Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Textual Argument: The Preservation of the New Testament

Examining the Arguments of King James Onlyism [pt. 6]

I come again to my on going series examining the claims of King James Onlyism (KJVO). Just as a reminder, advocates for KJVO teach that the English translation commissioned by King James I in 1604 and first published in 1611 is God's Word in English. All other English translations, especially those translated from 1880 onwards, are inferior and merely contain the Word of God. King James apologist, D.A. Waite, for example claims the King James translation is superior to all other Bible translations in four key areas: the texts, the translators, the technique and its theology.

My endeavor has been to examine the key arguments KJV advocates use to defend their belief system. I have boiled their arguments down to 6 key presuppositions. We are currently looking over the third argument; what I call the textual argument. That is, the King James is translated from the best original language manuscripts both in the Old and New Testaments. King James advocates believe these original language manuscripts are the best because they represent the majority of all the manuscript evidence available to us, God's people used them consistently and they were never laid aside, as it were, so as to fall out of use.

The last article undertook a brief summary of OT textual preservation and how the OT texts were preserved for our use today. With this article, I would like to review NT textual preservation. Hopefully, I can compare and contrast how KJV advocates claim the NT was preserved with the genuine historical facts of how God did preserve the NT.

As I mentioned in my post on OT preservation, KJV advocates generally present their view of preservation in light of the NT manuscripts. Rarely do they present a detailed discussion of OT preservation. This is primarily due in part to the fact Hebrew is a much more difficult language to grasp and there are better manuscripts with fewer variant readings than what is available with the NT. Thus, when a person picks up a KJV publication, or hears one of their lectures, the discussion of preservation and manuscripts has the NT in mind rather than the OT. This is important to remember; because unless the reader is alert to this fact, he will get the mistaken notion that the term "majority of manuscripts" applies to the entire Bible and not just the NT.

In their discussion of preservation, particularly the NT, KJV advocates will talk about the Majority Text (MT) and the Received Text, also know as the Textus Receptus (TR), and the Alexandrian Text. They have the tendency to confuse the MT with the TR making them appear to be one and the same, which is not true, as we shall see.

I stated above that KJV advocates argue the King James is the best translation because it is the only English translation translated from what is considered the majority of manuscripts (MT). The New Testament of modern versions like the NASB or the NIV is translated from the minority of the manuscript evidence available to us. They are called the minority because the NT witnesses in the Greek are far less in number than what is found in the MT. KJV onlyists further argue that these minority manuscripts have their source in and around Alexandria, Egypt (why they are called the "Alexandrian texts"). This marks them with suspicion, because Alexandria was allegedly a hotbed for theological heresy. Additionally, KJV advocates will point out how these manuscripts are in excellent condition, indicating that God's people never used them, or they would have been worn out with use. Then lastly, it is believed these manuscripts give the appearance of being altered by heretics, which makes them even more problematic. I will consider this last claim of being altered by heretics in my next post, but for now I wish to explore the KJVO claim that the MT represents the best manuscripts, where as the minority are inferior, by providing a brief summary of the New Testaments transmission.

I have already noted in previous articles that all ancient documents, like the Bible, were hand copied. Copying by hand produced some slight problems. The most notable is the presence of variants, copying errors, alternate readings, or spelling of words when two or more copies of the same document are compared. Variants are inescapable with hand written documents, however, it is important to point out the variants rarely alter the meaning of the text, especially when we have such a massive store house of copies with the OT and NT documents to compare and contrast. Instead of God preserving His word in just one divinely guided stream of texts, He chose to preserve it with a host of copies - all containing variants and copying errors - yet all of them still have the same content and message when examined. I believe this is exactly what we find when we consider the preservation of the NT.

So how did the NT come to us? All the Gospels and epistles were written in Greek by God's chosen apostles and or apostolic associates. Even during the time of the Apostles, the Christian Churches were gathering up their writings and maintaining them as being the inspired Word of God. These writings would be copied by other Christians and passed along to other Churches. The key difference between the maintenance of the NT documents and that of the OT is there was no officially trained scribal class controlling their transmission. New Testament Christians felt at liberty to allow other Christians, or anyone for that matter, to copy the NT documents. It could be a Roman soldier, a businessman, or a farmer. Because of this attitude, three factors occurred:

First, there was a quick proliferation of the NT documents with the copies.

