The “Missing Manuscripts” Argument


My favorite argument used by modern critical text advocates is what I have nicknamed the “missing manuscripts” argument. It typically runs something like this: “Well if they had had the manuscripts we have today, they would have used them.” Normally, folks making this argument are talking about the Reformers, the men who edited the first Reformed printed editions of the Greek New Testament, or the translators of the Authorised Version (AV, a.k.a., the KJV). Why is this my favorite argument? Well, it’s simple to refute. I hope for one of three results of this post: first, that if any reader holds to the modern critical text, you will see the error of your ways and abandon it; second, that if any reader holds to the modern critical text and doesn’t see the error of your ways, you will at least be able to recognize that this particular argument is weak and utilize better ones; third, if you hold to a confessional view of Scripture, that this would be beneficial for you in responding to this particular argument. My refutation will consist of pointing out three massive problems with the argument.

Problem the First

The first glaring problem of the “missing manuscripts” argument is that it is a straw man; in other words, it is a fallacious argument. A straw man fallacy is one in which the argument being made fails to address the proper or actual issue at hand. The “missing manuscripts” argument seeks to refute the confessional text position by making the claim that the translators of the AV or the compilers of the printed editions of the TR would not have made the decisions they made if they had access to the manuscripts that have since been discovered. Why is this a straw man? The proper issue of the debate between the Confessional Text position and the Modernist position is not manuscripts themselves, but the method by which those manuscripts are analyzed and utilized. In other words, the problem is not that the Reformers and their spiritual descendants did not have some of the papyri that have been found in the twentieth century. The problem is that the method used, the way in which they approached the manuscripts, is vastly different than that which is used by modern textual critics. So, the “missing manuscripts” argument fails to address the real issue at hand, thereby creating a “straw man” which can be easily torn down.

Problem the Second

The second serious problem of this argument is that its premise is based on speculation. When a Modernist says that Theodore Beza (for example) did not have access to the manuscripts to which we now have access, he is making an assumption. Unless he has an exhaustive list of every manuscript utilized by Beza, this is simply an unverifiable claim. While Beza may not have had P45 (an early papyrus manuscript) for instance, he may well have had access to manuscripts which contained the readings of P45. Again, the issue is not which manuscripts were available, but how those manuscripts were viewed. It is very probable that the editors of the printed Greek texts of the Reformation had manuscripts that we no longer possess. They lived five hundred years closer to the original period of writing than we do, which means that there has been an additional five hundred years since the time of the Reformation for manuscripts to disappear. Thus, another issue with the fact that this statement is an unverifiable claim is that it goes both ways. Just as Beza may not have had access to manuscripts we now possess, it is equally possible that we no longer have access to manuscripts that he possessed.

Problem the Third

The third problem with this argument is that it is anachronistic. The underlying assumption of the “missing manuscripts” argument is that if the translators of the AV or the editors of the printed Greek texts of the Reformation had access to the manuscripts we have now, then they would have made the same decisions that modern textual critics have made. Unfortunately, this is a demonstrably false assumption. Nearly every variant reading that we know about now was known in the time of the Reformation. Let me give just a few examples. The Pericope Adulterae (the woman caught in adultery) was known as a variant reading from the time of Augustine, who wrote that men were taking the passage out of Scripture because they imagined it would give their wives license to sin. He wrote:

Certain persons of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning, removed from their manuscripts the Lord’s act of forgiveness toward the adulteress, as if he who had said, Sin no more, had granted permission to sin.

Augustine, De Adulterinis Conjugiis, 2:6–7

The Comma Johanneum, 1 John 5.7-8, was also a well-known disputed text. It was included in the printed editions despite its lack of external attestation. Another interesting variant that was known during that time was at Rev. 16.5, where Beza gives a reading that was supported by a manuscript to which we likely no longer have access.

This is not the only source of anachronism in this claim, however. The assumption that the Reformed editors of the printed Greek texts would make the same decisions as modern textual critics is grossly inaccurate. John Owen once wrote that any view of Scripture which sees no distinction between it and texts of the ancient world borders on atheism (see this related post). Yet the fundamental assumption of modern textual criticism is that the Bible can be analyzed the same way in which we analyze “other ancient writings.” In other words, it makes no distinction between the inspired word of God and the uninspired writings of pagans. Anyone who claims the Reformers held this view is incredibly disconnecting from the very foundation of the Reformation as a whole: sola scriptura.


In summary, the “missing manuscripts” argument is nothing more than a straw man argument that is founded on an unverifiable, anachronistic claim. The issue at hand in this discussion is not about manuscripts. It is about the way in which those manuscripts are to be used and analyzed. The difference between the Confessional Text position and the Modernist position is not evidence: it is method. The method of the Confessional Text position starts with the premise that God, in his word, has revealed how we are to understand his word. Another way to think about it is like this: just as God has decreed the way in which he is to be worshiped, so has he decreed the way in which we are to think about his revelation. We all have to ask ourselves the question: does my view of x conform to the view of x that God has revealed in his Scripture. If it does not, we must change our view. So, the applicable question to end this post is the following: does your view of Scripture conform to the view of Scripture that God has revealed in his Scripture?

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