The Problem with Reasoned Eclecticism
Reasoned Eclecticism is the name given to the "mainstream" modern method of New Testament textual criticism. It is the method that has been used over the last fifty years to put together the Greek text underlying most of the recent popular, modern English Bibles, like the NIV, the NASB, and the ESV. All of these Bibles are translated from a Greek text (the UBS 3rd/4th editions and the Nestle-Aland 26/27th editions) that has been edited along the lines suggested by Reasoned Eclecticism.
So, what does Reasoned Eclecticism involve? Reasoned Eclecticism, in its advertised pronouncements, uses three main criteria to judge which is the true reading of the text:
Firstly, Reasoned Eclecticism prefers readings with better External Evidence (we should prefer manuscript, versional and patristic witnesses with better age, character and geographical distribution).
Secondly, Reasoned Eclecticism prefers readings with better Internal Evidence (we should prefer the shorter, harder, disharmonized, and harsher forms of text - because scribes lengthened, polished up, improved and harmonized the text over time).
Thirdly, Reasoned Eclecticism prefers the reading that is more in keeping with what the author was more likely to have written.
That all sounds a reasonable basis for deciding upon the true reading of the text. What's the problem?
Reasoned Eclecticism has one main problem that produces a number of other related difficulties.
Hebrews 1:3 - 'by himself'
In Hebrews 1:3, most modern English versions (RV, RSV, NIV, NASB, NRSV, ESV, HCSB, NET, NLT) omit the words 'by himself' in the sentence, 'when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high'. As we will see, this decision to omit is quite puzzling, in view of the evidence.
The textual evidence for the inclusion of these words is quite strong: the oldest manuscript (P46) contains the words, as well as the vast majority of manuscripts from the Byzantine and Western text-types, and most of the versions contain the words (the Syriac, the majority of Old Latin manuscripts, Ethiopic and Slavonic - even the Coptic versions break ranks with the Alexandrian manuscripts and include these words).
About 14 manuscripts omit the words, including Aleph, A and B. The 14 manuscripts that omit mostly come from the one text-type (Alexandrian). The Latin Vulgate and Armenian versions also omit.
When we evaluate this evidence according to our PANEL method, the evidence presents as follows:
Propinquity: the longer reading is preferable, with wider attestation from manuscripts and versions from North, West, East (the Syriac versions) and South, while the shorter reading has support from the Alexandrian text-type and minor versions.
Antiquity: the longer reading is preferable with P46, the oldest manuscript, reading these words
Numbers: the longer reading is preferable, with the vast majority of manuscripts containing the words
Explanatory: the longer reading is preferable, as scribes tended to omit words rather than add them. In addition, the omission is easily explanable on the basis of homoeteleuton: a scribe jumped from the letters OU to OU in DUNAMEWSAUTOUDIAUTOU. Amazingly, Metzger does not even mention the possibility of parablepsis in his textual commentary.
This only leaves the issue of Logic. The reading 'by himself' seems somewhat unnecessary and superfluous. What does it add to the verse? Why might the author have used these words?
The word 'himself' is used a number of times in the letter to the Hebrews, particularly in the chapters dealing with Christ's sacrifice:
- 7:27 - 'this he [Christ] did [i.e. offered a sacrifice] once for all when he offered up himself'
- 9:7 - [the Aaronic High Priest went into the Holy Place yearly] 'not without blood, which he offered for himself and the peoples' sins'
- 9:14 - 'Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God'
- 9:25 - 'not that he should offer himself often, as the High Priest enters into the Holy Place yearly with the blood of another'
- 9:26 - 'now, once at the end of the ages, he has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself'. (Actually, this verse does not use the reflexive pronoun 'himself', and literally it should read 'his sacrifice', but I have included this reference because (a) it is my favourite verse in the book of Hebrews, and (b) because most modern English translations use the reflexive pronoun either because of tradition, or because the context of the previous verses contrasts Christ's sacrifice of himself with the sacrifice of the Levitical priests of the blood of another).
Here we have the message of middle chapters of the book of Hebrews: Christ is not only the priest who offers a sacrifice to God (chapters 5-7), but he is also the sacrifice itself (chapters 8-10). He did not offer a sacrifice for himself, not did he offer the sacrifice of another; he offered himself.
