The Oldest and Best Manuscripts?
If you read the notes in most study Bibles, or read very many Christian books, before long you will encounter a statement: “The oldest and best manuscripts say….” This statement is based on the area of study called “textual criticism,” and especially New Testament textual criticism. I’d like to take a few posts in the coming days to discuss why I believe this statement is deeply flawed.
Learning From Dr. Sturz
I had the privilege of learning Greek from Dr. Harry Sturz. I had tremendous respect for him, both as a teacher and a person. He was a brilliant man, a top Greek scholar who helped translate the New King James Version of the Bible, and one of the foremost experts on New Testament Textual Criticism (hereafter abbreviated NTTC). He was the mentor of Daniel Wallace, perhaps the best-known evangelical scholar in New Testament Greek and NTTC today, though Wallace no longer holds to the views of Dr. Sturz.
Dr. Sturz was a humble, kindly, godly man. You would never know of his brilliance by talking to him — that only came into play in the classroom. He was willing to spend hours with a lowly student. It was characteristic of him that he made me feel an equal with him as we would sit and discuss the text, or Greek, or Romans, or theology in his office. I actually did feel an equal with him — kids can be so daft. This man was a spiritual and intellectual giant spending time with an untaught, proud 22-year-old, and never giving a hint that he was even aware how far below him I was. He probably wasn’t really aware of that — it just wasn’t in his nature to think that way. I mentioned Dr. Sturz in my Feet of Clay post last month.
Dr. Sturz was a great influence on my life. He modeled humility, excellence in study, charity in differences, and many other attributes that I wish I possessed to the same level he did. When the chance came to take another class with him, in NTTC, I jumped at it. I didn’t know he was renowned in the field, and it wouldn’t have mattered if he wasn’t. Anything that Dr. Sturz wanted to teach, I wanted to learn. I didn’t know it, but I was taking the same path as Daniel Wallace, mentioned above. When asked how he became interested in NTTC, he said, “Harry Sturz was a godly man whose humility was attractive. I got into it because of him.”
Learning Textual Criticism
“Textual Criticism” is a poor name, because it sounds like you are criticising the Bible, and that isn’t the idea at all. Perhaps it should be called “original text investigation.” It is the study of ancient manuscripts to try to discover the original text of Scripture. This seemed to me a profitable and wise course of study.
I learned many of the “rules” of NTTC. I learned that there are no hard and fast rules (or “canons” of NTTC), because in almost every specific case there will be canons that conflict with each other. I learned about ancient manuscripts, uncials and miniscules, ancient versions, patristic citations, conflations and Byzantines and Alexandrians and Bodmer papyrii and the Rylands fragment and lectio brevior praeferenda and a lot of other things.
I learned that, unlike Dr. Sturz, the vast majority of NTTC scholars were unbelievers. That bothered me, because I wondered why we should trust their work on something so important. I learned that NTTC is a science and anyone, even unbelievers, can apply the principles (or canons, or whatever you want to call them).
Dr. Sturz graciously warned against critical thoughts towards some of his predecessors in the field, saying that men like Westcott and Hort certainly would have done better if they had available to them all the evidence that we have now. He then proceeded, with great intellectual rigour and on their own terms, to break their theories into tiny pieces, crush the pieces into dust, and then consign it all to the rubbish heap of history. And then, he would repeat, “We must remember that Westcott and Hort didn’t have all the data we have now, and if they had, they would have drawn different conclusions.” 🙂
I read extensively from authors with a range of viewpoints on NTTC. Before Dr. Sturz published his masterpiece on the Byzantine text type, he asked several of us to critique the manuscript. It would be correct to say that, when Dr. Sturz taught you textual criticism, you gained more than just a passing acquaintance with the field of study.
A few years later, I was taking another class at another school with another godly professor for whom I had great respect. One lecture dealt with an aspect of church history which, it suddenly struck me, should have significant bearing on NTTC. There was evidence that, it seemed to me, should cause us to view some manuscripts as more reliable, and to view others as less reliable.
My expertise in NTTC, I suddenly realised, might not be so “expert” after all — there was data I had overlooked, data which might have significant bearing on the conclusions we could draw. (I’m not going to describe that data in this post, because it would distract from my main point here). Perhaps there was even more data I had overlooked, things Dr. Sturz hadn’t mentioned or had overlooked himself….
Beginning to Doubt Textual Criticism
After the lecture finished, I (along with several others) was able to engage the professor in conversation, and after about ten minutes of discussing various parts of his lecture, this subject came up. I asked the question: “If what you said is true, shouldn’t it tell us something about the reliability of some of the manuscripts, relative to some other manuscripts? Shouldn’t this be factored into our view of NTTC?”
My professor paused, and then said, “There’s something we need to remember about textual criticism. The rules of textual criticism are the same no matter what book you are dealing with. The textual criticism of the Bible is just the same as the textual criticism of any other book.” (emphasis mine)
My response was, “Oh. I never thought of it that way.” And I walked away thinking, “He’s right. I never thought of that before. NTTC uses, with a few variations, pretty much the same rules that are used for the textual criticism of any other book.”
And then, by God’s grace, as I walked towards my car, the thought came to me:
The Bible is not the same as any other book.
Despite my appreciation for the ministry of these godly men in my life, my confidence in the rules of NTTC as a reliable guide to identifying the true text of Scripture began to crumble.
More to come….
Update: Next in series, Is the Oldest Manuscript Really Best?
Summary Page (with links) for the “Oldest and Best” series