EARLIEST GOSPEL MANUSCRIPTS
MAKE IT ALL CLEAR
by Yuri Kuchinsky
So what do the earliest gospel manuscripts make clear? Two things, actually,
Indeed, what is the basis of all these mainstream English translations? They are all based on one and the same Greek text of the gospels, as published by the United Bible Societies, also known as the Nestle/Aland text. Essentially, this is the text that was first devised in the 19th century by two British scholars, Drs. Westcott and Hort. (Strangely enough, most Christians today never even heard about them -- these two 19th century Fathers of the Church, who actually gave you your New Testament...) This dynamic duo based their creation mainly on a few Egyptian Greek manuscripts from the 4th and 5th centuries.1. Our modern New Testament Textual Criticism is fraudulent to the core.
2. All of the modern translations of the Christian gospels (RSV, NIV, NASB, etc.) have been falsified, since they are all based on a fraudulent Greek text.
But the problem with this Westcott & Hort text is that it had never actually existed in real life before the 19th century!
So here's this Big Fraud in a nutshell. It is claimed by all of our mainstream biblical scholars -- thousands upon tens of thousands of them -- that a 19th century text of the gospels... is the original first century text! But there's not even one shred of hard evidence for this!
What a lark!
So this is what our whole academic biblical guild is still busy working with... They are all basing their research completely on this Westcott & Hort 19th century creation. But if this is shown to be false and misguided... I guess this means that our whole 20th century NT scholarship is nothing other but ONE BIG DELUSION?
Oh, well, maybe it's time to start anew...
All we have to do is simply take a brief look at what was the actual basis for that famous 19th century edition by Westcott & Hort. They based it mostly on the two Egyptian manuscripts from the 4th century, the Sinaiticus (abbreviated as "Aleph") and the Vaticanus (abbreviated as "B"). They thought that they are the best... But how can they represent the "original text of the gospels" if they constantly disagree with each other? In fact, just in the gospels, these 2 happen to disagree among themselves the whole 3000 times! (And we're now talking about the substantial disagreements here, not some minor spelling discrepancies, of which there are even a lot more.)
So maybe the whole thing was a delusion, after all? I sure think so, after studying this whole area of scholarship for quite a few years.
Yes indeed, it took me a very long time to figure out some of these
things... But now, when I'm putting it all back together again, the whole
thing really does look quite elementary. It's quite simply a fraud, that's
what it is!
THE EARLIEST TEXTUAL EVIDENCE
So let us try to start anew, and to take a fresh look at the most basic textual evidence coming from the earliest gospels manuscripts that we have.
I will try to keep this article as brief as possible. Because, as I see it, you don't really need a very long explanation in order to verify these two statements above. Even a very brief analysis of our earliest manuscripts in the 3 most important ancient languages, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin, will soon make these things abundantly clear.
Latin was the official language of the Roman empire. Aramaic was the language of the earliest Christians in Israel, as well as in Syria. And Greek was the earliest official language of the Catholic Church. So let us look at the earliest manuscripts of the gospels in these 3 languages. As we shall soon see, they have quite a story to tell...
Our oldest Latin witnesses are known as the "Old Latin" manuscripts (there are about a dozen of them that have survived to present day -- that include the text of the 4 canonical gospels). And our oldest Aramaic gospel manuscripts are known as the "Old Syriac" manuscripts (there are only two of them that still survive). And there are actually some pretty amazing similarities between what these two groups of witnesses are saying, and we'll return to this presently.
Now, the following is what is generally accepted in the biblical field, so this should provide a very good basis for our analysis.
-- All the specialists agree that the Old Latin texts of the gospels came before the Latin Vulgate (as used later by the Catholic Church). There's nobody in the world today who disputes this view!
-- All the professional Textual Critics agree that the Old Syriac Aramaic texts of the gospels came before the Peshitta (the Syriac Aramaic Vulgate, the traditional Aramaic NT text that is still used by some Eastern Churches today).
