The Divine Original and the Initial Text

“At the most demanding level, I believe that we still await a truly critical edition of the New Testament…Each new discovery made the old critical apparatuses ever more out of date, and, even more worryingly, cast doubt on the quality of existing critical texts…The Nestle-Aland edition is a fine tool, and one could not imagine being without it. But it is a stopgap, awaiting the completion of the Editio critica maior… We begin to see that, great as the achievements of previous editors were, they were working with partial and arbitrarily selected materials which led to theories of the text and its history which were themselves partial, and thus almost bound to be mistaken. ” – David C. Parker, Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament, 105-114

Introduction

The current and most advanced effort of New Testament textual scholarship is in progress as I write this article. By New Testament textual scholarship I mean what is commonly referred to as “Textual Criticism”, though the latter name may be inadequate to describe the breadth of the ongoing effort. In order to understand what the “modern critical text” is, it is important to understand that the various printed editions (NA28, UBS5, THGNT, etc.) of the Greek New Testament are just one facet of the work. There is no one “modern critical text”. The effort of textual scholars creating editions of the Greek New Testament is just the practical implementation of that work. So when I speak of “Modern Textual Criticism” on this blog, I am not exclusively referring to the work of creating printed editions of the Greek New Testament, but rather the larger effort as a whole. Within the umbrella of New Testament Scholarship, there is a wide array of projects being pursued and the creation of printed Greek texts just a part of that work. Simply reducing the conversation to printed editions when discussing modern textual scholarship neglects those researching New Testament texts in art, history, commentaries, and of course, the major effort of Modern Textual Scholarship – the Editio critica maior. 

The reason I say that the effort of those producing editions of the Greek New Testament is just a part of the work is not to be dismissive. Rather, it is an attempt to 1) accurately describe the scope of the work and 2) highlight the importance of the work that will impact all future printed editions of the Greek New Testament. Recently, I have noticed that there is a discussion over what it means for textual scholars to searching for the original. In this article, I will briefly address what is called the Editio critica maior as well as comment on the various uses of the word “original” as it pertains to the New Testament text.

The ECM and the Initial Text

The Editio critica maior (ECM) is as DC Parker describes it, “The narrative of the history of the [New Testament] text” (Parker, 128). In a more tangible sense, it is the largest collection of New Testament data ever compiled (and is still being created). It contains a critical text, a critical apparatus, and provides the editor’s justification for the methodology and conclusions (Parker, 112). It is being used in its incomplete form now in printed editions of the Greek New Testament, and will most likely be the standard by the time it is completed around 2032. Despite the tremendous advance in New Testament data the ECM will provide, it is still not a definitive text, it is a data set that represents the available data which does not go back to the time of the Apostles. Parker makes it clear that, “A critical edition is not a reconstruction of an authorial text. It is a reconstruction of the oldest recoverable text, the Initial Text” (122). Parker is not alone in his conclusions regarding the current effort of textual scholarship, though some do stand in opposition to him. One of the most controversial claims that I have made is that “No scholar is trying to find the original”, and Dr. Peter Gurry has taken me to task to clarify what I mean by that. In all fairness, it is probably not fair to make such a sweeping statement without clarification. Dr. Gurry has been quite charitable and pointed me to many valuable resources, which I hope to use accurately. There are in fact many scholars who believe that the initial text might as well be the authorial text, though they do seem to be in the minority depending on how “initial text” is defined.

Dr. Gurry argues that this convolution is due to widespread disagreement on the use of the term “initial text”, or even its misuse. Many mean by “initial text” the earliest text available in the extant manuscript tradition, which is how Parker employs the term. Yet its original definition by Gerd Mink goes beyond how it is commonly employed. Mink defined the term to refer to the hypothetical archetype of the earliest extant manuscript tradition. This effectively puts the initial text earlier in the transmission history than the oldest surviving manuscripts. With this definition, it is more reasonable to believe that the initial text and the authorial text are much closer to each other than the authorial text is to let’s say, Vaticanus. In this regard, Mink and Parker stand in opposition to one another. 

Based on the limitations of such methods employed by CBGM, I agree with Parker’s conclusions on the practical understanding of the initial text over the idealistic definition offered originally by Mink. While Mink’s assumption is that the initial text is a hypothesis for the authorial text, there does not seem to be a good reason for believing this with a high degree of certainty. That is the point of contention between myself and Dr. Gurry – I believe the Scriptures set forth the standard of certainty (Mat. 5:28;24:35), and that anything less than certain leads to having no text at all. And since the ECM itself declares that, “Apart from the fact that a reconstruction cannot achieve the same degree of certainty at each variant passage, this does not mean that a reconstruction of the authorial text is possible in each case. Moreover, it does mean that any reconstructed text can claim to be absolutely identical with the authorial text” (30), there will always be somewhat of a gray area between the authorial text and the initial text – even if that gray area is believed to be inconsequential by some. 

