A Brief Insight into the New Testament’s Prototyping

The New Testament of today is described as follows regarding the NA28 GNT:

“The intention of this edition lies not in reproducing the “oldest text” presented in the oldest manuscript but in reconstructing the text of the hypothetical master copy from which all manuscripts derive, a text the editors refer to as the initial text.”1

We should therefore understand the New Testament not to be the word of God, but the hypothetical reconstruction of the “word of God”, a prototype, a possibility of what the reconstruction of the initial text may have looked like. When one examines the earliest manuscripts, we quickly find a trend that cannot be sidelined or ignored, the earliest witnesses place us in the late 2nd to 4th centuries CE:

New Testament Diagram Final (1)

A Breakdown of the Earliest Witnesses for the NT Literature

The graph above concisely breaks down what books of the New Testament have as their earliest surviving (extant) witnesses. It also conveniently breaks down the New Testament into its genres and text types. The vast majority of manuscripts are from the 3rd century CE, meaning that the reconstructed prototypes give us a picture of what these completed texts may have looked like during or beyond the 3rd century CE. What is most notable, is that one of the earliest surviving sources attests to 9 books. That does not bode well for multiple attestation. Other books find their earliest witnesses in the 4th century including 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, 2 John and 3 John. These all indicate an intermediate or initial text projected into the 3rd century, some may say the 2nd century. Scholars have long noticed this trend of a later developed text, with one notable scholar explicitly stating:

Our critical editions do not present us with the text that was current in 150, 120 or 100—much less in 80 CE.2

Regarding new methods and changes in the NA28, a 2016 publication by the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society confirms the following:

The application of the CBGM resulted in 34 changes to the main text of
the Catholic Epistles and a slight increase in the number of passages marked as
uncertain. In most cases the changes are of minor significance for interpretation
or translation, but in several cases the changes should not be ignored. At the
difficult variation in Jude 5, for example, the text now reads that it was “Jesus”
(Ἰησοῦς) who once saved a people from Egypt instead of “the Lord” (ὁ κύριος). In
another important change, 2 Pet 3:10 now prints a reading that is not found in any
known Greek witness. Where the previous edition read that the last days would
mean that the earth and all that is in it “will be found” or perhaps “exposed” (εὑρεθήσεται), the text now reads the opposite: the earth and all that is in it “will not
be found” (οὑχ εὑρεθήσεται). The latter reading sits much easier with the surrounding context, but is only attested in a few Coptic and Syriac manuscripts.3

What the data, methods and current status of New Testament Textual Criticism indicates is that we have a text that is much later than is traditionally espoused. The stemmata indicate we currently have reconstructions of a textual form between the late 2nd to 4th centuries CE. There is now an increase in uncertainty regarding the variant units, in other words confidence has been lost in several cases. In other cases we find texts that affect theology or which textual critics indicate are important changes which are labelled as “difficult”, the consequences of which cannot and “should not be ignored”.

We also see in the aforementioned quote that texts now essentially teach the opposite of what they once said! All exegeses commentating on the previous reading have now been rendered invalid by a text reading in the opposite direction altogether. In one other notable case, we also now find a reading in the text that has no manuscript support whatsoever among any known Greek witnesses. All of these trends do not paint a good picture for the state of the New Testament’s reliability. The text of the New Testament today, is not the text known to those at any other time in the past, which brings into doubt their salvation. If  believing in scripture is a criterion for salvation, and the text believed then is not the text now, can we say those in the past truly believed in and embraced the “living word of God”? If the text that penetrated them for guidance is not the text of today, then does it matter at all what the New Testament says?4

Sources:

1 – Trobisch, David. A User’s Guide to the Nestle-Aland 28 Greek New Testament. 9th ed. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), 10.

2 – Petersen, William Lawrence., and Jan Krans. Patristic and Text-Critical Studies: The Collected Essays of William L. Petersen. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 410.

3 – Gurry, Peter J. How Your Greek NT Is Changing: A Simple Introduction to the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM). Vol. 59. Series 4. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 2016, 684-685.

The title of this journal’s essay should not be ignored. The text of the New Testament is indeed changing, to say otherwise is to ignore the very existence of the critical editions.

4 – Hebrews 4:12.

Many commentators have said that the Bible is the living word of God, a scripture that penetrates us spiritually and guides us. If that is the case, then if the text changes, we have to ask, what form of the text is actually the living word of God? If an edition previously caused spiritual changes but is now changed, does that invalidate its spiritual guidance or does it indicate that the changes are wrong and the edition is correct? It’s a dilemma either way, which definitely brings into severe doubt the ideas of scripture, salvation and the work of a living word of God among Christian believers.

