Canons of New Testament Textual Criticism

What I am writing here are the rules I go by. Textual criticism does not have explicit biblical guidelines informing it. Therefore, there are many theories out there, and my canons will not match other people’s canons. So I make no claim that this is what everyone ought to hold. Full disclosure: my canons place me in-between the critical text genealogical theory, and the majority text theory.

Preliminary considerations: I hold that all of these canons, or rules, have probabilistic force only. None of them is a “knock-out” punch. Each canon needs to be weighed in the balance with all the other canons. It will frequently happen that one canon will come into conflict with another canon in the practical application. For instance, should we go with the reading that has the best attestation, or the reading that can explain the origin of all the other readings?

Furthermore, textual criticism is both an art and a science. It is a science, because extremely detailed work is done on the age and provenance (place of origin) of manuscripts. Discovering whether the correctors were one or many is also important. Textual criticism is also an art because it requires judgment on the part of the textual critic, and imagination to come up with explanations as to why a certain reading arose. The judgment of the textual critic is an essential part of textual criticism. It is unavoidable.

I have very little respect for some of the rhetoric that flies around on the internet and in print anathematizing anyone who has a different view from the writer. There is over 90% agreement between Sinaiticus/Vaticanus and the Textus Receptus/Majority text. No doctrinal difference hangs on a textual difficulty. And yet, from the rhetoric of some, one might assume that the entire world was at stake in these questions. Textual criticism must be understood in proper proportion. Those who read the KJV have the Word of God. But so do those who read the ESV.

Lastly, no Christian should be afraid of textual criticism. “Criticism” here does not mean that we believe something is in error in the original autographs (the documents that come straight from the pen of the authors). It simply means that we compare manuscripts in order to discover the original reading. We don’t have the original autographs. Nevertheless, God has providentially preserved the text of Scripture in all ages. Textual criticism is, then, an exercise in reading in the book of God’s providence. The following canons are not in any particular order, although I will indicate which ones I deem to have greater weight than others.

1. Older manuscripts will tend to attest to an older reading. Notice the word “tend.” To say that the oldest readings are always found in the oldest manuscripts is an error. The testimony of the early church fathers, for instance (more on this later) can clearly attest to a reading that is older than the oldest manuscripts. Nevertheless, on the balance of probability, the older manuscripts have a better claim to have an older reading. This canon has strength, but it must be held with caveats.

2. Geographically diverse attestation of a reading makes its authenticity much more likely. If manuscripts from various places all have the same reading, that pushes back the origin of that reading far earlier. If a reading is only present in one geographical location, one can easily suspect that the reading arose only in that location. This canon weighs very heavily with me, maybe the most of any canon. There is one caveat here that must be mentioned, however: manuscripts could have been moved from their location of origin. An Alexandrian text might have been moved to Byzantium, for instance. Some might argue that there is an Alexandrian style of manuscript. Fair enough, but then, couldn’t the scribe also move?

3. Genealogically related manuscripts have somewhat less weight. I differ here both from those following Westcott and Hort, and from the Majority text theorists. I disagree with Westcott and Hort’s theory (manuscripts must be weighed, not counted) for the following reasons: a. It is far more difficult to prove genealogical relationships between manuscripts than is often supposed; b. cross-pollinating of manuscripts is quite possible (a manuscript from a different region could be used in correcting a manuscript, thus disrupting the genealogical “purity” of a family). I differ from Majority Text theorists in that I believe genealogical relationships among manuscripts is not impossible to show. If it can be shown, then a “family” of manuscripts would have less weight. The idea here is that the “children” manuscripts (the copies that were made) are very rarely, if ever, more accurate than the “parent” manuscript. This canon weighs less heavily with me than others.

4. The more difficult reading will tend to have a higher claim to be original. This canon is based on the theory that scribes would not make a text more difficult to understand, but they might very well be tempted to make a text easier to understand. This is plausible. However, this canon has a very important caveat: there is a limit to how difficult a reading can be, and still have plausibility. This limit does have a biblical basis: God cannot lie. In other words, a reading that makes the text come into direct conflict with other texts of Scripture cannot be original.

5. The reading that can best explain the origin of all the other readings has a better claim to be original. This is a very important canon. If one reading has a greater explanatory power than another, it is more likely original. If one reading, for instance, can explain another reading as dittography (accidental repeating of a word), whereas the second reading has no explanation for how the first reading arose, then the first reading has a greater claim to be original. This canon, however, also has an important caveat: sometimes accidents can happen in transcribing that are completely random.

6. Continuity of attestation in history means that a reading has a better claim. God would not let His Word disappear completely for centuries without attestation. However, this does not mean that unique readings of recently discovered manuscripts (such as Sinaiticus) would have to be discounted automatically. God’s providence can work in hidden ways (see the book of Esther, for instance).

7. The reading of the majority of manuscripts has a better claim to be original. This has to be balanced with the chastened genealogical principle that some manuscripts are better than others. Quality and quantity of manuscripts can both be important. It is a mistake, in my judgment, to discount the Byzantine tradition simply because its manuscripts are later. Byzantium is one of the prime locations that can attest to a geographically diverse reading. The majority cannot be ignored. Majority does have weight. However, the majority is not always correct, either. To say that the majority is always right is a logical fallacy. We do not arrive at truth merely by counting noses. Otherwise Athanasius would have been wrong. Nor is each manuscript of equal weight. Here it can be seen how precisely I line up in the middle between the critical text advocates and the majority text advocates.

