is found in the early covenant traditions (in Gen 15, 17; Exod 24, etc) which we examined in earlier studies. However, it does appear several times in the book of Deuteronomy: 4:26; 30:19, and at 31:28, just prior to the Song. Though “heaven” and “earth” as such were viewed as deities in the ancient Near East, they are not treated this way here. Rather, they represent “all of creation”—i.e. the universe, the created order. The poet, following God’s own word, calls on heaven and earth to hear the words of the Song. According to 31:19, the Song itself serves as witness of the covenant, to which heaven and earth join, according to the traditional motif. This enhances the importance of the Song and its message. Verse 2 extends the idea of creation as witness, hearing the words of the Song, through the natural imagery of rain and dew—i.e., water from heaven, which, drawing upon sky/storm theophany, has God as its source. God’s word—that is, the inspired message of the Song—comes down from heaven to the earth.

Commentators sometimes refer to the call to heaven and earth in verse 1 (and similar passages) as part of a “covenant lawsuit” tradition, whereby one calls upon the (divine) witnesses to deliver a complaint that the binding agreement (treaty or covenant) has been violated. Such violation will result in divine judgment, often understood in military terms—attack upon the party who violated the covenant. While verse 1 almost certainly draws upon such a tradition, it must be said that there is no real sense in the Song of a legal proceeding. It is, however, present more decidedly in Isa 1:2-3ff and Jer 2:4ff, passages which were doubtless influenced by Deut 32; indeed, there are a number of rather clear parallels between Isa 1:2-31 and the Song of Moses. For examples of heaven/earth taking a more active role in the proceedings, see Mic 6:1-2; Jer 4:28; 6:19; 51:38. Natural disasters and other phenomena were typically understood as manifestations of divine judgment.

This last point is significant, and can easily be overlooked in a casual reading of vv. 1-3. By injecting a developed (later) form of monotheism into these early Scriptures, there is also a tendency to exaggerate a separation between the transcendent Creator God (YHWH) and the Creation. In early Israelite thought and expression, God and the Creation (heaven and earth) were much more closely connected than is often realized by Jews and Christians today. While not “gods” in the sense found in ancient Near Eastern religious lore, heaven and earth, along with all of the natural phenomena contained within them, obeyed YHWH and worked/acted on His behalf. As witnesses to the covenant, they also would “act” against the violators of the agreement, as indicated in the passages cited above. We already saw in the Golden Calf episode (Exod 32), how natural features and phenomena were utilized to bring judgment on the people (vv. 20, 35), presented in tandem with attack by military forces (“the sword”, vv. 25-28), and this could be repeated numerous times from similar passages in the Old Testament. Here in the Song, upon violation of the covenant, the earth itself, which was at first fruitful (vv. 13-14), would turn against the people, through the burning fire of God’s anger which consumes the earth’s produce and fertility (v. 20). Along with this, there will famine, plague, disease and attacks by wild beasts (v. 24)—all natural disasters which will strike the people, even as they will also be attacked by the sword of invading military forces (v. 25). This is all very much part of the traditional language of divine judgment in the Old Testament.

It is also especially significant in light of the primary theme which runs through the Song: the contrast between YHWH as Israel’s God, and the foreign deities which the people came to worship, thereby violating the covenant. This will be discussed in our study on subsequent verses in the Song, but it is important to note how the theme is established here in the opening. We have seen how the call to heaven and earth draws upon ancient Near Eastern tradition whereby the gods were called upon as witnesses to a covenant or treaty. Thus there is here an implicit reference to the religious distinction, from the Israelite standpoint, between the one true Creator God (El-YHWH) and all of the other deities recognized by the surrounding nations. In early Israelite monotheism, this distinction was not as sharp as it would later become. The “sons of God” had not yet been reduced to “angels”, and could refer to various sorts of divine and/or heavenly beings. In the context of the traditional language of verse 1, heaven and earth are obedient servants of YHWH, and their natural activities (rainfall, etc) parallel God’s own word being spoken (v. 2). This unifying sense of purpose is emphasized by the declaration which follows in verse 3:

“For the name of YHWH I call out—
Give greatness to our God [Elohim]!”

Note again the parallelism here, where the second half-line builds upon the first (an example, I would say, of synthetic parallelism). The poet calls out “the name of YHWH”, a way of acknowledging that Yahweh is his God, and that he is serving a prophetic, oracular role in making Him known (His word and will) to the people. In the second half-line, the poet calls upon the people to respond in kind, acknowledging and declaring “the greatness of our God”. The word translated “God” is the plural noun °§lœhîm, which, when applied to the Creator El-Yahweh, is perhaps best understood as an intensive plural, meaning something like “Mightiest (One)”. When used as a true plural, of course, it would refer to other “Mighty Ones”—deities or divine beings, such as those worshiped by the surrounding nations. The Song plays heavily upon this dual meaning and use of the word.

In the next study, we will move ahead to verses 5-6, and then touch again on verses 8ff, to see how the theme of the Creator YHWH as Israel’s God is developed, being central to the very idea of the covenant (and its violation) that is at the heart of the Song. This we will do, God willing, when we meet here again next weekend.

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:1-43 (continued)

Deuteronomy 32:1-43 (continued)

This week we turn to the areas of source- and historical-criticism. In the case of a passage like Deut 32:1-43 it is useful to include both of these points of reference together in our study. Source criticism deals with the sources which may have been used in the composition of the book (or passage within the book); these sources can be of various kinds, including written documents and oral tradition. Historical criticism involves: (a) the historical background/setting of the events in the book (and its composition), as well as (b) the historical accuracy or reliability of events, words, and traditions recorded in the book, in relation to its composition. Broadly speaking, there are two main approaches to these areas of study, which may be summarized as:

    1. Traditional-conservative, and
    2. Critical

While study and analysis of the Scriptures can be referred to as “criticism” generally, the term “critical” is also used in a more specialized sense—to a mode of criticism which tends to ignore or exclude religious and doctrinal assumptions regarding the nature and character of the Scriptures. Let us examine each of these approaches (see my earlier article for more on the terms) as they apply to the Song of Moses (Deut 32), realizing that many commentators adopt a position somewhere between these two “sides”, combining elements of each approach.

1. The traditional-conservative approach tends to take the text, as it has come down to us, at face value, along with many of the well-established traditions regarding its authorship, etc. In the case of Deuteronomy, the book is seen as coming essentially from the time of Moses, and, indeed, from Moses himself. Many commentators would accept Moses as the author of the book, allowing for a small amount of later editing; but, at the very least, the core sections of Deuteronomy are viewed as an authentic discourse (or series of discourses) given by Moses as speaker. In this regard, the historical setting for the Song of chapter 32 is established simply in 31:19-22ff:

(YHWH to Moses:) “And now you must cut [i.e. inscribe/write] for them this song and make the sons of Israel (to) learn it; you must set it in their mouth(s), for the purpose [i.e. so] that this song may be for me a witness to the sons of Israel” (v. 19)
“And (then) Moses opened (his mouth and) spoke the words of this song in(to) the ears of all the assembled (people) of Israel unto their completion [i.e. the completion of the song]” (v. 30)

Thus for many traditional-conservative readers and commentators, there is no real question regarding the source of the Song—it is an inspired poem, composed and (originally) recited by Moses himself, recorded in the book of Deuteronomy more or less as he composed it. For those who admit that Deuteronomy has been translated into a more recent form of Hebrew (see below), the Song would then preserve language closer to Moses’ own (i.e. his actual words, the ipsissima verba). The purpose of the Song is also made clear in chapter 31: it was meant to bring to mind for future generations the teaching given by Moses (in the book of Deuteronomy), in relation to the covenant established with them by God (including their covenant obligations). A poem would make this easier to commit to memory and transmit from one generation to the next. Indeed, there is evidence that the Song of Moses was part of the liturgy from ancient times, as indicated by Jewish sources such as Josephus (Antiquities 4.303), the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 31a) and Talmud (j. Meg. 3:7, 74b). It is possible that one of the Deuteronomy manuscripts from Qumran (4QDeutq) contained no more than the Song, in which case it might suggest a special use for reciting or learning/teaching the poem.

