1. It is necessary, first of all, to define what is meant in the present connection by the uncorrupt preservation of the gospel narratives. When a man, whose business it is to examine and compare manuscripts or editions of a work, speaks of a given text as corrupt, he means one thing; in a question concerning the truth of the Christian system as given in the writings of the New Testament, a corrupt text means something very different. The collator of manuscripts understands by a corrupt text one that has been marred by the carelessness or bad judgment of transcribers, whence have arisen so many |various readings,| though these do not change, or essentially obscure the facts and doctrines of Christianity, as has been most conclusively shown by the results of modern textual criticism; but in an inquiry whether we have in our canonical gospels the account of our Lord's life and teachings as it was originally written by the evangelists in all essential particulars, we have to do with the question, not of various readings, such as are incident to all manuscripts, but of essential additions, alterations, or mutilations -- like those, for example, which Marcion attempted -- by which the facts and doctrines themselves are changed or obscured. It is against the charge of such essential corruptions that we maintain the integrity of the text in the gospels, as in the other books of the New Testament.
2. The most important materials for writing in ancient times were the paper made of the Egyptian papyrus plant -- whence the word paper -- and parchment, prepared from the skins of animals, the finer kinds of which are called vellum. Both are of high antiquity. The use of the above-mentioned paper was very common in the apostolic age; and from an incidental notice in the New Testament, (2 John 12 compared with 3 John 13,) it appears to have been the material employed by the apostles themselves. But the use of parchment became more common in the following centuries, while that of papyrus-paper gradually ceased. To this circumstance we owe, in a great measure, the preservation of our oldest manuscripts; for the papyrus-paper was of a very perishable nature, and the manuscripts written upon it that have come down to us from high antiquity have been kept in specially favorable circumstances, as, for example, in the ancient Egyptian tombs. With the disuse of papyrus-paper ceased also the ancient form of the roll. All manuscripts written on parchment are in the form of books with leaves. From about the eleventh century, paper made from cotton or linen came into common use.
The costliness of writing materials gave rise to a peculiar usage. From the leaves of an ancient work the original writing was erased, more or less perfectly. They were then employed as the material for another work, the latter being written over the former. Such manuscripts are called palimpsests -- written again after erasure. The original writing, which is very often the sacred text, can in general be deciphered, especially by the aid of certain chemical applications. Some of our most precious manuscripts are of this character.
The existing manuscripts of the New Testament are of two kinds. First, the uncial, that is, those written in capital letters. Here belong all the most ancient and valuable. The writing is generally in columns, from two to four to a page; sometimes in a single column. There is no division of the text into words; the marks of interpunction are few and simple; and till the seventh century there were no accents, and breathings only in special cases. Secondly, the cursive, or those written in running-hand, with division of the text into words, capitals only for initial letters, accents, breathings, etc., and often with many contractions. This is the common form of manuscripts after the tenth century, the uncial being retained for some ages afterwards only in books designed for use in the church service. In both the uncial and the cursive manuscripts, each century has its peculiar style of writing. From this, as well as from the quality of the materials, expert judges can determine the age of a given manuscript with a good degree of accuracy.
The details pertaining to the form of ancient manuscripts, their number, character, etc., belong to the department of textual criticism. The above brief notices are given to prepare the way for a statement of the evidence that we have the gospel narratives, as also the other books of the New Testament, without corruption in the form in which they were originally written. See the PLATES at the beginning of this book.
3. Of the autograph manuscripts proceeding immediately from the inspired authors we find no trace after the apostolic age. Here, as elsewhere, the wisdom of God has carefully guarded the church against a superstitious veneration for the merely outward instruments of redemption. We do not need the wood of the true cross that we may have redemption through the blood of Christ; nor do we need the identical manuscripts that proceeded from the apostles and their companions, since we have the contents of these manuscripts handed down to us without corruption in any essential particular. This appears from various considerations.
First. Several hundred manuscripts of the gospels, or of portions of them, (to confine our attention at present to these,) have been examined, two of them belonging to the fourth century and two, with some fragments, to the fifth. All these, though written in different centuries and coming from widely different regions, contain essentially the same text. In them, not one of the great facts or doctrines of the gospel history is mutilated or obscured.
Secondly. The quotations of the church fathers from the last part of the second to the end of the fourth century are so copious, that from them almost the entire text of our present gospels could be reconstructed. These quotations agree substantially with each other and with the text of our existing manuscripts; only that the earlier fathers, as already noticed, chap.2.3, often quote loosely from memory, blend together different narratives, and interweave with the words of Scripture their own explanatory remarks.
Thirdly. We have two versions of the New Testament -- the Old Latin or Italic, and the Syriac called Peshito -- which learned men are agreed in placing somewhere in the last half of the second century. The testimony of these witnesses to the uncorrupt preservation of the sacred text, from the time when they first appeared to the present, is decisive; for they also agree essentially with the Greek text of the gospel as we now possess it. Nor is this all. Davidson affirms of the Old Latin version, that |the more ancient the Greek manuscripts, the closer is their agreement with it.| And Tischendorf says of the oldest known manuscript of the Bible -- the Greek Sinai Codex, brought by him from the convent of St. Catharine, Mount Sinai, in 1859 -- that its agreement, in the New Testament portion, with the Old Latin version, is remarkable. Through the joint testimony, then, on the one hand, of the most ancient Greek manuscripts, especially the Sinai Codex, which is the oldest of them all; and on the other, of the Old Latin version which belongs to the last half of the second century, we are carried back to a very ancient and pure form of the Greek text prevalent before the execution of this version, that is, about the middle of the second century. Tischendorf adds arguments to show that the Syriac Peshito version, the text of which has not come down to us in so pure a state, had for its basis substantially the same form of text as the Old Latin and the Sinai Codex.
