Recently James White made the claim that he was astonished at the skepticism of the TR position, comparing it to that of Bart Ehrman. What men like James White do not seem to understand is that this skepticism is not a skepticism of the Scriptures, it is in the modern critical text, which isn’t even finished. What is actually astonishing is the lack of skepticism from people who know this system inside and out. It demonstrates a complete lack of discernment and a troubling adherence to the axioms of modern textual criticism. Now, I can see White now, reading the first four sentences of this article and talking about how wrong I am (with props and all!), but for the discerning reader, I want to present my case as to why it’s not astonishing at all to be extremely skeptical of the Modern Critical Text.
Three Reasons Christians Should Practice Discernment When Approaching the Critical Text
1 – Modern Critical Text Advocates and Bart Ehrman Agree in Almost Everything
While White loves to level the claim that TR advocates are the real skeptics by comparing them to Bart Ehrman, he fails to highlight the fact that him and Bart Ehrman essentially agree on everything. Here is a video of Bart Ehrman saying as much. The only thing that these two men disagree upon is the conclusion that God has anything to do with the Bible. So when White comments that TR advocates are skeptical like Bart Ehrman, he’s really just saying that TR advocates are better students than he is.
We listen to what the scholars have to say about the critical text, and believe them, because they created it. It should not be surprising that Reformed Christians who take church history seriously might reject something new to the church from the 20th century and on. What is really going on when White and others make this argument is that they are distracting from the reality that it is actually their system that agrees with Bart Ehrman.
Not only does the textbook that the critical text advocates use have Ehrman’s name on the front, the main academic book series that is putting out the latest scholarly writing on the topic also has his name on it! In fact, pretty much any book you want to read that represents the critical text position has Bart Ehrman’s name on it or in it. As White loves to point out, this is a clear, and intentional, confusion of categories. TR advocates are skeptical of the critical text, not the Scriptures which they have received. Even if none of this was reality, in order to make this argument consistently, critical text apologists should first retract any claims that those in the TR camp are adhering to blind faith fundamentalism. The fact is that the TR methodology is fundamentally not skeptical, which is a common critique of the position.
2 – What Is Said About the Critical Text is Often Not True of the Critical Text
This is probably the biggest grievance I have with those that advocate for the critical text – they either are ignorant of what the critical text is, or are simply misrepresenting what it is they are advocating for. The critical text is not a Bible in the way that most people think it is. It is a lot of bibles packaged together or perhaps a compendium of manuscript readings. Scholars that produce these texts do not advertise them as “the very Word of God.” These printed volumes simply represent a reconstructed snapshot of the transmitted text at a certain point in time in the transmission history of the New Testament. The readings in each of these texts are simply the editors’ opinions on which reading is the earliest. In the case of the Modern Critical Text, all versions of it represent closely one or two manuscripts from a single geographical location dated around the fourth century. There is not a single scholar or apologist for the Critical Text that would say that any Bible translation is translated from the full record of the original, inspired text. James White touched on this in his recent debate with Pastor Jeff Riddle when being questioned about the authenticity of the ending of Mark, which just confirms he lines up with Dan Wallace and the rest of the intelligentsia on the topic.
“We do not have now – in our critical Greek texts or any translations – exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote. Even if we did, we would not know it. There are many, many places in which the text of the New Testament is uncertain.”Gurry & Hixson, Myths & Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, xii. Quote Dan Wallace.
I recognize that people have different perspectives on a wide array of theological topics, but it would be nice for the men who advocate for the Modern Critical Text to at least be straight forward about what their text actually is. TR advocates are skeptical of this text because the scholars that created it are skeptical of it. There is no wide spread conspiracy theory, because the scholars themselves believe what the TR advocates are saying.
3 – Modern Critical Text Advocates Pretend That A Healthy Dose of Skepticism is Outlandish
No matter how loudly somebody denies this reality, there is a good reason people are skeptical of the Modern Critical Text(s). In the first place, it’s not finished. In the second place, the goal of Modern Textual Criticism isn’t to find the autographic readings, it’s to find the earliest possible readings. In the third place, the scholars themselves admit that their text is not verifiable. If you aren’t skeptical of this, you probably should be.
If somebody was trying to sell you a car, and they told you that they weren’t sure if it had all the parts, that they had no way of knowing if it had all the parts, and that another model was coming out soon that also didn’t have all the parts, would you buy that car? Would you let your kids drive it? Probably not, I hope. You would hopefully go and buy a car that at least advertises itself as being a full car. It is time that Modern Critical Text advocates stop pretending that it is absurd for TR advocates to be skeptical of a product that quite literally describes itself as something to be skeptical about.
At this point in the discussion of New Testament Textual Criticism, there is more than enough information available to at least make a determination on whether or not the array of critical texts should be trusted. Shifting the argument and projecting doesn’t change the reality of what textual scholars are actually saying. As it pertains to this argument, you don’t need to know anything about the TR to know that the Critical Text(s) is not what apologists claim that it is. If the claim is that TR advocates are too skeptical, the person making the claim is either misinformed or intentionally conflating categories.
It is revealing that in one breath, a Critical Text apologist can claim that TR advocates have “The same view as Mormons” on Scripture while also asserting that they are “Skeptical like Bart Erhman.” Instead of conflating categories so irresponsibly, it’s important to recognize that when TR advocates are called skeptical, the thing they are skeptical about is the Modern Critical Text. If you aren’t skeptical of the Modern Critical Text, read what the scholars are saying about it before blindly listening to the shock and awe arguments of James White and co. Believe it or not, there are really great reasons to believe that the scholars who created the various Critical Texts are accurate in describing what they created. What the TR advocates are actually setting forth is that Christians have every reason to believe that God has preserved His Word, and that we have that very text today. We simply disagree upon which text that is.