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Catholics and textual criticism…

Catholics and textual criticism…

A correspondent writes:

I am wondering, how do Catholics regard textual criticism? What is the Catholic position on the canonicity of various New Testament passages like the Pericope Adulterae, the Comma Johanneum, and the Longer Ending of Mark, for example?

What Textual Criticism Is

For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, textual criticism involves the study of how texts change over time—how bits get added, deleted, or altered.

Some variation in texts was inevitable before the invention of the printing press, since all texts were hand-copied and scribes sometimes made mistakes. Accidental textual variations even occur now that we have the printing press, though not as much.

Also, some textual variations are intentional. This happens on both the smaller level—as when a scribe or a publisher intentionally fixes a typo—and on the larger level, when they produce a “revised and expanded edition” of a work.

Textual Criticism and the Bible

One of the goals of textual criticism when it’s applied to the Bible is determining what the original reading of a text was.

There are various ways of doing this, and they involve detective work based on comparing the different readings that are out there and using lines of evidence to figure out which was most likely the original.

There are a large number of textual variants in the thousands of manuscripts that were hand copied before the printing press, but the large majority of them are trivial, such as alternate spellings and word order.

Very few would have any impact on doctrine, and no key doctrine of the Faith is at stake.

Nevertheless, love for God’s word has led Christian and Jewish scholars to spend a great deal of time trying to determine the original wording of the Bible.

Earliest Editions and Authoritative/Canonical Editions

It should be pointed out that, even if you determine the earliest reading of a text, that does not tell you what the canonical or authorized version is.

A number of years ago, Mark Twain’s original manuscript for Huckleberry Finn was discovered, and scholars of American literature could see the earliest readings of this text in Twain’s own handwriting—with all the crossing out and marginal additions he made during the writing process.

But even though scholars now could see the earliest readings of different passages, that didn’t mean these belonged in the authorized, “canonical” edition of the novel—i.e., the version of Huckleberry Finn that Twain authorized for publication. Indeed, Twain had crossed them out!

Something similar happens when authors or publishers issue new editions of books. While what a first edition said is of historical interest, later editions supersede earlier ones. Thus, the first edition of a chemistry textbook written in 1940 should not be considered as valuable a teaching text as an updated edition published in 2020 (chemistry has advanced in the last 80 years!). Neither should one rely on a copy of the U.S. legal code published a hundred years ago, but on the current edition of the law.

A parallel phenomenon happens with Scripture, where expanded versions of books and revised versions of material also appear. As I write in The Bible Is a Catholic Book:

God sometimes inspired books that contained material he had already placed in other books. These could be condensed versions of the original. The most famous is Deuteronomy, which condenses and revises the laws given earlier in the Pentateuch. Thus its name, Deuteronomy, means “second law.” Chronicles and 2 Maccabees also condense and supplement material found in other books.

Sometimes God expanded on a previous work. This happened with Jeremiah. There was an original, shorter edition that was burned by King Jehoiakim, but God inspired a new edition that contained the original material as well as much new material (Jer. 36).

God did something similar in the deuterocanonical period. He inspired expanded editions of Daniel and Esther. The first includes three additional sections. One (“The Song of the Three Young Men”) is a hymn sung by Daniel’s companions. The other two (“Susannah” and “Bel and the Dragon”) display Daniel’s wisdom and show how God delivered him. In addition, the expanded edition of Esther includes sections that bring out more clearly the role of God. (The Hebrew edition, strikingly, doesn’t contain explicit references to God.)

So, bear in mind the distinction between the earliest version of a text and the canonical version.

Catholics and Textual Criticism

Like scholars in general, Catholic scholars are very interested in determining the earliest version of biblical texts, and so they also practice textual criticism. The Church is totally fine with this and positively encourages it. In 1943, Pope Pius XII wrote:

The great importance which should be attached to this kind of criticism was aptly pointed out by Augustine, when, among the precepts to be recommended to the student of the Sacred Books, he put in the first place the care to possess a corrected text. “The correction of the codices”—so says this most distinguished doctor of the Church—”should first of all engage the attention of those who wish to know the Divine Scripture so that the uncorrected may give place to the corrected.”

In the present day indeed this art, which is called textual criticism and which is used with great and praiseworthy results in the editions of profane writings, is also quite rightly employed in the case of the Sacred Books, because of that very reverence which is due to the divine oracles. For its very purpose is to insure that the sacred text be restored, as perfectly as possible, be purified from the corruptions due to the carelessness of the copyists and be freed, as far as may be done, from glosses and omissions, from the interchange and repetition of words and from all other kinds of mistakes, which are wont to make their way gradually into writings handed down through many centuries. . . .

Nor is it necessary here to call to mind—since it is doubtless familiar and evident to all students of Sacred Scripture—to what extent namely the Church has held in honor these studies in textual criticism from the earliest centuries down even to the present day (Divino Afflante Spiritu 17-18).

The Church thus approves of textual criticism. But what about the three passages that the correspondent asked about?

What Are the Three Passages?

The Comma Johanneum, the Pericope Adulterae, and the Longer Ending of Mark are three of the most famous textual variants in the New Testament.

