The Most Dangerous View of the Holy Scriptures

Introduction

Quite often in the textual discussion, it is boldly proclaimed that “our earliest and best manuscripts” are Alexandrian. Yet, this statement introduces confusion at the start. It introduces confusion due to the fact that there are sound objections as to whether it is even appropriate to use such a term as “Alexandrian” when describing the “earliest and best manuscripts”, as though they were a text family or text type. This is because there doesn’t seem to be an “Alexandrian” text type, only a handful of manuscripts that have historically been called Alexandrian. This is due to the more precise methods being employed, which allow quantitative analysis to be done in the variant units of these manuscripts. The result of this analysis has demonstrated that the manuscripts called Alexandrian do not meet the threshold of agreement to be considered a textual family. Tommy Wasserman explains this shift in thought. 

“Although the theory of text types still prevails in current text-critical practice, some scholars have recently called to abandon the concept altogether in light of new computer-assisted methods for determining manuscript relationships in a more exact way. To be sure, there is already a consensus that the various geographic locations traditionally assigned to the text types are incorrect and misleading” (Wasserman, http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/related-articles/alexandrian-text). 

Thus, the only place the name “Alexandrian” might occupy in this discussion is one of historical significance or possibly to serve in identifying the handful of manuscripts that bear the markers of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, which disagree heavily among themselves, as the Munster Method has demonstrated (65% agreement between 01 and 03  in the places examined in the gospels/26.4% to the Majority text http://intf.uni-muenster.de/TT_PP/Cluster4.php). So in using the terminology of “Alexandrian”, one is already introducing confusion into the conversation that represents an era of textual scholarship that is on its way out. Regardless of whether or not it is appropriate to use the term “Alexandrian”, it may be granted that it is a helpful descriptor for the sake of discussion, since the modern critical text in the most current UBS/NA platform generally agrees with it in at least two of these manuscripts (03 at 87.9% and 01 at 84.9%) in the places examined (See Gurry & Wasserman, 46). 

The bottom line is this – the new methods that are currently being employed (CBGM/Munster Method) are still ongoing, and will be ongoing until at least 2032. So any arguments made on behalf of the critical text are liable to shift as the effort continues and new data comes to light. As a result of this developing effort, any attempt to defend such texts is operating from an incomplete data set, based on the methods that are being defended. Given that the general instability of the modern critical text is granted, at least until the Editio critica maior (ECM) is completed, know that the conversation itself is likely to change over the next 12 years. In the meantime, it seems that the most productive conversation to have is that which discusses the validity of the method itself, since the dataset is admittedly incomplete.

Is the Munster Method Able to Demonstrate the Claim that the “Alexandrian” Manuscripts Are Earliest and Best?

The answer is no. The reason I say this is due to the method being employed. I have worked as an IT professional for 8 years, specifically in data analysis and database development, which gives me a unique perspective on the CBGM. An examination of the Munster Method (CBGM) will show that the method is insufficient to arrive at any conclusion on which text is earliest. While the method itself is actually quite brilliant , its limitations prevent it from providing any sort of absolute conclusion on which text is earliest, or original, or best. There are several flaws that should be examined, if those that support the current effort want to properly understand the method they are defending. 

  1. In its current form, it does not factor in versional or patristic data (or texts as they have been preserved in artwork for that matter)
  2. It can only perform analysis on the manuscripts that are extant, or surviving (so the thousands of manuscripts destroyed in the Diocletian persecution, or WWI and WWII can never be examined, for example)    
  3. The method is still vulnerable to the opinions and theories of men, which may or may not be faithful to the Word of God

So the weaknesses of the method are threefold – it does not account for all the data currently available, and it will never have the whole dataset. Even when the work is finished, the analysis will still need to be interpreted by fallible scholars. It’s biggest flaw, however, is that the analysis is being performed on a fraction of the dataset. Not only are defenders of the modern critical text defending an incomplete dataset, as the work is still ongoing, the end product of the work itself is operating from an incomplete dataset. So to defend this method is to defend the conclusions of men on the analysis of an incomplete dataset of an incomplete dataset. The scope of the conclusions this method will produce will be limited to the manuscripts that we have today. And since there is an overwhelming bias in the scholarly world on one subset of those manuscripts, it is more than likely that the conclusions drawn on the analysis will look very similar, if not the same, as the conclusions drawn by the previous era of textual scholarship (represented by Metzger and Hort). And even if these biases are crushed by the data analysis, the conclusions will be admittedly incomplete because the data is incomplete. Further, quantitative analysis will never be free of the biases of those who handle the data. Dr. Peter Gurry comments on one weakness in the method in his book A New Approach to Textual Criticism

“The significance of the selectivity of our evidence means that our textual flow diagrams and the global stemma do not give us a picture of exactly what happened” (113). 