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Categories: Bible, Biblical scholarship, Christianity, The Gospel of Jesus

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11 replies

  1. Wow!! Big problems for Christians to deal with here!

    Christians often state that all of the Gospels were written some where between 60 AD to 90 AD. But according to the above the earliest manuscript copies of the same Gospels date between 2nd to 4th Centuries. This alone is a huge problem!!

    But on top of that we find alternate readings which raise questions about reliability of the NT in the first place!!

    If the text that one relies upon as a guide on the path to salvation, is proven to be an unreliable witness then the best thing to do is reject that text and find a text that is reliable – Alhamdullah, we have that reliable text in the form of the Holy Qur’an!!!

    Interesting work Ijaz!! Keep up your studies and efforts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jazakallaahu Khayran, this is only a taste of what is to come. We’ve been acquiring a lot of resources over the past few years and now have much better access to New Testament scholarship. There’s a lot more being worked on, that goes much more in-depth into the technicalities assumed and used for the development of the NT.

      Just waiting on the inevitable Paulus comment saying I’m wrong and then asking about the Qur’an.

      😉

      Liked by 2 people

  2. You are talking about a new method which has only been applied to the Catholic Epistles. This new method, while interesting, is yet to be tested and reviewed by scholars, so anyone could hardly draw any solid conclusions. This method doesn’t yet incorporate Patristic citations or translations, so its attempts at harmonizing and collating variants is still incomplete.

    “In one other notable case, we also now find a reading in the text that has no manuscript support whatsoever among any known Greek witnesses. All of these trends do not paint a good picture for the state of the New Testament’s reliability.”

    Precisely, which is why this new computer technology is still under development. These *Initial* results, need to be “carefully considered, tested and evaluated by other scholars” (Gurry). You act as if these *initial* results on a small sampling (Catholic Epistles) is applicable to all of TC and the New Testament’s *reliability*. Typical Ijazian conflation.

    Oh, BTW, I’m still waiting for you to answer me from the other thread: do you believe the Koran has scribal errors?

    Like

    • [[You are talking about a new method which has only been applied to the Catholic Epistles.]]

      It’s been applied to a lot more than just the Catholic Epistles, it’s the method being used for the ECM.

      [[This new method, while interesting, is yet to be tested and reviewed by scholars, so anyone could hardly draw any solid conclusions.]]

      NA28 came out in 2013, the work done on the CE was done for several years before that in the lead up to the NA’s publishing, atleast 15 years old by now. So let’s get this right, the scholars at the INTF did not test or review it, and they didn’t draw any “solid conclusions” on it, so the prime NTTC publishing and research house decided to use it for the ECM and the NA and the UBS for what reasons? That’s a big mistake that so many scholars from so many critical texts’ committees and publishing houses decided to use something that was not tested or reviewed “by scholars”!

      [[This method doesn’t yet incorporate Patristic citations or translations, so its attempts at harmonizing and collating variants is still incomplete.]]

      The current NA28 text does not use Patristic citations or translations in determining the certainty of a variant unit, not even the NA27 did that. They are all auxiliary resources.

      [[Precisely, which is why this new computer technology is still under development. These *Initial* results, need to be “carefully considered, tested and evaluated by other scholars” (Gurry).]]

      It’s 15 years old, 16 this year. You may need to re-read Gurry, he says the method, not the results, which is what needs to be carefully considered, tested and evaluated by ***other scholars***. Meaning, that unlike what you said above, scholars have already considered, tested and evaluated it for 15 years. It is other scholars who are unfamiliar with it who need to acquaint themselves with the method, hence the purpose of his paper….to explain it to them.

      [[You act as if these *initial* results on a small sampling (Catholic Epistles) is applicable to all of TC and the New Testament’s *reliability*. Typical Ijazian conflation.]]

      The Catholic Epistles are a small sampling? 7 of 27 is 26% of the NT. 1/4 of your scripture is a small sampling? As Gurry mentions, it’s also being currently used to edit Acts, John, and the Book of Revelation, and thereafter the remaining books of the NT. So they are applying it to all of the NT. Don’t see where the conflation is there. However, if you do continue to use ad hominem, I will simply ignore your comments going forward.

      [[Oh, BTW, I’m still waiting for you to answer me from the other thread: do you believe the Koran has scribal errors?]]

      Change your attitude, it might help.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I simply encourage anyone who is interested to read the 2016 paper by Gurry and see if the ijazian rhetoric is an accurate summation of his thesis.

      Hint: you won’t find any of the conclusion Ijaz draws in that article.

      Like

    • And thanks for avoiding to question.

      Like

    • No worries Steve

      Like

  3. As God has providentially provided a bible, true to the inspired original, which I can hold in my hands, the kjv, the extant manuscripts are actually irrelevant; except to those to whom they are of academic interest. That excludes me.

    Like

    • Madmanna,
      How can you confirm to us that the KJV is “true to the inspired original”? It seems like you are taking the ostrich approach to your scripture and just burying your head in the sand.

      Like

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