In any case, it is in fact a matter of nuance as to whether or not textual scholars are trying to find the authorial or original text. If by “original” it is meant the hypothetical initial text, than I am defining “original” differently and some textual scholars are indeed trying to find the “original” as they define it. If by initial text it is meant the “earliest form of the extant text” than the original is not being discussed at all. In both definitions of the initial text, the way “original” is being defined is different than is being discussed on this forum. By original I mean “the text that the Holy Spirit inspired”, down to the word, as defined by the Reformation and Post Reformation divines. The Puritan John Owen says this, “the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament [which] were immediately and entirely given out by God himself … [are] by his good and merciful providential dispensation … preserved unto us entire in the original languages.” (Works, 16, pp.351,352)

So it seems that it is a matter of disagreement in how “original” is being defined. In the sense that the theological definition of the word “original” is employed, there are no scholars trying to find the original. When it is framed in this light, the discussion becomes a theological and exegetical discussion as to what the Scriptures say about the doctrine of inspiration and preservation and what “original” means, not a discussion of how the evidence is interpreted. A major focus of this blog is to demonstrate that the discussion of Textual Scholarship should be framed from a theological starting point, not a historical critical one. I have already received the critique by some that since I do not have a PhD in the area of textual scholarship, I do not have the right to speak on this issue. While I understand the nature of this argument, my understanding of the Scriptures is that they are sufficient to speak on matters of faith and practice (2 Tim. 3:16). This is most certainly one of those areas, though I can understand if somebody wishes to exit out of the article at this point based on my lack of credentials. 

The Pursuit of the Divine Initial Text 

The reality is, that the methods being employed to construct the ECM do not offer the degree of certainty that the theological giants of the past had in the Holy Scriptures. Thomas Watson says this, “We may know the Scripture to be the Word of God by its miraculous preservation in all ages … Nor has the church of God, in all revolutions and changes, kept the Scripture that it should not be lost only, but that it should not be depraved. The letter of Scripture has been preserved, without any corruption, in the original tongue.” (Body of Divinity, 19). It is clear that the methods being employed simply cannot ever produce this level of certainty. So regardless of whether or not some may believe that the Initial text, as defined by Mink, represents the authorial text – it can never be said with absolute certainty that this is true using the methodology itself. 

The problem is a matter of methodology, not a matter of interpretation. Thus my critique is not of those who believe the initial text represents the authorial text, it is of the methodology used to arrive at such conclusions. Parker agrees with my understanding of the Munster Method (CBGM), though I disagree with his view of the text vehemently. “I say again that the user who treats the text of James in the Editio critica maior as identical to a letter written several hundred years before the oldest extant manuscript was copied has made a serious methodological error” (Parker, 122). Regardless of Parker’s opinion, those who believe that the initial text represents the authorial text will take the same data as Parker and come to the opposite conclusion as him.

While Parker’s conclusion, and thus my conclusion, might be considered inflammatory by some, an examination of the method demonstrates that it is simply a cold truth regarding the methodology. The Munster Method (CBGM) itself can never prove that it has produced an original text, in any sense of the word, that recreates exactly what Paul wrote. The text that Paul wrote might be considered as a highly likely original reading, but scholars might delegate it to the apparatus due to the limitations of the methodology and data used for analysis. It is the interpretations of scholars that will ultimately come along and conclude which version(s) of the initial text represents the authorial text. So in a very real sense, the interpreters’ theology of preservation and inspiration, along with other suppositions, is being applied retroactively to the work done by the methods being employed, and the flawed decisions of men are the final authority over which texts are considered “original”.

This shifts the authority of the Holy Scriptures from the object to the subject. Because the authority lies in the subject, and the subject is not omniscient, it is not only likely, but inevitable that a legitimately original reading is rejected for some other reading that is determined “earliest and best” by a scholar. It does not matter how earnest a particular scholar is in saying that “I want what Paul wrote!”, the fact remains that the methodology does not allow for that desire to actualize in any meaningful way. The final authority will always rest on the determinations of scholars and their theological suppositions. At the end of the day, the modern textual scholar must employ faith in believing that they have chosen God’s Word correctly. This is part of the reason why the historical doctrine of the Scriptures as self-authenticating is held by those in the Confessional Text camp. A return back to the 16th century is most necessary, for both practical and theological reasons. The authority of the Scriptures does not rest in the determinations of men, but the providential work of God. This is the fundamental difference between those in the modern camp and those in the Confessional camp, which is why I continue to press theologically on the issue and not evidentially.  

Conclusion

I have taken some time to demonstrate the nuance in the discussion of what “original” means. Historically, as I have shown by quotations of those at the Westminster Assembly, the word “original” meant the words penned by the prophets and apostles. In the modern period, scholars prefer the term “initial text”, and the definition of that term is debated. To some, the initial text is the hypothetical archetype that all texts flowed from, and to others, it is the text that represents the earliest extant form of the New Testament texts. In all three cases, three different things are being discussed. Thus, using the definition provided by the framers of the 17th century confessions, I do say confidently that there are no scholars in pursuit of the original as defined by the Reformed in mainstream New Testament textual scholarship. Therefore it is especially appropriate that the view of the text of Scripture presented and defended here on this blog be called “The Confessional Text”, as it not only represents a physical form of the text, but also a distinct theological foundation with specific definitions of terms that have evolved in the modern period. 

Many scholars have attempted to reinterpret Francis Turretin and James Usher and others to fit the modern definitions of “original”, “preserved”, “kept pure”, and so forth, but the fact remains that these theologians did indeed mean what they said plainly. It is simply more accurate to say that the modern view of the text of Holy Scripture is different than the view presented by the Westminster Divines and their contemporaries. In recognizing this difference, I believe it possible to have a fruitful discussion on the theological differences underpinning each position. The modern method is to many hidden in a black box, and as it becomes more developed, will come into plain sight by all. When this time comes, the Reformed must be prepared to stand on the truth that the Scriptures are self-authenticating. 

“The marvelous preservation of the Scriptures [demonstrates this]. Though none in time be so ancient, nor none so much impugned; yet God hath still by his providence preserved them, and every part of them” (James Usher. Body of Divinity, 8).

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