Musings from a Grateful Convert: Things That Don’t Matter Anymore Episode 1: Biblical Textual Criticism

In kind of an apophatic fit, and instead of ranting about hot-button concerns and other issues that are easy to emphasize as being “important” and even “Urgently of Greatest Importance”, I thought I’d mention a few things that in the past were important, but since I’ve become an Orthodox Christian, they are no longer in that category.

To that end, I am starting with the Textual Criticism of Scripture. This is a big arena where intellectually and historically-charged experts argue over which biblical texts are truly “reliable” and otherwise pertinent to the Christian Faith and perhaps, more importantly, what those texts might actually mean. I used to be a little apprehensive of some “expert” finding some ancient papyrus fragment revealing an inconsistency among various versions of a scriptural passage, and I might have to rethink my understanding of said passage.

Once I made the decision to journey back into time to examine the History of The Church, I was delighted and amazed to find a thoroughly consistent harmony among the writings of the early Fathers with the Holy Scriptures themselves. So many of their writings were actual scriptural quotes, and others were such close paraphrased versions that, to me, it would have been impossible for this kind of continuity had there been erroneous copying and disseminating of the original texts. One example that comes to mind is the writings of First Century Saint, Clement of Rome, who was known to be a close associate of St. Paul. Clement’s writings have marginalia that resemble a Bible concordance…no joke. This harmony extended for the centuries after, as I could easily see in the writings of Justin the Philosopher (a/k/a Justin Martyr) and Irenaeus of Lyon in the 2nd Century, Cyprian of Carthage in the 3rd, Basil the Great in the 4th, and on and on (down to present day, I might add).

Furthermore, The Church has always emphasized the spiritual TRUTH of the Scriptures, and not so much the individual data that Science may or may not provide concerning this matter, with the main exception being the Resurrection of Christ, which of course is supported by much available data, although what it actually looked like is not the subject of Church hymnology and theology (ergo the mandorla placement in all Orthodox icons of The Resurrection). For example, the Orthodox Church hammers on Jonah’s encounter with the giant fish and makes no bones (ouch! bad pun) about his being vomited out of the belly of the fish as prefiguring the resurrection of Christ (who, by the way referenced this item as the “only sign which will be given to this generation”). Weighty consideration is not given about the stomach acids that fish may or may not have had, or the assumed lack of oxygen, or perhaps even whether Jonah may have recorded his adventure after a night of tossing and turning from eating a bad anchovy pizza.

In short, what is emphasized in the story of Jonah (as well as a multitude of other biblical encounters) is that it is a passage that contains deep spiritual Truth, and since we would proclaim that Truth in our life is not an ideology but rather a Person–the Person of Jesus Christ, all other considerations take a back seat to the profound theological import of Scripture. Ya dig?

My own conclusion on the topic of textual criticism quickly resolved to: a) “Let the “scholars” rant and discourse over the various codices and translations as to whether this or that fragment represents the actual words of St. Paul or of whomever else…I am totally at peace with the Holy Scriptures as they are read in the Assembly of Believers–The Church.”, and b) the strong presence of Holy Tradition in the Church is a safeguard through the ages against erroneous interpretations arising as a result of translations into the various languages extant in the world. (Otherwise, we would all have to learn Greek, and so would everybody down through history, including the thousands in Jerusalem on Pentecost Day who heard the Gospel in their own languages….)

At this point, I would advise the reader who is perhaps a Seeker into Orthodoxy to consider what the “The Church” really is in the context of actual Christian history and praxis. There in the Nicaean-Constantinopolitan Creed, which was hammered out by our holy Fathers in the first two Great and Holy Ecumenical Councils–and which was ratified by the entire Church and is in use to this day (even in some Protestant churches, including the Evangelical Free Church I used to attend), is the statement, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church….”

I am positing that this Church–the very Body of Christ on Earth so described in our Creed–is the final authority on earth for the teachings that come from it. Of course, this is no strange or new “slant” on the topic, and the Holy Apostle St. Paul said as much in his first letter to St. Timothy: “…but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (I Timothy 3:15, emphasis mine)

By the way, the term “catholic” is a hot-button issue, and for my Protestant friends, I would clarify the difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church as resembling the differences ascribed to the term “football” as relating to “American Football” and “Football” as it is known everywhere else in the world–namely, “Soccer”. The similarities include: a) both use a team, a field, a clock, officials, and a ball of some sort, and b) high scorer wins. The differences include, ah, about everything else…so I think you get the picture. But, I digress.

Getting back to the Church being the pillar and ground of the truth, I therefore agree with the position that the Holy Scriptures (which are considered the apex, the acme if you will, of Holy Tradition) arose from within the Church (the Gospel writers were members of said Church), were written to the Church, and are therefore able to be interpreted only by the Church. So you can see how a bunch of people outside the Church pontificating over this or that codex or text really don’t cause me any consternation at all.

And so I have crossed off this formerly important topic of Textual Criticism and am therefore able to put more of my energies into the day-to-day grind of living the Christian life, a life of peace and repentance.

