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The Greek Text and Last Things

Holger W. Neubauer

In 1883, a Greek Text was published that became the standard text for almost every version and translation of the Bible published after that date. Two Cambridge professors by the name Fenton John Anthony Hort D.D., and Brooke Foss Wescott D.D., led a committee to revise the Greek Text of the New Testament. The change of text came largely from the discovery of a 4th century manuscript in a monastery in Egypt located on the foot of Mt Sinai; hence its name, Sinaiticus. Constantin von Tischendorf claimed to have discovered the manuscript in a pile of rubbish next to an incinerator in 1859 and saved it from the fire. The librarian of the monastery disputed the claim, noting that Tischendorf read the manuscript on his third visit, the first taking place in 1844. The Sinaiticus was labeled as “Aleph” because it was given “A” status. He later published it in 1862. Tischendorf found that it was very much like the manuscript he had seen in the Vatican library a few years earlier. These two manuscripts would serve as the basis and justification of creating an up to date Greek Text. Though these manuscripts differed from the majority of manuscripts from all over the world, they were given preference because of their antiquity, though they disagreed with each other in many places. Sinaiticus (Aleph) and Vaticanus (B), along with a few partial manuscripts, became the basis of building a Greek Text that differed over 5000 times with the Received Text. The Received Text and Majority Text are virtually identical. These are the texts which underlie the King James Version and Young’s Literal Version. Though I cannot recommend the KJV without reservation, the Greek Text which underlies the KJV is certainly to be preferred to the modern readings. Let us consider the evidence.

First, the Received Text, sometimes called the Textus Receptus, represents an unbroken tradition from the patristics to the time of Johan Gutenberg and the Printing Press (1450). After the Printing Press was utilized copyist errors were virtually eliminated. From the 2nd century to the time of Gutenberg there are writers who quoted liberally from the scripture in their religious papers. One scholar named John Burgon catalogued over 80,000 citations from these writers and found all but 11 verses of the Received Text quoted in this period. With these quotes, Burgon demonstrated that the early writers often debated the meaning of texts, which presupposed their acceptance of them. Burgon used his research to demonstrate that Mark 16:9-20 was not a sixth century addition to the Greek text, as Wescott and Hort had argued, because the early writers had debated the meaning of the text many times. The second century writers Papias, Justin Martyr, Iraneus and Terullian all mentioned theses verses. Burgon’s work; The Last Twelve Verses of Mark, is a masterpiece and every minister should have a copy in his library. There are over 25,000 manuscripts (both whole and partial) that are presently extant in the world. Many of these witnesses were discovered thousands of miles from each other (Africa, Asia, Europe). The vast majority of them agree with the Greek Text which underlies the KJV, NKJV and Young’s Literal. Though truths from the Bible are hid from those who do not read, the Bible itself has not been hid, and its true text only recently discovered. Jesus said, “and the scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).

Second, just because a manuscript is older does not make it more reliable. There is a reason a manuscript survives. The best manuscripts were those that were most often read and used. Just as our favorite Bibles wear out faster than the ones on the shelf, the better manuscripts perished more quickly because of their use than the inferior ones which would have been viewed as suspect. The old manuscripts were read many times, and over the course of time the ink would fade, and the leaves (in codex or book form) would weaken and some would fall out. As one manuscript was compared with another, those with missing leaves would in turn be compared with others without missing leaves. Many times, this would account for a missing section. The Sinaiticus does not contain Mark 16:9-20, but Vaticanus has an empty space for its inclusion. Burgon believed this was proof that Vaticanus is the basis for Sinaiticus. Burgon argued that those in authority were debating the inclusion of Mark 16:9-20, which explains the empty space in the manuscript. Writing tools and paper were expensive in those days. No manuscript is found with large empty spaces in them. The empty space spoke volumes. The blank space at the end of the book of Mark corresponded perfectly to the amount of paper the scribe would have needed to include the verses. There must have been a serious question in the copyist’s mind as to its inclusion. The twelve verses were never included, implying that the authorities in Rome never gave the approval to include the passage. The Sinaiticus manuscript neither includes the last verses of Mark, nor is there a space for it. This fits Burgon’s point, that the Sinaiticus is a product of the Vaticanus, not the other way around. The copyists of Sinaiticus decided to remove the verses altogether. It is interesting that the 4th Century church had already been practicing infant baptism and history points out that those who would not bow the knee to Rome rejected the Greek Text that would eventually become known as the Vatican manuscript.

Third, there were many stringent rules for copying scripture. Once the lines, letters and columns were counted, (a process called stichometry), and the new manuscript carefully inspected, the new manuscript was placed into use by the church. Although there is some debate to the spelling of some words and consequently the count of the letters in some texts, it is not debated as to the careful procedure the early copyists followed. As the Jewish scribal practices were no doubt adopted by the church, the newer manuscript became the most important one not the older. Jewish rabbis today attest to this truth. As the older manuscripts aged they were generally destroyed so as not to be misconstrued. The very fact that an old manuscript from the 4th century survived is reason for suspicion, not jubilation. The two witnesses (Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) which became the basis for the Wescott and Hort text (a.k.a. U.B.S., Nestle-Aland 23rd edition), omit Mark 16:9-20; Matthew 23:15; John 7:53-8:11; John 5:4; Acts 8:37; 15:37; 24:7; et.al. Some 48 verses are held in dispute. The alleged variant texts, are just that; alleged. We should remember that both these manuscripts were found among Roman authorities that were advancing the cause of a universal bishop. Again, history points out that those who would not submit to Rome’s authority also rejected the Roman Bible which did not have Mark 16:9-20. It ought to be noted that this same Vatican manuscript does not contain any part of 1 Timothy. Through out the centuries, those opposition groups like the Waldenses, were persecuted for keeping another “Bible.” The Waldenses held to the last verses of Mark as being authentic as did the reformers.