2. The critical approach attempts to examine the text objectively, without reliance upon tradition (regarding authorship, etc) or doctrinal suppositions (regarding the inspiration of Scripture, etc). When taken in its best, or ideal, sense, this approach is most valuable as it avoids religious preconceptions which can distort the original context and meaning of Scripture. In practice, however, it carries many serious flaws, since it tends to neglect or disregard important aspects of the text—namely, the unique and divinely-inspired character of Scripture—which have been accepted by those who read and transmitted the text over thousands of years.

The critical approach does also take the text of Scripture at face value, but in a different sense. In the case of Deuteronomy, scholars note that, on the whole, the language of the book differs relatively little from, for example, the books of Kings, which were written during the monarchy, down to the end of the period (c. 7th-6th centuries B.C.). Thus, if Deuteronomy genuinely comes from the time of Moses (13th century, or even the 15th century, depending on one’s chronology), it would have been significantly modernized and translated/updated into a more recent form of Hebrew. Many critical commentators believe, however, that the book, while perhaps drawing upon traditions which may extend back to Moses, was actually composed much later—i.e. in the time reflected by the language, the period of the monarchy. The similarities in thought and wording with the historical books (esp. Kings) suggested a definite relationship of some kind (see the note on the “Deuteronomic History” below).

A traditional key was found in the notice regarding the discovery of the “Book of Instruction (Torah)” found in the Temple during the reign of Josiah (2 Kings 22:8ff; 23:24-25), which most commentators today identify with some form or version of the book of Deuteronomy. A rather skeptical (even cynical) critical explanation held that the book was composed during Josiah’s reign, in order to support his program of reform, and was then “found” in the Temple. A more honest analysis recognizes the book discovered in the Temple as an older version of Deuteronomy, or, perhaps, an ancient document which served as the source of the later book. On this basis, a moderating critical view, held in some fashion by a good number of scholars today, posits that an initial version of Deuteronomy, drawing upon the “Book of Instruction” as well as other sources, was composed in the 7th century, at a time corresponding to the reign of Josiah; the book was further edited/updated during the exile or around that time.

The critical approach toward the Song of Moses is, understandably, a bit more complex than the traditional-conservative view. A careful examination of the language and style of the poetry has suggested a date corresponding to the early monarchy, or even the Israelite confederacy (i.e. period of the Judges), perhaps the 11th or 10th century B.C., making it, on the basis of the preserved language alone, one of the earliest portions of the Old Testament. The surviving Canaanite poetry from Ugarit (14th-13th century), along with poetic (and prosodic) elements in other early Semitic texts and inscriptions (Phoenician, Moabite, etc), allows scholars to make extensive comparisons with various segments of Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament. Poetry tends to preserve older and archaic elements, even when transmitted to later generations speaking/writing in a more recent form of the language, and as a result, undergoes less modernization during transmission, or when included as a source in composition.

The critical view might be summarized as follows: the Song of Moses, as we have it, could conceivably go back to the 13th century and the time of Moses, but more likely was composed in a later period (11th-10th century?), before being included as a source in the book of Deuteronomy as written in the 7th century. As a source, it is clearly distinct from the discourses which make up the core of the book; it is often thought that these chapters (4:4129:28) relate more directly to the older strata of the book (and to the “Book of Instruction”), while the introductory portions (1:1-4:40), and chapters 30-34 were added at a later point, drawn from separate lines of tradition.

Having summarized the two distinct approaches to the book of Deuteronomy (and the Song of Moses), it is easy to see the ways in which they differ, and also how both are valuable and useful for a proper study of the text. Questions and difficulties raised by the critical approach ought to be considered carefully, and not ignored or disregarded on a priori doctrinal grounds. In all of the notes and studies on this website I have tried to balance the available evidence and analyses to provide a fair and accurate picture of the issues involved for believers studying the text today. In the next session, I will try to demonstrate how the various areas of biblical criticism we have examined—text-, form-, source- and historical-criticism—relate to a careful and in-depth study of the Scripture as it has come down to us. It will not be possible here to go through every verse in detail; instead, we will focus on a number of selected verses and lines, to demonstrate how criticism relates to interpretation.

Note on the s0-called “Deuteronomic History”

In light of the discussion above on the source and historical criticism of Deuteronomy, it is worth mentioning here a common (critical) theory regarding the composition of the book. Many scholars and commentators today hold that the book of Deuteronomy, as we have it, is actually just one part of a much larger work—a great history of Israel, extending from the time of Moses to the exile. It is usually referred to as the “Deuteronomic (or Deuteronomistic) History”, and is thought to be comprised of Deuteronomy–Judges and Samuel–Kings. The older version (or core) of Deuteronomy served as the inspiration for the work, often believed to date from the time of Josiah (see above), and updated to cover the period ending in the Exile of Judah. This critical theory was effectively introduced and popularized in the mid-20th century by German scholar Martin Noth, whose work is best accessed (in English) as The Deuteronomistic History, JSOT Supplement (Sheffield Academic Press: 1981 [subsequent editions 1991, 2002]). F. M. Cross has a valuable summary, along with his own modification of the theory, in the now-classic Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 274-89.

For a good moderate critical treatment of the book of Deuteronomy, and the Song of Moses in particular, see Jeffrey H. Tigay, JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy (Jewish Publication Society: 1996), pp. xix-xxviii, 508-18.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative

We now come to the third (and final) major section of the current series entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition (cf. the Introduction). The first part of the this series was devoted to a detailed examination of the Baptism of Jesus. The second part dealt with the Galilean Period of Jesus’ ministry, especially as an organizing principle within the Synoptic Gospels. I had noted previously this basic two-part structure of the Synoptic narrative—(i) the Galilean ministry (Mk 1:28:30), and (ii) the journey to Judea/Jerusalem and the events there (Mk 8:3116:8). Luke, through his expanded treatment of the journey to Jerusalem, has a three-part division (+ the Infancy Narrative):

  • [The Infancy Narrative]
  • The Galilean ministry (3:19:50)
  • The Journey to Jerusalem (9:5118:34)
  • The time in Judea/Jerusalem (18:3524:53)

The Judean/Jerusalem period may likewise be divided into two main sections, along with shorter introductory and concluding episodes:

All three Synoptics essentially follow this basic outline, though it has been modified and expanded in places by Matthew and Mark (especially the Resurrection episodes in Luke). We may outline the Passion Narrative itself as follows:

