Literary Criticism as a path forward for Textual Criticism?

Beginning of 11th century
Beginning of 11th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tom is an interesting cat. I think he would like to, filled with a profound sense of mistrust, dispense with everything for the last 2000 years, and suddenly attempt to read Scripture as if he could answer the question no one is asking with tools no one can provide. And yet, every now and then, Tom and I will agree, somewhat. I qualify the agreement with the descriptor, somewhat, because I don’t want you to think that my agreement with Tom is unqualified.

He has a post up examining Matthew 3.15, a textual critical problem. He attempts to provide an answer through the lens of literary criticism. Textual criticism is usually based on something of a scientific method whereas literary criticism stretches that method to a breaking point, and knowing Tom, relying too heavily on reader-response, the last repose of the rebellious. But, I like literary criticism — a moderated structuralism form of it.

In my book, as I move into the application of mimetic criticism, I mention that such a criticism, mimetic, can be used to solve the various textual critical problem, such as the one found in Mark 1.40-1:

Καὶ ἔρχεται πρὸς αὐτὸν λεπρὸς παρακαλῶν αὐτὸν καὶ ⸀γονυπετῶν λέγων αὐτῷ ὅτι Ἐὰν θέλῃς δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι.⸀καὶ ⸀ὀργισθεὶς ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα ⸂αὐτοῦ ἥψατο⸃ καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ· Θέλω, καθαρίσθητι·1

This is about the only time I’m going to agree with Bart Ehrman, I think, but he’s correct when he says that the original word here is not compassion, but anger. The reason is this: because the literary source identified for this passage is drawn from a scene with an angry king. We can argue that angry is probably the right one because no later scribe would remove compassion and replace it with angry, but this is subjective reasoning. Maybe such a scribal event happened by a copyist who just lost his family to vandals. But, we can use literary criticism to identify the sources for this passage and make the best-guess scenario. But, textual criticism is still based on hard evidences, and not promulgated on the “you cannot prove a negative.” And, sometimes, a best guess is all that you can do, if you do, say with with a bold self-confidence.

One of the essential difference between Tom and I, and between other post-structuralists and those who live in reality, is that agnosticism is no sure route to take to solving any problems. Tom will no doubt review my book, a review I am not likely to read, and will take offense at some of the bold claims I make. So what? If you aren’t willing to state claims, then don’t write. That’s why, even if I disagree with an author, the cut of an author’s gib if that author makes claims that are less agnostic and more sure. Maybe that’s why I love to read Maurice Casey’s works, as well as James Crossley’s, even if I disagree with their outcomes for an early date on Mark, because they write with confidence.

So, with confidence, I can say that Mark 1.41 is about Jesus being angry because I with confidence believe Mark is using a certain Elijah-Elisha narrative at this juncture. If I didn’t, I would have even brought it up.

Oh, and if you are hoping that I would get to revealing the alleged literary source, you’re going to have to buy the book.

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  1. Michael W. Holmes, The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition ( (Logos Bible Software, 2010)), Mk 1:40–41. Note the NA-28 has the opposite variant.
Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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