The Word of God: What is Textual Criticism?

In 1482, a German bishop placed a large order for liturgical texts with a local printer. The records of this transaction have survived, and allow us to see that the printer was not only paid for the work and materials involved in the printing, but was also handsomely recompensed for the work involved in carefully proofreading each text. Painstakingly, each book was compared to the original, even though every text in a given printing would be identical to every other text in that printing. At this distance, it is impossible for us to tell whether the bishop was the victim of sharp practice on the part of the printer, but it is clear that he failed to grasp the significance of the new technology of print, which allowed hundreds – or even thousands – of identical copies to be produced with unprecedented speed and efficiency.

It is easy to spot the bishop’s mistake, but we ought not to feel superior. We have been brought up with the concept of an exact copy – even of a “lossless copy” in this digital age. These concepts are only possible as a result of the technologies of print and digital transmission, which allow objects to be reproduced with great ease and consistency. For centuries, reproducing text could only be done by manually copying manuscripts and, as the bishop of Freising knew, manuscript copying required careful and meticulous proofing. Scribes were skilled and experienced, but they still made errors. Sometimes these errors were inadvertent. A scribe might repeat words, for example, or allow his eye to get ahead of his hand, and skip some words. Sometimes, he might incorporate a marginal annotation into the body of the text, or replace what the text actually said with what he thought it said. On other occasions, changes were deliberate. A scribe might attempt to “correct” a sentence that didn’t make sense to him, or might expand the original to make its sense clearer. With so many potential sources of witting and unwitting variation, it should be clear that, even with great care, for anything other than the shortest and simplest of texts, no two copies would be identical.

The realities of scribal transmission are not just historical curiosities. They are relevant and important for anyone who reads the Bible, which is the product of centuries of manuscript transmission. We no longer have the autographs, the original texts of Scripture as they came from the hands of the apostles or their amanuenses. Instead, we have apographs, thousands of copies, dating from the first centuries of Christianity right through to the birth of printing. While the autographs of Scripture were inerrant, these copies are subject to the whole range of scribal errors.

For some believers, this fact is disturbing. Living in the print age, we are conditioned to have certain expectations about how texts are transmitted, and the idea that variation exists between manuscripts of Scripture might seem to undermine the certainty and reliability of divine revelation. These feelings are comprehensible, and we ought not be dismissive or disparaging of those who feel like this. However, we need to remember that we cannot second guess divine sovereignty. Had He wished, God could have given us the Scriptures without any human involvement. As He did on Sinai, He could have reached down and written His work on the rocks, but He chose not to, and we cannot doubt the wisdom of His choice.

We must also realize that the existence of manuscript variations does not, in fact, undermine the certainty and reliability of divine revelation. God has seen to it that His Word has been preserved, and, while there are minor variations between manuscripts, there are relatively few of significance, and not one that calls a single doctrine into question. “Nothing we believe to be doctrinally true, and nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants … The interpretation of individual passages may well be called in question; but never is a doctrine affected.”[1] It is also vitally important to maintain our sense of perspective in this context. Textual criticism is interested in variants, not in agreement. For this reason, when we read textual criticism, we might easily start to think that the Bible is made up of a series of contested readings, strung together by a handful of verses on which we all agree. In fact, the reverse is true. Variants are the exception rather than the rule. When we say exception, we do mean exception. It has been calculated that uncertainty about the correct reading affects only 2% of the text of the NT.[2] The uniformity of the Greek manuscripts of the NT has been further underlined by recent work on some very early Biblical papyri found near Oxyrhynchus, Egypt.[3] This work has confirmed the accuracy of the Biblical text as we have it today.

The existence of variants in the manuscripts of Scripture need neither alarm nor embarrass us, but it does leave us with the task of cataloguing the variants, and identifying which reading is most likely to be original. Textual criticism is the scholarly discipline that undertakes this important work. It is a complex discipline, involving a wide range of scholarly approaches, and our summary of it will, of necessity, be sketchy and simplistic.

The first stage of textual criticism involves the cataloguing of variant readings. Scholars painstakingly comb through manuscripts – many of which only survive in a very fragmentary state – to identify the variants peculiar to that manuscript. Based on this sort of cataloguing, scholars have identified a number of manuscript groups, representing different text types. All the members of a particular group tend to share the same sort of variants. Manuscripts within a group may also be linked geographically. They may come from the same area, or chronologically, they may date from the same period.

The process of cataloguing variants is almost entirely objective and quantitative. It is a matter of counting, and any two careful counters are likely to get the same results. Once the variants are catalogued, however, editors have to decide which reading is more likely to be original. There is a good deal of science involved here. There are clearly defined rules and conventions of textual criticism, but this sort of editing always involves finely nuanced judgment calls, and, as such, can never be purely objective. When seeking the original text of Scripture, editors will consider a range of external and internal evidence.

External evidence is concerned with the details of the manuscripts in which a given reason is found. Here, editors have to choose between two principles; “earlier is better” and “more frequent is better.” These two principles are substantially opposed because of the ways in which manuscripts have survived. There are far fewer extant early manuscripts than there are late, so an editor who decides that the earliest reading is always to be preferred over a later, will almost always end up favoring a minority reading. An approach that gives the greatest weight to the most common reading will, inevitably, end up with a text based on the most recent manuscripts. Arguments can be made for both positions, and both have their advocates. In practice, almost all editors adopt an approach called “reasoned eclecticism,” a position somewhere between these two extremes.

In addition to weighing external evidence, textual critics carefully evaluate the internal evidence for particular readings. There are a number of principles that guide editors in deciding between different readings. Two of the most important principles are known as lectio difficilior (more difficult reading) and lectio brevior (shorter reading). These principles express the assumption that a scribe is more likely to change a difficult reading to an easy one than vice versa, and to add material, rather than leaving it out. The textual critic applies these and other principles to identify the reading that best explains how variant readings might have arisen. That reading is the most likely candidate to have been original. Again, the process of sifting and weighing the internal evidence cannot be entirely objective, but neither is it arbitrary. Clearly identified and well-understood principles lie behind the decisions critics make. There is an unfortunate tendency to launch ad hominem attacks on textual critics and their beliefs, rather than interacting with their work, which does little service to the truth.

Critics are not infallible. One has only to read a selection of the ongoing debates to realize that there is often disagreement between critics, which means that at least some, and possibly all, are wrong. These scholars attempt to answer complex questions with evidence that is often fragmentary and sometimes contradictory. We would not, and should not, elevate them to the status of prophets, or impute to them infallibility, but neither should we be insensible to the value of their work. With some exceptions, textual criticism has produced only minor changes in the text of our Bibles. As it continues to identify and analyze the evidence of ancient papyri, it allows us to be confident in the text of Bibles we read, and should cause us to praise God Who has preserved His Word from the time of its writing to our own day.

[1] D.A. Carson, The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1979), p. 56.

[2] Daniel B. Wallace, The Majority Text and the Original Text: Are They Identical?,

[3]  See the introduction to Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger (eds), The Early Text of the New Testament, (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2012).