Thursday, May 16, 2024

"By Prayer" Or "By Prayer and Fasting" (Mark 9:29)?

Dwayne Green's most recent Youtube video discusses a really interesting variant in Mark 9:29. So I decided to take a look for myself.

There are two basic readings here:

  • "except by prayer"
  • "except by prayer and fasting"

As Dwayne points out, the latter reading is supported, not just by the majority of Greek manuscripts, but the vast majority of Greek manuscripts -- 99.7 percent to be exact. So why does the Critical Text exclude "and fasting"? More importantly, what can this teach us about the proper way to approach textual variants in the New Testament? 

There are many factors involved. As you know, the predominant view in modern textual criticism prefers the readings of two ancient manuscripts that are commonly known as Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. Of the four Greek manuscripts that lack "and fasting," two of them are Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. Harry Sturz, in his book The Byzantine Text Type & New Testament Textual Criticism, argued that in order to understand modern textual criticism you need to forget virtually everything that has previously been accepted as fact about Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. But to do this, you first have to understand how the modern proclivity to favor these two manuscripts came down to us. You can read his arguments for yourself. Here I would like to add to the discussion a framework advanced by historian Carl Becker (1877-1945). You can read about Becker's views in Ernst Breisach's Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern (University of Chicago Press, 1994). 

Becker said there are two basic ways of understanding an event in the past. The historian, he said, can't deal directly with the event itself but only with statements about the event. There is therefore a distinction of capital importance to be made between the event itself which disappears and the affirmation about the event which persists. This "affirmed event" -- a commonly agreed upon interpretation of the event itself -- eventually takes over. True, the event is remembered, but not necessarily as it happened. Regrettably, argued Becker, once established, this "affimed event" becomes deeply embedded in the popular consciousness. Harry Sturz showed how deeply ensconced within scholarship is the "affirmed event." And because the affirmed version continues to mistakenly show a preference for Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, Sturz argued that there are better ways to account for the historical data. Furthermore, he argued that as long as the affirmed version is anchored in the minds of biblical historians, the true answers will remain hidden. 

So what is the way forward? To discover that, one must be bold, said Becker. Where there are gaps in understanding history, one must engage them with feasible hypotheses. This is what my friend Maurice Robinson attempted to do in his magisterial introduction to his Greek New Testament based on the Byzantine text. He argued (successfully to many) that the missing pieces must be included to help assemble the whole puzzle rather than leaving them out because they do not seem to fit. Sturz sought to do the same thing, though his conclusions differed somewhat from Robinson's. Neither would argue, however, that the "affirmed version" of New Testament textual criticism is of much help in places like Mark 9:29. Whether you count manuscripts or count text types, you end up with a text that solidly contains "and fasting." 

Just something to keep in mind my friends.

Have a wonderful and fantastic evening!