The Oldest and Best Manuscripts?
I haven’t posted anything on New Testament Textual Criticism (NTTC) for a while. In these posts, I’m looking at assumptions underlying the approach of modern textual criticism to the text of the Scriptures (especially the New Testament).
Daniel Wallace, a leading textual scholar, is a brilliant man. Better, he seems to be a true believer in salvation by faith in the work of Christ. He wrote a wonderful article — but one which makes me wonder how someone so brilliant cannot see his own inconsistency. But I suppose that is the human condition….
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
- Unprovable Historical Textual Assumptions
Lunch is Better than This Book
The Houghton Miflin Harcourt publishing company has decided, “It is time for a new New Testament” — and with money to be made, they provided one. What they’ve provided is rubbish, a New Testament in which they included writings of the heresy of Gnosticism and other nonsense.
Daniel Wallace’s article (A New New Testament: Are You Serious?) on his blog on Sunday gave a crushing argument against this blatant attempt to undermine Scripture. If you are considering rewarding them financially by buying their book, please at least read his article first so you know what you are getting. (I took my wife out to lunch today, and I heartily recommend that usage of the money, rather than the book — but take YOUR wife, because mine won’t go with you. :))
“By What Authority?”
Few of my readers were likely to enrich the publishers anyway, so why am I writing this? Very simply, some statements in the article really, really grabbed my attention, coming from a textual critic.
…the council of nineteen has, by its own self-asserted authority, pronounced a verdict on what goes into the New Testament. (emphasis added)
The Jews asked “by what authority” Jesus did what He did (and taught what He taught). It was a legitimate question, but His authority was evident by His words, His works, and the dual witness of Scripture and of John the Baptist. It is still a legitimate question today for those who claim authority, though unlike Christ, they have no such evident answer.
This is one of my biggest objections to modern NTTC. Modern scholars, by human authority, pronounce a verdict on what goes into the New Testament. I know of no textual scholar who claims divine authority for the decisions he makes, and no one who would give any credence to such a claim if it was made. A textual scholar (or a committee of scholars) is appointed by himself, perhaps by a university or a publisher, or by some other human agency, to do his work. A verdict is pronounced on what goes into the New Testament, and people are supposed to accept that verdict.
The scholar may respond, “I’m just a technician, applying the rules” — but the “rules” have no divine sanction, either. They are not in Scripture. They are merely a human construct, which cannot be proven with any certainty to be valid for a unique Book like the Bible.
Furthermore, an honest scholar will admit the “rules” aren’t rules, but general principles with varying applicability. Scholars make many “judgment calls” in applying them. We are expected to accept those “judgment calls,” and Bible translators act on them. Many believers don’t even know a “judgment call” has been made, yet they are bound by it if they use the resulting translation. Even if the marginal notes reflect variant readings, many people never read those notes. They accept without question, as the divine Word of God, the decisions that these humanly-appointed scholars make.
Which brings us to a question Wallace asked earlier in his article:
Who are these people and on what basis does this council have any binding authority on anyone?
Sadly, with few exceptions (Wallace being one of them, thankfully), most textual scholars through the last 1 1/2 centuries have been people who are not significantly closer to Biblical orthodoxy than the committee he has in his sights.
The issue of authority which he highlights is an immense question that modern NTTC has never, to my knowledge, answered in substance. By what authority do you do these things?
There is an Authority
To this point, I could say, “Well, Wallace has a blind spot. Don’t we all?” But he goes further, telling of an authority which can pronounce a verdict on what goes into the New Testament. That authority is the Holy Spirit testifying in and through the churches.
Finally, catholicity was a criterion used in deciding what earned a place at the table of the New Testament canon. By ‘catholicity’ I do not mean Roman Catholicism. No, I mean that for a book to make the cut it generally needed to be accepted by all the churches.
Wallace is 100% correct. For a book to “make the cut,” to receive a verdict that it goes into the New Testament, it needed to be generally accepted by all the churches. That is NOT because the churches were trustworthy, for churches could and did get a lot of things horribly wrong. That is why the testimony of a handful of churches would not be accepted as authoritative. Catholicity is dependent on a broad testimony of the Holy Spirit through the churches counteracting those that have drifted into error.
