Saturday, December 3, 2011

Standard or Fluid Texts

Sometimes a good modern example serves to remind us of the importance of the “big picture” when we study ancient documents.  In a JETS article from March 2009 (Volume 52, No. 1)  – I’m a little behind in my reading, Peter J. Gentry wrote an excellent article called “The Text of the Old Testament”.  In the article he examines the history of the Old Testament texts, scribal practices, Ancient versions, discoveries and history of interpretation among other things.  In section IV, “Assessing the Witnesses and Reconstructing the Text History” he addresses the texts from the Judean Desert.  In his critique of Sidnie White Crawford, he makes an excellent observation that caught my attention.  After a study of the Qumran texts Crawford concludes that “…both canon and text were fluid and not standardized at this time.”  She means during the late Second Temple period the Old Testament texts were still fluid.  Gentry does not agree, but also does not discount the evidence.  In footnote 66 on page 37 he says this:

In many ways, the history of the biblical text at this time is not dissimilar to a Christian or Jewish bookstore today.  One wonders what an archaeologist would conclude after excavating remains of a contemporary Christian bookstore some 2000 years hence.  The number and variety of translations of the Bible is bewildering to people today, not to mention some future historian of the text.  Here are some examples of what one may encounter:

  • The New Student Bible
  • Life Application Bible (Take the Next Step)
  • Psalty’s Kids’ Bible
  • NIV Young Discover’s Bible
  • The Adventure Bible
  • The Full Life Study Bible
  • Disciple’s Study Bible
  • Women’s Devotional Bible
  • The Family Worship bible
  • The Devotional Bible
  • Youth Bible
  • The Discover Bible
  • The Daily Bible
  • The One Year Bible
  • The Spirit-Filled Life Bible
  • The Orthodox Study Bible
  • Rainbow Bible
  • Precious Moments
  • Mother’s Love N.T. and Psalms
The same categories used to classify texts at Qumran exist in Bible editions currently published:  Bibles that offer a standard text unadorned and uninterrupted and Bibles that adorn and decorate, paraphrase, interpret, and re-arrange the text for the audience and culture of our times.  Do we conclude from this that both canon and text are fluid? Hardly.

His point is with reference to the development of the Old Testament text.  However, in my view, the principle can be applied to our study of any ancient text or tradition.  It is an excellent reminder that our analysis of historical texts, be they epistles, gospels, inscriptions or whatever, must be seen against the background of the historical and sociological context.  In other words, we must remember the big historical picture.  Thank you for the reminder professor Gentry!