Unprovable Historical Textual Assumptions

The Oldest and Best Manuscripts?

After my last post on New Testament Textual Criticism (NTTC), my friend Pastor Don Johnson commented that I am making too many assumptions in these posts.  He has a point, to an extent.  This series of posts is not intended to try to prove the unprovable.

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
  8. So Everyone Could Use It

Let’s start with Don’s challenge, from the “So Everyone Could Use It” post:

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.”

I wanted to respond on the front page, and I’m finally getting around to it.  Broadly, there are three ways to view questions of the text.  I’ll call them the Theological approach, the Naturalistic Evaluation approach, and the Theologically-Informed Evaluation approach.

The Theological Approach

This was (arguably) the standard approach for 1500 years or more.  Christians believed the Scriptures were handed down by God’s providential preservation through His church.  This rests entirely on theological conclusions.

Briefly, the view is as follows:  Jesus’ sheep know His voice.  Scripture is the voice of the Lord, and thus, His people recognise and receive the true readings, rejecting the false.  The true text was accepted by God’s people through the centuries.  The Spirit testifies to our spirit as to the truth of God’s Word, but He will not bear witness to words that aren’t truly His Word.  Thus, though some may err, by overwhelming consensus of believers, as they trust God to preserve and testify to His Word, will testify to the true text.

See my Bibliology articles on the preservation of Scripture (main article but especially When Copies Differ (1) and When Copies Differ (2)).  If the approach is sound, we expect an overwhelming historical consensus in the manuscripts — and that is exactly the case.

The theological approach is the only one that gives certainty on the text — a certainty based on faith.  The other two approaches I’ll mention (including the approach I’ve taken in these articles on “Oldest and Best”) can’t provide certainty, as Pastor Johnson rightly stated.  We lack sufficient historical evidence on what really happened, what believers did, the history of the manuscripts, etc., for certainty.  If you are convinced that sound theology points to a certain textual conclusion, you have certainty, but historical evaluation of the text will never provide that.

I’ve been using a different approach in these articles (I’ll explain why further down), but I firmly hold to this theological approach, as described briefly in my articles on preservation.

Note:  I accept that this leaves some difficulty.  In a very few cases it is hard to assess the historically accepted text.  One is I John 5:7, broadly rejected by Eastern / Greek churches (lacking in Greek manuscripts), but broadly accepted by Western churches (thus present in Latin manuscripts).  Have believers accepted or rejected it?  It could be argued either way.  But the vast majority of variant readings leave no question as to the accepted text for Christians through the centuries.

The Naturalistic Evaluation Approach

This is the approach of modern New Testament Textual Criticism since Westcott-Hort.  This view holds that “the textual criticism of the Bible is just like the textual criticism of any other book.”  Evidence is evaluated without regard to theology, applying the same rules of textual criticism which would be applied to any other book.

Modern textual critics reject the conclusions of early Christians as to the text, the text that they chose to copy and pass down to succeeding generations, so they have to make assumptions about the mindset, the materials, or the mental aptitude of those early Christians.  Either they didn’t care about accuracy, or they lacked good manuscripts (because even earlier Christians didn’t care about accuracy), or they just weren’t smart enough to make good decisions on the text.  The general assumption, explicitly stated by Hort, is that early Christians didn’t fully accept the New Testament books as Scripture, and so weren’t careful with the text.

The idea of a spiritual aspect to early textual decisions, or consideration of how divine preservation may have impacted the text, is ruled out of bounds — those are non-scientific theological considerations.  Divine preservation of Scripture (acknowledged or denied) has no bearing on textual studies.  It is faith, and textual criticism is “science” — the same as for any other book.

Theologically-Informed Evaluation

The third approach is what I am presenting in my posts on NTTC.  Don’s criticism of these posts is sound — this approach cannot give certainty.  It, just like the “naturalistic evaluation” approach, is based on unprovable assumptions.

So why, if I hold to the “theological approach,” do I present the unprovable “theologically-informed” approach here?