(Although there are a few Peshitta supporters around who would disagree re the Old Syriac texts, it may be noted that none of them are really formally trained Textual Critics...)
Thus, we have a very wide consensus among the professional biblical scholars that the Old Latin and the Old Syriac texts are prior to their respective Vulgates. And this is very important for the argument that follows.
It is also well known that both the OL and the OS manuscripts are marked by considerable variation among them -- they are far from being uniform. So this is how our earliest texts in these languages happen to look; they are the manuscripts of the 4th and 5th centuries, the same age as what we have in Greek.
And so, based on the current scholarly consensus, some time in the 4th century, these OL and OS texts were standardised -- the processes that resulted in the Latin and the Syriac Vulgates. These are attested today by great many later manuscripts, each tradition featuring a lot of internal consistency.
Thus, the general conclusion that emerges for us so far is that first there was a variability among manuscripts, and then came the standardisation.
This is also very important for the argument that follows.Variability --> Standardisation
THE GREEK TEXTS
So what about the Greek textual tradition then? Logically, based on what has been said already about our oldest Latin and Aramaic manuscripts, we should expect to see the same basic pattern also among the early Greek manuscripts. Namely, we should expect to see some Old Greek manuscripts, and then a standardisation of them in the form of a Greek Vulgate.
And is this what we find in our evidentiary base? Well, yes, indeed, this is so, more or less...
As far as the Greek Vulgate goes, this is certainly very much in evidence. Broadly speaking, the Greek Byzantine text can be considered as the equivalent of both the Latin Vulgate, and of the Syriac Peshitta. All 3 of these later textual traditions are heavily standardised within themselves, and all 3 are found in a mass of later manuscripts. This Greek Byzantine text (also known as the Majority text, or the Textus Receptus) provided the basis for the gospels as we still have them in the King James Version of the Bible.
But what about the earlier Greek manuscripts? Are there also some "Old Greek" manuscripts that would be similar to the Old Latin and Old Syriac manuscripts?
Well, we have one such Greek manuscript for sure. It is known as the Codex Bezae, one of the most ancient complete Greek manuscripts that we have -- and it's been extensively studied by biblical scholars already for a very long time. (Its exact dating is disputed, but some recent studies date it as early as the 4th century.)
Also, there are some other early Greek manuscripts that are known as the "allies of Codex Bezae". But it must be admitted that the Codex Bezae really stands quite alone in the surviving textual tradition of the Greek gospels, because only there do we find so many wide-ranging and consistent parallels to both the OL and OS manuscripts.
So this is yet another point that needs to be stressed here. As mentioned already, there is a huge number of close textual agreements between our ancient Old Syriac and Old Latin manuscripts, that go against the canonical Greek text. And, lo and behold, our amazing Greek Codex Bezae fits right in with these Syriac-Latin agreements, also known as the "Syro-Latin agreements"! This is actually widely known and acknowledged among the professional Textual Critics.
Now, it would be a very safe conclusion at this point to infer that, back in the early centuries of Christianity, there existed a lot more Greek manuscripts that would have been very similar both to the OL and the OS manuscripts, as well as to the Greek Bezae. But they probably all perished in subsequent centuries, after the Church settled upon the more standardised Greek text of the gospels, which is represented for us today by the thousands of Byzantine manuscripts.
So shouldn't then the Greek Bezae be known rightly as an "Old Greek" manuscript, in parallel to the Old Latin and the Old Syriac manuscripts? Yes, logically, it should be, but it seems like nobody among today's Textual Critics wants to make such a connection... (They'd rather see Bezae as a strange stand-alone, as a "wild" peculiarity of some sort.) And here's the rub!
So why is everybody avoiding this issue? Why the reluctance to describe Greek Bezae as an "Old Greek" manuscript, and to accept that there were plenty more of them before that subsequent Byzantine standardisation of the Greek text? After all, once these things -- which really seem rather self-evident on the whole -- are accepted, the whole picture of how the early Christian gospels developed would become a lot more clear, logical, and consistent...
