Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Ancient Text of the New Testament, part one

In 1975, Jakob Van Bruggen (Wikipedia link), longtime professor of New Testament at the Theological College of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, gave a lecture on the text of the New Testament in Broederwig, Kampen at the anniversary of the College.  The transcript of the lecture was translated into English and was published into a forty page booklet entitled, The Ancient Text of the New Testament.  With his lecture, Van Bruggen argued for the superiority of the majority text and the textus receptus (those two are not seen as the same thing anymore, but at one time, the textus receptus would be referred to as the majority text -- for the sake of the reader, very often the terms textus receptus, received, Church, ecclesiastical, Syrian, Byzantine, traditional, and majority are used interchangeably).  I want to explain his lecture in a manner that almost anyone reading could understand his argument.  It is very good.

When I consider the text of scripture and its preservation, I start with scriptural presuppositions about what we should expect God to have preserved and to have made or kept available.  This is the best approach or even the right one, but it is also important, I believe, to accompany that with an explanation of the text in a historical manner.  Van Bruggen has thought through and given a good defense in a textual way, and it should be considered.  It is strong.

The first line reads:  "The New Testament textual criticism of the twentieth century is characterized by great uncertainty."  He says that "on the surface the opposite seems to be the case," because there is so much agreement among Catholics and Protestants in support of the eclectic Nestles text of the United Bible Society.  He follows:
All this does not yet mean that there is certainty about the correct text of the New Testament.  Agreement can be based on mutual certainty, but also on mutual uncertainty.  And the latter is the case.
Furthermore, he writes:
This again means acquiescence in a consensus text which has been determined on the basis of uncertainty. . . . many readings which have been chosen only by the majority of the committee.   That they did not unanimously arrive at a text. . . . At present there is no certainty concerning the history of the textual tradition. . . . the eclectic method is generally followed. . . . Subjectivity is not out of the question with this method.  Thus they will just have to arrive at a text by majority vote.
In contrast, he continues with some seeming tongue-in-cheek:
Among all uncertainties of the 20th century, we, however, to one great, lasting uncertainty in the modern textual criticism. . . . One can even say that the modern textual criticism of the New Testament is based on one fundamental conviction that the true New Testament text is at least not found in the great majority of the manuscripts.  The text which the Greek church has read for 1000 years, and which the churches of the Reformation have followed for centuries in their Bible translations, is now regarded as defective and deficient. . . . Already for more than 100 years the certainty that this type of text is inferior has already been taken for granted. . . . The heritage of the 19th century criticism was a solitary certainty -- the inferiority of this "traditional text." . . . .  It is striking how emotionally people often speak about this one certainty.
Van Bruggen does not explain why one should even expect certainty for the text of the New Testament.  This is a single lecture that doesn't come close to asserting everything, so he just assumes the expectation of certainty.  The nature of God and His Word assumes certainty.  Uncertainty is not a satisfactory basis for faith.  It should be easy to understand why certainty is important.  Scripture itself affirms certainty to the jot and tittle, every word, settled to the extent that a curse exists on those who add or take away from the words (Rev 22:18-19).  I often hear evangelicals today mock the expectation, approaching certainty like of course it isn't to be expected.  This exposes their absence of biblical presuppositions.

To segue to the argument of the book, Van Bruggen writes:
The friction between certainty and uncertainty in modern New Testament textual criticism gives occasion to ask what reasons are given for rejecting the Byzantine or Church text, which has been used for many centuries. . . . There is a scientific and religious duty to ask the question whether the ancient text of the New Testament is not found in the majority of the manuscripts and whether the church has failed to follow the truly ancient text for many centuries.
Van Bruggen asserts that the rejection of the textus receptus is accepted as fact in the 20th century, but not defended.  The defense is merely refer "to the work of Hort in the 19th century.  Yet the various arguments of Hort are no longer generally accepted today"  As well, "no new supplementary arguments against the Byzantine text have been worked out."  Van Bruggen summarizes the arguments of Hort against the Syrian text or the traditional text as the following:
  1. this text goes back to a revision of the Greek text in the 4th century, probably under the leadership of Lucianus of Antioch;
  2. this text can on external grounds be characterized as a late text:  it is not found in the old majuscules and it is not followed by the Church Fathers before Nicea in the New Testament quotations;
  3. this text can on internal grounds be characterized as secondary because of its inclusive nature (conflate readings) and because of its tendency to harmonize and assimilate, leading to a complete and lucid text.
Soon thereafter Van Bruggen provides a snapshot push-back:  [I]t must be remembered that for centuries people could daily acquaint themselves with the character of the Byzantine text or the textus receptus, yet they did not regard this as secondary and inferior."  Also, "if Hort's arguments are proven right, then it is strange that they were not advanced earlier.  If they are wrong, the question becomes urgent why they were still generally accepted in the last century."  Although puzzled by that phenomenon Van Bruggen chooses to focus his "attention on the question what force the argument of Hort in themselves have"  -- "after all, on the ground of these arguments people were so bold to abandon the traditional text."  The next three sections of the booklet are given to dealing in order with each of Hort's arguments.

