James White and Textual Transmission


Continuing where I left off with the last post, here are some more pages from James White’s book The King James Only Controversy. Here he is discussing the transmission of the bible, something every Christian should be aware of because of the many challenges to its authority by critical scholarship.


Scribes and Their Work

Back in Kindergarten we used to play “telephone.” We would sit in a circle and attempt to pass a message around the circle by whispering it to the person next to us. Normally, the message would not get to the other end without some kind of humorous alteration. The game illustrated how things can change when they are told and retold over and over again.

On another level we can see how the same thing can happen with written documents. We have already noted some of the kinds of errors that can take place when a person makes a handwritten copy of someone else’s handwritten document. We might note some other problems that arise specifically in the course of repeated copying over time. For example, what if you have trouble reading the style of handwriting of the person who copied the book you are trying to reproduce? Some people write their t’s and their f’s alike; with others it is hard to distinguish between letters like e and o or c. The same kinds of problems exist in other languages. And if you are not in a position to ask the original author or copyist due to your geographic location, or due to the age of the document you are copying, you have to make your “best guess” at what is supposed to be on the page before you.

Another problem that crops up has to do with marginal notes. What if you are going along just fine, when all of a sudden you realize you skipped a line or a sentence up above. Remember, your writing materials are expensive. You can’t just wad up a piece of papyrus and start all over again. If you are using vellum you might be able to erase what you wrote, but what if it was far enough back to make this too difficult? In either case, you might write the skipped portion in the margin in smaller letters, and give some indication that it is supposed to be included in the actual text. But this might lead to confusion further down the line. Let’s say you are copying someone else’s work and you encounter something written in the margin. Did the original copyist intend this material to be included in the text, or is it just a note they have included there to explain a particular aspect of the passage? If you can’t ask him, how are you to know? You don’t want to put something in that isn’t original, but at the same time you don’t want to leave anything out, either. It seems that for most, it seemed safer to add the extra material than to leave it out.

When we put the problems that arise with hand-copying manuscripts into the context of history, we begin to see the outlines of some of the major issues up for debate regarding the text of the New Testament. Since many fine works exist that go into great depth on this issue, we will not repeat what others have done so well. Instead, we will summarize the important points.

First, the text of the Bible was transmitted in the context of history. That is, we cannot isolate the discussion of how the Bible came to us from the ebb and flow of history. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire, for example, is an important aspect of the transmission of the Bible to our day. So, too, is the rise of Islam and the protracted conflict between Muslim and Christian forces around the ancient city of Constantinople. These things had great influence upon Christians and, necessarily, upon the manuscripts in their possession. This might seem rather elementary and not worthy of noting, but scholars have put forth entire theories about the text of the Bible that seemed to be utterly oblivious of the simple facts of history and how they impacted the entire process.

In some ways the text of the New Testament was more impacted by external forces than the text of the Old Testament. There are a number of reasons for this. There was a natural “isolation” of the text of the Old Testament due to the reverence given to it by the Jewish people, and by their distinct standing as a religious and ethnic group. Hebrew as a language was not well known outside of Jewish circles, which gave an added measure of “control” to the transmission of the text. In comparison, the Greek of the New Testament, at least in the first few centuries after it was written, was the “common language” of the people. Since the Gospel went to “all people,” all sorts of different people had direct access to the New Testament and hence were able to make copies of those documents in a language they understood. Christians were very open about spreading their message far and wide, and as a result the text of the New Testament went far and wide as well. Rater than being limited to trained scribes, we discover that businessmen, soldiers, and even literate slaves often made personal copies of one of the Gospels so as to be able to read about their Lord Jesus. The less trained individuals might make more errors in their transcription than the experienced scribes, but this was unavoidable given the Christian belief that the message of Christ was to go to all men.

Text-Types and Families

How is all of this important to us? Much in every way. One of the most critical elements of the entire KJV Only controversy, especially as it relates to the New Testament, revolves around the discussion of “text-types” or “text-families.” We are now in a position to understand how “text-types” came into being. Basically, a text-type or text-family refers to a grouping of manuscripts that share common readings or characteristics that distinguish them from other text-types. Some manuscripts belong to more than one text-type, for they may have one kind of text in the Gospels, and a different kind of text in Paul’s writings or in the general Epsitles. The lines between the various text-types that have been identified are often blurry. But in general, scholars have identified at least three, and probably four, “text-types” in the New Testament. They are:

(1)  The Alexandrian text-type, found in most papyri, and in the great uncial codices א (Sinaticus) and B (Vaticanus).

