Today I am briefly wrapping up my consideration of James White’s recently expressed objections against the Ecclesiastical Text advocates’ approach to the text of the New Testament. Among the most prominent of his objections in the second half of his video-lecture is the objection that the Ecclesiastical Text contains Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11, and one of those two passages [39:17] “is not found in a manuscript prior to the fifth century.” This objection has three (at least) problems:
● Heavy dependence upon early manuscripts contradicts the often-mentioned notion of an “embarrassment of riches” of New Testament manuscripts. It involves the frequent rejection of the testimony of the vast majority of Greek manuscripts in favor of the testimony of only about a dozen Greek manuscripts (or less, depending on which passage is being addressed).
● Heavy dependence upon early manuscripts sets the stage for a probability-based objection against the integrity of the text. Suppose that we possessed a manuscript of chapters 1-10 of the Gospel of John that was produced in the 100’s. If we gave this manuscript special weight due to its age, and reckoned that it contains ten unique readings that are original, then we could deduce that its non-extant pages probably also contained ten or eleven unique readings that were original. And, if it is granted that there were ten (or 20 or 30) other manuscripts in the 100’s of equal importance which are no longer extant, then the loss of dozens and dozens of original readings may be extrapolated.
● Heavy dependence upon early manuscripts unrealistically minimizes the input from ancient patristic sources, from versional sources, and from groups of manuscripts for which it is reasonable to assume an ancient line of descent. In addition, because the early papyri have survived primarily due to the low-humidity climate of Egypt, heavy dependence upon early manuscripts effectively puts blinders on textual researchers, so that they focus on the text in Egypt, although there is no strong basis for the theory that the text in the manuscripts from Egypt in the 100’s-300’s was the same text being used in other locales.
When White referred to Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11, he was guilty of cherry-picking the evidence that he chose to mention to his listeners, but in the interest of brevity I will move along to the rest of his comments about the Ecclesiastical Text, or Confessional Text, position. At one point, he quoted a statement that said, “the doctrine of Scripture is being attacked by unbelieving academia,” and responded by asking, “What is ‘unbelieving academia’?”.
It’s a fair question – but perhaps White should answer it concretely rather than rhetorically. By White’s standard of orthodoxy, were Roger Omanson and Bruce Metzger believers? What about Stephan Pisano and Carlo Martini? And what about David Trobisch, who is presently listed as a member of the Nestle-Aland compilation-committee and as a member of the secularist Center For Inquiry? If White feels as if some criticisms are aimed in his direction, perhaps he should consider who he is standing beside, and consider whose compilation-work it is that he is defending.
White would argue, I suspect, that if a compilation is indeed the original text of the New Testament, it doesn’t matter if the devil himself endorses it, because its authority is inherent. What White seems to fail to see is that Confessionalists believe this, too (at least the ones with the best case for their position). They just also believe (as adherents to the Westminster Confession) that God has not inspired a Greek text that means one thing, and let His church collectively use a Greek text that frequently means something different, that is, a text that was impure.
What White calls a “poisoning the well” tactic is a logical implication of the Confessionalists’ belief that the Greek text of the New Testament has been kept pure in every age, because if the Greek text used in the Reformation-era is pure, then a text that frequently means something different is not pure, and therefore is not the original text. Granting that manuscripts attesting to the Reformation-era text of the New Testament are lacking from the 100’s and 200’s, that need only mean that such manuscripts from those centuries have not survived, which one would not expect any manuscripts to do outside Egypt in light of those regions’ higher humidity-levels (and other factors such as waves of Roman persecution).
In the late 300’s, a text-form closely resembling the Confessional Text (not perfectly identical to it, but resembling it rather than the Alexandrian Text) was in use in multiple locales – which is just what one would expect if (a) the Ecclesiastical Text very closely resembles the original text, and (b) the New Testament manuscripts spread “all across the known world,” as White states that they did. We would see a relatively uniform text in use in multiple locales. Yet White habitually rejects readings in the New Testament text that have widespread attestation, in favor of readings attested primarily in the local text of
Finally, White asserted that the Confessional Text position renders it impossible to resolve text-critical questions. This is simply untrue. Confessionalists resolve text-critical questions; they just do so in a way that White apparently does not consider valid. Confessionalists take it on faith that the Greek text used in the Reformation-era means what the text of the autographs meant. The acceptance of this premise reduces the amount of meaningful variation in the manuscript-record exponentially, so as to remove readings that are distinctly Alexandrian, Western, or Caesarean from contention if they yield a meaning that diverges from the meaning of the Confessional Text.
While this leaves some unanswered questions where two or more rival variants convey the same meaning, such points of instability are also present in the Nestle-Aland compilation, so if White were to insist that this is a small weakness in the Confessional Text position, it must be acknowledged that it is a much larger weakness in his own position, which favors a compilation that, after 100 years, remains provisional and tentative. For example, the compilers of NA28 rejected a variant in Second Peter 2:18 that previous NA-compilers had regarded as “certain,” and in Second Peter 3:10, the NA28-compilers adopted a variant that is not attested in any Greek manuscript.
White’s advocacy of the Nestle-Aland compilation means that he runs the risk that the Greek compilation that he regards as the original text today will be changed in the future by David Trobisch & Company, and the edition published tomorrow will say something that today’s edition does not say. The Confessionists run no such risk. While their approach is thoroughly unscientific, it is not difficult to see its theological appeal.