Textual Criticism: When mere men become arbiters of truth

Last year (2012) fall, at the behest of a friend of mine, I attended a men’s bible study called Solomon’s Porch at Immanuel Bible Church. The person leading the study, Andrew Potter, I recall as a very smart and knowledgeable person. Andy was going through a study on the book of Romans. I remember him asking the class how we could be certain that Paul in fact was the author of Romans especially since Tertius in Romans 16:22 writes: “I Tertius, who wrote this epistle, salute you in the Lord.” My friend raised his hand and answered the question by saying that God in the bible has promised to preserve His Word therefore we have confidence that Paul in fact wrote the letter. Andy brushed this reply aside with a “yes, but …” so it was obvious that he was looking for a better answer than what had just been offered. Someone eventually answered the question by saying that we can have confidence Paul was the author of Romans because there is historical confirmation that around the time Paul is thought to have authored the epistle, the practice of employing scribes for letter writing was normal. As Andy affirmed that this was the correct answer I immediately began to suspect that there was something wrong with this class. In another session (whether it happened prior to this or afterwards, I do not recall, God knows), the topic was baptism and I recall Andy saying something about baptism being mentioned in Mark 16 but dismissing the verse because it occurred in the longer ending of Mark 16 (verses 9 through 20) which is “probably not inspired.” Shocked by this utterance, I asked Andy if he could quickly provide some reasons why he felt that the longer ending of Mark 16 was not inspired, to which he replied that there seemed to be a change in the writing style which led him to believe that there was a change in authorship. He also appealed to the oldest manuscripts not containing the longer version and the fact that the majority (how he could ascertain this I will never know) of scholars thought the longer ending was not genuine. Andy was fond of using the term “the majority of scholars” or “most scholars” but I’m not sure if he had ever thought about the implications of using such a term. Does he really expect his audience to believe that he can authoritatively speak to what the majority of scholars think on a particular issue? To my knowledge, the only person who can infallibly pull off that feat is God and yet Andy is not alone; don’t we all have the tendency to think we can present statistics without demonstrating the research behind it? Shouldn’t the “most scholars” claim be qualified with the phrase”that I know” or “that I have read” so that the hearer understands that the domain from which he speaks is actually much narrower than what is implied?

Now don’t get me wrong, If I had to guess I would say that Andy is probably right in regards to what the majority of bible scholars think but notice how I call it a guess since that is all that I can do in spite of any education I might have acquired. Any way, the reason why I bring this story up is because recently I read a disparaging review of Christian J. Pinto’s excellent “Tares among the Wheat” documentary. The reviewer, Chris Putnam, appeals to the authority of Textual Criticism and modern scholars as a way of marginalizing the documentary’s contention that the evidence points to Tischendorf’s Codex Sinaiticus being a hoax. Chris Putnam also disparages the longer ending of Mark 16 toward the end of his review using the feasibility of God’s claims as a basis for rejecting the authenticity of the Mark 16 verses in dispute. I responded to Chris Putnam’s review but I’m not sure if my response will make it through moderation so I have included it below:

You [Chris Putnam] say in (Tares Amongst the Wheat A Conspiracy Without a Goal):

“As far as undermining inerrancy, I find the long ending of Mark from Textus Receptus to be much more problematic.  “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” (Mk 16:18. KJV)  In contrast, the oldest manuscripts of the Alexandrian text type do not have this passage and modern scholars believe it to be a late edition. Unless you are willing to drink a glass of poison to prove your point, it seems to me that the modern scholars have done inerrancy a huge favor.”

So your argument against the long ending of Mark 16 is based upon the feasibility of God’s claims? I thought that the Christian axiom was Scripture, I didn’t realize that it was instead pragmatism! Scripture says that we are taught inwardly by the Holy Spirit not by modern scholars (1 John 2:27). I’m well aware that invariably both sides of a dispute regarding Scripture will claim that they are being led by the Holy Spirit, and yet we know that the Holy Spirit does not cause men to construct arguments for the authenticity of Scripture that rely upon the wisdom of men instead of the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:5). So, if one were being led by the Holy Spirit we would not expect their arguments to rely upon the irrational (as shown below) conclusions of textual scholars but instead upon rational arguments that are based solely on the power of God which is seen in His preservation of the Bible.

Incidentally, you invalidly infer that all believers should have all spiritual gifts when you state: “Unless you are willing to drink a glass of poison to prove your point.”  Perhaps you should heed God’s Word in 1 Corinthians 12:29-30: “Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret? After converting Paul’s sentence from the interrogative mode to the declarative mode (as the biblical context requires us to) we arrive at the proposition that not all believers are expected to have all spiritual gifts (including being impervious to poison).

