It is easy to get bogged down in conversations about textual variants, manuscripts, and elusive terminology when it comes to any talk about Textual Criticism. These types of conversations prevent the average Christian from entering into the discussion, and so it is common to just side with a favorite pastor or scholar. Fortunately, the conversation is not as complicated as many make it seem. It is true that in order to analyze a variant or read a manuscript, an understanding of the Greek language and a general knowledge of textual scholarship is required. This should cause the average Christian to pause and consider that reality. Should every Christian need to learn Greek and study textual criticism in order to read their Bible? Does that sound like something that God would require for His people to read His Word? Does God require papal or scholarly authority for His people to know which verses are authentic?
Those who advocate for this have made a serious error in their understanding of the availability of the Scriptures. They have imposed a burdensome standard upon the Holy Scriptures which puts a barrier between the average Christian and New Testament scholarship. This cumbersome gatekeeping tool has informed Christians everywhere that unless they have a PhD in Text-Critical studies and know Greek, they are simply unequipped to determine which Bible they should read, or which variants within those Bibles can be trusted. This common idea has introduced a neo-papacy within the Protestant church, which tells Christians that they must wait for scholars or pastors or apologists to speak Ex cathadra before trusting any verse in their Bible.
Is it Really That Complicated?
Not really, no. The direction of modern textual criticism has refuted itself in the fact that it readily admits it cannot find the original text of the New Testament. In other words, their methods have failed. In order to obfuscate this reality, scholars have shifted the effort to finding the Initial Text, which is really just a presuppositional effort to produce a hypothetical (non-existent) archetype from the smattering of Alexandrian manuscripts. This is the first common sense argument against the Modern Critical Text – it doesn’t claim to be the original text, and the methodologies being employed cannot and do not make any certain claims on producing the original text. So for any Christian who wants to “know what Paul wrote,” the modern methods aren’t claiming to provide that kind of certainty. That kind of certainty is only provided, given a scholar or somebody else speaks authoritatively over a text for the people of God. This being the case, Christians need to pick a pope to decide for them if Luke 23:34 really is original, because the popes disagree. If the protestant religion is truly a religion of Sola Scriptura, this simply does not work. It is the same argument the Papists make, only the pope is exchanged for a scholar. If a Christian is okay with maybe knowing what Paul wrote, I present a second common sense argument against the Modern Critical Text.
If you are fond of the argument that claims that the New Testament is the best attested piece of literature in antiquity, boasting thousands of manuscripts compared to other works such as the Iliad, than the Modern Critical Text fails that criteria. The only text platforms that can use this argument are texts that represent the vast majority of manuscripts, such as a Byzantine priority or Traditional Text based Bible. The Modern Critical Text is based primarily on two manuscripts, which means that the apologetic which says that we have thousands of manuscripts isn’t true for the Modern Critical Text. One would have to say that the New Testament is only supported by less than fifty manuscripts, which makes it one of the least attested to books in antiquity. The narrative of transmission presented by the modern critical scholars says that the rest of the thousands of manuscripts were byproducts of scribal smoothing and orthodox revision. In supporting these modern texts, one has to accept that fact that the vast majority of the 6,000 manuscripts we have were the product of scribal revision and orthodox tampering, and do not testify to a preserved Bible. In fact, this is the common opinion of the men and women engaged in actual textual scholarship. This reality transitions quite nicely to the third common sense argument against the Modern Critical Text.
Christians should be confident that the thousands of manuscripts testify to the authentic New Testament when compared and edited together. The fact that these manuscripts were copied so much and were used to heavily throughout time should tell a story that is often brushed over by modern scholarship. The story is that these manuscripts, or a comparison of these manuscripts, were always treated as authentic throughout time. In fact, the manuscripts used by Erasmus represent the majority of manuscripts far more closely than the Modern Critical Text. While I don’t believe that simply counting manuscript readings produces an original text without any further consideration, it is a good place to start to reject the few spurious texts that the Modern Critical Text is based on.
A common sense methodology would also admit that we do not have every manuscript surviving today, and that the testimony of the people of God throughout time should also be considered so that not one word is lost from the Holy Scriptures. In terms of data analysis, the amount of data points that the Modern Critical Text represents should be considered an outlier. So is it the case that a few manuscripts which did not survive in the manuscript tradition are original? Or is it more likely that the vast majority of manuscripts represent the original when compared? In order to responsibly represent the case for the Modern Critical Text, one has to tell a tale that the New Testament evolved over time, and became so corrupt that nobody alive today really knows what the original said. Thus the modern effort is focused on producing a hypothetical archetype for these outlier texts. The modern method assumes that the thousands of manuscripts are corrupt evolutions of the original text. That leads us to a fourth common sense argument against the Modern Critical Text.
