Monday, April 29, 2024

“Why I Trust the New Testament Is What God Wrote”: Contend 2024


Over the weekend, I spoke for one of the break-out sessions at Contend—an apologetics conference at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary that is geared for high school students. The title of my presentation was "Why I Trust the New Testament is What God Wrote," and that title was intentional. The talk wasn't so much to convince anybody that we do really have God's words as it was rather to tell them why I believe we do really have God's words.

My talk was based on what I presented a while back at the church where I was ordained. That itself was an interesting situation—it is a TR church that has always used the KJV or NKJV, but they also recognize that it's not an issue worth dividing over and consider other translations to be sufficient as well. My impression of the rationale at that church has always been that it was an unstated trust that TR translations are 'safe' in that God has obviously blessed their use, and since that's what the pastors typically used, they just stayed with it because there are more important things than becoming experts in textual criticism just to be sure that you have the best Bible when you already have a Bible that's not only good but perfectly sufficient. But they knew my position and actually asked me to speak about why we can trust the Bible. It was an interesting task to try to do that in a way that doesn't undermine the KJV/NKJV on the one hand or modern translations on the other (because plenty of people beyond myself at that church used translations like the ESV and LSB).

It may not be helpful to anyone, but in case it is, I wanted to post some of my slides from those two talks and give a few main points here.

1. Dunning and Kruger

I began (at the church; unfortunately this part had to be cut for Contend because I didn't have as much time) with explaining the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is named after the authors who described it in this 1999 article, and which Tom Nichols wrote about in his excellent book, The Death of Expertise (which should be required reading for anyone engaging in the TR/KJV issue). In short, when we first start to learn something, we don't know enough to know what we don't know, then there comes a time when we realize how much we don't know (and that can be unsettling), and finally, if we stick with it, we achieve competence. On a chart, these three phases are sometimes called Mount Stupid, the Valley of Despair, and the Plateau of Sustainability (I didn't come up with those names, but they fit). My casual observation is that a lot of the people who 'go wrong' when it comes to manuscripts and textual criticism do so because they get hurt falling from Mount Stupid into the Valley of Despair, so to avoid living in that pain, they climb back up Mount Stupid and build a fortress there. It's not the mountain that hurts, it's the fall. Basil Manly Jr. [The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration Explained and Vindicated] even observed this phenomenon in 1888.

2. Examples of Uncertainties

In the talk I did give a very brief "We have over 5,000 manuscripts" section, but I figure that most people who are coming to an SBC seminary for an apologetics event probably already have a baseline of belief in the Scriptures, so that part wasn't very long. It's probably what they came to hear though; sorry for the disappointment! I think it might be more helpful to dive right in to the uncomfortable part—uncertainties. Nobody likes to be uncertain about God's Word, but because of how God has acted in history, somebody has to sort out the differences among manuscripts, and if we are concerned about this, then we should have an accurate picture of what that looks like and what the degree of uncertainty actually is.

I started with Maurice Robinson's figure that for ~94% of the text, the Critical Text and the Byzantine/Majority text (however you want to describe it/them) are identical. There is no reason to be uncertain about that part of the text.

That still leaves ~6% though. It's important to keep in mind that within that 6% we are not dealing with an "anything goes" approach to the text. Instead, it's a place where we might not be sure if the text is this reading or that reading. It's a an uncertain decision within a certain and finite number of possibilities (usually 2, very occasionally 3, and off the top of my head, I can't think of any instances where there are more than 3 possibilities). Additionally, when we have made earlier discoveries, they have generally just confirmed what we already thought the text would be; they don't drastically change it. In other words, they're never going to dig up a new manuscript and because of it take John 3:16 out of the Bible. You can stop worrying about that ever happening.

I give one of my favorite examples: the spelling of Legion in Luke 8:30. Does it matter? Well it's God's Word, so of course it matters, but also, no it doesn't because it's not something that can even be represented by a translation into normal English (i.e. you'd have to go out of your way to point out that it's an issue). You might not even notice it if you were reading it in Greek.

Obviously, being uncertain about the spelling of a word when 1. we are certain what the word is, and 2. we are certain that it's either this spelling or that spelling, and 3. it's a non-translatable difference—that's an uncertainty I can live with. If you can't live with that uncertainty, then you might want to consider whether you are more concerned with being the one who is certain than you are with what you are actually trying to be certain about.

Another example: Assuming I counted correctly when I made this slide, there are 10 ECM split lines in Acts where the ECM editors are unsure if the Initial Text is δέ or τέ—is it 'and', or is it 'and'? Sure, they are different words, so there's nuance, but it's not a difference between 'and' and 'Jesus wasn't really raised form the dead' The difference between 'and' (δέ) and 'and' (τέ) is not something that our salvation depends on (screenshots are the beginnings of the respective entries in BDAG).

If you want to have 'maximum uncertainty' by taking all the differences between the TR and modern editions and calling each of those places uncertain, there are still times when we have something that, while it is different, it ultimately doesn't matter. For example, in Acts 18:26, is it Aquila and Priscilla, or is it Priscilla and Aquila? That's not something that a normal person should lose sleep over.

Now, to be clear, not all textual variants are meaningless. Some do make a big difference. At Luke 10, for example, were 70 or 72 sent? That matters for inerrancy because historically, an actual number of people were sent, and both 70 and 72 can't be correct—one of them can't be inerrant. I don't want to downplay textual variation and act like there aren't some significant issues—there are—but I do want to keep in mind that:
  1. It isn't anything goes—it's a question of the correct reading among a finite number of knowns.
  2. Any new discovery isn't going to change this. At best (or worst, depending on how you want to see it), it might shift the balance between knowns.  You can see trace this out by looking at all the possibly-2nd-century papyri and comparing editions at the text they have from before they were discovered with editions at the same place after they were discovered (I did this in an ETS paper a couple years ago).
  3. Even with respect to the big issues, the truth of the Gospel is not in jeopardy when it comes to textual variants. How can we know this? Read the KJV side-by-side with the ESV and ask yourself if they are telling the same story.

