Problems with textual criticism

are modern critical texts really superior to the majority text ?


NOTE BEFORE READING : Textual criticism has been the strongest ally for the believer in supporting the faithfulness and accuracy of the Bible copies handed down over the generations. However, because of some of the changes in modern Bible translations some have reacted strongly against modern Textual Criticism and preferred a "King James only" mentality. That is NOT my purpose in this article. For every place where critics claim modern Bibles have "removed" a trinitarian refernce, an NEW trinitarian reference NOT found in the KJ can be cited. My purpose in this article is not to attack textual criticism itself but to urge restrain among the textual critics who too often place more emphasis on their own opinions than on the evidence.


Ever since the invention of the printing press scholars have hoped to publish the definitive copy of the New Testament just as it was written in the first century by the authors and apostles themselves. The "inferiority" of the rushed Textus Receptus, based on but a few Greek manuscripts (many of which were incomplete), has served as a constant item of ridicule for those who hope to have a true duplicate of the originals. Nevertheless, as copies of the Scriptures were collected and compiled it did not take long for the "science" of textual criticism to be reborn. Not invented by enlightened scientists but resurrected. Indeed, the science of textual criticism predates the birth, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

With this resurgence of textual criticism, the Majority text has often become scorned and ridiculed to the point of absurdity. Defense of the Majority text has been reserved to a select few who argue that God has not left His people without the true word. This argument has, of course, been aptly answered by those who point out that God did not leave the people of the second, third, forth, fifth and sixth century without his word either, but they all lacked what is today called the Majority text. Other legitimate objections could be raised but this article is not about the Majority text but the critical text. How reliable is modern textual criticism? Is it really superior to the Majority text? Have we fallen so much in love with ourselves and the power we have to determine the true words of Christ that we have formed a "conservative" Jesus Seminar? Consider that textual criticism itself predates Christianity and was employed by the Greeks and Romans for centuries. When Christianity became the official state religion and official copies of the Scriptures were prepared, were they not prepared with the same care and textual critical eyes that copied Homer and Plato? Did they not have many far more ancient manuscripts from which to work than we do today? In short, is twentieth century textual criticism really superior to that of the ancient scribes who had more ancient texts at their disposal?

Some may point out that, as Bruce Metzger states, the "first" textual critics of the Bible, called Theodotians, were condemned as heretics. However, the textual criticism of the Theodotians does not appear to have been based on textual evidence at all. Metzger himself quotes from their censors who state that the Theodotians cannot "show any copies from which they made their emendations." This type of criticism is certainly more akin to the Jesus Seminar than to true textual criticism. Moreover, it seems clear that this "textual criticism" was made, not out of a desire to know the true Word of God but, in response to the criticisms of the anti-Christian and anti-Semitic philosopher and doctor Galen. Like many early cults, the Theodotians were motivated by secular philosophy and not God's Word. If it was truly textual criticism itself for which the Theodotians were condemned then this is inconsistent with other statements commonly held by textual critics and several of their arguments must fall. First, the idea that textual criticism was "to lay hands on the divine Scriptures" is inconsistent with the idea that the Western tradition is characterized by constant revision, redaction, and alterations "with astonishing freedom," as Westcott and Hort phrase it. How could such "astonishing freedom" not be construed to be tampering with the text if textual criticism was? How could the heretic Marcion be so "influential," as some (Von Soden, for example) claim, if desiring to know the original words of the text is itself heretical? Finally, how could Origen's Hexapla have gained such notoriety if text-critical study was itself condemned? Bruce Metzger himself acknowledges that Origen's text-critical study "was a monumental tool that many patristic scholars consulted." If so, then true textual criticism among the Church Fathers and scribes was not unknown, particularly after Rome became a Christian state.

Consider also that the Byzantine text would often place asterisk or obeli whenever they doubted the authenticity of a particular verse or section. This is inconsistent with the view that the Byzantine text is "debased" and "corrupt." It is, however, consistent with careful examination of the existing text at that point in time in history. Indeed, J. Harold Greenlee, while accepting the inferiority of the Byzantine text, agrees that the Byzantine text arose at that time because there was "a greater opportunity for the official comparison of the text of various MSS." Despite this fact most textual scholars believe that this led to a poorly conceived "convergence" on manuscripts rather than to a text-critical archetype. Certainly there are problems with the Byzantine text but there is little doubt that they had far more diverse and ancient manuscripts than modern critics upon which to base their decisions.

