Q327 : The Identity of the New Testament Text

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Q327 : The Identity of the New Testament Text

Pastor Tony,

I have a question I would trust few to answer regarding Wilbur Pickering’s book, The Identity of the New Testament Text IVa.

Because of your passion for what scripture says (as I know from listening to your series on Revelationb, I would like to know whether you have read this book, and whether you agree with the author’s conclusions?

I’m currently reading this book thoroughly for the second time, since much of the vocabulary was new to me, and I didn’t fully understand it the first time through.

To my mind, Pickering’s reasoning and evidence seem sound, and he seems to write in the same vein as Henry Morris and similar biblical creationists I've followed since the mid 1980’s.

Because of the importance of the subject that Pickering addresses in his book, I would like to receive feedback from the few sources I trust. I am contacting ICR, AiG, CMI (creationist organizations that stand on the authority of God’s word), and yourself. Perhaps God will grant that I may receive an answer.

HAS PICKERING REALLY IDENTIFIED THE ORIGINAL GREEK TEXT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, IN AN OBJECTIVE MANNER? This seems to me a very important question for all serious Christians. We need to know and have confidence in what God’s word really says, in the original languages.

A327 : by Tony Garland

As you may know, the study and evaluation of manuscript evidence, for both the Old and New Testaments, is a highly complex field. Because of the complexities involved, we are—to some degree- reliant upon scholars to guide us in our understanding of the evidence. While this seems unavoidable, we also must recognize that scholarship is not immune to bias and blind spots. Besides that, God has promised that His Word will not pass away (e.g., Mat. 5:18, more on this below).

In my answer, which follows, I've taken the liberty of extensively quoting or citing Pickering’s work—so that those who may not be as familiar with it can gain some feel for the valuable insights it contains. It bears mentioning that my response is not a detailed consideration of all the issues involved—I am not as well placed as others to handle all the issues and points of view. But, it is my view that Pickering’s work represents a breath of fresh air amidst the subjectivity which characterizes so much textual criticism in our day.

Subjectivity of the Eclectic Approach to Textual Criticism

The subjective nature of the eclectic approach to New Testament textual criticism is plain to anyone with a background in the preservation of information and data. As a practicing electrical and software engineer for almost forty years, like many in these fields, I've had numerous occasions to consider techniques for the preservation and restoration of data in the face of interference which may introduce data transmission errors. Various modern techniques employed to preserve data involve sophisticated mathematical data encoding and validation schemes which travel along with the original data—allowing the detection, and in some cases, correction of errors introduced into the data. However, unlike modern error-detecting/correcting schemes, when one turns to the analysis of manuscripts behind the Greek New Testament, one is immediately struck by the subjective nature of the popular, eclectic approach to reconstructing the original text.

As I observed in my commentary on Revelation 5:9:

Here we encounter an excellent example of the arbitrary and subjective nature of textual criticism underwriting the NU text which omits “us.” The motives are no doubt well-intentioned as is the logic—once applied. But the guidelines employed in the selection of the preferred text from among the variant readings are flawed. Proponents of the Critical Text attempt to pass off as scientific analysis that which is largely arbitrary. For it is impossible to accurately restore an original text when subjective guesswork, hundreds of years after-the-fact, guides the selection process. The approach relies heavily on heuristics: general guidelines which seem to make sense, but which cannot be known to actually reflect the facts. And therein lies the vulnerability of the method. In the case at hand, we have “us” in every significant manuscript known with the exception of one. But that doesn’t deter the “logic” of textual criticism which arrives at a conclusion rejecting the overwhelming evidence in favor of the one exceptional reading.1

Pickering briefly discusses the subjective heuristics behind the eclectic textual reconstruction,3 concluding that the results are too easily subject to the individual interpretation of the scholar.

Just how are MSS to be weighed? And who might be competent to do the weighing? As the reader is by now well aware, Hort and most subsequent scholars have done their ‘weighing’ on the basis of so-called "internal evidence"—the two standard criteria are, "choose the reading which fits the context" and "choose the reading which explains the origin of the other reading". One problem with this has been well stated by Colwell. "As a matter of fact these two standard criteria for the appraisal of the internal evidence of readings can easily cancel each other out and leave the scholar free to choose in terms of his own prejudgments." . . . The whole process is so subjective that it makes a mockery of the word ‘weigh’.4

Another problem with the eclectic approach to reconstructing the original is that the resulting text does not match any extant manuscript—it differs from all of the manuscripts contributing to the process.

