Friday, May 25, 2018

The Reliability of the Greek New Testament Manuscripts

      Does the resurrection account of Jesus Christ belong in the gospel of Mark? Did Jesus really save a woman, caught in adultery, from being stoned? Do these passages, along with another, referring to the Trinity, belong in the text? According to many modern textual critics, these passages, among others, may not be part of the original, extinct, autograph manuscripts, written by the apostles. These critics are not liberal skeptics of the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible. They are conservative scholars who believe the earliest copies of the Greek manuscripts, known as the Alexandrian manuscripts, discovered in the middle of the nineteenth century, are more reliable than thousands of other manuscripts, known as the Byzantine manuscripts, already in possession. Since the discovery of the Alexandrian manuscripts, Greek scholars have disagreed on what the most reliable body of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament is for almost two centuries (Williams 171); for this reason, a case will be made that the solution is to return to the Byzantine text-type as the primary and more reliable source, making the Alexandrian text-type the secondary source in finding the original text of the New Testament.
      The Alexandrian text-form is so named, as it was discovered in that geographic region in an old monastery on Mt. Sinai, in 1844, by Constantin von Tischendorf, a German Protestant student of the New Testament (Williams 171).


      He saw some monks preparing to toss old papyrus leaves, resembling this papyrus pictured below of the Gospel of John, dating back to around 200 A.D., into bread oven fires (White 32).

      He discovered the parchments contained ancient Greek translations of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint. The monks perceived their importance, from his excitement, and would not allow him to have them. He would return to the monastery in 1853 with a recent copy of the Septuagint (White 33). One of the monks mistakenly thought he had a copy of the Septuagint as well, so he returned with an ancient book, clueless as to what he held in his hands. It was the Codex Sinaiticus. A 1,500-year-old Greek New Testament.


      He tried to purchase it, after reading it all night long, but the monks denied his offers. It would take several years for him to purchase it, and he was only able to do so for the czar of Russia (Williams 171). Later, Bolsheviks would sell it for a quarter of a million dollars and it now sits on display in the British Museum (Williams 172).
      The Byzantine text-type, often referred to as the Majority text, does not have existent texts dating earlier than the fourth century (Black 136). These texts, of over five thousand, have other relational supporting witnesses, among them, the Syriac Peshitta, copied by Aramaic Christians dating around 200 A.D. (Surrett 92) Jesus and the first Christians spoke Aramaic, and many were by ethnicity. These diligent scribes copied from the Aramaic and translated Greek (Surrett 59). Although no original Peshitta manuscript can be found, text style points to the Byzantine text form existing prior to the Byzantine era and in proximity to the first church.
Scholars also agree on the possibility portions of the New Testament were originally written in Aramaic (White 48).
      Because of the strong history of transmission as well as the thousands of witnesses, the Byzantine text-type is recognized as originating from Antioch, where the first Christian church came into existence (Zodhiates 433). These manuscripts were copied and worn down through the course of time, due to use in surrounding churches in this geographic region. Throughout the middle ages, these manuscripts were copied; therefore, it boasts a strong history of transmission that the Alexandrian texts lack (Black 127).

Picture of Codex Boreelianus from the Byzantine family of texts.


      Supporters of the Byzantine text cite the Old Testament verses found in Psalm 12:6-7, The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation forever.” (Baker 1399). The words, “generation” and, “forever” are stressed when pointing to the Byzantine texts passing from generation to generation. This does not mean that the Alexandrian texts were not preserved, but that the Byzantine texts passed through those generations while the Codex Sinaiticus sat in a monastery for generations. It is a compelling reason to consider returning to the Byzantine-priority position, long held before the nineteenth century.
      The chart below illustrates the generational transmission of the Byzantine texts verses the isolation of the Alexandrian texts. The graph is helpful for all manuscripts, supporting the Byzantine text, but note particularly the Peshitta, mentioned earlier, with the key below.
Point of original copy                      ----------

  Age of existing copies                     Solid green line

Timeline at bottom of graph                                     


      This next graph brings clarity; as it charts the entire Christian church’s growth it sheds more light on the historical transmission of the Byzantine and supporting Aramaic texts, stemming from the first church of Antioch.