3. Theological observations

That brings me to what I think is the most important part of my talk: theological observations about this stuff.

At the risk of offending someone, I'll point this out: There's an interesting difference in 1 Cor. 9:8.

If we get caught up in textual variations and think there's no epistemic foundation for Christianity if we don't adopt a particular text, then this verse isn't true—God is not able to make all grace abound to us. It is true though, even though the Greek texts differ. God doesn't just do that for people who read the ESV, and he doesn't just do that for people who read the KJV. He does it for all his children. Sufficiency doesn't mean perfection, by the way. It means 'enough'—God gives us enough—all we need. One commenter going by Christian (I assume Christian McShaffrey) said "I enjoy maximum certainty (i.e., all the certainty that any mere man can obtain, and all the certainty that we need)." I agree with that, and I think we have that even in the ESV. I also don't think that the amount of 'certainty' we have is what determines what's true or not. I don't know about you, but I've been certain before about things and found out that I was certainly wrong.

An easy way to remember this is when you are tempted to doubt God because of textual variants, ask yourself, "Do I trust God, or do I just trust myself to understand everything? Do I trust God or not?" Then, if the answer is "Yes, I do trust God," remember that God is never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you. He's never gonna make you cry, never gonna say goodbye, never gonna tell a lie and hurt you.

" one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand" (John 10:29)

"Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

"...I will never leave you nor forsake you." (Hebrews 13:5"

"He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more..." (Rev. 21:4)

"...and so we will always be with the Lord." (1 Thess. 4:17)

" is impossible for God to lie..." (Hebrews 6:18)

Then, I move to some quotes from Basil Manly, Jr., John Dagg [Manual of Theology], and Vern Poythress. I'll post those here as they seem to be fairly self-explanatory:

The bit in bold from Manly might be the most important thing I said the whole time.

I was particularly helped by Poythress, from his book Inerrancy and the Gospels. He has a section on what he calls intellectual suffering, which is incredibly helpful. I've recommended it to several people. His context is how to deal with apparent discrepancies among the Gospels, but it applies to the uncertainties of textual criticism as well.

So what do we do with the fact that God has done things in such a way that we have to acknowledge uncertainties at times? Are there good aspects to these uncertainties? Actually yes, there are! And no, it's not because anybody just wants to be uncertain. Nobody wants that (nobody that I know, at least), and it really can be uncomfortable, but the process of sanctification is uncomfortable at times. Maybe it hurts because it's supposed to.


Finally, a summary:


  1. Elijah
    Thank you for this article!
    I agree with your approach!
    When I was a boy, in the late 50's and early 60's, in Scotland, I was taught by men who used AV/KJV and (ERV) and Scrivener's 1881/1894 TR/RV Greek NT and Souter's 1910 Greek New Testament. They advised me to read publicly from AV, and correct it publicly only where absolutely necessary - in order to preserve what all shades of opinion in the nineteenth century called "our common version". But, they allowed that, even in public, one might refer to variant readings and other translations. All this was quite normal, and accepted, by "ordinary" Christians, and by others, without any rancour etc.. The rule that I came away with, in the case of uncertain reading and/or translation : do not hide them;, hold them in tension; consider that, if A were the reading, then aaaa would be the meaning - but, if B were the reading, then bbbb would be the meaning; and never establish fact or doctrine on uncertain reading and/or translation. I think that many churches and individuals may have departed from such wisdom; but your audience and you have, through your article, recalled us to it.

    1. Alexander, Thank you for your kind words. There are other, more subtle ways (at times, if the nature of the variation permits) to do this as well. Because of bad circumstances (a senior pastor in unrepentant, abusive sin, and an elder board who refused to hold him accountable; I'll spare the details), I ended up leaving the church where I was on staff and spending a few months back at this TR church where I was ordained as a regular member. One time, the TR pastor was preaching from Jude, and I noticed that the way he preached Jude 1 allowed for both readings—both the KJV and modern translations have something that is true there, though they differ and both can't be original. The Father sanctifies us (KJV) and he loves us (modern). I can't remember the exact details, but the general flow of what the pastor said was that the Father sanctifies us by loving us, and then he went into a section on sanctification and it being rooted in God's love for his children and his desire for us to be holy, like he is holy.

    2. Alexander Thomson4/30/2024 11:57 am

      Elijah, I feel for you in the matter of the aberrant pastor and the cowardly elders, as I had the same experience in the case of a man whom I thought that I knew well, having had fellowship with him over several years, and even after lodging for a few months [between jobs] with him and his family [but that is when my first doubts arose]. My experience of over sixty-five years is that both the quantity and quality of church Bible study has declined, the mid-week meeting has been hijacked for non-serious matters, and Christians are not dropping in to other Christians homes for what are very often fruitful discussions. And, as to reading and study….well, reading statistics on both sides of the Big Pond speak volumes! In short, our current congregations are not as aware/educated/competent as they ought to be.

  2. Richard Fellows4/29/2024 6:02 pm

    Actually, people SHOULD be losing sleep over whether Priscilla/Prisca was named before Aquila. Name order signalled prominence, and females were often demoted by transposition. It is part of a pattern of sexist textual variants. See my CBQ article here See also my imminently forthcoming JSNT article.

    1. He did say a normal person.

    2. Read this from Harnack carefully:
      ... and try to sleep.

    3. Alexander Thomson5/02/2024 8:00 am

      It’s behind a paywall, and it’s in German! Any English translation or summary available, please?