The Value of the Number of Manuscripts

Van Bruggen earlier made light of the use of a majority of committee members to determine the acceptance of a textual variant.  He asks, why since there is no certainty still about the text of the New Testament would the critics not then rely on a majority of the manuscripts?  The answer is Hort's first argument, that the majority can be traced back to one recension, that is, "the many manuscripts would be nothing else than copies of only one manuscript."

The critical text is not based on a majority of the manuscripts because those are given the weight by critics of only one single manuscript.  "The historical starting point for this recension-idea is sought in the person of Lucianus of Antioch."  The critics are saying that a man, Lucianus of Antioch, revised the New Testament text in the fourth century and then the majority of the copies of the New Testament were made from that 'corrupt' revision.  The majority of the handwritten copies, manuscripts, of the New Testament must be dismissed, critics say, because they all come from the same source, which can't be trusted.  These are the copies which give the essential basis of the textus receptus and the Reformation era translations of scripture.

It is not possible to prove Lucianus made a revised text of the New Testament in the fourth century.  Because of that, a far diminished number of 20th century critics now mention Lucianus, despite continuing with a recension claim.  Van Bruggen writes:
That there is much agreement between all these manuscripts does not mean that they all come from one and the same source.
The work that debunked Hort's theory was done at least by Ernest C. Colwell and Kirsopp Lake.  Van Bruggen says:
[They clearly show] that it is better to describe the Byzantine textual tradition as a collection of converging textual traditions than as a varying reproduction of one archetype.  This fact now prevents us from thinking of one recension as the source for the text that is found in the majority of the manuscripts.  No matter how one judges about the value of the growing consensus in the textual tradition, one can not simply reduce the large majority of manuscripts to one vote and then only a secondary vote. . . . It is impossible to treat the majority of the manuscripts during the evaluation of them as though they textually formed one family. . . . We do not deny that small family groups can be distinguished within this majority, just as families can also be determined in other text-types and with the versions.
He continues:
That no importance is attached to this majority as such in modern textual criticism is not only connected with the recension-idea, but especially with the opinion one has concerning the age and character of the Byzantinue type.
Lucianus is not the basis of "convergence and uniformity."  So what is it?  Van Bruggen answers:
The different centres of production in the 4th and following centuries aimed at a most faithful copy of the original or at a good restoration of the original text. . . . Growing uniformity . . . points in the direction of a simultaneous turning-back in various centres to the same same central point of the original text.  This text was sought in the oldest and most faithful manuscripts.
Churches should not have allowed a modernist influenced movement to abandon the text received by the churches.  Many leaders did reject the rationalistic bias against the uniformity of a majority of the copies.  There was a historic trend toward uncertainty that resulted in this weak theory holding sway.  An honest recalculation would reconsider the historic reception of a uniform text in light of the unmasking of the underlying ideology for its abandonment.

More to Come


Bill Hardecker said...

I can only imagine what it must have been like to sit in for Mr. Van Bruggen's 1975 lecture, which is a critical survey of modern text. crit. delivered at the anniversary of the Theological College at city of Kampen, in Overijssel, Netherlands. There is a lot here. I have always thought this to be a difficult "read" even while reading the transcripts put into English. Thank you for an educative analysis, Pastor Brandenburg. I appreciate it. I am very interested in this topic also. I have a copy of his work and will follow your postings closely and add and make notes to it for my edification. His other work The Future of the Bible has some great content on translation philosophy and other historical considerations, and is a worthy read, also.

Lance said...

Thank you for this article Brother Brandenburg. It was a blessing to read.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Thanks Bill.

Thanks Lance.

I will be coming back for at least a part 2, Lord willing, breaking down his arguments against the other two of Hort. Those are actually his major ones. The recension argument is really based on the other two, and it seems to add up to mere speculation, which is why it's not even believed anymore, even by the modern "science" of textual criticism. I think it would be better to call it a "theory of textual criticism" much like evolution.

In Michael Behe's new book, Darwin Devolves, I am reading on my kindle at the moment in addition to a couple of other books, he says that Darwin, albeit debunked, is also still used a a place holder, while men go back to the drawing board. Meanwhile, no one who rejects Darwin is given a place at the table, despite it being so patently not scientific. I think there is an exact parallel between Hort and Darwin.

Jonathan Gleason said...

Kent, I think the Darwin comparison is apt. No one actually accepts Darwin anymore, but anyone who doesn't accept the structure which was built on his foundation of sand is considered a crackpot.

As you've said, the same is true of Hort (who was probably the primary driver of the W-H theories). No one actually accepts what he said anymore but you are required to accept the structure which has been built on those theories, or you must be considered stupid or worse.

And interestingly, I'm convinced they were working from the same evolutionary philosophical mindset. You'll remember this article I wrote (, but you may not have seen the comments that followed. I never did find the book mentioned in those comments, unfortunately.

Someday, if I can ever return to writing again, I would like to write something exploring this one further (unless someone beats me to it). I don't think we've done enough to shine the light on how Hort's false theological and philosophical underpinnings led to his textual theories, and how they still pervade today's theories.

Kent Brandenburg said...


Good comment. I looked at that post and that would be an interesting book to read, and one to trace through the relations to evolution. If Hort's reasons are wrong, I'd like to see them exposed.