But Wallace and his colleagues do not apply that principle in their pronounced verdicts. They will take a reading for which there is little evidence that it was generally accepted by all the churches, and tell us it is the original reading that we should accept as the authoritative Word of God. A very few manuscripts is enough evidence, as long as it is the “right manuscripts” — whither catholicity? The testimony of a few churches is insufficient, but the testimony of a few manuscripts is compelling?
At some point down through the centuries, the churches reached a considerable consensus on the text. Those who made those decisions had manuscripts that we don’t have and will never have. Textual scholars today second-guess those decisions without even possessing in any measure the same evidence that the churches of the third through sixth centuries possessed — and by the fifth and sixth centuries, at the latest, catholicity attested to a text which Wallace rejects. And as scholars like Zuntz, Burkitt, and Metzger have conceded, at least parts of that text have historical roots going back at least to the second century.
Why do we accept the testimony of the Holy Spirit in and through the churches (catholicity as properly used by Wallace) for the books, but reject it for the words in those books? Why do we prefer the human authority of modern scholars, who don’t even have the same data which those ancient churches had?
Daniel Wallace gave a great concluding paragraph, including this:
In short, the New New Testament is a wolf in sheep’s clothing…. …The books were selected by those who, though certainly having a right to scholarly examination of the Christian faith, are not at all qualified to make any pronouncements on canon. That belongs to the church, the true church.
I have no reason to doubt that Dr Wallace is a true believer in Jesus Christ. He seems far from a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But if I could sit down with him over a cup of coffee, I would want to ask him why it is wrong for me to take the same words that he used, and make the following alterations (in blue):
In short, the theory of modern New Testament Textual Criticism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing…. …The words are selected by those who, though certainly having a right to scholarly examination of the Christian faith, are not at all qualified to make any pronouncements on what goes into the New Testament. That belongs to the church, the true church.
Why do modern textual scholars, believers or not, have any more authority than this publisher’s silly committee? Why should we listen to them, rather than to what churches said for centuries?
By what authority?
I would love to see Daniel Wallace answer that question someday, and explain why catholicity died. His theology is fine — if only he applied it consistently. But I suppose we all fail to apply our theology consistently in some way or other. May the Lord help us to see our own inconsistencies at least as clearly as we can see the inconsistencies of others.
Summary Page (with links) for the “Oldest and Best” series
What you wrote is faithful. It fits biblical presuppositions. It reflects historical Christianity. But unfortunately it’s also “stupid,” so it must be rejected. Sorry.
If it’s any consolation, I’ll be right with you in your stupidity.
“‘Don’t take names to yourself, Smeagol,’ said Frodo. ‘It’s unwise, whether they are true or false.’ ‘Smeagol has to take what’s given him,’ answered Gollum.”
Thanks for the comment, Smeagol. 🙂
Yes, I know, people say things. But I’m just applying his own words. Authority really is a legitimate question.
You’re right, Jon. Everything you’re writing here is right. I wish being right was what mattered.
Someday I’ll quote you out of context as saying that being right isn’t what matters and have a lot of fun with it. 🙂 But only God opens eyes to blind spots.
Thanks for the encouragement.
Hello, I’m a friend of Michael’s on Facebook and between yesterday and today I’ve quickly read every one of your articles on the subject of NTTC, which I had never heard of (by name) though I think, looking back, I’ve seen some (very small) influence from it in a few Bible classes I’ve taken at Christian High Schools. I believe you have made a strong case that God has and will preserve His Word, and thus NTTC assumptions cannot treat the Bible like “any other book.” I’ve found the articles interesting and encouraging, and as I plan on attending a Christian college next fall, I am glad that, should I see any of this stuff in Bible classes (though I hope I don’t), I’ll know to be very careful and will with God’s help be less likely to be deceived.
