Since the nineteenth century a great deal of time and effort has been expended to determine the exact reading of the original text of Scripture. Some men have devoted years of research to the quest, and that research has brought many new manuscripts to light. However, even though we now have extra-Biblical evidence that the New Testament was written in the first century AD, when it comes to resolving the minor differences between certain manuscripts we are not one bit closer to settling the matter than we were fifty years ago. Furthermore, it is my contention that science will never be able to resolve those differences, because the knowledge necessary to resolve them is beyond the realm of science. For that reason, I am issuing a call for a new approach to the subject, an approach that I believe is more realistic because it recognizes the limitations of science instead of ignoring them.

    In issuing this call I do not wish to overlook the many benefits that have come from research in the past. Such research has done much to affirm the reliability of Scripture as we have it today, and new manuscript finds enable us to be more certain than ever before that Scripture has been accurately preserved. In addition, virtually all manuscripts whether early or late agree well over ninety percent of the time. However, in those passages where a significant difference in wording does exist, the customary approach will never be able to tell us which version is that of the original text.

    In saying this, it should be self-evident that the manuscripts say nothing of their own ancestry or accuracy. For that reason, any attempt to determine the ancestry or accuracy of a manuscript must deal with assumptions, and that is exactly where we run into problems.

    Much of the controversy over texts stems from the fact that certain prominent men in the field of textual research have attempted to go beyond the evidence by reasoning from assumptions. Nevertheless, assumptions are notoriously unreliable, no matter how reasonable they may sound. Moreover, the fact that a conclusion will sound logical if you start from the right assumptions, does not change the fact that the conclusion will be wrong, if the assumption is wrong. Therefore, if we really want the truth, we need to stick to the facts and eliminate assumptions.

[Note: The fact that every attempt to supplement Scripture with assumptions leads to conclusions that contradict Scripture is a divine testimony to the fact that reasoning from assumptions is not a reliable methodology.]

    One prominent assumption holds that the older a manuscript is, the less likely it is to contain error. However, even though that assumption sounds plausible, it is not always true. It would be true if every copyist exercised the same degree of care, but they do not. For example, in the second century Ignatius referred to corrupt manuscripts that he had encountered, and any one of those corrupt manuscripts would be more likely to contain error than late manuscripts that were copied from good copies of the original (Philadelphians 2:20). Therefore, the age of a manuscript is no guarantee of its accuracy. And, because the time period between generations varies, age is no guarantee that a manuscript has gone through fewer generations of copying. On the contrary, because some manuscripts were copied from very ancient texts, while others were copied from relatively recent copies, it would be foolhardy to simply assume that that the age of a manuscript determines its accuracy when we have no way of knowing if it really is more accurate.

    Another prominent assumption holds that addition to the text is more likely to occur than omission. However, we know that is not generally the case. While it would be true if every scribe took the same precautions, and if the same care was taken in the early centuries that was taken in later centuries, omissions are much more common than additions (ask any secretary). Furthermore, we know that omissions did occur, for Ignatius (in the passage referred to above) spoke of manuscripts that omitted things from the text.

    I might also point out that there are many questions surrounding the practice of grouping texts into text types. For example: Why should a few oddball manuscripts that disagree with each other in many places, be called a “text type”? Why should such “text types” be treated as if they were equal in standing to the traditional text, when the traditional text consists of thousands of manuscripts that are all in substantial agreement. And, why should we overlook the fact that there are a number of very early manuscripts that do not fit into any of the “text types”. That issue is just another reason why I see a need for a fresh approach to manuscript evidence.


    The approach I suggest is neither unprecedented nor unrealistic. I believe that we should simply examine the evidence, learn what we can from such an examination, and then admit the limitations of our knowledge, instead of trying to supplement that knowledge with assumptions. In fact, the advisability of admitting the limitations of our knowledge can be inferred from the fact that every failure to do so when formulating doctrine leads to error.

    At the same time, we need to remind ourselves that readings which do nothing more than restate what the Bible says elsewhere are still the Word of God, in the same sense that any Bible quote is the Word of God (Revelation 19:10, John 11:51). Furthermore, because God designed the Bible to testify of Christ, it would be far more realistic for us to expect a corruption of the text to obscure that testimony, than improve it (John 5:39 and 20:31).