    4. TvLopik: you will find a reference to V. Harnack in Metzger's TC Comm. to Acta 18:26

    5. This anonymous is me, for clearness' sake. Teunis van Lopik

  3. Elijah, I hope that the day will come when people will come out of their trenches and realize that there are readings that are clearly superior in the Alexandrian text and some on the Byzantine side. When those camps begin to make concessions, we will all learn that 6% was an inflated number that more looks like 0.X%.

    1. Agreed. I was just thinking about how this blog's contributor list (seeing Maurice Robinson's photo alongside Elijah Hickson and Peter Gurry) is itself a wonderful step in that direction. Keep up the good work!

    2. Alexander Thomson4/30/2024 12:41 pm

      Your apt comment prompts me to say that Christians did were out of trenches over one hundred and thirty years ago - but that they subsequently went into trenches! Scrivener published his AV/RV Greek volume in 1881 and in 1894 another edition was published. Anyone using that work saw immediately where the TR/CT differences lay. If they wished to pursue the manuscript evidence for the differences, they had only to consult Souter’s excellent apparatus in his 1910 Greek NT. And/or they might consult Gebhardt’s volume of 1881 [and following editions]. and/or Weymouth’s volume of [1886 and] 1892. We must not overlook Scrivener’s Parallel NT of 1882, which had, on the left page, AV and RV; and, on the right page, TR text and RV variants, with a blank column for one’s own notes. I can say, from my own experience and that of my father’s and grandfather’s generations in Scotland and the North of England and beyond, that these volumes were owned and used by “ordinary” and working-class men [who taught themselves, and one another, Greek]. Textual and translational differences were well-known, and were not feared. Congregations were aware of them, and were not disturbed. So, what happened? The arrival of television and an increasing technological and consumerist society [much of it from the US to a more-than-receptive UK]. Increasingly [and one can see this in the figures for the declining level of functional literacy in both countries], Bible *study* declined. Additionally, the anti-RSV tirade from the US, from the mid-forties onwards, and the ‘fundamentalist’ mindset from the US [which had forgotten or distorted the more sensible attitude shown in “The Fundamentals” pamphlets/booklets] invaded the UK, and had a devastating effect among British Evangelicals. It has been a long and painful struggle, on both sides of the Big Pond, to free ourselves from such intruded negativity : some victories have been one - but lasting, and perhaps irreversible, damage has been done in the matter of getting many good Christians to accept that there can be differences of text and/or translation, that need not wreck their faith

    3. Alexander, your observations are spot on. Thank you! I think that we are in a position today to even go a step further. In addition to showing textual variants in a footnote, we should also add the knowledge we have gained from reasoned eclecticism over the last 100 years or so to give the people of God the tools to make an informed and scientific decision as to which is, most likely, the original reading without diminishing Alexandrian or Byzantine readings to secondary positions. One copy should correct another as the old saying goes and the only way we can do that is by placing them on equal footing so one tradition can benefit from another. Our focus should be the text of scriptures and not a defense of a particular transmission line. After all, they are all witnesses to the text, having sprung from the same common source.

    4. Demian,
      I have long tried to persuade publishers and customers, but without success, to make a distinction between the everyday/carrying Bible and the desk/study Bible. I propose that the latter be printed on A4 size paper, in logical blocs/pericopes, with both full textual cross-references and thematic references, all on the one page. On the other page would be textual and translational variants and notes, and space for one's own notes. The Bible could be interleaved, or (better) loose leaf, so that one could add A4 pages of notes to the content of one's heart. [I often put the original page in a clear/clear glass punched pocket.] A translation that is not copyrighted, and which has a very generous public licence - such as the World English Bible [WEB] could be used as the base. It wouldn't take many Christian businessmen chipping in, nor many Christian nerds, to produce an in expensive product, on the no-profit principle: and the product need not be a "premium" Bible, but one of robust-enough normal business standard.

  4. For what it’s worth, yes, the “Christian” commenter’s surname is indeed McShaffrey. Thanks for the honorable mention, brother.

    Still, I honestly don’t see how you could agree with my comment because you know I was referencing EF Hills, who affirmed that God had kept textual uncertainties “down to a minimum” through his special providence.

    Following your advice in point 4 of the “How to approach the issue” slide, I just flipped through the NKJV and saw textual uncertainties noted on every single page.

    Surely, the phrase “down to a minimum” cannot be regarded as synonymous with “on every single page” — right?

    1. Christian,
      When I studied, in depth, Homer with two renowned Greek scholars, one of whom advocated that there was little interpolation into the text, and the other of whom thought that as much as twenty percent was might have been interpolated, none of the three of us panicked or thought that we could not "recover" "the original text" : we worked within the parameters of agreement and disagreement; built agreed arguments and conclusions on agreed items; and each added our own further thoughts, recognising that such had to be tentative. In subsequent studies in Greek and Latin literature, I never saw any text where there was 100% accurate transmission - and there was often appreciably less; but I never concluded that I could not get a very good idea of what the author was saying. Now, I think that all sides are agreed that Maurice Robinson's figure of 94% agreement is very acceptable. Frankly, for ancient literature, this is a very high level of confidence. What is the insurmountable problem in the remaining 6%? Of that remainder, as we all surely know, a great deal makes no difference whatsoever to doctrine; while the small residue, covering (I suppose) mainly Christology, can be set aside, if there is argument as to text and/or translation, as there are undisputed texts elsewhere in the New Testament. I held that position for many years as a Trinitarian; and I hold it now as a Biblical Unitarian. Once, as with Hills, you accept that there *are* textual uncertainties in the Greek New Testament - no matter how few - then any argument about "perfect preservation" etc. is just pseudo-philosophical posturing and factual nonsense. Hills' position - and mine - is that the Greek New Testament has been transmitted with such care thatwe can have great confidence ["maximal certainty"] that a very high percentage of what we have is what we were intended to have ["providential preservation"]; so that we have been left with the task of diligently and patiently searching out that small percentage that does not prevent us from already coming to true conclusions about the doctrine taught in the Greek New Testament.

