One of the greatest challenges to overcome when discussing textual criticism with the average Christian is breaking through the wall of misconceptions regarding the topic. My personal theory is that if those in the Modern Critical Text had more information, they likely would not support the ongoing efforts of textual scholars. One of the most powerful claims that a Critical Text advocate will make is that their text is based off of the “earliest and best” manuscripts. It is the kind of jargon that is located in the footnotes of study bibles that compels people to believe that they have a high quality product in their hands.
One of arguments used to support the claim that modern bibles are based on “better” manuscripts is that they come from a textual family or group that is earlier than the text family that Reformation era Bibles were made from. So the argument for the Modern Critical Text is that it is made from manuscripts that represent an earlier form of the text closer to the original than later manuscripts. There is a major problem with this assertion – these early manuscripts differ so greatly from one another that even the scholars admit they are not a part of a manuscript family. What this practically means is there is no way to substantiate that the Modern Critical Text represents a uniform version of the text that can be traced back to some authorial manuscript group. This seems to be evidence strong enough to pump the breaks on the whole Critical Text machine, but as we see it still charges forward.
The Scholarly Perspective on Text Types Has Changed
Formerly, the idea of “text types” was a major engine for the inner workings of textual criticism and scholarship. The way that variants would be assigned value was in large part based on this text-type formulation.
Peter Gurry & Tommy Wasserman. A New Approach to Textual Criticism. 8.
“The Alexandrian is typically considered the most reliable text-type, with the Western, Caesarean, and Byzantine generally following in that order”
“If one reads Bruce Metzger’s well-known commentary that accompanies the UBS, the notion of text-types is absolutely essential to his explanation of the history of the New Testament text and, with it, to the practice of textual criticism itself”Peter Gurry & Tommy Wasserman. A New Approach to Textual Criticism. 8.
This foundational way of thinking has shifted in the last ten years to acknowledge that the concept of textual families, at least as it applies to the Alexandrian, Caesarean, and Western text-types, is not supported by the data. While the concept of text-types has been retired, the Byzantine texts have been retained as a group.
“One exception here is that the editors still recognize the Byzantine text as a distinct text in its own right. This is due to the remarkable agreement that one finds in our late Byzantine manuscripts.”Peter Gurry & Tommy Wasserman. A New Approach to Textual Criticism. 9.
Now this is usually dismissed because, as the quoted material notes, these manuscripts are “late.” Yet it is acknowledged by all that the age of the paper a text is printed on does not necessarily speak to the age of the words on that paper. Due to the same data analysis that demonstrated that the Alexandrian text-type was not in fact a text type, scholars have acknowledged that the Byzantine family is quite old. This is also evidenced by the fact that Byzantine readings were found in the Papyri.
“As just noted, the editors still accept a Byzantine group even if they do not view it as a traditional text-type. In fact, they do much more than merely accept it; they have reevaluated it and concluded that it should be given more weight than in the past.”Peter Gurry & Tommy Wasserman. A New Approach to Textual Criticism. 10.
Peter Gurry & Tommy Wasserman. A New Approach to Textual Criticism. 10.
“But when the CBGM was first used on the Catholic Letters, the editors found that a number of Byzantine witnesses were surprisingly similar to their own reconstructed text.”
“There were fifty-two changes to the critical text. In thirty-six cases the changes were made in conformity with the Byzantine text and in only two cases against the Byzantine text. Further, in 105 of 155 passages where the editors leave the decision open about the initial text, the Byzantine witnesses attest to the reading deemed to be of equal value to variant a (=NA28).”Peter Gurry & Tommy Wasserman. A New Approach to Textual Criticism. 11.
What this is saying is that not only were Westcott and Hort wrong, but so was Metzger. When computer based analysis is applied, the Byzantine text gains a great deal of value, even when only considering the first 1,000 years of textual data.
What Does This Mean for the “Earliest and Best” Manuscripts?