Further, the method itself is not immune to error. Dr. Gurry comments that, “There are still cases where contamination can go undetected in the CBGM, with the result that proper ancestor-descendant relationships are inverted” (115). That is to say, that after all the computer analysis is done, the scholars making textual decisions can still make incorrect conclusions on which text is earliest, selecting a later reading as earliest. In the current iteration of the Munster Method, there are already many places where, rather than selecting a potentially incorrect reading, the text is marked to indicate that the evidence is equally strong for two readings. These places are indicated by a diamond in the apparatus of the current edition of the Nestle-Aland text produced in 2012. There are 19 of these in 1 and 2 Peter alone (See NA28). That is 19 places in just two books of the Bible where the Munster Method has not produced a definitive conclusion on the data. That means that even when the work is complete, there will be thousands of different conclusions drawn on which texts should be taken in a multitude of places. This is already the case in the modern camp without application of the CBGM, a great example is Luke 23:34, where certain defenders of the modern critical text have arrived at alternative conclusions on the originality of this verse.   

There is one vitally important observation that must be noted when it comes to the current effort of textual scholarship. The current text-critical effort, while the most sophisticated to date, is incapable of determining the earliest reading due to the limitations of the data and also in the methodology. A definitive analysis simply cannot be performed on an incomplete dataset. And even if the dataset was complete, no dataset is immune to the opinions of flawed men and women.  

An Additional Problem Facing the Munster Method

There is one more glaring issue that the Munster Method cannot resolve. There is no way to demonstrate that the oldest surviving manuscripts represent the general form of the text during the time period they are alleged to have been created (3rd – 4th century). An important component of quantitative analysis is securing a data set that is generally representative of the whole population of data. This may be fine in statistical analysis on a general population, but the precision of the effort at hand is not aiming at a generic form of precision, because the Word of God is being discussed, which is said to be perfectly preserved by God. That means that the sample of data being analyzed must be representative of the whole. The reality is, that the modern method is really doing an analysis on the earliest manuscripts, which do not represent the whole, against the whole of the dataset.

It is generally accepted among modern scholarship that the Alexandrian manuscripts represent the text form that the whole church used in the third and fourth century. This is made evident when people say things like, “The church wasn’t even aware of this text until the 1500’s!” or “This is the text they had at Nicea!” Yet such claims are woefully lacking any sort of proof, and in fact, the opposite can be demonstrated to be true. If it can be demonstrated that the dataset is inadequate as it pertains to the whole of the manuscript tradition, or that the dataset is incomplete, then the conclusions drawn from the analysis can never be said to be absolutely conclusive. There are two points I will examine to demonstrate the inadequacy of the dataset and methodology of the CBGM, which disallows it from being a final authority in its application to the original form of the New Testament.

First, I will examine the claim that the manuscripts generally known as Alexandrian were the only texts available to the church during the third and fourth centuries. This is a premise that must be proved in order to demonstrate that the conclusions of the CBGM represent the original text of the New Testament. In order to make such a claim, one has to adopt the narrative that the later manuscripts which are represented in the Byzantine tradition were a development, an evolution, of the New Testament text. The later manuscripts which became the majority were the product of scribal mischief and the revisionist meddling of the orthodox church, and not a separate tradition that goes back to the time of the Apostles. This narrative requires the admission that the Alexandrian texts evolved so heavily that by the Middle period, the Alexandrian text had transformed into an entirely different Bible, with a number of smoothed out readings and even additions of entire passages and verses into the text which were received by the church as canonical! Since this cannot be supported by any real understanding of preservation, the claim has to be made that the true text evolved and the original remains somewhere in the texts that existed prior to the scandalous revision effort of Christians throughout the ages. This is why there is such a fascination surrounding the Alexandrian texts, and a determination by some to “prove” them to be original (which is impossible, as I have discussed).

That being said, can it be demonstrated that these Alexandrian manuscripts were the only texts available to the church during the time of Nicea? The simple answer is no, and the evidence clearly shows that this is not the case at all. First, the number of examples of patristic quotations of Byzantine readings demonstrate the existence of other forms of the text of the New Testament which were contemporary to the Alexandrian manuscripts. One can point to Origen as the champion of the Alexandrian text, but Origen wasn’t exactly a bastion of orthodoxy, and I would hesitate to draw any conclusions other than the fact that after him, the church essentially woke up and found itself entirely Arian or some other form of heterodoxy as it pertained to Christ and the Trinity. Second, the existence of Byzantine readings in the papyri demonstrate the existence of other forms of the text of the New Testament which were contemporary to the Alexandrian manuscripts. Finally, Codex Vaticanus, one of the chief exemplars of the Alexandrian texts, is proof that other forms of the text existed at the time of their creation. This is chiefly demonstrated in the fact that there is a space the size of 11 verses at the end of Mark where a text should be. This space completely interrupts the otherwise uniform format of the codex which indicates that the scribes were aware that the Gospel of Mark did not end at, “And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.” They were either instructed to exclude the text, or did not have a better copy as an exemplar which included the text. In any case, they were certainly aware of other manuscripts that had the verses in question, which points to the existence of other manuscripts contemporary to Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. Some reject this analysis of the blank space at the end of Mark as it applies to Sinaiticus (Which also has a blank space), but offer additional reasons why this is the case nonetheless, see this article for more. James Snapp notes that “the existence of P45 and the Old Latin version(s), and the non-Alexandrian character of early patristic quotations, supports the idea that the Alexandrian Text had competition, even in Egypt.” Therefore it is absurd to claim that every manuscript circulating at the time looked the same as these two exemplars, especially considering the evidence that other text forms certainly existed.

