The need of the hour is to expose eclectic exegesis for what it is – choosy and subjective.
‘Eclectic’ derives from the concept of ‘choosing out’ from a variety of choices. Eclectic has a wide meaning and it is often applied in a positive sense to indicate that one is not narrow-minded but that one draws from a variety of sources. We do this all the time when we make daily choices and forge our pathway in life. People are familiar with the pick-and-mix concept.
Religion and islam
The same attitude is adopted in religion. Thus moderate muslims distance themselves from radical, aggressive muslims who interpret jihad ‘fighting, striving’ as ‘holy war’ and kill infidels. The moderate muslim has a pick-and-mix attitude to the koran (the muslim scriptures), commentaries on the koran and Muhammad’s sayings.
The same pick-and-mix or eclectic attitude is seen in Roman Catholicism. It does not rely upon the Christian Scriptures alone for its doctrine, but it chooses what it wants and combines it with tradition to forge its current dogmas, doctrines, beliefs, traditions and practices. Roman Catholics pick what they want from their pope in Rome’s encyclicals and opinions. There is a crisis among Roman Catholics as different groups pick-and-mix their opinions.
Most religious people have this pick-and-mix attitude to their religion, picking the bits they like and rejecting the bits that they don’t like. They do the same with God Himself.
Many Christians have an eclectic approach to the Bible. They chose what they want from the Bible and overlook or even reject the rest.
The Christian Bible
This eclectic approach is so much part of life that not enough people notice that it is applied to the Christian Scriptures. Academics know that it is used in translating the Bible, but not many people know this until they discover some favourite Bible text has been adulterated or even removed from the Bible. Sceptical academia adopts a pick-and-mix attitude to its translation of the Bible and, having given up on the hope of ‘recovering’ the original text of the Bible, they chose the latest scholarship to help them ‘discover’ it.
A long history
The long history of picking and choosing how to understand and translate the Bible began with the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. One may think that one can go further back to the editors of the individual books of the Bible and the determining and fixing of the canon or books that compromise the Bible, for even here there is academic debate, but that picking and choosing is the simple necessity in divine providence for composing the final edition of Scripture. It is important to notice that the teaching of the divine inspiration 2Tim 3:16 and divine preservation Ps 12:6-7 of the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible applies only to the final edition as gathered before, and authenticated by, the Lord Jesus Christ Who asserted its divine composition down to the ‘jot or tittle’ of the biblical text Mat 5:18 – translated by the New International Version as ‘the smallest letter … the least stroke of a pen’. Jesus’ attitude to the Bible contrasts markedly with modern academia.
The Hebrew Bible
The words of the Hebrew Bible use mainly consonants with very few vowels, which we call the consonantal text. Modern Hebrew is the same. It is like shorthand that misses out vowels when they are not necessary and inserts them when they can clarify ambiguity. Many English words spelled wrongly can be recognised if the first and last letters are correct because the human brain reads words as a unit. Thus Hebrew words could be read easily by native Hebrew speakers. In addition, the Jewish scribes were very careful about copying their Hebrew manuscripts and if they found a mistake in a page they did not correct it but they destroyed the whole page and began writing a new page in its place. This promoted very accurate copying of the text.
The Septuagint LXX
However, long before Jesus came into the world, many Jews had been exiled from the land of Israel and did not know Hebrew. Some Jewish academics in Alexandria were commissioned to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek, called the Septuagint, the Latin for ‘seventy’, abbreviated as LXX, the Roman numerals for ‘seventy’.
This translation has many academic advantages as well as practical uses for non-Hebrew readers. It was used by the early Christian teachers taking the Gospel around the Roman empire, when Greek was an international language and Hebrew was not known by people in other nations. The Christian New Testament, written in the same Greek as the LXX, quotes both the LXX and translates the Hebrew Bible directly.
However, the LXX was more than a translation and in some places it added material by way of commentary or explanation and sometimes it missed out material. The same care was not manifest with this Greek translation as with transcribing the original Hebrew text.
