The Providential Preservation of Scripture

By Alan Macgregor

This is a vast subject that is very difficult to explain in a single article. It is, therefore, only possible to deal with some salient points. We read in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God.”  That which is true Scripture is theopneustos (the Greek word, which literally means “God-breathed”). It is from beginning to end the very thoughts of God. We read in Isaiah 55:8-11:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it”.

True Scripture is therefore unique in that it is wholly reliable, and it fully accomplishes every purpose of God.

A small part of Scripture, the Ten Commandments, was actually originally “written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18). However, the Lord in His sovereignty chose for the most part to use human penmen, yet these men did not write down their own thoughts. We read in 2 Peter 1:20-21, “Knowing this first: that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” The Holy Spirit of God therefore inspired every word of what can be genuinely described as Scripture. It was the view of the translators of our Authorised Version, that the Masoretic Text of the Old Testament and the Received Text of the New Testament constituted the Word of God in its purest written form. I would suggest that the translators, along with many others, had good cause for believing the Received Text to be the very Word of God, because when the Lord was about to do a mighty work in the Reformation, which touched many parts of Europe, including our own British Isles, He did not use the Vulgate, nor the Complutensian Polyglot, but He providentially gave the Received Text to transform the lives of multitudes. The Spirit of God was pleased to use this text, in the spreading of the Gospel. And this text was wonderfully used in the centuries that followed, including the great periods of revival in the eighteenth century.

However, by the time of the mid-nineteenth century, the emergence of both the Higher Critical and Liberal movements began to have an adverse effect upon what should be considered Scripture, because certain scholars began to doubt the purity of the Received Text. Prior to the rise of Higher Criticism, Codex Vaticanus was regarded as corrupted by the majority of scholars. However, the discovery of Sinaiticus, in the 1840s by Tischendorf, brought renewed interest in Vaticanus, because, while these two manuscripts differed wildly from each other, agreeing only 66.8% of the time, they nonetheless, had what was a major similarity: they both missed out a number of passages contained in the Received Text, such as Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11, but also many individual verses such as Matthew 18:11 and Mark 9:46, together with a considerable amount of verses that have words deleted from them when compared with the Received Text. Westcott and Hort, whose new Greek Text was used in the Revised Version of 1881, argued vigorously that the Byzantine manuscripts, from which the Received Text was compiled, contained a number of additions not in the “autographs,” or original manuscripts. However, (whilst not Greek manuscripts) the Syriac Peshitta text of the 2nd century [1] and the Gothic version of the 4th century, both usually tend to support the majority manuscripts more than the Alexandrian manuscripts, to which Sinaiticus and Vaticanus belong. The last twelve verses of Mark’s Gospel, missing in Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, and from cursive 304, are found in every other Greek manuscript of that Gospel.

It must, however, be pointed out that the majority text ending is also missing from the Old Latin codex Bobiensis, the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, and from about one hundred Armenian manuscripts.[2] The longer ending is, however, referred to by a number of the early Church Fathers who lived prior to the Alexandrian manuscripts. For example, Justin Martyr (AD 100–165) quoted from the last twelve verses of Mark, as did Irenaeus (AD 130–200) and Hippolytus (AD 170–236). These facts add great weight to the case that these verses were indeed contained in the “autographs.” However, there is not space to deal further with the major omissions of the Critical Text in this article, so I shall confine myself to the matter of what is referred to as “conflation,” which is the combining together of two or more variant readings to form one reading. Further to this, I shall discuss how these variant readings came about through scribal error.

Critical Text scholars, since Westcott and Hort, argue that the longer readings, often found in the assumed Byzantine family texts (of which the Received Text is derived) are probably the result of conflation. But is such a statement true? If we look at John 10:19, for example, these scholars argue that the Byzantine reading exhibits such a conflation here.  The Western text-type reads: “There was a division therefore …” The Alexandrian text-type reads: “There was a division again …” Whereas the Byzantine text-type (followed by the Received Text and the AV) reads: “There was a division therefore again …” This Byzantine reading is said to be a clear conflation – two sources: the Western and the Alexandrian, being mixed together. Westcott and Hort, and many Critical Text scholars since, have argued that there are numerous examples of this type of conflation to be found in the Byzantine text family. However, P 66 which is one of the earliest papyrus manuscripts yet found, reads: schisma ouv palin (“division therefore again”). This proves conclusively that this longer reading is very early. While the Byzantine text-type reading of P 66, here, does not prove conclusively an early date for the whole of the assumed Byzantine text-type; it does, nonetheless, weaken the premise that the longer reading is more likely the result of a conflation not to be found in earlier manuscripts.