Modern textual criticism may be inferior to that of its prototype because of its dependence on 18th century liberalism. Indeed, many of those who paved the way for modern textual criticism were Germans who came out of that very atmosphere of liberalism. It was the liberals of the eighteenth century who forged the shift from reliance upon authority, inspiration, and tradition to an overconfidence and even mechanical reliance on the "science" of the enlightenment. Of course, much of this "science" was never true science at all but rather a milieu of philosophical presuppositions in which natural phenomenon and laws took precedence over spiritual and supernatural events, including inspiration. This overconfidence and mechanical reliance is what is most apparent about modern textual criticism. Indeed, one major precept of modern textual critical methodology is that the textual theory, or "transcriptional probabilities," should take precedence over the textual evidence itself! By this, I do not refer to conjectural emendations, although this is of concern, but as Harold Greenlee puts it, since textual theory "is more subjective; this prevents one's thinking from being unduly influenced initially by the evidence." Fortunately, this is not used as a jury instruction in trials today, although it seems that the Bible is often put on trial by textual critics.

Nevertheless, this strong confidence in textual theory is illfounded. Few seem to realize that almost every argument that can be used to support one variant reading can be used to support the exact opposite reading! Take, for example, Paul's greeting to the Colosians in 1:2. The UBS text reads, "Grace and peace to you from God our Father." However, the variant reading adds "and our Lord Jesus Christ." The UBS follow the Vaticanus and its supporters (D K L Y 33. 81. 1175. 1739. 1881 al a m vgst syp sa; Ambst) because they believe that the variant was added to make it conform to parallel passages in the other Pauline epistles. Nevertheless, this same fact, i.e. that there are parallel passages in the other Pauline epistles, may be a strong argument for its authenticity. Since Paul uses the phrase "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ" in every single major epistle (there is similar variant reading in 1 Thessalonians, however) this should be proof of Paul's personal style and, therefore, the intrinsic probabilities should support the Sinaiticus and its supporters (A C F G I {P} < it vgcl {syh** bo}; Tert Hier). Despite this fact, Murray Harris states that "this addition is clearly a secondary variant, since it conforms to normal Pauline usage [emphasis added!]." In spite of such strong evidence for its authenticity the UBS abandons its favorite son, the Sinaiticus, because they cannot see why the scribe would omit such a phrase accidentally or intentionally. In fact, this is the problem with taking a mechanical approach the human endeavor for there is not logical reason why the author of the Sinaiticus would omit the church of Sardis in Revelation 1:11 when he correctly states that the book is to be sent to the "seven churches" but then proceeds to list six, skipping Sardis even though there is no parablepsis by homoeoarcton or homoeoteleuton to explain the blunder!

Consider also the reading of Matthew 5:11. "Blessed are you when men revile and persecute you and [falsely] say all kinds of evil about you on my account." The word falsely is placed in brackets because the UBS committee could not agree on whether or not this was the original text despite the fact that there is so little textual support for its absence. Indeed, of all the Greek text available only Codex Bezae lacks the word and yet Codex Bezae, and other "western" witnesses, are considered inferior texts by these very textual critics! A final example is the rampant abuse of the theory of harmonization. It is true that some scribes would make slight changes to certain passages in order to make them more harmonious with parallel passages. Textual critics have kept this in mind when examining textual variants but in practice they have really opted to choose the reading that is least in harmony with other passages. In effect, they assume the Bible passages are not truly parallel, opting to make each passage as different as possible (cf. Colossians 1:2 above). This is, of course, a classic flaw in logic. Just because some scribes would attempt to "harmonize" certain passages does not mean that there is no harmony between parallel passages. In effect, the practice has become to assume contradiction and disharmony unless it can be proven otherwise!