    2. Curious, did your unitarianism lead you to the critical text or was it the critical text that led you to unitarianism?

    3. Christian, you wrote: "Surely, the phrase 'down to a minimum' cannot be regarded as synonymous with 'on every single page' — right?"

      I don't see why you say this. The minimum is whatever it is. If the minimum is variants on every page, then so be it.

    4. Anonymous.
      I'm not sure that I know the answer to that sensible question!
      Even before beginning to learn Greek at school at the age of 14' I would take my AV/KJV and my RV and some Bible Helps up into the local hills, often staying there overnight on Friday evening / Saturday evening or Saturday morning /Sunday morning. During the week, I would consult my little, but growing, library; and I would consult the books of others. I formed two main doubts : 1. the immortality of the soul; and 2. the Trinity. The variant readings in such texts as John 01:18 and 1 Timothy 03:16, were known to me; an d the variant translations of such texts as Romans 09:05, Titus 02:13, 2 Peter 01:01, were also known to me. After a couple of years of learning Greek, I could understand much better the parameters of, and discussions about, such texts. My doubts about soul immortality and Trinity remained, and grew stronger; but my Christian environment and my (apparently) idiosyncratic views caused me to hold my tongue (as I was also advised to do by my not unsympathetic Baptist minister). About twenty years ago, I finally declared myself to be a Biblical Unitarian, and I was promptly cut off by many. On the matter of the Greek text, I came away from the Received Text, going towards the Byzantine Text, but taking account of the Critical Text where it seemed to have a plausible reading. Whether Trinitarian or Biblical Unitarian, I was always concerned to examine the best arguments for the Greek reading, and to translate that text honestly.

    5. Alexander,

      Thanks for taking the time to address my question. This is Christian, by the way. I should have entered my name.

      I have always found the historical connection between unitarianism and textual criticism noteworthy.

      Even more interesting, at least to me, is how unitarians also adopted Bart Ehrman’s “orthodox corruption” theory (i.e., that the text was modified by scribes with a trinitarian agenda).

      Keep examining the best arguments, friend. I pray that you will someday come to confess that “God” was indeed manifest in the flesh.


    6. Eric,

      I agree that the minimum is whatever it is, but it is simply not honest to equate the approach and expectation of Hills with that of Hixson.

      Hills acknowledged less than a dozen difficulties in the entire New Testament while Hixson is willing to allow for a dozen verses on a single page.


    7. Hi Christian (I'm sorry for the delay in responding—finals week!), thanks for your response. Some thoughts:

      1. I don't know that it's honest to say that I would allow for a dozen verses on a single page. It's technically true—I would do it, but only once: at the end of Mark. Even the PA in John, despite my immense respect for the venerable Maurice Robinson, I wouldn't call those verses uncertain but rather certainly later (to the degree that a finite creature can be certain of historical matters). The way you phrase it sounds like every verse it totally up for grabs, or at minimum, 12 whole verses on every page of the NT, which is explicitly not my position, as the above post intends to show.

      2. "Expectation" of Hills I think is the right word, or at least, it's a word in the right direction. I'm not convinced by 'expectation' though. I'm with Eric on this—the minimum is whatever God in his providence has allowed the minimum to be. Our desires for more than that do not change what the truth it, nor is the truth determined by how much we want it or how well it suits our expectations. Many Jews in Jesus' day expected a political messiah, and through their wrong expectations, they missed the real one. How I can say I agree with you on the concept of maximum certainty: What we have (whatever that is) is all we need. If we need more than that, then there's a different problem somewhere along the line that's leading to our need for more certainty than God has given us. Without faith it is impossible to please God, and there is a sense in which *for some people*, a desire for more certainty than the something like the ESV allows *might* reflect a lack of faith, or at least a desire to have something that can be seen instead of something that must be believed by faith. ("These be thy gods").

      2, part 2. I've heard a lot of people say that the TR position isn't an evidence-based position but a faith-based position, which would render my thought 2. invalid. I don't think that's actually the case though. It might be in name, but what I do see is a lot of people trying to force the evidence to support the TR or to use evidence to undermine non-TR translations. Those are sure markers of an evidence-based position, regardless of what anyone calls it. A truly faith-based position would be able to say "I don't understand a lot about textual criticism, but what I do know is that God has used the TR faithfully for over 400 years, and I know that it's safe" and not be bothered by the evidence one way or another. I've known plenty of people who have that approach, but they usually don't make a big splash in this area on this side of eternity. They're busy pursuing sanctification and living their lives to the glory of God in other ways.

    8. Christian.,
      It is a pleasure to have decent dialogue!
      Yes, there has been a notable connection between Unitarianism (of the Biblical sort) and textual criticism, a connection so prominent in the anti/Trinitarian debates of the 17th and 18th centuries [so rarely mentioned, let alone discussed or studied in seminaries etc.!]. And writers such as Hanson etc. have remarked that Unitarians seem often to have the better Scripture arguments! Now we are seeing, as I have realised, an attack against "Biblicism", with the claim that "Sola Scriptura" does not mean "Solo Scriptura"! The biblical Unitarians are rattling the Trinitarian cages! I do not adopt Ehrman's thesis [generally, though it may be true in some instances] : indeed, I have always held the tradition al readings at John 01:18, 1 Timothy 03:16, etc.. These two texts throw up a usage of "Theos/God" without the article : it is not "ho Theos = GOD" - a quantity of "God" - who was was "expounded" or "manifested": rather, what God is, qualitatively, was expounded and manifested in and by the Anointed Man Jesus.
      Every Blessing!

    9. Christian,
      Two points:-
      1. Even a dozen points completely destroys the thesis that we have, and know that we have, the whole of the originally inspired Greek New Testament;
      2. Unfortunately, for Trinitarians, some of these dozen points involve Christological/Trinitarian texts.

