The Place of Textual Updating in an Inerrant View of Scripture: Part Three

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This article was originally published in the December 2001 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Posted with permission of the author.

Excerpt INERRANCY, INSPIRATION AND THE OT CANON: THE PLACE OF TEXTUAL UPDATING IN AN INERRANT VIEW OF SCRIPTURE. In part one of this article, Dr. Grisanti spelled out some of the foundational definitions and conceptions of inspiration and canonicity. In part two, the discussion turned to some potential examples of inspired textual updating. Part three engages with potential objections to Dr. Grisanti's thesis. Continue reading

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IV. Possible Ways to Relate Textual Updating to a Belief in Inerrancy

 

The present section surveys two primary ways of relating the concept of textual updating to a belief in inerrancy. With regard to these alternatives I have utilized similar paragraphs with key differences to highlight each position’s similarity to and difference from the other positions.

 

1. Traditional conservative argument. Using the Pentateuch as an example, Moses wrote it during his lifetime, and that original copy was the autograph and inspired. Any later additions were not inspired but were simply scribal glosses added to clarify terms that were becoming obsolete. These glosses may be true and correct but were not written as inspired of God. For example, with regard to the possible editorial addition in Deut 2:12 (which was discussed above), Geisler and Nix conclude: “Even if they are later additions, they may possibly be uninspired changes that are subject to the same textual debate as Mark 16:19–20 and John 7:53–8:11.” 58 If, indeed, one concludes that our present Hebrew text of the OT contains geographical, historical, or linguistic updates, those additions must be regarded as secondary textual variants from the original (and inspired) text.

 

2. Proposed conservative argument (inspired textual updating). Using the Pentateuch as an example, Moses wrote it during his lifetime, and that original copy was the preliminary canonical form of those biblical books and inspired. Any later additions (prior to the finalization of the OT canon) were also inspired and not simply scribal glosses, added to clarify terms that were becoming obsolete. These glosses were true and correct as well as being written as inspired Scripture.

 

V. Selected Proponents of Inspired Textual Updating

 

This overview of proponents is selective and limited. There are many scholars who refer to different kinds of examples of textual updating in various circumstances, 59 but the individuals included in this section relate their view of textual updating to their belief in inspiration and inerrancy.

 

1. Robert Dick Wilson. In delineating the position of the conservatives (as contrasted with the radicals), Robert Dick Wilson affirms that “the Pentateuch as it stands is historical and from the time of Moses; and that Moses was its real author though it may have been revised and edited by later redactors, the additions being just as much inspired and as true as the rest.” 60

 

2. E. J. Young. For E. J. Young, who served as the editor for the above volume by Wilson, an acceptance of the essential Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch does not exclude the idea that “certain few minor additions . . . were inserted into the Pentateuch under divine inspiration by a later editor.” 61 Young contends that even though “there may have been later minor additions and even revisions” under the umbrella of divine inscripturation, Moses was the fundamental or real author of the Pentateuch and that “substantially and essentially . . . it is the product of Moses.” 62 Young also writes, “When we affirm that Moses wrote or that he was the author of the Pentateuch, we do not mean that he himself necessarily wrote every word.” 63

 

3. Merrill F. Unger. After critiquing the documentary hypothesis or source criticism, Unger seeks to define the Mosaic unity of the Pentateuch by means of two statements. First of all, he affirms that “[t]he Mosaic unity of the Pentateuch means that it is one continuous work, the product of a single writer.” 64 Under this heading he also concludes that a belief in the Mosaic unity of the Pentateuch “does not necessarily preclude the possibility of later redactions of the whole work, so as to render it imperative to hold that Moses wrote with his own hand or dictated to amanuenses all and everything contained in it.” 65 Secondly, Unger suggests that “[t]he Mosaic unity of the Pentateuch may admit post-Mosaic additions or changes which do not affect the authenticity or integrity of the text.” 66 In that regard he contends the following:

 

It is not inconsonant with the Mosaic authenticity and integrity of the Pentateuch to grant later redactions of the whole work and to allow that, during the course of the centuries of the transmission of the text, certain modifications were introduced into the work, such as additions after the death of Moses, modernization of archaic expressions and place names, marginal glosses or explanatory scribal insertions, which eventually crept into the text, and textual errors due to inadvertent mistakes of copyists. The latter constitutes the legitimate domain of scholarly criticism.67

 

Unger distinguishes between textual variants that were caused by copyists and belong to the domain of textual criticism and modernizations and glosses that crept into the text as part of the inscripturation process. After considering various potential examples of post-Mosaic additions or changes, Unger states that a belief in Mosaic unity and authenticity does not preclude the possibility that an inspired redactor could have made additions that would not have conflicted with the Mosaic unity of the work. He also affirms that a later editor could have effected minor changes (e.g. modernization of place names) in order to make something comprehensible to a later generation.68

