Two posts ago, I recommended two booklets that introduced the topic of Textual Criticism. This debate has recently been renewed with new technology being available to those who study the manuscripts we have in existence. As with any debate, there are two sides, and many misunderstandings.
Over the next several weeks, Lord willing, I will be interviewing several different guest writers concerning this topic. For today's post, I am honored to have working with me as a guest writer, Christian McShaffrey. He is the Editor-in-chief of Text and Translation which aims to defend the traditional text of scripture. He has his website, hosts an annual conference, and writes often on the topic.
To ensure that we are start this off in a godly way, oftentimes in a debate, the issue can become a point of conflict. Passions and strong opinions can be expressed. As Brethren, and Christians in general, the goal of these installments is not to cause divisions, splits, or hard feelings toward each other. The purpose is to inform and instruct so we may have a stronger foundation of understanding when we read and hear discussions on this topic. Christian, it is great for you to join me for this series, and I appreciate your time in answering these questions.
Who are you and how did you become interested in this subject?
Greetings to all the saints at Calvary Covenant Brethren Church and thank you, Pastor Martino, for inviting me to contribute to your blog.
My name is Christian McShaffrey and in addition to running the aforementioned website, I serve as the Pastor of Five Solas Church (a conservative Presbyterian church in Reedsburg, Wisconsin). I was not, however, always a Pastor. Neither was I always a Christian.
I was raised in a typical middle-class Roman Catholic home in the Midwest. We attended mass every Sunday and religious instruction during the week. I rejected that faith as a teenager and fell into a life of grievous sin. After graduating from college, God saved me and I naturally started studying the Bible to learn more about him and his will for my life.
The first Bible I bought was a King James Version and I still have that Bible today. Its margins are filled with the excited scribblings of a man who was hearing the voice of his Shepherd for the very first time. I believed every word of that Bible, memorized many verses from it, and personally discovered how profitable it was for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (cf. 2 Timothy 3.16).
It would never have occurred to me to doubt a single sentence of scripture, so I was very surprised to learn that many Christians do just that: They doubt the authenticity of certain words, verses, and even entire sections. Though surprised, this discovery did not affect me much… that is, until I attended theological seminary.
What exactly was it that happened at seminary?
My first experience at seminary was a summer “crash course” in the original language of the New Testament: Greek. The class consisted mainly in learning vocabulary and basic grammar. By the end of the course, we were translating Bible verses and it was absolutely thrilling. Interacting with the originally inspired text only deepened my love for God’s word.
After that course, however, we were introduced to the science of New Testament Textual Criticism. The word “criticism” does not mean we were being taught to criticize the Bible. It simply means taking a critical, or careful, look at differences that exist among Bible manuscripts.
There are many differences because the Bible was copied by hand for centuries. The scribes who did this work were not inspired like the apostles, so they sometimes misspelled or even skipped over words. Sadly, not all copyist errors were accidental. Some were made intentionally by heretics who sought to change the Bible. The work of textual criticism, then, is to examine the differences and identify the original reading.
All this is good, in and of itself, but as it is with any science, so also is it with textual criticism: A person’s beliefs and assumptions will always affect the way he observes and interprets evidence.
Many textual critics assume that the original scriptures were corrupted and are therefore in need of restoration. That assumption is one that I simply could not grant because of what the Bible says about itself.
What does the Bible say about itself?
The Bible says many things about itself, but it all starts with this: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3.16). The word inspiration is related to breathing, so you can think of it in terms of God breathing his word onto the page.
Because God is the author of scripture, we may also affirm its infallibility. The root of that word – fall – indicates what scripture cannot do. It can never fall or fail. Not a single sentence. Not a single word. Not even a single letter.
Jesus confirmed this when he said, “verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5.18). A jot is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The tittle is even smaller. It is like the small pen stroke that distinguishes the English letter Q from O.
Jesus believed scripture was perfect because that is exactly how scripture describes itself:
“For ever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven” (Psalm 119.89), “I have seen an end of all perfection: but thy commandment is exceeding broad” (Psalm 119.96), “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever” (Isaiah 40.8), etc.
