Is the CBGM

God’s Gift

to the Church?

By Taylor DeSoto


It is stated by some that the Coherence Based Genealogical Method is a blessing to the church, even gifted to the church by God way of God’s providence. I thought it would be helpful to examine this claim. Unfortunately, those who have made such statements regarding the Editio Critica Maior (ECM) and the CBGM have not seemed to provide an answer as to why this is the case. This is often a challenge in the textual discussion. Assertions and claims can be helpful to understanding what somebody believes, but oftentimes fall short in explaining why they believe something to be true. The closest explanation that I have heard as to why the CBGM is a blessing to the church is because it has been said that it can detail the exact form of the Bible as it existed around 125AD. Again, this is simply an assertion, and needs to be demonstrated. I have detailed in this article as to why I believe that claim is not true. 

In this article, I thought it would be helpful to provide a simple explanation of what the CBGM is, how it is being used, and the impact that the CBGM will have on Bibles going forward. The discerning reader can then decide for themselves if it is a blessing to the church. If there is enough interest in this article, perhaps I can write more at length later. I will be using Tommy Wasserman and Peter Gurry’s book, A New Approach to Textual Criticism: An Introduction to the Coherence Based Genealogical Method as a guide for this article. 

Some Insights Into the CBGM from the Source Material 

New Testament textual criticism has a direct impact on preaching, theology, commentaries, and how people read their Bible. The stated goal of the CBGM is to help pastors, scholars, and laypeople alike determine, “Which text should be read? Which should be applied?..For the New Testament, this means trying to determine, at each place where our copies disagree, what the author most likely wrote, or failing this, at least what the earliest text might have been” (1, emphasis mine). Note that one of the stated objectives of the CBGM is to find what the author most likely wrote, and when that cannot be determined, what the earliest text might have been. 

Here is a brief definition of the CBGM as provided by Dr. Gurry and Dr. Wasserman:

“The CBGM is a method that (1) uses a set of computer tools (2) based in a new way of relating manuscript texts that is (3) designed to help us understand the origin and history of the New Testament text” (3). 

The way that this method is relating manuscript texts is an adaptation of Karl Lachman’s common error method as opposed to manuscript families and text types. This is in part due to the fact that “A text of a manuscript may, of course, be much older than the parchment and ink that preserve it” (3). The CBGM is primarily concerned with developing genealogies of readings and how variants relate to each other, rather than manuscripts as a whole. This is done by using pregenealogical (algorithmic analysis) and genealogical (editorial analysis). The method examines places where manuscripts agree and disagree to gain insight on which readings are earliest. In the case that the same place in two manuscripts disagree, the new method can help in determining one of two things:

  1. One variant gave birth to another, therefore one is earlier
  2. The relationship between two variants is uncertain

It is important to keep in mind, that the CBGM is not simply a pure computer system. It requires user input and editorial judgement. “This means that the CBGM uses a unique combination of both objective and subjective data to relate texts to each other…the CBGM requires the user to make his or her own decisions about how variant readings relate to each other.” (4,5). That means that determining which variant came first “is determined by the user of the method, not by the computer” (5). The CBGM is not purely an objective method. People still determine which data to examine using the computer tools, and ultimately what ends up in the printed text will be the decisions of the editorial team. 

The average Bible reader should know that the CBGM “has ushered in a number of changes to the most popular editions of the Greek New Testament and to the practice of New Testament textual criticism itself…Clearly, these changes will affect not only modern Bible translations and commentaries but possibly even theology and preaching” (5). Currently, the CBGM has been partially applied to the data in the Catholic Epistles and Acts, and DC Parker and his team are working on the Gospel of John right now. The initial inquiry of this article was to examine the CBGM to determine if it is indeed a “blessing to the church”. In order for this to be the case, one would expect that the new method would introduce more certainty to Bible readers in regards to variants. Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be true. 

“Along with the changes to the text just mentioned, there has also been a slight increase in the ECM editors’ uncertainty about the text, an uncertainty that has been de facto adopted by the editors of the NA/UBS…their uncertainty is such that they refuse to offer any indication as to which reading they prefer” (6,7). 

“In all, there were in the Catholic Letters thirty-two uses of brackets compared to forty-three uses of the diamond and in Acts seventy-eight cases of brackets compared to 155 diamonds. This means that there has been an increase in both the number of places marked as uncertain and an increase in the level of uncertainty being marked. Overall, then, this reflects a slightly greater uncertainty about the earliest text on the part of the editors” (7).   

