restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


Dr. Abidan Shah on NT Textual Criticism

 David Alan Black 

(Editor’s Note: Recently I interviewed Dr. Abidan Shah of Clearview Church in Henderson, NC. Dr. Shah is my former assistant and a recent graduate of Southeastern Seminary with a Ph.D. in New Testament Textual Criticism.)

1. Please tell us a little bit about your family, your church, your academic pilgrimage, and how you became interested in textual criticism.

I was born and raised in India. As far as I can remember, the Scriptures had a very special place in our family’s life. Mom would remind us kids to read our Bibles daily. Dad is a pastor and continues to serve his first and only church for 56 years. At church, we heard expository messages that were both educational and evangelistic, a rare combination.

To back up a little, my dad grew up in a non-Christian family. Growing up, he was told that the Bible was just a human book, created and corrupted by the church (especially the West) to suit its purpose. The more my dad read the Bible, the more he became convinced that the Bible was the words of God given to those inspired by the Holy Spirit, which is far more realistic and verifiable than some document that “exists in heaven.” Long story short, he gave his life to Christ. He stepped out on faith and began to preach on the streets of India. He was beaten and mocked for his faith—but, word was out that a young convert was on fire for Jesus! A missionary named Dr. Fred Schelander heard of him and sought to find him (this is extremely difficult in a large country like India with hundreds of millions of people and a poor communication system of the 50s). A word about Dr. Schelander—he was a Bible scholar who revised the Marathi Bible translation by Pandita Ramabai, the famous Christian Indian social reformer, women’s rights advocate, and Sanskrit scholar. By God’s providence, Dr. Schelander got in touch with my dad and arranged for him to go to Union Biblical Seminary in Yavatmal (now Pune). After graduation, my dad came to pastor the very church where Dr. Schelander was a resident missionary. He became a mentor to my dad. When he wasn’t travelling, he would be at our home for meals every day. I remember the countless times sitting in his lap as he read Bible stories to me. I also remember them discussing theology and church issues. Later, dad was elected to the board of UBS and he even served as the Principal of Maharashtra Bible College, a small college dedicated to training those going into rural India with the gospel. He also taught a couple of seminars at Fuller Theological Seminary. You could say that growing up I had no choice but to love the Scriptures and the academic study of the Bible!

After coming to America, I graduated with my bachelors in broadcast journalism from Toccoa Falls College, Georgia and, through the influence of Jerry Shedd, my father-in-law (a pastor/missionary, Mercer University and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Th.M. graduate), I came to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. My first semester I took Elementary Greek with Dr. Maurice Robinson. Little did I know that I was signing up for much more than an introductory course in Koine Greek. This was also an introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism! Although I enjoyed learning Greek, I was far more fascinated by his rabbit trails on variant readings, text types, and transmissional history. I had never heard of any of this! I knew that I had to educate myself. So I began with the slim but simple New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide by Dr. David Alan Black. From there I went on to books by Metzger, Aland, Greenlee, Sturz, Ehrman/Holmes, Epp/Fee, etc. Needless to say, I was hooked! Although I enjoyed the fields of theology, philosophy, church history, ethics, preaching, etc., New Testament Textual Criticism became my first love and continues to this day. It was an easy decision for me after my Masters to pursue a PhD in New Testament Textual Criticism. I am very grateful to my wife Nicole and our 4 children (Rebecca, Abigail, Nicholas, and Thomas) for dealing with me through the years of plodding along with my dissertation.

2. What was your dissertation topic at SEBTS and how do you hope it will contribute to scholarship?

My dissertation is titled Changing the Goalpost of New Testament Textual Criticism. I explain in my introduction, which I give here with minor adjustments—“Before the 1960s, the goal of New Testament Textual Criticism was singular: to retrieve the ‘original text’ of the New Testament. Since then, the goalpost has incrementally shifted away from the ‘original text’ to retrieving ‘any text’ or ‘many texts’ of the NT. Under this new approach to the text, all variants are considered to be equally valuable, regardless of their external evidence in the history of transmission. Previously, variants were looked upon as a means to recover the original text but now they are increasingly treated as windows into the various early Christian communities and their struggles with doctrines. Now it is considered far more profitable to gain insight into the various ‘Christianities’ or ‘trajectories of faith’ in the early church than to seek after an elusive and illusive ‘original text.’ Some scholars have concluded that the ‘original text’ is hopelessly lost and cannot be retrieved with any confidence or accuracy. Other scholars have gone a step further to claim that the idea of an ‘original text’ itself is a misconception that needs to be abandoned. As a major representative of this movement, Eldon Epp contends that instead of a single authoritative ‘original text’ there were multiple originals in the beginning and that the concept of an ‘original text’ is a later development that arose since the coming of the printing press. Some have also proposed creating a text or texts that suit the reader and his or her community. Such an understanding of the history of the NT text has serious implications for the study of the NT and the authority of Scripture. Historic Christianity is a faith that is built upon a first-century text. Without a generally determinable ‘original text,’ there is no longer an authoritative text, and if there is no authoritative text, then there is no longer any distinct Christian faith and practice. It is imperative that this new shift in NTTC be examined, evaluated, and refuted.”

