So Everyone Could Use It

I would give up every book I own, including my first edition of the OED, my Civil War edition of the Merriam Webster’s Unabridged, etc., etc., etc., so everyone could use it any time they wanted rather than that only I or my friends could use it . . . and obviously I could use it too.
Michael Hart

The Oldest and Best Manuscripts?

I’ve not posted on New Testament Textual Criticism (NTTC) for a while.  It’s one of those series that I have more I want to write, but other things have come first.  When I saw this comment from Michael Hart, who passed away last year, it reminded me of one of my previous posts on NTTC, so I made a note to myself to post it sometime.

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 (???)
  7. I Guess Oldest is Only Best when We Want it to Be

Michael Hart was the inventor of the e-book, and the founder of Project Gutenberg, which makes e-books available on-line at no cost to the reader, using volunteer workers.  Volunteers scan old books, then proofread the scan to see if the OCR software has properly read the text.

Some books won’t open wide enough to run through a scanner, and not everyone is able to type an entire book.  Michael Hart said that, if necessary, he would be willing to destroy his precious old books so that they could be scanned, so everyone could use them.

I believe Hart’s attitude is like that of early believers towards their Biblical manuscripts, and that attitude is relevant to understanding the transmission of the Biblical text.

What are some of the things we know about early Christians?

  • They were severely persecuted, yet they spread the Gospel widely.
  • They must have been very, very committed to the spread of the Gospel to have continued to preach under persecution.
  • If they were committed to the spread of the Gospel, they would have been committed to spreading the Word of God, the Bible.
  • They would have therefore shared Michael Hart’s attitude towards their Biblical manuscripts.  People who risk their lives to spread the Gospel will not try to preserve their best manuscripts, they will copy them, “so everyone could use it.”

Those who selflessly endured persecution to tell others the Gospel would selflessly provide their manuscripts to the copiers, so those who received their message of salvation would have the Scriptures.  If you put your life on the line for the eternal benefit of others, you’ll put your manuscripts on the line, too — your best manuscripts.

Almost all manuscripts were copied from what the copyists, and the believers in general, thought to be the best manuscripts available.  It isn’t credible to think otherwise.  It isn’t credible to think that they didn’t care about accuracy.

Modern New Testament Textual Criticism theory is built on F.J.A. Hort’s assumption that early believers, in the first two centuries after Christ (when the persecution was severe and churches were springing up and growing around the world), didn’t really care about accuracy and didn’t know how to assess the accuracy of manuscripts.

This is one of the faulty assumptions that made me lose faith in modern NTTC.  Early believers knew that the words mattered, that accuracy is important.  They would have done their best to ensure that accurate manuscripts were accurately copied over and over again, even if it meant the copies from which they worked perished.  The goal would be clear:  “So everyone could use it.”

We are told early believers didn’t care, and that, even if they did, those who came 1500 years later, such as Bengel, Hort, Aland, Metzger, Wallace, and other modern textual critics, can better assess the original text than they could.  I’d rather accept that early believers did care, and that the best early manuscripts were valued for their accuracy.  Thus, rather than being stored in a safe place, they were copied over and over again until they perished.

Could those early believers have been mistaken as to which manuscripts were more accurate?  It’s possible, of course.  But there’s really only one interpretation of the data that makes sense — the majority of manuscripts that we have today reflect the text that early believers considered to be accurate, and worthy of copying.  And that interpretation is a direct challenge to the conclusions of most modern NTTC scholars, because it is contrary to one of their bedrock assumptions — an assumption they have to make, because otherwise they have little basis for discarding the textual conclusions of ancient Christians.

We have three ways to interpret the data:

  1. Ancient Christians didn’t care about making accurate copies.
  2. Ancient Christians did care, and almost all of their copies were accurate.
  3. Ancient Christians did care, but almost all of their copies had some important errors, and textual scholars 1500 years later figured out where they went wrong.

If faced with a choice between options 2 & 3, I’ll want compelling evidence before I’d accept #3.  But that’s the choice we have, because #1 doesn’t make sense.  If early Christians had what they believed to be an accurate copy, they wouldn’t have stored it away in a monastery somewhere.  They would have had it copied, and copied again, and again, until it crumbled into dust, and there would be thousands of manuscripts that reflected the text of that copy which they believed to be accurate.  Why?

They would want everyone to use it.

Companion post:  Is the Oldest Manuscript Really Best?

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.

3 Responses to So Everyone Could Use It

  1. Don Johnson says:

    Hi Jon
    I think you are making too many assumptions. It doesn’t really answer Hort’s assumptions to counter it with assumptions of your own. We simply don’t know what the early Christians did or thought. I am sure some could well have been careless, I doubt all of them were (that’s my assumption). I’ve long thought that this is the weakest argument on both sides of the issue. We can make statements about what the early Christians thought and did all day long, but the fact is no one really knows. Thus, I think this line of argument doesn’t help your views. You would do better to stick to the evidence and attempts to understand how the evidence (i.e., the manuscripts) came about as they did. Sometimes I think the answer is “No one knows, so we’ll just have to trust God at this point.”

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hi, Don. I thought about this while slapping paint around today, and decided I’d answer you on the front page, because this is a really good challenge, and it shows that either you are clueless or I’ve not been clear about my purpose in these posts. Since in general I don’t think you’re clueless :), I suspect I’ve not been clear enough.

  2. Don Johnson says:

    That’ll be fine. I look forward to your further thoughts. For the record, I don’t hold dogmatically to either a TR or an Alexandrian viewpoint or any point of view in between for this very reason: to be dogmatic, your argument has to rest on assumptions that can’t be proven. Not firm enough ground for me.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

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