    10. Greetings Elijah,

      Thank you for the thoughtful response.

      I appreciate your reticence to admit “every verse is totally up for grabs...” but how can a textual evidentialist say that? What if another Nag Hammadi, or St. Catherine’s Monastery, or Dead Sea Scrolls discovery is made?

      Your accusation of unfounded exceptions might stick if the Bible did not make promises concerning its own stability and preservation (e.g., Psalm 119:89; Isaiah 40:8; Matthew 5:18, 24:35). The hinted at accusation of idolatry is not appreciated, by the way.

      True, many in my camp will address evidence, but it is not (or, should not be) presented as an ultimate tool of persuasion because we know that evidence is always interpreted in light of presuppositions.


    11. Alexander,

      Agreed, intelligent dialogue is nice, but to what avail? Shall we post comments into the vacuous interwebs about the exegetical value of definite articles while the eternal estate of souls is at stake?

      We have God’s testimony concerning the eternal generation of his Son and no suspected variant under the sun can cast a shade of epistemological doubt upon it. “Let all the angels of God worship him.”

      Also, and according to the header, this is an “evangelical” blog, so where is everyone else? Are any of the readers, perhaps, beginning to see the tragic end of textual uncertainty?


    12. *expectations*

    13. Hi Christian,

      Thanks for this. A couple more thoughts (sorry this is so long it's in multiple parts, but I've learned that if someone with my position is not extremely careful to nuance what he or she says, a TR person may very well see it and immediately assume the worst and try to twist it to make it out to be much worse than it is, as what has happened with the Dan Wallace quote, but also things I have said as well):

      1. "how can a textual evidentialist say that?" I've seen several TR people say things like this, but what I have *not* seen is a TR person say "Maybe 'textual evidentialists' can say that because they know what the data is and understand it better than I do." Is that such a difficult idea though? I don't mean to be arrogant at all when I say that; to illustrate. A couple friends of mine each have a PhD in systematic theology and have both been teaching it at the graduate level for several years. I, on the other hand, took three MDiv courses on systematic theology in seminary (which is three more courses than most people take on textual criticism, by the way). Even though I have still read systematic theology after taking those courses, in no universe would I think that I understand it better than they do or even know all the right information to be able to synthesize it like they can. I don't think anybody would be surprised if we all took a theology exam and it turned out that I am objectively dumber than both of them. Especially because it's something in which they've developed an expertise and have worked in full-time for several years and I haven't. Additionally, Nag Hammadi and DSS are largely irrelevant to the text of the New Testament. I can't think of any way the St. Catherine's New Finds have changed anything unexpected (though I could be wrong), and with Sinaiticus, the thing it did was give corroboration to other early forms of the text that were already known (but known insufficiently) back in the time of Erasmus, so again, not an anything goes idea but a decision among knowns (or where there was already some discussion of issues in the text) idea. Sinaiticus can't be taken in isolation from Alexandrinus and Vaticanus (the latter of which only became really available in the 1800s, if I recall correctly; before that it was just reports from people who had seen it, which were neither complete nor always correct). In fact, I'd say that the very examples you give are evidence that you might not really understand how it works as well as you might think you do. On Scripture's own testimony to its stability and preservation, this is again expectations. Your expectations of what stability and preservation must look like seem to be the problem, not those verses themselves. I don't have a problem with them meshing with my position, because I don't expect from them something more than they are claiming.

    14. Elijah,

      I stand ready to confess my sin and seek your forgiveness, but I’m honestly not sure what the inter-personal offense is at this point.

      The thoughts and intents of your heart were not called into question, just the form of a qualified apology.

      Honestly, this is getting kind of weird, brother. We can talk on the phone if you would like. My number is linked behind my name.


    15. Hi Christian, thanks for this.

      I make things weird. It's what I do. I've heard I'm pretty good at it.

      I still suspect we're speaking past each other. For the two people still reading:

      1. I made a comparison to the idolatry of the Israelites.
      2. You replied, "The hinted at accusation of idolatry is not appreciated, by the way."
      3. That statement is ambiguous. It could mean either something like "I don't appreciate that you accused me of idolatry" OR it could mean something like "I don't appreciate that you suggest that some people who take my position do so for idolatrous reasons."
      4. I'm not going to apologize for accusing you of idolatry, because I never did that. I try not to make a habit of apologizing for doing things I didn't do.
      5. I'm also not going to apologize for suggesting that some people (certainly not all, and per point 4, I didn't mean you) have a TR position that is similar to the idolatry of the Israelites, because, as I said, I stand by what I said about that.
      **6. However, it is certainly possible that when I made the initial comparison, I did it without sufficient care to convey that I was not talking about you. It's certainly possible that I was too ambiguous, which gave you reason to interpret it as though I were accusing you of idolatry. I will certainly apologize for that. That would be completely my fault.
      7. I don't know how you took it, so I don't know if no. 6 applies (in which case, I should apologize), or if nos. 4 and/or 5 apply (in which case, I have nothing to apologize for).
      8. Hence my qualification: I don't want to assume what you are thinking. If no. 4, then I won't apologize. If no. 5, then I won't apologize. But if no. 6, then I will absolutely apologize, and genuinely so.
      9. I understood your reply to mean that you think that I did not give a real apology. A sort-of half-apology that's really not one at all.
      10. I say that that is accusing me of dishonesty, because *I would absolutely be dishonest,* were that what happened, except that it was not a half-yes-really-no, it was a firm no, or a firm yes, but rather, an uncertainty as to which. Half-apologies *do* reveal the thoughts and intentions of someone's heart. They can absolutely show if someone has an issue with pride.

      From there on out, I think it could be summed up by "we were talking past each other."

