The issue of the textual variant found in Mark 9:29 was brought up to me by a good friend sitting in the pew listening to a sermon last Lord’s Day (April 3). Pastor Joshua White preached from the passage of the child who was healed of a deaf and dumb evil spirit. At Reformed Baptist Church of Elizabethtown, we preach and teach from translations of the Received Text (TR), which include the Authorised (King James) Version, the New King James Version, and the Modern English Version. While the sermon was not concerned with the issue of the text of Scripture, it illustrated an important point which is too often neglected by the scholarly crowd: this issue has implications for those sitting in a pew and hearing the Word read.
My friend uses the NASB, and after the sermon he came up to me (he knows I use the AV) and asked me about this variant. My first answer was: I did not know that was a variant; my second answer was: I will look into it. So, this brief essay is my attempt at “looking into it.” What I found was quite interesting, and it demonstrates a point that I have been making for some time. That point is this: the foundational issue of the text of Scripture, of whether we adhere to the traditional text of the TR or use the modern critical text of academia, comes down to our doctrine of Scripture.
At this point, care must be had. I used to write with a contentious spirit concerning this topic, but by God’s grace my chief motivation now is charity. It is my sincere desire that every person who asks me about this topic hears from my response the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. My desire is for the saints of God to grow in the truth of the gospel, and this topic is concerned with truth. Whose presuppositions are we going to use when considering the doctrine of Scripture? That question matters. This is the question that changed my mind concerning the textual issue, and this particular variant demonstrates the implications of that question.
The Presuppositional Dilemma
It is popular among brothers who advocate in favor of the modern critical text to downplay this dilemma of presuppositions. The common rhetoric that is heard runs something like this: “We need to follow the science;” or, “We need to let the data speak for itself.” In other words, the recurring mantra of those who advocate for this position is an attempt to objectify the study of textual criticism. Who wants to argue with science, right? The implication here is that those who reject modern textual criticism with its science and its data are like flat-earthers who reject the laws of physics and nature.
The problem is that textual criticism is not objective; indeed, “science” is not objective. Science is the interpretation of data through the use of hypotheses and experimentation. This is why two people can look at the same flower and one of them say, “Look, evolution!” and the other one say, “Look, the work of God!” We interpret data based upon our presuppositions, our worldview. This is an axiomatic truth, a self-evident truth. The science of textual criticism is no different: there are certain presuppositions which influence one’s interpretation of the textual data. And the sad reality is that many of those who are formulating the current editions of the modern critical text (as well as those in the 19th century who began applying this science to the text of Scripture) are operating with atheistic presuppositions.
David C. Parker, one of the editors for the upcoming edition of the gospel of John in the Editio Critica Maior (ECM, an academic publishing of the modern critical text), wrote this concerning the doctrine of inspiration: “This kind of belief is not something one can engage with at a scholarly level, because it is an a priori view and not one reached by scholarly research” (Parker, David C., Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pg. 102). In regards to the doctrine of the preservation of Scripture, he wrote this: “In its text and in its format, the work will continue to change, just as it has done throughout its history hitherto” (ibid., 21). These are the people who have been given the keys to the Scripture by evangelicals who have bowed the knee to “science.” The Word of God is a supernatural book of divine self-revelation. How can be content to treat it like the works of Plato or Aristotle or Shakespeare? This is the presuppositional dilemma.
This dilemma is nothing new. The papists argued during the Reformation that because of all the variant readings, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura was irrational; one could not simply rely upon Scripture, one needed the magisterium of Rome and the oral traditions of the Romanists. Rather than answering that charge from a biblical perspective, there were some scholars who insisted on answering it with naturalistic rationalism, the same naturalism that we see demonstrated by men like Parker. John Owen wrote this: “It can then with no colour of probability be asserted (which yet I find some learned men too free in granting), namely, that there hath the same fate attended the Scripture in its transcription, as hath done other books. Let me say without offence, this imagination asserted on deliberation, seems to me to border on atheism. Surely the promise of God for the preservation of his word, with his love and care of his church, of whose faith and obedience that word of his is the only rule, require other thoughts at our hands” (John Owen, “Of the Integrity of the Hebrew and Greek Text of the Scripture,” available for free here: http://digitalpuritan.net/john-owen/).
