It has been about 140 years since the reconstruction efforts began on the text of the New Testament, if we use 1881, the year Westcott and Hort’s new Greek text was published as a starting point. The Traditional Text of Scripture had been well under attack before that point, but this was the first successful effort to unseat it. Since then, scholars have tried their hand testing many theories, all of which have proved completely unproductive. At some point, Christians need to seriously stop and question if this effort is justified now, or was ever justified. See, going into the 19the century, the church had a text. It was the text that sparked the Reformation. It was the text that was used during the high orthodox period. It was the text of the Great Awakening. All of the Reformed confessional standards from the 17th century appeal to this text as the pure and preserved text.
For just a minute, let’s step into the world of business and apply a lower standard to the text of Holy Scripture than what the church gives lip service to. If you were a financier, and were in charge of funding a construction project, what sort of progress would you expect? At what point would you pull funding? How many years would you give the effort? How many failed attempts would you allow? What level of accountability would you hold the construction manager to? If every five years the construction manager came to you and said, “We made a mistake laying the foundation, we have to start again,” would that make you question the construction team’s methods? This is the case for the textual reconstruction effort, except Christians, instead of holding the scholars to basic standards, they have adopted the incomplete work of the reconstructionist scholars, and have even become apologists for it. They have even convinced themselves that this building is the only way buildings should be built, and that anybody living in a completed structure that hasn’t wavered for 400 years is actually foolish. Let’s stop pretending for a minute, that Christians hold textual scholars to any sort of meaningful standard. If these scholars were held to a basic secular standard, they’d be out of jobs.
Further, how would you feel if the people responsible for the construction project did not believe they had all of the materials to erect the structure, did not believe they could even erect the structure, and had not yet succeeded in erecting the structure? Who in their right might would continue hoping, defending, and financing this construction team? Even from a secular standard, that is absurd. Why is it the case that after 140 years, with all of this alleged “new and better” data, scholars still cannot seem to give the church a final product?
Assessing the Materials
The earliest and best manuscripts are often appealed to in text-criticism discussions. Yet this tagline really deserves a second look. First, these manuscripts are not the earliest, just the earliest that we have today. The earliest complete New Testament manuscript is from the fourth century. The Bible was written in the first century. Therefore, the statement “Earliest and best” is already misleading. Second, these manuscripts are not the best by any reasonable standard. They disagree more than they agree, some are even paraphrastic like Codex D and P45, and they frequently disagree with the vast majority of our extant Greek manuscripts. The manuscripts labeled “earliest and best” are more appropriately titled “earliest extant.” Further, these manuscripts have no pedigree. We do not know who penned them in most cases, and the places where they do depart from the mainstream textual tradition are often conveniently in places which directly target major Christological doctrines. If we are going to call something “best,” we should at least be willing to develop and apply a consistent qualitative standard to them. Scholars like Dr. John Burgon did this extensively in the 19th century. Even when the genealogical method, which is preferred by modern scholars, is applied to these manuscripts, they differ to such a degree that they are not considered a textual family. They stand in no continuous text tradition handed down by the church. These manuscripts should have never even been considered as an option as a textual foundation, and yet almost every modern Bible uses them as such. It would be like laying the foundation of a building with different types and sizes of wood and expecting that building to withstand a storm. These manuscripts should have never been more than the muse of the secular academy, and yet the church has wholeheartedly bought into them.
So what do we say to these manuscripts, that are of no particular quality worth mentioning, which we do not know where they came from or who used them, and which disagree with the mainstream text in a multitude of places? We reject them. When Codex B is collated against the Traditional Text, at least 2,877 words have been removed from just the Gospels alone. 3,455 words removed from Sinaiticus, and 3,704 from what we have of Codex D (The Revision Revised, 75). It is high time that the church sets aside the well intentioned words of scholars which say that, “They are essentially the same text.” How can two texts be “essentially the same” when they differ in thousands of places? How exactly is the word “essentially” being defined here? With Burgon we must say, “Will the English church suffer herself to be in this way defrauded of her priceless inheritance, – through the irreverent bungling of well-intentioned, but misguided men?” Will we stand around as, “these eminent Divines undertake to decide which shall be deemed the genuine utterances of the Holy Ghost? – which not?”
Let us conclude with Burgon, “Now, in the present instance, the ‘five old uncials’ cannot be the depositories of a tradition, whether Western or Eastern, – because they render inconsistent testimony in every verse. It must be further admitted (for this is not really a question of opinion, but a plain matter of fact,) that it is unreasonable to place confidence in such documents. What would be thought of in a court of law of five witnesses, called up 47 times for examination, who should be observed to bear contradictory testimony every time?” (31). If we wouldn’t trust building materials of such quality, and we wouldn’t trust the testimony of such witnesses in court, why do we continue to trust such manuscripts as the basis for the Holy Scriptures? No amount of extant Papyri can resolve the inconsistencies within these uncial manuscripts the church has placed her trust in.
