Essay on the Right Estimation of MSS Evidence 1.0

Chris Thomas Textual Criticism, Thomas Rawson Birks Leave a Comment

Essay on the Right Estimation of MSS Evidence

Preface & Introduction

The present attempt to revise and improve our English Bible is mixed up inseparably with a further question, What is the true original Text of the New Testament, on which any such revision has to be based? It seems unfortunate that this more important question should be raised informally and indirectly in the course of an attempt to improve our English version, instead of being looked upon as a distinct preliminary, which requires to be first settled on definite principles, before the other work can be pursued with full prospect of success.
A vast amount of critical material, both in Manuscripts and Versions of the New Testament, has been amassed by the labour of collators and scholars through the last hundred years. A dozen critical editions have appeared in succession, by no means in full agreement with each other, but with a common tendency to depart rather widely from the Received Text, and to replace it by one which treats the five hundred cursive manuscripts nearly as if they were non-existent, and depends almost entirely on the readings of five or six of the oldest Uncials alone. The changes thus introduced arc neither few nor unimportant. The greater part of them are not unlikely to be adopted in the revision now in progress, and then to be commended to the acceptance of the whole Church with the seeming authority of all the eminent names to whom the secondary task has been practically confided.
I have a strong conviction that it is highly inexpedient that so grave a matter as an authoritative decision, which is the true text of the New Testament, should be settled by a side-wind in the course of an attempt to improve our English translation, without any previous discussion of the principles on which the adoption of the new text is to be maintained and enforced. Scholars are by no means unanimous, either in their estimate of the relative weight of different parts of the total evidence, or in the verdicts to which they are led by their varying judgments on this first prerequisite for any sure decision. One critic has followed another in adopting certain rules or methods, as if self-evident, which are at least open to very grave doubt, and in my own opinion demonstrably untrue. Dr Scrivener, inferior to no living scholar in diligence, learning, and soundness of judgment, makes the following remarks on Tischendorf’s eighth edition, that ” it differs from his seventh in 3369 places, to the scandal of the science of comparative criticism, as well as his own grave discredit for discernment and consistency. The evidence of codex א, supported or even unsupported by one or two other authorities of any description, is with him sufficient to outweigh all other witnesses, whether manuscripts, versions, or ecclesiastical writers.” This seems almost to justify the remark of Dean Burgon, that to have found an early uncial codex is every bit as fatal in Biblical Criticism, as in common trials to have taken a gift, and ” doth blind the eyes of the wise.”
The following pages are an attempt to bring stricter laws and principles of evidence to bear on this great question, the present state of which, I think, is most unsatisfactory. I fully agree with Dean Burgon, that ” the hyrpothesis on which recent recensions of the Text have been for the most part conducted, will on fuller search be seen to be untenable.” And I offer some reasons, more definite than have been, so far as I know, ever yet adduced, to justify my entire disbelief in the truth and soundness of the greater part of those changes which have been latterly advocated, as if they were restorations of the true and original text of the sacred oracles of God.
December, 1877.