 

4. Bruce Waltke. Waltke suggests that the problem of explaining the conventional definition of the original autographa “is occasioned by the phenomenon that books of the Bible seem to have gone through an editorial revision after coming from the mouth of an inspired spokesman.” 69 After considering some examples of intentional editorial activity, Waltke concludes: “If this be so, then the notion of an original autograph should also take account of later inspired editorial activity. From this perspective it is important to distinguish inspired scribal activity from noninspired scribal changes introduced into the text.”  70

 

5. Ronald Youngblood. After arguing that the statement about Israelite kings in Gen 36:31 seems to imply a later editorial touch (considered above), Youngblood affirms that:

 

such editorial updating to help later readers should not alarm or even surprise us. Our doctrine of inspiration is not affected at all by such observations. The same God who inspired the original author (or authors, in the case of a book like Proverbs) of an OT book also inspired its compilers and editors (if any). The final product, the completed Word of God, is just as inspired and infallible and authoritative as each individual word and verse and chapter and book that entered into its compilation.71

 

6. Herbert Wolf. After dealing with several examples of post-Mosaic additions, Wolf points out that the possible post-Mosaic additions in the Pentateuch are relatively minor.72 He goes on to affirm that the work of individuals who added to or modified the work of Moses was superintended by the same Holy Spirit whose ministry superintended all writers of Scripture. Any changes made by Joshua, Samuel, Ezra, or anyone else were prompted by the Holy Spirit and conveyed exactly what he intended (2 Pet 1:21).

 

7. Duane Garrett. In his book Rethinking Genesis, Garrett contends that “the assertion that Moses is the principal author of the present text of Genesis need not mean that it came from his hand exactly as we have it now.” 73 Garrett also affirms that “the main reason such a redaction would have taken place was not to substantially change the book in any way, but rather to make it more intelligible for a later generation of readers.” 74

 

VI. Answers to Objections Raised against Inspired Editorial Activity (Prior to the Completion of the Canon)

 

In their response to this suggestion that “inspired redactors” made changes in the writings of earlier biblical writers, Geisler and Nix title this suggestion “the redactional canon theory.” 75

 

The following discussion 76 centers on four issues raised by critics of the idea of inspired textual updating: Deut 4:2’s mandate against adding to God’s Word; the argument that the idea of inspired textual updating makes inspiration man-centered rather than God-centered; the notion that this approach threatens wide-scale redactional activity; and the charge that this proposal violates the customary definitions of “inspiration” and “autographa.”

 

1. Deut 4:2: a mandate against adding to God’s word. How does the admonition of Deut 4:2 cohere with the idea of inspired textual updating? This admonition that nothing be added to or subtracted from the covenant (cf. 12:32; Rev 22:18–19) emphasizes the divine origination of and responsibility for the covenant.77 In a unilateral arrangement of this type it is the sovereign alone who can set the terms of the covenant.78 Only that which Yahweh prescribes and all that Yahweh prescribes is normative and binding. The vassal’s responsibility was to accept the covenant stipulations as given and to make every effort to keep them.79 Since this revealed covenant is sacred (as part of the canonical Scriptures), “no one has the authority to alter it in any way, or even to supplement it, unless he shares the prophetic gift of its original author, Moses.” 80

 

Although various scholars regard this as a divine commandment with regard to the canonical writings of both testaments, in the immediate context the divine mandate in Deut 4:2 (cf. 12:32 [HB 13:1]) relates to the law which Moses was about to present to the children of Israel. Craigie contends that the injunction refers to the essence of the law rather than the letter of the law in light of the fact that the wording of the law in Deuteronomy 5 differs at several points from its wording in Exodus 20.81 Nevertheless, the essence of the law is clear and the same in both chapters. The meaning or sense of these laws and not their exact wording was at stake. The covenant-treaty stipulations Moses gave Israel lacked nothing. He prohibited anything that would adulterate, contradict, or render ineffective these divine requirements.82

 

The placement of the almost identical injunctions in Deut 4:2 and 12:32 [HB 13:1] affirms the covenantal context of this warning. The mandate in Deut 4:2 introduces a section of verses that exhort Israel to obey all of God’s commands. Deut 12:32 concludes the general stipulation section in which Moses calls Israel to worship their God in total and absolute allegiance. Only what the Lord has spoken and all that he has spoken is incumbent upon them.