      So, ***working on the assumption that the problem was no. 6: Please forgive me for carelessly making the comparison to OT idolatry in a way that led you to believe I was talking about you. I was not. I should have been more clear that I was talking about others, not you; I should have been more careful with my words and how I phrased it. Please forgive me.

    16. Dear brother,

      To be honest, this entry reads kind of like the textual apparatus of the ECM, so I’ll just focus on your conclusion.

      I was not then, am not now, nor do I plan to be offended by anything in this thread. It is hereby covered with love.

      You have not shown me any specific fault, so I will assume that no unresolved inter-personal offense remains.


    17. I submit that both positions contain elements of truth and error. Elijah Hixson is correct that we cannot overlook the evidence, but, if his position coincides with the scholarship behind the Nestle-Aland text, evidence for him will tend to boil down to two Alexandrian codices and whatever agrees with them with a few exceptions here and there. Christian has the text that, when one examines the evidence holistically, is the closest to the original. It just needs minor corrections to be more aligned with the evidence from the Greek manuscripts, the versions and patristic writings. And this evidence is massive, having been miraculously preserved. Whatever is buried in the sand will not change fundamentally what we have today.

      The textus receptus is a master-piece that God gave to the church in the west and these necessary corrections will only improve its reliability. We should not fear the evidence, Christian. If you look carefully, when it comes to translatable differences from Matthew to Jude, the evidence is actually overwhelmingly in your favor. We should be thankful for the Nestle-Aland text, the Majority Text, Wilbur Pickering family 35, the patriarchal text, the vulgates, patristic writings and all the evidence that has been put together in those variant apparatuses. They are friends, not enemies!

    18. Christian,

      1. I was not going to comment on your response to me, as it savoured, not of the courteous dialgue that we had been having, but of a pique quite unworthy of you. But this remark to Elijah, "You have a hell-bound heretic you should be engaging," really is an insult, and has no place in the spere of textual criticism. Have I called you "a hell-bound heretic"?

      2. The presence or absence of the definite article can have a crucial importance for translation and interpretation; and it cannot be ignored.

      3. I know of no testimony of God concerning a supposed "eternal generation"; and, as you must know, some Trinitarians know of no such testimony.

      4. You must surely be aware that the Hebrew and Greek words often rendered as "worship", have a wide semantic range, from the respectful bow of a high courtier to the abject salaam of a slave. To "worship" is to give to each his "worth.ship" : even in English, we address the Mayor as "Your Worship"; and, when I married my wife, I promised to "worship" her with my body.

      Mere assertion, from a "presuppositional" or "confessional" stance, has no place in rational discussion; and you are capable of better.

    19. Alexander, I’m not sure how settled you are in your unitarianism, but this is a serious error. If you look at the context of Hebrews 1, that worship mentioned in Hebrews 1:6, cannot be simple obeisance to an elevated man. If you just go down two verses, you will notice that the apostle quotes Psalm 102:25-27 and says that it refers to the Son. All you have to do is to read psalm 102 and you will soon realize that verses 25 through 27 is about YHWH. God says that his glory he gives to no other and the New Testament consistently applies the worship due to the Father equally to the Son like all knee will bow to Him (Colossians 2:10-11) and whoever calls on his name shall be saved (Rom 10:13), which is language applied only to YHWH in the Old Testament. And eternal generation is just a natural deduction from the general teaching of the word of God. God never changes, otherwise he is not God. So, there cannot be an eternal Father without a Son eternally, otherwise there was a time in which the Father was not a Father. And this is completely consistent with the tenor of the New Testament. May God bless you and guide into his truth. Lastly, I do not intend to engage in a back and forth with you here because this space is about textual criticism, but if there is openness in you to reconsider your position, I wanted to leave a few words for your consideration. God bless you!

      This is Demian, by the way.

    20. Alexander,

      Thanks for pushing back, I appreciate it.

      The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a non-negotiable tenet of orthodoxy. It truly is, in my mind, a Quicunque Vult issue.

      At the same time, I will admit that using you as a tool of argumentation against someone else was unkind. Will you please forgive me?

      The testimony concerning God’s Son is sufficiently summarized in a single inspired word: monogenes

      I know... the unitarians and modern critics will cringe… and that is why I mentioned the historical connection earlier.

      Translating Greek words and weighing the function of definite articles is, I admit, somewhat fun; but not when it leaves souls deceived.

      Mere assertion does have a place in rational discussion. So do unqualified imperatives like, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”


    21. Hi Christian,

      You say "The thoughts and intents of your heart were not called into question, just the form of a qualified apology."

      I say there's no way to say "I will not even engage the “Please forgive me if...” construct. It is not a true apology and that’s fine, because I don’t need one." without calling into question the thoughts and intentions of one's heart—in effect, calling someone a liar.

      That's fine; we can agree to disagree.

      On the matters you raised concerning epistemology and apologetics—that's the easy part: I've seen enough of the data, I know enough about the history of it, its discovery, and its interpretation throughout history, and I have a pretty good grasp on how it is interpreted now to know that the hypotheticals raised by TR advocates are unfounded.

      Any such change will have to have an argument that will convince not just one or two people, but a consensus, and I know that any new discovery/-ies would have to be on an unprecedented scale to do so. Not just one, but multiple in different locations and all sufficiently early, to introduce a reading presently unknown into the text. There would have to be enough to prove (as much as can be proven historically) that these discoveries are not reflecting local archetypes with an early error but are actually reflecting the original text.