  • Narrative Introduction (Mk 14:1-2)
  • The Anointing Scene (14:3-9)
  • Excursus 1: The betrayal by Judas introduced (14:10-11)
  • The Passover: Jesus with his Disciples (14:12-25):
    —The Preparation (vv. 12-16)
    —The Passover scene at mealtime (vv. 17-21)
    —Institution of the “Lord’s Supper” (vv. 22-25)
  • Excursus 2: The denial by Peter foretold (14:26-31)
  • The Passion Scene in Gethsemane (14:32-52)
    —Jesus’ Passion and Prayer (vv. 32-42)
    —The Arrest of Jesus (vv. 43-52)
  • The Jewish “Trial”: Jesus before the Sanhedrin (14:53-72)
    —The Scene before the Council (vv. 53-65)
    —Peter’s Denial (vv. 66-72)
  • The Roman “Trial”: Jesus before Pilate (15:1-20)
    —The Scene before Pilate (vv. 1-5)
    —The Judgment (vv. 6-15)
    —The Preparation for Crucifixion (vv. 16-20)
  • The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus (15:21-40):
    —The Crucifixion Scene (vv. 21-32)
    —Jesus’ Death (vv. 33-40)
  • Narrative Conclusion (15:42-47)

There are six principal episodes, each of which will be discussed in turn, beginning with the Anointing Scene (Mark 14:3-9 par).

It is generally felt by most scholars that the Passion Narrative was the first (and earliest) part of the Gospel Tradition to be given a distinct narrative shape. This can be glimpsed by the early Gospel preaching recorded in the book of Acts, as well as by the kerygmatic elements common throughout the New Testament (especially the Pauline Letters). The death and resurrection of Jesus formed the center of the Gospel message, so it is natural that those traditions would be the first to take shape as a simple narrative, to make the details easier to communicate and commit to memory. This also means that a number of these traditions are relatively fixed, and evince less development than in other portions of the Gospel. Details such as Judas’ betrayal or Peter’s denial of Jesus simply had to be included in any telling of the story. Even so, each Gospel writer handles the material in his own distinctive way, “ornamenting”, if you will, around the core traditions.

In analyzing the Passion Narrative, I will continue utilizing the method I have adopted for this series. For each passage, narrative, or set of traditions being studied, I examine—

    • The basic Synoptic narrative (as represented primarily by the Gospel of Mark)
    • The so-called “Q” material (shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark)
    • Traditions and details preserved only in Matthew and/or Luke (so-called “M” and “L” material), as well as original (literary) contributions by the authors
    • Johannine tradition and the Gospel of John

Generally speaking, this order of study is chronological, reflecting ‘layers’ of development—but not strictly so by any means. Indeed, there is some evidence that the Gospel of John, usually thought of as the latest of the canonical Gospels (c. 90 A.D.?), contains early/authentic historical traditions in a form that may be older than those of the Synoptics. Wherever possible, I will attempt to trace the manner of development in the Tradition, and how/why it may have taken place.

The next note in this series will begin examination of the first episode of the Passion Narrative—the scene of Jesus’ Anointing.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period

This is a good moment to stop and re-set the current series entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition (cf. the Introduction). The first part of the this series has been devoted to a detailed examination of the Baptism of Jesus. This was chosen because it provides an ideal case study (using extensive evidence from all four canonical Gospels) for analyzing how the early (historical) traditions came to be developed and adapted over time, leading to the composition of the Gospel narratives as we have them. It was demonstrated rather clearly, I think, in these notes, how the account of Jesus’ baptism (and his relation to John the Baptist) were preserved (independently) in multiple strands of tradition. Each Gospel writer gave his own interpretation and treatment of the material, but was essentially obligated to hold to a basic narrative, and to the preservation of certain fundamental traditions.

The remaining two parts, or divisions, of this series will be focusing on: (1) the Galilean Ministry of Jesus (Pt  II) and (2) the Passion Narrative (Pt III). These are also useful as divisions since they reflect the basic two-part structure of the Synoptic narrative—(i) the Galilean ministry (Mk 1:28:30), and (ii) the journey to Judea/Jerusalem and the events there (Mk 8:3116:8). The other Synoptics have more complex structures; indeed, Luke rather clearly has a three (or four) part division:

    • [The Infancy Narrative]
    • The Galilean ministry (3:19:50)
    • The Journey to Jerusalem (9:5118:34)
    • The time in Judea/Jerusalem (18:3524:53)

However, it is easy enough to see how the core Synoptic narrative has been adapted and expanded. In the case of Luke, the Infancy narrative (chaps. 1-2) has been added and the journey to Jerusalem (Mk 10) has been filled out by including a wide range of sayings/teachings of Jesus, and other episodes, most of which do not occur in the Gospel of Mark (i.e., so-called “Q” and “L” material).

Here is a preliminary list of some of the areas and topics I will be addressing in the next set of notes (for the remainder of February and into March), dealing with the Galilean Ministry of Jesus, traditions and passages related to:

    • The call of the Disciples
    • Jesus’ relatives and family
    • The Sabbath Controversies
    • Collection/joining of sayings, parables, and miracle stories
    • The Feeding miracle(s)
    • The Son of Man sayings

The next several notes will deal with the first topic—the Call of the (first) Disciples of Jesus.

It is worth mentioning, that these Galilean ministry passages and traditions are, for the most part, exclusive to the three Synoptic Gospels. The main reason for this is that a large percentage of scenes and dialogues in the Fourth Gospel are set in and around Jerusalem, so there is less material with which we can definitely work. However, it may be surprising how many parallels we will find between the Synoptic and Johannine traditions, and that the latter may well have included (and reworked) numerous episodes and traditions which are set in the “Galilean” section of the Synoptic narrative.

It may also be helpful to remind readers of the method I have adopted for this series. For each passage, narrative, or set of traditions being studied, I examine—

    • The basic Synoptic narrative (as represented primarily by the Gospel of Mark)
    • The so-called “Q” material (shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark)
    • Traditions and details preserved only in Matthew and/or Luke (so-called “M” and “L” material), as well as original (literary) contributions by the authors
    • Johannine tradition and the Gospel of John

This order of study is roughly chronological, reflecting ‘layers’ of development—but not strictly so by any means. The Gospel of John certainly contains (separate) early/authentic historical traditions which are not found in the Synoptics. However, more often than not, the Fourth Gospel also shows the most evidence of extensive development, adaptation, and interpretation, of Gospel tradition. Indeed, this is a primary reason why it is usually regarded as the latest of the canonical Gospels—often dated around 90 A.D., in the form it has come down to us.

Yeshua the Anointed: Supplemental note on the Son of Man Sayings

There is nearly unanimous agreement among scholars that the expression “the Son of Man” ([o(] ui(o\$ [tou=] a)nqrw/pou) in the Gospels, derives from its use (originally in Aramaic) by Jesus himself. All but a handful of the 80+ occurrences of “Son of Man” are from Jesus’ own words in the Gospels. By contrast, the expression only appears four times elsewhere in the New Testament, and only once as a title for Jesus (Acts 7:55-56, which is a reflection of Gospel tradition [Lk 22:69 par]). It is equally rare in the earliest extra-canonical Christian writings, the so-called Apostolic Fathers (c. 90-160 A.D.)—Ignatius, Ephesians 20:2; Epistle of Barnabas 12:10. In both of these passages “son of man” is understood in something like its generic sense (“human being”) to emphasize the human nature of Jesus—Ignatius stresses Jesus’ dual-nature (“…the [son] of Man and son of God”), while ‘Barnabas’, on the other hand, stresses that Jesus was not simply a human being (“see again Jesus: not son of man, but [rather] son of God”). We find “Son of Man” a bit more frequently in subsequent writings of the early Church, but usually in the context of commenting on, or attempting to explain, the use of the expression in the Gospels (or in Daniel 7). The most noteworthy occurrences in the 2nd century, are in the apologetic works of Justin Martyr—Dialogue with Trypho §§31, 32, 76, 79, 100, 126; and the First Apology §51.