The Revision of the Authorized Version of the Bible, now in progress, makes it more than ever desirable that we should come to a clear decision on the laws which determine the relative weight of manuscript evidence. Only in this way can we arrive at a practical agreement, in all disputed passages, where the readings vary, what is the true and genuine form of the original text of the New Testament. Ample materials have been provided by the researches of scholars and collators during the three last centuries, since the revival of learning, and the appearance of the first critical editions. But there is still no slight divergence in the estimates of the relative weight which belongs to the different parts of the whole collective body of evidence.
The maxims, which are adopted by the majority of modern critics, are regarded by others with doubt and suspicion, and their truth is by no means self-evident. An immense superiority of weight is assigned to a small number of the oldest manuscripts. The true reading is supposed to be determined, not so much by the whole body of evidence, as by one hundredth part of the surviving witnesses almost alone.
2. This principle, which gives almost exclusive authority to the oldest extant manuscripts, in combination with early versions, was the basis of Dr Bentley’s proposals for a revised edition of the New Testament, nearly two hundred years ago. He said that there was “a marvellous agreement between the oldest Greek MSS. and those of Jerome’s Version, even in the order of the words,” and that he could thus restore the text of the fourth century, “so that there shall not be twenty words, or even particles, different.” He promised to set forth an edition of each in columns, without using any book under nine hundred years old, that should “exactly agree word for word, and what is more amazing, order for order, so that no two tallies of an indenture could agree better.”
Bentley survived his Proposals 22 years, but the promised edition, which was to do such wonders in solving the great problem of restoring a perfect text, never appeared. ” We cannot but believe,” says Dr Scrivener, ” that nothing less than the manifest impossibility of maintaining the principles his Letter enunciated, and which his Proposals of 1720 scarcely modified, in the face of the evidence his growing mass of collations bore against them, could have had power to break off in the midst that labour of love, from which he had looked for undying-fame.”
3. About forty years ago Lachmann revived the same idea, and pushed it to its farthest extreme. “He made,” says the same scholar, ” a clean sweep of the great mass of MSS. usually cited in critical editions. In fact, he rejects all in a heap except Codd. ABC, the fragments PQTZ, and for some purposes D, of the Gospels, and E of the Acts only, and DGH of St Paul’s Epistles.” Thus he entirely rejects the evidence of the later uncials, and of the five or six hundred cursive manuscripts. The testimonies thus set aside are a hundredfold more than would suffice to settle, with the moral certainty of a very near approach to the truth, the text of any Greek or Latin author, if such were now, for the first time, rescued from oblivion.
Dr Tregelles adopts the same principle, and is only rather more temperate and cautious in its application. ” It consists,” he says, “in resorting to ancient authorities alone in the construction of the text, and in refusing, not only to the Received or printed text, but also to the great mass of MSS., all voice in determining the true readings.” His ancient authorities are “those MSS. which, not being Lectionaries, happen to be written in uncial characters, with the remarkable exceptions of Codd 1, 33, 69 of the Gospels, and 61 of the Acts, which he admits, because he conceives them to preserve an ancient text.” In his early edition of the Apocalypse (1844) two MSS., A and C of the fifth century, one of them deficient in nine chapters, and a third, B, of the seventh century, are held to outweigh “the whole mass of modern copies,” that is to say, nearly a hundred MSS., which range upward from the fifteenth as high as the tenth century.
4. The principle of Dr Tischendorf is nearly the same. It prevailed fully in his third edition. In the seventh he varied from it, and restored the received text in six hundred places, where he had before abandoned it. But after his discovery of the Sinaitic MS. the theory of his earlier edition seems to have resumed its power. In his eighth and last edition he offers a new text, varying in 3369 places from that which had been the ripest fruit of his previous critical labours, which had then already lasted more than twenty years.
5. The same general character appears in the critical decisions of Dean Alford. *’I have become disposed,” he says, “as research and comparison have gone on, to lay-more and more weight on the evidence of our few most ancient MSS. and versions, and less on that of the great array of later MSS., which are so often paraded in digests as supporting or impugning the commonly received text.” And again, with reference to an appeal to mere numbers. “Perhaps these four or five are just the consensus of our most ancient and venerable authorities, and ‘all the rest’ may, for aught we know, be in many cases no more worthy to be heard in the matter than so many separate printed copies of our own day.”
The view of Drs Westcott and Hort, in their introduction to the text of the Gospels (1870), privately circulated, and not yet published, is nearly the same. They continue the series of high authorities in its favour. They dissent from Tiscliendorf in ranking the Vatican higher than the Sinaitic MS. But they affirm of both alike that their age alone is no adequate measure of their excellence, and that comparatively few contemporary MSS. can have been so pure. Indeed this assumj^tion seems almost needful to justify the relative weight assigned to them. Unless they were tenfold better than the average of those of their own age, which have perished, no valid reason appears why they should outweigh fifty times their number of later times, which must certainly have been derived from a very considerable number of MSS. of that earlier age.
6. Dr Scrivener and Mr Burgon represent a partial reaction or protest against what seems to them, in the able critics previously mentioned, an extreme deference to age alone, and assign a greater relative weight to the later authorities. Yet the dissent, in Dr Scrivener’s work, is very limited, and cautiously expressed. “No living man,” he says, “possessed of the slightest tincture of scholarship, would dream of setting up testimony exclusively modern against the unanimous voice of antiquity.” He only contends that, in the numerous cases where the earliest MSS. disasgree, considerable weight is due to the multitude of later times. The consent, however, of the five or six MSS., all that now survive earlier than A.D. 600, can only by extreme violence be called “the unanimous voice of antiquity.” It is really much less than a hundredth part of the evidence which must have existed at the time to which it belongs. Mr MacClellan, in his recent work on the Gospels, carries his dissent considerably further, and speaks of the confidence placed in the two oldest MSS. as a superstitious devotion, and says that a very different estimate will be formed of not a few readings, now maintained on their authority, when the science of Textual Criticism is better matured. The Bishop of Lincoln, no mean scholar, seems to share substantially in this judgment.
7. The two pillars, on which the popular school of criticism rests its decisions, are these; that the early age of MSS. is far more important than their number, in a true estimate of the collective weight of their testimony; and that their value, for critical purposes, depends mainly on a proper arrangement of them in certain groups or families. Are these principles true and sound? They are clearly not self-evident. I believe them to be really baseless. To unfold some of the reasons for this judgment is the main object of the following little work.

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