A Wisconsonian Story and Text-Critical Barns

Before I tell today’s story I want to remind you of a commonly recognized phenomena in the transmission of Greek texts over the ages. That phenomena goes something like this: Paul wrote the original of Romans. Scribe A went to copy Romans but made some mistakes. The original was lost, so Scribe B copied Scribe A’s copy of Romans and made some of his own mistakes. Scribe C comes along and, while under severe persecution from Diocletian, copies all the mistakes from Scribe A and attempts to fix the mistakes of Scribe B, but in these attempts, Scribe C mistakenly corrects Scribe B thus making new mistakes of old mistakes. Then Scribe C added more of his own mistakes.

This process of copying, copying mistakes, copying mistaken corrections, and the making of new mistakes happened for over 1,500 years and most of the copies, especially the older ones, have been lost to the wastes of time and use. So not only do we not have the originals, we do not have the vast majority of the Greek copies of the New Testament, and the copies we do have most probably contain mistakes which now may seem to us to be original. If modern evangelical text-critics were honest they would understand with the rest of leading NT scholarship that the task of reassembling the original NT via modern evangelical text-critical methodology alone is a misguided and naïve. The evidence simply does not bear out the necessity of such an aim let alone the probability of achieving that aim. So to glom on to why modern evangelical text-critics remain misguided and naïve I present to you a story illustrating that the modern evangelical text-critics can and will never know that reading X is indeed the original reading.

This story is what is called a Gettier Case or a Gettier Problem, the point of which is to show that the modern evangelical text-critic can never have justified true belief in their conclusions about NT reading X. Put more simply, they cannot know and will never know what reading is an original reading. Our story begins on the Wisconsin countryside…

Once upon a time there was a small town in rural Wisconsin. Travelers often passed through this town on their way to Green Bay. One day the town council innocently decided that they wanted the passersby to regard their town as very prosperous and so they decided to erect barn facades, or merely the face or front of a barn, in order to given the impression to passing travelers that this small town had such fruitful harvests that they needed all these barns. But in point of fact only some of the barns were really barns the rest were barn facades.

One day a father and son were traveling through the countryside of this small Wisconsin town and as they passed all the barns, not knowing that many of them were merely facades, the father commented to his son, ”My, that barn is one beautiful barn.”

Let’s pause our story here for a moment.

The question now is, “Does the father know that ”beautiful barn” is indeed a barn at all?” He does not know that the town folk innocently built barn facades yet the father is sure that said barn is indeed a beautiful barn. If it is barn then he is only accidentally correct in recognizing that red object out there as a barn. That is, even though the father has properly functioning faculties his environment is filled with lies or misinformation [i.e., barn facades that look like barns from a distance]. As such the father is not warranted to hold his believes because he exists in an environment that is misleading his faculties of sight. If it is not a barn, then the father thinks that red thing is a barn when it is not. As such, the father is plainly wrong in saying, “My, that barn is one beautiful barn” because “that” is not a barn at all but a barn facade.

Picking up the story again, suppose the father and son stop at the local gas station and the gas station attendant rats out the whole town and declares, “You know, the town council decided to erect barn facades in an attempt to look more prosperous.” How ought this to condition the father’s belief?

The first thing that would probably happen is that the father would have to second guess whether “that barn” is indeed a “beautiful barn.” The only way he could verify his belief of “that barn” is if he could go back and more closely inspect it. But what if he couldn’t get a close inspection of the barn? What if he is barred by some immovable boundary which keeps him from making his examination? He may think of a series of criteria whereby he could make his judgment from a distance. Perhaps barns with new looking paint are facades, but we know that real barns are often newly painted as well. The appearance of new paint may help him draw a warranted belief but there is still a great deal of doubt. Perhaps he would say that barns with their doors open are real barns but real barns could just as easily have their doors closed. This as well may help but significant doubt remains.

In order for the father and son to know “that barn is a beautiful barn” they must be able to look past the facades and see the real barns for what they are. For instance, if the father and son were to meet the builder of all the facades at a local restaurant he could tell them which are barns and which are not. But without this insight the father and son are not warranted or justified in their belief that “that barn is a beautiful barn.” That is to say, they don’t know it is a barn nor do they have the justification to say it is one.