So, with all that said, let us turn our attention to Mark 9:29. In the AV, the text reads: “And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.” In the ESV, it reads: “And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” The first is a translation of the TR, and the second a translation from Modern Critical Text (MCT). We have here a difference of two words: “and fasting.” The question is this: are those words divinely-inspired, authoritative Scripture or are they not? Another common tactic of those who advocate on behalf of the MCT is to downplay these “small variants.” But if we hold to the verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture, then every little word matters. Every preposition and article and conjunction matters because these are the very words of God.
We will begin with the manuscript evidence; this type of evidence is generally divided into two categories: Greek manuscripts and early versional witnesses. The vast majority of all Greek manuscripts, including the so-called “oldest and best,” support the reading of the TR. These manuscripts include p45 (a third-century papyrus manuscript), the corrector of Codex Sinaiticus (sometime after the fourth-century, where the text of that codex was corrected), codices A (fifth-century), C (fifth-century), D (sixth-century), L (eighth-century), and W (fourth- or fifth-century). The reading of the TR is the Byzantine reading, which comprises the overwhelming majority of all extant Greek manuscripts. Additionally, the reading “and fasting” is support by early versional evidence. These versions include the Latin tradition, the Harklean Syriac version (early seventh-century), the Coptic version, the Bohairic version, the Syriac Sinaiticus (late fourth- or early fifth-century), and the Syriac Peshitta (second-century). In other words, the reading of the TR is supported not only by the vast bulk of all Greek manuscripts, but also by the “oldest and best” manuscripts and the earliest translations of the New Testament.
The reading of the MCT, which omits the words “and fasting,” is support by exactly four Greek manuscripts: the original hand of Codex Sinaiticus (fourth-century), Codex B (Vaticanus, fourth-century), 0274 (fifth-century), and 2427 (questionably dated to the fourteenth century). There is only one versional witness to this reading: k, a Latin codex dated to the fourth or fifth century. Even arguing from naturalistic presuppositions, why would anyone decide to omit the words “and fasting?” The overwhelming evidence is in favor of the reading of the TR: the earliest manuscripts have the reading and the church down through its history has recognized those words as Scripture as testified by its dominance of the manuscript and witness tradition. So why would the MCT omit it?
The answer is quite revealing: the phrase is omitted because of the weight given to the two fourth-century codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. Ever since the days of Westcott and Hort, these two books have been given an incredulous amount of weight in textual decisions. Another example of this fact is the omission of the traditional ending of Mark, which is supported by precisely two early manuscripts: Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. Here we see the fatal flaw of modern textual criticism: it is the interpretation of data from a perspective biased by naturalistic rationalism. Westcott and Hort “determined” that these two codices were “the Neutral Text,” and that assumption still influences the way scholars, even evangelical scholars, interpret the data.
Yet one of the chief differences between modern textual criticism and the confessional viewpoint is this: the confessional viewpoint acknowledges the usefulness of such data, but the ultimate reason why we believe the Scripture to be the word of God is the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit. After enumerating all the various external reasons to believe the Bible is the Word of God, the framers of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith wrote this: “yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (2LBCF 1.5). This is such an important point that we must not pass over. As Christians who believe that the Bible is the divinely-inspired Word of God, we must not fall into utilizing naturalistic (atheistic) methods when dealing with the Scripture. Applying the tenets of modern textual criticism to the Bible is no different in its presuppositions and applications than treating the Bible as a book of mythology.
At this point, some of those reading this might be asking the question, “So what?” That is an excellent question to ask, and one we should always ask when dealing with issues such as this. Does this whole essay actually matter for our theology and our practice? I believe the answer to that question is yes. The words of the Bible matter. Did God preserve his Word, or did he not? If the reading of the Modern Critical Text is right, that means the church as been misled for 1,500 years. It means that during the span of time when those words were included in Scripture, the church had the wrong Bible. It means that for that length of time, Christians added to the words of Scripture. If the MCT is wrong, that means all these modern versions based upon that text have omitted the Words of God. This issue is profoundly important. Now, with that said, I am not arguing that anyone who uses a modern version is guilting of adding and omitting to the Word of God. There are some on my side of the line who would call others on the other side of the line heretics, but I am not one of those people. There are many men whom I respect who would disagree with me, who love the Lord and love his people, and for some reason they have bought into the narrative of modern textual criticism. Yet the question must be asked: in our practice, are we affirming that God has preserved his Word pure down through the ages? I cannot see how a person affirming modern textual criticism can answer that question positively in light of the above discussion concerning Mark 9:29.