Monday, August 22, 2022

Pierpont: Requisites and Basics for Textual Criticism of the Greek New Testament


Here is another installment in the series of unpublished papers by Williams G. Pierpont, scanned from the Maurice Robinson Collection. This two-page essay is undated. I don't know when we'll be able to put it on CSNTM, so I am making it available here.


[By William G. Pierpont, undated]

1. NECESSITY. Scarcely any two of the many hundreds of manuscripts of the Greek New Testament agree exactly with each other-- even after ignoring the obvious and easily corrected simple scribal errors. Nor is there any divinely established or humanly agreed-upon standard against which all others may be corrected. Therefore textual criticism is necessary to establish, where there are sig­nificant differences, which readings are to be considered those of the autographs.

2. REVERENCE. The New Testament is no ordinary book: it is part of the Holy Word of God, and dare not be approached without a spirit of reverence and the utmost of respect. It is the Word of the Omnipotent Creator and Sovereign Lord of all. He Himself does not view it lightly: "for Thou hast magnified Thy Word above all Thy Name." (Ps. 138:2) It partakes of His Divine Nature, of His holi­ness and perfection. We recognize that it was Divinely inspired-- that holy men of God were led along and guided in their writing by its Holy Author. We must tremble to tamper with it in any way. How we "handle" it is vital. We may well recognize that God is Himself most intimately concerned with what we do with it. We ought to approach it, as it were, on our knees. Anything less dishonors its Author.

Who are those who would dare to go hunting for "discrepancies" in a gleeful mood? Who are those who would presume to tell God what He has caused to have written? How do men dare to choose among alternate readings on the basis of what they "prefer"? Where is their sense of reverence for the Holy? Do such men indeed hold to the God-given apostolic faith, or are they merely toying with what is inherently holy?

For some, whatever is "interesting" or novel attracts them-- and unless it is strange they have no concern or interest. For others the "various readings" merely serve as opportunities to exercise their ingenuity, to see if they can puzzle out an answer to their own satisfaction. Often this merely serves as fodder for the grist mill of their desire to lecture or write.

Such a spirit of levity, "game playing", ill befits God’s Holy Word. The man of God is grieved and distressed when he finds seriously competing alternate readings, knowing that only one of them can be from the autograph. He earnestly and reverently seeks an answer.

3. PURPOSE. Textual criticism of the Scripture is not a self-perpetuating exercise. Rather, like the work of a good teacher, it aims to make itself useless, It seeks to solve the problems that exist, not to create new ones. Its goal is to settle the wording of the text from the evidence available. Yet it realizes that this may never be completely resolved, and that some small residue will re­main. Its goal is to restore, recover, confirm.

4. PERSPECTIVE. It is generally recognized that at least 7/8 of the text of the Greek New Testament is agreed upon by all manuscripts; for this there can be no question at all. At most only about 1/8 is open to any possible doubt; and careful study will show that in the last analysis perhaps only 1 - 3% is under any serious ques­tion. Far too much emphasis has been given to the differences, so that people have been misled to believe that virtually all the New Testament is shadowed by doubt, and that one can be sure of almost none of it. This is a gross distortion of the facts.

Much of this has been due to the unjustifiable magnification of the list of "various readings" to include simple and easily identifiable scribal slips (which occur in all manuscripts) and non-sense readings and minor variations in spelling. The list of real variations is relatively small. A sense of proportion is badly needed here.

5. PRESERVATION. Scripture makes it plain that God would preserve His Word, and infers that He would do so verbally, though we are not told how, nor how the true is to be distinguished from the erroneous reading. The simple fact that over a period of almost 2000 years more than 7/8 of the total wording is agreed upon by all is evidence to preservation. Let us be careful how we treat this issue! Let us never scorn it.

6. EVIDENCE. All agree that our New Testament is the best attested Book of all antiquity: that we have literally hundreds of manu­scripts from all ages-- an embarrassingly large volume of material, much of which has been but barely catalogued. Beyond the manu­scripts of the Greek New Testament books themselves lie the ver­sions, the Lectionaries and the Patristic writings. What a wealth of source material! Let us be careful to consider it all-- all that is available to us, not slighting any.

