Current Interest: Textual Criticism

Current Interest: Textual Criticism


Prior to the emergence of the printing press (c. 1440) every ancient classic, philosophical treatise, historical record, and religious text was hand written. Some of these documents were copied in order to distribute them to the public, archive them in libraries, and preserve their continual availability for successive generations. Because of this, extant witnesses of some of the most important texts prior to the printing press come to modern scholars in the form of manuscripts (i.e. handwritten copies). Typically, if a manuscript contains a text of importance, it is likely a copy which is derived from an original and not the original itself. However, it should not be assumed that the copies available today have been transmitted directly from the original. Rather, it is more likely that the manuscripts we posses today are generations separated from the original text. In other words, they are copies of copies of copies and so on and so forth.

With that said, it is important to note that the available witnesses of ancient texts that we have today disagree with one another at various points. This raises a number questions: What was the original reading of the text? Can we trust that these manuscripts actually represent the original? These questions are very important when it comes to the Bible. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament come to contemporary readers through a history of transmission and translation. English readers, no matter which translation they choose, are reading an English version that is based on a Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic text which has been reconstructed from available textual data (unless it is a sole source translation). The discipline that investigates and reconstructs these ancient texts is known as textual criticism. To date, I am not familiar with the textual scholarship of ancient classics and only mildly informed when it comes to the textual history of the Hebrew Bible. Therefore, I will focus here on New Testament textual criticism of which I am the most familiar, though still an amateur.

Textual Criticism of the New Testament 

Textual criticism as it pertains to the New Testament is the discipline that seeks to ascertain the original wording of the documents of the New Testament. This is a necessary task and possible goal for two reasons. First, we do not possess any of the original documents (i.e. autographs) of the New Testament. Second, what we do have are thousands of copies, lectionaries, quotations, and early translations which do not agree perfectly with one another. The former point makes textual criticism necessary because if we had the original manuscripts, then there would not be a need to reconstruct them. The latter point makes textual criticism possible because if all we had were manuscripts that agreed with one another, then there would not be any way for us to know how the originals read except to trust the extant manuscript evidence. In other words, since we do not have the original documents of the New Testament and since all we have are copies which have variant readings, it is necessary that scholars take up the monumental task of reconstructing the original wording of New Testament documents from the evidence available.

This definition of textual criticism was standard until the publication of Bart Erhman’s monograph The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. Since then, some New Testament scholars have sought to change the goal of textual criticism as it pertains to the New Testament. Interestingly, the attempt to change the goal of textual criticism was not due to a changing emphasis within the field of textual criticism in general but in the application of textual criticism to the New Testament. Opposition to the original goal of textual criticism is often based on the notion that at times it is impossible to determine the wording of the original text. Those who have sought to change the goal of New Testament textual criticism see the study textual variants primarily as a means of learning about the social history of early Christian communities. The question these scholars ask is whether it is possible or even desirable to recover an original text. If the answer is no on both accounts, then the primary goal of New Testament textual criticism must change.

Contrary to this view, however, it can be argued that even if it is seemingly impossible to recover the original text it does not follow that scholars should not attempt to do so. Furthermore, the notion that textual variants can give us insight into the history and social life of the early Church assumes that there is a base text from which one can judge the variants and then speculate about why such variants exist. So then, the proposed goal of textual criticism from scholars like Erhman and Parker is dependent on the traditional goal of textual criticism. Thus the primary goal of textual criticism must remain the same while adopting the secondary goal of reconstructing Christian social history. Simply put then, the primary goal is textual reconstruction, while the secondary goal is the study of textual transmission and its relation to social history.

An Example of New Testament Textual Criticism

My first introduction to textual criticism came about unwittingly when I was reading through the Gospel of John. Turning into chapter eight of John (the story of the women caught in adultery) I noticed that the text of John 7:53-8:11 was contained between [[double brackets]] and was preceded by a heading that read “The Earliest Manuscripts Do Not Include 7:53-8:11.” In addition to both of these markers there was also a footnote which mentioned that some manuscripts position the text after Luke 21:38. I had never noticed anything like this before in my Bible and wondered if it was the only text with such textual issues. Long story short, I found out that it is not.

Now, there are several ways to think about textual variants and especially the one in John 7:53-8:11. For example, one could argue that verses 7:53-8:11 were a part of the original manuscript and were removed from early manuscripts because scribes thought that it was a scandalous story; or one could argue that because the reading does not have early textual witnesses it was not a part of the original text. With either argument the data is the same, but the interpretation of the data is different. Each argument illustrates two types of evidences that are fundamental to the task of textual reconstruction, namely internal and external evidence. Notice that the first argument attempts to reason from considering probabilities based on the nature of the text itself—internal evidence. In this case, text-critics refer to this type of evidence as transcriptional probability because it considers how a reading relates to the interest of the scribe, the one transcribing or copying the text. The latter argument is based on the consideration of manuscript evidence—external evidence. Of course this is an oversimplified description of text critical methodology but it gets the point across. In addition to the types of evidences that can support a reading, text-critics also rely on three general principles. Specifically, that the more difficult reading (lectio difficilior), the shorter reading (lectio brevior), and the reading the best explains the raise of the others is preferred. While many text-critical methodologies are viable, the method that takes into account the various sources of evidence is known as reasoned eclecticism. Simply put, reasoned eclecticism considers both internal and external evidence when weighing a reading.

Why this Might be Important

Textual criticism might be important to you for several reasons. First, textual criticism underlies every NIV, ESV, NRSV, and KJV of the Bible that millions of English speaking Christians read in their homes, churches, and schools. The textual choices that scholars make have some impact upon the translation of the scriptural text not only in English but in every language. Second, one might wonder what this means for the reliability of the New Testament. I am of the opinion that textual criticism actually strengthens our confidence in the belief that the New Testament we posses today is faithful to the original. Although the number of textual variants is overwhelming, the majority of them are due to differences in spelling, word order, and other grammatical features of Greek. One can say that very few variants actually affect the meaning of the text and virtually none add or take away from orthodox Christian doctrine. In fact, most variant readings are confidently resolved by employing the standard reasonings of the text-critical methodology of reasoned eclecticism. More can be said about the history, practice, and importance of textual criticism, but I hope that this short amateur’s article will incite some curiosity. For those who would like to know more, I would suggest visiting the Evangelical Textual Criticism Blog and picking up a copy of Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitt’s introduction to the topic, Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism

Written by Dan Marino

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