Although Metzger's constantly pleas that textual criticism is as much and "art as well as a science" this is too often simply an excuse for the contradictions that textual critics make. The dangers of such overdependence on textual theory should be apparent, not by the extremism of the Jesus Seminar, but by two disturbing trends. The first, but not worst, is the Nestle-Aland text's inclusion of German scholar's and other textual critic's conjectural emendations concerning the authenticity of a particular reading when their is no textual support for it whatsoever. However, what is more disturbing is the decision of the UBS committee that in several instances it was the apostles or amanuenses who made mistakes and not later scribes! Hence, the originals themselves are corrupt! In their own defense I will acknowledge that the texts in question are not of a significant nature and the inerrancy is not necessarily at stake but their claims do cast a shadow across the faithfulness and reliability of the originals themselves. For example, in Bruce Metzger's A Textual Commentary On The Greek New Testament the question arises whether in Matthew's genealogy the names of Asa and Amon are correct. Based on 1 Chronicles 3 it is the clear that the names should be Asa (Asa) and Amon (Amwn). However, the two textual variants read Asaph (Asaf) and Amos (AmwV). In order to justify the UBS reading of Asaph and Amos in light of 1 Chronicles, Metzger suggest that "the evangelist may have derived material for the genealogy, not from the Old Testament directly, but from subsequent genealogical lists" in which the error occurred.19 Therefore, the error was not made by a later scribes but the apostle himself! Likewise, Romans 5:1 reads ecwmen in many ancient and diverse manuscripts (a A B C D K L 33 81 630 1175 al lat bo; Mcion) but the Committee felt that ecomen made more since in context. Metzger, therefore, argues that Tertius, Paul's amanuensis may have made the error while Paul was dictating.20 If this is so, then how many other changes or errors did he make? Surely, this is an admission that when textual theory and the opinions of the critics themselves are in conflict with all other evidence, their opinions will prevail, even if it means that Matthew or Paul's amanuensis were the ones at fault!

Another problem with modern textual criticism is the enormous confidence which textual critics place upon text types. In many cases the reading of "Alexandrian" text will be taken in violation of all other text and evidence but the validity of text types may well be exaggerated if not completely spurious. Certainly there is a glimmer of truth to the precepts behind text types but as time has gone by and more and more ancient text have arisen it should become obvious that text types and "local text" may be hasty generalizations that cannot be viewed with confidence. While the "mixing" of text types has become an accepted fact of textual criticism, "mixing" can only be carried to a certain extreme before it becomes pure absurdity. This is one reason that many scholars have been critical of the validity of the Caesarean text type. Look at Codex Freerianus (formerly called Washingtonianus) for example. In Matthew it is considered Byzantine, which would make it one of the earliest examples of Byzantine text type along with Codex Alexandrinus, but in Mark the scribe apparently discards his text and decides to try the Western tradition until he arrived at chapter 5, verse 31. At this point, he apparently tires of Western text and adopts the Caesarean text (which is itself a "mixed" text type). When beginning Luke, he once again loses all other text, or at least interest in them, and follows the Alexandrian text up to 8:12 where he doubtlessly realizes that his original dependence on Byzantine was better after all (or at least until he begin
John where he resorts once again to an Alexandrian text)!

Some textual critics will surely sneer at my sarcasm but many of these same critics would actually divide Codex Washingtonianus into even more divisions. Indeed, individual chapters may often be divided into different text types. Do not such extreme examples of "mixing" illustrate that scribes were not as reliant upon individual textual traditions as once thought? Could it be that the Washingtonianus scribe had many text at his disposal and was employing an early textual critical theory of his own? Certainly, the large mixture of text types employed by Washingtonianus proves that the scribe was not limited to only one or two texts from which to copy, but does it prove the futility of such radical dependence upon text types? To recount what has been said, modern textual criticism fails in several areas.

First, its emphasis upon theory over fact (transcriptional probabilities over intrinsic probabilities and external evidence) is a clear tenet that arose from eighteenth century liberalism. The external evidence may not always reveal all the true facts but neither does the textual theory adequately explain all the intricacies of human endeavor. No practice or deed of man can be so narrowly defined. There may well be common mistakes and error that will be recognizable to scholars but beyond the obvious scribal mistakes the textual theory repeatedly fails to adequately account for them.

