Textual Criticism in a Nutshell

I have received a lot of questions about this subject, so here it is again:

I don’t know about you, but the copyright date on my Bible is 2002 (I usually read from the ESV). What does that mean? It means that the Bible that I read from, study from, and teach from is nearly 2000 years newer than the original. How do we know that errors have not crept in after 2000 years? You may have an older version. If you use an NASB or NIV, your Bible will not be much better off. Thirty years closer to the original is not saying much. Even if you are a hard core KJV advocate, using an “original” 1611 version, your Bible is still over fifteen hundred years past the original New Testament and over two thousand years newer than the Old Testament. More than that, these Bibles are all in English and the New Testament was written in Greek and the Old Testament was mostly written in Hebrew. More than that, the Greek and Hebrew of the Scriptures are both dead languages, meaning that they are not spoken anymore.

With all this time and change, doesn’t it seem likely that there have been many errors in transcription that have crept into the text, corrupting the original beyond repair? How can we know our Bible is reliable?

What is Textual Criticism?

This is where the discipline of “textual criticism” comes in. Don’t be afraid of the word “criticism” in relation to the Bible. Textual criticism is the art and science of reconstructing the original text of the Scripture. A “text critic” is one who examines the available evidence and makes important decisions as to how the Bible we hold two thousand years later should read. There are not many text critics who are trained and skilled enough to make these type of decisions. It is both time consuming and expensive to devote yourself to this field. One has to be highly trained in the language in which he or she is working, they have to devote much time to tedious examination of ancient texts, and they have to travel—a lot! This all gets expensive.

As well, it is not a job that will get you much recognition. The work of a text critic forms the background of all our studies in the Scriptures, yet we hardly give this issue a first thought.

The first thing that must be understood is that we don’t have the originals of the various books of the Scriptures. We don’t even have an original fragment. All we have to work from are copies of copies of copies, etc. Before the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, all copies of the Scriptures were hand produced. There are approximately 6000 handwritten copies of the New Testament in Greek that we have cataloged. There are far less of the Old Testament. These copies date from around 125 A.D to the fifteenth century. These copies are referred to as extant (existing) manuscripts.

Are there errors in the manuscripts?

This question is somewhat misleading. What some may call an error, text critics will call a “variant.” A variant is where one text differs from another. There are, in the New Testament alone, somewhere between 300,000 to 400,000 variants. Ouch! This means that among the 6000 extant New Testament Greek manuscripts, there are nearly half a million differences. This amounts to about four variants per verse.

Don’t get scared, just hang with me . . .

These variants come in different forms and need to be understood within the context in which the copies were made. There were different types of people who would copy the text of Scripture for different reasons. This might be referred to as the “personality of the text.” Questions asked of the copies include:

1. Is the text produced by a “pastor personality” who will transcribe the text into the vernacular of his people, smoothing out the reading kinda like the Message or the Living Translation does in English? This personality is valuable, but obviously will make intentional changes in order to update the language and make the Scriptures more readable. Therefore, this type of scribe will be responsible for more variants.

2. Is it by an apologist/theologian who is concerned with preserving orthodoxy? This type of scribe will often try to smooth out any apparent contradictions to silence the skeptics of his day. He may also add formulations of doctrine to try to provide definite, albeit irresponsible, legitimacy to orthodoxy. This is probably the case with regards to the Comma Johanneum of 1 John 5:7 where a late manuscript reads, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” while all the earliest manuscripts do not contain this. It seems that the scribe was zealously attempting to defend the doctrine of the Trinity by making sure that this doctrine could be found articulated in one single verse. While it is good to defend the doctrine of the Trinity, this methodology is irresponsible and destructive. This reading found its way into the Latin Vulgate early on and is also found in today’s KJV.

3. Was it done by a pietist? This type of scribe may, in his excitement, add liturgical additions such as “May God be glorified!” after a reading. The addition to the Lord’s Prayer “Thine be the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen” in Matt 6:13 was more than likely a late liturgical addition by a sincere scribe who added it because of his piety, not knowing that it would find its way into many translations.

4. Was it done by a commentator? This type of scribe would often add footnotes, side notes, or even notes in the text itself to explain what the text means. Often it would be hard for a later scribe to distinguish between what was in the original and what was an addition of the previous scribe. Therefore, many notes of these scribes were accidentally assumed into the transcription.