Second, the NT documents did not stay isolated in one or two areas, but essentially began to spread out to the entire known world where the Roman Empire dominated.

Then third, many, many copies were made which in turned produced many, many variant readings. From all those copies rose a variety of families, manuscripts that carried similar characteristics.

There were also societal factors that influenced the transmission of the NT. Within a hundred years or so after the closing of the apostolic age came the emergence of Latin as the dominant language. Christian communities sprung up and flourished across North Africa and the believers would translate the Greek NT into Latin. Jerome, for instance, was the first Christian to make a Latin translation of both the OT and the NT. His translation became the Latin Vulgate and remained the dominant Bible translation for nearly 1000 years after.

Then a major society-shaking event happened: the rise of Islam. In the 7th century, Muslim armies swept across North Africa killing Christians or placing them into subjection as slaves or lesser citizens. After the Islamic invasion, the production of the NT all but ceased in Northern Africa, particular Alexandria, which at one time was an influential theological school. Islam is one of the primary reasons why the Alexandrian manuscripts, so despised by KJV advocates, are the minority of witnesses. It had nothing to do with Bible believing Christians recognizing heretical corruption with these manuscripts and laying them aside. Christians in North Africa were prevented from keeping them in circulation.

Meanwhile, the one area in the world producing NT manuscripts in Greek was Byzantium (modern day Turkey) where Constantinople was. This was the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the scribes of the Church copied in Greek. For over a 1,000 years are so, the Byzantine Empire resisted the Muslim attacks and all the while the scribes were copying Greek texts. In fact, 80% or so of all our Greek NT textual evidence has a Byzantine quality compared to other manuscript families. Hence this is the reason why the Byzantine text is called the Majority Text. Again, the large number of the Byzantine texts has more to do with societal factors, i.e., the ability to resist Muslim domination, rather than God favoring one textual family over another.

The predominance of the Byzantine text also produced some distinguishing characteristics. For example, the Byzantine family contains more of what are called fuller readings, or longer readings, than all the other texts. For example, a passage may read Jesus in the Alexandrian family, where as the MT has The Lord Jesus Christ. Why is that? Well, as a particular textual family is being copied over and over again by hand, all the variants that are produced over time will stay in the text. The scribes would not drop them for fear of losing God's Word. In addition, a God honoring scribe would write out the full, divine title of Jesus out of respect, not necessarily to maintain textual purity. Moreover, the MT contains many harmonizations, where a scribe would see a story about Jesus in Matthew's gospel for example, and where Mark or Luke's gospels contain a similar telling of the same story, the scribe will harmonize them to make them all look the same. There is nothing necessarily sinful about this. It was a scribe's way of attempting to protect the integrity of the biblical record, but in doing this, the scribe only created more variants compared to other biblical manuscripts outside the Byzantine area.

Now, where exactly does the Received Text come into the picture? I mentioned in my post on textual criticism how printing was a major development for the Renaissance. Printing particularly helped along the desire to return to the study of the classics, especially a return to the original biblical languages. One of the first original language texts to be published was obviously the NT.

In 1502, a Cardinal named Xemenes was the head of a group of Spanish scholars who had compiled a Greek NT. At the time, they had yet to publish it because they needed to receive Papal approval. At the same time, one of the premier Greek scholars of his day was a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Desiderus Erasmus. King James advocates venerate him as some sort of proto-fundamental Baptist, but he remained a staunch Roman Catholic all his life. He taught in England, and while on a visit to his main publisher, John Froben, he learned of Xemenes Greek text. His publisher encouraged him to put together a Greek text and get it in print before Xemenes and his Spanish scholars did.

With that exhortation, Erasmus began compiling his own NT. He used little more than maybe 5 to 7 manuscripts (some say as many as 10). None of them contained the entire NT and all of them were from around the 10th century. Where he was lacking any original readings, specifically in the book of Revelation, Erasmus translated from Latin into Greek. In fact, Erasmus's text to this day contains readings not found in any Greek text any where on the planet. Eventually, in 1516, he got his NT in print before Xemenes and his colleagues and in spite of recourse from an angry pope who had not provided his permission to have it done. It became widely received after Martin Luther used it to translate the NT into German.

