Which Version, by Philip Mauro_Chapter 4

IV. The Characteristics of the Two Oldest Manuscripts

The principle which the modern editors have adopted, namely, that of following the oldest manuscripts in settling all questions of doubtful or disputed readings, throws us back upon the two Codices (Vaticanus and Sinaitic) which, though not dated, are regarded by all competent antiquarians as belonging to the fourth century; and its practical effect is to make those two solitary survivors of the first four Christian centuries the final authorities, where they agree (which is not always the case), upon all questions of the true Text of Scripture.

Therefore it behooves us to inquire with the utmost care into the character of these two ancient witnesses, and to acquaint ourselves with all available facts whereby their trustworthiness may be tested. And this inquiry is necessary, regardless of what may be our opinion concerning the principle of “ancient evidence only,” which we propose to examine later on. For what now confronts us is the fact that those two fourth century Codices have had the deciding voice in the settling of the Greek Text of the R.V. and are responsible for practically all the departures from the Received Text to which serious objection has been made. Thus, Canon Cook in his authoritative work on “The Revised Version of the First Three Gospels” says:

“The two oldest Mss. are responsible for nearly all the readings which we have brought under consideration- readings -which, when we look at them individually, and still more when we regard them collectively, inflict most grievous damage upon our Lord’s words and works.”

And again:

“By far the greatest number in innovations, including those which give the severest shocks to our minds, are adopted on the testimony of two manuscripts, or even of one manuscript, against the distinct testimony of all other manuscripts , uncial and cursive . . . .. The Vatican Codex, sometimes alone, but generally in accord with the Sinaitic, is responsible for nine-tenths of the most striking innovations in the R.V.”

Dean Burgon, whom we shall have occasion to quote largely because of his mastery of the entire subject, after having spent five and a half years “laboriously collating the five old uncials throughout the Gospels,” declared at the completion of his prodigious task that-

“So manifest are the disfigurements jointly and exclusively exhibited by the two codices (Vatican and Sinaitic) that, instead of accepting them as two independent witnesses to the inspired original, we are constrained to regard them as little more than a single reproduction of one and the same scandalously corrupt and comparatively late copy. “

The Many Corrections of the Sinaitic Ms.

Turning our attention first to the Codex Sinaiticus, we would lay stress upon a matter which, in our judgment, has a decisive bearing upon the all-important question of the trustworthiness of that ancient manuscript. And we are the more urgent to impress this particular matter upon the consideration of our readers because-notwithstanding its controlling importance-it has been practically ignored in such discussions of the subject as have come under our eye.

What we now refer to is the fact that, since this document was first inscribed, it has been made the subject of no less than ten different attempts of revision and correction. The number of these attempts is witnessed by the different chirographies of the revisers, and the centuries in which they were respectively made can be approximated by the character of the different hand-writings by which the several sets of corrections were carried out.

Dr. Scrivener published (in 1864) “A Full Collation of the Codex Sinaiticus,” with an explanatory introduction in which he states, among other facts of interest, that “the Codex is covered with such alterations”-i.e., alterations of an obviously correctional character-“brought in by at least ten different revisers, some of them systematically spread over every page, others occasional, or limited to separate portions of the Ms., many of these being contemporaneous with the first writer, but for the greater part belonging to the sixth or seventh century.”

We are sure that every intelligent reader will perceive, and with little effort, the immense significance of this feature of the Sinaitic Codex. Here is a document which the Revisers have esteemed (and that solely because of its antiquity) to be so pure that it should be taken as a standard whereby all other copies of the Scriptures are to be tested and corrected. Such is the estimate of certain scholars of the 19th century. But it bears upon its face the proof that those in whose possession it had been, from the very first, and for some hundreds of years thereafter, esteemed it to be so impure as to require correction in every part.

Considering the great value to its owner of such a manuscript (it is on vellum of the finest quality) and that he would be most reluctant to consent to alterations in it except the need was clearly apparent, it is plain that this much admired Codex bears upon its face the most incontestible proof of its corrupt and defective character.

But more than that, Dr. Scrivener tells us that the evident purpose of the thorough-going revision which he places in the 6th or 7th century was to make the Ms. conform to manuscripts in vogue at that time which were “far nearer to our modern Textus Receptus.”

The evidential value of these numerous attempts at correcting the Sinaitic Codex and of the plainly discernible purpose of the most important of those attempts is such that, by all the sound rules and principles of evidence, this “ancient witness,” so far from tending to raise doubts as to the trustworthiness and textual purity of the Received Text, should be regarded as affording strong confirmation thereof.