5. Is he a “hired hand” or a devout scribe? This type is usually more objective. He normally won’t make intentional changes, but will often make accidental changes. These accidental changes range anywhere from leaving off a movable nu (like leaving off the “n” in the word “an” in English) or skipping an entire sentence due to a similar ending (homoioteleuton).

How significant are the variants?

In this matter, it is encouraging for Christians to know that the vast majority of the variants found in the Scriptures are either non-viable or insignificant. “Non-viable” means that it is very easy for the text critic to spot the mistake and make the correction. I know the word “insignificant” is very hard to hear when it comes to Scripture, but you must realize the nature of most of the variants. Of the nearly half-million variants, the majority have to do with minor issues that do not change the meaning of the text at all. Most don’t even translate into English such as the movable nu mentioned above, article usage, transposing of words (“Jesus Christ” instead of “Christ Jesus”; metathesis) and other minor variations.

There is approximately only one-percent of variants that in fact make any theological difference. But, even then, these differences don’t affect any major doctrine. In other words, these variants do not call Christ’s deity into question, they don’t place the second coming in jeopardy, salvation is not going to be by works, and Christ’s resurrection is not vitiated by them.

The two most significant variants are John 8 (which contains the story of the woman caught in adultery) and the longer ending of Mark 16 (where snake handling and drinking poison seem to be encouraged). Both of these passages, in the opinion of most scholars, should not be in the Bible. But whether you take these two passages out or leave them in, Christianity is still completely intact with no theological variations worth getting bent out of shape over. In other words, even without the woman caught in adultery, Christ is still gracious and hypocritical attitudes are still wrong!

To put this into perspective, if the two most significant variants don’t change the faith, none of the others will either. Even more, like the case with the longer ending of Mark 16 and John 8, most of the variants are very simple for a trained eye of the text critic to make decisions about.

How do text critics make their decisions?

While there are different theories in text criticism, most respectable text critics follow what has become known as reasoned eclecticism. Briefly, reasoned eclecticism takes all the evidence into account, understanding that any manuscript might contain the original reading, and therefore none should be discounted. The quality of the manuscript is determined by several factors.

1. Date. As a general rule, the earlier the date the better. This does not guarantee that the earliest manuscript most accurately represents the original (since a variant could have found its way into the text early) but generally speaking we have more reason to believe that earlier manuscripts are closer to the original because there is less time for corruption to find its way into the text.

2. Geographic Distribution. This pertains to where the manuscript finds representation. Is it only in the West? Is it only in the Byzantine area? Is it only in Alexandria? When there is wide geographic distribution (i.e., the manuscript has representation in multiple areas), this adds to its authenticity since it evidences multiple early attestation through its wide geographic distribution.

3. Number of manuscripts. If there is a text-type that finds representation in many manuscripts, then this might add some weight. Now, this is not as significant as some would assume since there could be 4999 manuscripts that have a certain variant, yet they were all copied from the same faulty original producing a new family. This original could be wrong and therefore have produced thousands of manuscripts with a wrong reading. We find this to often be the case in the Byzantine text-type (also referred to as the “majority text” since it represents the majority of the manuscripts).

Finally, there are two general rules that text critics often follow that need to be mentioned:

The harder reading is usually closer to the original. This may seem odd until you consider the philosophy behind this rule. Scribes would normally smooth out difficulties rather than add them. It is only natural that a zealous Scribe might change the original reading when it seems to contradict another passage. Because of this, text critics will seek to find the original reading, not the reading that solves any apparent problems.

The shorter reading is usually closer to the original. This is closely connected with the last, but with a difference. Because scribes would often paraphrase, make additional “side notes” that get assumed into the text, or try to correct difficulties, this often produced a longer reading. This principle assumes that scribes would more inclined to add to the original rather than take away from it.


In the end, I believe that, because of the faithfulness of many text critics who labor tirelessly in this field, we can be more than confident that the Bible we read today accurately represents the original, even if it does not do so with absolute technical perfection. The message of Scripture has been preserved due to men of the past whose names we do not know and because of men of the present who work with these men of the past to hand us the word of God in a reliable form.