Earliest is Not Necessarily Best

Besides the problems involved with the subjective heuristics employed when analyzing differences among manuscripts, there is the questionable assumption of granting priority to the oldest text: the predominant notion is that oldest is always better. This assumption derives from the seemingly sound idea that the older the manuscript, the closer it must be in time—and assumed faithfulness—to the original autographs (which we do not have in our possession). Thus, there has been less time for the text to diverge from the original due to the accumulation of various errors during the copying process.

This idea appears sound on its face. But what if the oldest manuscripts disagree in myriads of ways such that they incriminate their own testimony? According to their age, they would appear to have priority, but what if their character indicates otherwise? This appears to be the case for the oldest manuscripts which are given priority when making text-critical decisions behind many modern translations, especially Aleph and Codex B, which disagree in their witness:

No one has done for the "Byzantine" text anything even remotely approximating what Hoskier did for Codex B, filling 450 pages with a careful discussion, one by one, of many of its errors and idiosyncrasies. . . . [concerning] Hoskier, Codex B, Vol. I . . . I fail to see how anyone can read this work of Hoskier's with attention and still retain a high opinion of Codices B and Aleph.5

Similarly, it has been shown by simple logic/arithmetic that Aleph and B have over 3,000 mistakes between them, just in the Gospels. Aleph is clearly worse than B, but probably not twice as bad—at least 1,000 of those mistakes are B's. Do Aleph and B fit your notion of a good witness? To judge by the circumstance that Codices like Aleph and B were not copied, to speak of, that the Church by and large rejected their form of the text, it seems they were not respected in their day.6

Aland says concerning P47: "We need not mention the fact that the oldest manuscript does not necessarily have the best text. P47 is, for example, by far the oldest of the manuscripts containing the full or almost full text of the Apocalypse, but it is certainly not the best." . . . As to B and Aleph, we have already noted Hoskier's statement that these two MSS disagree over 3,000 times in the space of the four Gospels. Simple logic imposes the conclusion that one or the other must be wrong over 3,000 times—that is, they have over 3,000 mistakes between them. (If you were to write out the four Gospels by hand do you suppose you could manage to make 3,000 mistakes, or 1,500?) Aleph and B disagree, on the average, in almost every verse of the Gospels. Such a showing seriously undermines their credibility.7

The uncritical assumption that 'oldest equals best' was an important factor and became increasingly so as earlier uncials came to light. Both Codex Vaticanus and Codex Bezae were available early on, and they have thousands of disagreements, just in the Gospels (in Acts, Bezae is wild almost beyond belief). If 'oldest equals best', and the oldest MSS are in constant and massive disagreement between/among themselves, then the recovery of a lost text becomes hopeless.8

The benchmark work on this subject is Herman C. Hoskier's Codex B and its Allies (2 vols.; London: Bernard Quaritch, 1914). The first volume (some 500 pages) contains a detailed and careful discussion of hundreds of obvious errors in Codex B; the second (some 400 pages) contains the same for Codex Aleph. He affirms that in the Gospels alone these two MSS differ well over 3,000 times, which number does not include minor errors such as spelling (II, 1). Well now, simple logic demands that one or the other has to be wrong those 3,000+ times; they can't both be right, quite apart from the times when they are both wrong. No amount of subjective preference can obscure the fact that they are poor copies, objectively so.9

There are also other issues to be considered. If the oldest manuscripts are from Egypt does it necessarily follow that Byzantine manuscripts originated at a later date? Or might other factors contribute to this reality: lesser-used copies of manuscripts outlasting heavily used copies and regional conditions, such as temperature extremes and humidity, being more favorable to the preservation of manuscripts?

Why Are There No Early "Byzantine" MSS? Why would or should there be? To demand that a MS survive for 1,500 years is in effect to require both that it have remained unused and that it have been stored in Egypt (or Qumran). Even an unused MS would require an arid climate to last so long. . . . As the use of Greek died out in Egypt the demand for Greek Scriptures would die out too, so we should not expect to find many Greek MSS in Egypt.10

An imaginary illustration helps illustrate the potential problems with assuming that older is necessarily better. Let’s say that civilization, as we know it, underwent a cataclysm. A thousand years from now, a restored civilization began sifting through the ruins of our age—only to uncover an early copy of the New World Translation (NWT) of the Bible. Further, assume they also found numerous copies of the English Standard Version (ESV). Assume also they had developed a here-to-fore unknown highly accurate dating method by they are able to date the NWT to its publication date: 1961. Further, they establish that the ESV dates to 2018. If they assume older is better, they would conclude the NWT to be a more accurate representation of some earlier English text than the ESV. But we know the NWT is actually the inferior “manuscript.”