 

Similar warnings found in Prov. 30:6 and Rev. 22:18–19 doubtless draw on Deut 4:2 for their significance. Each of these injunctions seeks to guard the integrity of God’s revelation.83 The warnings are against willful tampering or distortion of the message of God’s servant.84 These passages do not prohibit textual updating by a prophetic figure that makes the message of a given passage more intelligible to a later generation of readers.85 Rather, they emphasize the fact that God’s word is sufficient or complete. The book of Deuteronomy needed no additional rules or stipulations, and none of those given through Moses were superfluous.86

 

2. This approach makes inspiration man-centered rather than God-centered. Geisler and Nix suggest that the acceptance of any inspired editorial activity after the original composition of a biblical book makes inspiration man-centered rather than God-centered and violates the traditional conservative understanding of the autographa as fixed documents that do not change after the time of their initial composition.87 In response, the whole point of this discussion is to understand better the biblical doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy as it relates to the OT Scriptures. Theological definitions should draw on biblical evidence rather than stifle it. The presence of geographical modernizations alone seems to demand that we re-evaluate the customary articulations of the definition of “autographa” 88 and “canon.” It also suggests that evangelicals should regard inspiration as text-oriented as well as applicable to the entire process of inscripturation, guaranteeing the accuracy of any inspired editorial additions or changes made before the OT canon reaches completion. The suggestions offered in this paper do not contest the fact that divine inspiration determines canonicity, authority, and infallibility. The Holy Spirit’s work of inspiration guarantees a biblical book’s inerrancy at any and every point in time in biblical history.

 

3. This approach threatens wide-scale redactional activity. Geisler and Nix incorrectly associate the idea of inspired editorial updating (between the time of a book’s original composition and the completion of the OT canon) with the views of errantists who articulate the doctrine of inspiration in an entirely different fashion than that proposed in this article. They also liken the concept of inspired editorial updating proposed in this article with widescale redactional activity before and after the close of the OT canon.89 They quote I. Howard Marshall who notes that “the weakness of the view (emphasis mine) is that it locates inspiration as an activity in the process of composition of the Bible and does not really tackle the issue of the inspiredness of the resulting book.”90 However, Marshall’s comments are directed toward the view of Paul Achtemeier who posits that the believing community produced the Scriptures. After this community received traditions concerning what God has done, it tried to understand and apply those traditions to its current situation, and then it reformulated those traditions to address that situation.91 Marshall’s telling critique is not directed toward an inerrancy position that recognizes the presence of relatively narrow-scale inspired editorial activity in the inscripturation process that ends with the completion of the OT canon.

 

In similar fashion, Geisler and Nix incorrectly quote various scholars who allegedly oppose the suggestion of inspired editorial activity.92 According to a footnote, Geisler and Nix suggest that Ken Barker registered “strong disagreement” with Waltke’s position on inspired editorial activity in his written response to Waltke’s essay.93 To the contrary, Barker’s primary complaint with Waltke’s essay was not directed against his suggestion that some inspired editorial activity occurred during the OT’s compositional history, but was related to Waltke’s approving reference to the presence of the J and P sources in Genesis 1 and 2.94 It is in the second response to Waltke’s essay that Alan MacRae registers “strong disagreement” with Waltke.95 Once again, however, MacRae’s “strong disagreement” concerns Waltke’s approving reference to sources in Genesis 1–2.96 MacRae never makes mention of the issue of inspired editorial updating, let alone registering any “strong disagreement” with it.

 

Although the above “straw man” arguments are misdirected, the question, “Where do you draw the line once you allow for any textual updating?” deserves attention. What guidelines prevent a person from going beyond small-scale textual updating to the practice of a more thoroughgoing form of redactional activity? As with historical issues, the bipolar terms, minimalist and maximalist, express the two extremes of this issue. As a maximalist, I am limited by that which the text of Scripture suggests. I am not advocating a wide-scale editorial reworking of the text that is driven by an aberrant theological agenda.

 

4. This approach violates the customary definitions of “inspiration” and autographa.” Finally, most critics of the thesis of this article unrelentingly adhere to the customary definitions of “inspiration,” “canonicity,” and “autographa.” Those who reject the concept of inspired editorial updating must deal with evidence cited above in one of two ways. First of all, some scholars insist that any updating of biblical texts belongs to the realm of textual criticism rather than the domain of canon.97 In other words, if there is compelling evidence that a given name was added after the completion of a certain biblical book (e.g. a post-Mosaic addition to the Pentateuch), that addition represents a textual variant. What proponents of this suggestion do not seem to realize is that if all the various modernizations are non-inspired scribal changes, we need to get behind those changes somehow in order to unearth the autographa upon which we can base our study of the OT text. I know of no Hebrew text, English translation, or commentary that excises the various modernizations that appear in the Hebrew OT or questions their integrity or accuracy.

