Synchronic Versus Diachronic

One of the biggest debates in biblical scholarship today is the debate between synchronic and diachronic methodologies. Synchronic approaches read the text in its final, completed form. That is the only form that really matters, because it is the canonical form. It is called “synchronic” because it reads all parts of a given book of Scripture simultaneously, or synchronously. Diachronic approaches are determined to search out possible development of the text from earlier to later versions, hoping that this will cast light on the meaning of the text. The Documentary Hypothesis of JEDP (popularized by Julius Wellhausen) is a good (and famous) example of diachronic analysis.

Most Christians will not care very much about this distinction. However, what they don’t know could hurt them. It is important at this point to stress that not all diachronic approaches undermine the canonicity of a book. Consider, for instance, Kings and Chronicles, both of which are anonymous to us. We do not know who wrote them. It is theoretically conceivable that God could (through the Holy Spirit) have inspired a process of a developing book. Not every book of the canon need have been written all at one sitting. However, there is a great danger to the diachronic methods: atomization of the text. Context must be defined synchronically, since this is how God has providentially preserved His text. Diachronic methods often wind up destroying that context in favor of a completely different context. Furthermore, these methods are highly speculative and subjective. They rely on supposed stylistic differences to find “seams.” The problem with all stylistic arguments is that we do not have a large enough sample size, either in OT or NT, to determine different styles to such a nicety that we can base entire theories on them. Some stylistic differences are visible in the Bible. One can tell the difference between Paul and John, for instance. However, this has limited usefulness, because all the writers of the Bible could have written in a different style than the one they are known for, unless we want to posit the “stupid original writer hypothesis” (SOWH), whereby biblical writers are artificially limited to one and only one style.

In the Pentateuch, it seems important, biblically, to be able to say that Moses wrote it. That being said, we can ask the question of the last chapter of Deuteronomy. Is it possible that Moses wrote the account of his own death? Certainly it is possible. God could have revealed to Moses what would happen after his death. This is hardly difficult. However, isn’t it more likely that Joshua, also writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, added a final chapter to Deuteronomy? It is like Frodo and the red book, telling Sam that there is room for a little more, and leaving it to Sam to finish. It is also possible that there are minor editorial additions (in order to address a new context of living in the promised land) in the Pentateuch that Joshua could have added by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This would not preclude us saying that Moses is still the author of the Pentateuch. But it is possible that it is slightly edited. This should not cause concern among us. There is a difference between saying something like this versus something like the JEDP hypothesis, which essentially denies to Moses any hand in creating the Pentateuch. They will often answer that it is not necessary to affirm Mosaic authorship, since Moses is the main character of the Pentateuch, then we can say it is the book about Moses. This would not, however, seem to square with Jesus’ confident assertion in John 5 that Moses wrote about Him (Jesus). Surely a straightforward reading of John 5 would come up with Jesus making a claim that Moses did the writing. There is no evidence that Jesus is speaking metaphorically or symbolically. He is speaking of typology, but that is something else entirely.

A growing number of scholars believe that there need be no opposition between synchronic and diachronic approaches. In fact, some believe that the diachronic approach can help us appreciate the final synchronic reading better. Perhaps. I have read several authors who claim this, but are unconvincing so far. Separating out layers of a text is still going to run counter to seeing the final form as the ultimate context in which we read any given part.

Where I think we need to be as Christians on this matter is two-fold. On the one hand, we need not have as rigid a view as is sometimes held. Some people think that saying any word of the Pentateuch was written by someone other than Moses is heretical liberalism. Editing has been going on for thousands of years. Are we seriously going to suggest that God could not use it or inspire it? We can say that if there is any editing in Scripture, that editing happened by inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order to address a new state of affairs. On the other hand, I think we need to reject the more radical, subjective, hypothetical forms of diachronic analysis. The final form of the text is what we interpret in the church. Period. That is the form God has decreed should be the norm and guide for the church. Diachronic analyses should not be confused with exegesis, for these analyses do not interpret the text. Rather, they dissect it.