[Edit: 3/17/2022 – Before we can make an application to textual criticism we need to add one additional component to the story of the Wisconsin Countryside. In order to make a fair comparison we need to assume that the father and son had never seen a barn. That is, they have never seen the original barn, the autographic barn, the barn from which all other barns are copied indeed all other facades attempt to copy. All the father and son have is the barns and barn facades they see in the Wisconsin Countryside and from observing those barns they claim to know what the original autographic barn looks like. The problem is, seeing that they have never seen the autographic barn they very well may identify the milk house as a barn or the tractor shed as a barn or the grain bin as a barn. Then the father and son come back to the city and tell the rest of us about the beautiful barn they saw but none of us have seen the original autographic barn and so we believe along with the father and son that the milk house and the tractor shed are also barns and perhaps the beautiful barn the father identified.]

Let us now make application to modern evangelical textual criticism. Their are true readings which represent the original reading and there are facade readings, and all these readings are spread across the textual countryside. The modern evangelical text-critic then takes a ride through that countryside and views these readings from afar off. Certainly they can hold the manuscript in their hand but historically they hold an ancient artifact and they can’t go back in time to ask the “builder” of that manuscript nor can the text-critic see the blueprint from which the “builder” of that manuscript made his copy.

The text-critic has been to the gas station and met the attendant. The text-critic knows now that the textual countryside is full of real and facade readings, but they cannot get any closer to them to make further inspection. So they resort to comparing readings with readings based on what they think is the probable form of real versus facade reading. They assume all their manuscripts are not facades, but they have no grounding for that assumption historical or otherwise. But because they have never seen the original reading they do not know what an accurate copy of that reading looks like. They very well may be comparing facades with real manuscripts and making decisions assuming both are real manuscripts or real readings. It is just as likely that they regard real readings as facades. They used to think the older the manuscript the better the reading, but now we know that old readings are in new manuscripts and we don’t know how they got there because the manuscript transmission stream is so profoundly incomplete.

In the end, the text-critic can never and will never know because they do not have the testimony of someone who built the original manuscripts and was there when all manuscript or reading facades were erected. They don’t have someone to point out, “This is the original reading. I know, because I was there when it was written.” And so the modern text-critic will forever and always, so long as he follows his current trajectory, offer provisional conclusions on this or that reading, but never really knowing. They will offer arguments from abduction, the weakest form of logical inference, saying things like, “The best explanation of the current evidence is reading Z.” But ten years from now when the method changes so will their abductive inferences.

In sum, the modern evangelical text-critic cannot know what the real reading is because they neither have the original nor do they have many and perhaps even most of the NT copies that have ever existed. And the copies they do have, are the product of copying mistakes, copying mistaken corrections, and the making of new mistakes for over the course of 1,500 years. What is more, as we discussed in this post, the vast majority of these copies are considered corrupt and of little value by the professionals that use them. The point is, the modern evangelical text-critic wouldn’t recognize a perfect copy of the original if it was biting him in the face. His method alone would prohibit him from making such a recognition. As such, modern evangelical text-critics may just as well identify an original reading as original as they would a tractor-shed reading as original.

We here at StandardSacredText have made the argument for years that we do have someone to point out, “This is the original reading. I know, because I was there when it was written.” That person is the Holy Spirit. We’ve argued it numerous times here on the blog. I argued this in my book regarding a Philosophical Grounding for Standards Sacred Text. The other Dr. Van Kleeck made the same case in his book regarding an Exegetical Grounding for a Standard Sacred Text. Lord willing we will have a Theological Grounding coming out before the end of the year, and we’ll be arguing the same thing. Furthermore, our arguments are not new in that the Post-Reformation Reformed dogmaticians made the case theologically and exegetically that the Holy Spirit speaks through His words in a way He does not speak through men’s words. Put another way Christ’s sheep hear His voice and the voice of another shepherd they will not follow.

Someone may ask, “How exactly do we know that reading X is the word of God and not a facade?” I respond with, “How exactly do you know that your saving faith is real faith and not a facade?” However you answer the latter question is how you answer the former. Blessings.

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