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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 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 removed from the original New Testament and over two thousand years newer than the Old Testament. More than that, these Bibles are all in English; the New Testament was written in Greek, and the Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew. More than that, the Greek and Hebrew of the Scriptures are both dead languages, meaning 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 today, two thousand years removed from the original, should read. There are not many text critics who are trained and skilled enough to make these types 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 fewer 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 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  like the Message or the New 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”; 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, such as the movable nu mentioned above, article usage, transposing of words (“Jesus Christ” instead of “Christ Jesus”; metathesis), and other minor variations don’t even translate into English.

There is approximately 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). Neither of these passages, in the opinion of most scholars, should 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 John 8 and the longer ending of Mark 16, most of the variants are very simple for the trained eye of a 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 was 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 attestations 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, all having certain variant, that were all copied from the same faulty original, thereby producing a new family. This original could be wrong and therefore have produced thousands of manuscripts with a wrong reading. We often find this to 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.

Conclusion

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 by men of the past, whose names we do not know, and because men of the present work with men of the past to hand us the word of God in a reliable form.

29 Responses to “Textual Criticism in a Nutshell”

  1. Super good. I wish that more of us could be confident in Christianity with the “variants”. I spent some time studying this due to atheistic bombardment of supposed scriptural mistakes. With the text critics input, the atheists arguments don’t hold water, similar to “lost books” garbage that is crammed down our throats. They were not lost but were rejected for many reasons. Basically as you have pointed out here and in the “boot camps” ( free plug) we can rest assured that there are people who have verified, with utmost certainty, that we have very accurate scripture and have lost nothing in Christianity in principal or truth even with variants. Certain versions are full of actual errors that can lead to disillusionment if no textual mistakes are what a person requires. Further study will show these errors have no bearing on the principals of scripture and were fixed in other translations. Basically, don’t get wrapped around the axle with thinking the NKJ or NIV is the most accurate translation cause they a chock full of mistakes. But to drive it home again, the principals of the gospel and Gods character ect. are fully intact even in those translations. If God can achieve His perfect Will through imperfect creatures, I think he can certainly get across what He intends to achieve in translations that contain a few textual variances ……..

  2. Also do you have any recommended books on scriptural text critics. Most of it seems to be scattered.
    Nick

  3. “these differences don’t affect any major doctrine”.

    Lots of the variants “affect” major doctrines. Variants give ammunition to various heretical viewpoints. For example, John 1:34 in one variant “Son of God” (NASB), doesn’t give ammunition to adoptionists the way that “God’s chosen one” (NET) does.

    Of course, if you assume orthodoxy (or Orthodoxy) is correct to begin with, then no harm, they can all be interpreted in an orthodox way. But if you start with sola scriptura, and a blank slate, then you do have a bit of a problem.

  4. Well, Jesus is called both so no issue is introduced.

  5. He isn’t called both without that variant Michael.

  6. If you start with the Word and It’s authority, then you will be better off.

    The Bible was a re-calibration of the preached Word. The law and gospel.

    Once we figure out what the Word is, then we are on the road to properly understanding the Bible.

    In the beginning was the Bible. And the Bible was with God. And the Bible was God.

  7. He isn’t called the Son of God and Messiah outside of that one verse?

  8. Thank you for writing this — it’s always good to remember why the Scriptures are reliable.

    When we combine textual criticism with other factors (such as the fulfillment of prophesy, and its indicia of reliability) a very strong case can be made for Scripture’s veracity. And once we know that its true, we can believe and share what we know to be true with others confidently.

  9. Michael: I think you’ll find he isn’t called “the Chosen One” outside of that variant in that verse.

  10. What is the difference in chosen one and messiah other than the word? What am I missing?

  11. Messiah means anointed. It doesn’t have such a connotation of choice.

    Text critics seem to think it was changed for theological reasons. If it doesn’t matter, why was it changed?

  12. I don’t know. That is the point. No real issue. What doctrine is affected and how?

  13. Adoptionists use it to show Jesus was chosen to be the Messiah.

  14. Michael, nice summary there, but could you write a follow-up clarification on your statement that there “are approximately 6000 handwritten copies of the New Testament in Greek that we have cataloged.”

    Because the “6,000” manuscripts are (A) _from_ the NT, not _of_ the NT; (B) many are lectionaries not strict copies of books; and (C) many, many are from the 10th century or later.

    (As a clarification on (A), for example, one manuscript of the book of Matthew and one separate manuscript of the book of 1 Timothy does not constitute two manuscripts _of_ the New Testament, but rather they are two manuscripts _from_ the NT, yet they don’t support any textual conclusions between them, nor do they provide any textual support for any other books of the NT.)

