Textual Criticism of the Bible

Please Support the Bible Translation Work of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV)


The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

NOTE: This article is a good overview of the basics of New Testament Textual Studies for both the Old and New Testaments. For those wanting to dig deeper, the footnotes have additional information, and for those wanting an intermediate look at some things, there are articles linked throughout that go into greater detail on specific things.

Textual Criticism of the Bible. Task of reconstructing the original text of the Bible with as great a degree of accuracy as the available materials permit, in the process of attempting to ascertain the original wording of the original text. Textual criticism is sometimes designated as lower criticism to distinguish it from higher criticism, which is analysis of the date, unity, and authorship of the biblical writings.

The task of the textual critic is divided into four major stages: (1) collection and collation of the materials from existing manuscripts, translations, and quotations; (2) development of theory and methodology that will enable the critic to use the gathered information to reconstruct the most accurate text of the biblical materials; (3) reconstruction of the history of the transmission of the text in order to identify the various influences affecting the text; (4) evaluation of specific variant readings in light of textual evidence, theology, and church history.


Sources. The initial task is collection of all possible records of the biblical writings, since the originals (called autographs) no longer exist. The primary sources are manuscripts (hand-written copies). Manuscripts were usually written on animal skins, papyrus, or even metal. Secondary sources include translations into other languages, quotations used by both protagonists and antagonists of biblical religion, and evidence from early printed texts. The comparison and careful listing of the variant readings thus uncovered is known as collation.

Old Testament. Most medieval manuscripts of the OT reflect a fairly standardized form of the Hebrew text. The standardization reflects the work of medieval scribes known as Masoretes (ad 500–900); the text that resulted from their work is called the Masoretic text. Of one scholar’s list of 60 important manuscripts dated from the 11th century or later, all reflect the same basic textual tradition.

The evidence or “witness” of the medieval manuscripts has been supplemented by other discoveries in recent years. The most famous discovery (or series of discoveries) was that of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Wadi Qumran in 1947. The Isaiah scroll has received the most publicity, although the scrolls contained fragments of all the books in the Hebrew Bible with the exception of Esther. The great significance of the discovery is the fact that the Dead Sea scrolls antedate the oldest Masoretic manuscripts by over a millennium. The texts found at Wadi Qumran were completed before the Roman conquest of Palestine in AD 70.


Additional evidence comes from Wadi Murabba ’at, also on the Dead Sea, from the period of the Bar Kochba revolt in ad 132–135. The biblical material found there includes fragments of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the OT) and Isaiah, and a leather scroll in Greek containing fragments of the Minor Prophets. Additional information on the transmission history of the Hebrew text is provided by a great number of biblical fragments discovered at a Cairo genizah* dated ad 882. (A genizah is a room in a synagogue used to store worn or erroneous manuscripts.)

* Genizah: These synagogues usually had a storage room known as the genizah. In time, the Jews placed in the genizah discarded manuscripts that had become torn or worn with age, replacing them with new ones for current synagogue use.

The Samaritan Pentateuch and the Septuagint are the most important translations that bear witness to the text of the Hebrew Bible. The Samaritan Pentateuch is a version of the five books of Moses written in a rounded form of Hebrew letters in contrast with the more standard square (Aramaic) form. The Samaritans accepted only the Pentateuch as canonical. A copy of the Samaritan Pentateuch came to the attention of scholars in ad 1616; it is presumably a descendant of the Hebrew text used by the Samaritans after their break with the Jews.

The Septuagint (often designated LXX, Roman numerals for 70) is the oldest Greek translation of the OT. According to tradition, it was translated by a team of 70 scholars (hence LXX) in Alexandria (Egypt). The exact date of translation is not ascertainable. Evidence indicates that the Septuagint Pentateuch was completed in the 3rd century bc. Aramaic Targums (translations) and commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, the Peshitta (a Syriac translation), Old Latin, Vulgate, and Arabic translations provide additional evidence of the original Hebrew text.

How Did the Septuagint Bible Translation Change the World?

Quotations and allusions from a vast amount of rabbinic commentary on the OT add to the welter of evidence collected and collated in order to reconstruct the OT text.

New Testament. Manuscript evidence for the NT is varied and voluminous. Latest statistics record knowledge of 88 papyri (manuscripts written on a very fragile paperlike material made from river reeds); 274 uncials (manuscripts written on animal skins in capital letters); 2,795 minuscules (manuscripts written on animal skins in flowing, cursive letters dated 10th century or later); and 2,209 lectionaries (manuscripts in which the biblical materials are arranged for reading according to the sequences of the liturgical calendar); a total of 5,366 sources. Most of the manuscripts are fragmentary and originally contained only a portion of the NT, such as the four Gospels. Only 59 of the manuscripts originally contained the whole NT.


