Thursday, December 6, 2012

Making Sense of Ancient Readers

I just finished a review of Jonathan D. H. Norton's excellent monograph, Contours in the Text: Textual Variation in the Writings of Paul, Josephus and the Yahad for the upcoming edition of the Stone-Campbell Journal. I found the book an exemplary monograph, razor-sharp in its focus, judicious in exegetical decisions, cautious about conclusions and a truly original, creative argument. I also found it extremely difficult to write a review of a PhD dissertation for a broader audience, but a good exercise nonetheless. 

I will post the review here when it is released, but for now I want to highlight the main argument, which  I consider quite convincing. The primary question Norton is seeks to answer is: was Paul aware of different textual traditions?  One of his key points is that the debate has been based on anachronistic approaches to textual plurality. The organization of manuscripts into “text-types” is a modern tool used to classify and organize “major textual lineages of transmission,” but these categories “do not correspond to any ancient copy” (41). Norton thinks that the high degree of textual fluidity in the first century, the existence of variant copies in the same location, and the genre of “rewritten Bible” all suggest that ancients were well aware of the “multivalent” character of copies while distinguishing “between copies [. . .] and the abstract body of the work itself” (44). Thus, ancients were aware of textual plurality, but they did not conceive of it in modern terms.

The dominant argument against Paul’s awareness of textual plurality has come from Dietrich-Alex Koch and Christopher Stanley who employ what Norton calls the “suitability argument” (47-48, cf. 153-61). This argument assumes that Paul’s citations were chosen to support his arguments and that some citations would have been more effective had he cited a variant reading (examples: Rom 9.25 [Hos 2.1LXX]; Rom 11.26 [Isa 59.20]; 1 Cor 3.19 [Job 5.13]; 1 Cor 14.21 [Isa 28.11]; 1 Cor 15.54 [Isa 25.8]). From these instances, which Norton thinks “rarely support” the suitability argument, “Koch and Stanley generalize [. . .] that Paul always cited his sources uncritically” (47). In opposition, Norton argues, “In some cases citations play more than a purely rhetorical role. The citation is indispensable to Paul’s logic, that is, Paul’s appeal to the passage logically structures his argument and one could not remove such a citation without disrupting the coherence of the argument” (47).

Not only are some texts crucial to Paul's logic, but Norton questions the way Paul's citations have been evaluated. Typically, Paul's citations are compared based on their lexcial similarity to Old Testament text forms (Old Greek, Masoretic Text, Aquila, Theodotian, Symmachus, etc.). Instead of basing comparison on lexical similarities, however, Norton astutely suggests comparisons should be based on “semantic criterion.” 

The basis of Norton’s argument is twofold. First, it has been shown, most definitively by Christopher Stanley, that ancient writers “frequently altered the wording of their sources for rhetorical, stylistic and theological purposes” (51). Thus, lexical changes are not necessarily an indicator of Paul's source, but might simply reflect his alterations. Second, different text forms of a given passage can convey the same meaning in distinct lexical forms, making them virtually the same in the view of an ancient reader. 

Norton highlights a couple of examples to make his point about the need to move away from lexical critiera for measuring textual variation. The first is Genesis 2.24, cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6.16. It reads in the LXX, “The two will be one flesh” while the MT reads “they will be one flesh.” The lexical difference (addition of “the two” in the LXX) does not alter the meaning of the text in the slightest. Conversely, it is also often the case that distinct text forms of the same passage convey “completely different senses” (51). Here Norton contrasts the “sense contours” of Habakkuk 2.16 evidenced variously as, “You will be sated with shame instead of glory. Drink, you yourself, and be circumcised/stagger” (Hab 2.16 [MT]/1QpHab. 11.8-9). In these variant forms, the meaning of the text is changed. Norton's point, and it is a crucial one, is that discerning ancients’ awareness of textual forms should focus on semantic criterion, what he calls “sense contours,” rather than the modern text-critical concentration on lexical criterion.

In thinking about how ancient readers handled texts the precise wording becomes less significant than the "sense" of the text . . . 

What might this indicate about how textual criticism ought to be practiced?

Is it now crucial to analyze not only the forms of the text that Paul cites, but also the forms he doesn't? What might that tell us about his approach to these texts?

tolle lege

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