Review of ‘Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism’ by Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts


New_Testament_Textual_CriticismStanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts, Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015).

This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts describe their Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism as a “distinctively midlevel textbook on New Testament textual criticism for interested and serious students and with recent scholarly discussion in pertinent areas in mind.” It is, in other words, a textbook for students in college and graduate school who are majoring in New Testament studies. Why, then, do I think pastors and other Christian thought leaders should read this book too?

To answer that, go back with me to 2003, when Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code. Although the book is fiction, Brown prefaced it with these words: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” Unfortunately, many of Brown’s allegedly “accurate” claims—especially about the Bible, Christian theology, and church history—were simply wrong, sometimes at the most basic, factual level.

Regardless, those claims left an impression on readers. Understandably so! Many readers nodded their heads when Leigh Teabing, one of the book’s characters, said this about the Bible: “Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book.” In other words, powerful people monkeyed around with the text of the Bible in order to confer divine status on their preferred ideology.

Two years later, Bart D. Ehrman published Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Unlike Brown, who is a novelist, Ehrman is James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman wrote, “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” And one of the reasons for that is what Ehrman elsewhere calls “the orthodox corruption of Scripture.” In other words, the orthodox altered the text of the New Testament in order to give themselves a “biblical” weapon to use against heretics.

Now, imagine that you are a well-meaning Christian and you read The Da Vinci Code. It raises questions about the accuracy of the New Testament text. Your pastors say it’s bunk, but then you read Misquoting Jesus, and you start to wonder whether they know what they’re talking about. And then you start to wonder whether the Bible itself is trustworthy.

Notice how quickly a fictional narrative can lead to a factual question with serious spiritual implications. Pastors who are unaware of the questions percolating in popular culture and unprepared to provide serious, well-thought-out answers to them are not serving members of their congregation well. At some level, then, pastors must know how to answer the kinds of questions raised by Dan Brown’s and Bart Ehrman’s statements.

Which brings me back to Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism. In this book, Porter and Pitts provide readers with a nuts-and-bolts explanation of that discipline. They define the goal of textual criticism as the “reconstruction of the original the [New Testament] documents based upon the manuscript traditions currently available.” They then walk readers through major witnesses to the New Testament text and the various text-types that arose over the centuries. They define what a textual variant is and outline how external and internal evidence help decide what the original text most likely said. They then conclude with their discussion with several chapters on modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament, as well as translations of it into English.

With the exception of a brief (and to my mind, conclusive) refutation of Bart Ehrman’s orthodox-corruption-of-Scripture thesis, the tone of the book is introductory rather than apologetic. Nonetheless, their introduction of the discipline of textual criticism has apologetic implications. If we can recover the original text of the New Testament with reasonable confidence, then we can be reasonably confident that it has not been corrupted for political (Dan Brown’s point) or theological (Bart Ehrman’s point) purposes. In other words, when we read the New Testament, we have access to the worldview, beliefs, and practices of Jesus’ earliest disciples. I would further argue that in having access to them, we have access to Him.

Again, Porter and Pitts do not make these apologetic points. Their focus is on introducing the discipline to students, and they do this well and objectively. Anyone interested in the textual criticism of the New Testament thus will find accurate information here. Still, as a minister, I can’t help but think that this introduction is capable of inoculating readers against certain viruses of the mind about the Bible contained in both pop culture and certain academic quarters.

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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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Review of ’40/40 Vision’ by Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty


40-40_Vision_book_350Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty, 40/40 Vision: Clarifying Your Mission in Midlife (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015).

[Note: This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.]

An 80-country survey asked respondents, “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” People in their 40s were least satisfied, with 46-year-olds being unhappiest. I am 46 years old. Needless to say, I read Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty’s new book with keen interest.

The forties are the decade when men and women experience midlife crisis. They are halfway through their lives equidistant from the start of their professions and their retirement. The twenties and thirties are predominated by questions of success. In the forties, however, questions of significance take the lead.

According to Greer and Lafferty, the kinds of questions 40-year-olds ask are these: “All this work, does it even matter? I’ve striven for so long, but I’m still not there—and now I’m losing interest. Why am I not happier? Is this my lot in life? Did I miss my calling? Is it too late for a do-over? Was all that I pursued in my thirties a mistake?” (emphasis in the original).

These are questions of meaning. To navigate the turbulence of the forties is thus to navigate the waters of life’s meaning. And few books of the Bible address the question of meaning more acutely than Ecclesiastes.

But wait, you’re thinking to yourself; doesn’t Ecclesiastes say that life is meaningless? “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’” (1:2). If you’re having a midlife crisis, that’s hardly the kind of statement to cheer you up.

True, but as Greer and Lafferty point out, Ecclesiastes’ perspective is that of a “functional deist,” that is, “a person who acknowledges God’s existence but suffers due to his apparent absence.” Such a person can experience great success and pleasure in life, and yet still discover that they don’t guarantee a meaningful life. What is needed is a larger worldview, an above-the-sun perspective.

An above-the-sun perspective gives meaning to an under-the-sun life not by pooh-poohing success or pleasure, but by qualifying them, by helping us see the goodness in life’s limitations. For example, chapter 6, “(Un)charitable,” deals with the concept of “true wealth.” Ecclesiastes 5:10 truly said, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves money is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.”

But notice the parentheses in the chapter title; they are important. A person focused on getting is uncharitable. But place that negative prefix un- in parenthesis—qualify or limit it—and you discover that wealth isn’t the problem. It’s the lack of generosity. The authors write, “In the United States, we’ve developed super-sized appetites for pleasure, but we haven’t experienced a corresponding rise in our taste for giving.” Accumulating money doesn’t make you happy or filled with a sense of meaning. Being generous with what you have does, however.

The same can be said for all the goods we pursue in life. They’re not necessarily bad in and of themselves, but they’re unalloyed goods either. A meaningful life recognizes their limited, qualified, under-the-sun goodness.

Only God, who lives “above the sun” is unqualifiedly good, so our search for meaning in midlife must inevitably turn to Him. Of one of the criminals crucified alongside Christ, Greer and Lafferty write: “In many ways, he typifies a wasted life, a nameless man engaged in senseless violence. But during his brief moment on stage, he said a line that goes down as one of the greatest in history: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Luke 23:42).” And that request saves him. “Boom. Immortal. One moment of clarity in a life of futility, and everything changes.”

Precisely because I’m in my forties, I paid close attention to the advice given in 40/40 Vision, and I recommend it highly, especially if you’re in midlife too. I want my next forty years to be even better than my first forty. I especially recommend reading the book to forty-something pastors. It’s hard enough to lead a congregation under normal circumstances, let alone on top of a midlife crisis. Get help early and often!

At the start of this review, I noted that 46 years of age was the low point of unhappiness in that global survey. If that’s where you are today, you don’t have to get stuck there! For, to borrow a phrase from Ecclesiastes, God will make everything beautiful in its time (3:11).

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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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