It is often said that modern textual scholars know more than any other scholar in history because of new data and fresh methodologies. This is somewhat perplexing, because one would expect that the New Testament manuscript data available today would actually be less abundant due to the fact that hand copying ceased somewhere around the 1600’s. In fact, a number of manuscripts have been destroyed since they were first catalogued at the turn of the 20th century due to fires, poor storage, and other negligent causes. Additionally, this assumption of “new” data often fails to recognize that there is nothing new about these manuscripts. These manuscripts are certainly new to modern scholarship, but at one point in history, they were available to the people of God for consumption and use.
Which raises the question, “Why did these manuscripts fall out of use?” Why do the manuscript discoveries of the 19th and 20th century vary so heavily from the massive amount of manuscripts that were being copied all throughout history? One theory is that the abandonment of these manuscripts allowed for the proper preservation of these texts. That God, knowing the foolishness and general illiteracy of scribes, providentially tucked away His Word in the sands of Egypt to protect His Word from corruption. This aligns well with the 20th century theory that scribes smoothed out the readings of the New Testament, developed the Christology, added in beloved pericopes, and generally altered the text to better defend the orthodoxy that developed after the Ancient period. If these texts, hidden away in caves and monasteries, represent the original, then scholars should be able to explain how each of the massive amount of variations developed over time.
The Alleged Kaleidoscopic Nature of the Text
Theologically speaking, this is an atrocious theory. This idea essentially says that the original text was available only to the Egyptian Christians for a couple hundred years, and that the rest of the copying done was simply in error. Even within this time period, the copying of these manuscripts was so varied that these manuscripts have trouble agreeing with each other in a wealth of places. The majority of the extant data available lives on in less-ancient manuscripts. Due to the high evaluation of these Egyptian texts, the rest of the manuscript tradition is typically evaluated to be in error in one way or another.
Sure, the later copyists may have retained the general idea of every verse, but if the Egyptian texts are truly original, then the majority of the 5000+ extant manuscripts are the product of revision gone wild. It is to say that scribes had no respect for accurate copying, or that they knew they were even supposed to be copying at all. Copying the exact text had to have been more of a suggestion than a rule. What about those Egyptian texts were so special, that essentially nobody copied them going into the early middle period? Well, one theory is that these manuscripts were so exquisite, that God decided to hide them from His church, so that when a chosen generation of scholars arose in the 1800’s, they could find them, and restore His Word to His people once and for all.
Obviously this theory is problematic. Why would the closest form of the text to the original be found in a region where there were no apostolic missions, where the people did not speak Greek? Does it stand to reason that scribes, who did not know Greek, would do the best copying of the Greek language? Some have actually made the assertion that not knowing the language helped them copy accurately! If you’ve ever copied something in a language you don’t know, you know this is patently absurd. It actually makes sense that the most corrupt manuscripts might arise in an area that was constantly battling for orthodoxy, far from the center of apostolic Christianity. It may truly be that the Alexandrian scribes were the most careful, but the data seems to point in the opposite direction. In fact, if one were to take the majority of manuscripts, which continued to be copied outside of Egypt, and compare the Egyptian manuscripts against those, it seems reasonable to assume that something was awry in Alexandria at the time of the production of the beloved early manuscripts.
I can speculate for days as to what might have influenced the unique text form of the Egyptian manuscripts, but that is not the point of this article. What most people forget to consider in data analysis, are events that might skew the data in one direction or another. In the case of early, extant New Testament manuscripts, many scholars and non-scholars alike fall into the trap of thinking that because something is extant, it must be more valuable, or the only representative data point from that time period. In this case, hyper-empiricism has influenced modern textual scholarship for the worst. If we don’t have the manuscript, we cannot verify that it ever existed.
The Impossibility of Original Egyptian Texts
Yet it is impossible that manuscripts earlier than the Egyptian papyri and uncials simply did not exist at one point or another. And since the only New Testament author to make it to Egypt was Mark at the end of his life, it stands to reason that the Egyptian manuscripts were copied from imported texts. Which means that the Alexandrian text was more likely shortened than the majority text expanded. The importation of texts explains why there were two versions of the Gospel of Mark circulating in Egypt early on – one with the ending, and one without. Yet while all this is going on, the rest of the people of God continued copying the New Testament, outside of the petri dish that is Alexandria. Much of that data has been lost to persecution, fires, and other natural causes, but the fact stands, that the data existed at one point in time. What did those manuscripts look like, I wonder? Were they short, choppy, abrupt, and filled with large empty interruptions? I suspect not.