28 Responses to “Textual Criticism in a Nutshell”

  1. Well done, Michael. Clear, concise, and useful to all!

  2. Very nice summary, Michael.

    Although I think that subtle changes can rise large ripples of significance, I agree that the main thrust of Christianity is relatively secure. The thing that I ponder – possibly the source of concern among the Bart Erhmans of the world, too – is that the detection of alterations implies that other, undetectable, changes are hiding in the text. That said, I don’t actually loose sleep over that – I have bigger fish!

    Of greater concern to me are the decisions made by translators once they have established the text from which they will work. The necessity of choosing among variant translations of, say, ancient Greek to modern English leads to as many issues as manuscript-sifting. Just look at the stink over the word “almah” (“virgin” vs “young woman”) in Isaiah. People sure do get uptight over that one. My current bugaboo is “worship” vs “humbled self before” in Matthew 14:33. This one affects my reading of Mark’s view of Jesus’ divinity.

    Now if I were a Christian I would say, “Even if Mark is not specific, John records Jesus’ claims pretty clearly,” and get on with the church consignment sale. Probably only pagan cranks like myself pay much attention to these things.

  3. Crud! I meant “Matthew’s view of Jesus’ divinity.”

  4. Well done Micheal. Very helpful to this layman to understand. I deal with a wife who is KJV only. Thank you so much!

  5. Wonderful post, Michael. Very helpful and understandable. Tweeting this now.

  6. Patton wrote:
    “The two most significant variants are John 8 (which contains the story of the woman caught in adultery) and the longer ending of Mark 16 (where snake handling and drinking poison seem to be encouraged). Both of these passages are *very late additions*”

    Not correct.
    The long ending of Mark has been added very early (2nd CE) already.
    The PA entered the Greek MSS probably sometime in the 3rd or early 4th CE.

    I have a textual commentary on the Gospels here:

  7. Wieland,

    Metzger tells us this doesn’t show up in the text until unicals from the 7th-9th century. However, he mentions there was patristic familiarity with these verses showing up as early as “Irenaeus and the Diatessaron.” (Textual commentary, 3rd ed, 123-124). The Diatessron dates around 150). So we assume the additions took place early but we just don’t have the actual manuscript to back that up until 700+ years later.

  8. Matt worte: “So we assume the additions took place early but we just don’t have the actual manuscript to back that up until 700+ years later.”

    For the long ending of Mk, church fathers evidence goes back to the 2nd CE. The earliest actual mss we possess are from the 5th CE ( A and C).

    Regarding the PA the earliest MSS that actually have the pericope are: D, b*, d, e, ff2, all from the 5th CE. The fathers evidence indicates Gospels of John with the PA in the 4th CE.

    I consider both variants spurious, but to say they are “very late additions” just isn’t correct.

    Also, there are in my opinion more important variants, which are much more difficult to evaluate than the two mentioned above.
    Consider e.g. Lk 9:55-56 or Lk 23:34.

    I have a list of the TOP variants in the Gospels here:

  9. Wielend,

    I guess you missed the part where I mentioned 150 AD? = 2nd century. We are saying the same thing on that. I did miss A and C. You are right they are from the 5th century, obviously earlier than those I mentioned. Thanks for the clarification.

  10. 1) Textual variations among latter day texts, are not the worst problem.

    The really serious problem is 2) the reliability of the original accounts.

    The original accounts were a) often 3rd hand at best. And b) narrated by relatively uneducated persons who lived in a very primitive time. People who thought the world was flat; that the sun moved around the earth; that donkeys could talk; and that great men could walk on water.

    Worse, c) don’t even have any original documents; only VERY VERY tiny fragments, a few dozen lines of what seem to be the Bible, can be dated to say, 145 AD. And the problem is this: how much variation was there, before these fragments?

    Or then too, what was added to them, later?

  11. Regarding comment # 11:

    If believing in a God that can do miracles is part of the definition of what it means to live “in a very primitive time”, there a whole lot of people on this earth today, and I would venture to say, a whole lot of folks who comment regularly on this blog, that must “live in a very primitive time!”

    I, for one, will have to plead “guilty as charged”!

