Has the CBGM Gotten Us to 125AD?


So it has been said that the CBGM has been able to “get us to 125AD” as it pertains to the New Testament manuscripts with its analysis – or at least in Luke 23:34. Anybody who makes such a claim clearly has no working understanding of the Munster Method, or at least is choosing to use an invisible rod to bash people over the head. In any case, I thought it would be helpful to examine some potential weaknesses in the methodology in a series of articles. To begin, I thought I would discuss the reality that the CBGM is still in need of critical analysis. Dr. Peter Gurry, in his work, A Critical Examination of the Coherence Based Genealogical Method, as a part of the Brill Academic series New Testament Tools and Studies writes, “Despite the excitement about the CBGM and its adoption by such prominent editions, there has been no sustained attempt to critically test its principles and procedures” (2).

So my advice to any of those who believe such a bold claim that the CBGM can “get us to 125AD” should put on their discernment ears and wait until 2032 when the effort can be accurately examined in full. If its use in analyzing the Catholic Epistles is any indication of the kind of certainty it will provide, I now direct the reader to open their Nestle-Aland 28th Edition, if they own one, and examine the readings marked with a black diamond. It should be loudly noted that the methodology of the CBGM has not been fully examined, and I agree with Dr. Gurry when he writes, “If the method is fundamentally flawed, it matters little how well they used it” (4).

The CBGM and the Initial Text

Before the Christian church preemptively buys into this method wholesale, it is important to first recognize that there is not uniform agreement, even in the early implementation process of the CBGM, by all that this methodology will result in establishing what is being called the Initial Text. Bengt Alexanderson, in his work, Problems in the New Testament: Old Manuscripts and Papyri, the New Coherence-Based-Genealogical Method (CBGM) and the Editio Critica Maior (ECM), writes, “I do not think the method is of any value for establishing the text of the New Testament” (117). What should be noted loudly for those that are falling asleep, is that a significant shift has occurred under the noses of laypeople in the effort of textual scholarship as it pertains to the New Testament text.

That shift is the abandonment of the search for the Original or Authorial text for the pursuit of what is being called the Initial Text. Dr. Gurry writes, “These two terms [authorial or original text] have often been used interchangeably and their definition more often assumed than explained. Moreover, that this text was the goal of the discipline remained generally undisputed until the end of the twentieth-century. It was then that some scholars began to question whether the original text could or should be the only goal or even any goal at all” (90, bracketed material added). Regardless of whether this is the method one decides to advocate for, let it be said that this is indeed a shift, for better or for worse. Dr. Gurry continues, “Rather than clarify or resolve this debate, the advent of the CBGM has only complicated the matter by introducing an apparently new goal and a new term to go with it: Ausgangstext, or its English equivalent “initial text” (90-91). The problem of defining terms will always gray the bridge between academia and the people, so hopefully this article helps color in the gap.

While the debate rages on between the scholars as to how the Initial Text should be defined, I will start by presenting what might be considered as the conservative understanding of it and work from there. Gerd Mink, who is credited with the first use of the term Ausgangstext, employs the term to mean “progenitor” or the “hypothetical, so-called original text”(92). That is to say that the goal of the CBGM in theory is to produce the text that the rest of the manuscripts flowed from. This sounds great, in theory, but there remains a great distance to cover from saying that the CBGM should produce this Initial Text and the CBGM has produced this Initial Text. In any case, the use of the terminology “Original Text” is not employed in the same way as it was historically, and there is much deliberation as to whether Mink’s proposed definition will win out over and above those that wish to define it more loosely.

Based on my experience with systems, an appropriate definition of the term as “the text from which the extant tradition originates” (93) is much more precise and descriptive of what the method is capable of achieving. Any talk of whether or not the Initial Text represents the Original Text is merely speculation at this point, and I argue will remain speculation when the effort is complete. This of course requires a more humble assessment of the capabilities of the CBGM, in that an empirical method is only good for analysis on that which it has is its possession. Which is to say that methodologically speaking, there is still a gray area between the time that the earliest extant manuscripts are dated and the time that the original manuscripts were penned of about 300 years or more, depending on how early one dates the earliest complete manuscripts. This is what I have been calling the “Gray area between the authorial and initial text” or “The Gray Area” for short. Dr. Gurry has defined it as the historical gap (100). I suspect that this gray area will be the focus of all discussion pertaining to the actual value of the ECM by the time 2032 arrives.