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Parallelomania

It is quite the fashion these days in scholarly circles to find parallels between biblical texts and either Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) texts, for the Old Testament, or Greco-Roman texts, for the New Testament. Very confident pronouncements are then made about organic literary connections, even determining the direction of dependence. Samuel Sandmel, a rabbinic scholar, warned against extravagances in this direction in his address to the Society for Biblical Literature in the early 1960’s. The article was published in JBL 81.1 (1962), 1-13.

It is quite difficult to prove literary dependence. Similarity of verbiage does not prove literary relationship. Even if it did prove it, it does not prove the direction of literary dependence. Not even the relative age of manuscripts can prove literary dependence. What happens in the vast majority of biblical scholarship is that the foreign influence is always deemed to be prior, and the biblical text late and derivative. It is not difficult to detect a direct attack on the inspiration of Scripture: did the biblical ideas come from God, or did they come from humans?

One could argue, I suppose, that God could somehow use already existing human materials in a new way in the process of inspiration. However, that is not how parallelomaniacs argue. They argue that the biblical text is fully derivative. They start from an assumption that the Bible could not possibly be breathed out by God. It is merely a human document.

The problems with this position are two-fold: 1. it undermines the doctrine of inspiration; 2. it ignores the often apologetic tone of Scripture. What I mean by the second point is that if Scripture “sounds like” the ANE or Greco-Roman literature, it is usually done so as to reject those ideas, not appropriate them.

Old Testament scholars will immediately cry foul and point out the similarities of, say, the biblical book of Proverbs and the Egyptian Proverbs of Amenemope. To such scholars, I ask the following question: on what basis could one possibly prove that the scriptural book of Proverbs is dependent on the Egyptian document? The date of manuscripts? This is not conclusive in the least. Date of manuscript does not prove date of origin. Secondly, is it completely outside the realm of possibility that God’s common grace might reveal some wisdom to those outside the covenant? The covenant, incidentally, constitutes the major difference between the biblical book of Proverbs and the Egyptian document. The fear of the Lord in 1:7 and in chapter 9 is a covenantal fear, and this controls the whole book of Proverbs. In other words, the wisdom of Proverbs is not secularly derived, but rather from the fear of the Lord.

Canons of New Testament Textual Criticism

What I am writing here are the rules I go by. Textual criticism does not have explicit biblical guidelines informing it. Therefore, there are many theories out there, and my canons will not match other people’s canons. So I make no claim that this is what everyone ought to hold. Full disclosure: my canons place me in-between the critical text genealogical theory, and the majority text theory.

Preliminary considerations: I hold that all of these canons, or rules, have probabilistic force only. None of them is a “knock-out” punch. Each canon needs to be weighed in the balance with all the other canons. It will frequently happen that one canon will come into conflict with another canon in the practical application. For instance, should we go with the reading that has the best attestation, or the reading that can explain the origin of all the other readings?

Furthermore, textual criticism is both an art and a science. It is a science, because extremely detailed work is done on the age and provenance (place of origin) of manuscripts. Discovering whether the correctors were one or many is also important. Textual criticism is also an art because it requires judgment on the part of the textual critic, and imagination to come up with explanations as to why a certain reading arose. The judgment of the textual critic is an essential part of textual criticism. It is unavoidable.

I have very little respect for some of the rhetoric that flies around on the internet and in print anathematizing anyone who has a different view from the writer. There is over 90% agreement between Sinaiticus/Vaticanus and the Textus Receptus/Majority text. No doctrinal difference hangs on a textual difficulty. And yet, from the rhetoric of some, one might assume that the entire world was at stake in these questions. Textual criticism must be understood in proper proportion. Those who read the KJV have the Word of God. But so do those who read the ESV.

Lastly, no Christian should be afraid of textual criticism. “Criticism” here does not mean that we believe something is in error in the original autographs (the documents that come straight from the pen of the authors). It simply means that we compare manuscripts in order to discover the original reading. We don’t have the original autographs. Nevertheless, God has providentially preserved the text of Scripture in all ages. Textual criticism is, then, an exercise in reading in the book of God’s providence. The following canons are not in any particular order, although I will indicate which ones I deem to have greater weight than others.

