Absolute Certainty, The Received Text, and Matthew 23:13-14

Introduction

Recently, Reverend Christopher Myers of Phoenix Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA) tagged me in on a Facebook post to address the topic of absolute certainty and the Received Text. Dr. Peter Gurry playfully chimed in with a test passage (Matthew 23:13-14). In this article I will be interacting with Dr. Gurry’s article. Any disagreements I have with his article do not represent what I think about him as a person. He is a brother in Christ and I no reason to think otherwise.

The question that must be answered is, “How can one have absolute certainty that the Scriptures they read are the Divine Original?” What first must be defined is the operational definition of “absolute” as it pertains to certainty. Of course I would never argue a definition of “absolute certainty” that means “omniscience.” Humans are creatures, and therefore do not know things absolutely in that sense. Yet, in a different, practical, experiential sense, Christians can be absolutely certain that God exists, that He has saved them, and that He has spoken by virtue of His own operation. So the certainty we do have as Christians is not by virtue of our self-perceived omniscience, but by virtue of God’s power in us. This is the clear testimony of Scripture.  

“The holy scriptures, which are wise to make thee wise unto salvation.”

(2 Timothy 3:15)


“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable”

(2 Timothy 3:16)

“The Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you unto all truth…He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you.”

(John 16:13,14)

“My sheep hear my voice”

(John 10:27)

That is to say that certainty in the Scriptures comes not from man, but from God, and therefore is not from a man. Of ourselves, we can never have certainty in the Scriptures, or any spiritual thing for that matter.


“But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep”

(John 10:26)

People do not believe that the Scriptures are the Word of God because of manuscript evidence, they believe the Scriptures are the Word of God because:

“our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts”

(LBCF, WCF 1.5)

It is firmly the Protestant position that men can have “full persuasion and assurance” in the Scriptures not by virtue of their own knowledge, but because of the “inward work of the Holy Spirit” which bears witness to that “infallible truth, and divine authority,” the Scriptures, in the regenerated heart of the believer. That being said, the matter of certainty is not properly a text-critical category, it is a faith category. “Ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep.” No matter which text one reads, it is definitely the case that text-critical evidence is not the reason for certainty, because God says that is Him who gives certainty. Even if every single manuscript were to read the same exact way in every single verse, this would still be true. That is why I continue to advocate that the text we receive should be derived from a method of faith, not science.

“For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh”

(Romans 8:5)

For a moment, let’s set aside the idea that there is any warrant to believe that text-critical evidence is the reason we believe a verse to be Holy Scripture, because the Scriptures teach that this is not the case. The Scriptures give abundant cause for experiential certainty by virtue of the inner working of the Holy Spirit. 

Examining the Test Case 

Since we are talking certainty here, let us first examine the two models proposed: methodologies which evaluate textual evidence, and the inner working of the Holy Spirit of the individual and the church catholic throughout the ages. Models which evaluate textual evidence are quite fragile. For example, in the article posted for examination by Dr. Gurry, he appeals to the NA27 and the Byzantine tradition to question the passage as it is found in the KJV. He also notes that the passage also occurs differently within the TR corpus. What is interesting, is that his major point is that the passage is not a majority reading, and that’s why it allegedly should be rejected, though he doesn’t make a case either way. If it is the case that a reading should be accepted or rejected based on the criteria provided in the article, I’d love to see an NA29 without any doubt cast upon Mark 16:9-20. The article does not really make a significant point at all regarding the text itself, just that Erasmus made a textual decision using his “limited resources.” Note that Gurry doesn’t make any statement at all regarding the authenticity of the reading, or inform the reader of what he thinks of the passage. Such is the modus operandi of textual scholars. In between the lines of the article is an obvious attempt to cast doubt on the authenticity of the Traditional reading, but on what grounds does he do so? There are three identifiable grounds that I could identify:

