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Textual Criticism: What It Is And Why You Need It

Why Do We Need Textual Criticism?

One of the classes I teach each year covers textual criticism of the New Testament. Even as I write that I know how boring it sounds. When I mention this class to someone as we make small talk, I can almost feel the waft of boredom fill the room. It’s no surprise. Most don’t know what it is, and those who do must admit that “textual criticism” is not the catchiest phrase.

But textual criticism does not have to be boring. An accurate(and certainly more interesting) name, might be “the study of ancient manuscripts and how we get our printed Bibles from them.” Now we’ve got something to talk about.  How does it work? And why exactly do we need it? And more existentially, does this affect the reliability of the Bible?

To put the matter starkly: if we want to read the Bible, then someone has to do textual criticism on it. This reality applies more broadly, as well, to any book written before the modern printing press, which began to make exact reproductions of works on a larger scale. Before that, everything was copied by hand, and it was much easier for errors to enter in to the copying process.

So when someone wants to print an ancient book (like the Greek New Testament), how do they know what to print? Where does one find the authentic Iliad of Homer or Josephus’s Jewish War? These do not exist in only one manuscript, but in many manuscripts. And to complicate matters, no two manuscripts agree exactly. Though this applies to all ancient books, the stakes are higher for the Bible.  So, if we want to read the New Testament in print today, someone has to do textual criticism to find it so they can translate and print it.

What is Textual Criticism?

So what exactly is textual criticism?  How do you do it?  It does not mean that we are criticizing the text of Scripture; textual criticism of the Bible has nothing inherently to do with critiquing the Bible.  Instead, textual criticism means thinking critically about manuscripts and variations in the biblical texts found in those manuscripts, in order to identify the original reading of the Bible.

For example, what do we do when we find differences in 1 Corinthians 13:3 in ancient manuscripts?  Some Greek manuscripts read “if I give up my body to be burned” (see ESV; KJV), whereas others read “if I give up my body that I might boast” (see CSB; NIV).  The English translations differ because they are translating different Greek words: some manuscripts have a word for boast and others include some form of burn.  The terms look similar in Greek; they both make sense in context.  But which word did Paul use?

This is the task of textual criticism, which uses tightly honed methods to test variant (or divergent) readings that are encountered in manuscripts.  The goal is to find the most ancient—and most accurate—reading.

How is this done? There’s not just one way, and there is some lively debate about the best way to proceed.  But the most prominent method used by New Testament scholars today is a multifaceted, eclectic process.

First, the manuscripts themselves are considered—this is called external evidence.  In the example of 1 Corinthians 13, most manuscripts include some form of burn.  You might think that finding what most manuscripts contain would solve the matter, but it’s not so simple.  Not all manuscripts are equally important; sometimes more is not always better.  Quality of manuscripts matters more than quantity.  In this case, the earliest manuscript evidence supports boast, along with several important manuscripts that have consistently proven to be reliable in other ways.

Second, this eclectic method also looks at internal evidence.  This includes a biblical author’s normal style and the sorts of mistakes that later copyists commonly made when they copied texts.  In the case of 1 Corinthians 13:3, Paul never mentions burning anywhere else, but he often speaks of boasting.  When it comes to copyist tendencies, we might ask if the two words in question look like each other (they do), and if they could easily be mistaken by someone copying manuscripts (they could).

Textual critics thus arrive at conclusions by asking a range of questions to determine which option is more likely in a given scenario.  Sometimes there is no easy answer, and sometimes this is apparent in differences between translations.  But the good news is textual critics like to show their work in critical editions of the New Testament, giving the reader as much information as possible, so that interested readers can draw their own conclusions.

Does Textual Criticism Undermine the Authority of the Bible?

Textual criticism does not undermine inerrancy.  But we must remember that, strictly speaking, inerrancy applies to the autographs of the Bible, not to every manuscript of the Bible that was copied by non-apostolic, non-inspired copyists.  Those who copied the Bible in antiquity were people just like us.  Many of them were quite proficient copyists who produced very accurate manuscripts, but even so, no copy is perfect.

