Maoretic Matthew: On Divine Preservation

conspiracy: (n)

  1. the act of conspiring.
  2. an unlawful, harmful, or evil plan formulated in secret by two or more persons; plot.
  3. a combination of persons for such an unlawful, harmful, or evil purpose:
    1. He joined the conspiracy to overthrow the government.
  4. Law. an agreement by two or more persons to commit a crime, fraud, or other wrongful act.
  5. any concurrence in action; combination in bringing about a given result.

(Definition pulled from May 13, 2022)

Friend: “I’ve been reading your blog lately.”

Me: “Okay.”

Friend: “I had to read that article about Matthew being in Hebrew originally twice. It was amazing work!”

Me: “Thank you.”

Friend: “How long until they start updating Bibles with that information?”

Me: “If it happens, I won’t live to see it.”

Friend: “What? Why? Are you dying?”

Me: “No. It’s just, I’m not a scholar. I’m just me. And even if I did manage to get this published in an academic journal or something, scholars aren’t going to change their minds overnight.”

Friend: “What? Is there some kind of conspiracy to not listen to amateur theologians?”

Me: “No, nothing like that. I mean, unless it doesn’t need to be a plan to be a conspiracy.”

My approach to God is a little different from a lot of theologians. This isn’t strange. If you listen to Dr. N. T. Wright, Dr. Michael Heiser, Dr. Tim Mackie, Mike Winger, Jimmy Akin, Cameron Bertuzzi, Dr. Braxton Hunter, Dr. Leighton Flowers, Chris Date, Skye Jethani, Kaitlyn Schiess, and other “Gandolfs” from what Dr. Heiser calls “Christian Middle Earth,” one of the things you learn is that there isn’t one “right” way to do theology. There are a lot of matters that are open to discussion in the subject. This idea is summed up in the slogan “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity.” This isn’t unique to theology. In paleontology, until very recently there has been an active debate whether Nano-Tyrannosaurus is a juvenile or a separate species from Tyrannosaurus Rex. In astrophysics, there are ongoing debates about the black hole information paradox and quantum gravity. I think that any area of deep thought will end up with these kinds of debates. In recent years, I’ve become convinced of the kind of thinking characterized by Particle Physicist Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder: taking a stand on those issues for which there is no solid reason to take a position is kinda silly.

I can give examples in the area of physics. It would be silly at this point to suggest that the Earth doesn’t have a magnetic field. We also have a very good understanding of what makes a magnetic field. Knowing that, it would make no sense to suggest that the majority of the Earth’s molten core was not ferromagnetic. If Earth’s core were not ferromagnetic, that would mean that what we understand about magnetism is false. The only people suggesting that the Earth’s core isn’t ferromagnetic either don’t grasp our current understanding of magnetism, or are suggesting that our current understanding of magnetism is incomplete. We don’t have to actually see the molten core of the planet to come to this conclusion. If you suggest that the Earth’s core is not ferromagnetic, then the educated person will ask, “Then where does the magnetic field come from?” And any answer that is not a ferromagnetic material will be met with, “That’s not how magnetism works, though.” Our understanding of theoretical points are established, and then the conclusion flows. This same reasoning doesn’t hold for something like the black hole information paradox. Whatever solution is provided to solve the black hole information paradox will be based on assumptions that have not been established by observation yet. Similarly, until recently we didn’t have enough bones to definitively define the edges of dinosaur species. Assumptions about how you divide that could be dismissed by those who preferred the other grouping.

For me, one of my goals is to establish a grounding for as many of my theological beliefs as I can. I don’t want people to be able to dismiss my assumptions without dismissing other important elements of historical studies. Finding common ground is my first goal, when it’s possible. It’s why I avoid terms like “supernatural” or “real” without clarifying them within the concession. Circular reasoning always bothers me, so I have worked hard to establish my reasoning in a non-circular way to wherever degree is possible. This means that there are a few historic doctrines that I approach with skepticism, and there are others I come at from a direction that others find unusual.