The Masoretic text and diacritical marks
In the Christian era, the Roman Emperor Hadrian expelled Jews from the land of Israel and changed its name to Syria-Palestine. Now that the Jerusalem temple, the centre of Jewish worship and learning, was destroyed there was a real risk of losing the meaning of the Hebrew text of the Bible.
From about 600AD the Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes began to add vowels to the Hebrew consonantal text to clarify the words for following generations and for the Jews scattered around the world. Various marks were added, primarily under the consonants, known as diacritical marks from the Greek word ‘to distinguish’. These were the academic opinions of the Masoretes to clarify what each word was.
Various terms are used to describe this activity such as ‘pointing’ ‘the Masoretic text’. Was this pointing authentic? It was better than nothing but there is no reason simply to accept Masoretic pointing as the last word on the matter.
Modern academia will not attribute divine inspiration nor preservation to the Hebrew consonantal text, so presumably they will concede that we cannot attribute divine knowledge, inspiration nor preservation to the Masoretic pointing. This being so, we have to concede that the Masoretic pointing is itself eclectic, and a perusal of Bagster’s Analytical Hebrew Lexicon, Benjamin Davidson, will show the bewildering number of possibilities available to the Bible translator as well as to the exegete.
In the 16th-century European Protestant Reformation, the Reformers learned their Hebrew from humanist scholars and Jewish rabbis, such as Melanchthon‘s uncle Johann Reuchlin who learned from the Jewish scholar David Kimhi. As learners, the Reformers were in no position to question their teachers and so we find a deference to Jewish scholarship at that time.
The Masoretic Qere readings
However, just as the LXX demonstrated an academic readiness to change the translation a thousand years earlier, so the Masoretes demonstrated that they were not averse to changing even the original Hebrew consonantal text. Sometimes a variable spelling was corrected, but it went much further than this and plurals would be substituted for singulars and vice versa, and other words could be substituted. As the Hebrew Scriptures were read aloud publicly in the synagogue, so there developed alternative readings called Qere (the Hebrew for ‘to be read’) readings instead of reading the Ketiv (Hebrew for ‘written’).
This was, in effect, to assert that the written text was faulty for whatever reason, that the Holy Spirit had not preserved it adequately Ps 12:6-7 and that the academics had to put it right. I have yet to find one example where the Ketiv text should be corrected by the Qere. The current state of Jewish academia and religion on this subject is mixed, but many Jews recognise the Qere as the authoritative text and will allow only the Qere to be read aloud, based upon Talmudic consensus formulated by the 5th century AD.
This eclectic attitude in effect attributes a degree of infallibility to the 6th-century-AD Masoretes that biblical critics will not attribute to the inspired penmen who wrote the original text!
This pick-and-mix or eclectic approach was followed even by the King James Version of the Bible, which sometimes follows the Ketiv written text and sometime the Qere, possibly following rabbi Kimhi. The infant 16th-century Reformed translational movement adopted not only the knowledge but also the attitudes of the Jews to textual amendation. This was probably unwitting, for even the great theologian and Bible commentator John Calvin did not anticipate where unguarded comments on textual errors (rather than scribal errors) would lead, but Matthew Poole did seem to understand the theological implications of doing so and consciously avoided making this concession.
The readiness of some Reformers to accept textual errors in the divinely preserved consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible, due to their failure to see where such concessions would lead, paved the way for the King James Version (KJV) to adopt some Qere readings, out of deference to the Jewish scholarship that had taught them Hebrew, but even then this was eclectic, picking and choosing the Ketiv or Qere as the translators thought best.
