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
- Not Like Any Other Book
- Is the Oldest Manuscript Really Best?
- The Pericope Adulterae and the Oldest Manuscripts
- The “Oldest and Best” Wording
- Textual Criticism’s Worst Assumption
- The “Best Manuscripts” are Sloppy Copies (???)
- I Guess Oldest is Only Best when We Want it to Be
- 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.
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