All of this to say that the expression is found so frequently in the sayings of Jesus, and then virtually disappears from early Christian tradition—this makes the authenticity of its use in the sayings secure. However, when it comes to the eschatological Son of Man sayings by Jesus, where he appears to identify himself as a divine/heavenly figure who will appear at the end-time Judgment, critical scholars tend to be a bit more cautious and skeptical. The authenticity of these sayings (as we have them in the Gospels) has been questioned, generally on the basis of two factors:

    1. They have been “Christianized” to varying degrees—that is to say, a number of the sayings have been tied in contextually to believers’ faith in, and confession of, Jesus (e.g. Luke 6:22; 9:26 [Mk 8:38]; 12:8). For critical scholars, this indicates that, at the very least, the sayings have been colored or modified in light of early Christian belief and practice.
    2. Jesus never specifically identifies himself as the “Son of Man”—this only occurs once in the Gospel tradition (in Matthew’s version of the first Passion prediction, Matt 16:21), and may be attributed to the author/narrator rather than Jesus. According to the view of a number of commentators, in the eschatological sayings, Jesus is referring to a separate divine/heavenly figure (“the Son of Man”, cf. Dan 7:13-14ff; 1 Enoch 37-71), and not to himself. In early Christian tradition, references to this figure were then interpreted as referring to Jesus and his end-time (second) coming, as we see in Matt 24:3.

With regard to the first point, the extent of the “Christianization” of these sayings certainly can be debated. If we consider the core sayings in the Synoptic tradition—Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62 and parallels—there is really very little evidence for this. The saying in Mark 8:34 has a more obvious “Christian” context, but, since the sayings in 8:34-9:1 have likely been appended together as part of the earliest Tradition, and need not have been uttered by Jesus in sequence on a single occasion, it is questionable whether one should equate it with the (original) context of v. 38. The same may be said for the narrative framework of chapter 13 (the Olivet or “Eschatological” Discourse), which is best understood as a collection of sayings, which may have been uttered by Jesus on different occasions, combined together on the basis of a common theme and subject—i.e. eschatological teaching and sayings by Jesus. Verses 9-13 are a prophecy of the persecution early believers will experience, and the “false Messiahs (or Christs)” in vv. 21-22 are connected with people claiming to be Christ (i.e. Jesus) in v. 6; however, only Matthew’s version of this discourse specifically connects the coming of the Son of Man (Mk 13:26 par) with the future/second coming of Jesus (Matt 24:3). In none of the Synoptics is the Son of Man saying itself modified or glossed, nor do we see any sign of this in Mark 14:62 par.

It is interesting to consider that Luke’s Gospel, apparently written for a wider Greco-Roman (Gentile) audience, and which occasionally translates or simplifies elements of the Gospel tradition into more conventional Greek language, never does this with the Son of Man sayings, even though the expression “the Son of Man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou), as Jesus uses it, would have sounded strange indeed to Greeks unfamiliar with the Semitic idiom. Luke has considerably more eschatological sayings than Mark—in addition to the three core Synoptic sayings (cf. above), there are those in Lk 12:40; 17:22, 24, 26, 30; 18:8; 21:36 (and cf. the parallels in Matt 24:27, 37, 39, 44). Not once, however, does the author narrate or explain the saying in such a way as to clarify that the coming of the Son of Man means the coming of Jesus himself. While early Christians may have assumed or understood this automatically, some in Luke’s intended audience likely would not have. That the Son of Man sayings were left ‘unexplained’ indicates that they were so deeply rooted and fixed in the Gospel tradition, the author simply could not alter them.

This brings us to the second point—that in these Son of Man sayings Jesus originally was not referring to himself, but a separate heavenly figure (“the Son of Man”). There are several problems with this view:

(a) There is little, if any, formal difference between the eschatological Son of Man sayings and those elsewhere in the Gospel tradition (i.e. Mark 2:10, 28 par; Luke 7:34; 9:58 par, etc), in which it is generally admitted that Jesus is referring to himself, perhaps using “son of man” idiomatically as a substitute for the pronoun “I”. Even in the context of the Passion, and the predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 par) which critical scholars might regard as ex eventu prophecies produced by early Christians, there is little doubt that “the Son of Man” refers to Jesus himself. It is natural to assume that the eschatological sayings also are meant as a self-reference. If there was any intended distinction between the usage in these sayings, it has become completely confused in the Gospel tradition. In fact, there is some indication that Jesus’ use of the expression actually was confusing to some in his audience, if we accept the detail recorded in John 12:34.

(b) There is no clear evidence that the expectation of an end-time figure called “the Son of Man” was widespread or common at the time of Jesus; indeed, the situation is quite the opposite. As I indicated in Part 10, there is only one surviving document, likely contemporary with (or prior) to the time of Jesus, which describes a specific divine/heavenly being called “the Son of Man”—the so-called Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71). This “Son of Man”, also identified as “the Righteous One”, “the Elect/Chosen One” and also “the Anointed One” (i.e. Messiah), will serve as Judge over the nations at the end-time. This figure, like the “Son of Man” in Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62, is clearly inspired by, and derived from, Daniel 7; however, the Similitudes do not specifically emphasize his glorious appearance on earth at the end-time. There is little reason to think that Jesus was referring to common and popular image, though educated and devout Jews certainly would have recognized an allusion to Daniel 7:13-14. Turning again to John 12:34, we see that Jesus’ audience seems to understand “the Anointed One” (i.e. Messiah/Christ), presumably in terms of an end-time Davidic Ruler (cf. Parts 68), but they are noticeably less clear about the Son of Man (“…who is this ‘Son of Man’?”).

(c) If we combine the arguments of (a&b), along with the fact that there is little sign that any of the eschatological Son of Man sayings has been altered or glossed for the sake of clarity or as part of a Christological interpretation (cf. above), then there appears to be little reason to treat those sayings differently from Jesus’ use of the expression “the Son of Man” elsewhere. Even in the textual transmission, there is surprisingly little evidence for substantive variant readings involving the expression “Son of Man” (i.e., using a more familiar title “Lord”, “Christ”, “Son of God”, or even the pronoun “I”), one notable example being found in John 9:35 (“Son of Man” vs “Son of God”).