The earliest NT manuscripts were written on scrolls formed by sewing pieces of leather or papyrus together. The scrolls seldom exceeded 35 feet in length—the space needed for the Gospel of Luke or the Book of Acts, for example. Early in the 2nd century, the more convenient codex was introduced. A codex was formed by folding one or more sheets into a booklike shape and sewing them together. The advantages were convenience, size, and the opportunity to use both sides of the writing material.

A brief description of several manuscripts in each major category will enhance understanding of the textual critic’s task.

  1. Papyri. Important papyrus manuscripts include Chester Beatty Papyri P45, P46, and P47 (purchased by Sir Chester Beatty in 1930–31) and Bodmer Papyri P66 and P75 (acquired by M. Martin Bodmer in 1955–56).

P45 consists of 30 from an original 220 leaves (each leaf measures about 8 × 10 inches). Portions of each of the four Gospels and the Book of Acts have survived in this codex, dated by its modern editor in the first half of the 3rd century. [It should be dated to 175-225 C.E., Andrews]


P46 contains 86 leaves from an original 104. [It should be dated to about 110-150 C.E.], it originally contained the Pauline Epistles arranged as follows: Romans, Hebrews, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians. It is interesting to note the inclusion of the Book of Hebrews in the Pauline materials, since it is sometimes argued that Paul did not write that book.

PAPYRUS 46 (P46): a Papyrus Bible Manuscript From About 125-150 C.E.

P47 dates to about [200-250 C.E., Andrews] and consists of 10 leaves from an original 32 containing the Book of Revelation.

Papyrus 47 (P47) Is An Early Copy of the Greek New Testament Dating to 200-250 C.E.

P66, dated by its modern editor about 110-150 C.E., Andrews], is a copy of the Gospel of John. Only 104 leaves were acquired in the original purchase, and fragments of another 46 have subsequently been acquired.

The Scribe and Correctors of P66 (Papyrus 66)

P75 is a codex containing Luke and John, of which only 102 of an original 144 leaves have survived. The editors date the codex between AD 175 and 225.

Textual Character and the Scribe of P75 (Papyrus 75)

  1. Uncials. Before the 9th century, Greek manuscripts were written in capital letters in a printed style. Such manuscripts are called uncials and are designated by capital letters, the major uncial manuscripts being A, א (the Hebrew letter aleph), B, C, D, and θ (the Greek capital letter theta).

Codex Sinaiticus (א) is a 4th-century [330-360 C.E., Andrews] codex written on vellum, containing all of the Greek NT plus sections of the OT. The codex was discovered in a waste receptacle in a monastery on Mt Sinai by Constantin von Tischendorf in 1844 and constitutes one of the most fascinating discoveries in the field of textual criticism. A few missing leaves were discovered at the monastery in 1978.

CODEX SINAITICUS: One of the Most Reliable Witnesses to the Greek New Testament Text

Codex Alexandrinus (A) is an early 5th-century [400-440 C.E.] vellum manuscript containing the whole Greek Bible (with some mutilation) on its 773 leaves. Only portions of Matthew, John, and 2 Corinthians are missing in the NT section. The codex was presented to King Charles I of England in 1627.

CODEX ALEXANDRINUS: One of the Jewels of the British Library

Codex Vaticanus (B) was first listed in a catalog of Vatican Library materials in 1475, although it was not fully available to the scholarly public until publication of a facsimile in 1889–90. It is an early 4th-century [300-325 C.E.] vellum manuscript of the whole Greek Bible. Of an original 820 leaves, 759 still exist. Missing are most of Genesis, 31 Psalms, and a large section of the NT.

CODEX VATICANUS: Why Is it a Treasure?

St. Catherine’s monastery at Mt Sinai.

Codex Ephraemi (C) is a 5th-century manuscript that was erased in the 12th century, with sermons of a 4th-century Syrian church father, Ephraem, written over the biblical materials. (Manuscripts that have one text written over another are called palimpsests.) Only 64 leaves from the OT and 145 from the NT remain. Tischendorf used chemical processes to make the original writing available to the scholarly world in 1843.

Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus Fifth Century C.E. Greek New Testament Manuscript

Codex Bezae (D) was presented to the library at Cambridge University (England) in 1581 by Theodore Beza. It is a 5th- or 6th-century manuscript of the four Gospels (in the order Matthew, John, Luke, and Mark) and Acts plus a fragment of 3 John. Of an original 510 leaves, 406 have survived. The outstanding characteristic of the manuscript is free addition and occasional omission. In the Book of Acts, for example, Codex Bezae presents a text about 1/10 longer than the usual text.