7. METHODOLOGY. Since God has not seen fit to give us procedures for determining which of two or more different readings in the manu­scripts represents the autographs, He apparently intends us to use the intelligence, common sense and Scriptural guidance available, which He has given to us. Sound principles must be developed.

Much thought and study has been devoted to developing suitable criteria over the last several centuries by men of various presuppositions. Their labors are not to be ruthlessly discarded, nor yet to be uncritically accepted, All proposed criteria re­quire the most careful scrutiny, with a constant eye to the abundant manuscript evidence itself. A ranking of principles is needed, and those proposed criteria which are mutually contradic­tory resolved or eliminated.

It is of primary importance that the final principles be objective and verifiable and rational to the greatest possible extent, and that subjective and personal criteria be minimal or absent. All must be done in the open where any investigator may reasonably be expected to follow the logic. Personal judgments vary radically from critic to critic and have no substantial verifiability: these must be avoided rigorously, along with any attempts at emendation and conjecture. Intuitional aspects and slender theorizing must be viewed with the utmost of suspicion. Any proposed criteria which would minimize or dispose of substantial areas of the manuscript evidence are automatically suspect. Let us be honest. How is this mass of evidence to be used? Here lies the crux of the issue. Personal preferences and "divination" are out!


  1. He writes about preservation:
    "Scripture makes it plain that God would preserve His Word, and infers that He would do so verbally."

    This may be a reasonable theological conclusion for Christians to draw. But doing so would require theological reasoning that goes well beyond any plain statements made in any passages of Scripture, at least if the referent of "His Word" is taken to be the entirety of the Bible, and if "preserve" is taken to mean permanently.

    However, after having said that, I think what Pierpont then goes on to say is very insightful:

    "[W]e are not told how, nor how the true is to be distinguished from the erroneous reading. The simple fact that over a period of almost 2000 years more than 7/8 of the total wording is agreed upon by all is evidence to preservation. Let us be careful how we treat this issue!"

    Amen to that!

    1. "Scripture makes it plain that God would preserve His Word, and infers that He would do so verbally...[W]e are not told how, nor how the true is to be distinguished from the erroneous reading."

      The other day my hard drive crashed and I feared I had lost all of my data. But then I saw an advertisment for a computer shop that specialised in data retrieval; it said that if they couldn't save my data, then I wouldn't have to pay!
      Eagerly I took the computer in to them, and an hour later they informed me they were all done. As he slid the computer back across the counter to me I asked him "were you able to retireve all my data?"

      He smiled, "oh yes, we were able to save all of your data. Not one jot or tittle was lost!"

      "Excellent!l I said, " I can't wait to finish reading that Peter Head essay I was in the middle of."

      "Oh no," the man replied, "you won't be able to actually read any of your data. We may have saved it, but it's all quite inaccessible."

      "What do you mean?"

      "Well, when your hard drive crashed, all of this garbage code was generated, flooding the files with bits and bytes of random characters. The processor has no way to tell your data from the erroneous data, so it has no way to reconstruct your files."

      "I'm confused: did you save my data or not?"

      "Oh, most assuredly, all your data is still there, it has been 100% preserved, we just have no way to access it."

      That seemed like a job well done to me, so I went ahead and paid the man and tipped generously!

      Going home, I couldn't read the bus schedule either; it was still posted well enough, but some vandal had painted graffiti over it and I couldn't read it. Not a problem! The walk home gave me a chance to train for the olympic speedwalking event.

  2. Maurice A. Robinson8/23/2022 3:09 am

    One should keep in mind that this is a very early essay by Pierpont, of uncertain date (ca. 1972 or so?). His (and my) more developed views on whatever "providential preservation" should be understood to mean can be found in the RP2005 preface, "Concluding Observations," pp., xxi-xxiii.

  3. Charles Doyle8/25/2022 3:43 pm

    Thanks again, Dr. Hixson (and thanks for commenting Dr. Robinson). I see my own thought processes in Pierpont's essay, will look for the RP2005 preface and continue my journey to settling my questions about the CT and MT- more pointedly finding true confidence again in God's Word.