1. Older manuscripts will tend to attest to an older reading. Notice the word “tend.” To say that the oldest readings are always found in the oldest manuscripts is an error. The testimony of the early church fathers, for instance (more on this later) can clearly attest to a reading that is older than the oldest manuscripts. Nevertheless, on the balance of probability, the older manuscripts have a better claim to have an older reading. This canon has strength, but it must be held with caveats.

2. Geographically diverse attestation of a reading makes its authenticity much more likely. If manuscripts from various places all have the same reading, that pushes back the origin of that reading far earlier. If a reading is only present in one geographical location, one can easily suspect that the reading arose only in that location. This canon weighs very heavily with me, maybe the most of any canon. There is one caveat here that must be mentioned, however: manuscripts could have been moved from their location of origin. An Alexandrian text might have been moved to Byzantium, for instance. Some might argue that there is an Alexandrian style of manuscript. Fair enough, but then, couldn’t the scribe also move?

3. Genealogically related manuscripts have somewhat less weight. I differ here both from those following Westcott and Hort, and from the Majority text theorists. I disagree with Westcott and Hort’s theory (manuscripts must be weighed, not counted) for the following reasons: a. It is far more difficult to prove genealogical relationships between manuscripts than is often supposed; b. cross-pollinating of manuscripts is quite possible (a manuscript from a different region could be used in correcting a manuscript, thus disrupting the genealogical “purity” of a family). I differ from Majority Text theorists in that I believe genealogical relationships among manuscripts is not impossible to show. If it can be shown, then a “family” of manuscripts would have less weight. The idea here is that the “children” manuscripts (the copies that were made) are very rarely, if ever, more accurate than the “parent” manuscript. This canon weighs less heavily with me than others.

4. The more difficult reading will tend to have a higher claim to be original. This canon is based on the theory that scribes would not make a text more difficult to understand, but they might very well be tempted to make a text easier to understand. This is plausible. However, this canon has a very important caveat: there is a limit to how difficult a reading can be, and still have plausibility. This limit does have a biblical basis: God cannot lie. In other words, a reading that makes the text come into direct conflict with other texts of Scripture cannot be original.

5. The reading that can best explain the origin of all the other readings has a better claim to be original. This is a very important canon. If one reading has a greater explanatory power than another, it is more likely original. If one reading, for instance, can explain another reading as dittography (accidental repeating of a word), whereas the second reading has no explanation for how the first reading arose, then the first reading has a greater claim to be original. This canon, however, also has an important caveat: sometimes accidents can happen in transcribing that are completely random.

6. Continuity of attestation in history means that a reading has a better claim. God would not let His Word disappear completely for centuries without attestation. However, this does not mean that unique readings of recently discovered manuscripts (such as Sinaiticus) would have to be discounted automatically. God’s providence can work in hidden ways (see the book of Esther, for instance).

7. The reading of the majority of manuscripts has a better claim to be original. This has to be balanced with the chastened genealogical principle that some manuscripts are better than others. Quality and quantity of manuscripts can both be important. It is a mistake, in my judgment, to discount the Byzantine tradition simply because its manuscripts are later. Byzantium is one of the prime locations that can attest to a geographically diverse reading. The majority cannot be ignored. Majority does have weight. However, the majority is not always correct, either. To say that the majority is always right is a logical fallacy. We do not arrive at truth merely by counting noses. Otherwise Athanasius would have been wrong. Nor is each manuscript of equal weight. Here it can be seen how precisely I line up in the middle between the critical text advocates and the majority text advocates.

8. The early church fathers can be of great weight in determining how old a reading is. In some cases, they can attest to a reading that is older than our oldest manuscripts. Irenaeus, for instance, lived mostly in the second century. We have only fragments of NT manuscripts that are older than Irenaeus’s writings. He often attests to a reading older than Sinaiticus and Vaticanus (both of which are fourth century manuscripts). However, this evidence must also be approached carefully. It can be doubtful if an early church father is actually quoting a biblical passage, and it can also be doubtful which passage the early church father was quoting. It is quite a bit easier in some writings than in others. Commentaries, of course, would be the easiest, since you already know which part of the Bible is under consideration.