      Two textual scholars, from the University of Cambridge, Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort, worked with Cambridge’s Bishop Lightfoot as a triumvirate representing Protestants (Salmon 9). As a result, a Greek New Testament revision was completed in 1881: Westcott and Hort’s Greek New Testament. Dr. George Salmon, theology professor at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland during the 19th century, penned its impact in 1897, “Westcott and Hort’s Greek New Testament has been described as an epoch-making book; and quite as correctly as the same phrase has been applied to the work done by Darwin.” (Salmon 5).
Tischendorf vacillated between opinions on texts in successive editions of his books and students wanted a solid guideline (Salmon 8).

      With German theologians introducing higher critical theories, skeptical of the word of God, the theological school at the University of Cambridge set out to make a scientific approach to Tischendorf’s discovery. These were some of the reasons the committee was formed and this work was done.

Dean Burgon

Anglican theologian, Dean of Chichester, John William Burgon, was critical of the work all along the way (Salmon 16). Here were men, who believed in the word of God, at odds with one another, for the first time in history. One could argue these critical theories had more of an impact on the modern church, in a subliminal way, than Darwin’s theory of evolution. The seeds sown in the 19th century would harvest in the later part of 20th century until this present millennium, a day where King James Version pundits claim that new Bibles are the result of corrupt texts, taking some facts and excessively abusing them, as illustrated in this propaganda graph. The graph would almost be helpful were it not for the KJV only propaganda.


      In a chapter entitled, The History of the Textus Receptus, John E. Ashbrook writes, “Had you spoken of the Textus Receptus in a fundamentalist church fifty years ago, you would have elicited puzzled glances from the congregation. The pastor might have given a nod of recognition to something that he had heard in student days, but the congregation would have exhibited the blank stare of ignorance. In more recent times, the Bible version debate has brought the Textus Receptus into common church conversation.” (Williams 99)
      In 1492 Columbus set out to sea; meanwhile, Desiderius Erasmus was ordained a priest. A student of literature and theology, he later became a famous humanist and scholar, honorably received everywhere (Williams 101). Ironically, he would later teach Greek at Cambridge University from 1509-14, where Westcott and Hort later presided, and where the man responsible for all the idioms in our English translations, William Tyndale, would attend in 1510 (Williams 102).
With only five, 9th-12th century manuscripts and an incomplete copy of Revelation, he completed a Greek New Testament, known as the Textus Receptus in 1516. He completed lacking parts of Revelation by transcribing Latin verses back into Greek (Williams 103) and parsing through a commentary (White 55). With little at his disposal, he is responsible for putting the Greek text into William Tyndale’s hands, enabling the English-speaking world to possess a Bible.
      Westcott and Hort had more at their disposal. One can argue their Greek revision is better than Erasmus’ but sadly, this is where the discourse always ends. Modern textual criticism is in a myopic state, viewing the older manuscripts through the lens of men’s revisions. The debate should view the Alexandrian and Byzantine manuscripts themselves.
      Dr. Salmon felt that most laymen and Bible scholars, who were not Greek scholars, had the right to calculate the theories of pro Alexandrian Greek Scholars who were at odds with pro Byzantine Greek scholars and see if there was enough evidence to presume the Alexandrian texts were better. Although persuaded by Hort’s theory, he found there was not. (Salmon 38). The fundamental church today is caught up in a Westcott and Hort vs. Textus Receptus distraction. One focuses with a clearer lens by studying about the ancient texts.
      On April 6th of 2000, some of the world’s leading scholars attended a symposium on New Testament studies at Southeastern seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina (Black 14). The means of choosing which texts to prioritize were discussed.
      Of these means discussed, is the case for, reasoned eclecticism, a methodological approach that gathers all external evidence of Greek variants and internal evidence of scribe tendencies and habits or proclivity toward mistakes. This method takes all competing copies and prioritizes the text most conformed to the theory (Black 79). This is good but it still misses the forest for the trees. It focuses on the cleanest textual variants but seeks no support from other manuscript families (Black 125).
      Another means, is the case for, thoroughgoing eclecticism, like, reasoned eclecticism, it examines both the external evidence as well as the internal evidence; however, it focuses primarily on the external evidence of the variants and only gives some consideration to the quality of scribal work (Black 103). This method does think outside of the box some, but stops just short of the forest, not wishing to give credence to the importance of historical transmission and other text families that must be considered. Both eclectic theories focus on scattered readings that live on islands as separate entities with scholars calculating style or purity (Black 127).
      The final means discussed, Byzantine-priority, takes these means into consideration but starts with all supporting historically transmitted texts, throughout church history, in the Byzantine texts and supporting family texts, with secondary eclectic methods (Black 127). It starts by examining the forest and finishes by examining the trees to see what came from the forest.
      The importance of the Byzantine-priority method is seen clearly in the end of the Gospel of Mark. Mark 16:9-20 is the account of Jesus revealing Himself to the disciples after His resurrection (Zodhiates 183). The account is missing in the Alexandrian texts but is found in the Byzantine texts, along with all other supporting witnesses (White 255), including records of the early church fathers quoting from it (Salmon 16); however, because of the external and internal evidence alone, the account is not considered to be part of the text by eclectic scholars as they use the evidence to reason away thousands of witnesses that confirm the account (White 255).
      Are these eclectic methods helpful? They are, but only as a secondary means. For example, the account of the woman being caught in adultery in John 8:1-11 (Zodhiates 336,337), known as the Pericope De Adultera, is absent in a diverse group of texts and witnesses including Latin and Syriac translations (White 262). This is a time where these methods confirm an interruption of flow between John 7:52-8:12 (Zodhiates 336,337) and when one examines this text, it becomes apparent to a lay person when pointed out by Greek scholars. It can almost be seen in the English language alone; however, with the account in the Byzantine text and by secondary means we can still see that it is in harmony with Jesus’ teaching and that it may belong in another gospel altogether, as one manuscript records it in the Gospel of Luke (White 262). Therefore, with the Byzantine-priority method we can use the secondary means of eclecticism to find the clearest possibility.
      Finally, there is a place where all methods agree. There are verses in one of the apostle John’s letters to the church, known as the Comma Johanneum, a title for a short clause in his letter, found in 1 John 5:7-8 (White 60-62). There is no known historical transmission among all manuscripts. It is only found in the Latin Vulgate (White 60). In fact, Erasmus did not include it in the first and second editions of the Textus Receptus and only later included it as he was accused of “Arianism” (non-Trinitarian beliefs), and an Irish manuscript, containing the phrase, mysteriously appeared (White 61). While the verses speak to the truth of the Trinity, most scholars believe a scribe later entered them, defending the Trinity, but the verses are not necessary to defend the Trinity. God’s Triune nature is manifest throughout the whole Bible, especially in the New Testament where the Father spoke from heaven as the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus Christ like a dove. Luke 3:22 (Zodhiates 200).
      The prevailing truth, is that no isolated text should override the historical transmission of the Byzantine texts and most supporting witnesses. Ironically what the eclectic scholars fail to realize is that in their quest to prove that the Comma Johanneum does not belong in the text because of this inconsistency, is the very reason why they should not use the inconsistencies of the Alexandrian texts to eliminate other portions of texts found in the Byzantine text-type.