      My impression of the "but Sinaiticus!" objections is, again, people who make those objections don't really know what the data is or how it is evaluated. I know it sounds harsh though. Sinaiticus and Vaticanus don't exist in a vacuum. There's a history going all the way back to Irenaeus, and we see it all along the way as well, including discussions of church fathers, marginalia in manuscripts like 1739 and 1424. In general, we have always known about textual variants, ways they occur, etc. If everyone agrees that the text is stable and secure at [x], and then a manuscript turns up that disagrees with that, then the first question to ask is "is it an error in this manuscript?" *Even if it's the earliest manuscript.*

      In effect, 1.) evidentially, I've never seen anything to suggest that the textual disaster that TR advocates claim is possible is actually possible. I'm probably more likely to win the lottery 5 times (having never so much as bought a single lottery ticket, and never intend to), than for John 3:16 to get taken out of the Bible, and 2.) I trust God to give me what is sufficient and to preserve his Word in the way he deems best to do so, and so by faith, I trust that there won't be any such discoveries on such an unprecedented scale required to do what TR advocates say is possible.

      That's not a very big leap of faith though. It's more like baby steps of faith. But someone probably does have to know and understand that history and be willing to consider that the claims like "you could lose John 3:16 from your Bible" are unfounded for that to be convincing. One might have to commit to reading textual criticism to understand it and not just to mine for scary quotes or look for any potential places to attack it. (I am not trying to suggest that you do that, but I have seen others seem to do just that).

      Or, one could trust the people who know it better than he or she does. That's what I have to do with the Old Testament. I'm glad I have brothers in Christ I can ask about things like that. We're all the many members of one body (1 Cor. 12), after all, so I think that's God's purpose—to appoint some people to do some things and other people to do other things. Housman even said "Not to be a textual critic is no reproach to anyone, unless he pretends to be what he is not."

    22. Hi Elijah,

      Ireneaus is a good example of material that can be found in the antenicene period that disappeared in codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. Ireneaus had Mark 16:19 in his Bible in line with the TR, codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus do not.


    23. Hi Demian,

      I agree—Irenaeus had a version of Mark that included some form of 16:9–20. Definitely. The "Long Ending" is unquestionably early—the question is "is it original or not." But Sinaiticus and Vaticanus aren't in isolation. We also have Jerome and Eusebius (even if one is repeating from the other) claiming to know of other copies that end at v. 8, there are the notes about copies ending at v. 8 as attested by Fam. 1 manuscripts, there's the issue of the original form of Eusebius' apparatus, which seems to omit the Long Ending, if I recall, there's the "difference voice" of the Greek of vv. 9–20, etc. Nobody saw Sinaiticus in isolation from all that and said "well! it's the earliest one! guess we gotta throw those verses out now!"


    24. Elijah,

      It is indeed possible for someone to offer an ineffectual apology without lying. And, yes, I too am content to disagree and let it go.

      Concerning the interpretation of evidence, we *did* have a consensus. It was confirmed by use on four continents and for nearly four centuries.

      Trust the experts? That’s really your conclusion? I know someone who did that and ended up wearing a mask while driving with no passengers in the car a couple years ago.

      Even if that was the solution, the question still stands: “Which experts? Why can’t they agree? And what if Beza was a better expert than you?”


    25. Hi Christian,

      Again, know the data—printing a text, then disagreeing with it in the annotations, and then someone else printing the text because it's what was printed, and then someone taking that text without all that background knowledge—that's a consensus built on ignorance. Could be zeal, but not according to knowledge.

      I'm not saying trust the scholars, I'm saying obey 1 Cor. 12.

      Regarding which experts: Beza may well have been a better expert than me (*and your appeal to him might lead one to think that the TR position is in a sense just "trust the experts, but not THOSE experts. Trust the ones *I* tell you to trust") but Beza didn't have the data that I have. Little people like us can stand on the shoulders of giants and still see further than the giants. Though I think the number of conjectures Beza put in his text would disqualify him if he were alive today, especially given the TR discussions I've seen about 2 Pet. 3:10 (which in a sense might should not even qualify as a conjecture since there is versional evidence for it).

      Which experts? Maybe this is an example of Vern Poythress' "Intellectual suffering" that I mentioned up in the original post.

    26. Elijah,

      You speak of *giants* and yet conclude that their consensus was built on ignorance. Remember, that’s exactly what the unitarians did to the Nicene fathers.

      I don’t know about “Intellectual Suffering,” but I now know of “Internet Suffering” through unproductive comment threads. :)

      You can have the last word, brother. I’m sure our paths will cross again.


    27. Hi Elijah,

      Jerome not only included the long ending of Mark in the vulgate, but also commented on what is found in Mark 16:9 in his commentary on Matthew 28. The fact that he parroted what Eusebius wrote to Marinus is not representative of his view. Along with codex W, he was even aware of the evidence of the freer-logion that he had found in Greek copies as well. Eusebius in his letter to Marinus gave him two possible solutions to the issue of the time of the resurrection, reflecting two different traditions in Egypt. I will grant though that he leaned towards the omission, because of where his canons ended, if we are to trust the notes in family of manuscripts f1. But remember that Marinus had the long ending of Mark in his Bible, otherwise his question would have been meaningless. And Irenaeus is not the only one to have possessed this scripture in the 100’s. The Diatessaron also had the long ending of Mark in the 100’s. Hyppolitus in the 200’s, Ambrose and Aphrahat in the 300’s and so many others that used this portion as scripture over the centuries. So, my comment stands. The TR is actually aligned with what the church had in the 100’s and codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are actually reflecting a late and local tradition in Egypt that do not go back to Ireneaus for the long ending of Mark.


  5. Brilliant. Love this article! I'm *not* a pro like many here, but in about a month when we get to John 7:53, I'm being asked to give a three-week lesson on TC and how we can use it to strengthen our faith. This is exactly the kind of approach I want to take. Thanks for posting.

  6. Elijah,

    I have been a student of Greek since my teens, and my professional life includes being both a pastor and a lawyer, mostly at the same time. I have also done years of reading and study of textual criticism. At ETS conferences those are the sessions I have attended.

    This is probably the most helpful and sensitive presentation I have ever seen on the subject. I am always concerned about people's fears when I raise text issues in a Bible study. The concept of sufficiency is refreshing.