New Book Project

I have been toying with this idea for a long time, but now I desire to start work on it. I have gone on Amazon and looked at any and all books that will help me with this, but I want to cast my net wider than currently published material. What I want to do is collect conversion stories that are based on God using a particular text of Scripture to convert that person to the true faith. I will then put these narratives in canonical order so that pastors will have a great resource for illustrations that show the power of the Word of God. If anyone is willing to share such a conversion narrative of their own (that is based on a particular text of Scripture; I am not looking for generalized conversion narratives at this point), and you are willing for your story to be part of a book, please append your story with the added information of whether you want your name listed, or whether you wish for it to be anonymous.

A Friendly Introduction to Biblical Literacy

Posted by Paige (Yes, I’m still around here sometimes!)

I’m pleased to be able to share with you a quirky biblical literacy resource that I created this year. Originally commissioned for a women’s Bible study conference last fall, this half-hour talk instructs beginning Bible students in the difference between “doing devotions” and studying a passage, using Isaiah 61 to reinforce my main points.

It’s meant to be a primer, so the content won’t interest most readers of this blog. But if you listen for just a few minutes, you’ll likely think of a few people who would benefit from this kind of friendly instruction. (Of course, if you listen to the whole thing I will be flattered!)

This talk is on YouTube not because it’s a video of me speaking, but because I created slides to accompany it, for the sake of visual learners. The talk can be enjoyed profitably just as an audio recording, too. Please pass this link along, as appropriate. Thanks!

Introducing a New Bible Translation

$ince we haven’t had a new English Bible tran$lation handed to u$ in the la$t few $econd$, it’$ time to come out with a new, fre$h Bible tran$lation, $ince Bible tran$lation$ obviou$ly grow $tale and unintelligible within ju$t a few year$ (not even between generation$, but intra-generationally). The new tran$lation is called the “International Dummy In the Old Te$tament” Bible, or IDIOT Bible, for $hort. Thi$ i$ the Bible for tho$e kids with very $hort attention $pan$ and even $horter vocabulary li$t$. It cut$ out all the long, difficult word$, like “created” and “beginning.” $o, Gene$i$ 1:1 read$ thi$ way in the new tran$lation:

Genesis 1:1 “So, like, this totally awesome God made stuff back in the day.”

The concept (or “idea,” for tho$e with vocabulary challenge$) i$ to dumb down the me$$age of the Bible to it$ bottom line. Take the tran$lation of Gene$i$ 1:1, for example. The meri$m “heaven and earth” (dude, what i$ a meri$m?) wa$ deemed too difficult for today’$ teenager$ to under$tand, and $o the core of “stuff” wa$ retained. Great effort was expended in $eeking to retain the exalted pro$e of the pa$$age. The way that “totally awe$ome” roll$ off the tongue i$ ju$t one example of thi$ exalted pro$e. The tran$lator$ gave $ome thought to putting the entire Bible in modern texting language, but the major ob$tacle to thi$ tran$lation philo$ophy i$ that the texting language change$ too rapidly for the older generation to u$e long enough to get an actual $entence tran$lated. Too much arthriti$ in the thumb$, no doubt.

$o, in introducing thi$ new tran$lation to the public, it i$ important to note the niche, niche, niche, niche, niche, niche, niche audience at which the tran$lation i$ directed. Why publi$h new tran$lation$ for people in the world who don’t have a Bible, when there i$ a perfect, radically awe$ome new niche in the Engli$h world to manipulate serve? The world may never know what tho$e motivation$ are.

Seeing Christ In All of Scripture

I received in the mail a copy of this little gem from my alma mater. It is a fast read. I read it this morning.

Normally, I wouldn’t expect to have about 35 endorsements on a book that is only 87 pages long. However, in this case, what you get is actually a snapshot of scholars who agree with the trajectory that WTS is establishing (and has established in the past). I found these statements interesting and, in some cases, revealing (see John Frame’s puff, for instance).

The book has four essays, by Vern Poythress, Iain Duguid, G.K. Beale, and Richard Gaffin, Jr, all preceded by a good little introduction by Peter Lillback. Also included are three appendices. The first is Machen’s essay on the purpose and plan for the Seminary. The second is the document of affirmations and denials that the seminary promulgated in response to the recent debates at the seminary. The third is Dr. Gaffin’s short piece on biblical theology at WTS.