First, it is my own experience.  In my first post, Not Like Any Other Book, I described learning NTTC from a true expert, but began to lose confidence in it because of a theological truth — the Bible is unlike other books.

You can’t evaluate data without a framework.  If you have three different witnesses, which is best?  You have assumptions which affect how you view a person’s credibility.  Those assumptions may not be proven in this case, but you can’t process data without them.  With manuscripts, it is the same — you cannot evaluate without some assumptions.

In choosing assumptions, you will look at two main factors — are they realistic / reasonable, and when you go to evaluate the data, does it fit with the assumptions?

Theologically-informed evaluation rejects the assumption that Biblical textual criticism is the same as other books.  It starts with the Bible’s testimony.  God is active in preserving it.  The Spirit will take a hand.  It will be transmitted by people who view it very differently from other books.  The Bible will probably not be owned primarily by rich people (unlike other books), and its owners will be persecuted.  This will have a purifying effect (I Peter 1, etc.) — thus, they are likely to have a Biblically-driven attitude towards the text.

This approach assumes God wanted His people to have His Word, so He took action to give it in the first place, and He would take action to provide it in its true form to believers through the centuries.  It assumes the true Word will have continued generally available, because the whole point of giving it was to make it available.  It applies the same principle to the preservation and availability of Scripture that applies in our doctrine of salvation to the perseverance of the saints.  God started a work, He’s going to finish it all the way.  (It is odd that many who are strong on the sovereignty of God in soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, effectively abandon it for a naturalistic Bibliology.)

These assumptions cannot be proven — but a theologically-informed view finds them far better than the contrary naturalistic assumptions of Westcott-Hort and those who followed them.  Assumptions must match reality.  The greatest reality in dealing with Scripture is what God Himself said in His Word.

I’ve written in my Bibliology series on The Canon of Scripture.  A theologically-informed approach starts with Biblical truth — the canon was in place when written and generally accepted by believers long before any church councils.  Sound theology rejects F.J.A. Hort’s assumption of late acceptance of the canon (which mirrors Roman Catholic canonicity).  A theory of early textual transmission should factor in the Biblical view — early believers accepted the New Testament Scriptures.  And so on….

Theologically-informed evaluation will not give certainty, but it undercuts many assumptions of modern NTTC.  It may not lead to a strict theological approach (it did with me, eventually), but it gives many similar conclusions.  I present it, not just because it was my “journey”, but because it demonstrates the errors of modern NTTC to those who (like me originally) are unpersuaded of the straight theological approach but accept the clear truths of Scripture.

I do not need my suggested alternative historical narrative, even though I’m reasonably confident it is pretty close to the truth.  I’m not trying to build an iron-clad case in presenting the theologically-informed view.  History is too hard to nail down precisely.

When forgoing the “theological” route in favour of the “evidence” route, all I need do is offer a credible explanation of the evidence that fits with the Scriptural record.  Most NTTC scholars don’t even bother with the Scriptural record — it doesn’t factor at all into how they “do textual criticism.”  That should be enough to cause believers to question their conclusions — they’ve started at all the wrong places.

No one has to take the path I’ve suggested, as far as the historical narrative, but anyone who claims to believe the Scripture should at least try to start in the right place, as informed by Scripture.  We should not accept the assumptions of scholars who intentionally discard Biblical guidance in constructing their historical narrative.  They are wrong, they have to be, whether my alternative theory is exactly right or not.

Textual critics try to make it sound as if anyone who disagrees is crazy or uneducated, as if their theories are the only reasonable ones.  Theirs is not the only theory.  Even I can provide an alternative which fits the historical evidence as well as theirs — and unlike their theories, the one I’m presenting at least tries to be true to what we theologically know.

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

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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11 Responses to Unprovable Historical Textual Assumptions

  1. Don Johnson says:

    Hi Jon
    Thanks for the extended reply. I’d say our friend Kent is probably of the Theological persuasion.

    A few things: Who on earth is F. D. J. Hort? Unless he had more names than I know of, I thought he was J. A. Hort.