After its publication, there were many updated editions with all of them still containing the problematic readings. Erasmus text was first called the Received Text or the Latin, Textus Receptus in 1633, 22 years after the publication of the King James Bible. The TR has gone through as many as 25 revisions. KJV advocates will often mockingly point out how the modern Greek texts like the Nestles-Aland and the UBS have gone through multiple revisions implying they are constantly changing God's Word. Again, citing KJV apologist D.A. Waite who writes,

The text which is used today in most colleges, universities, and seminaries (even conservative and fundamental ones) is the Nestles-Aland Greek New Testament, 26th edition (at the writing of Waite's book, FB) It has gone through 26 editions thus far ... From 1898 to 1979 is about eighty-one years. If you divide 81 by 26, you can see that they have come out, on the average, with one new, updated, changed, different edition of the Greek New Testament every 3.1 years! What does that tell you as to the certainty these editors have in God’s preservation of His New Testament Words? It tells you that these men really don't know what the Greek New Testament is. [Defending the King James Bible, p. 38]

Mr. Waite's comment is conspiratorial nonsense. Is he clueless as to the 25 revisions of the TR? Or is he conveniently ignoring them? As to date, the NA is in its 28th edition. That is just 3 more than what the TR has gone through.

Now, when exactly did the Alexandrian texts come onto the scene? Interest in the NT text continued to grow even after the translation of the King James. Textual critics, both theologically liberal, as well as conservative, spent a lot of time and money combing the ancient biblical lands for Old and New Testament documents (I will go into more detail about this text hunting in the next post).

In the 1840's, a young German protestant named Constantine Von Tischendorf spent a good bit of travel in Northern Africa looking for ancient Christian texts. KJV advocates slanderously call him a heretic and apostate, but in truth, he was passionately determined to refute the theological liberals of his day who were destroying the faith. His search for ancient documents was a journey taken to prove the early authenticity of the Gospels. He visited countless libraries and monasteries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. In 1844 he visited an old monastery on Mt. Sinai and found monks using leaves out of some books to fuel fires. He got permission to look at them and discovered they were biblical texts. He wasn't allowed to take them, but he tried to memorize them as best he could. Later, in the 1850's, he was able to return to the monastery on a couple of occasions. During one of his visits there, he met a monk who showed him an ancient codex (manuscript in book form) he had hidden away and wrapped in red velvet. It was nearly a complete copy of the NT. Tischendorf was able to secure the codex and he gave it the designation of "aleph," after the first Hebrew letter.

The importance of his find was the fact that this manuscript represented a copy of the NT that was older in its readings than anything previous seen by textual critics. It also helped to further Christian textual scholarship with classifying textual readings by weight. The readings of the Alexandrian text type, for example, tend to be shorter and more difficult thus accounting for the variants found in later textual families like the MT. Hence, textual critics judge it to be closer to the original writings of the Apostles. Furthermore, the bulk of the Byzantine manuscripts go back to 900 years after Christ, where as the Alexandrian texts go back to just 200 or so years after Christ. Rather than taking a numerical count (the majority of readings that are all the same), the textual critic will consider the age (a reading that is older) and other internal factors in order to compile a NT text from which to translate.

KJV advocates weave together many fantastic stories about the origins of the Alexandrian texts and the reason why we must reject their use in light of the TR. However, there is no credible historical evidence remotely hinting at the claim these texts were doctored by unorthodox apostates to secretly introduce theological heresy into the Christian faith. On the contrary, what they do demonstrate is how our sovereign God preserves His Word through the means of human instruments. A family of manuscripts discovered in the 1800s dating to just 200 years after Christ, apart from the typical variants, reads almost the same as all the other NT documents copied over a period of nearly 1600 years. Instead of denying God's preservation, they establish it.



Blogger Peter D. Nelson said...

You know Fred when I read this about KJO I think that it should perhaps go under the answering a fool title, or at least foolish.

11:01 PM, February 22, 2006  

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