You state “that the modern scholars have done inerrancy a huge favor” and yet the Critical Text upon which their conclusions are ultimately based is the product of B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, two Anglo-Catholics, who both denied Biblical inerrancy, promoted racism, and are said to have dabbled in spiritism.

Regarding Mark 16:18 and the miraculous nature of the promises in this verse, it may be instructive to note that similar promises were made in back Isaiah 43:2 yet Scripture gives us reasons to believe that those promises were realized. Likewise, the fulfilment of Mark 16:18 is found in verses like Acts 3:6-7, Act 5:15 and Act 28:3-6. However, even if there were no verses that demonstrated the fulfilment of Mark 16:18, Christians would still be obliged to believe it since it is the Word of God; yet, you argue as if it’s possible to decide which Scriptures are authentic by relying upon the conclusions of fallible “scholars.” I thought that there was only one Arbiter of truth?

Additionally, I have read that the longer ending of Mark 16 is cited during the second century (Papias, Justin, Irenaeus), the third century (Vicentius, Tertullian, Hippolytus), throughout the fourth century (Ambrose, the Cappadocian Fathers), and the beginning of the fifth century (Augustine). This would mean that the very verses in contention were quoted by many early Christian writers of which at least three were important church fathers whose writings pre-date both the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus manuscripts. It is also said that the large and overwhelming majority of ancient manuscripts have preserved the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel. What do the modern scholars say about this?

As Christians, all of our arguments regarding which manuscripts are genuine or not should first and foremost be based upon the doctrine of preservation. It goes without saying that if any argument is irrational then it cannot come from the Holy Spirit since the bible says that God cannot contradict Himself (2 Timothy 2:13). Yet, it seems like every time someone is out to discredit the inclusion of the longer ending of Mark 16, they use the existence of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus as one of the main reasons why the shorter ending should be preferred despite the fact that this argument is demonstrably erroneous. Even if one were to make the impossible leap to the unwarranted conclusion that these (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) are in fact the oldest extant manuscripts (I say this is impossible because the dating methods used are based upon assumptions and are thus fallible), it would be thoroughly irrational for one to thereby conclude that the contents of these manuscripts are thus closer in accuracy to the content of the originals. Why? Well, for one, it is easy to envision a scenario where during the supposed ancient time that these manuscripts were said to have been created, there simultaneously existed hundreds of other manuscripts that were less heretical than these two and were therefore used daily. This alternate inference would explain the quick demise of contemporaneous manuscripts and the preservation of the relatively unused Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. How could one rule out this inference while maintaining the other inference that exalts these two manuscripts to the status of “the earliest and thus the best” without committing the elementary blunder in logic commonly referred to as “asserting the consequent?” Since there are many other undermining inferences one could hypothesize to explain why the oldest manuscripts are not necessarily the most reliable, it follows that there aren’t any necessary inferences that one must derive from the stipulated premise that these manuscripts are the oldest. This is why similar conclusions made by “modern scholars” are nothing more than logical fallacies. Such is the case with the conclusion made by Dr. Scot McKendrick in the BBC documentary excerpt that was included in the “TARES AMONG THE WHEAT” documentary. He erroneously concludes that “This [Codex Sinaiticus] is the ancestor of all the Bibles that everybody else has in the world.” An astute logician would die laughing upon examining the premises used to reach such a conclusion. Yet, many and perhaps the majority of Christian “scholars” that I have read, reach similar conclusions based solely upon the flawed premise of antiquity.

Speaking as one who does NOT rely upon the dates assigned to any of these manuscripts, I see Sinaiticus and Vaticanus as two spurious manuscripts that deserve more scrutiny but less importance than the thousands of others and the “TARES AMONG THE WHEAT” documentary establishes this case to my satisfaction. For anyone wishing to enter the world of bible manuscripts and their history, the first and utmost principle that one should adhere to is the doctrine of biblical preservation which is undergirded by verses such as: 1 Samuel 3:19; Psalm 12:6-7; 105:8; 119:89, 152, 160; 138:2; Ecclesiastes 3:14; Isaiah 40:8; Matthew 4:4; 5:18, 24:35; 1 Peter 1:23-25; etc. Once the Christian realizes that God is an active participant in the preservation of His Word (and thus His integrity), one begins to understand how one should draw conclusions regarding the manuscripts that we have. Reasonable conclusions are not based upon a fallible idea that elevates two manuscripts as elite over hundreds of others simply based upon their supposed antiquity, reasonable conclusions are based upon the infallible promise from Our Infallible God using the expected outworkings of His promise. The wickedness and guile associated with these two manuscripts is not consistent with how the biblical God would be expected to preserve His Word, this conclusion is based upon His criteria (in the Scriptures), not mine.

