Modern Textual Criticism is Not Properly Scientific

This is the seventh article in the series, “Faith Seeking Understanding”.

Introduction

The best claim to support the methods and conclusions of modern textual criticism is that it is scientific. You can’t argue against its conclusions, because well…science. This is one of the only real positive reasons critical text apologists ever give for why people should fully embrace the modern critical text. James White for example will offer a brief assertion to the scientific and trustworthy nature of modern textual criticism and then spend the rest of the segment slamming the TR and those who use it. In the mind of the critical text apologist, there shouldn’t even be a debate, because the science is settled. Yet, according to these scholars, the science is far from settled. It is still a work in progress, and anybody who claims otherwise simply isn’t up to date with the scholarship.

This is one of the biggest problems that those in the TR camp have with modern textual criticism, and why many people leave the critical text. Most of the claims that are made by textual scholars cannot be falsified, replicated, or tested. Additionally, when a hypothesis is found to be falsifiable in actual science, the hypothesis is modified or discarded. Despite this basic principle of the scientific method, the textual scholars tend to double down on falsified hypotheses or modify their hypotheses with non-falsifiable claims to try and support a failed hypothesis. In short, it’s more religious and dogmatic than it is scientific.

The Greatest Scam in Textual Criticism

The perfect example of this is what is often called Alexandrian priority. Early modern text critics like Westcott & Hort hypothesized that the Vatican Codex (B) was the earliest type of manuscript to exist. All later manuscripts evolved from this text type through scribal errors and emendations. Dean Burgon and Herman Hoskier dismantled this hypothesis so thoroughly it is amazing that anybody still holds to this today. Yet, when you open an ESV, NASB, CSB, or NIV, they follow Codex Vaticanus in nearly every place that deviates from the TR. You can do this comparison yourself by comparing a KJV to an NASB and then seeing if the NASB takes Vaticanus in places of deviation.

Not only did 19th and 20th century textual critics overwhelmingly falsify Hort’s hypothesis, the newest method called the CBGM also suggests that Alexandrian priority is problematic. Most honest textual scholars will admit that “later” Byzantine readings could very well be original, and there are Byzantine readings in the earliest Papyri which tell us that the “text type” considered to be an evolution from the Alexandrian text was actually, at least in part, contemporaneous with the early Alexandrian texts. Instead of trying to modify the hypothesis to account for early Byzantine readings, almost every modern Bible prints a text platform that assumes Vaticanus is “earliest and best”. Certain individual scholars may hold to some hybrid hypothesis of Hort’s theory that accepts the occasional non-Alexandrian reading, yet this has no bearing on the actual bibles the church reads.

The Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:11) is a great case study of this phenomenon. In the latest and most respected work on the topic called To Cast the First Stone, the author suggests that the church was reading the passage, at John 7:53, as early as the fourth century. This is consistent with the conclusions of other Pericope scholars like Chris Keith. The same can even be said about the so called longer ending of Mark. Bart Ehrman, in Lost Christianities asserts that there were two contemporaneous versions of Mark circulating in the early church, one with and one without the passage.

Despite this scholarship, the dogma of the modern critical text still adheres to the supremacy of Vaticanus. In other words, the standing tradition of the modern critical text seems to point to Hort’s hypothesis existing as a theory, not a hypothesis. Meaning that the actual product of the modern critical text assumes that Hort’s hypothesis was not falsified. Even if it is the case that the modern scholars do admit Hort’s hypothesis was bad, our modern bibles are agnostic to their opinion.

Now, if you have read any of the recent works in textual scholarship, you will see that textual scholars are mostly attempting to interpret data to support Hort’s theory, at least some version of it. Rather than reworking the hypothesis, the methods of modern textual scholarship are simply reinterpreting data with the assumption that the Alexandrian text platform is the earliest, even though many scholars readily admit that earliest does not necessarily equal best.

In the case of the CBGM, the goal seems to be to create a hypothetical archetype of Vaticanus and other contemporaneous texts to find what is called the initial text. The CBGM, practically speaking, doesn’t really consider the Byzantine manuscripts in the same way Metzger didn’t really consider the Byzantine manuscripts. In other words, the earliest manuscripts we have are the best manuscripts we have, and the effort has doubled down on Hort’s hypothesis using modern computer tools and genealogical modeling. Most of the 5,000 plus manuscripts you always hear about are, for the most part, not even considered in the CBGM, despite the computer tools suggesting that many readings that exist in later manuscripts could very well be extremely early.