Textual criticism and Higher Criticism
Textual variations, particularly in Greek manuscripts, when Christian sects changed manuscripts and there was not the same centralised control of manuscript transcription and distribution as among the Jews, led to the development of textual criticism, comparing extant manuscripts with each other. This legitimate activity led into the Higher Critical movement, which abandoned the concept of the divine inspiration and preservation of Scripture by the Holy Spirit. Translation was now an academic free-for-all, cut loose from ecclesiastical oversight through which the Scripture had been given to the church, cherished by it and distributed by it. As the world’s best seller the Bible is now big business for publishing houses, persuading Christians that they need new up-to-date editions – copyrighted of course. Yet the teams of academic translators seem unable to do their own exegesis but have a habit of copying each other’s mistakes in an academic consensus. The subjective and choosy nature of such academia may bask in the light of exclusive elitism, but whereas there is a joy and freedom in making choices in life, Scripture warns us to make the correct choices. To think that we can second-guess the Holy Spirit regarding His inspired Word is folly indeed.
Almost all new translations adopt the Qere variations in the Hebrew Old Testament and the critical academic texts in the Greek New Testament, manifesting an eclectic approach to the text of inspired Scripture. This results in readable but unreliable versions of the Bible. The best English-language version is still, therefore, the King James’ Version until the Lord gives us godly scholars to address the issues that have come to light since its production.
From little acorns…
The inevitable and undoubted mistakes made by scribes copying manuscripts has, step by step, been magnified into the unbiblical doctrine that we need academics to ‘reconstruct’ the text given to us by the Holy Spirit.
The New Testament “critical text” can be shown by internal evidence to be an inferior text. It received its 19th-century impetus from the theory that there was a 4th-century Byzantine Recension which rounded out and removed ‘errors’ in the original text, and therefore the Received Text upon which the KJV is based needs to be ‘corrected’ and the original text ‘restored’. However, the Byzantine Recension theory is now discredited by Higher Critics and attempts to explain away the Received Text have failed. So why should academia retain the primacy of the critical texts, which began its march to its current supremacy from sceptical academics who postulated this Recension that been shown to have no basis in fact? It is time to abandon the subjective, eclectic approach to textual criticism and to recover the biblical approach.
An eclectic approach has yielded poor academic scholarship. Such elite eclecticism may seem positive to such academics, but one can be so specialised that one loses one’s perspective and one cannot see the wood for the trees – focusing so much on the trees that one cannot see the forest. The Word of God is not a string of beads interspersed with errors, but a coherent whole with a heaven-sent message waiting for the Church to appreciate and proclaim.
It is not uncommon to hear preachers comment that they “like” the way a text is translated in such-and-such a Bible version. This may be so, but it is likely to reveal an eclectic approach to the Word of God without understanding the textual basis upon which this translation is made. There is also the added subjectivity of dynamic equivalence and other principles being employed in current Bible translations, moving the Bible reader and Bible student further and further away from the inspired words of Scripture.
For many reasons, I recommend the King James Version for the public to read for their daily worship and study of the Word of God.
Where to from here?
This is not the end. Subjective, eclectic exegesis arises from an attitude to the Word of God that will not be constrained by the Word of God. Such free spirits do not appreciate the apostle Paul’s injunction:
‘Casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.’2Corinthians 10:5.
Scribal errors led to textual errors, led to textual criticism, led to Higher Criticism, led to new Bible Versions, led to doctrinal revisionism, led to unbelief and led to apostasy.
Now, to make itself ‘relevant’ to an unbelieving world, the church is engaging in cultural exegesis, which is the commonest form of eclectic exegesis. However, it is not recognised as such and therefore it needs a name. Emotional exegesis is a sub-set of cultural exegesis, but these will need to wait for another blogpost.
“The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.Psalm 12:6-7
O Lord, Thou shalt guard them and preserve them for ever from this hostile generation.”
14 Jan 2014: a summary or Index of exegetical mistakes can be viewed here.
8 July 2017: the imitating of academic consensus.
6 Jan 2018: Dean Burgon’s The Revision Revised gives trenchant criticisms of myopic and prejudicial academia in his day which fed into the Revised Version of the Bible (1881), whose critical textual basis has been the basis of almost all Bible versions since then.