Textual Criticism’s Worst Assumption

The Oldest and Best Manuscripts?

I have been examining the thinking behind a common expression in Christian writing:  “The oldest and best manuscripts say….”

Modern New Testament Textual Criticism (NTTC) is “the study of ancient manuscripts to try to discover the original text of Scripture.”  Today, I’ll begin to assess the worst rule of NTTC.  I won’t start with the rule, because it is rarely, if ever, stated.  I’ll start instead with the faulty assumption, often stated, that drives the rule:

Very early New Testament scribes weren’t careful.


Not Like Any Other Book — the “rules” of NTTC are the same as the textual criticism of any other book — but the Bible is “not like any other book.”

Is the Oldest Manuscript Really Best? — for most books, “The reading of the oldest manuscript is preferred,” but this is dubious with Scripture.

The Pericope Adulterae and the Oldest Manuscripts — one passage from John 8 demonstrates that the oldest existing manuscripts are a tiny unrepresentative sample of the thousands of manuscripts of their day.

The “Oldest and Best” Wording — it would be better to just say “best.”

“Early Scribes Weren’t Careful”


  1. When a book is first written, it is not widely recognised as valuable.
  2. Until a book was widely recognised, wealthy patrons would not spend a lot for copies.
  3. Scribes would have no incentive to be careful in their work of copying.
  4. Only when books became well-known would scribes be likely to exercise particular care.

Applying the Assumption to the New Testament — Hort

Fenton John Anthony Hort, who some might call the father of modern NTTC (apologies to Bengel and Griesbach), in his Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek:

The conception of new Scriptures standing on the same footing as the Scriptures of the Old Testament was slow and unequal in its growth, more especially while the traditions of the apostolic and immediately succeeding generations still lived ; and the reverence paid to the apostolic writings, even to the most highly and most widely venerated among them, was not of a kind that exacted a scrupulous jealousy as to their text as distinguished from their substance (page 7).

Summary Statement #1 — the New Testament writings weren’t accepted as Scripture for at least several generations.  People cared about the substance (what the writings mean), but not about their text — the exact words.

After a while changed feelings and changed circumstances put an end to the early textual laxity, and thenceforward its occurrence is altogether exceptional; so that the later corruptions are almost wholly those incident to transcription in the proper sense, errors arising from careless performance of a scribe’s work, not from an imperfect conception of it (page 7).

Summary Statement #2 — later manuscripts show more care.  Early copyists didn’t understand their responsibility to get the words right, but later scribes did.

There is no evidence to show that care was generally taken to choose out for transcription the exemplars having the highest claims to be regarded as authentic, if indeed the requisite knowledge and skill were forthcoming (page 9).

Summary Statement #3 — in early days, people didn’t care about copying from good manuscripts, or know how to choose and recognise good manuscripts if they had cared.

Humanly speaking, the only influence which can have interfered to an appreciable extent with mere chance and convenience in the selection between existing readings, or the combination of them, was supplied by the preferences of untrained popular taste, always an unsafe guide in the discrimination of relative originality of text (page 9).

Summary Statement #4 — The choice of a source manuscript for a new copy was merely chance, convenience, and “untrained” preferences.

Let the Scriptures Speak

Hort was seriously in error on at least two points.

1. New Testament writings recognised as Scripture at an early date

II Peter 3:15-16

15 And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you;
16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.

Peter recognised the writings of Paul as on an equal level with “the other Scriptures.”

II Peter 3:2

That ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour:

Peter links the authority of the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles (including himself).  In context (note the end of chapter one), this can hardly be seen as anything other than a claim to Scriptural authority.

I Timothy 5:18

For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward.

Paul quotes Luke 10:17 as “Scripture” in the second half of this verse.  Anyone who accepted Luke as Scripture almost certainly would have accepted Acts as well.

Most (if not all) New Testament writings were accepted as Scripture and stated to be such in apostolic times, even in the Scriptures themselves.  Hort said the New Testament did not have early acceptance as Scripture until generations after the apostles.  This fails on Scriptural evidence alone, even without the abundant testimony of early Christian writings.

2. Most early Christians would have been careful with the text

Christians were taught to be careful with the Scriptures.  Peter warned against those who would “wrest” (turn, twist, torture) the Scriptures:

II Peter 3:16

As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.

John warned against adding or subtracting words:

Revelation 22:18-19

18 For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:
19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

Some might claim John’s warning applied only to the book of Revelation, but Proverbs gives a general statement that cannot be ignored:

Proverbs 30:5-6

5 Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him.
6 Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.