One of these is my approach to discussing the inspiration of scripture. I have seen a lot of approaches to demonstrating that scripture is inspired. One common method is to rely on prophecy. Even in such cases where a prophecy could be established as being made before the event and established to mean what we apply the interpretation to, it is really only applicable to the specific statement. As an example, Jesus’s prediction that the Jerusalem Temple would be destroyed. I believe that the Synoptic Gospels were all written before the fall of Jerusalem, but I only use this with people who already agree with me and those dates. Establishing that independently is difficult and disputable. However, even if the skeptic were to grant me the date, and grant me that Jesus’s prediction referred to the war of 70 AD, and grant me that the fulfillment was accurate (all points that could be debated) then all we would have established is that the Synoptic Gospels more-or-less preserve the words of a guy that got one prophecy right. It tells us nothing about the Gospel of John, as an example. John has no prophecy within it that occurs after the traditional dates that it was written. And what about the Infancy Gospel of James? If we’re adding John to the list without a prediction like that, why do we stop there? The Infancy Gospel of James has a pedigree nearly as old as the Gospel of John. Why include John and not James?

My approach side-steps a lot of these issues. By my approach, The Infancy Gospel of James might even have been written by James, and the letters between Seneca and Paul could be legitimate, and it doesn’t matter. After all, there’s a very real sense in which I don’t care what John, James, and Paul said, I care about what they said that comes from God.

My prime example in demonstrating what I mean is Euclid’s Elements. There’s a very real sense in which the one who reads Euclid’s Elements to learn Geometry doesn’t care what Euclid had to say. If Euclid had said something wrong, the student of mathematics would be better off skipping that section. The serious student of mathematics cares what the number line or the complex plane has to tell us about Geometry, not Euclid. However, as the centuries have progressed Euclid has been found to provide a reliable resource in getting to know the number line more intimately. You’ll learn things through Euclid that you never thought were part of mathematics. Euclid’s words are useful for proofs, for procedures, for new thoughts, and for instruction in mathematics.

How about scripture? What exactly is scripture? Paul told Timothy what we’re looking for. 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that we’re looking for that which is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. When theological students seek out thoughts with these goals, they tend to land on the same written documents over and over. We need a name to refer to these quickly and easily, so we use the term “scripture.” We call the process of creating one of these documents “inspiration,” and even if we’re wrong about the mechanics of what inspiration entails it still stands for something that happens when they’re created. To that end, I’m like a physicist that accepts a particular answer to the black hole information paradox: I can’t prove my theory outside my assumptions, but it feels to me like the theory that most approximates the data we do have.

That’s one of the reasons why I pursue the original languages of the documents so feverishly: whatever else we know about the history of these documents (be they Euclid’s Elements or Matthew’s Gospel) how we identify their original text in the original language will impact how we understand what they’re saying. The general consensus is that there’s no perfect translation of anything, which led Israeli poet Haim Nachman Bialik to lament that reading your holy books in translation is like kissing your wife through a veil. No matter how well Textual Criticism works, if I’m right and Matthew was written in Hebrew then the Majority Text, Textus Receptus, or Nestle-Alund could never restore anything except a translation of Matthew’s Gospel. I want to be a bride that gets closer to my God than that.

How completely could someone restore any of the Gospels, though? I’ve established that something we can call “inspiration” does happen, whatever it means. There’s definitely a set of books that follow the pattern I’ve described. We might argue a little around the edges, but there’s definitely a core that aren’t in very much dispute and even the edges that can be disputed are a whole lot more like than unlike the pattern I’ve described. We might disagree on the particulars, but at the very least once we’ve established that this pattern is real we can agree that it fits for Matthew and not for James. Restoring the exact words that Matthew put on his page would be ideal.

There is a theory out there called Providential Preservation. The theory says that it makes no sense for God to go to all the trouble of inspiring a text if he were just going to let it fall apart afterwards. Therefore, God must move to preserve the text of the Bible in its perfectly original form somewhere. I’m skeptical of this theory on two counts. First, I’m a lot less apt to start telling God what he must have done and a lot more apt to listen to him tell me what he has done. Secondly, there are a lot of real things that really happen that don’t “make sense,” and in fact the idea that something makes sense has been used to fool scientists before.

