Because this book will be read by people representing a broad spectrum of interest and background, I will begin with a brief review of the textual problem.

That there is a problem concerning the identity of the Greek text of the New Testament is made clear by the existence of a number of competing editions in print. By competing I mean that they do not agree with one another as to the precise wording of the text. Such disagreement is possible because no two of the ancient Greek manuscripts (handwritten copies) known to us are identical in wording, and we are dependent upon those copies because the Apostles' Autographs, or original documents, are no longer in existence. (They were probably worn out well before A.D. 200.)

In short, we are faced with the challenge of recovering the original wording of the text from the surviving manuscripts, no two of which entirely agree. In this task we may also appeal to copies of the ancient Versions (translations into Syriac, Latin, Coptic, etc.) and to the surviving writings of the early church Fathers where they quote or refer to New Testament passages.

There are over 5,000 extant (known) Greek manuscripts (hereafter MSS, or MS when singular) of the New Testament. They range in size from a scrap with parts of two verses to complete New Testaments. They range in date from the second century to the sixteenth.[2] They come from all over the Mediterranean world. They contain several hundred thousand variant readings (differences in the text). The vast majority of these are misspellings or other obvious errors due to carelessness or ignorance on the part of the copyists. However, many thousands of variants remain which need to be evaluated as we seek to identify the precise original wording of the text. How best to go about such a project? This book seeks to provide an answer.

Of course, I am not the first to attempt an answer. Numerous answers have been advanced over the years. They tend to form two clusters, or camps, and these camps differ substantially from each other. In very broad and over-simplified terms, one camp generally follows the large majority of the MSS (seldom less than 80 and usually over 95 percent) which are in essential agreement among themselves but which do not date from before the fifth century A.D., while the other generally follows a small handful (often less than ten) of earlier MSS (from the third, fourth and fifth centuries) which not only disagree with the majority, but also disagree among themselves. The second camp has been in general control of the scholarly world for the last 110 years.

The most visible consequence and proof of that control may be seen in the translations of the New Testament into English done during these 110 years. Virtually every one of them reflects a form of the text based upon the few earlier MSS. In contrast to them, the King James Version (AV) and the New King James Version (NKJV) reflect a form of the text based upon the many later MSS. Thus, the fundamental difference between the New Testament in the American Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, New English Bible, Today's English Version, New American Standard Bible, New International Version, etc., on the one hand, and in the AV and NKJV on the other is that they are based on different forms of the Greek text. (There are over 5,500 differences between those two forms.)[3]

To the extent that you may be aware of these matters you may well have accepted as reasonable the statements usually made to the effect that the very considerable improvement in our stock of available materials (Greek manuscripts and other witnesses) and in our understanding of what to do with them (principles of textual criticism) has made possible a closer approximation to the original text in our day than was achieved several hundred years ago. The statements to be found in the prefaces of some versions give the reader the impression that this improvement is reflected in their translations. For example, the preface to the Revised Standard Version, p. ix, says:

The King James Version of the New Testament was based upon a Greek text that was marred by mistakes, containing the accumulated errors of fourteen centuries of manuscript copying [not true; almost all TR readings are ancient]. . . . We now possess many more ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, and are far better equipped to seek to recover the original wording of the Greek text.

And the preface to the New International Version, p. viii, says:

The Greek text used in the work of translation was an eclectic one. No other piece of ancient literature has so much manuscript support as does the New Testament. Where existing texts differ, the translators made their choice of readings in accord with sound principles of textual criticism. Footnotes call attention to places where there is uncertainty about what constitutes the original text.

But if you have used a number of the modern versions you may have noticed some things that perhaps intrigued, bewildered, or even distressed you. I am thinking of the degree to which they differ among themselves, the uncertainty as to the identity of the text reflected in the many footnotes regarding textual variants, and the nature and extent of their common divergence from the King James Version.

The bulk of the differences between the modern versions is presumably due to differences in style and translation technique. However, although they are in essential agreement as to the Greek text used, as opposed to that underlying the AV, no two of them are based on an identical Greek text. Nor have the translators been entirely sure as to the precise wording of the text—while some versions have few notes about textual variation, others have many, and even in these cases by no means all the doubts have been recorded.[4] In short, no one in the world today really knows the precise original wording of the Greek text of the New Testament.

Such a realization may beget an incipient uneasiness in the recesses of your mind. Why isn't anyone sure, if we have so many materials and so much wisdom? Well, because the present "wisdom," the "sound principles of textual criticism" currently in vogue, may be summed up in two maxims: choose the reading that best explains the origin of the competing variants, and choose the variant that the author is more/most likely to have written.