The substantial identity of the sacred text, as we now have it, with that which has existed since about the middle of the second century, is thus shown to be a matter not of probable conjecture, but of certain knowledge. Here, then, we have a sure criterion by which to measure and interpret the complaints which textual critics, ancient or modern, have made, sometimes in very strong language, concerning the corruptions that have found their way into the text of the New Testament. These writers have reference to what are called |various readings,| not to mutilations and alterations, such as those charged by the ancients upon Marcion, by which he sought to change the facts and doctrines of the gospel. That this must be their meaning we know; for there are the manuscripts by hundreds as witnesses, all of which, the most corrupt as textual critics would call them, as well as the purest, give in the gospel narratives the same facts and doctrines without essential variation.
Let not the inexperienced inquirer be misled into any wrong conclusion by the number of |various readings,| amounting to many thousands, which textual criticism has brought to light. The greater the number of manuscripts collated, the greater will be the number of these readings; while, at the same time, we are continually making a nearer approach to the purity of the primitive text. As a general rule these variations relate to trifling particulars; as, for example, whether the conjunction and shall be inserted or omitted; whether but or for is the true reading; whether this or that order of words giving the same sense shall have the preference, etc. A few of the variations are of a more important character. Thus, in John 1:18, some manuscripts and fathers instead of only begotten Son, read only begotten God. But even here we may decide either way without changing or obscuring the great truths of the gospel narratives; for these are not dependent on particular words or phrases, but pervade and vivify the New Testament, as the vital blood does the body. The same may be said of certain passages which, on purely critical grounds -- that is, the authority of ancient manuscripts -- some have thought doubtful; as, for example, John 5:4, and the narrative recorded in the beginning of the eighth chapter of the same gospel. The insertion or omission of the passages concerning which any reasonable doubts can be entertained on critical grounds, will not affect in the least the great truths of the gospel narratives.
4. But it may be asked, Was the text from which the Old Latin version was made, and with which, as we have seen, the oldest manuscripts have a close agreement, substantially the same as that which proceeded from the inspired authors? Here we must discard all groundless suppositions, and adhere strictly to the known facts in the premises.
The first fact to be noticed is the public reading of the gospels in the Christian churches, a custom which prevailed from the earliest times. Justin Martyr, writing before the middle of the second century, says of the memoirs written by the apostles or their followers and called gospels (which have been shown to be our canonical gospels, chap.2:7) that either these or the writings of the Jewish prophets were read in the Christian churches on the first day of every week. This is a fact of the highest importance; for it shows that the witnesses and guardians of the sacred text were not a few individuals, but the great body of believers, and that no systematic corruption of their contents could have taken place without their knowledge and consent, which would never have been given.
Intimately connected with the above is a second fact, that of the great multiplication of copies of the books of the New Testament, especially of the gospel narratives, since these contain the great facts that lie at the foundation of the Christian system. Every church would, as a matter of course, be anxious to possess a copy, and Christians who possessed the requisite means would furnish themselves with additional copies for their own private use. If, now, we suppose one or more of these copies to have been essentially changed, the corruption would not, as in the case of a printed work, extend to many hundreds of copies. It would be confined to the manuscript or manuscripts into which it had been introduced and the copies made therefrom, while the numerous uncorrupt copies would remain as witnesses of the fraud; for the supposition of a very early corruption during the apostolic age, before copies of the gospels had been to any considerable extent multiplied, is utterly absurd.
A third fact is the high value attached by the primitive churches to the gospel narratives, and their consequent zeal for their uncorrupt preservation. No one will deny to them the qualities of earnestness and sincerity. To them the gospels were the record of their redemption through the blood of Christ. For the truths contained in them they steadfastly endured persecution in every form, and death itself. Could we even suppose, contrary to evidence, that private transcribers altered at pleasure their copies of the gospels, it is certain that the churches would never have allowed their public copies to be tampered with. The resistance which Marcion met with in his attempt to alter the sacred text, shows how watchful was their jealousy for its uncorrupt preservation.
A still further fact is the want of time for essential corruptions, like those now under consideration. That such corruptions could have taken place during the apostolic age, no one will maintain. Equally certain is it that they could not have happened during the age next succeeding, while many presbyters and private Christians yet survived who had listened to the apostles, and knew the history of the gospels written by them or their companions. But this brings us down into the first part of the second century.
Leaving out of view the apostle John, who probably died near the close of the first century, and assuming the martyrdom of Peter and Paul to have taken place somewhere between A.D.64 and 67, we may place the beginning of the age now under consideration at A.D.65. Of the numerous Christians who were then thirty years or less of age many must have survived till A.D.110, and even later. Polycarp, a disciple of John, suffered martyrdom A.D.167, and doubtless many others of his hearers survived till the middle of the second century. The time, then, during which such a corruption as that now under consideration can be supposed to have taken place is so narrowed down that it amounts to well-nigh nothing; and it is, moreover, the very time during which Justin Martyr wrote his Apologies, and Marcion made his unsuccessful attempt to mutilate the gospel history.
Finally, no evidence exists that the text of the gospel narratives has been essentially corrupted. Of Marcion's abortive attempt we have abundant notices in the writings of the early fathers. Their silence in respect to other like attempts is conclusive proof that they were never made. Had we the autographs of the evangelists, we should, with reason, attach to them a high value; but there is no ground for supposing that their text would differ in any essential particular from that which we now possess. They would present to our view the same Saviour and the same gospel.
5. What has been said respecting the uncorrupt preservation of the gospel narratives applies essentially to the other books of the New Testament; so that in the consideration of them the above arguments will not need to be repeated.