From these facts, therefore, we deduce: first that the impurity of the Codex Sinaiticus, in every part of it, was fully recognized by those best acquainted with it, and that from the very beginning until the time when it was finally cast aside as worthless for any practical purpose; and second that the Text recognized in those days as the standard Text, and by which the defective Codex now so highly rated by scholars was corrected, was one that agreed with our Textus Receptus.

It is most surprising that facts which affect so profoundly the evidential value of the Codex Sinaiticus, facts which indeed change it from a hostile to a friendly witness (as regards the Received Text) should have been so completely disregarded.

The Work of an Incompetent Scribe

There are other characteristics of this old Ms. which have to be taken into consideration if a correct estimate of its evidential value is to be reached. Thus, there are internal evidences that lead to the conclusion that it was the work of a scribe who was singularly careless, or incompetent, or both. In this Ms. the arrangement of the lines is peculiar, there being four columns on each page, each line containing about twelve letters-all capitals run together. There is no attempt to end a word at the end of a line, for even words having only two letters as en, ek, are split in the middle, the last letter being carried over to the beginning of the next line, though there was ample room for it on the line preceding. This and other peculiarities give us an idea of the character and competence of the scribe.

But more than that, Dr. Scrivener says: “This manuscript must have been derived from one in which the lines were similarly divided, since the writer occasionally omits just the number of letters which would suffice to fill a line, and that to the utter ruin of the sense; as if his eye had heedlessly wandered to the line immediately below.” Dr. Scrivener cites instances “where complete lines are omitted,” and others “where the copyist passed in the middle of a line to the corresponding portion of the line below.

From this it is evident that the work of copying was done by a scribe who was both heedless and incompetent. A careful copyist would not have made the above and other mistakes so frequently; and only the most incompetent would have failed to notice, upon reading over the page, and to correct, omissions which utterly destroyed the sense.

Dr. Scrivener’s judgment on this feature of the case is entitled to the utmost confidence, not only because of his great ability as a textual critic, but because, being impressed, as all antiquarians were, with the importance of Tischendorf’s discovery, it was solely from a sheer sense of duty and honesty, and with manifest reluctance, that he brought himself to point out the defects of the manuscript. Therefore, the following admission made by him carries much weight:

“It must be confessed indeed that the Codex Sinaiticus abounds with similar errors of the eye and pen, to an extent not unparalleled, but happily rather unusual in documents of first rate importance; so that Tregelles has freely pronounced that ‘the state of the text, as proceeding from the first scribe, may be regarded as very rough.'”

Speaking of the character of the two oldest Mss. Dean Burgon says:

“The impurity of the text exhibited by these codices is not a question of opinion but of fact …. In the Gospels alone Codex B (Vatican) leaves out words or whole clauses .no less than 1,491 times. It bears traces of careless transcription on every page. Codex Sinaiticus ‘abounds with errors of the eye and pen to an extent not indeed unparalleled, but happily rather unusual in documents of first-rate importance.’ On many occasions 10, 20, 30, 40 words are dropped through very carelessness. Letters and words, even whole sentences, are frequently written twice over, or begun and immediately cancelled; while that gross blunder, whereby a clause is omitted because it happens to end in the same words as the clause preceding, occurs no less than 115 times in the New Testament.”

In enumerating and describing the five ancient Codices now in existence, Dean Burgon remarks that four of these, and especially the Vatican and Sinaitic Mss. “have, within the last twenty years, established a tyrannical ascendancy over the imagination of the critics which can only be fitly spoken of as blind superstition.”

Those ancient Codices have indeed been blindly followed, notwithstanding that they differ “not only from ninety-pine out of a hundred of the whole body of extant Mss. besides, but even from one another. This last circumstance, obviously fatal to their corporate pretensions, is unaccountably overlooked. As said of the two false witnesses that came to testify against Christ, so it may be said of these witnesses who are brought forward at this late day to testify against the Received Text, “But neither so did their witness agree together.”

Number and Kinds of Differences

As a sufficient illustration of the many differences between these two Codices and the great body of other Mss. we note that, in the Gospels alone, Codex Vaticanus differs from the Received Text in the following particulars: It omits at least 2,877 words; it adds 536 words; it substitutes 935 words; it transposes 2,098 words; and it modifies 1,132; making a total of 7,578 verbal divergences. But the Sinaitic Ms. is even worse, for its total divergences in the particulars stated above amount to nearly nine thousand.

