A Proper Understanding of the New Testament Text

What the authors of Myths and Mistakes insist on is that it is neither necessary nor even possible to demonstrate that we can recover the exact wording of the New Testament. But what we have is good enough.

The above words by Daniel B. Wallace are the final sentences in his Foreword to the new multi-author volume Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry, eds. [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019], pp xix-xx). I received a copy a few days ago, and I may provide a more comprehensive review of it at some point (beyond what I’ve written here), once I’ve read through all its contents.

I think all Christians, most especially those involved in any sort of apologetics, should at least be somewhat acquainted with the topic of New Testament (NT) textual criticism—the discipline of attempting to determine the original Greek text (aka the autographs) of the NT, from which we translate to English and other languages. And it’s important that claims regarding the authenticity of the NT text are not exaggerated, for this will only serve to damage the cause of Christian apologetics and Christianity at large. Some who are openly hostile to the Christian faith well-know there are extant Greek NT texts that do not agree with each other, and attempts to quell this fact will only lead to charges of a lack of integrity and/or intelligence among Christians.

The cult-like fervor of King James Version-onlyists (KJVO) is particularly damaging to the Christian faith. These KJVOs stubbornly cling to either a claim of the supremacy of the Greek text underlying the KJV (the so-called Textus Receptus [TR]) and/or the supposed superiority of the King James English contained in the KJV over against all modern English (and other language) versions.1 Adherents appear to be sincere in their desire to believe that God has preserved His words in a particular manner, but in their zeal and shortsightedness they take things too far.

Such an extreme view can be misconstrued as not unlike what we would find in the ‘automatic’ writings of occult works, such as those by Alice A. Bailey, in which she openly states she was the conduit by which an entity identifying himself as Djwal Khul (aka Djwhal Khul, The Tibetan, Master D. K.) channeled his words. Hopefully, no one in Christianity/Christendom believes God provided His words in such a manner. According to the Apostle Paul, “all Scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos: from theos = God; pneustos = breath, breathe)” (2 Tim 3:16);2 moreover, according to Simon Peter, “men, borne by the Holy Spirit, spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21), and even Paul’s epistles are identified as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). That is, Scripture is understood to be written by men under inspiration from God, as opposed to God dictating His words to these men verbatim. In other words, these men were active participants in the writing of the Christian Holy Scriptures, as opposed to passive recipients, mere conduits. Thus, it is not imperative that we have the exact words of the NT in order to understand what God had conveyed via His messengers.

In Hixson and Gurry’s Introduction is a salient point regarding the reliability of the Greek text we do have:

…Simply put, we believe the textual evidence we have is sufficient to reconstruct, in most cases, what the authors of the New Testament wrote. We cannot do this with equal certainty, of course, and the following chapters will discuss places where doubt remains significant…Nevertheless, we do think that even the most textually corrupted of our manuscripts and editions still convey the central truths of the Christian faith with clarity and power. In every age, God has given his people a text that is more than reliable enough to know the saving work he has accomplished through Jesus Christ.3

To that I can only add, “Amen!”

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1 The Achilles’ heel of the KJVO stance is the Johannine Comma (Latin Comma Johanneum)—interpolated verbiage found in the TR of 1 John 5:7-8 and in the corresponding English of the KJV/NKJV. See Daniel B. Wallace’s refutation of this as inspired Scripture here and here.

2 For an in-depth analysis on this one-time occurrence of this word (hapax legomenon), see George W. Knight III’s Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), pp 444-450.

3 Hixson & Gurry, Myths and Mistakes, p 20. The accompanying footnote to this passage is worth presenting here (in part): In this we agree with influential English reformer William Whitaker, who could readily concede to his Roman Catholic opponents that “the fundamental points of the faith are preserved intact in this Latin edition, if not everywhere, yet in very many places.” This despite his opponents’ claims that the Latin text had final authority, a claim Whitaker vigorously opposed.