    Thanks,

    -Rusty

    • Good point. I am working on a chapter to a book which I describe how we overstate this issue due to the dating of the manuscripts (ie the majority of them are not that early and most are fragments. But I will then explain the issue of text type confirmation to ease the overstatement!

  15. John,

    According to the dictionary, the word ‘chosen’ does not necessarily imply making a decision to pick one out of a bunch of possibilities, but similar to the word ‘choice’, it can mean merely ‘preferred, approved, superior’.

    The Bible refers to Jesus as ‘chosen’ in Matthew 12:18: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.” Here the idea of Jesus being chosen is parallel to him being pleasing, which does not imply Jesus was promoted from among equals.

    However, I don’t think it necessary to evade the full implications of the word ‘chosen’, just as I don’t think Jesus’ sonship implies his non-existence at some time in the past before his implied conception/birth. Jesus’ is eternally begotten of the Father, which I can’t get my head round because the normal concepts of time & space disintegrate when applied to the infinite, eternal God.

    The Father’s actions towards the Son in eternity (granting, appointing, choosing) did not occur at a single point in time but they continuously characterize the ongoing relationship between Father and Son, in which the Father is the perpetual source/fountainhead of everything that the Son is, while the Son is continuously deriving his substance and attributes from the Father.

    For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. (John 5:26)
    The Son has always had life in himself because the Father and the Son have an eternally dynamic relationship consisting of source and issue, stamp and imprint, radiator and radiance, emitter and image. Life exists in the Son because the Son is the image of God the Father and so every attribute of the Father is being continuously expressed, manifested, and realized in the Son.

    So my reply to adotionists is not to build too much on a selective interpretation of a single word when the balance of the Bible opposes that idea, especially when considering the relationship between…

  16. … eternal beings.

    Hebrews 1:3 describes Jesus as the “radiance of God’s glory”. The sun is not identical to the light it emits, but by their nature they have to exist together. The sun would not be a sun if it did not radiate light, and radiation cannot exist without a source. The sun could never have existed without radiating light. It is an essential part of the sun’s nature to continuously generate light. Similarly God was never a single unit. He has always been Father and Son (and Holy Spirit). Part of the essential nature of God is to eternally generate the Son, whose existence and characteristics are (and always have been) emanating from God. Jesus is not a product of God formed at a particular moment in time, like taking a photograph of your youngest child.

    “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

  17. Phil: As true as everything you say is, the word eklektos means to select, distinguish, elect, or to be “the best course of a selection”. Mt 12:18 uses a different Greek word, so technically it doesn’t have the force of John 1.

    Your argument about the “balance of the bible” is one often used by people on different sides of a theological debate, whereby their hobby horse verses are the important “balance of the bible ones” and the inconvenient ones are the odd men out. Adoptionists don’t rely solely on a variant in John 1:34.

  18. John,

    I defer to your superior knowledge of NT Greek. However, I think my point about Matthew 12:18 is still relevant, isn’t it? The biblical authors did not use language as if they were lawyers drafting watertight contracts, working within a precise code of legal terminology to ensure that each phrase was unambiguous in its interpretation. I think it is mistaken to expect their words to function like a software algorithm that calculates clearly defined theological results for us. Therefore you cannot derive the meaning of a biblical text by arguing from technical definitions of words as if you were building a logical proof upon mathematical axioms. Analysing biblical texts atomistically in an absolute technical way constrains the possible meanings of phrases without taking whole sentences and paragraphs into account and so it may ignore the author’s real intent. Whatever the technical meaning of the Greek word behind ‘chosen’ in Matthew 12:18, it seems at first to support adoptionism … until you consider the parallel meaning of the 2nd half of the verse.

    I am aware adoptionists don’t rely solely on a variant in John 1:34. And I’m also aware the “balance of the bible” argument may be used illegitimately as a smokescreen when the balance is equally weighted. But in this case I think it really does apply – I believe the contra-adoptionist references really do outnumber and, more importantly, qualitatively outweigh all the adoptionist ones that I am aware of.

    Phil

  19. Well Phil, at what point can we say that a variant “affects” a major doctrine, in the words of Michael? Most likely Jn 1:34 was changed because either someone was embarrassed by the “chosen” version, or an adoptionist added it to bolster their case. Either way, it seems more deliberate than accidental. If it was changed because of theology, then obviously some scribe thought it “affects” doctrine.

    It has been strongly argued that the 9 places in Luke that the traditional text is shorter than the western text, that they are a deliberate attempt to go against a docetic form of Christology. The modifications certainly do seem to have a common theme. These variants made their way into Westcott & Hort, and thus the RV and a number of versions. Maybe, maybe not.

    But I don’t see how one can say unequivocally, like Michael does, that no variant “affects” a major doctrine. Affects for whom? When sola scriptura is the rule of faith, who knows what variant will influence someone?

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