At the Southeastern seminary symposium, Dr. Maurice Robinson (pictured above) stated, “For the past century, modern eclecticism has functioned without an integrated history of textual transmission. Its resultant text has no root in any single document, group of documents, or text-type and this is but an unfortunate by-product of its self-imposed methodology.” (Black 139).
      Just as in a court of law, you must have witnesses and evidence to eliminate any reasonable doubt; in like manner, the burden of proof lay on the eclectic scholars to navigate us away from the Byzantine text and supporting witnesses.
      However, consider that in all this disagreement, it is estimated to only make up a thousandth part of the text. Hort estimated that all the variants grouped together would only make up an entire page of the New Testament (Williams 86). To place things into perspective, what if ten scribes hand copied this research paper to be dispersed throughout the then known world?


      Suppose hand copies were made for thousands of years, on different continents, and they all came back together and it was discovered that all copies, throughout the world, were in 95% agreement? In what seems impossible and despite man’s proclivity toward error, both Byzantine and Alexandrian texts, which are copied from written accounts of nominally educated, former fisherman and tax collectors, are existing miracles.

Works Cited

          Baker, Warren D.R.E. The Complete Word Study Old Testament. Chattanooga: AMG                               Publishers,  1994. Print. 
          Black, David Alan. Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism. Grand Rapids: Baker                             Academic,  2002. Print.
          Salmon, George. Some Thoughts on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament.                        London:John Murray, 1897. Print.
          Surrett, Charles L. Which Greek Text? Kings Mountain: Surrett Family Publications, 1999.            Print.                                                                 White, James R. The King James Only Controversy. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1995.               Print.
          Williams, James B. From the Mind of God to the Mind of Man: A Layman's Guide to How We Got Our Bible. Greenville: Ambassador-Emerald International, 1999. Print.
             Zodhiates, Spiros. The Complete Word Study New Testament. Grand Rapids: World, 1991. Print.