The first—the Comma Johanneum or “Johannine comma” (a “comma” being a short piece of text, in this case) is a variant found in some manuscripts of 1 John 5:7-8. Here it is, with the text in question italicized:

For there are three that beare record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that beare witnesse in earth, the Spirit, and the Water, and the Blood, and these three agree in one (KJV, 1611).

Because this variant makes explicit mention of all three Persons of the Trinity, it became very popular as a text for defending the doctrine of the Trinity. However, as the science of textual criticism developed, it became clear that it may not have been in the original version of 1 John.

The Pericope Adulterae (pronounced per-IH-co-PAY ah-DUL-ter-AE; that is, “the passage concerning the adulteress”) is a variant printed in many Bibles as John 7:53-8:11, and—together with the Longer Ending of Mark—it is one of the two longest textual variants in the entire New Testament. As its name suggests, it’s the famous story about the woman caught in adultery and how Jesus refused to condemn her (“Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone”).

The Longer Ending of Mark is a variant printed in many Bibles as Mark 16:9-20. It concerns things that happened after the Resurrection of Jesus, and it largely repeats and rephrases material found in the other Gospels and Acts.

The Johannine Comma

The Catholic Church does not have a teaching about whether these three variants were in the original editions of the books in question. It leaves that issue to scholars, and most scholars are of the opinion that none of the three were in the earliest versions.

However, this does not settle the question of their canonicity, because later editions may be the ones that God guided to become canonical (as in the case of Jeremiah, Daniel, and Esther).

In the case of the Comma Johanneum, the Magisterium has not taught it to be canonical, and—given the textual evidence against it being in the original—it is not included in most modern Catholic Bibles.

For example, it is not in the revised version of the Latin Vulgate—the translation that the Holy See itself uses. Similarly, it is not in the New American Bible: Revised Edition, which is published by the U.S. bishops.

Neither translation even includes a footnote mentioning the Johannine Comma.

The Pericope Adulterae and the Longer Ending of Mark

When it comes to the Pericope Adulterae and the Longer Ending of Mark, the matter is more complicated. Here is what the Council of Trent said:

But if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin Vulgate edition . . . let him be anathema (Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures).

That’s an infallible definition. The question is what the definition means when it says the books found in the Vulgate need to be accepted as sacred and canonical “entire with all their parts.”

This does not mean that we can’t do textual criticism to determine the original readings. That matter was discussed by Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu (see sections 21-22).

The statement is principally directed against Protestants who were challenging the canonicity of parts of Daniel and Esther (see above), which they rejected as apocryphal. In fact, the whole reason that Trent chose to define the canon was to deal with Protestant challenges to various books of the Old Testament.

That was Trent’s clear intent, but in the discussions that led up to the council fathers voting on this decree, there also was discussion of certain New Testament passages, including the Longer Ending of Mark and the Pericope Adulterae (see Hubert Jedin, A History of the Council of Trent, Volume II, ch. 2).

The subject of whether these passages are also included in Trent’s definition thus will depend on how clearly the council fathers intended to define this matter.

The general rule concerning infallible definitions is:

No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident (can. 749 §3).

One could argue that what is manifestly evident is that Trent wanted to define the canonicity of the books of the Bible including those passages in the Old Testament that were being disputed by Protestants but that it is not “manifestly evident” that they meant to define the canonicity of particular New Testament passages, in which case the matter would not be infallibly settled.

Because the Longer Ending of Mark and the Pericope Adulterae were mentioned in the background discussions leading up to the approval of the decree, most have concluded that they are defined.

Thus, the editors of the New American Bible have a note on the Longer Ending of Mark that states that it “has traditionally been accepted as a canonical part of the Gospel and was defined as such by the Council of Trent.”

Similarly, they also include a note on the Pericope Adulterae that says, “The Catholic Church accepts this passage as canonical scripture.”

On the other hand, Pope Benedict XVI wrote:

The ending of Mark poses a particular problem. According to authoritative manuscripts, the Gospel comes to a close with 16:8—“and they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.” The authentic text of the Gospel as it has come down to us ends with the fear and trembling of the women. . . . In the second century, a concluding summary was added, bringing together the most important Resurrection traditions and the mission of the disciples to proclaim the gospel to the whole world (Mk 16:9–20) (Jesus of Nazareth vol. 2, 261-262).

Benedict thus seems to treat the Longer Ending of Mark as noncanonical, since he indicates it is not part of “the authentic text of the Gospel as it has come down to us.” (Also, in Church-related documents “authentic” means “authoritative,” and if a text is not authoritative, it is not canonical.)

Further, if he is correct that the Longer Ending was written in the second century, that would seem to place it after the apostolic age and make its canonicity further problematic.

One does not have to agree with Benedict, here, for as he famously wrote:

It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search “for the face of the Lord” (cf. Ps. 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding (Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, Foreword).

In light of what is manifestly evident regarding Trent’s intention, and Pope Benedict’s statement regarding the ending of Mark, there is presently a question in my mind about whether Trent intended to define the canonicity of the New Testament passages that came up in its preliminary discussions.

To settle the question, I would need access to the texts of these discussions so that I could see exactly what was said and what preliminary votes were taken. Unfortunately, I have thus far not been able to obtain access to this information.

Author: Jimmy Akin

Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith, and in 1992 he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”

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