The Initial Text is a Unique Defeater for Modern Evangelical Text-Criticism

For the modern evangelical text-critic, is there any word in the Greek that we are certain beyond a shadow of doubt is indeed the original word of Scripture written at the hand of Paul or Peter? If yes, what word or words and based on what manuscript evidence and method are those words deemed certainly the words of the autograph? If no, then every word of Scripture should be doubted at least a little and in the present time given the tenets of modern evangelical textual criticism. Enter the initial text.

What is the initial text? Consider the following quotes and research from Michael W. Holmes paper, From the “Original Text” to the “Initial Text”: The Traditional Goal of New Testament Textual Criticism in Contemporary Discussion. Holmes is the former Chair of the Department of Biblical and Theological Studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. In this paper he writes concerning the “initial text”,

“‘[t]he initial text is the form of a text that stands at the beginning of a textual tradition.'”

Holmes, Initial Text, 652.

Note that the “beginning” here is not the original or autograph, but a hypothetical text which serves as the source from which the Alexandrian text tradition came from, or the Byzantine text tradition came from. Holmes goes on to quote Gerd Mink,

“‘The initial text is not identical with the original, the text of the author. Between the autograph and the initial text considerable changes may have taken place which may not have left a single trace in the surviving textual tradition.'”

Holmes, Initial Text, 652 quoting from Gerd Mink, “Problems of a Highly Contaminated Tradition, the New Testament: Stemmata of Variants as a Source of a Genealogy for Witnesses,” in Studies in Stemmatology, vol. 2 [ed. Pieter van Reenen, August den Hollander, and Margot van Mulken; Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2004], 25.

And from Wachtel and Parker,

“‘We are…insisting that the initial Text is different from both the authorial text and the archetype, that we cannot reconstruct the former and that what we can reconstruct is more than the latter.'”

Holmes, Initial Text, 652 quoting from Joint IGNTP/INTF Editio Critica Maior, 10.

In sum, the initial text is an inferred text, a hypothetical text that is behind all the manuscripts of a given tradition. The initial text is not the archetypal text or the real and actual text which underlies a given textual tradition. The initial text is not the original text, or the one written at the hand of Paul or Peter. So, the shift from the “original text” to the “initial text” is a shift from a real text to a hypothetical text and from the first text to some later hypothetical copy.

For our purposes, the point is, given the immediately above quote, the original cannot be reconstructed, and the archetypal text is something other than the initial text. Thus, modern evangelical textual criticism, at least in this vein, has left off the quest for the original because it cannot be reconstructed. If this “initial text” vein of textual criticism is true, then Warfield’s version of text criticism is misguided or wrong or has at least failed. In short, the case for the “initial text” serves as a series of defeater to the claim that textual criticism will recover the original words of the autograph.

What is a defeater? A defeater is a strong objection to some claim X where a defeater for said defeater must be provided by the claimant. If the claimant does not provide such a defeater and continues to hold to their claim X, they can only hold to their claim X at the cost of being irrational. There are generally two kinds of defeaters: rebutting and undercutting. The former defeats evidence used to support some claim X while the latter defeats some claim X by making positive evidential claims to the contrary. A classic example is of a widget making factory.

Regarding rebutting defeaters, say one day you go to the local widget making factory and believe they make red widgets because you see that the widgets are red. But your trusted friend tells you that they are not red, but instead are blue. In this case you have reliable testimony that what you are seeing is not in fact what you are seeing. Regarding the undercutting defeaters, say you are at the same factory, and you come to the same conclusion, but the foreman says that they are not red. They only appear red because each widget is irradiated in order to find microscopic cracks in the widget. Ergo, the widgets appear red but for different reasons than you think. Rebutting defeaters weaken the believer’s case by eliminating his/her reason to believe the widget is red while undercutting defeaters provide reasons to believe the widget is not red at all.

So which kind of defeater does the assertion that the initial text is the best we can do given the evidence, and the original is out of the question? It seems to me that rebutting defeaters are in play. Rebutting defeaters are in play because of the unreliability of patristic witnesses, the considerable variation between our oldest witnesses, the potential for considerable variation between the authorial text and initial text, and the lack of an exemplar all serve to weaken the claim that we can identify and reconstruct the original. These defeaters so weaken the modern evangelical text-critic’s case that many prominent and capable scholars in that camp are led to conclude that the authorial text “cannot be reconstructed.” But there is also an undercutting defeater present in that given the limits the evidence our capacity to reach beyond the initial text to the original/authorial text is understood to be impossible. That is, there are positive reasons to believe that the reconstruction of the original is impossible at this point.

Why are the above defeaters a unique problem for the modern evangelical text-critic?
For the secularist like Bart Ehrman or for the more theologically liberal like D.C. Parker the initial text is not a defeater because they have no theological skin in the game to reconstruct the original. For the Confessional/Traditional/Ecclesiastical/Standard Sacred Text folks we believe and argue that we have the original, so the initial text is an interesting postulate of academia like Q and Ur-Marcus but is has little to no bearing on our arguments or rational and warranted beliefs. For the folks who want to remain theologically conservative by modern standards while at the same time do not want to hold to a standard sacred text [i.e., the modern evangelical text critic], the claims of the initial text serve as a series of defeaters to the potency and efficacy of the counter claim that the original can be recovered and reconstructed.

It is more than a mere problem for the evangelical text-critic. The claim that the initial text stands at the outer limit of our reconstructing endeavors undercuts the claim that we can reach beyond that and eventually arrive at the original. It is a defeater for the claim that the manuscript tradition can get us back to the original with a sufficiently high degree of probability. If these defeaters are true and they remain unaddressed, then the Warfieldian redefinition of “kept pure in all ages” coupled with Warfield’s confidence in modern NT textual criticism crumbles and is only maintained at the expense of rationality. Warfield was sure that the work of the Wescott and Horts, Tischendorfs, and Tregelleses would yield the original text yet the data and experts in the field seem to indicate that such a goal is out of reach.

