Putting the Conversation in Perspective

Introduction

It may be difficult for many people to see the relevance of the textual discussion. This is often because it is rare that a positive case is made for the modern critical text.The majority of exposure people get to this conversation from a modern critical text position are simply polemics and a healthy dose of pejoratives. The problem with this is that these methods fail to offer a reason to believe that the modern critical text is the best. Simply saying the TR is awful and shouldn’t be used actually introduces far more problems than it solves. From a practical standpoint, if the Masoretic Hebrew text and the Received Greek text is not viable for use in the church, then not only was the Protestant religion sparked and built on a bad Bible, but there is an unfinished Bible for today’s church. It is important to clarify that I am not saying that people who adopt the modern critical perspective cannot be saved or cannot benefit from modern translations. I myself read through the Bible for the first time using an NIV. What I am saying is that a “mere Christianity” approach should not be adopted for the Bible we use. As Christians, we should be concerned with every jot and tittle, not the bare minimum it takes for somebody to be saved. That being said, I want to explain why somebody who found great comfort in the NIV in the early years of his Christian walk now reads a traditional Bible. If the last book you read on text-criticism was The Text of the New Testament in seminary, things have changed…a lot. Let’s take a step into the mindset of a modern critical text advocate for a moment here. The justification for adopting the modern critical text requires three main assumptions.

  1. The Received Greek Text does not represent the earliest manuscripts, and therefore represents a New Testament that was corrupted by well-meaning Christians over time
  2. The Masoretic Hebrew Text does not represent the original manuscripts as it has been corrupted by Jews seeking to diminish the deity of Christ
  3. The modern critical methods, and thus the modern critical text, are better than the previous text and should be used over and above the traditional text of the protestant church due to this orthodox and Jewish corruption of the Scriptures

An unfortunate side effect of advocating against the historical text of the Protestants is that the validity of the Bible is undermined as a whole. If the Masoretic Text has not been kept pure, which Hebrew text should be translated from? Typically the Septuagint is offered. There are two main problems with this. 1) There isn’t one “Septuagint” and 2) the confessions affirm against using translations as the ultimate rule of faith. Further, if the Received Text is not the New Testament, then the people of God have been woefully deceived. There are two ways to look at this deception. In the first place, if the Received Text was a strange, historical phenomenon where the people of God chose manuscripts that nobody had ever used in history, then the church was deceived for hundreds of years. This is in essence what is being claimed when somebody says, “This reads in a fashion unknown to the Christian tradition for a full 1,500 years.” If it is the case that the manuscripts used in the Reformation era printed texts represented the “most ancient copies”, as they claimed, then the church was deceived since the early church. In advocating for the modern critical text, there is a significant theological problem introduced that cannot be resolved without arguing for a total corruption of the text. 

More Questions Than Answers

If the theories of textual scholars are correct, the actual Bible is preserved partially in a small minority of manuscripts from the third and fourth centuries. The vast majority of manuscripts, according to modern scholarship, are the product of a well-meaning corruption by Christians to solidify doctrine, add beloved pericopes, and correct grammar mistakes. No matter how somebody spins it, God not only let his church and the Jews corrupt the Scriptures, but then allowed them to believe that those corruptions were inspired. In simple terms, there is no continuity in the preservation of God’s Word from a modern critical text perspective. The BIble was lost for a time, and now needs to be recovered. The text existed in the early church, became corrupted by the believing people of God and the Jews for a large chunk of church history, and resurfaced in the modern period for use by all in a small amount of neglected manuscripts and some versions of the Septuagint where doubt is cast on the Hebrew. 

The basic argument that is presented by the Confessional Text position is that the Bible was preserved going into the medieval and Reformation period, and that the text-critical work done in that period used those preserved manuscripts. If the assumption is that God preserved His Word, it would make sense that the general form of manuscripts used by the church would be most abundant, as they were used the most. Manuscripts that were later found in libraries, caves, and barrels sat collecting dust for a reason. Therefore the text-critical effort of the Reformation period was one of printing versions of the manuscripts which were considered best during that time. The problem that many have with this perspective is that the Reformation era text is often compared against the modern critical text with the assumption that the MCT is representative of the authorial, or original text. 

Yet a significant problem with this perspective is that it cannot be proven, or demonstrated with any level of confidence from an evidentiary standpoint. This is made evident in the fact that the theory of using text families to get back to the original text has been mostly abandoned. Instead, the effort of modern textual scholarship has shifted from finding the true authorial text to the hypothetical initial text. This is the major shift that occurred from the time of the Hort-Metzger era. Since the text that the people of God used during the Reformation period has been written off as a corruption, the only thing left to do is try and reconstruct the text that existed before that happened. This is more or less the current effort of the Editio critica maior. Instead of using text families, the current method is examining individual variant units and trying to determine which variant gave birth to the rest of the readings found in later manuscripts. No matter how thorough this analysis is, there will never be a way to determine if the earliest reading represents the original reading, or if that reading is even the earliest. This is the biggest limitation of the CBGM. There will never be a method that can span the historical gap between the authorial text and the initial text. In reality, this initial text will simply represent something similar to one version of the Bible from the third or fourth century that the people of God didn’t use universally. This is clearly shown in that the extant third and fourth century manuscripts do not represent the majority text or the Reformation era text. 