  12. If any of you want a living illustration of how textual variants worked, here is a contemporary experience for you. I have just started using a Sony Portable Reader. It allows you to download books from places like googlebooks and others. Many of these older books were scanned into the system. Pick a book or a pdf. Then do this exercise.

    Notice all the mistakes on any five pages.

    Determine how they came to be it the text.

    Try to reconstruct the original.

    Voila, you are doing textual criticism.

  13. guilty ;-)

    CMP, thanks for a clear and concise article (again).

    I really don’t know where you stand or what you believe ? The arguments you’re using here are old as the street and have been used to defute the accuracy of the Bible. On the other hand, you were discussing minor or greater sins on the other post.

    If you don’t accept the Bible as at least true and accurate, then why do you use quotations from it to argue another argument ?

    Just be-fuzzled and puzzled

    In Him

  14. Joe? Dude?

    You can’t waltz onto a Christian Blog and say that miracles are silly. Even I know that! :^)

  15. Scott F,

    Quick question: are you and Scott Ferguson one and the same or do you just happen to share the same last initial?

  16. Same. I’ve down sized :^)

  17. Good stuff. I’ve had many conversations about this. thanks for the research!

  18. Thanks Scott. I thought so, but wasn’t sure.

  19. What I want to know is who “invented” this science of textual criticism and its assumptions. It would seem easier to alter the Bible by “cutting out” a word here or there than to try to add into the text. This “critical text” that is used currently, have the textual critics that compiled it been investigated into what kind of men they were? I am referring to Westcott and Hort who compiled the “critical text” in the mid-1800’s. These men were occultists, not Christians, and we have trusted our modern bibles to their work?
    Also, to dismiss the Majority text and defer to variants seems to be perverse. The assumptions I read here seem to be contrary to truthful logic and reflect the work of deception. I don’t buy it no more, and plan to go KJV and be free of doubt producing footnotes. Satans first trick to play on mankind in Genesis was to cause them to doubt God’s Word and this footnoting skeptical approach to scripture is no more than a re-play of Satan’s trick.

  20. Mike: My own opinion is probably that we hope the Bible is reasonably accurate; but that given so many variations, we probably should have some reservations about any given Bible.

    So that I quote the Bible as authority … but with reservations.

    Or for that matter, noting it’s own self-doubts. As when Jesus calls Peter – the author of two books in the New Testament – “Satan”; in Mat. 16.23.

  21. Joe, let me quote you…

    “Or for that matter, noting it’s own self-doubts. As when Jesus calls Peter – the author of two books in the New Testament – “Satan”; in Mat. 16.23.”

    it’s own self-doubts???????

    “But He turned and said to Peter, Get behind Me, Satan! You are a snare to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”

    I understood what Jesus said.

    Peter expressed what Satan desired, that Jesus NOT become our Savior. He presented a temptation to Jesus.

    Jesus did after all pray “…saying, O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” (Matthew 26:39)

  22. Yes, 1) Jesus remains sure of himself. But 2) how sure is the Bible and Jesus, about PETER? The author of two books of the New Testament? When the Bible and Jesus call Peter – author of two books of the New Testament – “Satan”? 3) And if Peter is occasionally “Satan,” then how reliable are the two books in the Bible. The two books by the man Jesus himself called “Satan”?

  23. Joe,

    There is something I am really wondering about. I am assuming you call yourself a Christian since you have never said otherwise and have been commenting on this Christian blog for a long time now.

    However, going way back before we ever knew you here as “Joe”, you often seemed to question the authority of the Bible. Or if not questioning it’s authority, you seemed to question whether we could ever interpret it with any degree of accuracy.

    I am wondering on what you base your Christian faith since the Bible seems to be so “iffey” in your mind? After all, it is the place where the Christian world goes to learn about God and what it means to be a Christian in the first place.

  24. Cheryl: I call myself Christian, even though I – like many theologians – question many things in the Bible. In part because 1) I believe that deep down the BIble questions its own tradition. And the Bible itself 2) opens up to an entirely different, far more self-questioning message than what most people hear in church. One that is not based on total faith in church traditions at all.

    I’m interested for example, in the CHrist who questions other religious authorities, and even himself: “who do you say I am?” “My God … why have you abandoned me”?


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