Well, paradoxically, perhaps it is exactly this clarity that
scares our professional biblical establishment most... What if, after some
bright light is shined in this area, it would expose that our whole 20th
century biblical scholarship was really One Big Delusion? Could bright
light be a bit dangerous for them, perhaps?
FROM VARIABILITY TO A STANDARDISATION
Nothing of what I've said above about our Latin and Aramaic textual traditions can be seen as in any way controversial by the mainstream Textual Critics today. They all accept that, among the Latin and Aramaic manuscripts, first there was a variability among them, and then came the standardisation...
So it is only in regard to what I'm now saying about the Greek textual tradition, and in regard to Codex Bezae, that there will be some discomfort among the professionals.
But why should this be the case, really? Why are they afraid to make these rather obvious connections?
Well, the answer here isn't really all that difficult to see, of course; with the Greek gospels, there's a lot more that hangs in the balance. It's a lot more sensitive territory, certainly, since nearly 99% of the professional NT scholars today study the Greek text only.
They would all of course like to believe that the mainstream Greek text, as used by them today -- their beloved Nestle/Aland -- is pretty close to the original gospels. So this is why it is only in regard to the Greek textual tradition that this basic pattern -- from variability to the standardisation -- is supposed to be in question somehow...
So it's politics only, my friends -- nothing more! Because, otherwise,
there can be no valid reason not to make these across-the-board connections
between the Old Syriac, Old Latin, and Old Greek manuscripts.
THE 3 BASIC MODELS
Let us now try to outline the 3 hypothetical models of how our gospels might have developed from the earliest times and up to the 5th century.
First, this is what the mainstream scholars appear to be suggesting.
THE EGYPTIAN GREEK MODEL
Today's mainstream Textual authorities claim to see the following rather odd things happening in the Greek textual tradition.
1. First, according to them, right off the bat, there was apparently
a very early standardisation of some sort, as represented by their favourite
Egyptian Greek text, of course.
2. But then, some mysterious winds began to blow -- out of nowhere, it seems -- and the whole textual picture was scrambled up. A massive influx of variability had arrived, apparently without any rhyme or reason whatsoever.
3. And then, there was yet another standardisation, as represented now by the Byzantine text.
And so, according to this Egyptian Greek Model, it was that very early (and still very mysterious) "Egyptian standardisation" that those great Textual Wizards Westcott & Hort somehow managed to track down, and then to reconstitute in their famous 19th century edition of the Greek NT. But was that a real ancient standardisation, or was it perhaps something that they just pulled out of the thin air? So this is the central question in all this -- the question that will decide whether or not our whole modern NT scholarship is really a sham.
(Well, the defenders of Westcott & Hort will of course deny that their famous NT edition was pulled out of the thin air... Instead, they will claim, it was pulled out from those two old Egyptian manuscripts, the big favourites of Westcott & Hort. But since these manuscripts happen to disagree substantially the whole of 3000 times, one might wonder about it... Perhaps it was mostly the imagination of our two 19th century British Wizards, after all...)
And now, the second model, what the Byzantine text supporters (who are also often the KJV supporters) would rather offer us.
THE BYZANTINE MODEL
1. First there was a standardisation, as represented by the Byzantine
2. Then there was a sudden influx of variability, that, unfortunately, still remains completely unexplained.
Alas, it is quite obvious that both of these models leave way too much evidence unexplained and unaccounted for. And they also assume some historical processes that are completely without reason or precedent. Hence, there's a lot of doubt about both of them.
But now, here's yet another, the third model, that seems far more rational, and far more in accord with all the textual evidence on the ground.
THE RATIONAL MODEL!
1. First there was a considerable variability in the texts of the gospels.
Early on, there was as yet no real sense that these texts were completely
sacrosanct, and on the same level as the Jewish Scripture. Some editing
of them was still considered as quite acceptable.