 

Second, some scholars posit that a biblical writer could have written the correct place name in advance of the time of its usage. Although this is possible, it means that the audience of that biblical book would not have understood the writer’s intention in that specific passage for decades if not centuries (as in the case of Gen 14:14 where the name “Dan” appears to have been added about 100–150 years after the death of Moses). Whether any theological or exegetical proposal represents a positive refinement or a negative retrogression demands legitimate attention. However, definitional critiques alone, that is, the suggestion that a given proposal is wrong because it does not fit within traditional definitions is not compelling by itself. The biblical scholar must decide which definition best handles the evidence at hand.

 

VII. Conclusion

 

In the context of an enthusiastic acceptance of the biblical doctrine of inerrancy, I am proposing that we need to give careful attention to the realities of the compositional history of the OT as we define and explain our understanding of “autographa” and the development of the OT canon. In light of the geographical and linguistic changes that occurred over the 1,000 years covered by the composition of the OT books and completion of the OT canon, I would argue that the textual updating, though limited in scale, that occurs at various points in OT books is not part of mere scribal activity after the completion of the autographa of a given book or set of books, but of the inscripturation process that results in God-breathed Scripture. At every point of the inscripturation process, a given biblical book is autograph-like, fully inspired, and inerrant. Let me emphasize that the almost exclusive NT foundation for our concepts of “autographa” and “canon” does not take into account realities of the OT text and serves as the occasion for this paper. My proposal is first and foremost definitional, that is, I am suggesting that in the context of a high view of Scripture we adjust or refine our definition of certain key theological terms in light of the compelling OT evidence.

 

Here are the basic refinements to our articulation of the concept of the autographa and canonicity proposed by this paper. I would view a given biblical book before the completion of the canon as a preliminary canonical form of that biblical book. Once the OT canon reaches completion,98 every OT book is in its final canonical form. Since that form of a biblical book is susceptible to change (though on a relatively small scale), I prefer not to call the preliminary form the “autographa” in the technical sense. Rather, I would describe the final canonical form of a biblical book as the autographa. Any changes introduced to a biblical book before the close of the canon are regarded as “inspired editorial updates.” After the close of the OT canon, any changes introduced to the biblical text are variants from that text and are not inspired textual updates. Finally, I assume that a prophetic figure (having credibility in the Israelite community) introduced these modernizations into a given biblical text.

 

Although some of these ideas have been suggested elsewhere, evangelicals need to take them into consideration in our presentation of theology, bibliology in particular, and prepare our students for these challenges.

 

God’s Word is a great treasure that merits the greatest care and attention. I am not the first to propose the above refinements to our understanding of the autographa and canonicity nor am I unaware of some potential abuses of this proposal. However, my desire to articulate accurately my understanding of the truths of Scripture to others motivates me to deal with the realities of the biblical text. I am firmly convinced that these refinements exalt and maintain a high view of Scripture.


Michael Grisanti is Professor of Old Testament at The Master’s Seminary where his scholarly interests include Deuteronomy, Old Testament theology, biblical ethics, the prophets, and the history of Israel. He has been actively involved in ministries around the world, which have brought him to Colombia, Honduras, Albania, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Russia, and Ukraine. For several years, he taught at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

 

Endnotes:

58. Geisler and Nix, Introduction 252. Return to text

59. The above material that considers various evidences of inspired textual updating provides examples of a number of scholars not included in the following listing of scholars who try to connect their acceptance of inspired editorial glosses with their view of inspiration and inerrancy. Return to text


60. Robert Dick Wilson, A Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Sunday School Times, 1926) 11; emphasis mine. Return to text

61. E. J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1949) 33. Return to text

62. Ibid. 45. Return to text

63. Ibid. 51. Return to text

64. Unger, Introductory Guide 237. Return to text

65. Ibid. 238. Return to text

66. Ibid. 239. Return to text

67. Ibid. Return to text

68. Ibid. 240. Geisler and Nix, however, contend that Unger “flatly rejected the notion that later non-Mosaic additions were made on the Pentateuch by redactors, inspired or not” (Geisler and Nix, Introduction 251, n. 32; citing Unger, Introductory Guide 231–32). They also affirm that, concerning this concept of inspired editorial activity, Unger wrote, “the difficulties involved [in such a view] are inseparable” and that “some may ‘fondly dream’ that such a view is plausible, but only in vain” (Geisler and Nix, 251, n. 32). In point of fact, Unger’s negative comments are directed toward the JEDP theory (Unger, Introductory Guide 231–32), and the suggestion that Unger flatly rejected the notion of inspired editorial activity ignores his clear statements later on in the volume (Ibid. 238–40). Return to text