Admittedly, this contrived example differs in numerous ways from the actual situation existing among New Testament manuscripts. But it does illustrate that one can’t assume that oldest is always best. (And in this case, further excavation would likely turn up a much greater “majority” witness of non-NWT manuscripts—implying that, for some reason, the NWT didn’t enjoy as widespread use as the ESV—out of disfavor from orthodox Christianity.)

Genealogical/Familial Relationship

Some who recognize the subjective nature of the eclectic approach to textual criticism believe that the better way to determine the preferred manuscript is by analyzing its pedigree: its origin and familial relationship.

We really need to understand that age guarantees nothing about quality. Each witness must be evaluated on its own, quite apart from age. Further, and perhaps more to the point, we need to know how a given MS relates to others. Once a MS has been empirically identified as belonging to a family (line of transmission), then it is no longer an independent witness to the original—it is a witness to the family archetype. As Colwell so well put it, "the crucial question for early as for late witnesses is still, 'WHERE DO THEY FIT INTO A PLAUSIBLE RECONSTRUCTION OF THE HISTORY OF THE MANUSCRIPT TRADITION?'"11

All Else Being Equal, Statistics Favor Preservation of the Original among the Majority Readings

This is the assumption behind the term Majority in the phrase Majority Text (MT). Although critics of the MT sometimes misrepresent this as simply counting copies, it is a bit more than that. This approach recognizes the science and probabilities of statistics and preference: a late, erroneous reading has a limited ability to overthrow an earlier, more widely accepted text as the copying process continues forward with time.

Under normal circumstances the older a text is than its rivals, the greater are its chances to survive in a plurality or a majority of the texts extant at any subsequent period. But the oldest text of all is the autograph. Thus it ought to be taken for granted that, barring some radical dislocation in the history of transmission, a majority of texts will be far more likely to represent correctly the character of the original than a small minority of texts. This is especially true when the ratio is an overwhelming 8:2. Under any reasonably normal transmissional conditions, it would be . . . quite impossible for a later text-form to secure so one-sided a preponderance of extant witnesses.12

Quite apart from the idea of 'publishing' via multiple copies, consider what would happen when a congregation received a copy of 1 Peter, James, or any of Paul's Epistles, accompanied by the instruction that they had to pass it on. If you were one of the elders of that congregation, what would you do? I would most certainly make a copy for us to keep. Wouldn't you? The point is, as soon as an inspired book began to circulate, the proliferation of copies began at once. And that means that a 'majority text' also began at once!13

. . . a basic trend was established at the very beginning—a trend that would continue inexorably until the advent of a printed N.T. text. I say "inexorably" because, given a normal process of transmission, the science of statistical probability demonstrates that a text form in such circumstances could scarcely be dislodged from its dominant position—the probabilities against a competing text form ever achieving a majority attestation would be prohibitive no matter how many generations of MSS there might be. . . . It would take an extraordinary upheaval in the transmissional history to give currency to an aberrant text form. We know of no place in history that will accommodate such an upheaval.14

. . . under normal circumstances the older a text is than its rivals, the greater are its chances to survive in a plurality or a majority of the texts extant at any subsequent period. But the oldest text of all is the autograph. Thus it ought to be taken for granted that, barring some radical dislocation in the history of transmission, a majority of texts will be far more likely to represent correctly the character of the original than a small minority of texts.15

This is a core difference between majority text advocates and those who favor the critical text, influenced heavily by the earliest extant manuscripts. Based on statistics alone, it is difficult to account for the prevalence of the majority text stream.

. . . it is plain that those who repeatedly and consistently prefer minority readings to majority readings—especially when the majorities rejected are very large—are confronted with a problem. How can this preference be justified against the probabilities latent in any reasonable view of the transmissional history of the New Testament? Why should we reject these probabilities? What kind of textual phenomenon would be required to produce a Majority text diffused throughout 80 percent of the tradition, which nonetheless is more often wrong than the 20 percent which oppose it?16

Some have put forth the idea that there was an orchestrated, late, ecclesiastically-motivated recension by which the earlier texts were supplanted by the majority witness, but history hasn’t provided any evidence to back up such a theory.

Mankind’s Responsibility Before God’s Word

All evangelicals agree that God has promised to preserve His Word, although they may differ on the manner in which He has done so.19

The preservation of His Word is required for numerous reasons: not only to serve as a reliable guide for the Church, but also to serve as the objective standard by which the world will undergo judgment (Deu. 18:19; John 12:48-49). Pickering argues that the preserved Word is not to be found through a subjective reconstruction based upon a combination of manuscripts, but exists within a family of preserved manuscripts which are extant today.

