I Guess Oldest is Only Best When We Want it to Be

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson,

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 this post, I would like to look at the fact that no one could accuse textual scholars of being Emerson’s “little minds” if they refuse to burden themselves with the obligations of consistency.

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

Hort’s Importance to Modern Textual Criticism

I’ve spent some time on the work of Fenton John Anthony Hort, a “father” of modern NTTC.  Before going further, I should note that, 130 years later, Hort’s work still matters.

Bruce Metzger was an editor of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, used for the RSV, ESV, and NIV translations.  (The NASV used the Nestle text, also based on the same principles.)  In The Text of the New Testament (2nd edition, page 137), Metzger wrote of Hort and his colleague B.F. Westcott (emphasis added):

…the overwhelming consensus of scholarly opinion recognizes that their critical edition is truly epoch-making….  …the general validity of their critical principles and procedures is widely acknowledged by textual scholars today.

Those who compiled the text behind most modern translations of the Bible used Westcott and Hort’s principles.  When I discuss Hort’s writing, I am talking about principles used today to decide which words and verses appear in modern translations.  Hort still matters.

Hort and Codex Bezae (Manuscript D)

This paragraph from Hort’s Introduction isn’t easy reading, but I wanted to give the whole context.  I’ll then highlight a few points (numerical footnotes mine).

Western texts virtually unmixed survive exclusively in Græco-Latin manuscripts written in Western Europe. They are well represented in the Gospels and Acts by D, some leaves in different places and some whole chapters at the end of Acts being however lost. Though the manuscript was written in Cent. VI (1), the text gives no clear signs of having undergone recent degeneracy: it is, to the best of our belief, substantially a Western text of Cent. II, with occasional readings probably due to Cent. IV (2). Much more numerous are readings belonging to a very early stage in the Western text, free as yet from corruptions early enough to be found in the European or even in the African form of the Old Latin version, and indeed elsewhere. In spite of the prodigious amount of error which D contains (3), these readings, in which it sustains and is sustained by other documents derived from very ancient texts of other types, render it often invaluable for the secure recovery of the true text (4): and, apart from this direct applicability, no other single source of evidence except the quotations of Origin surpasses it in value on the equally important ground of historical or indirect instructiveness. To what extent its unique readings are due to license on the part of the scribe rather than to faithful reproduction of an antecedent text now otherwise lost, it is impossible to say (5): but it is remarkable how frequently the discovery of fresh evidence, especially Old Latin evidence, supplies a second authority for readings in which D has hitherto stood alone. At all events, when every allowance has been made for possible individual license, the text of D presents a truer image of the form in which the Gospels and Acts were most widely read in the third and probably a great part of the second century than any other Greek manuscript (6).

Trying for plainer English:

  1. Codex Bezae (Manuscript D) is from the sixth century (most now say 5th century).
  2. Its problems are old problems.  Its wording mostly goes back to the second century (100-200 A.D.), with parts from the fourth (300-400).
  3. It has a “prodigious amount” of error.
  4. Even so, it is still invaluable for recovering the true text.
  5. We can’t tell whether its unique (and often bizarre — my note, not Hort’s) readings are the scribe’s mistakes, or if he was copying from a bizarre manuscript.
  6. It is the best manuscript of the text people were reading in the third century, and probably much of the second.

Summing up #1-2, Hort says D’s problems are old, its text (including its obvious errors) going back 200-400 years.  Then, he contradicts himself (#5), saying we can’t tell if the bizarre wordings were the scribe’s own errors or from his source copy.

In #3-4, he says D is a sloppy copy (or copied from a sloppy copy) but still one of the best.  I’ve already discussed that, so I’ll move on to point #6.

Bezae is “Best” for the Third Century Text

The very last part of that quote above:

….the text of D presents a truer image of the form in which the Gospels and Acts were most widely read in the third and probably a great part of the second century than any other Greek manuscript.

Codex Bezae is the best Greek manuscript for showing which Bible people were reading around 200 A.D.  That is Fenton John Anthony Hort saying that, not me. 🙂

Since D has “prodigious error,” and its errors are not new, then the Bibles of 200 A.D. had “prodigious error.”  He is saying the best witness to the second century text is full of rubbish, and most of that rubbish came from that second century text.