The Gray Area Between the Authorial and Initial Text

Any critique of the CBGM is incomplete without a sincere handling of the Gray Area between the Original and Initial Text. Until that conversation has happened, it is rather preemptive to make any conclusions such as, “The CBGM can get us to about 125AD”. Dr. Gurry writes, “The reason is that there is a methodological gap between the start of the textual tradition as we have it and the text of the autograph itself. Any developments between these two points are outside the remit of textual criticism proper. Where there is “no trace [of the original text] in the manuscript tradition” the text critic must, on Mink’s terms, remain silent” (93).

This is understandably a weakness of the methodology itself, if one expects the methodology to produce a meaningful text. Dr. Gurry continues, “Minks statement that the initial text “should not necessarily be equated with any actual historical reality” is best read as a way to underscore this point” (93). I propose that it is of greatest importance that Christians begin discussing the Gray Area between the Original Text and the Initial Text now, as it outside of the interest of the text-critic proper. Yes, this discussion is most certainly a theological one, as much as that might pain some who have buried their heads in the sand to the weaknesses of the CBGM care to admit.

It is important to note, that in this conversation over the methodology of the CBGM, that there is certainly not uniform agreement on the capabilities of this relatively new method. It is my hope that by bringing this discussion into a more public space, that the terminology of Original and Initial Text, and the space between these two points in the transmission of the New Testament, fosters an important conversation as it pertains to the orthodox doctrinal standards of inspiration and preservation. Dr. Gerd Mink indirectly proposes one possible method of analyzing the Gray Area, which would be to demonstrate that there is a significant break between the Original and Initial Text. Perhaps some ambitious doctoral student might take upon himself to conduct this work, though I wonder if it is even possible to analyze data that does not exist. That is to say that determining the quality and authenticity of the Initial Text might as well be impossible, and any conclusions regarding this text will be assumptive, given that some new component is not added to the CBGM which allows such analysis to be done.

The ontological limitations of the CBGM give cause for the discerning onlooker to side with the assessments of DC Parker and Eldon J. Epp. Dr. Epp writes, “Many of us would feel that Initial Text – if inadequately defined and therefore open to be understood as the First Text or Starting Text in an absolute sense – suggests greater certainty than our knowledge of transmission warrants”(Epp, Which Text?, 70). Until those that have a more optimistic understanding of the Initial Text produce a methodology that is adequate in testing the veracity of the Initial Text, I see no reason why anybody should blindly trust that the Initial Text can be said to be same as the Original Text. And that is assuming that the ECM will reveal one Ausgangstext. It is likely, if not inevitable, that multiple initial texts will burst forth from the machine. A general understanding of the quality of the earliest extant texts certainly warrants such a thought, at least.


The purpose of this article is to 1) make a wider audience aware of the difference between the Initial Text and the Original Text and 2) to begin the conversation of the Gray Area between the Initial Text and the Original Text. It is best that the church begins discussing this now, rather than in 13 years when the ECM is completed. There are many Christians out there who may be caught completely off guard when they discover that the somewhat spurious claim that the CBGM has “gotten us to 125AD” is in fact, not the truth. The fact stands that nobody has the capability of making such a precise claim at this point, and will not be able to make such a claim in 2032 either. It is best then, that people allow the scholars to finish the work prior to making claims that the scholars themselves are still in dialogue about.

7 thoughts on “Has the CBGM Gotten Us to 125AD?”

  1. […] The conversation of the Original text vs. the Initial Text is still one being hotly debated amongst textual scholars, but Dr. Peter Gurry defines it as, “The ECM editor’s own reconstructed text that, taken as a whole, represents the hypothetical witness from which all the extant witnesses derive. This hypothetical witness is designated A in the CBGM, from the German Ausgangstext, which could be translated as “source text” or “starting text.” The relationship of the initial text to the author’s original text needs to be decided for each corpus and by each editor; it cannot be assumed” (Peter Gurry, A New Approach to Textual Criticism, 136). Simply put, the Initial Text is the “as far back as we can go text.” It is up to the editor, or perhaps the Bible reader, whether or not that Initial Text represents what the writers of the Bible actually wrote. It is important to keep in mind that the Initial Text is likely to favor texts from a particular region. That is to say, that the Initial Text produced by scholars is only one of many potential Initial Texts. Despite the fact that many are optimistic regarding the Initial Text, the fact stands that there are many readings in the ECM which the editors are split on which reading is initial. That means there is no consensus on what the Initial Text is, or what it will be. How this will be determined has yet to be seen. I comment on the discussion here and here.  […]


  2. “ Dr. Gerd Mink indirectly proposes one possible method of analyzing the Gray Area, which would be to demonstrate that there is a significant break between the Original and Initial Text. Perhaps some ambitious doctoral student might take upon himself to conduct this work, though I wonder if it is even possible to analyze data that does not exist.”

    Just compare whatever the CBGM spits out to the TR! 🙂


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