Review: The King James Version Debate – Chapter 1

Introduction

In the first chapter of The King James Version Debate, we see a combination of helpful terminology and data points combined with Modern Critical Text Theory. Carson opens up this chapter by highlighting the importance of the printing press to frame the narrative of transmission via hand copying.

“The invention of the printing press is, arguably, the most significant technical invention since the wheel. When it put in an appearance, not only did it make books much cheaper, circulate knowledge more widely, and contribute largely to the education of the masses, it produced thousands of copies of books and papers that could not be distinguished from one another. The relevance of this latter observation to the present discussion is obvious. Before the printing press, the New Testament (and all other) documents were copied by hand.”

Carson, D. A.. The King James Version Debate (p. 15). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

He continues to by starting to tell the Critical Text version of transmission.

The New Testament documents were copied in several different settings. In the earliest period, manuscripts were copied by Christians either for their own use or for the use of sister churches.

Carson, D. A.. The King James Version Debate (p. 15). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

While Carson may agree with White and Ehrman, he does the reader a favor by describing the process (at least initially) broadly enough to allow for the narrative that churches oversaw the copying of manuscripts rather than the independent free-for-all described by modern scholars. Though, we will see shortly that he falls in line with the mainstream Critical Text narrative as he adds onto the story. This view is in line with that of mainstream Modern Textual Criticism that copying was done by individuals in the church. See this quote from the King James Only Controversy.

“If you wanted a copy of the Gospel of John, either you had to pay a professional scribe to copy one for you or you had to do it yourself. If you tried to do it yourself, you had to find somebody to lend you his copy long enough for you to undertake this very difficult and very tedious task.”

White, James R. The King James Only Controversy (p. 53). Bethany House Publishers. 2009. 2nd Edition.

Copies of Copies of Copies

Carson goes on to engage in storytelling regarding the transmission of the New Testament similar to Metzger and Ehrman.

“Perhaps one of the members on a business trip to Macedonia took a copy with him; and while in Philippi he copied out the Letter to the Philippians at the same time someone in the church at Philippi copied out the Letter to the Colossians. Of course any error that the Colossian businessman inadvertently introduced into his own copy of Paul’s letter to the Colossians would get picked up by the Philippian copier. Perhaps the Philippian copier knew the Colossian businessman. He recognized him to be a nice man, very devout and godly, but somewhat flamboyant, and judged him to be somewhat careless in scholarly enterprises. The opinion of the Philippian copier might be confirmed if he detected several spelling mistakes in his friend’s copy, or if he discovered the Colossian businessman had accidentally put in a word or a line twice, or seemed to have left something out. Without saying anything, he might decide to correct such errors.”

Carson, D. A.. The King James Version Debate (p. 16). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This is a common narrative presented by scholars of the Critical Text. The Christians who commissioned copies or perhaps were copyists themselves were “flamboyant” and “careless.” This is a conclusion that is made, not based on any extant records of a Christian describing the copying process, but rather by examining the quality of the favored early extant manuscripts and making determinations about the scribe on that basis. In other words, by calling a copyist “Flamboyant” and “careless,” Carson has also said a lot about the quality of the extant copies which such careless scribes have left to us.

I understand that Carson is using a storytelling device to relate to the common Christian how copyist errors could be made, but it is only a story you’d have to tell if the manuscripts you have are of such poor quality that an excuse has to be made on their behalf. This is the story that Critical Text scholars have to tell in order to defend their text, that Christians really didn’t care about the quality of their manuscripts.

The Job of the Text Critic

Having framed the problem, Carson then describes the necessity of the modern textual critic.

“The textual critic sifts this material and tries to establish, wherever there is doubt, what reading reflects the original or is closest to it. When it is realized that there are approximately five thousand manuscripts of a part or the whole of the Greek New Testament, in addition to about eight thousand manuscripts of the relevant versions, it is clear that the textual critic has his work cut out for him.”