The New Testament was copied by thousands of people in thousands of places in dozens of languages.  Though this can make textual criticism complicated, this diversity is also a blessing, since it would not be possible for any one person or sect in the ancient world to collude to produce an inauthentic Scripture.  Where such things were encountered in the ancient world, they were recognized and rejected.

Textual Criticism and Confidence in the New Testament

The significance of textual variations in the New Testament has often been blown out of proportion.  For example, if someone were to count the number of variants in the New Testament manuscripts that number would be greater than the total number of verses in the New Testament.

This, however, is quite misleading; it does not reflect the degree of confidence that we should rightly have in the New Testament.  A better question is not “how many variants are there?” but “how many manuscripts do we have?”.  Where we have many manuscripts, we will have more variants (since every manuscript has its own quirks and tendencies).  But where we have more manuscripts, we also have a greater degree of certainty of what the text originally said since we have additional witnesses to glean from.  In this sense, one might even say that the more variants we have, the better off we are—for the more variants we have, the more witnesses we have to the text, and the more confident we can be.

The Westminster Confession of Faith 1.8 speaks of God’s “singular care and providence” to preserve the Scriptures.  Given the number of copies we have of the Greek New Testament—more than 5,500 biblical manuscripts in Greek, which is far greater than any other work from the ancient world—the discipline of textual criticism provides ample corroboration for the Westminster Confession.

Confidence for the Bigger Questions

Textual criticism is often perceived to be boring because the issues appear to be so minor.  It’s true that most of the differences are so minor that they don’t even show up in translations, but many come to the issue of textual criticism because of the bigger questions, like the longer ending of the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:9­–20), the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11), or the trinitarian passage in 1 John 5:7.  These examples are exceptional—and as such they prove the rule that the overwhelming majority of most variants are minor—but we still need to know what to do with them.

To use Mark 16:9–20 as an example: Should we read it as Scripture, since it has so long been accepted as Scripture?  Should we not esteem it, since most modern translations state that the passage is not found in the earliest manuscripts?  To cut to the chase: should we pick up [poisonous] snakes (Mark 16:18)?  This is, to be sure, a complicated question, and one that readers may disagree on.  My own view is that Mark intentionally ends in 16:8, but I can’t defend that here.  Instead, I want to make a few (I hope) encouraging points about how even big questions can lead us back to confidence in God’s singular care and providence.

First, most modern translations and scholarly editions of the Greek New Testament clearly state the evidence for and against including this passage in the apparatus or footnotes.  This is consistent with the practice of textual criticism, where the goal is not to ramrod any particular reading or conspire to hide evidence.  The evidence is laid out for anyone to see and assess.

Second, no one could either make up this reading or delete it on their own volition.  We have too many witnesses to the text of the New Testament for anything to be included or fall out clandestinely.  Even where we may have unanswered questions, there is very little question about our options.

Third, even in those places where we remain uncertain, no significant doctrine hinges on a matter of textual criticism.[1] [1]  The Trinity is not dependent on a particular reading of 1 John 5:7 any more than Jesus’s authority to forgive sins is dependent on the inclusion of the woman caught in adultery.  These are already manifestly clear throughout the New Testament.

Textual criticism is a widely debated field; no doubt some readers may have divergent opinions on these matters. Nevertheless, the overall picture is one of overall textual stability and very few unresolved issues.

We have a wealth of manuscripts to draw from, and we stand on the shoulders of those who spent their lives studying manuscripts and refining the methods of textual criticism. Our extremely accurate, modern editions of the New Testament are possible because of the labors of many people whom you may never know about. Whether or not you realize it, you’re probably using the fruits of textual criticism every day.

Brandon D. Crowe (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia where he has taught since 2009. He is the author of The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospels (Baker Academic), and forthcoming books on the resurrection in Acts (Baker Academic) and a biblical approach to productivity (Lexham Press). 

[1] [2] See Andreas J. Köstenberger and Michael J. Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity has Reshaped our Understanding of Early Christianity (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), ch. 8.