(2)  The Western text-type, found both in Greek manuscripts and in translations into other languages, especially Latin.

(3)  The Byzantine text-type, found in the vast majority of later uncial and minuscule manuscripts.

(4)  The Caesarean text-type, disputed by some, found in P and “Family 1” (abbreviated f)

As one can see from the names, these text-types are tied to geographic locations. The Alexandrian is thought to originate in, or at least to have been predominant in, the area around Alexandria, Egypt, where early church fathers such as Origen, Clement, and later Athanasius flourished. The Byzantine text-type is found consistently in the area around Byzantium, or Constantinople, and the Western, of course, refers to the Western half of the Roman Empire (though this one is a little less specific in nature, examples of this type defying precise geographical location).

The two “ends” of the spectrum, so to speak, are the Alexandrian and the Byzantine. The Alexandrian is the more “concise,” while the Byzantine is the “full” text. What does this mean? Most scholars today (in opposition to KJV Only advocates) would see the Alexandrian text-type as representing an earlier, and hence more accurate, form of text than the Byzantine does not contain some distinctive readings that are quite ancient, but that the readings that are unique to the text-type are generally secondary or later readings. Since the Byzantine comes from a later period (the earliest texts are almost all Alexandrian in nature, not Byzantine), it is “fuller” in the sense that it not only contains conflations of the other text-types, but it gives evidence of what might be called the “expansion of piety.” That is, additions have been made to the text that flow from a desire to protect and reverence divine truths. We will have more to say about this shortly.

The Byzantine text-type represents the vast majority of the Greek manuscripts we have available to us today. There is a fairly simple reason for this. Within a few centuries after the writing of the New Testament, Latin superseded Greek as the “language of the people” in the West. Obviously, when people are no longer speaking Greek the production of manuscripts in that language will be less than if everyone is still speaking that language.

Another historical event that greatly impacted the use of language was the rise of Islam and the Muslim invasion of Palestine, then North Africa, and finally all the way into Spain and southern France. Obviously, production of manuscripts in those areas was adversely affected by the rise of Islam as the predominant religion. If one thinks about a map, it becomes readily apparent that the only area that continued to speak and utilize Greek was the area under the control of Constantinople, also known as Byzantium. The brave people of this area withstood the attacks of the Muslim invaders for many years, finally succumbing in the middle of the fifteenth century. Given that these Christians continued to write and use Greek all through this period, while Greek had passed out of normal use throughout the rest of Europe and North Africa, the dominance of the text-type that was found in that area is easily understood.

KJV Only advocates disagree with this summary of the historical situation. The Textus Receptus, the Greek text from which the KJV New Testament was translated, is “Byzantine” in character, so AV Alone believers must find a way of defending the Byzantine text-type as the “best.” They explain the lack of ancient examples of the Byzantine text-type by theorizing that those manuscripts “wore out” from excessive use over the years, while the “Alexandrian” texts were quickly seen as corrupt and hence just buried in the sand. Such a theory, of course, defies proof by its very nature, but it is the explanation used by many of those who would assert the superiority of the Byzantine text-type.

Another common claim made by those who defend the KJV is that the Alexandrian texts have been corrupted by “heretics.” They point to men like Origen who did things and believed things that most modern fundamentalists would find more than slightly unusual, and on this basis make the very long leap to the assertion that the manuscripts that come from the same area must be “corrupt.” The problem is that you can also find excellent examples of orthodox Christians in the same area just as you can find some rather heretical folks in the Byzantine area, too.

As we noted before, it is important to emphasize that the differences between the Alexandrian and Byzantine text-types do not result in two different New Testaments. A person who would read Codex Sinaiticus and who would apply sound exegetical methods to its text would come to the very same conclusions as anyone reading a Byzantine manuscript written a thousand years later.

White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Minneapolis: Bethany House. 1995. Print.


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