Hort’s assumption, that early Christians were not careful with the words of Scripture, is only true if those Christians were directly disobedient.  Most early Christians would have been very careful with the text.  It is not credible to think otherwise.

The Age in Which Hort Lived

As we look at Hort’s assumption, stated by him but adopted by most textual critics, we should recognise its roots in a philosophy prevalent in the age in which he lived.

Evolutionary philosophy was sweeping through the educational / intellectual institutions.  Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species (shortened title), was published in 1859.  But evolutionary philosophy was not limited to the question of the origins of life.

Please note that I am using “evolution” broadly.  Many things do evolve — the computer software that we offer our clients today has evolved over time since I began working on it in 1986.  So has computer and communications technology.

But evolutionary philosophy often leaves God out of its thinking, with naturalistic underpinnings.  Things happened, not because of God, who might work quickly and even instantly, but because of gradual development, with natural forces or human ideas being the driving force.  This naturalistic evolutionary philosophy was a major factor in intellectual thought in the late 19th century.

Theologians surmised religious evolution, that man was first animistic, then developed more advanced ideas, and finally arrived at the height of religious belief, monotheism, sometime between 900-200 B.C.  (I’m broad-brushing — if you want to waste your time, you can research the late 19th century German Religionsgeschichtliche Schule — blech!  Don’t do it.)  On its face, the idea is that man didn’t believe in one true God until sometime between the time of Solomon and the time of Christ.  In reality, the idea is to throw out any belief in supernatural revelation by a God who communicates to man.

These evolutionary theories of religion had a problem:  Moses’ monotheism (Genesis through Deuteronomy) around 1400 B.C.  No problem, more evolution! Moses didn’t really write it — it also evolved.  Most of the Old Testament couldn’t have been written by the purported authors, because the theory had abolished monotheism when they lived.  And so we have the JEDP theory / Documentary Hypothesis — a primary advocate was Jules Wellhausen (writing in 1878 and 1883).  The Old Testament “evolved” over time, with different people adding phrases or passages over time here and there to improve it.  (If you read someone talking about the Yahwist, Elohist, or Deuteronomist, it’s JEDP rubbish — you’ve been warned.)

Notice the dates?  Darwin, 1859.  Evolutionary religion, 185o-1900.  Wellhausen, 1878 and 1883.  Evolutionary thinking pervaded historical and sociological theories at the same time.  And Westcott and Hort began their text-critical work in the 1850s, with Hort writing his introduction in 1882.

Hort’s Naturalistic Evolutionary Philosophy

Hort (see quotes above):

  • The New Testament was not quickly accepted as Scripture — acceptance evolved over many years.
  • The idea that accuracy mattered also evolved over several centuries.
  • The ability to evaluate accuracy also evolved.  Early Christians lacked the knowledge or ability to do, well, what Hort and his colleagues are smart enough to do — look at differing manuscript readings and throw out the bad ones.

Finally, this (repeated from above):

Humanly speaking, the only influence which can have interfered to an appreciable extent with mere chance and convenience in the selection between existing readings, or the combination of them, was supplied by the preferences of untrained popular taste….

At first glance, “humanly speaking” sounded hopeful — but he didn’t move past it.  He could have mentioned divine influence, God preserving His Word — but he never added that.

Hort is evolutionary in making random chance (not Divine providence) and convenience / popularity (natural selection?) a major determining factor in the transmission of the text.  Christians did not use the best text when making copies, or even try to, according to Hort.  God was not active, either providentially or miraculously, in this process.  He did not teach His people to be careful with the text, or to think about accuracy.  It was largely chance whether good or bad copies were the source for the next copy.  This is naturalistic evolutionary philosophy.

According to Hort, God started this ball rolling in giving the Scriptures, but chance was a key force in where the ball rolled in early centuries.  Textual critics must figure out how chance must have made it roll to be able to guess from where it originally came.

Was F.J.A. Hort intentionally bringing evolutionary thinking into his handling of the text?  Or was this view of academic and intellectual questions so prevalent that he unthinkingly adopted it?  I do not know or care.  Hort was interested in Darwin’s writings, but I don’t care about that, either (please, no comments proving he did or didn’t accept Darwin — it doesn’t matter).  Hort is no longer with us, and questions about his motives are for the Lord alone.

I do care about textual critics, either intentionally or accidentally, using naturalistic evolutionary philosophies in their evaluations when they try to tell us which words are the ones God gave us.

Was there any evidence for this evolutionary assumption, and why does it matter?  Lord willing, I’ll try to address that question in my next post on this topic.

