Textual Criticism: What It Is And Why You Need It

February 11, 2019

by Brandon Crowe

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

. . . continue reading at White Horse Inn.

Brandon Crowe

Dr. Crowe (PhD, Edinburgh) is associate professor of New Testament at WTS.

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