Holmes: Reasoned Eclecticism in NT Textual Criticism

Holmes, Michael W. “Reasoned Eclecticism in New Testament Textual Criticism.” Pages 336-60 in The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on The Status Quaestionis. Edited by Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes. Studies and Documents. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995.


I Introduction

In the meantime I will use, following Fee and Epp, “rigorous eclectic” to refer to approaches that rely primarily on internal criteria, “historical documentary” for those that rely primarily (if not exclusively) upon external evidence, and “reasoned eclectic” for those that combine the two (338).


This discussion…will focus on recent contributions to (1) reasoned eclecticism as a method, (2) the criteria or canons of internal evidence, and (3) the closely related matter of the history of the transmission of the text (339).


II Developments in Method since 1946

The magisterial 1946 Schweich Lectures of Günther Zuntz provide a fitting point of departure for a survey of the period under consideration… His Text of the Epistles: A Disquisition upon the Text of the Corpus Paulinum is one of the best extended examples of a genuinely balanced reasoned eclectic approach to textual criticism (339).


[Method since 1946]: E. C. Colwell, Bruce M. Metzger, J. N. Birdsall, E. J. Epp (1976 essay on “The Eclectic Method in New Testament Textual Criticism: Solution or Symptom?”), J. H. Petzer.


Petzer: “external evidence still dominates the method, since the level of certainty of the results … often depends upon the quality of the external evidence, i.e.… the best manuscripts” (342).


[The weird combination of skepticism and methodological consensus]

[T]he primary effect of recent discussions of the various criteria, including the efforts to improve or refine them, has been to increase our skepticism. We are less sure than ever that their use, no matter how sophisticated, will produce any certainty with regard to the results obtained. In addition, as Colwell once noted, “the more lore the scholar knows, the easier it is … to produce a reasonable defense” of or to “explain” almost any variant (343).


Despite this state of affairs with regard to the criteria, and the internal tensions noted by Epp and Petzer, one cannot help but notice, as one surveys the present scene, a remarkable degree of consensus with regard to method among reasoned eclectics today…All… stress the need for a balanced approach that takes into account both external and internal evidence (344).


[This brings] to the fore the paradox of late twentieth-century NT textual criticism: the time of greatest apparent agreement about method is also marked by substantial disagreement about the lasting status of that method (as well as the results it has produced) (345).


[Holems argues for the necessity of reasoned eclecticism; comparing it with “historical-documentary” approach]

Several distinguished voices among us have argued that the method (to paraphrase Schweitzer) is only an Interim-methode (345)….to the contrary, one may suggest that a reasoned eclecticism not only is but will remain, for both theoretical and pragmatic reasons, our only option (347).


[for there is a fundamental limitation to the “historical-documentary” approach]: it can take us to the earliest surviving (or reconstructable) stage of the tradition, but it cannot take us any further, unless that earliest stage is the autograph (347).


[O]nly intrinsic probability is concerned with absolute originality; other types of evidence are concerned only or predominantly with relative originality. Thus no matter what documentary discoveries or advances in understanding may be made, we cannot escape the need to employ the intrinsic and transcriptional criteria that constitute a key part of a reasoned eclecticism (348).


the assumption is widespread that the original must have survived somewhere among the extant MS testimony. Some, such as K. Aland, assert this as a matter of principle; others do so by default, by declining to take seriously, even if only theoretically, the possibility of the need to emend the text of the NT. In either case, the result is the same: Maas’s four stages are truncated to only two, recensio and selectio, and the text obtained as the result of selectio is never seriously submitted to examinatio (and, as necessary, divinatio) (348).


In short, reasoned eclecticism is not a passing interim method; it is the only way forward (349).


III. The History of the Transmission of the Text

[The problem with textual criticism lies in our reconstruction of the history of the text and its transmission]

The problem, one may argue, is not with our method but with our history of the text and its transmission (or, more precisely, the inadequacy of our history)…Eclecticism does not work in a vacuum; it functions only in conjunction with a view of the history of the transmission of the text…Here we find the explanation of why critics can express nearly identical views about method yet end up with such divergent results: the controlling factor is their different views of the history of the text (350).


It is precisely in the area of the history of the text that we find, unfortunately, one of the major lacunae of NT textual research during the period under review… only a few hardy souls have attempted more than a simple sketch of the history of the text (351).


In view of this diversity, there is clearly no consensus regarding the history of the text…the reason for the confusion experienced today is that there is no consensus regarding the history of the text. It is not the eclectic method itself that is at fault, but our lack of a coherent view of the transmission of the text (352).


IV. Prospects for Further Research

I have already discussed the need for further work on methodology and on the history of the text. Beyond these points, one may raise two additional but closely related questions.


First, in the earliest period, what counts as evidence? [earliest patristic citations?]


Second, precisely what is it that we are attempting to recover? [autographs? But just what is meant by this term? Furthermore, what is the relationship between it and the earliest recoverable textual traditions?] (353).


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