Manuscript Witnesses Are Not a Special Species of Historical Witness

It seems we live in a time; indeed, it has been this way my whole academic carrier and for generations before me, that the oldest manuscripts are said to be the best manuscripts but that does not seem to bear itself out theologically. I have been told innumerable times that the oldest is best because these manuscripts are closest to the original. Yet if we take a look at the theology closest to the original theology of the apostles in time, we see that there is a bit of trouble brewing, indeed, considerable dispute.

Before the end of the first century Paul warns that there are those which may preach another Gospel other than the one preached by Paul [Galatians 1:8]. We see that during Paul’s time there are some preaching out of contention and adding to Paul’s bonds [Philippians 1:15]. The apostle John observes that some would not receive him, particularly Diotrephes [3 John 9]. Then in the end of Revelation John warns not to take away from or add to Revelation and by extension, the whole canon [Revelation 22:18-19]. I say all of this to say that before the end of the first century church there is significant and sufficient divergence from the Apostolic Message that the apostles themselves are issuing numerous warnings to combat that real divergence.

Then there are the host of early church heresies. Let me name a few: Adoptionism [c. 190 AD – taught the Father adopted the Son], Apollinarianism [ 4th century AD – taught Jesus had a human body and divine mind], Arabici [3rd century AD – taught the soul died with the body], Arianism [2nd-3rd century AD – taught Jesus was created], Collyridianism [4th century AD – taught that the Trinity was composed of the Father, Spirit and Mary], Docetism [2nd century AD – taught that Jesus did not really have a body], and Monophysitism [482 AD – taught that Jesus’ divinity overrode His humanity].

Note that Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are considered a 4th century manuscript. So, while the Church is arguing over the nature of the soul, the nature of Jesus’ hypostatic union and the nature of the Trinity we also get written manuscripts during these same times of uncertainty. But these two species of witnesses (i.e., theological and manuscript) do not get the same treatment. We do not embrace the theological machinations of Arianism within orthodox evangelical circles even though those machinations are old in the history of theology. But we do embrace old manuscripts simply because they are old.

It is clear that the further back you go into the early church the more varied are the opinions of the early church going all the way back to the time of the apostles. Then through years of discussion, debate, and things more severe the Church endured a winnowing effect with regard to her theology. The result of which was that the Church by the leading of the Holy Spirit through the word of God by faith rejected Arianism, Nestorianism, Sabellianism and the like. Thus, the further along the theological timeline we go the more uniform the beliefs of the Church become. Why? It takes time for revelation to sanctify the people of God no matter if they are scholars or illiterate laity.

Interestingly enough this is the same argument we here at make about the textual issue. It is a fact that the earliest manuscripts in the extant tradition vary far more among themselves than the later manuscripts among themselves, just like the theology of the Ancient Church compared to following generations of the Church. It is a fact that through the progression of time the later manuscripts are far more uniform, just like the theological progression of the Church from the Ancient to the Reformation for instance. As such there is a winnowing effect which the textual tradition has undergone just like the winnowing effect which the theological tradition has undergone. That winnowing effect in the manuscript tradition has over time excluded the Gospel of Thomas from the Bible and included the long ending in Mark and the account of the woman caught in adultery just like the winnowing effect of the theological tradition has excluded Arianism and included that Jesus is the same substance as the Father or that the persons of the Trinity are three subsistences of one essence.

Using the winnowing effect of theology as a lens it is preposterous to think that simply because Patripassianism [i.e., the belief that the Father died on the cross] is an old theological system it therefore by default receives greater weight in the formulation of theological systems going forward. Yet this is the exact argument made by the CT/MVO position. The older the manuscript the greater the weight it receives among other manuscripts in the manuscript tradition going forward.

What is more, and this is a common plague among my CT/MVO brothers, they have little patience for questioning the divinity of Christ or the nature of the Trinity like those of the Ancient Church did, but they have nearly infinite patience to doubt the Scriptures on this or that point. So, they will doubt the source of their theology, but they will not allow you do doubt their theology. Put another way they will allow you to doubt the nature of the rule [Scripture], but they will not allow you to doubt the nature of that which is ruled [theology].

Finally, it is widely held that each manuscript in addition to being a record of this or that NT text it is also a witness to the time in which it was written and specifically a witness to the beliefs of the Church at that time. In this sense the manuscript is the same kind of witness as a theological treatise. They are both written and tell the story of the beliefs of the Chruch at that epoch in time. So just as age of a theological witness is not a prime factor in its truth so too the age of a manuscript is not a prime factor in determining its reliability.

Rather, in both cases the prime factors are the leading of the Holy Spirit through His words, the word of God, to His people by faith. This is how we sorted out theological differences over time and this is how we have ultimately sorted out manuscript differences over time. Certainly, there were brilliant, studied academicians making theological arguments in defense of orthodoxy as there are brilliant, studied academicians making arguments in defense of this or that reading. Still, it is not the Clements or Augustines that settled orthodox theology nor is it the Wallaces, Gurrys, and Wassermans that settle what is the NT. Both in theology and in manuscripts it is the Spirit of God through the word of God to the people of God which settles what is orthodox theology and what is the NT.

It’s about time we jumped off the oldest-reading-is-the-best train.

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