With all of the above in mind, the “TARES AMONG THE WHEAT” documentary presents compelling confirmations of God’s promise to preserve His Word in the Traditional Text. After all, why shouldn’t we link the prominence of the Traditional Text and the Reformation to the doctrine of biblical preservation without fear of being impugned? Biblical preservation is promised and accomplished by the hand of God through his elect custodians and not through textual scholars. For the Old Testament, the custodians of God’s oracles were the Israelites (Romans 3:2); for the new testament the custodians are the Church (1 Timothy 3:15). So, if one acknowledges that the Traditional Text is quoted by prominent Christian writers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and one acknowledges that in history the Traditional Text was in use by the Church (Greek) throughout the greater part of the Byzantine period (312AD-1453AD) and for over 350 years afterwards by the Protestant churches of the Reformation, it then becomes clear that the Traditional Text is the object of preservation.

Finally, having completely and on numerous occasions watched Chris Pinto’s “TARES AMONG THE WHEAT” and after listening to the CDs that he released afterwards on Codex Sinaiticus, I can safely say that you have yet to address many major issues that remain compelling arguments for why Codex Sinaiticus should be treated with the greatest suspicion. Among these issues, a deal-breaker for me is realizing that there is no good reason for Tischendorf not to have attended the showdown that was publicized in the papers regarding the authenticity of his famous codex. Obviously there are many other concerns, for instance, anyone (but especially a supposed Protestant scholar) who would consider it an honor to meet with and keep company with Pope Gregory XVI (who was overseeing the slaughter of dissenters during the ongoing inquisition of that time) is a person that should be viewed with the utmost scrutiny.  Other reasons could be provided were it not for the sake of brevity but I think that my point has been made.

Incidentally, I see irony in your act of invoking Dr. James White as being more knowledgeable than Mr. Pinto about “textual criticism” especially since Dr. White has gone on the record as denying Dr. Tischendorf’s own account that he found Codex Sinaiticus in a waste basket. In a debate with Dr. Moorman, White says:

“I did want to correct just one misapprehension. Sinaiticus was not found in or near a trash can. That is a common myth, but it’s untrue. All you have to do is read Constantine von Tischendorf’s own first-hand account of his discovery of the manuscript. A monk brought it out of the closet, the cell, wrapped in red cloth. Folks, people in monasteries do not wrap garbage in red cloths, O.K? This is a text that had been in use for 1500 years at that time.” – Debate between Jack Moorman and Dr James White, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwe_nxeVwE0, (Time Marker: 31:12 – 31:50)

Yet when we examine Tischendorf’s own account we find the following:

“It was at the foot of Mount Sinai, in the Convent of St. Catherine, that I discovered the pearl of all my researches. In visiting the library of the monastery, in the month of May, 1844, I perceived in the middle of the great hall a large and wide basket full of old parchments; and the librarian, who was a man of information, told me that two heaps of papers like these, mouldered by time, had been already committed to the flames. What was my surprise to find amid this heap of papers a considerable number of sheets of a copy of the Old Testament in Greek, which seemed to me to be one of the most ancient that I had ever seen. The authorities of the convent allowed me to possess myself of a third of these parchments, or about forty-three sheets, all the more readily as they were destined for the fire. But I could not get them to yield up possession of the remainder. The too lively satisfaction which I had displayed had aroused their suspicions as to the value of this manuscript…And so saying, he took down from the corner of the room a bulky kind of volume wrapped up in a red cloth and laid it before me. I unrolled the cover and discovered to my great surprise, not only those very fragments which, fifteen years before, I had taken out of the basket, but also other parts of the Old Testament, the New Testament complete, and, in addition, the Epistle of Barnabas and a part of the Pastor of Hermas. ” – When Were Our Gospels Written? An Argument by Constantine Tischendorf. With a Narrative of the Discovery of the Sinaitic Manuscript

As is seen from Tischendorf’s own account, both claims (found in a basket vs. wrapped in a red cloth) are mentioned by Tischendorf yet White portrays these claims as being dichotomous; he wants his audience to believe that the “found in a basket” claim is false while the “wrapped in red cloth” claim is true. Now if White has since issued a retraction of his faulty assertion then the next sentence is no longer necessary since we are all prone to error. Otherwise, since Dr. White implies by his quote that He is aware of Tischendorf’s account, it is not completely unreasonable for the reader to conclude that he is engaging in deception or is in fact the one who is misapprehending the situation. Either way, I would think twice about exalting White above Pinto in regards to how they handle the subject of Textual Criticism.

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