A Critical Argument in Biblical Scholarship

If you’re a consistent reader of CU, or have spent time in the archived posts, you may have noticed that from time to time, CU gets a little academic. This can’t be helped; I’ve given a great deal of time, interest, capital and service to the intellectual side of the Christian faith, and if nothing else it seems to feed a more rounded acceptance of doctrinal points.

However, what I’m about to process here isn’t exactly something for which intellectuals tend to hop on a bandwagon. 

A little background: when it comes to bible translation, and specifically New Testament translation, there’s often a question needing discernment, even if that question doesn’t take up too much time. That question is, which Greek manuscripts do we translate? There are three major groups from which translators can choose:

1. The Textus Receptus (“TR”); this is a collection of medieval manuscripts from which translations contemporary to the King James Version originate. They are extant mostly thanks to the work of one Desiderius Erasmus, a Greek scholar during the Renaissance and a contemporary of Martin Luther. Erasmus published the manuscripts in a collected text known as Erasmus 1516 (for obvious reasons, since it was published at that time). The point behind the TR is that it means a collection of texts published from the available Greek manuscripts during the Renaissance period. 

2. The Critical Text (“CT”); this is so named because it refers to the collection of published works based on the Greek manuscripts discovered and recovered during the excavation of Western sites, mainly ancient Alexandria (and to be fair, the Dead Sea Scrolls), during the 1800s. There are not as many available texts in this group; however, the CT’s claim to fame is that it represents the oldest available manuscripts, with the earliest year dates ranging from 100-600.

3. The Majority Text (“MT”); this group of texts is not quite a “group” in the same way as the previous two, because as it stands, it is the name given to what the majority of all existing manuscripts say. Think of it as an ecumenical approach to translation scholarship, rather than a separate denomination.

Oh, the varietal joys of discussion we could have here. In due time, though.

Most current translations choose to translate from the CT; only a few have ever translated from the TR. Let me first say that I’m not attempting to propose a certain group over another at this point; I currently use translations from both groups, and anyone who’s been in ministry with me should be able to agree that I’m more likely to advocate a translation someone will actually read rather than any notion of a “superior” translation. That doesn’t mean I don’t have beefs with faulty arguments, though.

At this point, you may be thinking, “He’s going to argue against the TR.” 

You’d be incorrect.

While it’s true that the TR, and arguments for it, tend to be in the more inflammatory and intellectually challenged categories, it’s not true that all arguments against the TR are void of error. Take for example the following: 

Some will argue, almost automatically, that the CT is best used because it is the “oldest available evidence.” It’s an agreeable statement, if by “evidence” we mean evidence for a Christian community, in those places, writing these scripts, practicing this kind of faith. It’s not an agreeable statement if we mean evidence for everything that was written and or copied for the New Testament. Let me explain by way of an analogy:

Computers. We may love them or hate them—feel grateful for everything they do or stand frustrated at anything they make humans unable to do. But one thing we can’t do is ignore the fact that they need constant updating. Why does technology get updated? Simple: it fulfills the purpose of technology in the first place, by making tasks more efficient and relevant to present needs. (Perhaps ironically, this argument is often used for updating bible translations, but that’s part of another translation discussion…like the ones here, here and here.)

You may be noticing where the argument is headed now. Anyone who argues that the first IBM computer is the ideal one for understanding and engaging technology today would be laughed out of relevance. Why? As time went on, computing needed to be upgraded to stay productive.

This isn’t just for computers, though if you still work from a something even as old as a laptop from 2000 you’ll realize how inefficient that computer has become. Hold onto anything for too long and you’ll find out just how much use it loses over time…unless you give it proper upkeep, restoration and care. Seeing old cars restored exemplifies this point – a 1967 Shelby Cobra may seem old, the manufacturing and technology certainly less than at 2014 Corvette. But as long as it’s kept up, repaired, restored, properly understood and maintained the ’67 Shelby Cobra is a near priceless piece of machinery.

67-Shelby_427-Cobra_DV-08_AI_01

And yet anyone who argues that the oldest copies of manuscripts are the best available for translation seem to be missing both of these points. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it is reliable, or up to date. The oldest manuscripts, to be the most reliable, would have to be pristine in condition. They would have to render the decision to keep manuscripts new and usable by constantly copying them onto fresh material obsolete. But we don’t have that evidence. The fact is that most of these manuscripts are fragments. Most of them are truly worn out and old, decrepit and without major quality. Some arbiters for the CT are so devout to their position that they will go many miles to point out differentiations between the CT and the TR; and yet such a practice seems to be just as much evidence that they could be incorrect as that they could be accurate. If anything, the state that most of the CT is in suggests that they were simply source material for new copies, being left to age and fall apart. The fact is that it’s entirely plausible that the later manuscripts are not embellished fabrications but simply faithful restorations of previous material. The fact that we don’t find, just for example, the Story of the Adulteress in the earliest manuscripts could mean in equal measure that it either wasn’t part of the original, OR that the original and oldest manuscripts available simply fell into such disrepair that a record no longer exists on a document that old.

It’s not a question of which text is heresy; all three of the groups agree enough that there are no substantive doctrinal differences. And it’s not a question of Christianity’s verifiability (sorry, atheist friends—there are much stronger arguments than one about the bible’s text sources). It’s not as if, for example, the CT is inaccurate; it’s simply a question of why it doesn’t contain what later manuscripts do. There are certainly other arguments for the CT. But that begs the question: Why is there near unmitigated approval for the CT by way of this “oldest available evidence” argument?

Frankly, I have no idea. But if academics desire to be serious about their biblical scholarship, this kind of herd-mentality logic needs to be addressed.

+MSH

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