In kind of an apophatic fit, and instead of ranting about hot-button concerns and other issues that are easy to emphasize as being “important” and even “Urgently of Greatest Importance”, I thought I’d mention a few things that in the past were important, but since I’ve become an Orthodox Christian, they are no longer in that category.

To that end, I am starting with the Textual Criticism of Scripture. This is a big arena where intellectually and historically-charged experts argue over which biblical texts are truly “reliable” and otherwise pertinent to the Christian Faith and perhaps, more importantly, what those texts might actually mean. I used to be a little apprehensive of some “expert” finding some ancient papyrus fragment revealing an inconsistency among various versions of a scriptural passage, and I might have to rethink my understanding of said passage.

Once I made the decision to journey back into time to examine the History of The Church, I was delighted and amazed to find a thoroughly consistent harmony among the writings of the early Fathers with the Holy Scriptures themselves. So many of their writings were actual scriptural quotes, and others were such close paraphrased versions that, to me, it would have been impossible for this kind of continuity had there been erroneous copying and disseminating of the original texts. One example that comes to mind is the writings of First Century Saint, Clement of Rome, who was known to be a close associate of St. Paul. Clement’s writings have marginalia that resemble a Bible concordance…no joke. This harmony extended for the centuries after, as I could easily see in the writings of Justin the Philosopher (a/k/a Justin Martyr) and Irenaeus of Lyon in the 2nd Century, Cyprian of Carthage in the 3rd, Basil the Great in the 4th, and on and on (down to present day, I might add).

Furthermore, The Church has always emphasized the spiritual TRUTH of the Scriptures, and not so much the individual data that Science may or may not provide concerning this matter, with the main exception being the Resurrection of Christ, which of course is supported by much available data, although what it actually looked like is not the subject of Church hymnology and theology (ergo the mandorla placement in all Orthodox icons of The Resurrection). For example, the Orthodox Church hammers on Jonah’s encounter with the giant fish and makes no bones (ouch! bad pun) about his being vomited out of the belly of the fish as prefiguring the resurrection of Christ (who, by the way referenced this item as the “only sign which will be given to this generation”). Weighty consideration is not given about the stomach acids that fish may or may not have had, or the assumed lack of oxygen, or perhaps even whether Jonah may have recorded his adventure after a night of tossing and turning from eating a bad anchovy pizza.

In short, what is emphasized in the story of Jonah (as well as a multitude of other biblical encounters) is that it is a passage that contains deep spiritual Truth, and since we would proclaim that Truth in our life is not an ideology but rather a Person–the Person of Jesus Christ, all other considerations take a back seat to the profound theological import of Scripture. Ya dig?

My own conclusion on the topic of textual criticism quickly resolved to: a) “Let the “scholars” rant and discourse over the various codices and translations as to whether this or that fragment represents the actual words of St. Paul or of whomever else…I am totally at peace with the Holy Scriptures as they are read in the Assembly of Believers–The Church.”, and b) the strong presence of Holy Tradition in the Church is a safeguard through the ages against erroneous interpretations arising as a result of translations into the various languages extant in the world. (Otherwise, we would all have to learn Greek, and so would everybody down through history, including the thousands in Jerusalem on Pentecost Day who heard the Gospel in their own languages….)

At this point, I would advise the reader who is perhaps a Seeker into Orthodoxy to consider what the “The Church” really is in the context of actual Christian history and praxis. There in the Nicaean-Constantinopolitan Creed, which was hammered out by our holy Fathers in the first two Great and Holy Ecumenical Councils–and which was ratified by the entire Church and is in use to this day (even in some Protestant churches, including the Evangelical Free Church I used to attend), is the statement, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church….”

I am positing that this Church–the very Body of Christ on Earth so described in our Creed–is the final authority on earth for the teachings that come from it. Of course, this is no strange or new “slant” on the topic, and the Holy Apostle St. Paul said as much in his first letter to St. Timothy: “…but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (I Timothy 3:15, emphasis mine)

By the way, the term “catholic” is a hot-button issue, and for my Protestant friends, I would clarify the difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church as resembling the differences ascribed to the term “football” as relating to “American Football” and “Football” as it is known everywhere else in the world–namely, “Soccer”. The similarities include: a) both use a team, a field, a clock, officials, and a ball of some sort, and b) high scorer wins. The differences include, ah, about everything else…so I think you get the picture. But, I digress.

Getting back to the Church being the pillar and ground of the truth, I therefore agree with the position that the Holy Scriptures (which are considered the apex, the acme if you will, of Holy Tradition) arose from within the Church (the Gospel writers were members of said Church), were written to the Church, and are therefore able to be interpreted only by the Church. So you can see how a bunch of people outside the Church pontificating over this or that codex or text really don’t cause me any consternation at all.

And so I have crossed off this formerly important topic of Textual Criticism and am therefore able to put more of my energies into the day-to-day grind of living the Christian life, a life of peace and repentance.

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