Monday, August 25, 2008

Four Approaches

(10th and last in a series on New Testament textual criticism)

As I summarize this series on New Testament textual criticism, let me mention four general approaches to the use of internal and external evidence in attempting to determine what the autographs contained. Two of these approaches are radical, and two are moderate.

One radical approach is to acknowledge that each of the manuscript traditions or text types is equally old (which is likely correct), but then to dismiss the external evidence altogether. Critics taking this approach only consider the internal evidence (which, as we have seen, is often subjective).

Another radical approach is that taken by the "King James only" folks, and consists of simply counting manuscripts. In other words, go with the variant that is found in the majority of ancient manuscripts. This always falls in favor of the Byzantine reading, since there are far more copies of that manuscript tradition (albeit from much later than the earliest Alexandrian manuscripts). Some in this school of thought believe that God would not have allowed so many copies of an error to exist, nor would He have allowed an erroneous text type to persist so long (the Byzantine tradition was the most popular one in Christendom from the 9th century right up until Wescott and Hort published their Greek New Testament in 1881).

God did see fit, however, to allow a wealth of copies to persist, all of them containing the sorts of variants we have been discussing. Moreover, any claim that depends upon saying what God would or would not do is subjective at best and may be blasphemous at worst. I believe there are many places in which the variant included in the text of the King James is the original, even though it is relegated to the margin of the other English translations. But to claim that the KJV is the only accurate translation (or even the most accurate one) does not seem reasonable (to me or to the majority of scholars who understand these issues).

Far and away the most popular approach today is that taken by Wescott and Hort. It has been called Reasoned Eclecticism. Although it considers the internal evidence and other principles of external evidence, the primary criterion for this approach is "Prefer the oldest reading." As I have shared, I believe that this approach, common though it is, places too much emphasis on the few oldest manuscripts, all of which come from the same region of early Christendom.

The fourth approach might be called Reasoned Conservatism, and is the one I have been arguing for. It would acknowledge that each text type arose equally early (and thus de-emphasize "Prefer the earliest reading"). But it would involve considering both the internal evidence and the external evidence, and particularly the principle "Prefer the most widespread reading." If you agree that this approach makes the most sense, then you can assess for yourself (assuming you're using a Study Bible that identifies the significant variants) the evidence for the best reading.

I hope this series has piqued your interest in learning a bit more about the ancient manuscripts that have survived to our day. The history of each (the circumstances surrounding its discovery or rediscovery and such) can be fascinating. At a minimum, I trust that you now have a better understanding of all that lies behind those marginal notes in your Study Bible that say, "Some manuscripts..."

Thanks for reading.


James Snapp, Jr. said...

Rick G.,

Hi; nice series of posts on NTTC. The approach that you call Reasoned Conservatism is somewhat similar to my approach, Equitable Eclecticism. I welcome you to explore some online resources about NTTC:

At you can discuss New Testament textual criticism with others interested in the same topic. This is a non-academic (but academically useful, hopefully) forum, allowing a wide range of views to be expressed. The Files of TC-Alternate include some very helpful resources.

At you can discuss NT textual criticism in an academic setting. Major scholars sometimes chime in at this discussion-group.

At I list ten online resources to introduce readers to New Testament textual criticism. These include "The Development of the NT Text," "NT Textual Criticism: Goals and Guidelines," and a defense of Mark 16:9-20.

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.

Rick Gerhardt said...

Thanks, James. I'll check them out!