Textual criticism as teacher

Moisés Silva in his book Interpreting Galatians: Explorations in Exegetical Method, starts out his chapter on textual critisicm on p. 43 with the following paragraph:

As I have already pointed out in the introduction, most modern commentators, in contrast to an earlier generation of scholars (such as Lightfoot and Burton), have no special interest in textual criticism, show little if any familiarity with the manuscripts themselves, and thus must rely almost entirely on modern editors. This state of affairs is understandable: gaining proficiency in textual criticism is a difficult and time-consuming task, and the rewards are not immediately obvious—besides, haven’t the specialists basically done all the work already? Considering the many other demands placed on commentators, one can hardly fault exegetes for relying on those who have devoted themselves to the field. On the other hand, there is a closer relationship between textual and exegetical questions than people usually think, and ignoring the dimension of textual transmission is bound to affect the quality of the exegetical process. And, by the way, it is not true that all the work has been done.

The next to the last sentence really struck me and caused me to reflect on my own training in the discipline. Every fall when I teach textual criticism in intermediate Greek, I make this statement, or something very close to it:

Textual criticism is the art and science of determining the original reading of a text when we do not actually possess the original document.

This is a common definition for textual criticism, and is true enough as far as it goes. But Silva reminded me textual criticism is very much about how scribes think, that is, their exegetical process. My statement should also emphasize the fact that textual criticism can be a great teacher. Properly practiced and understood, textual criticism gives insights into exegesis of particular texts and exegetical method as a whole, as well as serving as a means for determining the original wording of a text. This can be seen in one of the most important rules used in textual criticism: The reading of the text which can more readily explain the rise of the others is more likely to be original. Often times when we practice textual criticism, we use the rule in one direction: We use it to point to the reading which lead to the genesis of the others as a goal of determining the original reading of the text. However, if we use this rule fully and in turn explain the rise of the other readings, this will give us excellent insight into exegetical thought about the particular text in question but also insight into exegetical method in general. Ancient scribes were in many ways ancient exegetes, and learning how they thought can be helpful in our contemporary task.