It technically could be true that the handful of early surviving manuscripts represent the original text of the New Testament. Simply counting readings does not necessarily prove originality. There are a handful of readings that the people of God have considered original throughout time that are no longer available in the majority of manuscripts. That is not proof, however, that these now minority readings were not the majority at one point in time, or considered authentic despite not being the majority. God never promised to preserve the majority text in every case, He simply promised that He would preserve His Word until the Last Day. The majority text simply testifies to a different text than the “earliest and best”, and the opinions of the people of God throughout time should serve as a way to understand which readings were considered authentic throughout time. The first time this was ever done on a large scale was during the 16th century, when the printing press was made available to 16th century theologians and scholars.
So the work during the 16th century was taking place while manuscripts were still being used and copied in churches. The common sense argument is that those people had better access to the manuscripts that were circulating and considered authentic then we do today. After the Bible shifted from existing in hand-copied codices to printed editions, the hand-copied manuscripts were used less, and began being submitted to museums and libraries rather than being used in churches. The texts that the people of God used were no longer in manuscript form, but printed editions of those collated manuscripts. The simple reality is that in the modern period, the manuscripts are artifacts of a time before the printing press. Almost nobody has used a manuscript in a church for centuries, so the evaluation of those manuscripts is difficult without the testimony of the people who actually used them. Thus, the final common sense argument recognizes that the earliest surviving manuscripts are not a standard that anybody would use from the perspective of God preserving His Word.
The final common sense argument is that the manuscripts used in the first effort of textual criticism do represent the best form of the New Testament as it was preserved in the manuscript tradition. Compare this to the opinion that a smattering of heavily corrected, barely copied past the fourth century manuscripts are “earliest and best”. That is because until the printing press, these handwritten codices were actually used in churches by the people of God. So at the time of the first printed editions, the textual scholars of the time had the best insight into the manuscripts that were actually being used, regardless of being majority or minority texts. In order to reject the text-critical efforts of the 16th century, one has to believe that texts were chosen which nobody was using or had never used. This stands in opposition to history however, as Erasmus was heavily influenced by readings that would received by all. Popular opinion often influenced Erasmus in his text-critical decisions. That is the real story behind his inclusion of 1 John 5:7 in his third edition of the Novum Testamentum. He did not lose a bet, he feared that people wouldn’t use his Greek New Testament if he didn’t include it.
Based on common sense arguments, what makes more sense? Did the textual scholars who were doing text-critical work when manuscripts were actually being used have better insights into what the best manuscripts are? Or do modern textual scholars who only have access to manuscripts in museums and libraries know which texts are the best? Is it more likely that God hid away His Word for a thousand years in a handful of manuscripts? Or did He preserve His Word in the manuscripts that were actually being used by the people of God? These are all questions that any layperson should be able to answer. It does not take a PhD in textual studies to determine that the Modern Critical Text starts in the wrong place, with the wrong manuscripts.
The common sense conclusion is that texts used in the first production of printed texts represents the best form of the manuscript tradition that has ever existed. After this point in time, manuscripts were sent to libraries and museums and the printed form of the Greek New Testament was the form that the people of God used. These printed forms were translated into various common languages and used with little to no contest for the next 300 years, until modern theories of scribal tampering caused people to throw out the work of the 16th century. The claim that “we have more data” really does not mean a whole lot, considering we have less perspective on the value of said data. At the end of the conversation, one has to ask, “How valuable is the data that was hidden in caves and barrels?” Is the data that was not being used more important, or is the data that was being used more important? Modern scholars consent to the former, and the scholars of the 16th century consented to the latter.
In order to conclude that modern scholars have a better perspective on the data, one must write off the perspective of Augustine, who said, “Certain persons of little faith or rather enemies of the true faith fearing I suppose less their wives should be given impunity in sinning removed from their manuscripts the lord’s act of forgiveness to the adulteress. As if he who had said, “sin no more” had granted permission to sin.” One must claim that Calvin and Beza were either liars, or confused and mistaken. One must declare that Turretin would have upheld the readings he rejected if “he simply had access to the data we have today”. It takes an effort of revisionist history to believe that the believing people of God would adopt the Modern Critical Text. The simple common sense conclusion is to read these theologians and scholars as though they weren’t fools, and determine that they simply disagreed with modern conclusions. Erasmus, Beza, Stephanus, Calvin, Turretin, Gill, and Dabney did not think anything of the Vatican Codex and manuscripts like it. In fact, they considered them a grotesque corruption of God’s Word. Based on the testimony of the people of God in time, which side is spinning tales and mythology? Is it the people who say that the Word of God evolved and became corrupted beyond repair? I heartily disagree, and affirm with the theological giants of the past that God has preserved His Word in the Received Text.