    We also need to remember that God will preserve the words of His inspired book (Psalm 12:6,7). He has done so in the past by preserving ancient manuscripts, and by keeping uninspired books out of the cannon. And, He does so today by stirring researchers to comb through ancient records, and to discover the evidence that His words have come down to us virtually unchanged.

    However, due to the assumptions that are currently in vogue in the field of textual research, two fourth century manuscripts (known as Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) are widely promoted even though they differ from most of the other manuscripts in over five thousand places. In saying that, I want to emphasize the fact that most of those differences are very minor, amounting to little more than variations in spelling or word order. Nevertheless, significant differences do exist in over two hundred places. Furthermore, because very early manuscripts can usually be found to support either reading, there is no way that we can ever know which reading represents the original, in the same sense that God knows.

    Be that as it may, the fact that the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus both omit Mark 16:9-20, even though those verses are found in every other Greek manuscript in the world (that contains Mark), raises a serious question as to their reliability. Those verses are also found in all Syriac versions except the Sinatic Syriac, and in all Old Latin manuscripts except “K”. They were also quoted by Hippolytus in 200AD, by Irenaeus in 180AD, by Tatian in 175AD, and by Justin martyr in 150AD. Therefore, the only reason that they are called in question at all has to do with the prevalent assumption that Vaticanus and Sinaiticus are more reliable simply because they were produced at government expense (an assumption that anyone familiar with government waste and bungling must find laughable).
    I might also add that without those verses the Gospel of Mark ends abruptly and is incomplete, and all but two of those verses give us information that is confirmed by the other Gospels. In addition, the two unique verses are in harmony with Mark’s emphasis on the miraculous, with stories that occasionally come to us from the mission field (Acts 28:3-6), and with other statements that Christ made (John 14:12, Matthew 17:20, Matthew 21:21).

    Another passage of Scripture that is missing from the Vaticanus-Sinaiticus text, is the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). In this case, the manuscript evidence tells us only that copies of the Gospel of John that include these verses, as well as copies that omit them, were probably being circulated within the lifetime of John. In addition, support for this story can be found in the Didache (150-200AD), in statements by Jerome (4th century), in the Apostolic Constitutions (4th century), in statements by Pacian (370AD), in Montanist writings (2nd century), and in Eusebius’ history (324AD) which mentions that Papias (150AD) regarded this story as part of Scripture.
    At the same time, the way that Jesus dealt with this woman is in perfect harmony with the way in which He dealt with a number of similar situations (Luke 7:36-50, John 4:6-30, Matthew 9:10,11, Mark 2:16, Luke 5:30, also compare John 5:14 with 8:11). Moreover, without those verses there is an abrupt jump in the flow of thought.

    The Vaticanus-Sinaiticus text also omits any mention of the angel stirring the water (John 5:3b-4). And, here again an objective look at the evidence only tells us that both readings existed at a very early time. Nevertheless, Tertullian cited this passage in 200AD, Didymus cited it in 379AD, and the majority of Greek manuscripts preserve it intact. Furthermore, when we look to God’s Word, we discover that the verses in question are only a small part of the story found in John 5:2-16. And, there is no doubt about the authenticity of that story, for it is found in all of the manuscripts. It is also significant that the story does not make much sense when those verses are omitted from the text. Not only is verse seven worded in a way that assumes that the reader already has the information contained in verse four, but verse four explains why the impotent man spoke of others getting into the pool before him, when Jesus asked him if he wanted to be healed.

    In John 9:35, the Vaticanus-Sinaiticus text changes the words “Son of God” to “son of man”. In this case the reading “Son of God” is found in Tatians's Diatesseron (180AD), as well as in most Greek manuscripts that contain John. Therefore, we know that the reading is very old. Although both readings,  “Son of God” and “son of man,” are found elsewhere in Scripture, no one would even question the traditional reading, if it were not for the overblown affection some have for the Vaticanus-Sinaiticus text. I might also point out that in this passage of Scripture Christ was teaching the need for faith, and He tended to emphasize His deity when asking others to believe on Him (John 3:16,35,36, John 5:25, John 6:40, John 11:4,25,26,27).


    It should be clear that I am advocating an approach to manuscript evidence that will lead to different conclusions from those currently in vogue. However, I believe that this approach will strengthen faith, and heal division, where the popular approach has done just the opposite (Matthew 7:16,20).