There are critics that take this point too far, but no two biblical manuscripts are exactly alike because biblical manuscripts were copied by hand before the printing press. If the text has been divinely preserved, then it would either be a specific set of manuscripts that were nearly identical enough to all preserve the same inspired words, or scattered readings with a specific knowable algorithm to restore the original reading or at least the divine divine reasoning. At this point, textual criticism is still as much art as it is science, and so far no one has proposed a grounded means to identify divinely preserved manuscripts, original readings, or divine readings. Any declaration that this or that manuscript is better is still mostly speculative. There’s a sense that older is better and a better understanding of the provenance is better, but these are still in the “it only makes sense” camp of reasoning. As I’ve already said, I’m skeptical of things that “only make sense.”

There are means of separating between theories that “make sense” and things that are true. One of these is prediction. Another is concordance with external data. Prediction is difficult to explain, but it is both scriptural and scientific. In scripture, the most explicit reference to prediction is Deuteronomy 18:22 (KJV) “When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.” This can sound like it’s only mystical predictions, though. For that reason, my favorite place to turn is Daniel chapter 1. In Daniel 1, Daniel predicts that if he and his friends eat only clean foods, they will have a healthier appearance. They divide the participants into groups who will get clean foods and those who will get the king’s food, and those who eat clean food were found to be healthier. Then there’s the story of Daniel and Bel found in Theodotion’s Greek version of Daniel. In that story, Daniel tells the King of Babylon that the idol Bel is not consuming the food offered to it. Rather, it is the priests. Daniel sets out to prove it by scattering a fine ash on the floor of the idol before sealing it up for the night, and in the morning they find the footprints of the priests in the ash. In scientific history, Einstein proposed his theory of Relativity, and one distinguishing feature between Relativity and Newtonian gravity was that under Relativity, the path of light would bend in the presence of a strong gravitational field. This would change the apparent location of stars if the light passed by a very massive object like our sun. Since the sun is too bright to observe stars near it, this could only be seen during something like an eclipse, which dimmed our view of the sun. In 1919, during a total eclipse, astronomers were able to confirm that the predictions of Relativity were correct. When we establish the means to test in advance, we call it an experiment. I would love to create experimental means to test various claims of preservation and means of weighing readings among manuscripts. I’m not sure what the name is of we are testing the theory by means provided external to our control.

Can a similar theory of prediction be applied to Textual Criticism? Yes. Sadly, the results aren’t quite as clean cut as some would hope. The claim of a providential preservationist would be that the text of the inspired text was substantially the same in the first century as our best traditional manuscripts of more modern periods. We need a counter claim to test against. The counterclaim typically proposed is what can be called the critical or liberal view. Unfortunately, both of these terms are used as a byword to insult opponents: liberal is taken in the political sense and critical is taken in the aggressive sense even though in this context neither is appropriate. Instead of calling this view critical or liberal, for this article I’m going to call this view Deliberate Preservation. We all agree that the text is preserved, some by the providence of God and others the deliberation of humans. Those who believe in Providential Preservation have a high degree of confidence in God’s ability and intentions. Those in favor of Deliberate Preservation are not as confident in human abilities or intentions. So while the Providential Preservationist thought that the text of inspired material from the first century would essentially match our best manuscripts from today, the Deliberate Preservation thought that the text of inspired material would be a pretty even mixture of readings that very closely match our best traditional manuscripts and readings that match the manuscripts, editions, and traditions that are not the mainstream, for example the Septuagint, Vulgate, and Samaritan editions. These theories existed in forms compatible with these thoughts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Then we discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. Before uncovering the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest Hebrew edition of most Old Testament books were from the tenth century. The Dead Sea Scrolls pushed that back to the first or second century. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, we found a masterpiece of Isaiah, almost complete. This version of Isaiah was very very close to the version found in the traditional Masoretic editions of Isaiah. So that feels like a point in favor of Providential Preservation.

The Isaiah scroll isn’t the full story, though. There are fragments that match the other traditions as well. These fragments don’t read like back translations into Hebrew from the Greek or Latin, or like foreign imports in the case of the Samaritan Pentateuch. They read like natively maintained Hebrew originals of their own traditions. So that feels like a point in favor of Deliberate Preservation.