69. Bruce K. Waltke, “Historical Grammatical Problems,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible (ed. E. Radmacher and R. Preus; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984) 78. Return to text

70. Ibid. 79. Return to text

71. Youngblood, Genesis 241. Return to text

72. Herbert Wolf, An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch (Chicago: Moody, 1991) 60. Return to text

73. Garrett, Rethinking 85. In a similar way, Dillard and Longman refer to “later canonical additions” or post-Mosaic additions in the book of Genesis that fit within a conservative position concerning the authorship of the Pentateuch that accepts the “essential authorship” of Moses (Introduction to the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994] 40). Return to text

74. Garrett, Rethinking 85–86. Some other proponents of inspired textual updating are Charles Pfeiffer (The Book of Genesis: A Study Manual [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958] 7) and J. Ridderbos (Deuteronomy 22). Return to text

75. Geisler and Nix, Introduction 250. They cite six supportive arguments offered by proponents of this “redactional canon theory”: the addition of Deuteronomy 34 after Moses’ death, the parenthetical editorial statements in Deuteronomy 2–3 (see above), the compositional history of Psalms and Proverbs, the two textual versions of Jeremiah, and the Chronicler’s use of prior prophetic records (ibid. 250–51). Geisler and Nix affirm that none of these arguments provide compelling evidence for the existence of any inspired editorial activity after the original writing of a biblical book. For Geisler and Nix’s response to the possibility of non-Mosaic editorial statements in Deuteronomy 2–3, see their comments under the above section entitled, “Possible ways to relate textual updating to a belief in inerrancy.” Return to text


76. Geisler and Nix serve as a reference point in this discussion since they have argued against this position in print. Return to text

77. Merrill, Kingdom 115. Return to text

78. Ibid. Return to text

79. Prohibitions of this kind are attested throughout ancient Near Eastern law and covenant texts. For example, the Vassal-treaties of Esarhaddon (lines 410–13) state, “(You swear that) you will not alter (it) [the covenant text], you will not consign (it) to the fire nor throw (it) into the water, nor [bury (it)] in the earth nor destroy it by any cunning device, nor make [(it) disappear], nor sweep it way” (D. J. Wiseman, The Vassal-Treaties of Esarhaddon [London: British School of Archaeology, 1958] 60; cf. the epilogue of the Lipit-Ishtar lawcode, J. Pritchard, ed., ANET (3d ed.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969) 161; M. Kline, The Treaty of the Great King (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1963) 43. Return to text

80. Beckwith, OT Canon 134. Return to text

81. Craigie, Deuteronomy 130; cf. Beckwith, OT Canon 134. Return to text

82. Earl S. Kalland, “Deuteronomy,” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992) 3.42. Return to text


83. Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 8–22: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1995) 513. Return to text

84. Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1977) 395. Return to text

85. Contra Geisler and Nix, Introduction 253. Return to text

86. Kalland, “Deuteronomy” 3.42. Return to text

87. Ibid. 253–54. Return to text


88. If someone grants the existence of geographical modernizations but regards them as noninspired changes, he must deal with the existence of non-inspired material in the autographa with no means possible of recovering the inerrant text at that point. Return to text

89. Ibid. 254. Return to text


90. I. Howard Marshall, Biblical Inspiration (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982) 38. Return to text


91. P. Achtemeier, The Inspiration of Scripture: Problems and Proposals (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980) 114–18; cf. Marshall, Biblical Inspiration 37–38. Return to text

92. Geisler and Nix, Introduction 251. Return to text

93. Ibid. 251, n. 31. Return to text


94. K. Barker, “A Response to Historical Grammatical Problems,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible 136. In a phone conversation with Dr. Barker, he confirmed his acceptance of “inspired editorial glosses.” In his recent commentary on Micah, he allows for a later editor collecting and organizing the messages of Micah (Kenneth L. Barker and Waylon Bailey, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998] 31). Return to text


95. A. MacRae, “A Response to Historical Grammatical Problems,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible 145. Return to text


96. MacRae devotes eight pages of his eighteen-page response to that one issue (ibid. 145–52). Return to text

97. Geisler and Nix, Introduction 253–55. Return to text


98. OT scholars have long debated the issue of when the OT canon reaches completion. Settling that issue is not the purpose of this article. Nevertheless, the completion of the OT canon serves as a culminating benchmark for the compositional history of the OT. Return to text

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