No wonder Bruce Metzger[5] says, "It is understandable that in some cases different scholars will come to different evaluations of the significance of the evidence."[6] A cursory review of the writings of textual scholars suggests that Metzger's "in some cases" is decidedly an understatement. In fact, even the same scholars will vacillate, as demonstrated by the "more than five hundred changes" introduced into the third edition of the Greek text produced by the United Bible Societies as compared with the second edition (the same committee of five editors prepared both).[7] Further, it is evident that the maxims above cannot be applied with certainty. No one living today knows or can know what actually happened. It follows that so long as the textual materials are handled in this way we will never be sure about the precise wording of the Greek text.[8]

It is not surprising that scholars working within such a framework say as much. For example, Robert M. Grant, a well-known biblical scholar, says:

The primary goal of New Testament textual study remains the recovery of what the New Testament writers wrote. We have already suggested that to achieve this goal is well-nigh impossible. Therefore we must be content with what Reinhold Niebuhr and others have called, in other contexts, an "impossible possibility."[9]

And Kenneth W. Clark, another well-known textual scholar and professor, commenting on P75:

. . . the papyrus vividly portrays a fluid state of the text at about A.D. 200. Such a scribal freedom suggests that the gospel text was little more stable than the oral tradition, and that we may be pursuing the retreating mirage of the "original text."[10]

Fifty years ago Grant had said, "it is generally recognized that the original text of the Bible cannot be recovered."[11]

At this point I get uncomfortable. If the original wording is lost and gone forever, whatever are we using? The consequences of such an admission are so far-reaching, to my mind, that a thorough review of the evidence is called for. Do the facts really force an honest mind to the conclusion expressed by Grant? In seeking an answer to this question I will begin with the present situation in New Testament textual criticism and work back. The procedure which dominates the scene today is called "eclecticism."[12]

[1]A good deal of the research underlying this book was done in connection with the master's thesis I submitted to the Dallas Theological Seminary in 1968 entitled "An Evaluation of the Contribution of John William Burgon to New Testament Textual Criticism." My thesis was subsequently published in edited form in True or False?, ed. D. Otis Fuller, (Grand Rapids: Grand Rapids International Publishers, 1972)—the full text of the thesis appears in the 2nd edition, 1975. I have re-used some of the material in the thesis by permission of both entities.

[2]There are over a hundred from the seventeenth and another forty from the eighteenth (and even nineteenth), but since several printed editions of the Greek New Testament appeared during the sixteenth, the manuscripts produced subsequently are presumed to be of little interest.

[3]F.H.A. Scrivener, ed., The New Testament in the Original Greek, together with the variations adopted in the Revised Version (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1880). In spite of the differences between the printed editions of the Greek text in general use, they are all agreed as to the identity of about 90 percent of the Text.

[4]For instance, Tasker says of the NEB translators, "Every member of the Panel was conscious that some of its decisions were in no sense final or certain, but at best tentative conclusions, . . ." The Greek New Testament (being the text translated in the New English Bible) ed. R.V.G. Tasker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. viii. See also B.M. Metzger, Historical and Literary Studies, NTTS, VIII (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), pp. 160-61.

[5]Bruce M. Metzger is one of the senior New Testament scholars of North America. He has been a Professor at Princeton University for many years and has authored many scholarly works including the standard textbook, The Text of the New Testament.

[6]B.M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 210.

[7]K. Aland, M. Black, C.M. Martini, B.M. Metzger, and A. Wikgren, eds., The Greek New Testament, third edition (New York: United Bible Societies, 1975), p. viii. Although this edition is dated 1975, Metzger's Commentary upon it appeared in 1971. The second edition is dated 1968. It thus appears that in the space of three years ('68-'71), with no significant accretion of new evidence, the same group of five scholars changed their mind in over five hundred places. It is hard to resist the suspicion that they are guessing.

[8]Even where there is unanimous testimony for the wording of the text, the canons of internal evidence do not preclude the possibility that that unanimous testimony might be wrong. Once internal evidence is accepted as the way to determine the text there is no basis in principle for objecting to conjectural emendation. Hence no part of the Text is safe. (Even if it is required that a proposed reading be attested by at least one manuscript, a new Papyrus may come to light tomorrow with new variants to challenge the unanimous witness of the rest, and so on.)

[9]R.M. Grant, A Historical Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), p. 51.

[10]K.W. Clark, "The Theological Relevance of Textual Variation in Current Criticism of the Greek New Testament," Journal of Biblical Literature, LXXXV (1966), p. 15.

[11]Grant, "The Bible of Theophilus of Antioch," Journal of Biblical Literature, LXVI (1947), 173. For a most pessimistic statement see E.C. Colwell, "Biblical Criticism: Lower and Higher," Journal of Biblical Literature, LXVII (1948), 10-11. See also G. Zuntz, The Text of the Epistles, 1953, p. 9; K. and S. Lake, Family 13 (The Ferrar Group), 1941, p. vii; F. C. Conybeare, History of New Testament Criticism, 1910, p. 129.

[12]In ordinary usage the term "eclecticism" refers to the practice of selecting from various sources. In textual criticism there is the added implication that the sources are disparate. Just what this means in practice is spelled out in the section "What is it?" in Chapter 2.

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