But on the subject of deception, I have also acquired from your posts a slight feeling of paranoia. If NTTC is so popular, and most of the people leading NTTC aren’t even believers, what should I avoid that has been influenced by them? How involved has naturalistic teaching been in creating the more modern translations of the Bible? I don’t have anything against the King James Version, though I prefer translations a little easier to read for my personal study. However as missionaries to Spain I also have to reject the heresy that the King James Version is the only inspired version of the Word of God today…otherwise we would have to be preaching to Spaniards in a Spanish translation of the KJV, and…well, I won’t go into that. The point is, I have always tried to simply trust God and stay in the middle of the spectrum: I don’t want to declare vehemently that I must only use ONE translation, but neither do I want to declare all translations equal when, obviously, they do have some differences, and they can’t all be right (at least on all points). If I have doubts I’ll look at commentaries and compare translations (since I don’t know Greek or Hebrew), and pray that God show me the truth. Usually that leaves my mind at ease.
But when it comes to NTTC, are there some translations that have just relied too much on sloppy copies that they ought to be strongly avoided, as opposed to simply not ideal? Do these early ”sloppy” copies that some scholars nevertheless love so much contain many errors that would teach a doctrine contrary to God’s Word, or are they simply nonsensical errors that aren’t too difficult to correct after comparing them to more recent copies? I’m fairly confident that my Bibles are really quite accurate, and study Bibles usually point out alternate translations in the footnotes. But surely more translations will come out in my lifetime, and I’m skeptical, not just of new English translations but of new Spanish translations (or revisions) as well.
Perhaps few translations could clearly be called out as horribly inaccurate, but in that case, what other material should I avoid? What other stuff might have serious NTTC influence that I may not recognize because it’s hard reading or just doesn’t expressly tell me that it’s following the teaching of NTTC? Is it enough to trust something if it seems to agree with the majority of more recent copies? And how would I know that it does? I won’t advocate NTTC, but neither do I want to be influenced by it as it sounds like many others, including yourself, have been, convinced that it is true. And more likely, I don’t want to be influenced by somebody who had been influenced by this and not realize it. In essence my question is: Now I believe NTTC is wrong. What do I do about it?
Hello, Stephen. A LOT of good questions there. I’ll try to cover them, though maybe not all in one response.
First, as to Bible translations. Let’s start off by recognising that there are two ways in which a translation can deviate from accuracy. The first is in using an erroneous text. Almost all modern translations have pretty much followed the Westcott-Hort text, which is the result of NTTC.
Some are more influenced than others. In John 5, for instance, the account of the waters being moved by the angel, the NASV includes the text, but with a note that “many manuscripts do not contain the remainder of v 3, nor v 4.” The RSV includes a note, “other ancient authorities insert, wholly or in part,” and then it gives a translation of the text. The ESV and NIV simply leave the last of verse 3, and verse 4, out. The testimony of the church through the centuries, the overwhelming majority of manuscripts, include the last of verse 3, and verse 4, as do the KJV and NKJV.
I’ve heard the NKJV is influenced by the Westcott-Hort text in a very few places. I could not attest to that. In general, it is not, but is translated from the same text as the KJV. They come from the Textus Receptus which is not identical to the Majority Text, but is very close to it. I believe there have been some attempts at a translation from the Majority Text, but none have caught on, as far as I am aware. I would not consider the KJV, NKJV, or any Majority Text translation to have been significantly impacted by the methods of modern NTTC.
Most of the manuscript differences are in things like spelling and particles that wouldn’t even show up in a translation at all. In general, the translation differences due to textual differences come down to about 1% of the text, probably, and of those, many do not change the meaning. For instance, the traditional text might say “the Lord Jesus Christ” and the critical text (NTTC) might say “the Lord Jesus.” This kind of shortening is fairly common in the so-called “oldest and best.” (They still clearly teach that Jesus is Christ, they were just copied by careless scribes who dropped words.) In most cases, this kind of difference has no significant impact on the meaning of the verse.
NTTC does bring changes into most modern translations. Some are obvious (such as leaving out John 5:4), others insignificant (spelling differences), others do not change the meaning (like leaving out “Christ”) but isn’t what we would want to see, and others subtle (Acts 9:31, “churches” is “church” in the “oldest and best” and the modern translations follow NTTC in using “church” — it can impact your ecclesiology).
Of the changes that matter, we probably have less than 1% of the NT in modern translations which has been impacted by NTTC.