Dr. Lillback can now say that there is a “harmony among the theological disciplines at Westminster” (p. 1). This wasn’t the case when I was attending. The exegetical departments were, in general, at odds with the ST, AP, and CH departments. I, for one, am grateful for the present unity among the faculty and disciplines.

Dr. Poythress’s point is that true biblical hermeneutics is a spiral, not a circle, that needs to start from a self-consciously Christian perspective. In this context, he says that God’s “presence and his special work in inspiration do not make human beings less than human. Rather, he transforms sinful humanity toward humanity as God originally designed it” (p. 13). Some advocates of other hermeneutical approaches seem to suggest that if God had anything to do with revelation at all, then that “interference” would make the humans automatons, and thus less than human.

Duguid’s point is that Christ is the whole point of the Old Testament. Period. It is a book about Christ (p. 17). Against the Christotelic interpretation, Duguid writes, “It is not that the New Testament writers were creatively assigning new and alien meanings to these old texts. Rather, the force of Jesus’s statement that it was ‘necessary that the Christ should suffer these things’ (Luke 24:26) suggests that a proper reading of the Old Testament expectation of the messiah necessarily compelled them to recognize Jesus Christ as its true fulfillment” (p. 21). While the OT prophets were not fully aware of the complete meaning of what they wrote (p. 20), we must not overstress their ignorance (p. 21). Again, taking direct aim at the Christotelic view, he says, “In other words, our astonishment will not be because the fulfillment differed from the promise, or because some parts of the promise proved to be dead ends, but because we had not begun to grasp the height and depth of the wisdom of God that is at work for our salvation in Christ” (p. 23).

Beale’s essay addresses New Testament hermeneutics. Context is king in Beale’s hermeneutics, but that context has to be defined as including more than the immediate literary and historical context. It also includes its canonical context (p. 26). Biblical Theology is given a thoroughly Vossian definition (pp. 27-28). New Testament interpretation of the Old is the correct way to read the Old Testament.

Gaffin’s article addresses the place of Systematic Theology in relation to Biblical Theology (a hallmark of his entire career). Some money quotes: “Systematic Theology, accordingly, does not have a ‘special’ hermeneutic of its own but one it shares with all other theological disciplines (p. 39). “Negatively, the difference (between ST and BT, LK) is not, as is too often maintained, that biblical theology considers the Bible purely in terms of its humanity and historically diverse make-up, leaving systematic theology to attend to whatever may be said about its divinely qualified unity (p. 49). Instead, biblical theology always presupposes the unity of God’s speech (ibid.). “At any one point in actual practice, the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology is reciprocal” (p. 50). I might add something here to Gaffin’s remarks, and note that it is always reciprocal, whether the interpreter realizes it or not, and even if the interpreter denies that it is reciprocal.

It is clear that Machen was a Vossian. No doubt this quotation is why the essay was included: “[A]n error should be avoided: it must not be thought that systematic theology is one whit less biblical than biblical theology is” (p. 57). This is pure Vos.

The affirmations and denials are available online here, but it is good to see them in print, as well. They are extremely sophisticated, and yet very clear. I commend them to your perusal, especially the parts about private interpretation (p. 68, for example). It has some very important things to say about Ancient Near Eastern background, as well (see p. 71, for instance).

Gaffin’s last piece is a response to Clair Davis’s lament over the supposed fall of biblical theology at Westminster Seminary. Gaffin says that the reports of biblical theology’s death at WTS have been greatly exaggerated. This is the money quote from that piece: “There can be no objection to ‘Christotelic’ in itself. But Scripture is Christotelic just because it is Christocentric. It is Christotelic only as it is Christocentric, and as it is that in every part, the Old Testament included. Or, as we may, in fact must, put the issue here in its most ultimate consideration, Christ is the mediatorial Lord and Savior of redemptive history not only at its end but also from beginning to end. He is not only its omega but also its alpha, and he is and can be its omega only as he is its alpha” (p. 86).