But the most stunning thing is NOT his trashing of second century Bibles.  Hort rejected “oldest is best.”  He had four major manuscripts older than Bezae — yet, he called it better than all of them for identifying the text of 200 A.D.

For Hort, the oldest manuscripts are best for the original (1st century) text — but for the 2nd / 3rd century text, a manuscript 150 years younger is better.  Even F.J.A. Hort didn’t consistently hold to “oldest is best.”  Oldest is only best when you want it to be. 


Why would Hort, relying so heavily on his oldest manuscripts (Vaticanus and Sinaiticus), so completely undermine the “oldest is best” argument for them?

Hort had problems like the Pericope Adulterae.  Though not in his preferred manuscripts, it was in Bezae — and widely read in the third century.  There was older evidence that matched Bezae.  So Bezae must be a better representative of the third century than his preferred manuscripts — in which case, “oldest is best” has to go.

Hort had to quietly kill “oldest is best” (hardly anyone noticed).  The oldest manuscripts weren’t always the oldest evidence, and the oldest evidence wasn’t always kind to his theory.  “Oldest is best,” was still useful for public consumption, but too confining, so consistency went on the trash-heap.

Manuscript Leap-Frog

Hort replaced “oldest is best” with a sort of “manuscript leap-frog.”

Text Manuscript Date “Leap-Frog”
Original Autographs – missing
50-100 A.D.
2nd Century Bible
Various – missing 200 A.D.
Original Vaticanus & Sinaiticus 350 A.D. Unaffected by 2nd cent. Bible
2nd Century Bible Bezae 500 A.D. Unaffected by Vatic., Sinai., & others

For the best record of the text in 200 A.D. (green in the table), you leap-frog Vaticanus and Sinaiticus to Bezae (also green).  For the original text (italics), you leap-frog the 200 A.D. text, clear to Vaticanus and Sinaiticus.  The 200 A.D. text, far older than Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, is not “best” for identifying the original text.  Oldest is only best when it helps your theory.

Despite the 2nd century Bibles having “prodigious errors,” someone happened by chance to find good copies in the fourth century and happened to copy them, giving us Vaticanus and Sinaiticus.  The frog jumped clear over the second century mess. When our leap-frog lands, he squishes “oldest is best,” but consistency is an unnecessary constraint. 🙂

Immune to Evidence

“Manuscript leap-frog” made Hort’s theory immune to evidence.  Will manuscripts be found, older than Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, that disagreed with them?  That would prove Hort right!  He always said the 2nd-3rd century text didn’t match Vaticanus, the leap-frog manuscript.

A first century manuscript?  Great!  If it agrees with Vaticanus, it proves that Vaticanus matches the original.  If not, it proves Hort was right about the carelessness of early scribes!  It’s a win, either way.  When your theory is immune to evidence, you are always right.

I return to the quote at the top — from Emerson’s essay, Self-Reliance (another 19th century work).  When you don’t rely on God’s revealed truth, but instead make yourself the only authority for your own evidence-immune theory, you epitomise Self-Reliance.  You certainly are not a “little mind” that must concern yourself with “foolish consistency.”

Emerson taught that man relies on himself for truth.  Inconsistency and self-reliance pervade Hort’s writing.  Biblical preservation, and its impact on the text, brings reliance on God into focus — but Hort discarded Scripture preservation.  Self-reliance drove his principles, the same principles which textual scholars still use to decide which are the best manuscripts, which words are part of the Bible and go in the next translation.

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.

2 Responses to I Guess Oldest is Only Best When We Want it to Be

  1. Of course I like it, but that’s because I’m biased.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Sometimes “they” really are out to get a paranoid person, sometimes hypochondriacs really are dying of rare diseases — and sometimes biased people are right.

      Just saying. 🙂

      I didn’t really like this post. It needed written, but it’s the saddest in the series, because Hort had to know he was being inconsistent, to know his theory had problems, and he proceeded anyway. Lord willing, I’ll write more on NTTC, but probably not regarding Hort himself.

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