  1. It’s not the majority reading
  2. Erasmus had limited resources
  3. We don’t know where Erasmus got the reading

I suspect that is why he didn’t make an actual conclusion in his article, because the reasons he gives aren’t exactly arguments for or against the text itself. If they are, I fail to see how. There is only one text-critical camp that takes reason one as a valid text-critical criteria, and neither myself nor Peter Gurry hold to that position. Erasmus may have had “limited” resources, but how much more “resources” were used to make the general shape of the modern critical text in 1881? Aleph, B, and a smattering of readings from several other choice manuscripts? The shape of the NA27 is not leaps and bounds different from Hort’s text, despite having access to the Papyri, more Uncials, minuscules, and lectionaries.

“None of the popular hand-editions of the Greek NT takes us beyond Westcott-Hort in any substantive way as far as textual character is concerned”

Eldon J. Epp, The Twentieth Century Interlude in New Testament Textual Criticism. 1974. Aland cites 558 variants between the 1881 Westcott-Hort text and the 25th edition of the Nestle-Aland Text (NA25, 1963). The text of the NA27 is not significantly different from that of the NA25.

The sheer volume of additional data is not anything to be astounded by, because what actually matters is how that data has influenced the text. It doesn’t matter if we enter in 10,000 new manuscripts into evidence today, if that evidence introduces no new readings, and only supports the readings we have proportionately. Further, it especially doesn’t matter how much data we have if we only look at a small subset of that data.

Point three doesn’t actually matter because the reading ended up in his edition, and there are manuscripts that have that reading, which were available in the time of Erasmus. Dr. Gurry even lists them in his article. So unless we want to say that Erasmus made up the readings and those readings happened to match a Greek manuscript, I fail to see what the point is here. 

The interesting thing that this article has shown, is that the standard Dr. Gurry sets forth to evaluate the TR is a standard that he probably wouldn’t try against his NA27. There are many minority readings within that text. Further, do we know where the readings of Aleph and B came from? If we take Erasmus’ opinion of Codex B, he alleges the same thing about it that Gurry does Erasmus’ text – that parts of it were following the Latin. It is quite strange that Erasmus, having such a strong opinion against the Vulgate, would follow Latin readings so often! The difference between Gurry’s claim and Erasmus, is that Erasmus’ text is supported by Greek witnesses, and many, many readings from Codex B are supported by virtually no other Greek manuscript.

This brings me to my final question – what sort of grounds does one stand on to evaluate a text from a modern critical perspective? The modern critical methodology cannot say much about the original text of Scripture with any kind of authority. It is a text that is based on a localized smattering of idiosyncratic manuscripts that have no pedigree and that disappear from the history of textual transmission. I understand why a majority text appeal is made, but a majority text appeal from a modern critical text perspective is more confusing than anything, because there are many majority readings that those in the modern critical text camp reject. It is an interesting article, but the article mostly just demonstrates that modern critical text advocates like going after Erasmus as if that defeats the validity of the Greek Received Text.

Now to the Question of Certainty at Matthew 23:13-14

Now that we have seen that Dr. Gurry didn’t actually make an argument against the reading at Matthew 23:13-14 within the TR tradition, I think it will be helpful to explain why Christians should have certainty that the underlying Greek text of the KJV is the original reading. 

  1. It is the reading that was used, commented on, translated, and received by the people of God in the age of the printing press
  2. It fits in the passage and is theologically correct
  3. It exists in Greek manuscripts (even Byzantine ones)
  4. It was translated into ancient versions
  5. John Chrysostom preached it (Homily LXXIII)
  6. Calvin commented on it (Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelist, Matthew 23:13-15; Mark 12:40; Luke 11:42, 20:47)
  7. It does not contradict other Biblical accounts

I have absolutely no reason to doubt that this verse should be there. The only reason I would have for questioning its authenticity is if I was trying to find errors with God’s Word. A reading being omitted by, as Metzger puts it in his textual commentary, “earliest and best authorities,” is not exactly a strange occurrence. If I recall, these “earliest and best authorities” are known for such qualities. What is more likely, that a scribe made a mistake in a verse that starts exactly the same as the verse above and below it, or that somebody intentionally harmonized the text with another gospel before the time of Chrysostom (4th century)?