Fourth, the revision committee led by Wescott and Hort also argued that the shorter reading was to be preferred when manuscripts differed, believing that there was a tendency to “add” doctrines over the years. Burgon argued for the opposite. He demonstrated that a scribe, or anyone that copied another’s work, would be more likely to leave out a word than to add one. Let anyone simply copy a document and this truth will become apparent. This means an honest omission was far more likely to be found in a manuscript than a malicious addition. This salient truth becomes important when looking at some verses that have become “snipped” by the Wescott and Hort text. A good example of this is found in Matthew 18:11 and the words “The Son of Man is come to save that which was lost.” The Wescott-Hort text expunges these words from their text, though they are attested to by every large uncial but three, included in numerous ancient versions, and are quoted by ancient writers. There is simply no reason that doubt should be cast upon this text or any other text in which the preponderance of readings and ancient writers attest to. So, it should be, that without prejudice, the unbroken tradition of scripture is found in the many manuscripts and not the few.

Fifth, suppose a will is drawn out for the descendants of a wealthy business man. He declares that his grandchildren will be recipients of his benevolence if they have in hand an accurate copy of his will. The will is carefully copied (the illustration points to a time before copy machines) and distributed to the family awaiting the maturing of the grandchildren. The patriarch dies, the grandchildren mature, and the day of adjudication arrives. It is discovered that among the copies, one contains an added word. Would anyone suggest that the will was in dispute and that none of the grandchildren could know who had the correct reading? Would there be debate as to who was is in the possession of the true will? Is it not more than obvious that it was the “minority will” that was suspect and not the majority of the copies of the will? One of the grandchildren would quickly point out that because the nine had exact agreement, the will that possessed the “added word” was the wrong reading. Even if there were a second copy that was found with a word missing and third with a missing phrase, by the comparison of the copies, there would be no doubt as to what the original copy actually said. The same is true with the vast majority of witnesses of scripture that attest with amazing agreement that there was a singular and pure text in existence at one time. The autographs have long since perished, but the evidence of their existence is found in the 25,000 witnesses that remain extant. Even if we possessed the originals today, we could not be any surer of the integrity of the copies, for those who had the charge of keeping them could be accused of tampering with them. Through the providence of God, we have the promise of Jesus’ words ringing true, “but my word shall not pass away” (Matthew 24:35).

Sixth, with the evidence clearly residing in the majority of witnesses which corroborate the Received Text, those who look for another reading to support their doctrine are looking in an unreliable place. Ed Stevens, a proponent of an individual body view of 1 Corinthians 15, makes such an argument. To support his conclusions of a future resurrection and a body that changes materially, Stevens argues for a future tense reading of “phoresomen” of 1 Corinthians 15:49 and the phrase, “we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.” The minority Wescott-Hort reading changes the long “w” (omega) to the short “o” (omicron) and consequently changes the meaning of the word from an action in which the Corinthians were participating in to a change that would be completely different at some end. The argument is weak and specious. The majority of witnesses favor the aorist subjunctive reading of “phoresomen.” This means that the action under consideration was being participated in by the Corinthians. As the Corinthians had borne the image of the earthly body, so they were already participating in the image of the heavenly body which was to come. Now, unless the Corinthians were miraculously changing their biological bodies at the time Paul addressed these matters, Paul had in mind the corporate body that was changing at the time he was writing. Stevens makes a stretch in reaching for the minority reading, just as futurists stretch Paul’s statement “we shall not all sleep” to mean those thousands of years later. The text doesn’t need stretching back 1600 years to find a witness to agree, and the truth doesn’t need stretching out 2000 years in the future to make a “we shall not all sleep” passage to mean “they shall not sleep at the end of time.” The legs of the lame are not equal.

Finally, the Jewish Christians were under the Law at the time of Paul’s writing. Paul’s participating with the animal sacrifices some 25 years after Pentecost sets forth the proof (Acts 21:20-26). The Law could condemn, but it could not save (1 Timothy 1:8,9). The false teachers at Corinth denied any need for the resurrection of the body as their fellow heretics had said the “resurrection is past already” (2 Timothy 2:17,18). The Law had to “end” in order for the resurrection to be completed, so Paul says, “then cometh the end” (1 Corinthians 15:24). Paul refers to the Law of Moses when he says, “the strength of sin is the law” not the Gospel (1 Corinthians 15:56). If there was no need of the dead saints resurrection while under the Law, why would Paul withstand the continual Jewish persecution and why would he and his fellow Jewish Christians “stand in jeopardy every hour”(1 Corinthians 15:30)? Paul, certainly addresses a collective or corporate body that was already changing (2 Corinthians 3:18), but which the false teachers denied any need for a further change. It is my contention that the false teachers at Corinth were arguing for the continuing of the Law alongside the Gospel, therefore no need for the resurrection of the “dead ones.” No one denying the Resurrection of Christ, and consequently their own resurrection would have been even remotely associated with the church or would have remained in its fellowship. The argument the false teachers at Corinth were promoting is heard in the echoes of their fellow false teachers at Jerusalem who said, “all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation” (2 Peter 3:4). Peter earlier said, “the end of all things is at hand” (1Peter 4:7). Paul refuted this teaching with the statement, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51). Paul references a spiritual change of covenants at the time of the end, not a miraculous change of the biological body at the end of time. This salient truth is not only corroborated in the rest of scripture, but is secured in the Greek text as well. Thank God almighty for preserving His word so that honest minds can contemplate His truth.