Documentation, the Right Vaccine
Reading the gospels, doubts may easily enter, such as: do I really understand this? What is the original meaning? Is this a result of oral tradition? Many doubts has to do with a shift in theology that occurred in the 19th century.
The New Testament Books
Alexandrian manuscripts had been introduced instead of Byzantine manuscripts for the New Testament books. There had been a shift that affected three historical consequences concerning the books of the New Testament:
1. Origins. The medieval view of apostolic preaching was elaborated into a theory of oral tradition as the foundation of the four gospels.
2. Text. Awareness of a copying history of ca. 1500 years (with small copy errors).
3. Canon. The canon decisions were human (not divine) decisions with flaws.
Period of the Great Shift
A full human-driven history (rationalism) behind the New Testament had come to the fore front, replacing the doctrine of divine inspiration. In each historical stage, something could have gone wrong. And the weirdest thing of it is, it was nearly invisible for the public, but not entirely. In Bible translations, square brackets appeared, often accompanied with remarks as “In the oldest and best manuscripts this passage/verse does not exist.” Examples: the Longer Mark Ending (16:9–20) and the Woman in Adultery (John 8:1–11) form the tips of the iceberg.
In the time of the Dutch Authorized Version, the English King James Bible and the German Luther Bible there were no square brackets. One could believe in the Word of God without doubts, it seems. What a glorious time! Can we regain that glorious time? No, we have to realize that in all periods of history doubts and discussions appeared. A better goal for us will be: Can we regain new stability by the view of Documentation? In my opinion that is possible indeed, with a new place for divine inspiration.
New Stability, Stage 1, Origins
Rejection of oral tradition prior to the gospels. Of course, the apostles preached the Gospel everywhere by word of mouth. However, the gospels are not the results of that preaching. It’s the other way round. Their preaching was a result of the gospels that were written in a very early stage after Pentecost. The gospel writers Luke and John declared themselves that writing professionals (servants of the spoken word) followed Jesus to preserve his words (documentation). And yes following him, these writers have experienced the Holy Spirit (inspiration) in all aspects of doing their work. The apostles creating their letters, followed the example of Jesus. They also made use of professional writers (secretaries) to preserve their inspired words.
New Stability, Stage 2, Text
In the churches of Greece and Asia Minor (Turkey), the Newtestamentic books have been copied over a period of 1500 years since Paul worked there. This occurred in a Greek-speaking environment, where the linguistic knowledge for this task remained in a natural way through the ages. Result: really hundreds of Greek Byzantine manuscripts generally present the Longer Ending of Mark (16:9–20) and the story of the Woman in Adultery (John 8:1–11).
Erasmus, one of the first who published a Greek New Testament (1516), made use of six Byzantine texts and one Caesarean Text. With the six he could easily choose for the right variants, by ruling out exceptional variants (majority text).
How did the problem come into being of the “oldest and best manuscripts”? It is all about Egyptian texts of Newtestamentic books that were found in Egypt. They had withstood the centuries in the dry soil of Egypt or in old monasteries and were found in the 18th – the 20th centuries. They usually dated from the 3rd – the 5th centuries, really older than the existing Byzantine texts.
In Greece and Asia Minor, the copyists started in the ninth century with a small letter script (minuscules) instead of a capital script (majuscules). And what falls into disuse is not far from vanishing away. Some Byzantine majuscules have survived showing the accurate continuity in the minuscules.
So yes, the Egyptian texts are much older than the hundreds of Byzantine manuscripts. But, the Egyptian texts are not more in number, neither of better quality.
All scholars agree that the early Egyptian papyri have many copy failures, as a result of carelessness and a lack of skill in the Greek language. Unknown words and expressions were not recognized always and changed in what one thought it could be. From the fifth century onward the Egyptian translation became more dominant in the Egyptian churches and the copying of Greek texts began to diminish.
There is a second factor that shows the instability of the Christian culture in Egypt. For a long time, there was uncertainty about what the canonical books were. In AD 367, bishop Athanasius of Alexandria published a list of the 27 New Testament books for his co-workers. It shows that even among his ecclesiastical co-workers there was uncertainty about the authorized books of the Christians in Egypt.
Now it is understandable that a free use of Christian books could develop in Egypt in the earliest centuries. And within that context, it did not seem to be a great failure to omit a passage that was felt inappropriate for the Egyptian culture. Augustine explained the omission of the Woman in Adultery in some manuscripts as an attempt to discourage women from leaving their husbands and use this passage as a motivation for it. Looking at the Longer Mark Ending and reading about the picking of serpents and drinking of poison, we can imagine how this passage also was not very helpful in daily life and ready to be omitted in the free Egyptian Christian culture.
New Stability, Stage 3, Canon
After Athanasius’ canon decision, two other ecclesiastical canon decisions have been taken around the Mediterranean Sea, in Rome and in Cartago. This did not occur in Greece and Asia Minor, the old mission field of Paul. Nevertheless, the canon of 27 has always existed there. It is reasonable to accept that the canon had grown there under apostolic authority (1 Petrus 1:1, 2 Petrus 3:1–2, 15–16) and that Athanasius was the first who followed that apostolic canon for his own church.
With these three newly formulated stabilities, Documentation, Byzantine Text and Apostolic Canon, we can go ahead in peace and grace, trusting in the rock which the New Testament really is. Yes, it were humans driven by the Holy Spirit who made decisions for the canon, and with good conscience.
For those who are interested in a Greek Byzantine New Testament, there is a superior edition named The New Testament In The Original Greek Byzantine Textform by M. A. Robinson and W. G. Pierpont (2018).