When we count these up, 60% of the readings follow the Masoretic tradition, 5% match the Septuagint, 5% match the Samaritan, and another 20% that don’t match these primary traditions exclusively. If you take each hit as a point, then the Masoretic tradition clearly wins. However, there’s a lot of nuance to that. The Samaritan tradition only covers the Pentateuch and maybe Joshua. That 5% of the total readings match what is only 20% of the books suggests that in the relevant sections, the Samaritan is represented much more extensively.

Overall, this strongly implies that neither Providential Preservation nor Deliberate Preservation actually got this “right.” The power and will of the scribes to maintain the text through centuries is impressive, well beyond what Deliberate Preservation imagined. However, multiple traditions did exist in parallel, and it was a later action of the scribal tradition to choose one of them to dominate. This doesn’t seem to be exactly what Providential Preservation had in mind.

That does bring me back to my analogy to Euclid’s Elements, though. People who have taught math for centuries have found Euclid useful. Similarly, those who taught ethics as discussed in the Hebrew Scriptures have found the Masoretic Tradition to be useful, even to the point that they stopped copying and using the other traditions.

This is where I need to take a moment to discuss what I mean when I say “conspiracy theory.” Clearly, the normative understanding of the word “conspiracy” requires that it be a plan. If it just happens by happenstance, it’s not really a conspiracy. However, there are times when it sure feels like a conspiracy, even though all the evidence indicates that no one had a plan. There was one time when myself and two other friends all ended up at the same restaurant at the same time a third friend was celebrating his birthday there. Of course we all pretended that we remembered that it was his birthday and that we had received some kind of invitation and that this really was a plan, but in private discussions it was clear that none of us remembered and none of us had an invitation and none of us had intended this in any way.

When I say that something is a conspiracy theory, I don’t mean that it’s a theory about a secretive plan. That’s the etymology of the term, but lots of terms outgrow their etymology. What I mean is a theory where the absence of supporting evidence is itself taken as evidence that the theory is more complete. If my friends and I had admitted that we are, in fact, horrible human beings that don’t remember each other’s birthdays, and the birthday boy had taken this as proof that we had organized the whole thing and coordinated our stories, that would have been a conspiracy theory. However, even if he had taken it as evidence that we each individually intended to surprise him without a plan among us, it would still have been a conspiracy theory, at least the way I use the term.

There is a theory in textual circles that fits both versions of a conspiracy theory, though. That theory is that the Jewish people corrupted the Hebrew Bible. Various versions of this theory include removing the deuterocanonical books, changing important readings, or destroying the manuscripts that matched the Greek and Samaritan editions. There’s no evidence of this, and in certain circles the lack of evidence is taken as evidence that the corruptors were so thorough as to even remove the evidence. I find the optimism of these people regarding the ability of people to work together so endearing and I hate to burst their bubble. However, the human condition is that when people work like that, there are almost always defectors. One need not look any further than the story of Iron Mike Malloy to see this in action. Even with the incentive of a substantial sum of money, conspirators couldn’t keep quiet about their conspiracy.

The evidence we have is not that there was a group that had the authority to destroy heretical Hebrew Bibles the world over. Rather, the evidence is that more and more teachers found the same readings of the Hebrew Bible useful over and over and copied them more and more and other readings less and less.

This doesn’t indicate that these readings were the original readings originally penned by Isaiah, Daniel, or Matthew. We have already seen that in the first century, the Hebrew Bible existed in multiple forms, and the Samaritan and Greek traditions are all that currently remain of some of those readings. There are even reasons to believe that sometimes these other versions are windows into the original text. In the Greek New Testament, we actually see that text criticism has come in two flavors which can be very roughly and imprecisely equated to Providential Preservation and Deliberate Preservation. The Majority Text position holds that the traditional text of the Greek New Testament is in fact the original text of the Greek New Testament. In stark contrast, the Critical Text position holds that the original text of the Greek New Testament is the inspired version in contrast to the Traditional/Majority Text. Someone like me, who thinks that in some places the Critical Text is closer to the letters that the Apostles put on the page and the Majority Text is closer to what God wants us to believe, are rare. The Majority Text position doesn’t explicitly hold that the text represented by the majority of manuscripts is preserved by God, but it definitely says that the text is preserved. This was the position that was mostly justified by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Old Testament. The Critical Text position holds that the text diversified quickly and it’s hard to identify which is original. This position was also justified by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