This, in summary, is what we believe: Because God inspired scripture, it is infallible. Because scripture is infallible, not a word of it – not even a letter – can fall out from between its covers.
How does this belief square with modern text criticism?
It doesn’t. Modern text criticism begins with the assumption of corruption and seeks to reconstruct what the apostles originally wrote. Many critics have actually given up hope of ever accomplishing this. They are now content just to get as close as possible.
Thankfully, some critics are more optimistic about their ongoing work, but even then, this is all they are able to affirm at the end of each day:
“We do not have now – in our critical Greek texts or any translations – exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote. Even if we did, we would not know it. There are many, many places in which the text of the New Testament is uncertain.”
Those are the words of Dr. Daniel B. Wallace (professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts) and they reflect the skepticism of most evangelical text critics today.
The Bible, however, does not invite us to be skeptical about its contents. It calls rather for certainty. We believe that the same God who inspired scripture also kept it pure in all ages by his special care and providence (cf. Westminster Confession, I.8).
This belief is typically called “Providential Preservation” and it was the view of the protestant reformers and post-reformation dogmaticians like John Owen, Francis Turretin, Peter Van Mastricht, etc. It is also the reason that the Bibles printed in the reformation-era contain verses and passages that modern versions either omit or note as questionable.
Can you give some examples?
Some of the more notable omissions include the doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6.13), Jesus’ prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23.34), the eunuch’s baptismal confession (Acts 8.37), and John’s trinitarian proof text (1 John 5.7-8).
Many try to minimize these discrepancies by speaking only in terms of the percentage of disputed material. The forty verses referenced above constitute less than one-quarter percent of the entire New Testament. That, upon first glance, might not seem like much.
However, those forty verses contain eight hundred and fifty-four words. That’s more than the prophecy of Obadiah. That’s more than the Epistle of Jude. That’s more than Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. That’s more than the second and third Epistles of John combined.
If someone tried to sell you a Bible that was missing an entire epistle or two, would you buy it? Probably not.
What about those who say these verses were wrongfully added?
That is indeed a very common theory. It was popularized by a textual scholar named Dr. Bart Ehrman. He believes orthodox scribes in the second and third century intentionally changed verses while copying in order to strengthen their theological positions.
There are, of course, other theories out there, but they are all just that: theories. We cannot get into a time machine and go back to see who did what – or why – during the transmission of the text, so again, it all comes back to our beliefs and assumptions.
What do you believe about God? What do you believe about the Bible? What do you believe about the church? Did God inspire scripture and then abandon it to agenda-driven scribes or the endless changes of time?
Further, if the reliability of scripture hangs upon the supposed antiquity of some manuscript or the informed opinion of some scholar, then what will you do as future archeological discoveries are made?
This is where many Christians are a bit naïve. They like to think that all their “favorite verses” are somehow immune to the modern text critical model, but they most certainly are not. Professional critics treat the text of the Bible like any other book from antiquity.
That is the fatal flaw of their model and more Christians need to learn about it before the text of their Bible begins changing even more than it already has.
Are more changes to the Bible coming?
Yes. With the development of computer technology, a new approach to textual criticism has evolved. It is called the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method [CBGM].
In short, the CBGM is a computer-assisted model that enables text critics to observe and assess relationships between variant readings on a scale previously not possible. This model has been in use for over fifteen years, but its impact on modern versions has thus far been minimal.
No textual changes have yet appeared in English versions that would alarm most readers, but it is really only a matter time. One example is 2 Peter 3.10 where a positive eschatological statement is made: “the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” [KJV]. Due to a variant in the final verb, modern versions read, “will be laid bare” [NIV] or “will be exposed” [ESV].
However, a new reading, derived from this new method, has been adopted. It says, “the earth and the works that are done on it will NOT be exposed.” This changes the entire meaning of the verse. It, in fact, reverses the meaning.
