In Their Own Words: Fredson Bowers

Fredson Bowers was first a professor at Princeton University and then became professor of English at the University of Virginia where he founded the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia. Today we are going to look at Bowers in his own words as they appear in Bibliography and Textual Criticism [1963]. Bower’s emphasis fell to the works of Shakespeare mostly, but you will notice the commonality of language between Bower’s treatment of Shakespeare and our evangelical brother’s treatment of God’s word. In short, there is no noticeable difference. Quoting J.G. McManaway regarding the works of Shakespeare, Bowers writes,

“‘…a Shakespeare drama is not one, but many plays: the ideal play as the author conceived it; the text as written; the tidied up fair copy, later marked and abridged for representation; the imperfect rendition on the stage; and the printed text or texts, that may represent one or more of these versions, either “maimed and deformed”, or “perfect in their limbs”.'”

Bowers, Bibliography, 9.

Sound familiar? This is exactly the line that Bart Ehrman offers to all evangelical text-critics when they claim that they know what the NT original looks like. Which original? There are many originals according to text-critical scholarship. Is it the one in the writer’s head, the one written down, the corrected one, the copied one, the abridged one etc. etc.?

But at least Bowers is able to admit that searching out such an original even in trying to find the original of a Shakespearian play is out of the question. And given Shakespeare is far closer to us in time than the text of 1 Corinthians, identifying the original of the NT by modern text-critical lights is a greater impossibility for textual criticism. Bowers writes,

“Some of these [the potential originals mentioned above] neither bibliography nor any other form of criticism can recover, for certainly we have no means of knowing what ideal form a play took in Shakespeare’s mind before he wrote it down.”

Bowers, Bibliography, 9.

Instead, Bowers goes on to vie for what we now call the “initial text”. Bowers writes,

“…drawing on what is practicable here, we may say that the immediate concern of textual bibliography is only to recover as exactly as may be the form of the text directly underneath the printed copy.”

Bowers, Bibliography, 9.

Does anyone else find this interesting? Bowers knew the immediate concern of the bibliographer was to recover the “text directly underneath the printed copy.” Many call that text, the initial text. The text directly underneath the printed copy is certainly a definitional referent for the term “initial text” in CBGM circles. To no surprise, it appears NT textual criticism and the CBGM is very late to the text-critical game.

Finally, Bowers offers a conclusion to which we whole-heartedly agree. In fact his critique is a critique we have made here many times. All told, we couldn’t say it better ourselves. Bowers concludes,

“Moreover, no matter how rigorous the logical treatment of evidence, the factual basis for the argument may be incomplete, owing to unknown gaps in the physical evidence or to our defective knowledge of the printing process. Thus if the reasoning depends upon a concealed false premise, quite erroneous conclusions may be reached.”

Bowers, Bibliography, 79.

If only modern evangelical textual critics would be like Fredson Bowers on this point, perhaps evangelicals would stop inflating the capacities of modern NT textual criticism and make room for an exegetical and theological grounded for determining what is or is not the New Testament.

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