“Scribes typically copy their sources with fidelity so that ancestors and descendants are closely related”

A New Approach to Textual Criticism, Wasserman & Gurry, 98

If we’re after the simplest solution, what is stopping us from believing a scribe made a common slip-of-the-eye error, and many faithful scribes followed in his steps? Are we going to believe in the meddling scribes theory or the faithful scribes theory? At what point are we going to admit that we are more interested in scrutinizing the text rather than believing it? 

Yet, despite all of the good evidential reasons to believe that the TR reading at Matthew 23:13-14 is the original reading, that is not why I believe it to be God’s Word. I believe it to be God’s Word because the Holy Spirit bears witness to it in my heart. I know, not very text critical of me. 

Conclusion

Matthew 23:13-14 is a great test case to examine the various doctrines of Scripture available in today’s conservative church. On one hand, there is the critical camp, which rejects that we can be certain in the text of Holy Scripture, that relies upon critical analysis of evidence to derive varying levels of confidence. On the other hand, there is the Received Text camp, who recognizes God’s providence as a meaningful metric for recognizing the text of Scripture. Instead of assuming that we have lost the text of Holy Scripture, Christians should believe that he has preserved it, and receive the text he preserved. We shouldn’t be looking for reasons to prove the text of the Protestant Reformation wrong. If the final textual product of the Protestant Reformation is woefully corrupt, then it doesn’t seem that providence had anything to do with the transmission of the text of the New Testament. Further, if the text of the Reformation is corrupt, then we do not have now, and have never had, a stable text of Holy Scripture.

Christians can have certainty in the text of the Holy Scriptures, because God says He provides that certainty. Certainty isn’t derived from our acquisition of knowledge, but rather the internal witness of the Holy Spirit with the Word of God. No amount of text-critical analysis can offer certainty in God’s Word, because there is nothing particular about text-critical methods that can offer certainty in God’s Word. Take, for example, DC Parker, an authority in the discipline, and the team lead for the Gospel of John in the ECM:

“The text is changing. Every time that I make an edition of the Greek New Testament, or anybody does, we change the wording. We are maybe trying to get back to the oldest possible form but, paradoxically, we are creating a new one. Every translation is different, every reading is different, and although there’s been a tradition in parts of Protestant Christianity to say there is a definitive single form of the text, the fact is you can never find it. There is never ever a final form of the text.”

Certainty is a category of faith, not knowledge. If we examine the fruit of the modern critical text machine on the doctrine of Scripture, this is plainly the case. Text critical methods have only produced doubt. So we can talk about Erasmus all we want, but that’s not going to make the New Testament autographs appear. Christians must hold fast to the Scriptures, and derive their certainty from the only infallible hope, our God and Savior Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is an objective standard Christians can look at to prove this, God’s providential preservation in time.


“We do not have now – in our critical Greek texts or any of translations – exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote. Even if we did, we would not know it.” – Dan Wallace

(Gurry & Hixson, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, xii)

2 thoughts on “Absolute Certainty, The Received Text, and Matthew 23:13-14

  1. Hi Taylor,

    The question amongst TR, MT and Byzantine Text defenders is not whether the verse should be included or excluded from the Canon. It’s a question of position; the verses have been transpose. The TR tradition preserves both verse orders, and therefore must be incorrect in one of these particulars (by default). Therefore it’s an established axiom that the TR tradition contains corruption (errors) within it’s various editions (e.g. Luke 17:36, I Jo.5:7-8).

    The question now becomes; which reading/s are correct–and how does one adjudicate between variant readings (?).

    Are we to examine all the evidence, or simply stand by what the KJV reads?

    Like

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