If, then, we accept the general authenticity of the Son of Man sayings by Jesus, and that they have been preserved with very little modification or alteration, it becomes necessary to step back and consider how the eschatological sayings fit within the overall use of the expression. I have already discussed this in prior notes and articles, but I will summarize the points here:

  • As a Hebrew/Aramaic idiom, the expression “son of man” simply refers to a human being or to the human condition. The poetic and formal usage in the Old Testament typically is related to the idea of human limitation (or weakness) and mortality, especially compared with the divine/heavenly nature of God and his Messengers (Angels).
  • Subsequently in Hebrew and Aramaic, this generic sense of the expression—i.e., a(ny) human being—merged into the specific use of the idiom as a self-reference, a substitute or circumlocution for the pronouns “I” or “you”. However, it is still debated whether, or to what extent, it was commonly used this way in the time of Jesus.
  • In many of the sayings, Jesus appears to use “son of man” as a self-reference, but in terms of his identity as a human being. Within the Synoptic tradition, see especially, Mark 2:10, 28 par; Luke 9:58 par.
  • This identification with human beings (and the human condition) also has a distinct soteriological emphasis in a number of sayings, both in the Synoptics and John—cf. Mark 10:45 par; Luke 19:10; John 3:13; 9:35.
  • He also identifies specifically with human weakness, suffering and death, expressed in the Gospel tradition in the context of his Passion (suffering/death) and subsequent resurrection—esp. the Passion predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34 par), also Mark 9:9, 12; 14:21, 41 par; Matt 12:40; 26:2; Lk 22:48; 24:7, and cf. in the Gospel of John (Jn 3:14; 6:27, 33; 12:23, 34; 13:31).
  • Finally, he identifies himself with the “one like a son of man” (i.e. resembling a human being) in Daniel 7:13-14, as a divine/heavenly figure who will appear as God’s representative at the end-time Judgment—Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62 par, etc. Jesus draws on tradition and imagery (from Daniel 7) similar to that found in the Similitudes of Enoch (probably contemporary with Jesus’ time). In the Gospel and early Christian tradition, this Son of Man reference blends together with the idea of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God in heaven (Mark 14:62 par; Acts 7:55-56 etc). This exaltation motif is expressed somewhat differently in the Gospel of John, as a return, stepping (back) up into heaven to be with the Father—Jn 3:13; 6:27-52; 12:23; 13:31.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: Introduction

This series, entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition, will be a feature on this site. An initial series of notes and articles were originally posted on the earlier version of Biblesoft’s online study site in 2019, and are being reposted here (with some modification) leading up into Easter season 2020. Eventually, new articles will be added which expand and build upon these original notes.

This subject, in my view, is central to any proper study of the New Testament. Before proceeding, I would recommend that the reader consult my earlier article in which I discuss the meaning and use of the term “tradition“, as well as the expression “authentic tradition”. When specifically referring to “Gospel tradition”, this may be understood several ways:

  • Traditions related to Jesus which became part of the early Christian preaching and proclamation (kerygma) of what we call the Gospel—the “good news/message” of Christ.
  • Traditions which were combined and integrated to form a core Gospel narrative regarding the life and teachings of Jesus.
  • Traditions which came to be part of the written Gospels, as we have them.

When cited with capital letters—i.e., “Gospel Tradition”—it should be taken to mean that all three elements, or phenomena above, are included for consideration. An important aspect of this study, which I will especially be exploring in this series, is the development of the Gospel tradition. Contrary to the view, perhaps, of some traditional-conservative Christians in generations past, the four (canonical) Gospels as we know them did not come down out of heaven fully formed; rather, they are the product of a definite process of transmission and creative/artistic adaptation. Any serious view of the divine inspiration of the New Testament must take this into account. The three components of Gospel Tradition, listed above, hint at this developmental process; however, I would outline it even more precisely, here below, as follows:

    1. The words and actions of the historical Jesus and his contemporaries
    2. Jesus’ words/actions, etc, passed down (from eye/ear-witnesses) and transmitted orally among the first generation of Christians—i.e. early oral tradition
    3. Collected sayings of Jesus, and stories/episodes involving him, joined together thematically (catchword-bonding, etc) into somewhat larger traditional units—transmitted orally, but early on they began to be written down as well
    4. The first coherent and developed Gospel narratives and other related written texts. Many scholars would include the Gospel of Mark, as well as the so-called “Q” material, in this category (cf. below).
    5. The written Gospels—certainly Luke, Matthew, John, and perhaps others surviving (as fragments) from the 1st century. These larger, more complex works incorporate earlier existing source documents, as well as (perhaps) various developed oral traditions.

Admittedly, this sequence is largely theoretical, but there are many indications of it, I believe, preserved in the text of the Gospels as they have come down to us. Sometimes this requires a little detective work, but, as often as not, the process of development can be traced to some extent. What is unique about the New Testament—and the Gospels in particular—is how quickly this development took place, and how well documented it is, relatively speaking, for us today. If we consider the period of Jesus’ ministry as taking place during the few years around 30 A.D., the Gospels had all come to be written, more or less as we have them, by the end of the first century (c. 80-90 A.D., for the latest of them)—only a generation or two (30-60 years) after the events they record. The vast preserve of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (including a fair number from the 3rd century), along with the many versions (in Latin, Syriac, et al), and scores of citations in the early Church Fathers (2nd-3rd centuries), allows the dedicated scholar the unusual opportunity of studying the Gospels at a level of detail unparalleled for texts from the ancient world.

If we were to consider the five layers above from a chronological standpoint, they would be, roughly speaking:

    • Layer 1: The actual words, etc, of Jesus and the historical events—c. 28-35? A.D.
    • Layer 2: Early oral tradition—the period c. 30-50 A.D.
    • Layer 3: Gospel tradition, collected sayings and narrative units—sometime before 50 A.D.?
    • Layer 4: The first developed Gospel narratives and written texts—c. 50-60 A.D.
    • Layer 5: The written Gospels as we have them—60-90 A.D.

Throughout this series, I will be looking at many examples—passages in the Gospels—where this development may be studied. Why is this important? One of the great failings of a strict traditional-conservative view of Scripture, in the case of the Gospels, is that it tends to treat Layer 1 as essentially identical with Layer 5, often ignoring (or even denying) the layers of development in between. But it can be demonstrated rather clearly, at hundreds of different points, that the Gospels evince various layers of adaptation and interpretation, by which the historical words and events (taken in their concrete, documentary sense) have been transformed into something far greater than a mere stenographic record. I would maintain that any approach which downplays or ignores the developmental (and creative/artistic) process, risks severely misunderstanding and misreading the Gospels. I hope to encourage students of Scripture, along with all other interested believers, to look at the Gospel narratives in this light, with a fresh perspective, so as to explore more fully the depths of the truth and beauty which they possess.

I begin this study where the Gospels themselves begin, on the whole—with the account of the Baptism of Jesus. This episode, found in all four Gospels (and also in Acts), serves as an interesting and appropriate test case for our examination. This is particularly so since, as we shall see, the narrative of Jesus’ baptism preserves numerous historical details and associations which seem to have largely disappeared from Christian tradition during the first century. On the one hand, this confirms the fundamental historicity of the Gospel tradition(s); on the other, it makes it somewhat easier to distinguish between historical details and elements which possibly indicate an early Christian interpretation of them.

When referring to the four Gospels, in terms of the Gospel Tradition, scholars and commentators generally recognize three main strands: (1) the core Synoptic tradition, represented primarily by Mark; (2) the so-called “Q” material, common to Matthew and Luke; and (3) Johannine tradition, i.e., traditions preserved only in the Gospel of John.