What is more, this is an in-house problem. If the Version Debate is an in-house problem of the church, the initial text problem is an in-house text-critical problem born from textual criticism. And it does not appear the leading thinkers in this field are looking for the original text. I suppose we’ll see what happens to the modern evangelical text-critical enterprise over the next 50 years. As journalist and poets, Ambrose Bierce, once said, “We know what happens to people who stand in the middle of the road. They get run over.”

If the original is out of reach, Warfield were in the end irrational, and those who hold to his definition of preservation and reconstruction of the text are also irrational because the initial text is as far back as we can go. The Bart Ehermans of the world and we here at do not hold to Warfield’s view of preservation and reconstruction but the modern evangelical text-critical machine does. The potential veracity of these initial text defeaters challenge and potentially make irrational the veracity of the modern evangelical text-critical claim that we can construct the original via modern text critical apparati. If the veracity of the initial text defeaters is deemed true and no interesting defeaters arise to defeat the initial text defeaters, then to hold to the modern evangelical text-critical endeavor of a Warfieldian sort is to be irrational when it so dearly longs and clamors to be rational.

2 thoughts on “The Initial Text is a Unique Defeater for Modern Evangelical Text-Criticism

  1. The argument, if I understand the verbiage correctly, is that you believe the initial text cannot be truly discovered. This would certainly be Bart Ehrman’s conviction and most modern critical text theorists must agree as their synthetic text is forever in an “undetermined” state and never finished. This outcome is a predetermined outcome of their illogical process where contrary to sound judgement they highly regard the “mysterious” variants and hold in highest regard the smallest number of manuscripts of the poorest quality that are shown to have the most frequent errors and scribal corrections. In contrast, they do not take the more judicial approach to examining the character of the witness and search for the consistency that is found over thousands of individual manuscripts which give a consistent witness that may be attested to by the Traditional Christian text that has been in consistent use throughout every age and its support found in all the Greek lectionaries, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchal Text, the Majority Text, the Received text / Textus Receptus (TR). This Text when compared to any biblical text is found to have support and attestation as a universal underlying text as confirmed by the earliest papyri evidence (confirmed by both Sturtz and Zuntz) and by a comparative textual analysys (
    Therefore, I would argue that this is article does not have a rational conclusion. The simple exercise of having 20 different copyists with the “honest” intent of rendering from the original text (say the gospel of St John) its initial text. The purpose of any copyist (translation is different) is certainly not to alter (add to or remove from) the text it is to copy! This process will yield duplication of lines or words or deletion of the same as these are simply normal copyist mistakes. Of these 20, it is likely that many may contain variants (copyist errors) from the initial text. By simply comparing only the 20 copies, it would be easy to identify the character of each copyist and what the initial text was because it is unlikely that the majority of copyists would make the same errors. Initially, this audit task is far easier because you in fact have the one original autograph to actually compare with and correct from. Based on the repeatability of this process, this is a scientifically sound approach. In addition, these texts were often copied for the main purpose that they were be read publicly. Any error or change in the reading is therefore open to public scrutiny and likely to be discovered and any disagreement quickly and easily corrected against the authoritative original or any previously authenticated copy. So rationally, what we find in the historical record is a Traditional universal text (Hebrew Masoretic text of the Old Testament and Greek Byzantine priority of the New Testament) that is attested to by the least amount of variants, with good Koine Greek grammar, across the majority of manuscripts. It should be noted, that there are no known clear and obvious errors in the Traditional Text today; there may be other variants, but the Traditional Text today finds early witness either in the Greek text, the numerous versions, Patristic quotes or other historical Commentaries or other types of documentation. For example, if we consider the Johannine Comma.
    1 Joh 5:7-8
    7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
    8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.
    Honestly, we must conclude that the text is not a 14 century fabrication or think that it was a new or spurious text that Traditionally was not accepted as authoritative, or simply that it was a text that Erasmus was easily coerced into creating. Though there are few Greek manuscripts that contain the Johannine Comma, there still remain those few that do give their full witness. We also must conclude that without it, those Greek manuscripts exhibit an internal problem with elementary Greek grammar; this obvious grammatical issue that is caused with its absence has been well documented many centuries before Erasmus and prior to most of the Greek manuscripts which attest to its absence. In addition, the ideas and flow of the Johannine Comma fit well within John’s literary style and the overall purpose and intent to witness to the deity and fulness of Christ. Besides this evidence, their is a greater witness than what is available to us within the Greek manuscripts found within the Latin version. There are also other manuscript versions that lend their witnesses as well. Quotes from early Church fathers must also be considered here. The point is that there is plentiful evidence to support the Traditional reading. In contrast to the position for its removal, we also have early clear evidence of the Greek text being deliberately corrupted by the early testimony of Eusebius in Alexandria and also from Jerome’s Prologue that specifically speaks in regards to the Johannine Comma and its omission in many of the corrupted Greek texts by those so seemingly similar to today’s modern textual critic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Todd, thanks for the comment. Apparently my post was not clear enough. I believe the idea of “initial text” is problematic on multiple fronts chief among which is that within the disciple of textual criticism it has multiple meanings/referents and as such makes for multiple ultimate end goals. I think it best that the term, “original” or “autograph” be retained and “initial text” needs to be restricted perhaps to a Greek text considered to be immediately underlying the current evidence or “the best we can do right now”.


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