This short book clarifies the doctrinal issues surrounding the recent debates at Westminster like no other resource of which I am aware. Get a copy of it.

If Necessary, Use Words?

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with the proverb “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” I think I know what most people mean by this. Most people mean that the gospel has to be embodied in our lives, and that if unbelievers cannot see that, then the ethos of the gospel will not match the evangelist’s life. Integrity is the ultimate thing at issue here. To this extent, the quotation has a useful place.

However, some people take it too far, as if evangelism doesn’t need to use words. Just evangelize by means of your lifestyle. People don’t need to hear the Word. Preaching is over-rated. We don’t need to study apologetics, or have an answer ready for the person who asks us for the reason of the hope that lies within us. Readers can probably guess where I’m going with this one. The quotation can lead to a despising of preaching, of the Word, and of evangelism by means of talking with people.

I hate to break it to the lifestyle-evangelist folks, but the ethos of our lives is not enough. Sooner or later (if our lifestyles are Christian ones), the unbeliever is going to ask us why we’re different. When that happens, we should have an answer ready.

Some people use the Assisi quotation in order to avoid speaking with people, and thus lose many opportunities. Still others use it to ridicule the role of preaching, and thus promote other forms of worship that God has not commanded.

The fact of the matter is that words are necessary. That doesn’t mean that conversion is dependent on us, as the Finneyites would have us believe. The Holy Spirit is the one Who converts. So, we should not get ourselves into a sweat about whether we have the right words or not. Our best arguments, if not accompanied by the Holy Spirit, are useless to convert. By the same token, the Holy Spirit can use our most imperfect efforts to convert. Faith comes by hearing, which implies words. Therefore, I think that even Assisi went too far in the comment, and his zealous followers certainly have.

Up to Some Good (I Hope)

(Posted by Paige)

It’s been a while since I had time or thought enough to post anything here. Much of my brain space lately has gone into planning and carrying out the home-schooling of a high-schooler – I get to prep him for the English and History APs this year! – and much of my writing time has gone into building up an online library of Biblical Literacy materials.

But here is one thing I can share with you, as a resource to pass along to anyone who would like to gain a bit more knowledge of the big sweep of redemptive history. This is a 36-minute talk that I put together for a Bible conference this October, one of several short presentations that I’ve offered to introduce the Women in the Word Workshop in Willow Grove, PA. (Please note that while the context was a women’s Bible conference, the content is not gender-specific!) My creative entrée into the Big Picture this year was the progressive development of the figure and the idea of “The Christ” in Scripture.

This is on YouTube not because it’s a video of me talking, but ‘cause I made some snazzy slides to go with it. (But it’s possible to listen without looking, if you prefer to multi-task.) Enjoy!

S.D.G.

New Online Resource for Biblical Literacy

(Posted by Paige)

Compass Rose 1I am pleased to invite you to visit the Grass Roots Theological Library, a newly minted website housing the creative debris of a very busy mind.

Not at all intended to rival this worthy blog, my site is meant to be a collection of free, excellent, user-friendly resources for those who are serious about promoting and pursuing biblical and theological literacy for themselves and for others in their spheres of influence.

For pastors, teachers, and other leaders there are original, elder-tested Bible lesson plans and “Reviews of Books You’d Rather Not Read Yourself” . . . For the self-feeding autodidact who may lack professors or peers for the journey there are numerous resources, essays, talks, and lists to help. My goal with all of this is to offer worthy, unpretentious and unique contributions to the never-ending task of nurturing Christian literacy.

Suggestions are always welcome, and new material will keep showing up as time goes along. My personal favorite stuff: over 500 original text-based questions to ask when studying the book of Hebrews . . . weekly brief “Bible Journal” posts sharing some lively commentary on whatever I’m studying . . . my wall maps (you’ll see!).

Intrigued? The proof of the pudding is in the eating – please visit and glance at the Library so that you can know better what I am talking about. If you like what you see, please Bookmark or “Follow” so that you don’t forget about it (you can follow on Twitter also, @GrassRootsTheo). I promise you’ll only get notifications when I post a new Bible Journal piece. And please share this with those in your circles, whether leaders or learners, who would benefit by it!

Welcome to the Library!

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