The Theology of the Text: How Should Evidence Be Used?

This article is the fifth in the series called “The Theology of the Text,” designed to cover the topic of the text in short, accessible articles. 

The Theology of the Text: How Should Evidence Be Used?

There are approximately 5100 to 5600 extant Biblical manuscripts today, depending on how they are counted. Some scholars estimate that there are 525 manuscripts still awaiting discovery (Gurry & Hixson. Myths and Mistakes. 62), and a multitude of manuscripts that were once catalogued have been lost or destroyed. Approximately 83% of these manuscripts are dated after AD 1000, and around 60 of the extant manuscripts are complete New Testaments (Parker, New Testament Manuscripts and Their Texts, 70). The first complete extant New Testament is dated to the fourth century. That means that of the 5,100 or so manuscripts available today, many of these are only a portion of Scripture, especially the earliest witnesses. Further, some of these extant manuscripts are preserved only in microfilm images, which means the physical copy no longer exists or has been lost. That is to say that the extant manuscript evidence is not an entirely stable dataset. 

In the modern church, the popular belief is that these manuscripts should be used for reconstructing the lost text of Holy Scripture. The first four articles in this series lay out the theological errors associated with this perspective. While it is a theological error to affirm this position, the ongoing nature of the effort itself demonstrates that the evidence cannot be used for such a task. Viewing the extant evidence as adequate material for reconstruction is both theologically and realistically problematic. Since the 19th century, scholars adopting the view that the Scriptures need to be restored or reconstructed have tried their hand at producing an original text from the extant data to no avail. There has not been a single text produced by critical methodologies in the modern period which has been received as original or final. At the time of writing this article, the effort to find the original as it has been historically defined has been abandoned for the “initial text,” or the earliest reconstructable text that can be produced by the extant manuscripts. Some scholars suppose that this hypothetical initial text can be said to represent the original, though there is no warrant for this based on the extant data, which is largely incomplete until at least the fourth century. Further, even if one single reconstructed initial text was produced, the methods of reconstructionist text criticism have no mechanism which can actually verify that the final product resembles the original, because the original manuscripts do not exist. 

Should this cause Christians alarm or dismay? Certainly not. Since the Bible hasn’t fallen away in the modern period, the evidence does not need to be used to reconstruct it. God preserved the text, and the church has it today. The frustrated efforts of textual scholars should also serve as a reminder that God works in all things, “from the greatest even to the least” (LBCF 5.1). If God is not using the reconstruction effort to actually deliver His Word, it may be wise to observe what He is doing by frustrating the efforts of textual scholars – more on that in later articles. It should be apparent that in the 21st century, the extant data has not proven useful to reconstruct the original New Testament. So what is evidence to be used for in this modern context? 

The extant manuscript data serves the same use as any other evidence for a Christian. Since churches haven’t actually used manuscripts in reading and preaching in at least 300 years, it is safe to say that they are not the means that God is speaking to His church today. It is not that God is not speaking, it is simply the case that the advent of the printing press in Europe caused a format shift from handwritten manuscripts to printed editions. This plain observation is important. If the extant handwritten manuscripts are no longer being used “to make men wise unto salvation” and “for instruction in righteousness,” their use to the church has shifted. That is not to say that these manuscripts are useless, simply that Christians should have a perspective of this evidence that recognizes what God has done in time to continue speaking to His people. 

If these manuscripts are not to be used for reconstruction, what is their purpose? First, they may serve some role in evidential apologetics. Some people claim that Christianity was “invented” in the fourth century, and early manuscript evidence is powerful to respond to these claims at a lay level. It is important to note, however, that ancient evidence isn’t particularly compelling to those who have actually studied these early manuscripts. Second, they may serve as evidence of God’s providence. Despite the New Testament being similarly attested to other books of antiquity in its ancient witnesses, it is still the most attested to book of antiquity if all of the extant data is considered. Third, they may serve as source material for historical studies of Christianity. 

Conclusion

Scripturally, there is no warrant for believing that the Scriptures have fallen away in such a manner that they need to be reconstructed. Practically, modern scholars have tried and failed to do this for nearly 150 years now. Realistically, even if these scholars did produce such a final product using the extant manuscripts, they would have no way of knowing that they actually had done it. Experientially, Christians no longer use these manuscripts in faith and practice. It should be apparent then, that the Christian perspective on these handwritten manuscripts should align with what God has actually done in time to deliver His Word to His people. All of these observations should point to the reality that men’s opinions on today’s extant evidence was never meant to be the authentication method of the text of Holy Scripture. 

In a world post-printing press, Christians access the Scriptures in printed editions. The handwritten manuscripts are an artifact of a pre-printing press world. The extant manuscript data may be used in apologetics and historical studies, but since this evidence cannot be used to establish a reading as original, it should not be used as such. As far as apologetics is concerned, no man has ever been brought to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ by a convincing argument about the number or quality of extant New Testament manuscripts. God has given the Scriptures to His people, even today, and men are brought to faith by hearing the Gospel preached, and believing that Gospel for salvation. Christians do not believe that the Bible is the Word of God because there are a lot of manuscripts. The only Scriptural response to men who doubt that God has delivered His Scriptures pure in all ages, is to appeal to the Scriptures that God has preserved, and trust that the Holy Spirit works in the hearts and minds of men by the Scriptures. 

“Although when the divinity of the Scriptures is proved, its infallibility necessarily follows, yet the enemies of the true religion of Scripture in every age flatter themselves that they have found not a few contradictions in it and boast of their discoveries in order to overthrow its authenticity” 

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 1. 71. 

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