As a method of study, I will be adopting the following approach whenever possible, examining in sequence:

    • The Synoptic tradition, as recorded in Mark
    • The “Q” material in Matthew-Luke
    • Details unique to Matthew
    • Details unique to Luke
    • Johannine tradition as developed in the Gospel of John

In preparing for the notes dealing with the Baptism of Jesus in the Gospel Tradition, I will be using the following outline, which, first, isolates three primary components of the Baptism narrative—

    1. The ministry of John
    2. The relationship between John and Jesus
    3. Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah), in comparison with John

and then, secondly, I will explore the place that the Baptism has in the structure of the Synoptic narrative—the two-part division, and the parallels between the Baptism and Transfiguration scenes.

The initial set of notes will follow the sequence indicated above, beginning with an examination of the ministry of John the Baptist (Mark 1:3-6 par).

“Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative”

I have regularly used the labels “Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative” as a short-hand description for two general approaches to handling and interpreting Scripture. The reality is more complex than the labels would suggest, and, of course, there is a wide middle ground of opinion and analysis; however, fundamental differences exist which are distinct enough to warrant some basic form of demarcation.


For the term “criticism” in general, I would recommend the three-part article Learning the Language, introducing the subjects of Biblical Criticism and, in particular, Textual Criticism. “Criticism” of Scripture simply means informed judgment and analysis of the sacred Writings, in terms of: Text, History (and Historicity), Literary Form and Genre, Composition (and Redaction), Authorial Purpose/Intent, Development and Transmission, etc.—that is, everything meaningful which one could study and analyze about a particular literary document. All commentators engage in “criticism” at some level. What distinguishes a specific “Critical” approach, as such, to Scripture, is the willingness to apply to sacred Writings the same methods and techniques one might apply to any other writing from the ancient world. In so doing, there is no doctrinal presumption, no resort to supernatural agency in explaining how the text came to be—for the most part, entirely ordinary, natural means of production and development are assumed. On the one hand, this allows the commentator freedom in analyzing the text—every aspect (authorship, historical accuracy, theology, etc) can be examined apart from any religious doctrine regarding the text. On the other hand, this detachment can blind the commentator to the very religious and spiritual dimension which caused the text to be preserved and treated as sacred in the first place. Indeed, it is unfortunate that one can read page after page of critical commentary without any suggestion of unique, Divine inspiration (however one understands this precisely) at work in the text of Scripture.


As the label indicates, there are two aspects which I emphasize:

“Traditional”—This implies that the Christian tradition regarding the Scriptures is generally accepted, unless there is strong reason to reject it. This is opposed to the “Critical” approach, which tends to be skeptical, willing to question and examine every tradition (before accepting it outright). In particular, traditions regarding authorship (Moses for the Pentateuch, Matthew/Mark/Luke/John for the Gospels, etc), are assumed. See also the separate article on “Tradition”.

“Conservative”—Because of the highly polemical, partisan nature of this term in many circles, I use it somewhat reluctantly. I mean by it the tendency to accept—to take at face value—everything one finds in the Scriptures. This may be driven by a theological/doctrinal viewpoint, a religious/credal viewpoint, or both. Especially, when authorship is indicated in the Scriptures (e.g., Isaiah, Daniel; Paul in the “disputed” epistles [Pastorals, Ephesians]; 2 Peter), it is accepted more or less without reservation. Most controversial are questions regarding the historicity/factuality of the Old Testament and Gospel narratives; much of modern-day “apologetics” is devoted to defending the details of the Scriptural narratives against critical-skeptical ‘attacks’.

The Traditional-Critical view, at its best, demonstrates a sensitivity to the value of tradition, and to the religious/spiritual environment which produced the Scriptures (with recognition of the reality of inspiration); at its worst, however, it tends to close off important paths of inquiry, and risks distorting and misrepresenting the very sacred text it seeks to defend.

To demonstrate a basic difference between the two approaches, consider the concept of Gospel tradition in relation to the canonical Gospels which have come down to us. The Critical approach generally assumes multiple layers of development in the Gospel tradition, during which many modifications, accretions, interpretive expansions, etc. have occurred:

  • Stage 1: The words and actions of the historical Jesus and his contemporaries
  • Stage 2: These words and actions as described and transmitted orally among the earliest believers
  • Stage 3: Early collections of sayings and narratives (oral or written, perhaps translated into Greek)
  • Stage 4: Early Gospels (or Gospel fragments)—sayings and narratives connected within a larger framework
  • Stage 5: The sayings and narratives as recorded in the four canonical Gospels

The Traditional-Critical view, by comparison, would tend to compress these layers so that Stage 5 is more or less equivalent to Stage 1—i.e., the Gospels as we have them preserve (with minimal modification) the words and actions of Jesus just as they originally took place.

The thoughtful and sensitive student of Scripture will recognize the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches—by holding them in balance, in true humility, and under the guidance of the Spirit, we may faithfully explore and expound God’s Word in the Scriptures (and the Scriptures as God’s Word).

Saturday Series (Introduction)

This post introduces the Saturday Series feature on this website. In it I will be taking a somewhat lighter, introductory approach to the study of Scripture. Readers who may find the level of (scholarly) detail in the notes and articles on this site a bit daunting, will, I think, appreciate the approach to be taken in this series—which will feature a new article each Saturday. Overall, the focus will be the same: biblical criticism and what has been called the grammatical-historical method. It may help to define both of these terms.

Biblical Criticism

The word “criticism” in modern English can be quite misleading, as it typically suggests something negative, even mean-spirited. But this is scarcely how the word should be understood here, in its proper sense. The word, ultimately derived from the Greek verb kri/nw (krínw), refers to judgment and discernment—i.e., the process of analysis, sorting, sifting, separating (the fundamental meaning of the verb). A person engaged in Biblical criticism is simply examining and analyzing the text of the Biblical passage in detail—separating out the words and phrases, the grammar, historical background, the purpose of the author, how the original audience would have understood it, how it has been understood and interpreted throughout the years, and so forth. Each element or aspect of the text is studied and analyzed in turn, so far as one is able, and to the extent that relevant information (for comparison, etc) is available.

Grammatical-Historical Method

This refers to a particular mode or orientation in the analysis and interpretation of Scripture. The first word (“grammatical“) means the language of the text, i.e. its syntax and grammar—the particular words and phrases, and how they are used. This really requires that the text be studied in its original language (Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament, Greek for the New). One cannot properly engage in Biblical criticism working from a translation. This presents a problem, since many Christians who earnestly desire to study the Scriptures at a deeper level do not know Hebrew and Greek, or have only a rudimentary familiarity with those languages, perhaps just beginning to learn them. One of the main purposes of this website is to help guide interested readers and students through those difficult first steps of Biblical study—the examination of the text in its original language. Here in the Saturday Series, I will refer to the Hebrew and Greek less often, focusing on specific verses in more detail, giving more explanation—through the use of both literal (glossed) translation and more conventional renderings—to the basic meaning of the words and phrases as they are used in context.

The second word (“historical“) can be taken several ways. Primarily it refers to the original historical context and setting of the passage (and the book) being studied. This means that attention must first be given toward, not what the text means to me, but what it meant to the author and (so far as it can be determined) to the original audience. Secondarily, “historical” refers to the historical background of certain words, phrases, images, and ideas in the text. Here it is important to consider, whenever possible, parallels in other writings contemporary with the Scriptures. It is also useful to examine how the meaning and significance of words and forms may have developed over time. This helps to highlight the specific and distinctive way the author makes use of them in a particular passage or setting. And, thirdly, some attention must be given to the process of composition of a text—how it has developed and taken shape over time. This is especially important because many of the books of Scripture are to be characterized as traditional literature;  that is to say, they are comprised of numerous traditions which have been passed down, in oral and/or written form, from person to person, generation to generation. This last aspect touches on a specific type of criticism, usually referred to as historical criticism.