This new reading has no Greek manuscript support and very little versional support (i.e., translational). Nevertheless, the new approach has resulted in a new reading which will ultimately lead to new doctrines.
That is why people like me have been sounding the alarm.
That sounds like a reference to your website. Tell us about it.
While I have always been interested in the topic of textual criticism, my involvement in the debate has been somewhat modest. All I did was teach classes at my church, host a conference, appear on occasional podcasts, and post some articles online.
One of those articles happened to attract the ire of a popular internet apologist in the Autumn of 2021 and he posted a rather caustic review of it on YouTube. I did not bother to respond, but I was asked about it a few months later by some seminary students while attending a conference.
These students had been following the recently revived textual debate with interest and they wanted to know what my future plans might be when it came to defending the traditional text. I had no specific plan, so I took it as a charge to develop one.
After a season of prayer and seeking counsel, I decided to bring together all the best material on the subject into a single website that seeks to defend the authenticity of the traditional text of scripture (Ginsburg/Bomberg Hebrew Masoretic Text and F.H.A. Scrivener’s edition of the Greek New Testament) and the accuracy of our common version (The Authorized, or King James, Version).
How did you choose the material and writers?
This is where my website is unique. I discovered many websites that defend the traditional text, but none that were explicitly confessional. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, “confessional” refers to the official summaries of doctrine that were published in the reformation era:
Three Forms of Unity
Second London Baptist Confession
Formula of Concord
All who contribute to our website must be in substantive agreement with one of these historic confessions of faith. While some might see that as overly restrictive, it actually reflects the unity of Christians in all things essential.
On our website you will find classic defenders of the traditional text from a variety of denominations. For example, John William Burgon was an Anglican, Edward Freer Hills was a Presbyterian, and Theodore Letis was a Lutheran.
You will also find contemporary defenders of the text who are Presbyterians, like myself, Reformed Baptists like Jeffrey Riddle and Robert Truelove, and we also look forward to adding more authors as the platform continues to grow.
Christian, before we move on, I think it would be good to identify this as one of the differences between Presbyterians and Brethren.
I will not attempt to sum up the whole thing here as that would be outside the scope of this series, but for those who are not Brethren, or who may not know our history, the Brethren have been, and still are, a non-confessional denomination (there may be some exceptions but I am unaware of any at this moment).
It is not that we do not recognize truths found in the confessions, but there were some concerns that were seen near the time of our founding with state and confessional churches. It was therefore, as early as the 18th century the statement was first made, “We have no creed but the New Testament.”
As Brethren, this, combined with no force of Religion, is where we differ some in our faith practice. We may share some cross over beliefs, but from the Brethren perspective, we subject confessions to the Word of God first.
To understand the Brethren better, I would recommend Fruit of the Vine by Donald Durnbaugh. If there are any questions, anyone reading this blog, or on your website, they are welcomed to email questions to email@example.com and in the memo put down Pastor Jonathan. It will come to me. Ok, I appreciate your patience as I interrupted here.
Jonathan, I actually appreciate the interruption because it provides yet another opportunity (i.e., besides the textual debate) to acknowledge that Christians can disagree with one another while maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
There is one clarification I would like to offer when it comes to our tradition: We too subject our confessional documents to scripture.
We believe that “the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.” (WCF, I.6)
The church only published summaries of what the Bible teaches (confessions) because of heretics who like to quote the Bible, but who always twist its meaning. A classic example is the heretic Arius. He denied the full deity of Jesus Christ, but was still happy to call him “God” because the scriptures did. That is why the Council of Nicaea had to adopt the statement: “begotten, not made, being consubstantial with the Father.”
I really wish we could have no creed but the New Testament, but I remain convinced of the usefulness of creeds as secondary standards.
I appreciate the clarification and the reasoning behind the confessions. It is great that we are able to have these discussions and move forward with a common goal. Back to the main topic, why should Christians be interested in the textual debate?
Here’s the simplest answer I might offer: Because Christians love the Bible. They read it, meditate upon it, study it, memorize it, hear it preached, and share its message with others. There is nothing more central to the Christian life than scripture.