8. The early church fathers can be of great weight in determining how old a reading is. In some cases, they can attest to a reading that is older than our oldest manuscripts. Irenaeus, for instance, lived mostly in the second century. We have only fragments of NT manuscripts that are older than Irenaeus’s writings. He often attests to a reading older than Sinaiticus and Vaticanus (both of which are fourth century manuscripts). However, this evidence must also be approached carefully. It can be doubtful if an early church father is actually quoting a biblical passage, and it can also be doubtful which passage the early church father was quoting. It is quite a bit easier in some writings than in others. Commentaries, of course, would be the easiest, since you already know which part of the Bible is under consideration.

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The Appeal of Source Criticism

For those who have never been exposed to source criticism (you lucky dogs, you!), it is the attempt to find different sources in a given text. Sometimes, this enterprise is quite harmless. Finding out where Ronald Reagan got his quotes from during his Challenger Disaster speech can be fun and enlightening.

Sometimes, however, it is not quite so harmless. When scholars try to find four different sources in the Pentateuch (so-called J,E,D, and P sources, which stand for Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomistic, and Priestly), none of which are traced back to Moses, problems arise. The most serious problems have to do with applying an overly strict criteria for discerning the sources. For example, the so-called Jahwist and Elohist sources are so designated because the Jahwist used the name Jahweh for God, whereas the Elohist used the name Elohim for God. Are we seriously to believe that one author couldn’t possibly have used both names for God? Usually, this argument also depends on a manufactured contradiction between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and the order of creation. The argument goes that the order of creation in chapter 1 is plants, animals, man, whereas in chapter 2, it is man, then plants. Keil and Delitzsch answered this argument well over a century ago, but no source critic has ever listened, seemingly. Chapter 2 is not talking about all plants, only cultivated plants. The reason of chapter 2 is quite clear: there are no “plants” because there was no rain, and because there was no man to till the ground. In fact, chapter 2 cannot possibly be talking about all plants, because most plants, in fact, do not need man to till the ground. Chapter 2 is simply saying that cultivated crops did not really get going until after the creation of the cultivator, namely, man. Therefore, there is no contradiction whatsoever between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

Another big problem with saying that basically nothing came from Moses is that Jesus said it did. The liberals will typically argue that Jesus was only saying what the people of the day said. That is quite a stretch. Jesus had no problem correcting the people when their notions were in error. On the question of who wrote the Pentateuch, why would we believe that Jesus wouldn’t have corrected the people on this important point? Isn’t it much simpler and easier just to say that Moses did, in fact, write it, and that Jesus and the people He talked to both believed it because it was true?

So, the distinction between the Jahwist and the Elohist is a manufactured one. The question I want to raise is this: what is the appeal of this kind of source criticism? A generous estimation would probably point to the desire to see the prehistory of the text. Where did it come from, and are there previous sources on which the writer relied? Of course, this is all speculation in the case of the Pentateuch, since no such sources actually exist in any recognizable form. For the historical books of the Kings and Chronicles, there are references to other works that are cited. It is debated whether these refer to sources of which we now know nothing, or whether they refer to sources that are already in the canon. If the former, then the Lord did not consider it vital for us to have those sources, for in God’s providence, we don’t have them (notice the free use of “God” and “Lord” in the same sentence there). If the latter, then it is simply a biblical version of footnotes!

However, there remains another much more negative possibility, one which I consider more likely as a general explanation (of which there could, of course, be exceptions). It could be that source critics desire to eliminate final contexts of specific statements so that the final authority of a given text is eradicated. A text without a context is a pretext. There are several reasons why I consider this more likely. Firstly, source criticism does have the effect of atomizing texts, fragmenting them into thousands of tiny contextless pieces. Secondly, source critics almost never give the editor any credit for meaning anything. Usually some form of stupid redactor is implied. Thirdly, a very woodenly literal hermeneutic is applied in order to “see” the fractures. If, however, a different hermeneutic is employed, no fractures exist at all. Fourthly, source criticism comes almost entirely from a liberal set of assumptions: the non-inerrancy of Scripture, the cultural relativity (and therefore non-abiding nature of its authority) of Scripture, and the position of man as judge over Scripture instead of vice versa. Fifthly, it is quite suspicious that the more foundational a text is to Christian theology, the more likely it is to be shredded to pieces by the source critics. The prime examples are the Pentateuch, Isaiah, and the Synoptic Gospels.

It is important to note here that not all those of a liberal or moderately liberal persuasion are in favor of source criticism. There are a few Brevard Childses out there, who advocate studying the text in its final, canonical form. Also, in more recent years, rhetorical and literary criticism has become far more popular and influential (and far more productive, too, in my opinion, in the realm of theology). I had hoped that the Documentary Hypothesis was on the wane, even in liberal circles. But it is still quite alive and well, and even assumed in many liberal quarters. This author, at least, hopes that it dies soon.

A Textual Variant That Makes a Difference

In Revelation 11:17, the Textus Receptus has added the phrase “and who is coming” to the end of the first clause of thanksgiving. No doubt, the scribes were used to seeing “who is, and who was, and who is coming.” The best manuscripts do not have the phrase “and who is coming.” The omission of the phrase is a fascinating glimpse into the theology of the text. The reason why the original did not have the phrase is because, from the perspective of the twenty-four elders, Christ had already come! If, as seems likely, the seventh trumpet is a description of the very end of the current world, then we are getting a glimpse at what post-consummation worship looks like. It is rather important, then, that the phrase “and is coming” is NOT present in the text. It is gloriously absent!