My second weekend post in my hermeneutical autobiography series. Yesterday I started writing on my pilgrimage on the subject of the biblical text.
Incidentally, this is my first Father's Day without my father on the earth. May God allow me to stay on the earth with my children for as long as I had him with me. But come what may, may they never have any doubt of my love for them and of my earnestness for them to have blessed lives.
Here are some of the things I learned in my last two years of college and my first year of seminary. We do not have any of the original "autographs" of the New Testament (let alone the Old Testament). All we have are copies of copies of copies (it's possible that a couple of the oldest fragments could be copies of the original or copies of copies of the original, but this is pure speculation and in the end we're talking about a couple fragments smaller than a driver's license).
I don't remember ever worrying about the fact that we don't have the original Mark or Romans or Isaiah. Indeed, my questions were on the other end of things. Are the many medieval manuscripts that basically read like the King James more original or are the older manuscripts that were discovered in recent centuries more reliable?
I was introduced to Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton J. A. Hort and their 1881 edition of the Greek New Testament that, for the first time, printed their "eclectic" Greek text as the main text and put the "textus receptus," the Greek text behind the KJV, in the notes. An eclectic text is one where the editor has tried to make a decision on what the most likely original wording of the text was instance by instance. Accordingly, their Greek text--or the one behind modern translations of the Bible--does not follow any one Greek manuscripts but picks what it thinks are the best variations among all the existing manuscripts.
I actually wrote a paper for Bob Black's church history class at Southern Wesleyan University (SWU) arguing that the two key manuscripts Westcott and Hort favored (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus), dating to the early 300s, might have been ones commissioned by Constantine under the supervision of Eusebius (2 of 50 some manuscripts). And since Eusebius did not take the orthodox position in the Arian controversy (he favored that Christ was of similar substance to the Father--homoiousios--as opposed to what became the orthodox position by Athanasius that Christ was of the same substance of the Father--homoousios) I argued that perhaps these two manuscripts were faulty. Indeed, perhaps the reason they had survived was the fact that they were bad manuscripts.
I am now embarrassed at how illogical the paper's argument was. It is a great example of how something that sounds rather smart to an outsider--and may even involve some smarts in putting together--can be completely misguided. It is an example of the conclusion driving the argument, rather than the evidence driving the argument. It is an example of trying to argue for something that is possible (but fits with one's preconceptions) rather than trying to argue for the probable.
Don't criticize me if I don't always adopt convenient arguments for possible conclusions that we find desirable. I know what special pleading is because I used to do it.
Dr. Black was as gracious in his grade as he was insightful in his comment. Most of the variations do not smack of theological conspiracy. They are more a matter of spelling and grammatical variation. Indeed, there is only one variant I can think of that anyone might argue would have had a bearing on the Arian controversy--1 John 5:7. If the KJV version of this verse is original, then we would indeed be losing the most Trinitarian verse in the Bible: "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one" (KJV).
But it is more likely you'll be hit by an asteroid this evening than that this verse was original. Funny how the most potentially Trinitarian verse in the Bible never came up in the Trinitarian controversies of the 300s and 400s! Indeed, it appears in only about 8 of the 5500+ Greek manuscripts of the NT that exist, often in the margin, and never in a hand that is older than the 1400s. In fact, the primary editor of the Greek text behind the KJV wouldn't even have put it into his Greek text if the Roman Catholic Church had not produced a manuscript with it present. His comment was that the ink was still wet.
Not only do the variations between Sinaiticus and Vaticanus have nothing to do with Eusebius' theology, but we now have papyrus manuscripts that are older than these two. In other words, the variations of these manuscripts pre-date Eusebius. He and Constantine thus cannot be the "fiends" who altered the text. In the end, I would conclude with those who think that it is the text behind the KJV that has been altered, not that behind most modern translations.
It can be hard to get one's head around what most textual scholars are claiming here. To us, it looks like the KJV is old and modern translations are new. But in reality, the KJV was based on a small number of late medieval manuscripts, most of which dated after the year 1000. Modern translations are based on manuscripts that go back to the 100s and 200s. In terms of the Greek text, the NIV is about 800 years older than the KJV.
In the end, it was not the so called "external evidence" of the manuscripts that convinced me to switch sides...