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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9 Responses to Textual Criticism’s Worst Assumption

  1. It seems Jon that your problem here is that you are relying upon scriptural presuppositions instead of allowing the evidence to lead you to the truth. ;-D

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Kent, thank you for pointing out my “problem.” I’m encouraged. 🙂

      It’s funny how different the evidence looks when you approach it with faith that the Scripture is true and that God has been working as He said He would, rather than with naturalistic assumptions. The evidence is the same either way, and it doesn’t lie — but it sure does tell a different story when you start with the right foundation.

      The astounding thing to me, as I’m sure you know, is that the classic line of believers who accept NTTC’s basic principles is, “Of course, God said He would preserve His Word, but He didn’t say in which text-type He would preserve it,” or alternatively, “He didn’t say He would preserve it in only one text type.” That statement, alone, is correct — God didn’t talk about text-types at all. But what they (most of them, anyway) don’t realise is that Hort’s philosophy rejected preservation in any text type, and was totally naturalistic — and modern NTTC has built on that assumption.

      • crbcorg says:

        These articles are good and I think demonstrate sound biblical reasoning.

        It is important to understand the thought process of people who say “oldest and best manuscripts “…etc

      • Jon Gleason says:

        I apologise for the delay in clearing this through moderation, the blog has been dormant.

        It is indeed good to understand the thinking behind it. Of course, many who use this language mean well, but it is good to be aware of the mistake they are making. It can help protect us not only from making the same mistake, but from other similar ones. Academic knowledge is valuable but can breed academic pride and the exaltation of intellectual ideas rather than asking, ‘Did God really say anything like that?’

  2. krakowian says:


    Beautiful article. I’ve been saying this stuff for years, and it is exciting to see someone who has actually put it into writing. 🙂 I want to share with you why I started thinking like this. Years ago, a friend of mine who is very interested in books, bought a beautifully bound and gilded book simply because of how beautiful it looked on the shelf, and for the quality of its binding. It was also a theological book, which also interested him, but he hadn’t looked at its contents at all. I was immediately drawn to its contents however, when I realized it was a collection of essays written in the middle 19th century by various theologians from that period. The topic of this book was the impact of Darwin’s theory of Evolution on theology and the Bible in particular. There were a dozen or more authors, some of which had multiple essays in the book, but among them were authors like Tischendorf, Hort and Wescott. I read a bunch of these essays, and what I found interesting was that to a man (and woman), they all were enthusiastic about the new theory and its impact on theology and the understanding of the evolving of the Biblical text. Sadly, I didn’t steal the book from my friend. A year or two later, after a move, the book was in a box that got heavy water damage thrown away. If I had known, I would have begged him to not throw that book away. But my point is, there is ample proof out there what these theologians of the 19th century thought about evolutionary theory. My point is this, it is not a question of vague motivations or motives, but clear statements of intent that matter, and such prove was put in writing by men in this era. The problem is how to find it. Like you, for myself, I don’t need to know, and I fear that a large number of people probably wouldn’t be convinced otherwise, even if they had the words of these people down in black and white. In any case, for myself, my fence-sitting ended with the reading of that book.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      I wish I knew what book that is. I’m not finding it on archive.org (http://archive.org/search.php?query=creator:%28hort+fenton%29), but that may be because it was a series of essays and he was just one of the authors, so it may not be listed under his name.

      Yes, Hort had a positive view of Darwinism. His Life and Letters is available online (http://archive.org/details/lifelettershort00hortuoft), and on page 416 he praises Darwin, saying “at present my feeling is strong that the theory is unanswerable.”

      There are also some unfortunate statements on, for instance, the infallibility of Scripture, which he rejected (pages 418-422). On page 430, writing to Westcott, he denies substitutionary atonement. There’s other stuff, but I don’t have time to look it up. Much of this doesn’t matter any more. What matters is whether his work is sound. His own words from his Introduction show it isn’t, that this evolutionary philosophy pervades his work.

      And it pervades the part of his work that is still accepted by modern textual scholars. That is what is so damaging about it.

      • krakowian says:

        Sadly, I think the essays were written specifically for the book, and not part of other bodies of work. That was what made it unique to me, when I read it. I felt that the candor of the authors was uncharacteristic, possibly because of this fact.

      • Jon Gleason says:

        Well, I’m making a few inquiries to see if I can find out what book it was. If we can find that, it may be online somewhere.

      • krakowian says:

        Good luck. I can only say that it was some time in the middle late 1800s.

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