    As for the naturalistic method, to the extent that Westcott and Hort embraced the method, I would say that they were wrong. The Bible is not “just like any other book”. I’ll certainly concede that point.

    I agree in the main with your last position, but I come to different conclusions. The theology of preservation is fine, but I don’t think God guarantees that every generation of believers will have all the Scriptures all the time. Obviously, the first century believers didn’t (partly because they weren’t all written yet and partly because what was written took time to be copied and spread around the church world). During the time of Josiah the Jews apparently went some time without a copy of the law until the scroll was found during Josiah’s clean-up and restoration of the temple. God can withhold his voice as a matter of judgement, no? He is Sovereign, yes?

    In addition to this, it is quite apparent that God did not perfectly preserve his word in the majority manuscripts because there are still many variants and we still have the issue of 1 Jn 5.7. So while I believe God acted in preservation, he didn’t act in the same way he did with inspiration of the originals. The originals were, by definition, without error, but subsequent copies were only without error insofar as they agreed with the originals.

    No matter which family of manuscripts you favor, you cannot escape theologically informed textual criticism. You have less to do if you favor the majority texts, but you still have to do it.

    God could have preserved his word such that every copy was an exact duplicate of the originals, with no errors in copying. It is quite obvious he didn’t do that.

    So in the end, you still have to make decisions about the differences. I don’t think we are really any further ahead at this point… but I can agree that we have to reject a purely naturalistic point of view.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Thanks, Don. Fixed the F.J.A. thing — kind of funny how that happened, but would take too long to explain. 🙂

      As to availability, I accept your point to an extent — I said “generally available.” You are entirely correct that it is not an absolute, that God withholds His Word in judgment from those who will not believe / obey. Even if we consign all of the Middle Ages to “a time of unbelief when God was withholding His Word,” which I find very doubtful, I don’t think we can safely say that about the Reformation up through at least 1900. There was a tremendous hunger to know and obey God’s Word in many places. Some may argue that hunger is growing cold in recent years, but I’m not sure that is true on a world-wide basis.

      Will respond more later.

      • Don Johnson says:

        Well, I’m not saying that God is necessarily withholding his Word at any particular point of the Church Age. We have no revelation about that, so it would only be speculation. My point is simply that we can’t assume that we know what God is doing in preservation through the centuries because he hasn’t revealed it to us.

        We can observe that he hasn’t perfectly preserved every word in every manuscript because of the numerous copying mistakes in virtually every manuscript. That is not to say we can’t discern the originals, since most of the mistakes are inconsequential and easy to understand (transposition of letters here and there, misspellings, etc). However, the fact remains that the copies are not perfect. I think we can say that God *could* have perfectly preserved them (done a miracle in the transcription process, zero mistakes), but he did not do so for reasons of his own.

      • Jon Gleason says:

        Re: withholding His Word, I understand you, Don. My point was simply it doesn’t make sense to suggest He gave His Word and then left the only true copies unused and languishing for 1500 years until Tischendorf. If he came along and found Sinaiticus at the beginning of the Reformation, when people were beginning to seek the Word, that would make sense with the way God works as revealed in Scripture.

        I don’t think anyone on God’s green earth thinks God perfectly preserved His Word in one particular manuscript. I’m not arguing that at all, and I would not expect that based on Scripture. The warnings against adding to or taking from God’s Word are a strong indication that He was not going to supernaturally prevent inaccurate copies.

        The point is not that God prevented inaccurate copies, but that He prevented the inaccurate parts of the copies from being accepted by His people as recording His true words. When faced with an alternative between true words and false words, they would hear His voice and be prompted by the Spirit to receive the true words. Some individuals might err in this, but there will be a consensus among God’s people.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      I said I’d respond further. First, as to Kent. I made an intentional decision not to buy his book I finish this series of articles. Kent is a friend, and I didn’t want to hear, “Oh, you’re just saying what Kent says,” I wanted to be able to say, “I haven’t even read what Kent says.” But yes, I’m sure he’s in the “theological approach” camp, and I’m pretty sure we’re on the same page as far as the doctrine goes. In the exact nuts and bolts of applying it to history we might differ.