2. Then, after Christianity became victorious in the 4th century Roman empire, and far more mainstream, there was a major standardisation of gospel text, as represented for us now by the Byzantine Greek text, by the Syriac Peshitta, and by Latin Vulgate. (This 4th century standardisation was most likely associated with the Council of Nicea, that had taken place in 325 CE, and the subsequent solidification of Church influence in the Roman society. But it still took some considerable time, perhaps a few decades, before these texts were truly standardised.)
So this model leaves no evidence at all that is unaccounted for. All
the textual evidence that we now have happens to be fully consistent with
this model. Which is, of course, the true measure of success for any scientific
theory. So is it possible that this is what really happened in real life?
I sure think so...
WHY IS THE GREEK TEXT STILL PRIVILEGED ABOVE ALL OTHERS?
Of course, if we look only at the Aramaic and Latin textual traditions, our third model is clearly the most natural, the most complete, as well as the simplest solution to the Textual Problem that we have. In fact, this solution -- based as it is on the assumption that first there was variability, and then came the standardisation -- is already fully accepted by the mainstream Textual Critics... but only for the Aramaic and Latin textual traditions!
On the other hand, when the discussion moves on to the Greek textual tradition, then we see a lot of strange things happening, all of a sudden... Lo and behold, some strange "standardisations" pop out of nowhere, in a totally unreal sequence.
We have already seen that, for the Byzantine supporters, the basic sequence of Variability --> Standardisation happens to be inexplicably reversed... How can they ever explain this one in any sort of a credible manner?
And as for the Egyptian Greek mainstreamers, we see even weirder things going on. First, according to these mainstream authorities, there was this very strange "standardisation", that apparently happened at a very early date... but only in Egypt (since this type of an Egyptian text is not really in evidence anywhere else). So this is, then, what Westcott & Hort, these two Biblical Fishermen, claimed to have fished out of the ocean blue...
And then, all of a sudden, you have some strange storm blowing, and that "original gospel text" got all scrambled up somehow? To be reassembled yet again in yet another standardisation, the Byzantine one?
Well, if you believe that one, perhaps there's also a very nice bridge
that you might be interested in buying from that guy in the bar down the
I think it is finally time for some sanity in the NT Textual studies. The Rational Model above, the Model that is already fully accepted for the Latin and Aramaic textual traditions, needs to be extended also to the Greek textual tradition.
There are no two ways about it. There's simply no reason why the Greek textual tradition should look any different from the other two major textual traditions of the gospels.
And after this is accepted fully, what we have is the simple and logical process -- from variability to the standardisation -- that will apply to all of our early gospel manuscripts. So there's no room there for any mysterious early "standardisations", followed by no less mysterious "influxes of variability". These are really just red herrings, nothing more -- the shimmering Egyptian Mirages out there among the overheated desert dunes.
But then, unfortunately for all too many biblical professionals -- for over 90% of them, I would say -- it's back to the drawing board. It seems like the Egyptian Greek text, on which they staked their whole professional careers, was nothing more than a Great Egyptian Mirage. I can already see their happy faces... :)
So what is my positive message then, some might ask? If the Egyptian text is a Mirage, then what is there for people to do?
Well, in my view, going back to the Byzantine text doesn't look like such a bad idea, after all. Let's go back to the past! Having the straight choice between the Byzantine and the Egyptian text, I have no doubt that the former is far preferable. So how about going back to the KJV then (or to the New KJV, for those who prefer the updated English)?
(It should be quite obvious that the Byzantine Model above is considerably simpler than the Egyptian -- it involves two steps rather than three, and avoids the need to postulate two separate and completely unrelated standardisations. While it is not really the best possible model, in my humble opinion, yet it's still preferable to the Egyptian Model.)
But if some brave souls wish to go even further back, towards an even older type of a text, it's definitely the ancient Aramaic gospels that give us the best and the most original text of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Strangely enough, these ancient Old Syriac Aramaic gospels have been all but completely neglected in the last 100 years of biblical scholarship. The main reason for this is clearly political, in my view, the desire to make Yeshua into a Greek. But this is a separate long story in its own right.
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