To put this in perspective, there are eight (P45, P46, P47, P66, P72, P75, Aleph, B, EDIT: Manuscript Clusters Tool is not linking properly. Type in Manuscript Name to use) significant manuscripts from before the fifth century that represent the text form which is called “earliest and best” in textbooks and modern bibles. Only two of these are complete bibles. The most complete of these manuscripts do not agree enough with each other to be related directly, which means that they did not descend from one uniform manuscript tradition. That means that the origin of these manuscripts will forever be a gray area to some extent. 

 Let me paint a picture that may help you understand what this means. Imagine you find a stack of nearly six thousand bibles. A handful of those bibles are extremely old, but not used very much so they are still able to be handled and examined. These older bibles have abrupt readings, omitted verses, more variants between the synoptic passages in the gospels, and have a great number of difficult grammatical constructions which take some effort to understand. They look different from the rest of the bibles, which have better grammar, less omitted passages, and more harmony in the readings. These handful of bibles are older, however, so you determine that they are the best. Since the majority of the bibles have a number of readings in the New and Old Testament that disagree with these older bibles, you determine that the majority of the bibles are wrong. You devise a theory that the original bible looked like the minority of older bibles. You make it your life’s mission to ensure that the majority of bibles are not used anymore, and 120 years later, the majority of churches are using the bible you’ve determined to be earliest and best. A small minority of churches still use the rejected bible, but are mocked and ridiculed for reading it. Those who read the newly declared oldest bibles ensure that these people are called “traditionalists” so that everybody knows they are wrong for not adopting the new bible. You devise pejorative terms like “New Bible Onlyists” to further scorn people for not adapting to the times. The majority of bibles are said to have been proven to be corrupt, so the division between the two camps becomes wider. There is only one problem – in the 120 years that the church adopted this new bible, nobody has been able to prove that the original claim was correct. In fact, there is an increasing amount of evidence which demonstrates that that claim was not correct at all. Instead of rejecting these old bibles, a new method is devised to prove the original theory. The church, mostly unaware of this, continues to read these newly adopted bibles and viciously attack those that have not adopted the new standard.

Conclusion

The period of time from the authorial event of the New Testament to the Reformation period is the most significant when it comes to the textual discussion. There are two narratives of the transmission history during this time. The first is that the Bible was kept pure in the manuscript tradition until the Reformation period, where the text-critical efforts of that time took those preserved manuscripts, edited them into printed editions, and made Bibles from them. The second is that by the third and fourth century, the manuscript tradition began to evolve as believing Christians smoothed out the grammar, added beloved pericopes, and expanded verses to make the Christology of the Bible more clear. In the second narrative, the Jews were also hard at work corrupting the Hebrew Scriptures so that by the time the modern period came around, there was not a single Hebrew text which represented the authorial text. 

This conversation is not about the TR or the modern critical text, it is about the narrative of preservation. If God preserved the Bible into the Reformation period, than the work done during that time was the final effort needed. The only reason to believe that an ongoing text-critical effort is required is if the first effort used a corrupted version of God’s Word in the Hebrew and Greek. Since the source material of the Reformation period needs to be considered corrupted to justify the modern effort, additional methods must be employed which extend beyond the capabilities of the extant data. These methods include constructing hypothetical archetypes of the earliest texts and correcting the Hebrew with Greek versional readings. Despite the best efforts of modern textual scholarship, the results of these methods cannot “prove” anything regarding the original text. The strongest testimony to the authorial text will always be the witness of the people who used those texts in time. Christians can indeed have confidence in their Bible, but I argue that the modern critical methodology cannot provide that confidence. If the Bible was preserved, it was preserved up to the time of the first text-critical effort. That effort produced the Bibles that sparked the Protestant Reformation and the largest Christian revival in the history of the World. The theological works which the modern church stands on were developed from this text, and Christians still stand on that theology, especially the confessionally Reformed. At the very foundation of this conversation is two different narratives, and two different methodologies. Neither of these narratives can be proved purely by extant manuscript data if the manuscript data is viewed agnostically. The real question that must be answered by Christians is, “Did God preserve His Word into the middle period and Reformation period, or not?” If manuscripts that represent the minority of the extant data are rejected, than the perspectives of the Reformed are clear as day. They believed the Bible had been preserved in both the Hebrew and the Greek, and I argue that the modern church should join them in that belief. If it is the case that an argument can be made for a preserved Bible from a modern critical perspective, I have yet to see it demonstrated. Unless that happens, I will continue to stand on, and advocate for, the Bible of the Protestant Reformation.  

More Resources:

Jeff Riddle Word Magazine

Introduction to the CBGM “Clearly, these changes will affect not only modern Bible translations and commentaries but possibly even theology and preaching”

Dr. Joel Beeke on Retaining the KJV

Refutation of Dan Wallace on the Byzantine Text

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