The words of the LORD are pure words. —Psalm 12:6a

Why they think they’re “oldest and best”

In prior posts, we’ve discussed the fact that there are several different variations in the manuscripts containing the Biblical text. If you’ve ever used one of the modern versions of the Bible, you’ve probably seen a footnote referencing “the oldest and best manuscripts.” We’ve explained that the scholars’ views on this contradict the clear teachings of scripture, and that the readings they prefer are actually corrupt. But we’ve not yet done them the justice to explain why they believe the Alexandrian manuscripts are the oldest and best, and why their thinking is so wrong. In this post, that’s what we’ll do.

Textual Criticism #

As we’ve explained before, the scholars have not come to these conclusions for scriptural reasons, but rather through human philosophy. Specifically, the philosophy of textual criticism.

If you know little about textual criticism, I recommend you read through the entry on textual criticism in the Encyclopedia Britannica. It provides a good look into the discipline from a favorable perspective, and since it is an unbiased source, I will quote from it extensively here.

Basically, textual criticism is a technique of restoring texts as nearly as possible to their original form.

Assumption of Corruption #

From the start then, we see that textual criticism is based on the underlying assumption that a text has been changed, and that the original has been lost, and thus must be restored. Indeed:

The premise of the textual critic’s work is that whenever a text is transmitted, variation occurs. This is because human beings are careless, fallible, and occasionally perverse. Variation can occur in several ways: through mechanical damage or accidental omission; through misunderstanding due to changes in fashions of writing; through ignorance of language or subject matter; through inattention or stupidity; and through deliberate efforts at correction. The task of the textual critic is to detect and, so far as possible, undo these effects. His concern is with the reconstruction of what no longer exists.

We should point out the implicit denial of any divine action here. A text to which this discipline applies itself is assumed to be wholly the result of human exertions, and its transmission wholly subject to human whim.

Of course, this is true of every other text known to man, but it is not true of the Bible. As we have previously shown, the Bible not only declares divine authorship, but a promise of divine guidance of transmission. God has promised that not one jot or tittle shall pass away. (Matthew 5:18, Luke 16:17)

As such, the discipline of textual criticism has absolutely no application to scripture whatever. It is only relevant to any manuscripts of the Bible corrupted by man. The text preserved by God is not subject to reconstruction, because it cannot be altered from its original form. God himself has promised that it will endure to all generations. (Psalm 12:6-7) It is not, never has been, and never will be “that which non longer exists.”

Yet if men must insist upon such a misguided mission as applying textual criticism to scripture, we would do well to at least understand why they are lead to the conclusions that they are. Let us pull back the curtain on the principles employed by the textual critic. We may even find that, when applied to scripture, textual criticism leads to different conclusions than the scholars suggest.

Historical Inquiry #

The methods of textual criticism, insofar as they are not codified common sense, are the methods of historical inquiry. Texts have been transmitted in an almost limitless variety of ways, and the criteria employed by the textual critic—technical, philological, literary, or aesthetic—are valid only if applied in awareness of the particular set of historical circumstances governing each case.

This is very important to understand. One must first have an idea of the history of a text before he can make judgments about what the original text ought to look like, what should be expected from it, and therefore what criteria are indicative of the original, and what is indicative of later variation.

Even from a secular point of view then, it is only valid to apply textual criticism to scripture after first creating a framework of history in which to interpret the variations within the text. As Christians, we must of course confine any such framework to be consistent with God’s own promises in regard to his word. There is much history of the texts which we do not know, but we do know what God has promised, and therefore, for such an ancient text, we are in an exceptionally good position. We know that there was One watching over the text during its transmission, and that he is fully in control of its history. While we may sometimes have no idea of what may have happened to create the varieties of biblical manuscripts found in the past, we do nonetheless have a basis for a historical framework: the promises found in the word of God itself.

Since he has promised to preserve it to all generations (cf. Psalm 12), we know that only a variant of the text that has been available to all generations, and current among his people, can possibly represent the original. This means that in searching for the original, we do not need to go out looking for new discoveries of ancient manuscripts. We can begin simply with the variations that are extant. Any variation which must be discovered can be safely disregarded. If it hasn’t been preserved, we know that it cannot be representative of the original form of the text.

The received text fulfills this criteria, because by definition it is that text received from past generations. It is the text which we know the church has used for at least one thousand years. And because the texts in the Alexandrian manuscripts were either unknown, or at least not in use at all, until about 150 years ago, they can be disregarded.

Thus, by constructing a biblical historical framework for the history of the text, based on the promises of God, we find that we are lead to the conclusion that the received text represents the original form.

Each Case is Special #

So why do so many scholars not share this conclusion? Simply put, because they do not begin with a scriptural framework. Rather than applying textual criticism as it properly should be, with special consideration for the case at hand, they apply it as if the Bible were just any other generic book. Their historical framework is one that they make up as they go along based on the variations that they have or discover. Just like the secular textual critic, even those Christians who study the history of the New Testament do so under the implicit assumptions of corruption and an absence of divine interference.

In this these scholars make fools of themselves, because they are neglecting the primary principle of textual criticism:

From the preceding discussion it is apparent that there is only one universally valid principle of textual criticism, the formulation of which can be traced back at least as far as the 18th-century German historian A.L. von Schlözer: that each case is special. The critic must begin by defining the problem presented by his particular material and the consequent limitations of his inquiry. Everything that is said below about “method” must be understood in the light of this general proviso. The celebrated dictum of the 18th-century English classical scholar Richard Bentley that “reason and the facts outweigh a hundred manuscripts” (ratio et res ipsa centum codicibus potiores sunt) is not a repudiation of science but a reminder that the critic is by definition one who discriminates (the word itself derives from the Greek word for “judge”), and that no amount of learning or mastery of method will compensate for a lack of common sense.

A severe lack of common sense on the part of critics of the New Testament text is apparent when they refuse to deal with the divinity of its Author and Preserver. No matter how fully they may comprehend “methods” of textual criticism, no matter how much knowledge of manuscripts they may posses, if they do not properly frame their inquiry, they may deftly prevent themselves from coming to the correct solution.

A Matter of Conjecture #

From this we must also understand the often arbitrary nature of the textual critic’s work. It is an exercise of the human intellect, a philosophy more than a science. It deals not with proofs, but with conjectures.


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