This is not the only way to study and interpret the Scriptures. Other methods and approaches may be taken; however, it is best to begin with a thorough grammatical-historical approach to the text. From there, on that solid foundation, one may venture into more imaginative and creative modes of study.

The first study in this series will begin this Saturday (December 7th).

NOTE: The initial posts will reproduce articles from the earlier Biblesoft Study Blog, where the Saturday Series was introduced. If you missed these, it will be a good opportunity to find them again here, and to familiarize yourself with the study approach. After the start of the year, I will begin posting brand new articles in the Series.

Before you embark on this series with me, I strongly recommend that you read through the three-part article (“Learning the Language“). It covers all the main topics and terminology related to Biblical Criticism (and, in particular, Textual Criticism). It may help you to understand better the approach I am taking; and, if you have any fears or apprehensions about the idea of “Biblical Criticism”, that article may alleviate them.

Please consider joining me on this series, and I hope to see you here next Saturday.

Blessings, in Christ

Learning the Language, Part 3: Canons of Criticism

In the first two parts (see part 1 & 2) of this article, I discussed and defined many of the key terms and concepts involved in Textual Criticism. Now it remains to examine something of how these work in practice.

To begin, it is worth taking a look at the origins of Textual Criticism:

In the early Church, we have very little evidence of this, although clearly manuscripts of the New Testament were continuously copied and collected—some evaluation of the accuracy of a manuscript must have been involved in establishing an “exemplar” for copying. Early Church Fathers occasionally mention variant readings of the NT in their writings. But it is only with Origen that we see anything like a critical concern for the text of Scripture. Alexandria (the site of Origen’s early career), in particular, had a strong tradition of scholarship and scribal practice, going back into the Hellenistic period. However, even Origen does not address variants and other textual issues as carefully or consistently as one might expect. The only other Church Father (we know of) who came close to Origen’s level of technical scholarship was Jerome.

In the Middle Ages, serious Criticism of any sort was largely absent in the Church. The situation was a little better in the Greek (Byzantine) East; while Jewish and Islamic scholars, much further ahead at the time, helped to preserve a certain level of scholarship for future generations in Western Europe. The Rabbinic scribes, in particular (the Masoretes), had established a traditional practice of evaluating and addressing variants and textual corruption in the Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament. However, Textual criticism, in something like the modern sense, only began following the Renaissance. After centuries of relying upon translations, scholars such as Lorenzo Valla, Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples, and Desiderius Erasmus began looking afresh at the text, publishing critical studies and editions. The hunt for manuscripts was also on, though at the time of Erasmus’ critical edition of the Greek NT, relatively few MSS were available for study.

The modern science (or art) of Textual Criticism begins in earnest in the 18th and 19th centuries, following many decades of adopting Critical methods and principles in the study of Scripture. The earlier Critical editions of the 16th and 17th centuries (the so-called “Textus Receptus”) no longer sufficed. Men such as Gerhard von Mastricht, Richard Bentley, Johann Albrecht Bengel, Johann Jakob Wettstein, Johann Jakob Griesbach, Karl Lachman, Samuel Tregelles, and Constantin von Tischendorf, all edited and published Critical editions of the Greek NT, sometimes prefacing these with detailed prolegomena or critical studies that included principles for establishing the text. Griesbach, in his second edition (1796-1806), was perhaps the first to enunciate clearly a set of rules, to be adopted and modified by future scholars. (See below on “Canons of Criticism”).

In 1881-2 came the publication by Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton J. A. Hort of their Critical edition (The New Testament in the Original Greek), and here, for the first time, was a decisive break with the Textus Receptus tradition. This proved to be momentous (and the subject of no small controversy!) for all subsequent Textual Criticism. In devaluing the Koine/Byzantine Text, they gave clear priority to the ‘earlier’ Text-types—particularly the Alexandrian Text, as represented by Codex Vaticanus (B), which they referred to as their “Neutral” Text. While future scholars were to abandon some of their premises and terminology, Westcott and Hort’s evaluation of Vaticanus and the Alexandrian Text has generally been confirmed—”a very pure line of very ancient text”.

CRITICAL EDITION: It is worth defining this here: Any Edition (see) which has been produced according to the methods and principles of Textual Criticism. That is to say, rather than simply publishing a single manuscript, multiple manuscripts are collated and analyzed, usually with the purpose of establishing (the most likely) form of the original text. Today the UBS (United Bible Societies) and Nestle-Aland critical editions are the most popular and widely used; the two editions are largely identical.

However, the question must be asked: How exactly does one determine the most likely original text?


A “canon” (Greek kanw/n, kanœ¡n) is a rule or standard, a regulating formulation or principle. So, the “Canons of Criticism” are simply the rules or guiding principles used in (Textual) Criticism. Sometimes these are referred to as “Canons of Authenticity” or “Criteria for Authenticity”—that is, for attempting to determine the authentic (original) text. There are many different rules or principles that have been established or adopted over the years, but the most important of these, I think, can be reduced down to the following set of fundamental rules—an even half-dozen (to which, of course, there are exceptions!):

  1. (Preliminary:) Negligible or insignificant variants can be discounted. This includes all nonsense readings, obvious scribal errors, and true singular readings. Only substantive/significant variants are to be considered (See Part 2 on these)
  2. The earliest and “best” manuscripts are to be preferred. Readings which occur in the earliest manuscripts—i.e., the 2nd-4th century Papyri, and the 4th-6th century uncials (such as Codex Vaticanus [B] and Sinaiticus [a])—are to be given priority. Determining the “best” manuscripts is a bit more difficult: to be considered are both (1) individual “purity”, the accuracy of the copy (number of scribal errors); and (2) relative “purity”, the relation to other accurate/reliable manuscripts. Most scholars today tend to give priority to the “best” representatives of the so-called Alexandrian text (especially Vaticanus and the related early Papyri).
  3. Readings in early and (geographically) diverse witnesses are to be preferred. For example, if a reading occurs in early Alexandrian and “Western” manuscripts as well as (relatively) early versional (i.e., Old Latin, Syriac, Coptic, etc.) manuscripts, it is likely to be original.
  4. The more difficult reading is to be preferred. This was most famously stated by J. J. Griesbach by the Latin proclivi scriptioni praestat ardua, but usually formulated as the maxim difficilior lectio potior. It can be broken down under several categories:
    * The more obscure reading vs. the more “intelligible”
    * The rougher (harsher or ungrammatical) reading vs. the “smoother”
    * The more unusual expression or vocabulary vs. the more customary
    * The reading which more conforms to ecclesiastical or doctrinal norms vs. the more challenging
    The tacit assumption being that scribes are more likely, in the process of copying (which involves some degree of interpretation), to smooth over rough, difficult or challenging passages. Such changes, usually intentional, were typically made simply for the purpose of explaining or clarifying the text (not for mischievous or malicious reasons!)
  5. (Corollary:) The shorter reading is typically to be preferred. This is the maxim brevior lectio potior. Again, the assumption is that scribes were more likely to expand the text, than to shorten it. Some have questioned this assumption, but analysis of the manuscripts and ancient scribal practice seems to bear it out. This is one of the more difficult areas for evaluation, especially when manuscript evidence is evenly divided between a longer and shorter reading—which is original? Is the longer reading an expansion/interpolation, or is the shorter reading the result of a scribal mistake (parablepsis, homoioteleuton)?
  6. The reading is to be preferred which best explains the rise of all others. Griesbach worded it as the reading that “…lies midway between the others”. A most useful rule (often decisive) when the manuscript evidence is evenly balanced; unfortunately, it can be most difficult to determine which is, in fact, the “midway” reading. Here theories regarding scribal practice and transcriptional probability (see below) need to be examined most closely.