      Re: Westcott/Hort: ‘As for the naturalistic method, to the extent that Westcott and Hort embraced the method, I would say that they were wrong. The Bible is not “just like any other book”. I’ll certainly concede that point.;

      From Hort’s Introduction, #23: “The leading principles of textual criticism are identical for all writings whatever. Differences in application arise only from differences in the amount, variety, and quality of evidence.”

      #96: “In dealing with the text of the New Testament, no new principle whatever is needed or legitimate” — the only difference is that we have more data (manuscripts, etc).

      #243:”The main line of neutral and comparatively pure text was from an early time surrounded and overshadowed by two powerful lines containing much aberration….” This is putting his principles into practice. If you start with assuming any level of preservation, you would hesitate to draw his conclusion.

      #361: “Some think it incredible that any true words of Scripture have perished,” and calls that “irrelevant.” The question of whether God would allow true words of Scripture to perish is not irrelevant. Later in the same section: “For ourselves, we dare not introduce considerations which could not reasonably be applied to other ancient texts….”

      In #367, he suggests that the original writer or his amanuensis may have penned “corruptions”. In 368 he states that some parts of Matthew are as they stood in the autographs but he doubts they have apostolic authority. In other words, he does not approach the text from an evangelical, believing viewpoint, but rather from a skeptical one. His entire treatise contains, as far as I am aware, not one sentence which could not have been written by an unbeliever (edit: this wasn’t quite accurate. His concluding sentence expresses a sense of accountability to God).

      Once you concede that the textual criticism of the Bible needs to be theologically informed, you’ve conceded the main point. Once we decide that the Scriptures are sufficient, and that they therefore must have some things to say on this subject, and we start to look for those things, the whole ball game changes. You are well on your way to some kind of traditional text position.

      And once Hort’s Lucianic Recension theory was discredited by the evidence, once you reject the naturalistic approach which still (following Hort) guides modern NTTC, you begin to ask yourself, “So on what basis do we reject the textual decisions of early Christians, who had many more early manuscripts available to them than we have today? On what basis do we decide that they didn’t hear the Shepherd’s voice?”

      Hort said we do it on the basis that a Lucianic Recension conflated the text. Sturz (and some others) destroyed that theory. Perhaps it makes more sense to assume that, in general, believers did a decent job, under God’s providence, of transmitting the text to us.

      • Don Johnson says:

        I am not familiar with the term Lucianic Recension, so not sure what that is all about.

        I know that it is quite common to paint Westcott and Hort with horns, and I appreciate that you are not doing that. I certainly don’t agree with Horts views quoted here. I think Westcott had a much better testimony than Hort, but they were a product of their age and their church. They weren’t where we are, that is for sure.

        I was once talking to a friend who holds to a Majority Text view, summing up my position to him. He said something like, “Well you are basically a Majority Text person.” When we get down to the final analysis, my conclusions are very similar to an MT view, but I don’t arrive at them in the same way as most MT guys I have corresponded. I believe the texts need to be argued on a case by case basis, operating on the assumption that God was involved in the process but has not revealed the extent of his involvment to us. Thus we have to make inferences from evidence. And then we have to leave it alone. I don’t see one set of texts as inherently superior just because they are “majority” or “older”. I tend to think the older readings are more likely to be original, but I do accept the longer ending of Mark and the pericope de adultera.

      • Jon Gleason says:

        Re: W/H, if I’m guessing based on their writings, I’m guessing Westcott knew the Lord but (as you say) was a product of his age and church. I’m guessing Hort probably didn’t, but because he was a product of his age and church it is hard to say. But the thing is, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the philosophy that pervaded their work, and that is unacceptable to anyone who claims to take Scripture seriously, whether you use the label fundamentalist or evangelical.