Since the original text of the New Testament was inspired by the Holy Spirit, these other manuscripts were probably of remarkable quality, despite scribal errors and mishaps. In terms of the actual content, a consistent doctrine of inspiration would point to the reality that the original texts were not a crude human invention. The point is this, that the Egyptian manuscripts are not the oldest manuscripts. They are simply the oldest surviving manuscripts. They do not, and cannot, speak for the larger textual tradition which existed outside of Alexandria. The majority of the extant New Testament manuscripts had to come from somewhere, and that somewhere was certainly not Alexandria. So how do we explain this textual anomaly? Well you have probably heard the common theory which is filled with stories about scribal revision and smoothing, but that does not work with a conservative doctrine of preservation. If the majority of extant manuscripts are a lofty revision of the original, they must be rejected in total. The amount of revision that can be done in a thousand years would prevent the original from ever being found. And if these manuscripts are rejected, the only other option is a smattering of Alexandrian manuscripts that stopped being copied sometime after the fourth or fifth century for the most part, hidden away by God until the time came when the chosen scholars of the 19th century would rescue the blunder-filled efforts of scribes throughout church history.
An unfortunate reality exists, if this is the case. The first being that God decided to preserve His Word by way of hide-and-seek. The second being that the corpus of early manuscripts is not deep enough to provide a meaningful text. And when I say meaningful text, I mean a printed text that scholars can point to and say, “this is the one!” And before somebody says “that is unreasonable!” Remember, that the scholars are allegedly attempting to reconstruct the original text of the New Testament. Either they will arrive at a product, or they won’t, but the fact stands that they should be trying. To balk at the idea of one text is to admit that the original cannot be found. The fact remains that there is not a single, agreed upon text in the majority of modern scholarship.
The reason for that is because the Alexandrian manuscripts do not agree with each other enough to even demonstrate that they are directly related to each other. At best they are cousins. Which is why, when the Egyptian manuscripts are taken as a base text, a wealth of verses are left to speculation and uncertainty. There is simply not enough data in the Egyptian manuscript corpus to come to a conclusion on what text is the earliest and best in every case. One might consider himself to have found the text with “great accuracy”, but not without many places of uncertainty. The most complete copies of the New Testament from this locality and time period disagree with each other so greatly that they cannot even be properly called a manuscript family. If it were possible to arrive at a text that is original to Alexandria, it would have been completed a long time ago.
That brings us back to the discussion of data, and how in the modern period, it is highly unlikely that our data is more valuable than the data that has been historically available. This is due to the fact that most of the ancient data has been destroyed. It is possible that it is equally valuable, but certainly not better. Considering the unfortunate reality that people tend to treat manuscripts in such a way that tends to their loss and destruction, it is a common fact of history that the number of manuscripts available today is a drop in a bucket of manuscripts that have been lost or destroyed. If one takes the number of manuscripts that have been lost or destroyed in the modern period, and applies that same logic to every generation in history, it is safe to say that a great number of manuscripts were lost and destroyed. It is possible that not a single manuscript has been erased from history, but that is highly unlikely, and even demonstrably false.
The purpose of this article is to call into question the assumption that modern scholars have better data than those of the past. Regardless of how one views the Egyptian manuscripts against the majority of manuscripts, the fact stands that the high evaluation of the minority of manuscripts is highly suspect. This conclusion can be arrived at without looking at all of the scholars of the Reformation period, who consistently reference “ancient approved copies” that support readings tossed out by modern scholars. As a result of this hyper-empiricist epistemology, the constant conversation of textual criticism is centered around, “How did this reading get added?” or “How did that reading develop?”
This seems to be a confused effort from a theological perspective that says that God has preserved His Word. The word preservation itself means to be kept safe from evolution, change, and development. Yet the assumption of modern methods is that the general testimony of the thousands of manuscripts is one that has developed from some unknown original text. This is why these modern methods need a fresh understanding of what it means for something to be preserved in order to justify the effort. And in the case that preservation simply means all the ideas are there, there really is no need for protest from the modern camp when a Christian wants to adhere to the traditional text of the Bible. It has all the right ideas and doctrines, and is therefore preserved. Such is the conundrum of the effort of modern textual criticism on the text of the New Testament.