TRANSCRIPTIONAL PROBABILITY: This refers to the probable (or likely) process by which variant readings arose in the copying (transcription) of the text. Arguments and theories in this area can be complicated, and subject to considerable dispute among scholars. However, a careful analysis of transcriptional probability is often necessary in evaluating variants where the manuscript evidence is evenly divided.


The citing of Textual Witnesses is central to the science of Textual Criticism, but it can be a complicated and laborious process. Fortunately, professional scholars have already done most of the legwork in collating manuscripts, documenting and evaluating variant readings. The student is likely to encounter this information at first in two places:

1) In Textual Commentaries or Commentaries which contain specific textual notes.

2) In the “apparatus” (footnotes and appendices) to critical editions, such as the UBS or Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (or the BHS Hebrew Old Testament).

Textual witnesses are cited according to fixed conventions, which nearly all scholars have adopted. To avoid cumbersome citation of manuscripts, etc., a technical shorthand was developed, using a standard set of abbreviations, referenced in the following order (for the New Testament):

  1. The early Papyri: Indicated by capital P, usually in script (Ë), followed by the number (according to a standard list),  typically in superscript—for example, Ë45, Ë 46, Ë 47 (Chesty Beatty Papyri); Ë66, Ë75 (Bodmer Papyri)
  2. Greek Majusucules (Uncials): These are numbered (standard list), prefixed with “0” (to distinguish them from the Minuscules)—i.e., 01, 02, 03, etc. However, up to manuscript 045, it is more common to use a letter to indicate the MS. Hebrew aleph (a), followed by English A-Z, followed by select Greek letters up through 045. Here are some of the most commonly cited manuscripts in the list:
    a [01] — Codex Sinaiticus
    A [02] — Codex Alexandrinus
    B [03] — Codex Vaticanus
    C [04] — Codex Ephraem Syri Rescripti
    D [05] — Codex Bezae (Codex Claromontanus [06] also indicated by D)
    W [032] — Codex Freerianus
    Q [038] — Codex Coridenthianus
    Y [044] — Codex Athous Lavrensis
    (The name of the codex is, by convention, a latinized version related to its provenance—where it was discovered or where it is being housed)
  3. Greek Minuscules: These are simply referred to by number (1, 2, 3, etc.) according to a standard list. f1 (“Family 1”) and f13 (“Family 13”) are commonly cited groups of related minuscules.
  4. The broader Greek MS evidence: Following the citation of specific MSS, the following abbreviations are sometimes used to indicate further support of a reading:
    Byz — the majority of (Byzantine) manuscripts (generally synonymous with the Majority text)
    Koine — also synonymous with the majority (Byzantine) reading, commonly indicated by K in decorated script (Š)
    ª — M in script, to indicate the Majority text; this has somewhat replaced Koine/Š.
    pc — (pauci), a few manuscripts
    al — (alii), some manuscripts
    pm — (permulti), a large number of manuscripts
    rell — (reliqui), the rest of the manuscript tradition (includes the Majority text)
  5. Versional Manuscripts: that is, the important early translations.
    Latin Versions
    it — (Itala), the Old Latin versions (sometimes also indicated by “OL”);
    individual manuscripts are represented by lower case letters and abbreviations (a, b, d, ff, gig, etc.)
    vg — the Latin Vulgate
    lat — part of the wider Latin MS tradition (including the vulgate)
    latt — the entire Latin MS tradition (possibly with exceptions)
    Syriac Versions — indicated by “sy” or “syr”; individual Syriac versions are indicated by superscript, or with separate abbreviations:
    s (or c) = Old Syriac [Sinai or Curetonian]
    p = Peshitta; ph = Philoxenian; h = Harklean
    Coptic Versions — indicated by “co” or “copt”; individual (dialect) versions are indicated by superscript, or, more often, with separate abbreviations, such as:
    ac (or ach) = Akhmimic
    bo (or boh) = Bohairic
    sa (or sah) = Sahidic
    Other Versions — aeth (or eth) = Ethiopic; arm = Armenian; geo = Georgian; arab = Arabic; goth = Gothic; slav = Old Church Slavonic.
    Typically Latin witnesses are cited first, then Syriac, Coptic, and so forth, generally as indicated above.
  6. Church Fathers (as textual witness): These leading figures and authors of the early and early-medieval Church, who cite/quote Scripture in their writings, are indicated (along with a few anonymous works), by a set of abbreviations. For example, Or = Origen, Aug = Augustine, Chr (or Chrysost) = Chrysostom, Cyr (or CyrAl) = Cyril of Alexandria, and so forth.
  7. Lectionaries: Usually indicated by a cursive “l” (Û) followed by a number, again from a standard list. Lectionaries are only rarely cited.

In addition, there are some superscript notations which may be applied (primarily with the Papyri and Uncials):

* — an asterisk indicates the original hand of a manuscript (when it has been corrected)
c — when the manuscript has been corrected
1, 2, 3, — a first, second, third, etc., hand which has corrected a manuscript
mg — textual evidence in the margin of a manuscript
v.l. — (varia lectio) when a variant reading has been recorded as such in a manuscript
txt — the text of the manuscript when a variant reading (above) has also been recorded
vid — (ut videtur) = apparent support for a reading when the condition of the MS makes it impossible to be certain how it reads
supp (or s) — when a portion of the manuscript is missing, and the text has been supplied by a later hand

I will now provide a couple of specific examples, to demonstrate how these textual witnesses are cited in practice:

Example 1: John 1:18monogenh$ qeo$ (monogen¢s theos) vs. monogenh$ ui(o$ (monogen¢s huios)
The textual evidence is fairly evenly balanced, and the question remains disputed among scholars, though the majority would accept the reading qeo$ (God) rather than ui(o$ (Son). The diagrams below show the evidence as it is cited in the critical apparatus of the UBS and Nestle-Aland (27th ed.) Greek texts (with some modification and simplification); first the evidence for qeo$, then that for ui(o$:

Example 2: Luke 23:34a — addition (interpolation) vs. omission
Here again the evidence is divided, between witnesses which include Jesus’ famous prayer (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”) and those which do not. The diagram first indicates the witnesses which either do not have this portion (or have it marked with asterisks); then those which include it:


The information in this three-part article relates specifically to New Testament Textual Criticism; however, many of the terms and concepts apply to analysis of the text of the Old Testament as well. By comparison to the NT, Old Testament Textual Criticism is still, one might say, in its infancy, having really begun in earnest only in recent decades (with publication of all the Dead Sea Scrolls). In a future post, I hope to explore some of the issues relating to the Text of the Old Testament.