I would add that the typical response by the proponents of the recent trend in NTTC is to disregard the traditional view, as I have proposed, as outdated or ill-informed. To the contrary, they should welcome it as a well-needed safe-guard against going off the deep end.

3. The Byzantine text type continues to be a flashpoint in New Testament studies. How does your view of the Byzantine text align with (or differ from) the views of, say, Maurice Robinson, Harry Sturz, and Arthur Farstad?

Great question! That is true. The Byzantine text type continues to be a flashpoint. In fact, lately, it appears to be fashionable to favor some Byzantine readings! The CBGM (Coherence Based Genealogical Method) advocates often point out that their text has shifted to the Byzantine side—something that was unthinkable a few years ago! (In reality, it still strongly favors the non-Byzantine text.)  

I hold to an “essentially” Byzantine priority position. Although I truly appreciate Sturz’s The Byzantine Text-Type and New Testament Textual Criticism, I find his 2 text-types out of 3 approach difficult to hold at times because it makes the Western text—the most corrupt, the least favored, and the least evidenced text—the ultimate arbiter when the Alexandrian and Byzantine texts differ. As to Hodges and Farstad, their use of stemmatics in the Pericope Adulterae and the book of Revelation is untenable. Their use of von Soden’s Western/Caesarean I-text to determine originality where the Byzantine reading is divided in the rest of the NT is also problematic. Perhaps such a situation has led Wilbur Pickering (another Byzantine text supporter) to adopt his particular model of simply favoring a single minority transmissional line (his Family 35) as original—not as an arbiter, but solely as autograph. In my view, no particular manuscript or group of manuscripts has been providentially preserved. They all have errors and require our careful application of text-critical principles to reach the original text. The goal is worth it.

4. Some textual critics today no longer refer to “text types” per se. What do you think about their perspective?

I actually address this in my dissertation, which I quote here with minor adjustments—“Gerd Mink (originator of the CBGM) claims that the ‘traditional text-type approach ... should be avoided in favor of the structure that will emerge if we focus on the relationships between all individual witnesses and thus determine their places in the transmission history.’ As well-meaning as this may be, this bold intention of the proponents of the CBGM is repeatedly ignored in praxis, wherein various textual ‘clusters’ are repeatedly invoked to categorize readings as prior and secondary along with outside editorial judgments based on internal evidence. If the CBGM’s true aim is to focus exclusively on external evidence, then any and all pre-judgment of a witness should be discarded, which is an impossible task.” In fact, even Eldon Epp, who is part of the recent trend, has objected to CBGM’s contra-text-type approach. He cautions them to be modest in their claims against text types since the methodology “has been applied fully only to the Catholic Epistles [now also Acts, and Mark soon to come], where, as most agree, text types or textual clusters play little role.”

The real test is in the Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline Epistles, where text types are far more pronounced. I agree that the older notion of text types is passé, based on [an] older concept of text types being products of a particular recension. Nonetheless, the concept of text types recognized as textual clusters is still valid.

5. Finally, I know your passion is shepherding the flock of God. How do you feel your doctoral studies have helped you to become a better pastor of your local church?

Let me preface the answer with a conviction I’ve had for a long time. With regards to the flock of God, being a biblical scholar and pastor demands a balance between “Challenging” and “Confirming.” On one hand, it is important that, as a biblical scholar and pastor, I challenge the church to rethink unbiblical views and practices. It is my responsibility to use the knowledge I have gained to call the flock of God to biblical truth leading to repentance and obedience. On the other hand, it is also important to confirm to the flock of God that they are standing in the truth. After all, the flock of God is the body of Christ led by his Spirit. It is vital for biblical scholars to listen to the people of God. Personally, I have been inspired and convicted by the faith of the church, individually and collectively. In fact, I feel a sense of accountability to the church. I like the subtitle of Ronald Heine’s book on Origen: “Scholarship in the Service of the Church.”

I have been pastoring Clearview for the past 21 years. It is my first and only church. I’ve done my best to share my knowledge to both challenge and confirm the flock of God. Every time I preach, visit, baptize, officiate a wedding, preside over a funeral, dedicate a child, pray over fellowship dinners, or organize an event, I always attempt to do two things: first, I try to impart something to the people from the Bible that they were not aware of before, and, second, I bring them the confirmation that their faith is solidly built upon Christ and his word. I do all this with the ultimate goal to seek and to save those who are lost.

I am also using my platform at Clearview Church to put biblical scholarship on the lower shelf for all people. We are offering an introductory course titled “Greek for Everyone,” led by Dr. David Alan Black of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Also, last year, we held our first apologetics conference at Clearview Church. Speakers included Dr. Black, and Drs. Peter Gurry and John Meade of Phoenix Seminary’s Text and Canon Institute. In 2020, we are hosting our second apologetics conference with more guest speakers! I credit the team at Clearview Church for pouring their heart and soul in making these events so successful! They do it unto the Lord.

February 7, 2020

David Alan Black is the editor of

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