How and why will your New Testaments be changing in the computer era?

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THE QUESTION:

How and why will a new technique for computer analysis of ancient texts affect the New Testaments you’ll be reading?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

A revolution now under way will gradually change every future English translation of the New Testament you’ll be reading.

Translations are based upon some 5,800 hand-written manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek that survived from ancient times, whether fragments or complete books. Scholars analyze their numerous variations to get as close as possible to the original 1st Century wordings, a specialty known as “textual criticism.”

Books by Bart Ehrman at the University of North Carolina tell how such differences turned him from conservative to skeptic regarding Christians’ scriptural tradition. Yet other experts see the opposite, that this unusually large textual trove enhances the New Testament’s credibility and authority, though perplexities persist.

Two years ago, a good friend with a science Ph.D. who closely follows biblical scholarship alerted The Religion Guy to the significance of the “Coherence-Based Genealogical Method” (CBGM). What a mouthful. The Guy managed only a shaky grasp of CBGM and hesitated to write a Memo explaining it.

But he now takes up the topic, prodded by an overview talk by Peter Gurry, a young Cambridge University Ph.D. who teaches at Phoenix Seminary, video posted here (start at 33 minutes). The Guy won’t attempt a full description, but you can learn details in Gurry’s article for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (.pdf here), or his co-authored 2017 book “A New Approach to Textual Criticism.” (Gurry’s doctoral dissertation on CBGM is available in book form but pricey and prolix.)

If it’s any encouragement, Gurry confesses he himself needed a year to comprehend CBGM, which he says “is not widely known or understood, even among New Testament scholars.” Despite confusion and controversy, he considers CBGM “a very good thing” that “boosts our confidence” in the New Testament heritage.

Scholars’ minds cannot possibly cope with the vast data of New Testament texts that computers can now process. CBGM is essentially a set of theories and tools for computer analysis of relationships among the texts to track their history by sorting them into lines of family “connectivity” and working back to the original wordings.

It seems inevitable that CBGM will overturn numerous conclusions from previous textual criticism. In almost all cases, future revisions will be minor and won’t alter basic beliefs, though with Holy Writ every word is important. (Older English renditions such as the King James Version will remain unaffected.)

The new technique was first announced in 1982 by Gerd Mink of the important Institute for New Testament Textual Research at Germany’s University of Munster. The institute evaluates and blends varied manuscripts to produce successive editions of the New Testament in Greek used for modern translations.

Already, the institute’s latest Greek edition (number 28) employed CBGM to examine 3,046 variations in 123 key manuscripts of the “Catholic epistles” (James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude). The result was 35 changes that are beginning to filter into updated English Bibles now on sale.

Continue reading “How and why will your New Testaments be changing in the computer era?”, by Richard Ostling.

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