When we look back at Hebrews 1:1-3, we are forced to add yet another fact: in view of the greatness of who the Son of God is (Creator and Sustainer of all things, perfect and complete expression of God's person), it is not only amazing that he himself should be the sacrifice for sins, but further, as the Son of God, he was perfectly able, sufficient and willing to make purification for sins - all by himself. The focus here in Hebrews 1:3 rests upon who he is, the work he has done, and the majestic enthronement he has been given as a result of all this. The fact that he himself did all this - by himself - gives him the unique privilege to be seated at the right hand of the majesty in the heavens.
The emphasis therefore upon 'himself' seems to suit what the writer is trying to convey here: the uniqueness of Jesus the Son of God.
In conclusion, virtually every piece of evidence points in the direction of the retention of the words. There seems no good reason for the omission whatever. What is most puzzling is that most of the above-mentioned English versions that omit the words do not even mention the alternative reading 'by himself' in their footnotes.
Prefer the Shorter Reading?
One of the four traditional transcriptional canons - that is, rules for determining the correct reading, based on the ways that scribes are supposed to have altered the text - is that we should Prefer the Shorter Reading. In practical terms, this means that we should prefer manuscripts that omit words and verses from our Bibles rather than manuscripts that add them in. This rule is sometimes given in Latin form, Lectio Brevior Potior.
The thinking behind this rule is that scribes would be more likely to add to the text rather than to omit material. It is partly on the basis of this rule that most English Bibles produced in the last hundred years are significantly shorter than the older King James Version. Thus, if you look down at the footnotes in an NIV or ESV, you will often find that these Bibles have left some words (or even whole verses) out of the passage, and instead relegate these deleted words to the footnotes with something like, 'Some manuscripts read ...'
Over the last few decades there have been a number of studies conducted to test whether scribes tended to add to the text or omit material from it. These studies have been based on singular readings and they all show that, contrary to the tradition rule, scribes in fact tended to omit much more material than they added.
Here are the results:
Prefer the Harder Reading?
Prefer the Harder Reading is one of the four traditional transcriptional canons, that is, rules about what reading we should prefer based on what scribes supposedly did to the text as they copied it. Prefer the Harder Reading (also known by its Latin term, Lectio Potior Brevior) is based on the reasoning that says that it is more likely that scribes would improve the text or remove difficulties than the reverse. As a result, it advises us that we should prefer the more difficult reading when faced with a case of textual variation.
However, just like some of the other transcriptional canons, this idea seems to fly in the face of common sense. As John Dobson writes, 'This kind of reasoning needs to be questioned. Any error made in copying a sentence is likely to make it more difficult to understand' (Learn New Testament Greek, 3rd ed., p316). The fact is that it is much easier to make a mistake in a manuscript than it is to put it right again; there are hundreds of ways to sabotage complex machines, and certain machines will only work if everything is just right. James Royse wrote: "as one increases one's acquaintance with manuscripts, it becomes clear that scribes make virtually any kind of error imaginable sometime or other" (Scribal Habits, p9). If textual criticism is all about weeding out mistakes from a text, it would seem almost strangely back-to-front for textual critics to be preferring readings that make the text more difficult to understand instead of readings that make more sense.
Can we Trust the New Testament Text?
A friend of mine was challenged on a university campus with the following four questions:
Do you have the original copies of the Bible? My friend answered, No. Do the manuscripts all agree 100%? My friend answered, No. Do you have a system to trace the ancestry of the manuscripts? My friend answered, No. Do you have a mechanism to destroy false copies? My friend answered, No. "There”, said the fellow, “You believe that your Bible is from God, but you have a corrupted Bible. God would not have allowed this to happen if Christianity was the true religion”.
History of the Canons
If, as seems increasingly clear from research into scribal habits, the long-held transcriptional canons are wrong, where did the canons of transcriptional probability come from? James Royse has written about presentations of the transcriptional canons in modern textual handbooks as follows: ‘Regrettably, though, most presentations of these canons are not – as far as one can tell from the exposition – based on the actual knowledge of documents of which Hort speaks, but rather appear to rest upon a priori reflections on how scribes behaved (or must have behaved)’.