Conclusion

All that said, the major problem with calling modern textual criticism “scientific” is that the methods quite frequently violate the scientific method. Non-falsifiable assertions are added to the mix frequently, and falsified hypotheses are assumed to be true all the time. For example, the Pericope Adulterae is assumed to be a verbal tradition that recalls an actual event that was added to the text around the fourth century. How can this claim be falsified? How can it be tested? It can’t. Yet it is essentially the academic orthodox position on John 7:53-8:11. It could just as easily be said that the passage is original to John and removed from several manuscripts in the fourth century, which actually has historical support from men like Augustine.

The underlying principle that causes modern textual scholars to assume passages were added rather than removed finds its basis in the old school of modern textual criticism. The shortest text must be the earliest because the text expanded and evolved over time. This is yet another axiom that cannot be falsified and is therefore not scientific. There are many principles like this that are not only problematic scientifically, but also from a Christian perspective. If you hold to the doctrine of Inerrancy, then you believe that the original manuscripts were perfect. That means that the text must have devolved by the time we get to the fourth century Alexandrian manuscripts, not evolved. The grammar didn’t get better, it got worse.

An easy explanation for this de-evolution is that scribes unfamiliar with Greek were copying Greek manuscripts. It makes sense that a scribe might make blunders in a language they are not comfortable with. This supports the hypothesis that the text must have gotten more grammatically troubling in our early Alexandrian manuscripts, not less. Further, from a Christian perspective, taking the shorter, more difficult reading is in conflict with the doctrine of Inerrancy because the originals are said to be without error. If we really want to consider historical context, the Alexandrian Uncials are said to be created right around the time where Arianism was having its field day. Those are two explanations that are not even considered in the modern critical axioms.

This is yet another appeal to the TR that doesn’t include fundamentalism, emotionalism, or traditionalism. If the axioms of the modern critical text are hardly scientific, then what basis does one have to claim that the reason to support it are founded upon science? It may be the case that the modern method is scientific, but it is certainly not the case that the method is good science. If we take on the lens of a scientific perspective and try to offer an alternative explanation to their hypothesis, we can easily paint a picture where the Alexandrian manuscripts are the anomaly, not the archetype.

The early Byzantine readings in the Papyri and the Uncials may point to an early Byzantine text from a scientific perspective. The text traveled to Alexandria, where it was poorly copied, and we have evidence of this in the handful of manuscripts that survived due to the desert climate. This hypothesis may be further supported by the reality that many of our Papyri were discovered in trash heaps. The texts that we have later evidence for are largely uniform and grammatically better than the early manuscripts, so why would we assume they evolved from poor manuscripts? Again, this claim that the text evolved is not falsifiable. So if the only real reason to adopt the critical text is because it is “scientific”, the critical text is really not standing on solid ground.

The TR position recognizes that we do not know a lot about the manuscript transmission history. There is a lot of data missing. The most important data that could support or falsify any hypothesis regarding the transmission of the text from the first to fourth century is incomplete. There is a staggering gap in our manuscript data from this time period. So instead of entertaining the bad science of liberal scholars, those in the TR camp look back to a time where men weren’t trying to “do science”. They believed that the manuscripts they had were the manuscripts that God providentially delivered, and made a text from it. The TR position is not scientific, it is theological. Considering the scientific approach of the critical text has many flaws which compromise the integrity of the method, Christians should especially stick with what the Scriptures say, not what the scholars say.

6 thoughts on “Modern Textual Criticism is Not Properly Scientific

  1. Ok so I have a few questions here so bear with me…..

    So when you hear a person who is in line with the modern critical textual position claim that scribes added to scripture like you stated in your conclusion, I quote,

    “The underlying principle that causes modern textual scholars to assume passages were added rather than removed finds its basis in the old school of modern textual criticism”

    Where on earth are they coming up with this? Westcot and Hort soley?
    And where on earth did Westcot and Hort come up with this? What are they reading to come to these conclusion?

    And why do they say that scribes mistakenly added footnotes of another scribes commentary?
    James White makes that claim a lot. If these questions are unnecessary because I missed something while reading, please be gracious and point it out to me in your article or references that have helped you. I’m new to all this and really really want to learn more.

    And what do we make of this? (Old Testament Criticism)

    Also, it seems like Bart Erhman has “debunked” this modern method of textual criticism and any attempt to bring life into it is just an example of cognitive dissonance and we really don’t have the word of God. Seeing James White agreed with 8.5/9 things that Bart Erhman has to say in their debate. What is that other 0.5 that they disagree with?

    Also, I hear a lot about how bibles like the, “NASB are the most literal” What ways can we measure these claims of bibles being “literal”….what does that even mean?

    I’m sorry if this is a lot or it doesn’t all make sense. I greatly appreciate these articles and the time you take to make them. It’s a indispensable resource I greatly cherish! God bless!

