What Gives a Manuscript Inherent Authority?


What makes a manuscript authoritative for Christians and Muslims?


The question we need to ask ourselves is, what makes a manuscript inherently, or innately authoritative? What is it, what is the criteria we use to determine the authority of a manuscript? Most of the manuscripts that both Christians and Muslims possess, are from unknown scribes. We do not know why they wrote what they wrote, what their level of skills were, for whom they wrote, what their intentions were, what their levels of education were. The only attribute which makes a manuscript authoritative by any criteria of measurement, is that it exists. We cannot assess manuscripts which do not exist, so we are left to examine what remains to this day (extant, still surviving). Does this make the manuscript authoritative though? Naturally, for something to be authoritative, we need to know where it was produced and from whom it was produced. Consider then, the case of a man who goes to a pawn shop to trade a letter he claimed was written to his grandmother by a famous celebrity during her lifetime.

Both the grandmother and the celebrity are dead, and we have very few, if any surviving artifacts from this celebrity. So, how can we validate this letter? We may never be able to do so. The same issues arise with manuscripts. Something’s existence, does not necessitate its authenticity. Many great libraries were sacked and destroyed during the medieval period, with many great codices and manuscripts lost during these tragedies. The fact that something exists, does not mean it is important or authoritative. There are, quite literally, 1001 reasons for any given manuscript to survive to our day. The fact that a particular manuscript happens to survive, does not give it authority. I’ve yet to see anyone, whether a textual critic or otherwise, argue for the authority of unknown documents, based on anything other than the reasoning that they “just happen to exist”. I’m reminded at this point of Lion Vaganay’s, “An Introduction to New Testament textual Criticism,” where he speaks on three false principles that beginners make when giving authority to manuscripts:

Three Defective Principles

In order to choose the correct reading from amongst the different variants, it used to be customary, and indeed it too often still is customary, to appeal to the number, the age and the general character of the witnesses; these are three criteria which, whether taken singly or together, are insufficient to justify a choice of reading.

The Number of Witnesses

A hundred manuscripts which are copies one of another continue but one authority, whereas two independent manuscripts should be reckoned as two. Moreover, even when faced with a real majority, care must be taken not to assume automatically that the majority is right without further examination. All copies do not have the same value. It is the question of the nature of the text which is important, not the quantity of its representatives. Non numerantur sed ponderantur, ‘A fault may be copied as many times as you like, you will never make a correct reading out of it’ (Collomp 1931, p.35). The beginner is naturally inclined to find safety in numbers and needs to be on his guard against this trap. Universal suffrage has no place on textual criticism.

It is, of course, true that the presence of a large number of documents can sometimes be a useful signpost but it can never be adequate on its own for drawing firm conclusions. As will be seen, copies have to be considered as representatives of a group and not as separate witnesses. That immediately weakens any argument based on their number. But there is more to it than that: even when the main manuscript groups agree on a variant, it is still essential to check whether there is not a divergent reading attested by any of the other documents of authority; for it is a simple fact that the original reading may be found in only a few scattered documents while what the majority contain is an early correction.

The Age of the Witnesses

There is no better a guide. A codex of the sixth century may be the copy of a good second century manuscript which has been lost but which was a first-hand copy of the original. A fourth-century codex could be a poor copy of a defective third-century manuscript with a dozen intermediaries separating it from the original. It would therefore be wrong to trust the latter more than the former. Important lessons can be learnt from recent discoveries. For example, there is a reading (1 Peter 2:20) which hitherto was known only from the relatively late uncial (.044) and some miniscules (including 1729, tenth century) and which has now been found in a papyrus (P72) from the beginning of he fourth century, which had previously gone uncontested are now in question. The authority which tends to be attributed to an early codex rests on a foundation which is sometimes deceptive: its nearness to the original. The factors which carry more weight are the number of witnesses, and more especially the quality of the copies made between the original and the manuscript in question. In a word, it is the age of the text and not the age of the manuscript which must be considered, for there are relatively recent manuscripts with a very early text and early manuscripts with a corrupted text.

Of course, the age of a witness is never to be completely overlooked. It would be right to be wary of a variant which does not emerge until the fifteenth or sixteenth century, for example, and to pay more attention to a variant in a papyrus from around AD 200. But, once again, it would be wrong to be hypnotised by the papyri and the uncials. There are miniscules which date from before the uncials. There are even miniscules whose text is better than that of some papyri or uncials. – p. 62.

The process which makes a manuscript authoritative without means of identifying the scribe’s authority is quite a difficult one, and not one underwhich all textual critics agree on, taking information from an unknown source in Islamic scholarship is something which is rejected. In conclusion, something’s existence does not make it authoritative, each manuscript must be judged on its own qualities and both faiths have differing approaches to manuscripts of unknown origin. What works for the New Testament, does not work for the Qur’an, and we should be wary of this difference when we discuss the manuscript histories of either of these works.

and God knows best.