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