Since God the Son on earth emphatically declared, “till heaven and earth pass away not one jot or one tittle will by any means pass from the Law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:18), I conclude that He would never permit a true reading to disappear from the manuscript tradition.20

If God demonstrably preserved the precise wording of a text throughout two millennia, this implies rather strongly that He inspired it in the first place— otherwise, why bother with it? And if He went to such pains, I rather suspect that He expects us to pay strict attention to it. When we stand before the Just Judge—who is also Creator, Savior and Inspirer—He will require an accounting based on the objective authority of that Text.21

Pickering refers to these manuscripts as Family 35, which he believes represents the original wording of the New Testament.23

I find Pickering’s line of reasoning refreshing—especially as an alternative way forward rather than the subjective, eclectic approach currently in vogue. Much of what he says resonates with me. I find the idea that God has actually preserved His Word within extant manuscripts more convincing than the idea that He has done so only statistically—relying upon mankind to correctly reconstruct it by piece together variant readings from manuscripts using subjective criteria hundreds of years after-the-fact.

That being said, I am not well-versed in the field of textual criticism or the varied arguments which attend different points of view. What I can say: I’m favorable to Pickering’s thesis and plan to study this important subject further as I continue to seek and serve Christ through His Word.


Beyond the resources listed in the endnotes, the following may be of interest:


1.ATOJC, Rev. 5:9
2.Ref-1504, 333
3.“The four main ones seem to be: 1) the reading that best accounts for the rise of the other reading(s) is to be preferred; 2) the harder reading is to be preferred; 3) the shorter reading is to be preferred; 4) the reading that best fits the author's style and purpose is to be preferred. It could be said that the first canon sort of distills the essence of them all, and therefore should be the ruling canon, but in practice it is probably the second that is most rigorously applied. . . . It is clear that the four canons mentioned above depend heavily upon the subjective judgment of the critic.”2
4.Ref-1504, 154-155
5.Ref-1504, 83-84
6.Ref-1504, 155-156
7.Ref-1504, 133
8.Ref-1504, 360
9.Ref-1504, 361
10.Ref-1504, 137
11.Ref-1504, 366
12.Ref-1504, 89
13.Ref-1504, 94
14.Ref-1504, 109
15.Ref-1504, 265
16.Ref-1504, 269
17.Ref-0086, 6
18.Ref-0787, 38
19.“The following passages are often used to support the doctrine of biblical preservation (1S. 3:19; Ps. 12:6-7; 105:8; 119:89,160; 138:2; Ecc. 3:14; Isa. 40:8; Mat. 4:4; 24:35; 1Pe. 1:23-25).”17 “It should be pointed out that providential preservation is not a necessary consequence of inspiration. Preservation of the Word of God is promised in Scripture, and inspiration and preservation are related doctrines, but they are distinct from each other, and there is a danger in making one the necessary corollary of the other. The Scriptures do not do this. God, having given the perfect revelation by verbal inspiration, was under no special or logical obligation to see that man did not corrupt it. He created the first man perfect, but He was under no obligation to keep him perfect. Or to use another illustration, having created all things perfect, God was not obligated to see that the pristine perfection of the word was maintained. In His providence the word was allowed to suffer the Fall and to endure a defacement of its original condition. It may very well be that the Scriptures used to attest the promise to preserve God's Word do involve preservation. The point is that this is a different matter than insisting that God, because He inspired the Scriptures, is ipso facto obligated to preserve them; or, further, that He is obligated to preserve them in a particular way. One danger of such a position is that the faith of some has been weakened when they have become aware of variant readings in the manuscripts precisely because they have confounded preservation with inspiration. Though both are biblical doctrines, the Scripture does not link them inexorably.”18
20.Ref-1504, 304
21.Ref-1504, 210
22.Ref-1504, 210
23.“I maintain that in this year of our Lord we have actual (not theoretical) possession of the precise original wording of James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John and Jude!! Furthermore, I am prepared to offer the same sort of demonstration for each of the 27 books that make up our NT. In consequence thereof, I maintain that in this year of our Lord we have actual (not theoretical) possession of the precise original wording of the whole New Testament!!!”22


ATOJCTony Garland, A Testimony of Jesus Christa
Ref-0086Thomas Holland, Crowned With Glory (New York: Writers Club Press, 2000).
Ref-0787Harry A. Sturz, The Byzantine Text-Type & New Testament Textual Criticism (Northville, MI: Biblical Viewpoints Publications, 1984).
Ref-1504Wilbur Pickering, The Identity of the New Testament Text, 4th ed. (n.p.: Wilbur N. Pickering, 2014). ISBN:978-0-9898273-5-5b.

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