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Friday, 10 March 2006

Hypothesizing on a Haldane's dilemma for textual critics

Under normal circumstances the older a text is than its rivals, the greater are its chances to survive in a plurality or a majority of the texts extant at any subsequent period. But the oldest text of all is the autograph. Thus it ought to be taken for granted that, barring some radical dislocation in the history of transmission, a majority of texts will be far more likely to represent correctly the character of the original than a small minority of texts. This is especially true when the ratio is an overwhelming 8:2. Under any reasonably normal transmissional conditions, it would be . . . quite impossible for a later text-form to secure so one-sided a preponderance of extant witnesses.
- Zane Hodges' Dallas Seminary class notes, published in Pickering, Wilbur, The Identity of the New Testament Text

How does a new textual reading make its way into the manuscript corpus? I can think of a few possibilities:

1)Scribal error. Since all any scribe at any time is liable to any error, one would expect the same errors to crop up in a variety of mss at a variety of times. Some errors are more likely than others, and some are so only at certain times. So errors will tend to occur in clumps.

2)Editorial smoothing.
Since all mss have errors, any scribe copying a ms is prone to smooth out a perceived error in his exemplar. Some non-errors will in this way be mistakingly turned into errors. Some originally difficult readings will be more prone to be smoothed out, and this will be more likely to occur at some times than at others. So smoothed readings will tend to occur in clumps.

3)Theological tampering.

a)This may not always be intentional, but may consist of selectively choosing mss that have undergone process #2, thus perpetuating for theological reasons a reading that originated for soley editorial reasons. But as time goes by I have less and less confidence that this was very often actually the case.

b)This may be intentional. This is reported to have been the case in Marcion's gospel of Luke; in Jefferson's Indian Bible; and, quite likely, in Tatian's Diatesseron.

The problem with variant readings, however they are introduced, is exactly the problem with the genetic variations hypothesized by Darwinism: how do these variants, at their origin counting as only an infinitessimal fraction of all other readings (or alleles), supplant all others to eventually become the overwhelming majority? This problem in genetics is known as Haldane's Dilemma. It was first described by the noted evolutionist JBS Haldane in his 1957 article The Cost of Natural Selection, and it has never been solved. Needing an original-sounding surname with which to christen my own version of this dilemma as it applies to textual criticism, I will call it the White Man's Dilemma.

To state the two dilemmas in a more scientific way, I'll begin with Haldane's:

In a fixed population, the cost of substitution runs orders of magnitude higher than the rate of transfer. Thus the time required to genetically mutate one species into another exceeds by several factors the time actually postulated.

Now to translate that into English:
It takes an unbelieveably long time for a new variant to spontaneously arise and subsequently replace all other variants in the gene pool of any species.

To give the implications:
Humanoids could not have evolved into humans in 10 million years. After a mere 10 million years of evolution, there would still be lots of "lower" humanoids around, along with several subsequent intermediary species, but only relatively few humans. There has not yet been nearly enough time for the substitution of human for humanoid to have run its course genetically.

Now for the White Man's Dilemma:

Over the course of an authorised transmission of textual readings, the cost of substitution runs orders of magnitude higher than the rate of transfer. Thus the time required to completely replace one text-type with another far exceeds the time actually postulated.

Or in plain English:

It is one thing for a new reading to arise in the corpus of an authorised text. It is quite another for that reading to replace all other variants in the corpus to become the new reading of the authorised text. The normal process of authorised textual transmission constantly weeds out new readings and reinstates old ones.

The implications:
First of all, the practical implications:

Hort claimed that the Neutral text, which was the official authorised text of the new state church under Constantine, was completely replaced in a matter of centuries at the most with the Syrian text, differing in thousands of readings from the Neutral--several affecting entire verses, some entire passages the length of a chapter. But under the constant supervision of the Catholic Church (which excersized authority throughout the Mediterannean world at least until the time of Charlemagne), such a substitution could not have taken place that rapidly.

On the other hand, such substitutions as may have occurred would have taken place at the jucture of two separate authorities. Thus we see textual streams separating at the border of the Eastern and Western empires; at the Caucasian border of the Eastern empire; and at its northern border with the barbaric hordes. But these readings always remained local in scope. No innovation could have crossed all borders and resulted in the readings which are now attested in the overwhelming majority of ALL manuscripts in ALL languages, other than those Hort labeled the Neutral Text. The White Man's' Dilemma stands as a stubborn obstacle to Hort's Syian Recension Theory, which underlies the new textus receptus he proffered in replacement for the former one which he despised.

And now the historical implications:

Hort was a Darwinist. He liked the idea of Genetic Change Toward Improvement Through Natural Selection of Random Mutations. He applied the idea to his understanding of the transmission of the New Testament Text, and found the textus receptus of his day to be nothing but an evolved result of natural selection of random scribal errors, originating in the Deep Past from a punctuated quantum leap in textual change brought about by intelligent design. Applying some intelligent design of his own, he resurrected an extinct textform and with it successfully supplanted the reigning paradigm in a punctuated leap backward.

Hort's theories--and/or the resurrected readings they sanction--have been ex cathedra for Darwinist textual critics ever since.


  1. Haldane's dilemma is something I'd like to know more about (in its evolutionary setting)? Any more information?

    As for its application to NT textual criticism, I don't think we need Haldane's Dilemma to see that it would be difficult for minority readings to completely supercede majority readings. However, difficult is one thing, impossible is another matter. I would be reluctant to to accept that such a situation was impossible, especially with the textual liberties that we know were taken during the first two centuries.

  2. I'd like to know more about it too, but it's a closed subject to the scientific world. Peer reviewers won't pass any articles that don't solve it, and it's insoluable.

    Yes, textual liberties were definitely taken in the first 2 centuries. We know that because the 3rd-century mss vary widely among themselves, as well as in comparison to later mss. But even as genetic mutations are naturally eliminated from the species (while some genes are lost altogether), in any naturalistic mss transmission scenario, defective readings are eliminated, while some readings are lost altogether.

    The authoritative literature of the Church is not as big a corpus as it used to be; some of it has been lost. Take for instance, Paul's entire first epistle to the Corinthians. Or the Epistle to the Laodiceans, the 'surviving' copies of which are obvious fabrications. So we can accept, on a purely human basis, that some readings did not survive the 2nd century. But the question is whether this could have happened to any inspired scriptures, which are under God's own protection and preservation.

    Let's look back at the situation from the earliest centuries. Of all extant mss from that era, not one is a copy of any other; each stands alone at the end of an extinct line of transmission. Working our way back the other way, we find a couple or three sets of mother-daughter mss, and some sister sets; but otherwise, hundreds of mss of any given passage also stand alone at the end of each one's line of transmission. But are these lines extinct? Hardly--the vast majority of them all point back to a single archetype, long since dead but never extinct as a species. Thus the readings they contain must have, in overwhelming part, been preserved through the turbulent years, and, through their own transmitted authenticity, supplanted the wild readings that then arose, only to go extinct (to be resurrected centuries later, but that's another story).
    To postulate that a new reading could have wholly replaced an original reading, which was then lost, is to play into the hands of those who feel free to conjecture readings to fit their own presuppositions--such as AIG's deletion of "Cainan" from Luke 3:36.


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