I now move on to discuss what I mean by “preservation.” I do not mean that God has promised to ensure that every copy from the Byzantine, or any other, region is a perfect copy of the originals. I do not even suggest that there is, among the various manuscripts, a perfect copy of every book of the Bible. What I do mean is, that by studying and comparing the readings found in manuscripts, it can be ascertained what is the correct rendering of the original text. John Burgon writes:

“It was only to have been anticipated that the Author of the Everlasting Gospel – that masterpiece of Divine Wisdom, that miracle of superhuman skill – would shew Himself supremely careful for the protection and preservation of His own chiefest work. Every fresh discovery of the beauty and preciousness of the Deposit in its essential structure does but serve to deepen the conviction that a marvellous provision must needs have been made in God’s eternal counsels for the effectual conservation of the inspired Text.”[3]

This “preservation” of God’s Word is something that certain (but not all) modern scholars appear unwilling to accept. They look for what, in human terms, seems to be the logical outcome. Such scholars will often affirm that the original Scriptures are “inspired by God,” or “God breathed.” However, regarding what we have now, they often say it is substantially the Word of God. In other words, inerrancy belongs to the original manuscripts, but not necessarily to the texts gleaned from the copies that have come down to us. However, Edward F. Hills writes:

“If the doctrine of divine inspiration of the Old and New Testament Scriptures is a true doctrine, the doctrine of the providential preservation of the Scriptures must also be a true doctrine. It must be that down through the centuries God has exercised a special, providential control over the copying of the Scriptures and the preservation and use of the copies, so that trustworthy representatives of the original text have been available to God’s people in every age. God must have done this, for if He gave the Scriptures to His Church by inspiration as the perfect and final revelation of His will, then it is obvious that He would not allow this revelation to disappear or undergo any alteration of its fundamental character.”[4]

Many modern authors do not seem to hold this view. While rightly acknowledging the fallible nature of man, and pointing out the difficulty of copying large written works without making many mistakes, their only conclusion appears to be: that this must also apply to the Word of God. So, the reasoning goes, we have still to discover what the true text of the New Testament is. Rev. John E. Ashbrook writes:

“When man touches the page, he always leaves the indelible fingerprints of his imperfection. He does not make errors deliberately; he simply makes them … A few years ago, I finished a small book of 110 pages. I re-read it carefully until I was sure that it was free from error. My wife was kind enough to point out some mistakes I had missed. I used a spell check and submitted it to a professional proof-reader who found a few more problems. Now I thought it must be perfect. Since publication, I have kept a copy near my desk to mark the errors found by kind readers.”[5]

From this experience, he then concludes that the same must be so with the Word of God. He then proceeds to base his argument upon this premise:

“As the churches multiplied in the first century, every church wanted a copy of Romans, the Gospel of John, and 1 Peter. The original manuscripts were copied, then copies were copied, then the copies of copies were copied.”[6]

Of course, we must acknowledge that the above statement is true, but at the same time, we must also be careful not to suggest that the fallibility of such scribes somehow prevents the Church from knowing what genuine Scripture is. It is not helpful for scholars, or writers, to suggest that we can never be entirely certain as to what is the Word of God.

Another writer, Dr Daniel B. Wallace, makes a further point and writes:

“As is well known, the Synoptic Gospels have many parallels between them. Sometimes the wording is exactly the same between two or more: sometimes there are interesting differences. But all scribes at times changed the text of one gospel to conform it to another.If the uncials conspired against the faith … then why would the scribes each of these independently of one another, try to harmonize the gospels?”[7] (italics mine).

While it must be acknowledged that Dr Wallace is not, here, specifically singling out scribes of any particular text-type, this is an accusation that is often made against the scribes who compiled the Byzantine texts. However, I would suggest that there seems to be some difficulty with such a view. Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman (themselves Critical Text scholars) have set out, what they regard as, the method of copying manuscripts. They suggest that prior to the 4th century the speed of production led to inaccuracy of copying. The scribes are said to be writing so fast that mistakes inevitably occurred. Under these conditions, therefore, it hardly seems likely that copyists would be thinking of parallel passages and altering the gospel they were copying to conform to another gospel recording the same incident, as Dr Wallace implies. They would, if Drs Metzger and Ehrman’s assessment is right, be simply trying to copy the manuscript as quickly as possible to meet demand. Under these circumstances, it seems far more likely that mistakes were made through omission, rather than through the inclusion of words which were not in the text. According to Metzger and Ehrman, the method of copying from the 4th century onward was by means of “commercial book manufacturers”. Again, if this is true, it seems highly unlikely that “all scribes at times changed the text of one gospel to conform to another”, as Dr Wallace suggests. For under the “scriptoria” scribes would be listening to the reader, or lector. They would therefore not have time to be thinking about parallel passages and altering them accordingly. Metzger and Ehrman suggest that non-Christians were also involved in the copying of manuscripts. If this was the case, these non-Christians would have little idea of, or concern for, what other gospels had recorded. The method of a lector reading aloud while others copy is not a conducive way for scribes to be altering the text to conform to other gospels. They would simply try to write down what was being dictated. To quote Drs Metzger and Ehrman further; they write:

