The “Best Manuscripts” are Sloppy Copies (???)

Welcome to the manuscript version of the sinner’s excuse!  “Sure, I’m bad, but no worse than the guy next door.”

The Oldest and Best Manuscripts?

Modern New Testament Textual Criticism (NTTC) is “the study of ancient manuscripts to try to discover the original text of Scripture.”  In my last post NTTC, I looked at the field’s worst assumption, often stated (with varied wording):  “Very early New Testament scribes weren’t careful.”  I’d like to go on to the unstated but frequently applied rule that is drawn from it, in my opinion the worst rule in NTTC:

It doesn’t matter if a copy is sloppy.

Previous Posts on NTTC

  1. Not Like Any Other Book
  2. Is the Oldest Manuscript Really Best?
  3. The Pericope Adulterae and the Oldest Manuscripts
  4. The “Oldest and Best” Wording
  5. Textual Criticism’s Worst Assumption

A Closing Question

That fifth post looked at the work of Fenton John Anthony Hort, who is sort of the father of modern New Testament Textual Criticism.  I discussed how a naturalistic evolutionary philosophy affected Hort’s approach.  (If you missed it, you might want to read that post first.)  I closed with this:

Was there any evidence for this evolutionary assumption, and why does it matter?

Evidence for Hort’s Assumption

F.J.A. Hort would answer, “All early manuscripts show carelessness, and later manuscripts show a different attitude.  My assumption is correct — ‘very early New Testament scribes weren’t careful.‘”

How do we know scribes were careless?  Obvious errors: nonsensical wording, spelling errors, doubled words (a word or several words copied twice in a row), skipped or repeated lines, and singular readings (unmatched by any other manuscript in any language).  Careful scribes made few such mistakes, careless scribes many.  The early surviving manuscripts have many such errors.  Hort (from his Introduction) on his three favourites:

  • Vaticanus:  “on the one hand reached by no means a high standard of accuracy, and on the other his slips are not proportionally numerous or bad.”  (“Proportionally” is comparing to the other “oldest” manuscripts Hort had.) — page 233.
  • Sinaiticus:  “…all the ordinary lapses due to rapid and careless transcription are more numerous….  The singular readings are very numerous….” — page 246.
  • Codex Bezae:  “… the prodigious amount of error which D contains….” — page 149.

More could be said, and many papyri are even worse, but the evidence is clear.  The earliest manuscripts we have today show a remarkable lack of scribal effort to accurately copy the exact words of the text.

Based only on the oldest manuscripts surviving today,
Hort was right.

Problems with Hort’s Conclusion

It is based on:

  1. Small sample size.  The oldest existing manuscripts today were a tiny portion of the manuscript picture in the early centuries.  (See on the Pericope Adulterae).
  2. Biased sample.  The conclusion relies primarily on Egyptian manuscripts, which tell us nothing of attitudes or scribal behaviour in Syria, Turkey, Greece, Italy, or elsewhere.
  3. Flawed Bibliology — based on the Roman Catholic / Anglican view that the canon was a late product of church councils (see The Canon of Scripture for a Biblical response).
  4. Dubious assumption — that committed believers who endured persecution were not dedicated enough to care about the words of Scripture.
  5. Evidence open to alternate interpretation — little-used manuscripts which were rarely copied (see Is the Oldest Best? for a possible explanation contrary to Hort’s).

There are too many holes in Hort’s theory.  Of the perhaps millions of Bible manuscripts by 200 A.D., we have parts of perhaps ten, all apparently from one region.  Is that enough to accuse all early believers everywhere of textual carelessness?  His conclusion ultimately relies on his Anglican / Catholic view of the canon.

The Worst Rule

It doesn’t matter if a copy is sloppy.

Or — “it doesn’t really matter if a scribe wasn’t careful.”  If no early scribes were careful (as most textual scholars say), sloppy copies are the best we’ll get, so it doesn’t matter if we know the scribe was careless.  According to these scholars, later (careful) copies come from earlier sloppy copies, so we might as well use the early slop.  It’s the manuscript version of the sinner’s excuse: “Sure, I’m bad, but no worse than the guy next door.”

This rule is rarely stated, but it effectively exists.  Hort admitted his favourite, Vaticanus, isn’t very accurate.  Despite saying Bezae has “prodigious” error, in the same paragraph he called it “often invaluable for the recovery of the true text.”  Bezae, Vaticanus, and Sinaiticus are considered “important witnesses,” the best manuscripts, though no scholars claim they were carefully copied.  These were all “sloppy copies” — but it doesn’t matter, and that is the worst rule in NTTC.

What do YOU Think When You Read “Best”?

When you read “the oldest and best manuscripts,” what do you think — that someone took an accurate manuscript, and carefully copied its words to another manuscript?  That is what most people think:  “best” means “accurately copied from an accurate source.”

When a textual scholar says a copy is “best,” he does NOT mean an accurate manuscript was carefully copied to make a new accurate copy.  The “best” manuscripts were copied by scribes who weren’t particularly careful at all.  To the NTTC scholar, “best” means it matches up well to other “rules” of textual criticism — oldest copy, shortest reading, etc.

Three “Worsts” of NTTC

The worst assumption:  every early manuscript was a “sloppy copy.”
The worst rule, drawing on that assumption:  it doesn’t matter if a copy is sloppy.