The other source of deviation from accuracy in translation is in the translation process itself. If a verse is translated inaccurately, the text doesn’t matter so much. There is no question of the text of John 1:1, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses made a mess of it anyway.
In my view, the greatest problem with the NIV is not the text they used, flawed as it was, but the translation philosophy, resulting in not a very good translation for anyone who takes verbal inspiration seriously. If the very words are inspired, then translators should do their best to reflect those words — what is known as formal equivalency in translation.
I’m not at all KJV-only. I use it because I am persuaded it comes from the best text and because it is an excellent translation. But the Scripture itself proves there can be more than one right way to translate a verse. https://mindrenewers.com/2012/11/08/bible-translation-the-only-one-way-to-translate-fallacy/ (Someday, I’ll get a summary page together on my Bibliology series, but maybe I’ll finish it first.)
That sort of answers the question about the impact of NTTC on Bible translations. You’ve asked other things, I’ll get to that later, Lord willing.
I’ve seen people saved, convicted, and sanctified using Bible translations which used the critical text. God is strong enough, His Word is powerful enough, that the problems are not insurmountable. Timothy was told to “preach the Word” in Ephesus, and no one thinks he had a perfect Greek translation of the Old Testament to use there. These problems matter, but they are not insurmountable. Maybe that speaks to your “paranoia” a little bit, as well. Still, if someone is using a critical text based translation for study, they might do well to at least read and compare the texts in the KJV or NKJV so as to be aware of what is going on.
Second response to Stephen.
You almost certainly will see some of this stuff in class. I hope you read a bunch of the old classics, but a lot of good writers in the last 130 years have adopted this stuff, and if you don’t read their material, you’ll be missing some important writing. It doesn’t mean they aren’t sound in 99% of what they say (and probably none of us are 99% sound anyway :)). Just recognise that when they try to tell you that a text doesn’t say what you thought, because the “oldest and best” manuscripts say differently, that there is a bias in that statement.
Furthermore, respect your teachers even if they hold to the modern textual criticism views. There are those (on both sides) who tend to view the other side as the enemy. I’m pretty well persuaded the “other side” is mistaken, but I’ve learned a lot from them.
Also, don’t be afraid to give the “other side” a hearing. After all, I’m just some guy on the Internet. 🙂 You can probably tell I’ve studied the topic more than some, but the fact is, I’m in the minority on this. Feel free to challenge your professors on this if they advocate it, by all means, but hear them out.
(I’ll tell you a secret, though, a lot of Bible professors who say this stuff have never really read Hort’s Introduction carefully, they’ve never really thought about it, they’ve taken what the “experts” say. So feel free to ask them what they think about Hort’s view of the canon, and how it compares to the Biblical view of the canon, and what they think about its influence on his theory. If they can’t answer, ask them to read his Introduction, and feel free to refer them to a couple of my posts on that.)
It doesn’t bother me to be in the minority, I’m in the minority on inspiration, the deity of Christ, the resurrection, and a lot of other things. And I’m also pretty well convinced that if we look at the flow of non-Roman Catholic doctrine from the Reformation down to 1880 or so, I’m not in the minority at all.
In fact, nobody really held to “oldest is best” until 1880. They held to the view that the churches had been the repository of God’s words. The idea that a manuscript in the Vatican and another in a monastery in the Sinai was the location of the revealed Word of God would have been laughed out of court. Why it still isn’t, I don’t know. But I’m not too worried about being in the minority, because the historical view of inspiration and preservation wouldn’t accept this stuff — and there are actually quite a few people today who haven’t been snowballed by it.
So, hear the other side, and don’t worry about being in the minority.
And don’t worry about avoiding material, in general. If you are going to a reasonably good school, you won’t be getting a lot of material that is full of this stuff, you’ll get books that have the occasional twist on a verse due to it. Just recognise it for what it is, it won’t be hard. If someone tells you a verse “should” have been translated differently, chances are they are wrong — the translation committees weren’t stupid, the translation is probably legitimate. If they say it “could” have been translated differently, there’s a decent chance they are right. If they say it is a wrong translation because the best manuscripts say “X” instead of “Y”, that’s where you’ve run into NTTC.
Hope that helps a little, if I haven’t covered anything, or you have any follow up questions, please let me know.