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    1. 1. Where on earth are they coming up with this?
      a. The axioms of textual criticism as found in Metzger & Ehrman’s textbook that is the staple reading for seminary.

      2. Why do they say scribes mistakenly added footnotes of another scribes commentary?
      a. Because the text wasn’t in the so called Alexandrian texts, they are not “earliest and best”, and therefore must have been added. It again assumes Alexandrian priority.

      b. Don’t worry I’m glad to answer! Most of White’s material is just Metzger’s commentary/textbook. If you want to read it you can find it here: https://www.amazon.com/Text-New-Testament-Transmission-Restoration/dp/019516122X/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=metzger+%26+ehrman&qid=1599879836&sr=8-1

      c. Some of the axioms are: The shorter reading is best. The most grammatically difficult is best. The assumption is based on the premise that scribes tended to add rather than subtract, which has recently come under some scrutiny by modern scholars such as Jim Royse.

      3. What do we make of Old Testament Criticism?
      a. In my opinion it’s the biggest waste of time. The amount of textual data is basically nothing in comparison to New Testament and there aren’t really any other “text types” other than the Masoretic text. All Bibles use the Masoretic. The modern translations use a ton of the Old Latin, Syriac, and Septuagint in place of the Hebrew. If you look at the footnotes of a 2016 ESV they do it on just about every page of the OT.

      4. It seems like Bart Ehrman has debunked the modern method
      a. 100% correct. Check out this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8nqibqfhKw

      b. The .5 things they disagree on is the conclusion. They both agree on how many variants there are, the significance of those variants, the textual platform, etc. They disagree in this point: Ehrman says, “based on what I know, there is no way this is God’s Word.” Evangelicals say, “We agree with you in everything except we think it’s still God’s Word”.

      5. I hear a lot about bibles like the NASB being the most literal
      a. The NASB is wooden and choppy because they tried to make it “literal”. There is not a single translation that is properly “word for word” or we would think it sounded awful. All translations are somewhat dynamic in their translation. The NASB translators thought it would be novel to make the translation more word for word, to the detriment of the translation, in my opinion. “Literal” just means the word is brought over 1 for 1. There are a lot of instances where an idiom cannot be brought over so an English (or other language) idiom is used that means the same thing. “God Forbid!” is an example in the KJV.

      Thanks for the comment, hopefully my response was helpful!

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      1. Thank you so much for your graciousness! It helped. I get nervous asking these kinds of questions sometimes, mainly due to the patience people lack in answering questions on these topics. Kinda like I should magically know all this stuff or it’s beyond my understanding and I shouldn’t spend too much time in it. Also, knowing where to go to get this information would help tremendously as well. You’ve referenced one book on amazon, but the historical portions of all this seem endless. This stuff gets confusing, but I feel like I should know it and it’s barely talked about among other Christians and if it is, it lacks any meaningful depth. I’m still a babe in Christ, after many years of being a militant atheist. I want to be able to explain this kinda stuff not only to my wife accurately but to my future children as well. It’s intimidating and seems like a big test of faith to continue on in the faith with all this information I’m exposed to now. Especially with the arguments Bart Erhman puts forward. Like the many Christianity’s theory and all that. After listening to a lot of videos in defense of the KJV, it feels right. But at the same time, I don’t wanna be swept away with various teachings. I was hit with the charismatic stuff just coming into the faith, now I’m hit with this. Sometimes it’s hard to decipher what to believe. Sorry for the little out of place rant. Thank you so much Rev. Taylor! God bless you! I will say, reading these articles helps me stay focused and gives me hope.

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      2. Ron, I totally understand the confusion that this conversation introduces to people. I myself came from atheism, and at one point was very swept up with critical text dogma. My hope is that when this battle is over, the average Christian will not need to know anything about textual criticism other than it’s what they do in secular universities. The important thing is that when you read your Bible you can read it knowing God is speaking because it is His Word. I find that in the KJV. Christians shouldn’t have to do text criticism to read their Bible. Thank you for the comment!

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  2. The controversy between TR advocates and modern text critics is entirely analogous to that between biblical creationists and evolutionists. Both modern text critics and evolutionists claim what they are doing is “science”. It is not. If its conclusions cannot be tested/falsified, it’s not science. If it cannot be repeated, it’s not science. In both cases, it is a matter of history, not science. In matters of history, we must rely on historical accounts, eyewitness testimony being the most valuable. In both cases, we have infallible eyewitness testimony that speaks to the issue in question preserved in the Bible. In both cases, the failure by those who refuse to accept the testimony of scripture on the issue.

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