Recently, apologist James White (of Alpha & Omega Ministries) made some comments about the Ecclesiastical Text approach to the text of the New Testament in a video-lecture. In this post I offer a response. First, however, it is important to know what the Ecclesiastical Text approach is, and to an extent, that means knowing what the Ecclesiastical Text approach is not: it is not a text-critical technique. The text recognized as authoritative by advocates of the Ecclesiastical Text approach is not established primarily via the analysis of the relative strengths of external and internal evidence supportive of rival variants.
|Paragraph 8 of Chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession (1646)
Instead, Ecclesiastical Text advocates seek to establish the New Testament text via the application of the premise that the Greek text of the New Testament preserved by the church is pure and authoritative. This premise is primarily dogmatic rather than scientific. Because its fundamental premise is virtually identical to what is stated in the eighth paragraph of the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of 1646, and because the term “Ecclesiastical Text” has been treated in the past as a synonym for “Byzantine Text,” perhaps a more appropriate and more focused moniker for this approach would be “Confessional Text,” because it emanates from part of a formal creed. I will take the liberty of using this term here, and the term “Confessionalists” for its advocates.
By affirming that the Greek text of the New Testament has been kept pure in all ages by God’s singular care, Confessionalists greatly simplify the task of establishing the New Testament text, because if the text is pure in every age, it is also pure in any age, and thus what was used by the church in the age of early Protestantism (in the 1500’s and early 1600’s) sets a sufficient standard, if not for the exact form of the text regarded as authoritative, then at least for the authoritative meaning of the text. Thus the text-critical enterprise facing Confessionalists is so small as to be almost trivial, consisting of decisions between rival variants which convey the meaning of the Greek text that was in use in the Reformation-period.
Against that position, James White objects that if one is going to say that a text is established via church use, then one needs to ask, “Which church?”. However, which church, before the Reformation, ever endorsed White’s favorite compilation – a Greek text without Mark 16:9-20, John
7:53-8:11, Luke 22:43-44, Luke 23:35a, etc.? A Confessionalist who advocated the
Nestle-Aland compilation would be compelled to admit that if such a Greek text
is pure, then the Greek pure text was used somewhere in Egypt for a few
centuries but later, the churches everywhere else, and in all other centuries, used
something else – but thus the Westminster Confession’s affirmation is denied,
because such a Greek text is not attested to be in use by the church in all
(It seems to me that the person who wishes to uphold the Westminster Confession while advocating the Nestle-Aland compilation must reckon that whether one includes, or excludes, two 12-verse passages in the Gospels, and whether one includes, or excludes, over a dozen other one-verse or two-verse passages, and regardless of how one decides hundreds of variant-units involving contests between different phrases and different words, it all yields no meaningful effect on the purity of the text. However, if one were to concede this point, then why insist on pursuing a technically exact form of the text at all, if it is granted that the text that is observed to have been used in the Reformation-era is pure?)
When it comes down to it, James White believes that the decisive factor when considering whether or not a specific variant is authoritative Scripture is not a matter of which congregations used it, but is, instead, a matter of what was in the autographs before the church began to perpetuate their contents. I concur with such a view – but I do not see how one can believe that, and believe that the Nestle-Aland compilation extremely closely resembles the original text, and believe that via God’s singular care and providence, the form of the Greek text of the New Testament has been kept pure in all ages.
White’s preference for the Nestle-Aland compilation answers his “Which church?” question for him, because the Nestle-Aland compilation, at points where the Alexandrian Text disagrees with the Byzantine Text, is at least 98% Alexandrian. A little over halfway through his video-lecture, White asserts that the individuals who made the early papyri did not have Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11in their manuscripts. To those who are familiar with the testimony of the papyri, the problematic nature of White’s heavy dependence upon this assertion is demonstrated two ways:
● First: if the papyri are to be given a decisive role, then why doesn’t White adopt their readings at the many points where they disagree with the Nestle-Aland compilation? Is White willing to accept all of the readings found in P45, P46, P66, and P72 that disagree with the Nestle-Aland compilation? Surely White, like any sane well-informed person, would answer “No,” because those papyri have so many singular readings. So it is unrealistic to say, “We appeal to the papyrus court!” and think that this is sufficient; nobody considers the testimony of the early papyri, in and of itself, to be decisive. Furthermore, to what early papyrus manuscript of Mark 16 is White referring?! Surely he is aware that no such papyrus is extant.
|Bear in mind that Irenaeus quoted Mark 16:19,
and Jerome stated that the story about the
adulteress was found in many manuscripts,
both Greek and Latin.
● Second: why does White treat the papyri as if their testimony echoes a variety of locales? Or to put it another way: how does White, or anyone, know what was at the end of Mark 16, or in John 7-8, in papyrus Gospels-manuscripts that were used outside of Egypt in the 100’s? The early papyri are exclusively from
This is a mere side-effect of Egyptian low-humidity climate, which is especially
friendly to papyrus-material. One might as well say, “Let us make our textual
decisions on the basis of which manuscript experienced better weather,” or, “We
should adopt the readings found in the best manuscripts, by which I mean, the
ones which were made the farthest to the south.”
By rejecting the testimony of other locales, White focuses on essentially one locale’s text – a text used in
– to answer the “What church?”
question. His approach assigns a crucial
role to the churches in Egypt,
as if one cannot ascertain the original text without their input. But we know next to nothing about the
Egyptian congregations in 100-200, and even less about the historical
connection between those congregations and these particular papyri.
|So: if no one locale's text is decisive,
then why does the Nestle-Aland compilation
heavily favor Alexandrian readings
even when they stand virtually alone?
This creates an apparent inconsistency with something that White says later in the video-lecture. Although White says that the mechanism that God used to preserve His Word was the sudden spread of the text to multiple locales, so that the transmission of the text was never under the control of any one group, when it comes to deciding textual contests, White almost always favors the text from one particular locale, namely
thus introducing the exact opposite mechanism.
Although White claims to employ an eclectic approach to
the evidence, he endorses a compilation which is, in the Gospels, Acts, and
Pauline Epistles, 98% Alexandrian.
Confessionalists believe that the Greek text used in the 1500’s is a sufficiently pure representation of the contents of the autographs. White believes that a Greek text used in early congregations in
fits that description. It is generally easy
(except where the Confessional Text contains readings for which there is
minimal support, and which convey a different meaning than their rival or
rivals) for Confessionalists to maintain their view that a text closely
resembling the Confessional Text has been in use in all ages; they need only
grant that there is a lack of evidence for the existence of that text’s use in
the early centuries of Christendom (which is true about any New Testament text in the early centuries of Christianity in a
lot of territory outside Egypt). It is
not so easy, however, to maintain that the Greek Alexandrian Text has been preserved
in all ages in any reasonable sense, inasmuch as there is abundant evidence that a different Greek text – the
Byzantine Text – was used instead, as attested by at least 85% of the extant
Greek New Testament manuscripts.
To be continued.