Second, I will examine the claim that the Alexandrian manuscripts represent the earliest form of the text of the New Testament. It can easily be demonstrated that these manuscripts do not represent all of their contemporary manuscripts, but that is irrelevant if they truly are the earliest. Yet the current methodology has absolutely no right to claim that it is capable of proving such an assertion. Since the dataset does not include the other manuscripts that clearly existed alongside the Alexandrian manuscripts, one simply cannot draw any conclusions regarding the supremacy of those texts. One must jump from the espoused method to conjecture and storytelling to do so. Those defending the modern text often boldly claim that fires, persecution, and war destroyed a great deal of manuscripts. That is exactly true, and needs to be considered when making claims regarding the manuscripts that survived, and clearly were not copied any further. One has to seriously ponder why, in the midst of the mass destruction of Bibles, the Alexandrian manuscripts were considered so unimportant that they weren’t used in the propagation of the New Testament, despite the clear need for such an effort. Further, these manuscripts are so heavily corrected by various scribes it is clear that they weren’t considered authentic in any meaningful way. 

Even if the Alexandrian manuscripts represent the “earliest and best”, there is absolutely no way of determining this to be true due to the simple fact that the dataset from that time period is so sparse. In fact, the dataset from this period only represents a text form that is aberrant, quantitatively speaking. It is evident that other forms of the text existed, and despite the fact that they no longer are surviving, the form of those texts survive in the manuscript tradition as a whole. The fact remains, there are no contemporary data points to even compare the Alexandrian manuscripts against to demonstrate this to be true. Further, there are not enough second century data points to compare the third and fourth century manuscripts against to demonstrate that the Alexandrian manuscripts represent any manuscript earlier than when they were created. It is just as likely, if not more likely, that these manuscripts were created as an anomaly in the manuscript tradition. The fact remains that the current methods simply are not sufficient to operate on data that isn’t available.  This relegates any form of analysis to the realm of story telling, which exists in the theories of modern scholars (expansion of piety, scribal smoothing, etc.) 

Conclusion

Regardless of which side one takes in the textual discussion, the fact remains that the critiques of the modern methodology as it exists in the CBGM are extremely valid. The method is primarily empirical in its form, and empirical analysis is ultimately limited by the data available. Since the data that is available is not complete outside of a massive 1st and 2nd century manuscript find, the method itself will forever be insufficient to provide a complete analysis. The product of the CBGM can never be applied honestly to the whole of the manuscript tradition. Even if we find 2,000 2nd century manuscripts, there will still be no way of validating that those manuscripts represent all of the text forms that existed during that time . As a result, the end product will simply provide an analysis of an incomplete dataset. It should not surprise anybody when the conclusions drawn from this dataset in 2032 simply look like the conclusions drawn by the textual scholarship of the past 200 years. This being the case, the conversation will be forced into the theological realm. If the modern methods cannot prove any one text to be authorial or original, those who wish to adhere to that text will ultimately be forced to make an argument from faith. This is already being done by those who downplay the significance of the 200 year gap in the manuscript tradition from the first to third centuries and say that the initial text is synonymous with the original text. 

The fact remains that ultimately those who believe the Holy Scriptures to be the divinely inspired word of God will still have to make an argument from faith at the end of the process. Based on the limitations of the Munster Method (CBGM), I don’t see any reason for resting my faith on an analysis of an incomplete dataset which is more than likely going to lean on the side of secular scholarship when it is all said and done. This is potentially the most dangerous position on the text of Scripture ever presented in the history of the world. This position is so dangerous because it says that God has preserved His Word in the manuscripts, but the method being used cannot ever determine which words He preserved.

The analysis performed on an incomplete dataset will be hailed as the authentic word(s) of God, and the conclusions of scholars will rule over the people of God. It is possible that there will be no room for other opinions in the debate, because the debate will be “settled”. And the settled debate will arrive at the conclusion of, “well, we did our best with what we have but we are still unsure what the original text said, based on our methods”. This effectively means that one can believe that God has preserved His Word, and at the same time not have any idea what Word He preserved. The adoption of such conclusions will inevitably result in the most prolific apostasy the church has ever seen. This is why it is so important for Christians to return to the old paths of the Reformation and post-Reformation, which affirmed the Scriptural truth that the Word of God is αυτοπιστος, self-authenticating. It is dishonest to say that the Reformed doctrine of preservation is “dangerous” without any evidence of this, especially considering the modern method is demonstrably harmful.  

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