Second, the overemphasis on text types is self defeating. Genealogical evidence must not only assume the validity of text types but also the extent to which each copy utilized other text types. As illustrated by Codex Washingtonianus, this is a futile task that involves more imagination than science. For this reason, text types and genealogical evidence must be taken with a grain of salt. Moreover, mixing of text types could just as easily be a sign of textual criticism as of corruption. After all, is not the UBS text a "mixed text?"

Third, a major criticism against the Majority text is the fact that it is not as ancient as other text types but the theory of text types itself maintains that serious scribal errors and alterations occurred at the earliest stage of Christendom. If this is so, then why emphasize the early text at all. Indeed, the precious Alexandrian tradition is presumed to be altered from the original for purposes of style, even removing verses that the authors felt to be spurious.22 Surely, if this is so, then there was no attempt at all by the Alexandrian tradition to employ Greek textual criticism or to remain faithful to the original.

Fourth, the Majority text is underestimated because of its late date. Nevertheless, the difference between the Textus Receptus and the modern critical text is no more substantial that between the Textus Receptus and the Majority text. In addition, while the early scribes worked in times of persecution, or as nonprofessionals with possibly only a few manuscripts before them, the Byzantine text was the dominant text type of the Roman church and, therefore, had probably been weighed against many more ancient text than we currently have at our disposal. Indeed, there are thirteen Byzantine text with the "Jerusalem colophon" that claim to have been copied from ancient Jerusalem text.

Depending on the antiquity of those text and the kind of critical study that were applied to them, the Byzantine could theoretically be closer to the original than even the earliest of text types. Now, having criticized modern textual criticism, one might wonder what alternative exist. I will not endeavor to create my own textual theory lest it be carried out mechanically as most modern theories are. Instead, I will only list several points that need to be interjected into textual criticism.

1. Internal evidence must be divorced from textual theory. Transcriptional and Intrinsic Probabilities should be separate categories rather than subcategories which only serve to merge textual theory with the more sure facts of context and authorial style. Transcriptional Probabilities (or textual theory) should be a third item of consideration of no more value than the other two.

2. Ancient text should be weighed against one another before ever looking at text types. In other words, the majority of ancient text should probably outweigh a few ancient text regardless of what their text types may be.

3. The Majority text should not be underestimated because of its late date. The care that went into its production should not be scorned.

4. When the Majority text is in agreement with a number of ancient text, the Majority should not be discarded without strong evidence against it.

5. The less obvious the explanation for a textual variant, the less emphasis should be placed upon the textual theory to explain the variant. In some cases, where the explanation is not obvious, the textual theory should be completely discarded as irrelevant.

6. Every fact that textual theorist use to explain one variant may be used to prove the opposite (cf. Colosians 1:2). Therefore, textual theory should be utilized with great quandary and the opposing view weighed carefully.

In conclusion, "new" discoveries and "scientific" theories often excite us into believing that we have a means to determine the original text that was lacking for two thousand years but most of the "new" discoveries are really old, very old. They are the ancient texts of the Scriptures and yet the authors of many late of manuscripts (certainly before the Bible was put on the Index of Forbidden Books by Roman Pontiffs) may well have had far older manuscripts than we have today. As for modern "scientific" theories, liberalism and atheism and consistently shown its failure to provide all the answers it seeks. True science is a tool, nothing more. If we build a house and we then ask the hammer to finish the house, the house will not be built and we will be left without a home. Surely we all claim to believe in the plenary verbal inspiration of the original autographs but it is time that we also view a lesser inspiration for the transmission of the text in which God, although not suppressing free will (whereby insignificant scribal errors or intentional alterations occur), ensures that in the Majority of texts, both the traditional "Majority text" and the majority of translations (both ancient and modern), there has been no substantive loss or additions to God's Word that would prevent the sincere seeker of His Word to obtain His true inerrant and perspicuous Word through his own copy of the text, without recourse to resources that are no longer available to him. We do not need to bow down blindly to the traditions of the past, but neither should we treat our ancestors, who harbored the Scriptures long before us, with contempt as if they were but fools and morons who had no respect for God's word. Let us weigh the facts carefully, knowing that it is a sacred thing we guard.

Note : Endnotes were removed for space but can be provided upon request.

Copyright = David Criswell = 2002 = All rights reserved


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