Understanding the CBGM: An Introduction (Part 1)

For the benefit of our readership, I thought it good that we present a primer of sort on the CBGM or the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method. To do this I will lean almost exclusively on Dr. Wasserman and Dr. Gurry’s work, A New Approach to Textual Criticism: An Introduction to the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method. As you might imagine having read their book, I have many questions but for now let us keep those to a minimum and instead wrap our heads around the method of the CBGM and some subsequent implications.

What is the importance of doing this? Well at a minimum it is important to know what our opposing interlocutors are doing and thinking in the field to which our mutual discussion pertains. Or more simply, to paraphrase Sun Tzu’s Art of War, If you know neither yourself nor your enemy then you will lose in every battle. If know only yourself, you will prevail in only half your battles and if you know both yourself and your enemy then you will prevail in every battle. While I don’t generally consider my interlocutors to be enemies, certainly our positions are opposed and opposed in significant ways. To the end of understanding our opposition I think it good to understand their tools, methods, and conclusions so as to avoid strawman-ing our brother opponents.

Beginning with the Chapter 1 – Introduction, Wasserman and Gurry define the CBGM simply and without admitted necessary qualification as,

“…a method that (1) uses a set of computer tools (2) based in a new way of relating manuscript texts that is (3) designed to help us understand the origin and history of the New Testament.”

Wasserman and Gurry, A New Approach, 3.

Our authors first not that the CBGM focuses not on manuscripts as artifacts but on the text contained in them. That is, the focus in not on the age and family of the manuscript, rather the focus is on each word as they appear in the artifacts known as manuscripts. As will be noted later, the notion of Text Types is almost wholly rejected in the work of the CBGM. This seems to be in large part the case because the analysis of the text is an analysis first of the words recorded and preserved by ink on paper. Wasserman and Gurry observe,

“A text of a manuscript may, or course, be much older than the parchment and ink that preserves it.”

Wasserman and Gurry, A New Approach, 3.

As such the search for the initial text [which we will get to later] has become more focused. Instead of starting with a definition of “witnesses” as whole document to defining “witnesses” as being the words or absence of words within that document.

Wasserman and Gurry offer an illustration of how the CBGM works with the text in the following words,

“…consider two manuscripts, A and B. At any point of comparison, their text can be related in only one of these ways: 1. They agree with each other: A = B 2. They disagree with each other, and either 2a. One derives from the other: A -> B or A <- B, or 2b. Their relationship is uncertain A -?- B It is the use of the 2a type of relationship (where one text derives from the other) that really sets the CBGM apart from the other geneological methods. Where other such methods only use select agreements (A =B) to relate texts of manuscripts, the CBGM also uses the direction of their disagreements (A -> B or A <- B).”

Wasserman and Gurry, A New Approach, 4.

Here in simple summary is at least part of the “new way of relating manuscript text” mentioned above. In all honesty, this not being my field of study, I was surprised that such comparisons were new. I assumed that every word of every manuscript was being compared with each other and then based on the presupposition of Alexandrian Priority the older word was deemed older and better.

That said, don’t think that the computer tools do all the work. This would be a misconstrual of the CBGM. Wasserman and Gurry write,

“At its [the CBGM] most objective, deciding whether two texts agree at a point of comparison involves minimal judgment (it does require some, as we will see). At its most subjective, the CBGM requires the user to make his or her own decisions about how variant readings relate to each other.”

Wasserman and Gurry, A New Approach, 4-5.

Our authors go on to explain,

“Whether A -> B or A <- B at a particular point is determined by the user of the method, not by the computer. This determination involves all the traditional skill and ability that textual critics have practiced for centuries. In this way, even as the CBGM can offer new help in making such judgments, it actually requires more work from the editor, not less, since it builds on thousands of such decisions.”

Wasserman and Gurry, A New Approach, 5.

I was hoping, for the sake of my opposing interlocutors, that “objective” computer tools were going to have significantly more sway in the decision-making process, but in fact, the human element, the subjective element, the “artful” element of textual criticism is even more in play than before. This makes their case less certain and less stable, and they admit as much as we will see in tomorrow’s blog. Furthermore, we will also observe that the computer tools ask for the input/judgment of the text-critic and factors that input into the overall conclusion the computer draws. In sum, more human subjectivity rather than less is in the text-critical mix. Or as Wasserman and Gurry put it,

“The more detail we have about how witnesses relate, the better we know how much weight to give them when dealing with the differences between them.”

Wasserman and Gurry, A New Approach, 5.

Thus, we have a brief introduction to Wasserman’s and Gurry’s Introduction to the CBGM. I couldn’t help but notice that neither of these men attempted to offer a robust theological grounding for their endeavors and assertions. And while some may object by claiming that Wasserman and Gurry’s book aims to address a new method in the science of textual criticism rather than theological groundings, the fact is that the Bible is unlike any other object of consideration.

As Christians a plant or a rock is the object of consideration from which we derive information and knowledge via our sense and reason. The Bible is not this way. The Bible examines the Christian as an object of consideration. The Bible is the examiner, and we are the thing examined. This is because the Spirit of God accompanies His words, and in so doing teaches us about ourselves, exhorts us to godly living, and corrects our waywardness. Certainly, we receive the teaching, exhortation, and correction through faith and through our reason, but unless you are a materialist rocks do not serve as mirrors into our soul, but the Bible does. For example, to treat a human being as something other than a divine image bearer is to treat him as substantially something other than he is no matter if you are doing biology or theology. Thus, to handle the Bible as if it were merely an object of inquiry is to treat the Bible as substantially something other than it is no matter if you are doing textual criticism or theology.

Certainly, if you are not one of Christ’ sheep you will not hear his voice in Scripture and as such will not hear the word’s examination of your heart and behavior. But if you are one of Christ’s sheep it seems improbable that you would not hear His voice in His own words and as such, make that part of your criteria for what is or is not the NT. But alas, such a criterion is wholly omitted from what is said to be a Christian evangelical endeavor insofar as it is done by Christian evangelicals. Puzzling to say the least.

Lord willing, tomorrow we will discuss how the CBGM as changed the text-critical landscape and the disagreements contained therein. Blessings.

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