As previously acknowledged, that does not mean all Christians will always come to the same interpretation of scripture. You and I, for example, see some things differently, but how can we sit down and discuss what the Bible teaches if we do not know what the Bible is?
That is what the textual discussion seeks to resolve. I mentioned forty disputed verses in a previous exchange. Are they inspired or not? Should they be printed in our Bibles or not? May we use them in ministry or not?
Should we comfort the contrite sinner with Jesus’ words, “Neither do I condemn thee” or not? Should we contradict the anti-trinitarian heretics with John’s words “and these three are one” or not? Should we insist that converts profess their faith before baptism or not?
Depending on which Bible a person uses, some might say, “Yes” and others might have to say, “No.” That is why the debate over the authentic text of scripture continues to be practically relevant for today.
For those who are interested in identifying these differences, what resources would you recommend?
Most modern Bible translations include notations and footnotes that identify disputed passages.
The New King James Version is a good example. It is based on the traditional text, so all the “disputed passages” previously mentioned appear in the main body of the text. It then employs abbreviations to identify where modern textual bases may differ. When a footnote says “M-Text” it is referring to the majority of extant manuscripts and when it says “NU-Text” it is referring to minority readings found in a handful of ancient manuscripts.
For those who are interested in more exhaustive textual information, the New English Translation may be a helpful resource. It often contains more notations on the page than words of scripture! It is written from a critical perspective so it is, obviously, not my favorite, but if you want to know which readings are disputed, it will show you.
If all this sounds like way too much, there is a simple list available online and in booklet form that identifies 650 significant variants. This list is, by no means, exhaustive, but it is more than most people will ever need know.
Our conversation, in fact, may be sufficient for most. Exchange number 5 contains links to the most commonly disputed verses.
I would also add in here a plug for Text and Translation website. You have some great resources on their as well that can help explain and delve into this topic as well. As we wrap up this conversation, would you care to share any final words of advice or encouragement?
Yes. As with any debate, there is always a risk of generating more heat than light. This is especially true when debating matters as essential to our faith as the doctrine of bibliology. So let me offer this encouragement to our readers: “Let brotherly love continue” (Hebrews 13.1).
The textual debate is technically an “in house” debate, so it should be engaged with a spirit of charity. Obviously, I hold some strong convictions on the topic, but I do not count those who differ as enemies. I have members in our congregation and ministerial peers who use modern versions. I love them all.
It is, in fact, that love which compels me to keep this discussion alive. Too many people are content to leave shadows of doubt hanging over words, verses, and entire passages of the Bible. Doubt is not faith. Doubt, in fact, is antithetical to faith.
Jesus promised, “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10.27) and I would encourage our readers to embrace that promise as they investigate this new area of study; trusting that they will find their Good Shepherd faithful and true to lead them in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake (Psalm 23.3).
Christian, I cannot express my agreement with you more here. The goal is to get the information out to those who we come into contact with, especially with our Brother’s and Sisters in Christ. But we must trust the Holy Spirit to guide and direct them. If we try to force this issue, it can become unnecessarily heated. One thing I stress with you. There are many of my peers and friends who will disagree with me. And in the end, they are not the enemy if they truly are seeking to serve God faithfully and are in the Bible. One of the things I have said and still say, “I would rather have someone read SOME Bible, than not read any”.
I really appreciate your time for this interview. I know we are going to have a lot more to talk about in the coming Friday posts, so we will dig a little deeper into some of the other topics such as the Majority, Nestle-Aland, Wescott and Hort, Textus Receptus, Masoretic Text, Translational Theory and methods, and even a new translation tools that are being used that is important for ALL who love the Bible to be wary of. I look forward to that and much more in the next several weeks for sure. I pray and hope for all of you reading that this has piqued your interest. You can reach out to Christian on his website: Text and Translation, and to me here at the church using the contact at the bottom of our website. I am praying for all of you and for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. God bless you this weekend.