Can the Witnesses Sustain Each Other?

Hope is nature’s veil for hiding truth’s nakedness. – Alfred Nobel

Some apologetic authors who were forced to acknowledge the deficient character of the three witnesses used to build the original/best attainable text got out of this uncomfortable situation by claiming that they agreed with their opponents that none of these witnesses can lead us to the original text. However, they also claim that by using them in a complementary way, they will succeed in reconstructing the desired text where others failed. This proposition agrees with all that has already been said about the deficiencies of these three witnesses, even if we assume that they have been helpful in attaining the lost primitive text.

I think that what has been said in the previous pages is enough to exterminate any hope of reaching that lost text. Nevertheless, I would like to go further, and present another condemnation of the apologetics’ assertion that the deficiency of the textual witnesses will disappear if these witnesses are taken as a group. Here are ten objections.

  1. All of the three witnesses share the same defects of manuscriptural transmissions: They came from obscure sources, they are not backed up by chains of narrators, and they suffer from scribal alteration.
  2. The crucial defect of these three witnesses is that none of them covers the obscure zone, thus giving a weak witnessing for the state of the text in the second century.
  3. Why are we supposed to eliminate a scenario which tells that some scribes of the first century changed the earliest texts, with the result that all the scribes of the next centuries had access to a only a corrupted text? There is always the possibility of a new discovery of the gospel of John missing its Gnostic prologue. If we cannot prove that this is an impossible find, we cannot be certain that we do have the original text.
  4. We know that some “non-orthodox” Christians from the second century had different versions of some of the books of the New Testament. And there is no definitive proof that the orthodox version of the books of the New Testament is more faithful to the autograph than the “heretical” versions. The opposite view has already been proven.
  5. The fact that the defective Western text-type was spread widely in the second century (Africa and Europe) and was preferred by the earliest Fathers tells us that the motivations for corrupting the text did not emerge suddenly at some later time; rather, they co-existed with the text from its beginning.
  6. There is no doubt that having the Fathers’ citations and the versions as complementary tools in the textual studies will help in eliminating the later fabricated variants, because using such tools will help us to have better historical and geographical insight into the history of the text of the New Testament. The problem that will persist is the question of how to reach the original reading, because having these witnesses will help only in uncovering the late date of some variants and the reason for their arising.
  7. To think that the three witnesses can work in total harmony is a naive perception of the whole matter. As mentioned previously by Ehrman, the earliest manuscripts (papyri) are in conflict with earliest Fathers’ citations.
  8. The main trouble faced by scholars in their quest for the best attainable text is the contesting text-types with their divergent variant readings. Our three witnesses support these competitive text-types.
  9. Practically, no reading was chosen only with the help of the versions and the patristic citations. Or in other words: what can the Fathers’ citations and the versions add to the witnessing of the Greek manuscripts? The only special service we had from them is that they informed us that few variants known in a very few manuscripts were prevalent or at least in circulation; otherwise they sustained only the variants known in the manuscripts. So, they did not bring really something new to what is known through the manuscripts.
  10. Using the three witnesses together to recover the original/best attainable text is a method already used by scholars who proclaim that we are still far from the autograph, and that we are still having trouble in choosing the “right” version from a plethora of variants.

We cannot guess about the word of God.

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