This uncertainty has resulted in “the editors to abandon the concept of text-types traditionally used to group and evaluate manuscripts” (7). What this practically means is that the Alexandrian texts, which were formerly called a text-type, are no longer considered as such. The editors of the ECM “still recognize the Byzantine text as a distinct text form in its own right. This is due to the remarkable agreement that one finds in our late Byzantine manuscripts. Their agreement is such that it is hard to deny that they should be grouped…when the CBGM was first used on the Catholic Letters, the editors found that a number of Byzantine witnesses were surprisingly similar to their own reconstructed text” (9,10). 

Along with abandoning the notion that the Alexandrian manuscripts represent a text type, another significant shift has occurred. Rather than pursuing what has historically been called the Divine Original or the Original Text, the editors of the ECM are now after what is called the Initial Text (Ausgangstext). There are various ways this term is defined, but opinions are split with the editors of the ECM. For example, DC Parker, who is leading the team who is using the CBGM in the Gospel of John has stated along with others that there is no good reason to believe that the Initial Text and the Original Text are the same. Others are more optimistic, but the 198 diamonds in the Acts and Catholic Letters may serve as an indication as to whether this optimism is warranted based on the data. The diamonds indicate a place where the reading is uncertain in the ECM. 

The computer based component of the CBGM is often sold as a conclusive means to determine the earliest, or even original reading. This is not true. “At best, pregenealogical coherence [computer] only tells us how likely it is that a variant had multiple sources of origin rather than just one…pregenealogical coherence is only one piece of the text-critical puzzle. The other pieces – knowledge of scribal tendencies, the date and quality of manuscripts, versions, and patristic citations, and the author’s theology and style are still required…As with so much textual criticism, there are no absolute rules here, and experience serves as the best guide” (56, 57. Emphasis added).

In the past it has been said that textual criticism was trying to build a 10,000 piece puzzle with 10,100 pieces. This perspective has changed greatly since the introduction of the CBGM. “we are trying to piece together a puzzle with only some of the pieces” (112). Not only does the CBGM not have all the data that has ever existed, it is only using “about one-third of our extant Greek manuscripts…The significance of this selectivity of our evidence means that our textual flow diagrams and the global stemma do not give us a picture of exactly what happened” (113). Further, the CBGM is not omniscient. It will never know how many of the more complex corruption entered into the manuscripts, or the backgrounds and theology of the scribes, or even the purpose a manuscript was created. “There are still cases where contamination can go undetected in the CBGM, with the result that proper ancestor-descendant relationships are inverted” (115). That means that it is likely that there will be readings produced by the CBGM that were not original or earliest, that will be mistakenly treated as such. “We do not want to give the impression that the CBGM has solved the problem of contamination once and for all. The CBGM still faces certain problematic scenarios, and the loss of witnesses plagues all methods at some point” (115). 

One of the impending realities that the CBGM has created is that there may be a push for individual users, Bible readers, to learn how to use and implement the CBGM in their own daily devotions. “Providing a customizable option would mean creating a version that allows each user to have his or her own editable database” (119,120). There will likely be a time in the near future where the average Bible reading Christian will be encouraged to understand and use this methodology, or at least pastors and seminarians. If you are not somebody who has the time or ability to do this, this could be extremely burdensome. Further, the concept of a “build your own Bible” tool seems like a slippery slope, though it is a slope we are already sliding down for those that make their own judgements on texts in isolation to the general consent of the believing people of God. 


Since the CBGM has not been fully implemented, I suppose there is no way to say with absolute confidence whether or not it is a “blessing to the church”. I will say, however, that I believe the church should be the one to decide on this matter, not scholars. It seems that the places where the CBGM has already been implemented have spoken rather loudly on the matter in at least 198 places. Hopefully this article has been insightful, and perhaps has shed light on the claims that many are parroting which say that the CBGM is a “blessing to the church” or an “act of God’s providence”. If anything, the increasing amount of uncertainty that the CBGM has introduced to the previous efforts of modern textual criticism should give cause for pause, because the Bibles that most people use are based on the methodologies that modern scholarship has abandoned.

Helpful Terms

Coherence: The foundation for the CBGM, coherence is synonymous with agreement or similarity between texts. Within the CBGM the two most important types are pregenealogical coherence and genealogical coherence. The former is defined merely by agreements and disagreements; the latter also includes the editors’ textual decisions in the disagreements (133).   

ECM: The Editio Critica Maior, or Major Critical Edition, was conceived by Kurt Aland as a replacement to Constantin von Tischendorf’s well-known Editio octava critica maior. The aim of the ECM is to present extensive data from the first one thousand years of transmission, including Greek manuscripts, versions, and patristics. Currently, editions for Acts and the Catholic Letters have been published, with more volumes in various stages for completion (135).  

Stemma: A stemma is simply a set of relationships either of manuscripts, texts, or their variants. The CBGM operates with three types that show the relationship of readings (local stemmata), the relationship of a single witness to its stemmatic ancestors (substemma), and the relationships of all the witnesses to each other (global stemmata) (138).