No matter which method of text criticism an editor uses, they’ll usually start with a manuscript or two as their primary source. One of the reasons for this is simplicity: it’s easier to copy one manuscript and compare against that than to build each reading as you go. But there are also questions of style that need to be considered and are really a scribes choice. Do we write our numbers out or use numeric abbreviations? How do we spell a particular name? So on. The Critical Greek New Testaments often start with Codex Sinaiticus, the Majority Text New Testaments start with something in the Kr family of manuscripts. In my creation of the Masoretic Matthew, I’ve started with Hebrew Manuscript 132 from the National Library of Paris. However, I’m also marking differences that represent a sort of “majority Hebrew Matthew” reading, using the qure reading system that the Maorites pioneered. Personally, I think this is what the qure reading system was created for: to identify more reliable readings without betraying the consonants given by their forefathers. If nothing else that I’m doing illustrates my skepticism for the idea of Providential Preservation, this should. Before this project, I always said that it would be too much work to identify the majority Hebrew Matthew reading, but I’ve found the time to do it.

However, there is at least one thing that could be done to change my mind and convince me that Providential Preservation is better. The one who made the Paris Manuscript added a name to the genealogy. I say he added it, but I’m begging the question when I say that, and it may be original. If it is, then it is retained in only or maybe two or three manuscripts. However, that doesn’t have to be the only way the information is maintained. The Jewish community is famous for maintaining genealogies. There was a story in the fifth century that people were able to confirm that both the genealogies of Matthew and Luke were basically correct by talking to living descendants of Joseph. If someone wanted to give powerful evidence in favor of Providential Preservation, they could piggyback on my evidence that Matthew was written in Hebrew with multiple cataloged, traditional genealogies of the descendants of David that confirm that Abner belongs in the genealogy. This would require finding traditional genealogies from people claiming to be descended from David that are independent of either Luke or Matthew and collating the data. Such evidence would not be unassailable by those who were determined to resist Providential Preservation. Alternate theories would include that the one making the manuscript was also part of the genealogy and knew that Abner belongs there. However, for me if external independent data could be corroborated to a small set of manuscripts that preserved that data against the odds, that would go a long way towards establishing that God was active in the preservation of those manuscripts.

So if someone could demonstrate that the genealogy of Matthew matched what was maintained by traditions completely independent of each other, that would be interesting evidence for the special, divine preservation this manuscript of Matthew itself. Then we would have to figure out how that extrapolates to other New Testament books.

I don’t think this search will happen in my lifetime, though. The reason I don’t think it will happen is social economics. If I’m right, then those who are in a position to actually run this kind of search won’t gain anything, no matter which way the search goes. If the search did indicate that there actually is a perfect manuscript of Matthew, it’s still not the manuscript that they’re using. They’ll either lose a chance to prove that Providential Preservation is true, or they’ll prove that it’s true and that they’ve had the wrong source for Matthew all along. The Majority Text position faces a similar problem in biblical studies. All of the top teachers and researchers are Critical Text proponents. If they were to have a debate with a Majority Text proponent and win, then they don’t gain anything. If they had that debate and lost, then it could cost them their reputation.

This is why progress in biblical studies moves at glacial speeds. In my heart, if I could do anything, I would give biblical studies the shot of adrenaline it has so desperately needed since the time of the reformation. As it stands, the hierarchy of biblical studies has more in common with politics than science: assignments are often based more on adherence to or distance from credal statements than externally verifiable, objective discoveries. If I could get people to say that those who make the better prediction get appointments, regardless of conservative or liberal leanings, that would be the progress that I would want to see and the progress that would revolutionize the field. I only wish that I could live to see such a thing happen.

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