The “Oldest and Best” Wording

The Oldest and Best Manuscripts?

I return to my discussion of New Testament Textual Criticism (NTTC), “the study of ancient manuscripts to try to discover the original text of Scripture.”  I want to examine the thinking behind a common expression in Christian writing today:  “The oldest and best manuscripts say….”

Today, I’m taking a brief look at the very words of this “oldest and best manuscripts” assertion, before moving on to look at some of the other rules of NTTC in later posts.


In my first post on NTTC, Not Like Any Other Book, I discussed the assertion that NTTC is just like the textual criticism of any other book, that the same rules and principles apply — but the Bible is “not like any other book.”

Next (Is the Oldest Manuscript Really Best?) I discussed the rule, “The reading of the oldest manuscript is preferred.”  I discussed why it is a good and sound principle for ordinary books — and highly dubious when discussing Scripture.

A question on that led to The Pericope Adulterae and the Oldest Manuscripts.  This looked at the evidence for the story of the woman taken in adultery, and how the oldest manuscripts we have today are a tiny part of the evidence and not necessarily representative of the Bible that was used by many people in their day.

The Wording: “Oldest and Best”

Strictly as a logical matter, the term “oldest and best manuscripts” is frustrating.  Does that mean “the oldest manuscripts” AND “the best manuscripts” (two groups, one old, the other best), or does it mean one group, the oldest which are also the best?  It could mean either, and it is sloppy and imprecise wording.

This implies a double-authority, both oldest and best.  But as we’ve seen, the assumption that the oldest manuscripts have any particular authority, just because they are older, is doubtful.  Their very existence is proof that they were not heavily used, which at least forces one to ask the question, “Why weren’t they used, and what does that tell us about their value?”

Some of the oldest manuscripts just aren’t very good, even by the standards of NTTC.  The textual critic E.C. Colwell said that the scribe who copied p66 didn’t even try to make an accurate copy.  Anyone who claims p66 (one of our oldest manuscripts, older than Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) is one of the “best” is either disingenuous or sadly misinformed — at least, if “best” means “most accurate,” which is the only thing that really matters.

So how do we know which manuscripts are best?  That is where many of the other “rules” of textual criticism come in.  Textual critics judge the “bestness”, the worth, of a manuscript at least in part by how well it matches up to these rules.  If the rules are sound, then maybe they prove the oldest manuscripts are best after all.  To assess that, we need to look at some of those rules.

It would be better to drop the “oldest and best” terminology.  At best, it is confusing.  “Old” only matters if it is one of the “best,” so it would be better to just say “best” and leave it at that, unless someone is somehow trying to claim a double authority for his view.  Anyone who is doing that needs to look at the quality of work done in copying manuscripts like p66 and p75, and just stop doing it.

As I continue with this topic, I intend to examine “best,” how textual critics determine “best,” and whether that matches with what the Scriptures say.

Summary Page (with links) for the “Oldest and Best” series

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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