    Thank you for this presentation, and to all the commenters, thank you all for a gracious spirit.

    I couldn't get it to take my name, so

  7. 3. (briefly, I hope): "we know that evidence is always interpreted in light of presuppositions". True, but I am convinced that few, if any, in the TR camp know what the evidence is. I see interpretations of what they assume it must be. I know how harsh that sounds, and I wish it weren't the case, but there's really no other explanation I can think of for what I have seen. A good example of this is when Matthew Rose called out Jeff Riddle who in a YouTube video made a comment about manuscripts that was clearly wrong. If I recall, Riddle's story changed—at first it was "no I'm right and it's plainly how I said it." Then, it was "no, you're taking me out of context, I didn't mean it like that," [that shift in itself seemed dishonest to me] which was still not the case. Rose stayed at it, and then the comments all disappeared [which, while it doesn't prove dishonesty or wrongdoing, it certainly makes it look that way]. *Whether it's true or not,* the impression that whole situation gave was that Riddle did not, in fact, know what the data was that he was claiming to interpret by his presuppositions, and when confronted about that, he was unwilling to concede that he had been interpreting the 'data' wrongly because he was interpreting the wrong data—he was interpreting what he assumed it to be and not what it actually was.

    Thanks again, and I apologize again for the long comment,


    1. Elijah,

      Fine, you are probably smarter than me. It doesn’t bother me to admit that.

      The reason I asked, “How can a textual evidentialist say that?" is because we are not now—nor will ever be—in possession of all the evidence.

      Much of it has been irretrievably lost through water, worms, and wars. Some of it may still be buried beneath the sands of Alexandria.

      An evidentialist model (in any field of academic study) is, by definition, subject to immediate change as new evidence is discovered.

      I will not even engage the “Please forgive me if...” construct. It is not a true apology and that’s fine, because I don’t need one. I am not personally offended.

      By the way, intellectual idolatry is no respecter of persons (or positions). Many men bow before “the data” as well.

      You are the expert. I’m just a hobbiest. I get it. So why did you quote me in your presentation? That’s the only reason I posted a comment in the first place.


    2. Hi Christian, thanks for your reply.

      I would agree with you—"if" is normally a good indicator that an apology is not true, and that would be relevant here if (no pun intended) my remarks about idolatry were directed at you personally. They were not. You are free to believe that they were and that I am just lying about that, but I assure you (for whatever that's worth) that they were not directed at you. I do apologize for wording that in such a way that gave you the impression that I was directing it at you (if indeed that was how you took it; I can't read your mind).

      Out of curiosity, how would it be taken if I accused a TR advocate of dishonesty as you have accused me? ("It is not a true apology...")

      That being said, committing the tu quoque fallacy isn't really the best way to dodge a perceived accusation of idolatry though (again, *if* you perceived it as directed at you, which it wasn't).

      I quoted you because I agree with what you said, I just don't think you have a monopoly on the concept. You might not believe it or agree with it, but I assure you that it's possible to interpret the evidential data as a believer and come to a different conclusion than the TR position.

      Thanks again,


    3. Elijah,

      Accused of dishonesty? Come now, even the secular pop-psychologists know that the “if” qualification undermines apologies.

      I do not wish to quarrel with you and, even if I did, this comment thread would not be the best place to do it. Scroll up the page, friend. You have a hell-bound heretic you should be engaging.

      At least we are in perfect agreement on this one thing: It is most definitely possible to come to different—even opposite—conclusions when examining the same exact evidence.

      For example, an atheist will hold up a fossil and say, “Millions of years!” and a believer will hold up the very same fossil and say, “Noah’s flood!”

      All this proves is the limited role of data in apologetics.


  8. Wow… this conversation disintegrated rather quickly. Abusive? Disqualified? Red flags?

    You don’t know me and I don’t know you. Let unrelated experiences and anecdotes therefore be removed from the table.

    I told you that I am not personally offended. If you are, let’s clear it up.

    If not, please move on to the weightier matters I raised concerning epistemology and apologetics.

    1. Hi Christian, I'd say that a matter of accusations of dishonesty *are* weightier matters. If I am being dishonest, then I am in sin. If you are accusing me of dishonesty when I am not, then you are in sin. If I am dishonest and unwilling to repent of my dishonesty, then I am in serious sin. If you are accusing me of dishonesty when I am not dishonest, and you are unwilling to repent of such false witness, then you are in serious sin. We can't both be right. Luke 16:10—"He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much." If you are the one who is wrong here, how can you be trusted on the "weightier matters ... concerning epistemology and apologetics" if you can't be trusted on the smaller matter of admitting fault and repenting when you falsely accused someone? Red herrings, epistemological issues or otherwise, sin is a weighty issue.

      If you're unwilling to admit that you were wrong there (or at least say outright that I am digging in and lying about my intentions), then it's not giving me much confidence that you are able to discern the "weighter matters" correctly, per Luke 16:20.

      And how is it that the one who practices "naturalistic textual criticism" (or "atheistic textual criticism" as I think I've seen it called by some) is the one who is concerned with "believing" issues like sin and repentance here?

  9. Elijah,

    I was notified that a comment posted on 05/03/2024 at 8:46 pm has been deleted. Why? It provides context for my reply and, as we know, “context is king” when it comes to accurate interpretation.


    1. Hi Christian,

      I did not delete the comment, and I am not sure what is going on. I don't even know how to delete comments on this blog. I didn't get such a notification either, though I did notice that the number of comments decreased. According to the Wayback Machine's capture of this webpage on May 6th, it looks like it was two comments from me and one from you between my two. See your comment above that begins with "Accused of dishonesty"—the three comments immediately after that seem to have been deleted (though not by me). Full record here:

  10. Elijah,

    OK. Thanks for the reply. It must have been the cyber gremlins. Have a good week, brother.