        I use “Traditional Text” rather than TR or MT because it is a broader term. The difference between the two views is usually one of application rather than actual theology. You sound like a Traditional Text guy who just hasn’t worked it through entirely in applying theology. So you still have some messed up ideas about the “older readings”, but we’ll forgive you because you are getting there. 🙂

        No time tonight to explain Lucianic Recension. Try to get to it tomorrow, Lord willing.

  2. Don Johnson says:

    From the text issue one then also has the translation issue. I simply can’t hold to a view that insists there can only be one translation that is acceptable today. But that is a different question than which texts are best.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      I’ve just begun to talk about translations on my Bibliology series. I’ll get to that point — like everything else surrounding Bibliology, I don’t believe the Scriptures are entirely silent on the “only one acceptable translation” question. I’ve already said that any reasonably accurate translation is divine in nature and authoritative, and I believe I’ve given sound Scriptural reasons for saying so.

      But that doesn’t entirely address the question.

  3. Don Johnson says:

    Quote: ” You sound like a Traditional Text guy who just hasn’t worked it through entirely in applying theology. So you still have some messed up ideas about the “older readings”, but we’ll forgive you because you are getting there.”

    Well, I don’t put much stock in the idea that what the church generally received is a factor at all. That imbues men with some kind of involvement in the process which I will only acknowledge for the apostles and prophets. I’m not confident in the church collectively because of the mess the church collectively has made of the church in almost every century of its existence, some centuries worse than others to be sure.

    Above you said: “This approach assumes God wanted His people to have His Word, so He took action to give it in the first place, and He would take action to provide it in its true form to believers through the centuries. It assumes the true Word will have continued generally available, because the whole point of giving it was to make it available.”

    That’s where I would depart from your view in a couple of ways. 1) What does “generally available” mean? I think one could say that and still believe the Alexandrian text is superior, simply because the differences are not that large. 2) We really don’t have any revelation for this, so it can only be an assumption. We do have evidence of God withholding his word in the past as I have said. I would be careful of making an assumption that it couldn’t happen again, though not asserting that it did.

    What I argue for is a case by case evaluation of why the variant came about. Although I disagree with W&H in their underlying philosophy, I think they helped us understand the mechanics of transmission and that their methodology is not entirely flawed.

    I could say more, but it is getting late here (I am on the East Coast, flying home tomorrow), so I need to crash… I think I’m starting to ramble…

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hi, Don. Yes, we’ve got some substantive differences, more than I thought. The church is the pillar and ground of truth. That means something, and it doesn’t mean what the RCC teaches it means. 🙂

      We can’t blame the church of the Middle Ages for textual differences. Virtually all textual scholars agree that the textual variants arose by the early fourth century, at the latest. Most evidence suggests they were there by the end of the second century, but some scholars want to hang on to the vestiges of the W-H theory and push it a little later. The church of the Middle Ages, for all its flaws, was simply passing on what early believers, during the times of great persecution, had concluded and passed down, when it comes to the text.

      It is a violation of the sufficiency of the Scriptures to say they don’t give any guidance on this topic. If they say God is going to preserve His Word and (by implication) that He isn’t going to miraculously guarantee the accuracy of copies, then we should expect at least some kind of guidance as to how we can know which are accurate. I would not expect that a sufficient Book to neglect to give any guidance at all. How can the perfectly equipped man of God know whether the Pericope Adulterae really is Scripture or not? Did God really just leave it up to us individually to decide, “Oh, I think that passage is Scripture, but that one isn’t”?

      As to W-H, I don’t think they helped us understand anything about the mechanics of transmission. Their methodology is hopelessly flawed, whether because they lacked good data (as Dr. Sturz always said), or because of their underlying philosoph (as I believe). But if you aren’t familiar with the Lucianic Recension idea, it’s foundational to their work, and it is totally discredited even from a naturalistic perspective. The evidence breaks it down.

      I may post on the Lucianic Recension on the front page. It’s not exciting stuff, but if anyone is interested in understanding NTTC, they probably need a little background on it.

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