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.