Griesbach had it right!

by Yuri Kuchinsky

New Testament Textual Criticism:
Griesbach figured it all out 200 years ago...
And it's been mostly downhill ever since!

Greetings, all,

New Testament Textual Criticism is often seen as the most obscure of all biblical disciplines. The textual scholars are the folks whose responsibility it is actually to produce the text of the NT that the Christians are reading today. All English translations of the gospels are based on the work of these Textual Critics, who have assembled the Greek text of the gospels from many old biblical manuscripts as they saw fit.

Yes, generally, it's quite an obscure field... The disputes among the professional Textual Critics are still many and bitter. They still keep disputing about the simplest things. For example, they still cannot agree among themselves, Which of the three main NT texts-types -- Alexandrian, Byzantine, and Western -- is the earliest?

But, actually, I'm saying that the Textual Criticism isn't such a difficult area at all... In fact, the whole thing is extremely simple!

Just how simple it is? It's actually so simple that, as I see it, the biggest problem in this area had already been solved over 200 years ago! And it seems like it's been downhill ever since...

Thus, today's NT Textual Criticism seems to be mostly smoke and mirrors. Indeed, it now looks to me like these folks spend far more time obscuring some of the most obvious things in this area, rather than clarifying them. And, as a result -- sorry to say, friends -- our mainstream "eclectic" text of the gospels, as well as all the English translations based on it, appear to be all wrong...

The following is a brief review of the work of Griesbach, and of some other famous Textual Critics of the times long past -- the scholars such as Hug and Lachmann. This review is based on the information that I've assembled from other biblical historians. All this can be easily verified.


Yes, dear friends, it sure looks to me like the Textual problem of the NT had been solved by J. J. Griesbach -- who was one of the great pioneers of biblical criticism -- already by the end of the 18th century! And so, everything that happened in biblical studies ever since was simply footnotes...

And the reason why it was so easy for Griesbach to solve this main textual problem was... because it was so easy! At least that's how it seems to me...

In modern TC textbooks, Dr. J. J. Griesbach is cited as the originator of the classification of all our NT MSS into the three basic families, Western, Alexandrian, and Byzantine (although we can also note that he relied on the work of his mentors, such as Semler). Griesbach also formulated almost all of the major rules of TC that are still in use even now.

The following account is based on an overview by Dr. A. Klijn (see the ref below), who is, himself, one of the big Textual Critics today.

According to Klijn, Griesbach started his analysis by studying the works of Origen, an early Alexandrian Church Father, and the biblical quotations as found in these writings. He observed that Origen had used two different texts of Mark; one of them close to the Alexandrian type, and the other one close to the text of Codex Bezae -- that famous very ancient NT manuscript of "Western" type. Of course, Western text was already very well known in Europe prior to Griesbach, because this was the text as represented by numerous versions of the gospels that still survive in the Old Latin.

Furthermore, Griesbach observed that these Western gospel texts, as found in Europe, had many similarities to the Syriac Peshitta -- a very important observation. So these unusual old texts of "Western type" could be found both in the West and in the East!

Griesbach could see clearly that both Western and the Alexandrian texts deviate widely from the Majority Text (which is represented for us now by the KJV). The Majority Text was the text that was most popular since the Middle Ages; thus it is found in the majority of old biblical MSS.

One of Griesbach's most noteworthy observations was that Western text represented a pre-recension text. In other words, according to him, these Western texts were current before the NT had been published as a whole. In Griesbach's view, when the canon was finally closed and settled upon, that older text came to be rejected by Church authorities.

And so, Griesbach was somewhat hesitant to describe Western text as a "recension". The only true recensions, according to him, were the Alexandrian and the Byzantine, because there's a lot more consistency within these two textual families. Thus, Western text was a pre-recension text.

So, as we can see, it was the Patristic evidence that led Griesbach to all these revolutionary discoveries. It was the quotes from the old Church Fathers that, according to him, still preserve for us the earliest pre-recension gospel text.

So this is how Klijn summarises these matters,

"Griesbach noticed that Marcion, Irenaeus and even Clement of Alexandria, who wrote before the recensions used a Western text." (A. Klijn, A SURVEY OF THE RESEARCHES INTO THE WESTERN TEXT OF THE GOSPELS AND ACTS: Part 1, Utrecht, 1948, p. 7)



Also, Griesbach could see very clearly that our canonical gospels are loaded with lots of later editorial changes -- these are certainly not the "original texts". Already back in 1771 he wrote that,

"The New Testament abounds in more losses, additions, and interpolations, purposely introduced, than any other book."

While I'm investigating the early history of NT Textual Criticism, I'm constantly amazed just how perspicacious were these great Textual pioneers of two centuries ago. And also just how honest they were!

For example, J. L. Hug shared many of Griesbach's views and, already back in 1808, he expressed the opinion that the New Testament text had undergone some major alterations in the second century. But this is something that our modern textual gurus are still afraid to admit even now! Clearly, it's the honesty that they lack more than anything else...

Thus, according to Hug, as early as in the second century our gospels become quite corrupt textually, because some major editorial changes were introduced into them. And, as he saw it, all extant New Testament manuscripts that he studied were just editorial revisions of that second century text. In other words, they seemed to him like even later revisions of an already corrupted text...

Thus what we see in our mainstream gospel texts are revisions, based on the previous revisions, based on the other even earlier revisions. This is what all this really amounts to...

Also, Lachmann, another great pioneer of TC, continued the work of both Griesbach and Hug. Writing in 1831, he stated that, based on the extant NT manuscripts, it was not possible to construct a text which would go any farther back than the fourth century.

So this was an extremely honest observation on the part of Lachmann. Indeed, to all intents and purposes, our canonical Greek texts -- whether Alexandrian or Byzantine -- are really nothing other than the Catholic texts as commonly accepted in the fourth century. (The former was popular in Egypt, but then abandoned; the latter was popular in Constantinople, and became the standard text in the early middle ages.)

So Griesbach was right; the earliest text was Western. (I, myself, prefer to describe it as the Peripheral text -- after all, the name "Western text" is just such an obvious misnomer, in light of the fact that it's the eastern MSS that are its key representatives. See this article where I explain this matter some more.) And he was working at the time when the ancient Old Syriac Aramaic gospels -- our main Western/Peripheral texts today -- were still unknown to scholarship! Yet, still and all, he put this whole puzzle together quite easily, using the Syriac Peshitta as his reference.

Sure, he was a very talented biblical scholar. But, still, how could TC wander in the wilderness so long after him? Are our modern TC scholars really so incompetent?

Maybe so... But, in my view, it's mostly their political bias that's to blame. They are simply not brave enough to challenge today's academic-ecclesiastical consensus -- something that Griesbach obviously wasn't afraid to do even back in the eighteenth century!

All the best,


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