In abandoning the former framework of text-types, the value of the Byzantine group has been elevated in many places to equal or even above the formerly titled Alexandrian text-type. This is interesting, but not as much as what the same analysis revealed about the quality of the so-called Alexandrian family. When the witnesses in the Alexandrian family are compared using computer tools, they share a very low level of agreement in the places of variation. For example, Codex Sinaiticus’ closest relative in the synoptic gospels is the NA28, not any known manuscript. Vaticanus comes in second.
“Sinaiticus’s closest relative is A, the editor’s reconstructed text (i.e., the NA28/UBS5 text. These two agree at 87.9 percent. Next in line is 03, with 84.9 percent, and so on.”Peter Gurry & Tommy Wasserman. A New Approach to Textual Criticism. 46.
Interestingly enough, if you go to the manuscript clusters tool today, 01 and 03 only agree 65% in the same tool provided in the quoted material above. What that seems to demonstrate is that the NA28 is the closest relative to both Sinaiticus and Vaticanus by a very large margin, even more than Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are relatives to each other.
If we use this tool on both the synoptic gospels and on John, we find that there aren’t any witnesses used in this analysis that are coherent enough to warrant any sort of direct genealogical connection. In short, the NA28 is the closest related text to Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. Out of the thousands and thousands of manuscripts often cited in debates to support the Critical Text, the closest living relative to the “earliest and best” manuscripts is the scholar’s own reconstructed text.
How could it be then, that this is still the prevailing theory among Critical Text advocates? Does this not warrant a significant departure from favoring the “earliest and best” manuscripts? Well, no, because according to the scholars, there are no absolute rules to textual criticism.
Peter Gurry & Tommy Wasserman. A New Approach to Textual Criticism. 57.
“As with so much in textual criticism, there are no absolute rules here, and experience serves as the best guide.”
“The significance of this selectivity of our evidence means that our textual flow diagrams and the global stemma do not give us a picture of exactly what happened.”Peter Gurry & Tommy Wasserman. A New Approach to Textual Criticism. 113.
“However, there are still cases where contamination can go undetected in the CBGM, with the result that the proper ancestor-descendent relationships are inverted.”Peter Gurry & Tommy Wasserman. A New Approach to Textual Criticism. 115.
The scholarly assessment of text-types and the new methods being employed to create modern bibles should tell us a few things. First, it should tell us that the previous era of scholars such as Westcott, Hort, and Metzger were incorrect in their conclusions. Second, it should tell us that the scholars that came after don’t share the same confidence in the CBGM to find the original as perhaps James White. Third, it should tell us that anybody still using text-types and Alexandrian priority to argue for the validity of textual variants are severely behind the times. Not only have the scholars abandoned such notions, but the data simply does not support the conclusion that the Alexandrian texts are better than later manuscripts. Since the closest relative to such manuscripts is the text that scholars themselves have created, the data does not appear to be the driving factor for this camp. The driving factor seems to be the notion that Vaticanus must be the best because it is the earliest surviving manuscript we have.
The Received Text position is not one that attempts to reconstruct the original from extant data because it recognizes a) that the Bible never fell away and therefore does not need to be reconstructed and b) that the data is insufficient to do so. Even so, we can look at the scholar’s own analysis and see quite plainly that even their conclusions are established on a thin layer of presuppositions that are not supported by the data. This data, by the way, is the very same that is the foundation for the footnotes, brackets, and removed words and passages from modern bibles. The Received Text crowd has already rejected such a practice, but the Modern Critical Text camp embraces it with open arms.
The texts that serve as a foundation for modern bibles are not a text-family. They have no widespread attestation in the manuscript tradition. Since this is the case, what are we doing using them to make modern bibles? Is this all it takes for the church to toss out passages such as Mark 16:9-20? The burden of proof is set remarkably low for a passage to be thrown out of the bible as inauthentic. It seems rash that this is all it would take for a Christian to believe that a passage should be stripped from the text of Scripture, and yet here we are. As I often say, if the average Modern Critical Text advocate simply listened to their own scholars, they might express the same concerns as the Received Text crowd. It takes a strong tradition and a priori belief to discover that the foundational principle is incorrect and still believe the outcome of that principle to be true.