Returning to a Reasonable Position
It is not traditionalism, or fundamentalism, to reject manuscripts of such low quality. It is not “sacrificing truth for comfort” to look at the last 140 years of Reconstructionist text-criticism and reject it. At this point in history, it is actually illogical to continue hoping in an effort that has not succeeded. If we are to consider God’s providence at all, a plain story can be told about the fruit of each text. One text, the Traditional Text, was defended against the Papists and other heretical movements, and led to the largest Christian revival in the whole of human history. The other text, the Critical Text, based on mostly just two manuscripts of low quality, is adopted and even created by the Papists and cults, and has led to conservative scholars rejecting preservation and adopting and applying the evolutionary theories of the academy. It has led to hundreds of translations, none of which are considered complete or correct. It is anti-Berean to look at the fruit of such an effort, the text of such an effort, and the Theological statements of the men conducting the work, and to say, “Everything is fine.”
I exhort you, Christian, to stop defending a building that cannot stand, that has proven itself unstable. If you’re looking for evidence, look at the fact that the modern text is changing, and will continue to change. That alone is enough to cast doubt on the reconstructionist model. If the manuscripts are of such quality that they should unseat the Traditional Text, why can they not be used to create a stable text? Why don’t the scholars themselves have confidence in them? I encourage you to investigate the theories and theological standards which have produced the modern Greek texts. Are you comfortable aligning with the theological position that says we do not have now, and probably never will have, the text of the Apostles? Investigate the claims of “fundamentalism” and “traditionalism” and see that they are simply smokescreens to distract from the reality that the modern methodology has not produced a text.
Look at the character attacks and storytelling on Erasmus and see them for what they are, a distraction. Look at the pedantic presentations of critical text apologists that are aimed almost exclusively at the character, credentials, and even age of those who defend the Traditional Text. Study the polemics of the Papists against Beza and see that their arguments are often the same exact arguments employed against the Traditional Text by Reconstructionist text-criticism apologists. If you are hoping that the direction of the modern text is going to slow down, it is not. There will never be a final product, and your modern Bible will continue changing. Compare that with your theology of Scripture and “prove all things.” The reconstruction of the New Testament was never justified, and never necessary, because the Word of God was never lost. It never needed reconstructing, and the fruit of such a reconstruction has shown the folly of ever thinking that that was the case.
If you want proof of the low quality of the earliest extant texts, look at the doctrinal statements made by those who know them best. Start with the Chicago Statement and see that the only thing that modern theology will defend is the inerrancy of the non-existent autographs. If the earliest manuscripts are our only shot at having a New Testament, then by their own words, we will never know exactly what the New Testament said. By their own testimony, the Bible doesn’t teach that the Scripture would be preserved perfectly. By their own admission, God never desired to preserve His Word perfectly. Is that the stand that the 21st century church wants to take? That the Bible has not been kept pure in all ages? At least they are being consistent. These doctrinal positions are the logical conclusion, if the quality of the earliest texts are considered “best.”
The reconstructionist effort began with deception. The Revisionists in the 19th century created a new text when they were only authorized to make a small amount of revisions to the AV. They made changes they were not authorized to make, created a Greek text that they were not authorized to create, and justified it by a theory that has been so thoroughly debunked the whole effort should be questioned. If the earliest extant manuscripts aren’t the best, then the reconstruction effort should have never been considered. The only reason it took place initially was due to breaking the rules set for the revision. Further, the foundational theological premise of the continued use of such a “revised” text is that God has not kept His Word pure in all ages. It requires the belief that certain parts of God’s Word have fallen away. It requires the use of theoretical genealogical models which are demonstrably arbitrary to produce a text. It requires that the church adjust their view of Inspiration and Preservation to changing theories that are constantly falling in and out of vogue. If the modern critical text doesn’t affect doctrine, why does doctrine change as the modern text changes?
The reconstructionist effort should be rejected. Not because the scholars are mean, or malicious, or have poor intentions, but because the effort itself is not justified. The materials being used are not of proper quality or quantity. The methods used are theoretical and devoid of spiritual quality. The product of the effort speaks for itself. The fruit has grown and fallen off the tree. Christians must rally around a stable text if it wants a stable church. Dear Christian, receive your inheritance that the great fathers of our faith fought for. Doubt not that God has preserved His Word, and stop defending theological frameworks that insist that He hasn’t. Have confidence in the Word of God, and God Himself in His ability to prevent His Word from falling away.
“The words of the Lord are pure words: As silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them O LORD, Thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.” (Ps. 12:6-7)