The worst wording: “best manuscripts” — it doesn’t mean what you think it means.

When you read “best manuscripts,” it doesn’t mean “accurately copied.”  The person who wrote it may think it means that, but textual scholars know it doesn’t.  Those that are called “oldest and best” are sloppy copies.  You don’t have to take my word for it — even F.J.A. Hort said they weren’t particularly accurate.

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

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
This entry was posted in Bibliology, NT Textual Criticism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The “Best Manuscripts” are Sloppy Copies (???)

  1. What you say is correct, but not politically correct. The latter, I’m afraid, is more important.

  2. Angus MacKillop says:

    If political correctness is more important than simple factual correctness, how far down that slippery slope does one need go before correctness (and truth) become completely irrelevant?
    I may be in a minority of one, but that does not make me “wrong” if I am factually correct and truthful 🙂 Lonely, yes.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      I hope you aren’t looking for sympathy over that kind of loneliness, Angus. You’ve come to the wrong place. 🙂

      It’s interesting how many people accept Hort’s work without ever reading him and stopping to think about it. Things become popular, and as Kent said, it becomes politically incorrect to challenge the Wisdom Receptus of NTTC.

      My intended next post in the series will be even more “politically incorrect” — “Hort vs. The Oldest Manuscripts”.

  3. Jim Raymond says:

    In his book, “Misquoting Truth” (a response to Bart Ehrman’s “Misqouting Jesus”), Timothy Paul Jones cites a quotation from Origen’s commentary on Matthew: “The differences between the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please.” (pages 40-41).

    This would lend credence to the notion, which seems obvious from the evidence, that the Alexandrian manuscripts were sloppy copies. In which case they can’t be relied on, they are of poor quality (a factor that modern textual criticism uses to determine the usefulness of a manuscript).

    I have never seen anyone pursue this issue about Origen’s quote. I wish someone would confront modern textual critics with this and ask them how they justify putting such emphasis on sloppy copies.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hi, Jim. The answer they would give is in this article — they assume all copies were sloppy.

      Gunther Zuntz was a widely respected textual critic. He affirmed that all the major variants were in place by the end of the second century. It’s pretty clear to me from the manuscripts that we have that he was correct on that point. So they start from that true point and make a wildly unsupportable assumption — that all or almost all scribes in the first two centuries were sloppy.

      If their assumption were accurate, then using sloppy copies is all we have. That’s how they justify putting such emphasis on sloppy copies. They would simply say, “All our copies are either copied by careless scribes or copied from earlier manuscripts that were copied by careless scribes. Some of them were cleaned up by later editors so the most obvious mistakes are corrected, but they still come from sloppy copies.”

      And they would take Origen’s quote as bolstering their view. The error is in extrapolating Origen’s statement about the Alexandrian tendency of careless copying to all copyists.

      Origen himself, in my view, contributed to the problem he lamented. By pushing the allegorical interpretation that was so common among North African Christians in his time, he effectively taught that the actual words didn’t matter that much, it was the allegory that mattered. As a result, Christian copyists were not being taught in their churches that the words mattered — so why should they be careful? Thus, Origen was surrounded by sloppy copies coming from those who had been taught (by him and others) that the actual words didn’t matter. Surprise, surprise.

      Few modern textual scholars have any interest in challenging the status quo. Most of them aren’t even believers (though there are some exceptions).

      • Jim Raymond says:


        Thanks for your response.

        What does not make any sense to me is why so much emphasis is placed on sloppy copies by so many textual critics. They claim to value the “quality” of a ms. If that is the case, why would you place value on one that you know is sloppy? Such misplaced value supports my contention that there is little value in New Testament textual criticism as it has been practiced in the past 140 years. How did Augustine get along without it? Did God leave him out in the cold because he didn’t have it? How about the Reformers? Did God allow them to be deceived about what they thought was His word because they did not have it? No, God is not like that.


      • Jon Gleason says:

        Hello, Jim. Your final statement is really the dividing line here.

        Some people say that “what God is like” is irrelevant because they aren’t even believers. This encompasses a large majority of textual scholars in the last 1 1/2 centuries. They leave what God has done or might have done out of their considerations entirely.

        Others are believers but believe that “what God is like” is irrelevant because they’ve adopted a naturalistic philosophy about the transmission of the text. They think it is just like the transmission of any other book. I had more than one professor, men for whom I had great respect for their godliness and humility, who I believe simply had a blind spot. They’d been taught certain things by people they respected and had accepted it. I too was in this category for some time, you can read part of how that changed in my first article in this series.

        Others believe that “what God is like” matters, and we should look to the Scriptures themselves for what they tell us about God preserving His Word, and why He did so. We should draw our conclusions for how God has preserved His Word from Scripture and that which can safely be inferred from Scripture, and interpret the manuscript evidence in light of that, rather than in light of humanistic theories, no matter how plausible those theories may sound at first hearing.

        If we base our Bibliology on “what God is like” as revealed by His Word we will not end up with the modern variants of the Westcott-Hort theory. Some may then end up holding a majority text view and others may end up holding a Textus Receptus view but you certainly won’t end up with the modern “scholarly” consensus of an Alexandrian-dominated Critical Text. A Biblical view of the Canon and Scripture preservation, rigorously applied, precludes a Critical Text view. But for most modern textual scholars, that’s irrelevant because they don’t have Biblical views about anything.

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