Carson, D. A.. The King James Version Debate (pp. 16-17). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

He goes on to describe the different types and quantities of manuscripts (Uncials, Cursive, Lectionary, Papyri, versional evidence) and how they might be used by a textual critic to understand a parent Greek manuscript (18).

At this point in the chapter, Carson has been helpful in describing, according to the tenets of Modern Textual Criticism, the reason the modern church needs modern textual criticism and textual critics. He ends by providing his reader with a simple reason that the age of a manuscript might not be as definitive as one might think in order to further emphasize the difficulties presented to the textual critic and to frame the next chapter.

All agree that one cannot simply take the oldest manuscripts and trust them, for they may conceivably be very poor copies, while later manuscripts may be good copies of excellent parents that are now lost. For example, a tenth-century minuscule may conceivably be a good copy of an excellent fourth-century uncial, and therefore prove quite superior to a fifth-century uncial. Nor can one trust oneself to the majority reading at any place. It is quite conceivable that a bad manuscript was copied many times, and that a good manuscript was copied scarcely at all.

Carson, D. A.. The King James Version Debate (pp. 18-20). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This highlights the reality, that even before the CBGM took the mainstage, it was common knowledge that the age of the words on a manuscript may be different than the age of the manuscript itself. This is extremely important, as nearly every modern Bible uses the verbiage “Earliest” as a metric to describe why a reading is delegated to brackets or a footnote, despite scholars consistently saying that “earliest” doesn’t necessarily mean “best.”

Conclusion

In the first chapter of The King James Version Debate, Carson begins to frame the discussion in terms of Critical Text theory while providing some helpful terminology and data points to his reader. He also compares the New Testament manuscript data to that of the Iliad (18), which has been recently discouraged in chapter 4 of the book Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism by Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry. It is important that the reader of this first chapter recognize that while being largely objective, Carson has included one major tenet of Modern Textual Criticism in his description of Bible transmission. He has made the assumption that early Bible copying was done loosely and carelessly. This has been challenged by a newer principle called “The Principle of Parsimony” which is detailed in Peter Gurry and Tommy Wasserman’s book A New Approach to Textual Criticism, which says that scribes generally copied faithfully, though the narrative of sloppy transmission still remains intact for the most part.

A possible reason that the assumption of careless copying is still retained is due to the fact that it is determined based on the quality of oldest extant manuscripts, not any extant record detailing the commissioning process of a New Testament manuscript. Notice that he uses the fictional character “the Philippian on a business trip” to build out this point. Despite the lack of extant evidence detailing the copying process of the New Testament in such a manner and the introduction of the principle of parsimony, Carson’s claim, though not unique to him, has gone largely uncontested in modern New Testament scholarship. This claim has been challenged by Dr. Jeff Riddle, who notes that there are extant documents showing that an early Christian could compare their copy of the New Testament to the authentic copy that existed in Ephesus, which points to a much more structured transmission narrative than that proposed by Carson here.

More important than speculation about how the Bible was transmitted in the early church is what our transmission narratives say about our view of the Bible altogether. Do we believe that it was carelessly and flippantly transmitted? Do we believe that the original became corrupted in the second generation of copying? If we answer yes, it points to the rejection of the historical doctrine of providential preservation as set forth in the Protestant Confessions and opens the door for the endless process of “finding the original.” This process, which the scholars admit, has not been done and can never be done (See the scholarship of Eldon Epp, Dan Wallace, DC Parker, Tommy Wasserman, Jennifer Knust, Bart Ehrman, and so on). In the first chapter of Carson’s work, we are given some helpful information, as well as some Critical Text storytelling.

In the next article I will review chapter 2 of The King James Version Debate.

One thought on “Review: The King James Version Debate – Chapter 1

  1. ‘The endless process of “finding the original’ which ‘has not been done and can never be done’ plainly indicates the folly of the premises that lead to such an impossible and fruitless result. If the premises of the Critical Text were true, why does the pursuit of them lead to so barren a result?

    Liked by 2 people

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