Summing up the case against these two fourth century Codices (with which he includes the Beza, supposedly of the sixth) Dean Burgon solemnly assures us, and “without a particle of hesitation, that they are three of the most scandalously corrupt copies extant;” That they “exhibit the most shamefully mutilated texts which are anywhere to be met with;” that they “have become (by whatever process, for their history is wholly unknown) the depositories of the largest amount of fabricated readings, ancient blunders, and intentional perversion of truth, which are discoverable in any known copies of the Word of God”.

These are strong statements, but the facts on which they are based seem fully to warrant them. Therefore it matters not what specific excellencies might be attributed to the Revised Version of the New Testament, the fact that the underlying Greek Text was fashioned in conformity to the Mss. referred to in the above  quoted paragraph is reason enough why it should be shunned by Bible users.

But let it be remembered in the first place that it is for the supporters of the two ancient Codices, as against the Received Text, to establish their case by a preponderance of testimony; for the burden of proof rests heavily upon them. It is for them to show, and by testimony which carries thorough conviction, that God left His people for fifteen centuries or more to the bad effects of a corrupt text, until, in fact, the chance discovery by Constantine Tischendorf, in the middle of the 19th century, of some leaves of parchment so slightly valued by their custodians that they had been thrown into the waste paper basket, and until (for some mysterious and as yet unexplained reason) the Codex Vaticanus was exhumed from its suspicious sleeping place at the papal headquarters.

It is for them to explain, if they can, the concurrence of a thousand manuscripts, widely distributed geographically, and spread over a thousand years of time, and of the many Versions and writings of “Fathers” going back to the second century of our era. That there were corrupt and defective copies in the early centuries-many of the alterations having been made with deliberate intent-is well known; and to account for the survival of a few of these (three at the most) is not a difficult matter.

Indeed there is good reason to believe that they owe their prolonged existence to the fact that they were known to be, by reason of their many defects, unfit for use.

It is easy to understand why the Codex Vaticanus Ms. is cherished at the Vatican; for its corruptions are what make it valuable to the leaders of the papal system. We can conceive therefore the satisfaction of those leaders that their highly prized Ms. has been allowed to play the leading part in the revision of the English Bible, than which there is nothing on earth they have more reason to fear. On the other hand, may not this be one of the causes why God, in His overruling providence has frustrated the attempt to displace the A.V. by a new version, based upon such a sandy foundation? But, on the other hand, the fact (as is admitted) of the existence everywhere of a Text represented now by over a thousand extant manuscripts, and agreeing with the Received Text, can be accounted for only upon the supposition that that is the true Text.

Furthermore, we have shown by what has been presented above that the two most ancient Codices exhibit clear internal evidences of their defective character; and we have shown also that, in case of the Sinaitic Ms., the thoroughly corrupt and defective work of the original scribe (or scribes) was well known to generation after generation of those through whose hands it passed.


Briefly then, to sum up the matter thus far, we observe:

1. That the most important and deplorable of the departures of the New Greek Text from the Received Text have been made with the support of less than one percent of all the available witnesses; or in other words, the readings discarded by the Revisers have the support of over 99 percent of the surviving Greek Texts (besides Versions and Fathers)

2. That the two Mss. which had the controlling influence in most of these departures are so corrupt upon their face as to justify the conclusion that they owe their survival solely to their bad reputation.

With these facts before us, and in view also of the leading part the English speaking peoples were to play in shaping the destinies of mankind during the eventful centuries following the appearance of the Version of 1611, we are justified in believing that it was through a providential ordering that the preparation of that Version was not in anywise affected by higher critical theories in general, or specifically by the two ancient Codices we have been discussing.

For when we consider what the A.V. was to be to the world, the incomparable influence it was to exert in shaping the course of events, and in accomplishing those eternal purposes of God for which Christ died and rose again and the Holy Spirit came down from heaven-when we consider that this Version was to be, more than all others combined, “the Sword of the Spirit,” and that all this was fully known to God beforehand, we are fully warranted in the belief that it was not through chance, but by providential control of the circumstances, that the translators had access to just those Mss. which were available at that time, and to none others. This belief in no way conflicts with the fact that man’s part in the preparation of the A.V. is marked, and plainly enough, by man’s infirmities.


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