“It is easy to understand how in such a method of reproduction errors of transcription would almost inevitably occur. Sometimes the scribe would be momentarily inattentive or, because of a cough or other noise, would not clearly hear the lector. Furthermore, when the lector read aloud a word that could be spelled in different ways (e.g. in English, the words great and grate or there and their) the scribe would have to determine which word belonged in that particular context, and sometimes he wrote down the wrong word.”[8]

Again, I would argue, that these are not the conditions for scribes to be seeking to conform the text to that of another gospel. Even if they could remember the exact words, it is certain that by the time they wrote them down, the lector would have moved on with his reading, and the scribes would have lost their place. These conditions in the scriptorium are far more likely to produce errors of omission, than to allow for scribes to add words to harmonise the text with another gospel.

Neither does it seem feasible that the lector would, while dictating one gospel, remember the precise words recorded in another gospel and then decide to alter the gospel he was reading from, so as to conform the words to those recorded in the other gospel. The process, referred to by Dr Wallace, is known as harmonisation. However, Dr Robert Dabney, a century earlier, responded to this same type of claim, and wrote:

“The argument for this astonishing canon is that, since the change was made by somebody, in one way or the other, it is presumable it was made by the over-zeal of the copyists, in order to hide the supposed evidence of contradiction between two inspired men. Again, we ask: How much evidence have we that these copyists were either over-zealous or knavish? Do we know that the pair of sleepy monks who were droning over a given place in Mark, knew anything, or remembered anything, or cared anything, at the time, for the parallel place in Matthew? But the chief objection to this canon is that, like some others which evangelical critics have adopted from the mint of infidel rationalism, its sole probability is grounded in the assumption that the evangelists and apostles were not guided by inspiration. Let us adopt the Christian hypothesis, that the scenes of our Saviour’s life were enacted, and his words spoken, in a given way, and that the several evangelists were inspired of God to record them infallibly; and the most harmonising readings will obviously appear to us the most probable readings.”[9]

In closing, let us remind ourselves, that in all of the revivals that God has graciously brought to this land of ours, He has been pleased to use the Received Text. To my mind, the church has for the most part been seduced by worldly scholarship, in its choice of both text and translation. Sadly, that which is new and novel sways many Christians. Great numbers often rush out to buy the latest version, because they are persuaded by glowing reviews and assured of more learned scholarship. They would be wise to heed the words of Dr Alexander Stewart, which can be legitimately applied to this very subject. He says this of believers:

“It is not for them to be swayed by the multitude, or to yield to the seductive appeals of the religious novelty. Nor must they render an unquestioning submission to the authority of scholarship when it claims to be the final arbiter of Christian truth … even when it is believing and reverent, its sphere is the outer Court of the Temple of Truth, and there are inner regions, spacious ‘realms of gold’, that lie beyond its range. Sometimes, however, scholarship issues its decrees with respect to matters which it is not competent to decide. And when it establishes a kind of dictatorship in the commonwealth of spiritual truth, and sets itself up as a controller which doles out the very Bread of Life to the children of God, it must be quietly but firmly told to mind its own business.”[10]

Is it simply coincidence that revivals have ceased since the jettison of the Authorised Version and the Received Text on which it is based, by the majority of churches? That surely is a question that should be asked.

[1] Most Critical Text scholars suggest that the Syriac Peshitta is 5th century. It generally supports the Byzantine text in the Gospels, though in the Book of Acts, for instance, it tends to support the assumed Alexandrian text.

[2] The longer ending does not appear in the two oldest Georgian manuscripts, though their dates are much later than the above mentioned manuscripts, i.e. AD 897 and AD 913 respectively.

[3]  John William Burgon. The Traditional Text. (Collingswood: Dean Burgon Society Press, reprint 1998) p. 20.

[4] Edward F. Hills. The King James Version Defended. (Des Moines, Iowa: The Christian Research Press, 1973) p. 2.

[5] John E. Ashbrook. The History of Textus Receptus, ‘From the Mind of God to the Mind of Man’, edited by James B. Williams. (Greenville, USA: Ambassador-Emerald International, 1999), p.100. (It is a compilation of writings by different authors, seeking to give, “a layman’s guide to how we got our Bible”. My impression is that it is an attempt to smooth over differences of opinion on Bible texts, suggesting that it is not a real issue of concern for Christians).

[6] Ibid, p.101.

[7] Dr Daniel B. Wallace. New Bible Conspiracy, (This is a defence of Westcott and Hort).

[8] Bruce M Metzger & Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) p. 25.

[9] Robert L. Dabney. Discussions, (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1982) vol. 1, p. 361.

[10] Alexander Stewart. Jeremiah; the Man and his Work, (Edinburgh: Knox Press, undated), p. 124.

© 2023 Bible League Trust - All Rights Reserved | Sitemap | Privacy Policy

Sitemap | Privacy Policy | | Website design by Cloud 10