Codex Bezae—A Unique Manuscript

Codex Koridethi (θ) is a 9th-century manuscript of the Gospels, with a text in the Gospel of Mark that is quite different from the tradition found in the other three Gospels.

  1. Minuscules. After the 9th century, Greek manuscripts were written in a cursive style and are called minuscules. Minuscules are designated by Arabic numbers—for example, 1, 13, 33, 565, and 1839. Most of the minuscules present a rather standardized textual pattern, although occasionally, they reflect a much earlier type of text. A number of manuscripts in the minuscule classification are similar enough to form a “family.” Family 1 (identified by Kirsopp Lake in this century), for example, includes minuscules 1, 118, 131, and 209 (all dated from the 12th to the 14th centuries). Family 13 (identified by W.H. Ferrar in 1868) includes minuscules 13, 69, 124, 346, and several other manuscripts written from the 11th to the 15th centuries. Minuscule 33 is known as “the queen of the cursives” because of its high quality. It contains the entire NT (minus Revelation) and dates from the 9th or 10th century. Minuscule 565, beautifully written in gold ink on purple vellum, also dates from the 9th or 10th century. Minuscule 1739 is a 10th-century manuscript with significant marginal notations taken from several of the church fathers.
  2. Translations. The missionary interests of the early church led to translations of the NT in a variety of languages. Those translations or versions, particularly the Syriac and Latin, provide additional information on the nature of the text at an early stage. Such evidence is complicated, however, by the transfer into a new language and by inadequate information about the textual base from which they were translated. Five different versions of the Syriac NT are available: Old Syriac, the Peshitta (the common version), the Philoxenian, the Harclean, and the Palestinian Syriac. The Old Latin version of the NT reflects a translation begun in the late 2nd century for use in North Africa. The work of Jerome near the end of the 4th century produced the famous Latin Vulgate version, represented today by more than 8,000 extant manuscripts. Other important versions include the Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, and Slavonic.

Patristic Quotations. Additional textual evidence can be drawn from quotations found in the early writers known as the church fathers. The range of such quotations, covering most of the NT, provides evidence on the history of transmission of variant readings and text types.

It is clear from the above discussion that abundant evidence is available for reconstructing the text of the NT. Much work is currently in progress using modern technology to catalog and collate every bit of that material.

4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2

History of Transmission. Reconstruction of the history of the transmission of the text is an important element in evaluating variant readings. Material from a wide variety of sources must be combined in order to arrive at even a tentative reconstruction of the text. A brief sketch of scholarly opinion for each Testament follows.

Old Testament. The early history of the text as reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Septuagint, and the ancient Hebrew text shows a remarkable fluidity and diversity. Evidently the standardizing process did not begin at the earliest stages. For example, the materials from the Qumran community where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, do not reflect any frustration with varying texts within that community. Scholars have attempted to account for such diversity by theories of local texts (that various localities had differing text types) and precanonical fluidity (that until the process of canonization was complete, accurate reproduction of the manuscripts was not viewed as very important). It should be noted, however, that the basic text modern scholarship has identified as closest to the original was among the Dead Sea texts (e.g., the large Isaiah scroll).

Destruction of the temple in ad 70 provided an impetus for standardization of the consonantal text. The texts found at Wadi Murabba ’at reflect the new stage. The scholars initially reporting on the discovery were disappointed to find so few variations from the standard Masoretic text. To scholars, the very early texts from the Dead Sea discoveries had become the standard consonantal text, to the exclusion of other variants. Scholars have gone so far as to identify the only slightly later Wadi Murabba ’at texts as “Proto-Masoretic.”

English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

Standardization as practiced by the Masoretes meant identifying one text as normative and copying carefully from that text. It also meant correcting existing texts by the normative text. The Hebrew text, of course, was written with consonants alone, not with consonants and vowels as we write English.

The next stage in the transmission of the OT text was standardization of punctuation and vowel patterns. That process, begun fairly early in the NT period, extended over 1000 years. A long series of Masoretes provided annotations known as Masora (Hebrew for “tradition”). Two different motivations are evident in their work. One was their concern for accurate reproduction of the consonantal text. For that purpose a collection of annotations (on irregular forms, abnormal patterns, the number of times a form or word was used, the enlarged letters in the middle of words that had enumerative significance, and other matters) was gathered and inserted in the margins or at the end of the text. A second concern of the Masoretes was for vocalization of the consonantal text for reading purposes. Prohibition against inserting vocalization into the text itself had required oral tradition for transmission. The origins of vocalization reflect differences from Babylon and Palestine. The Tiberian Masoretes (scholars working in Tiberias in Palestine) provided the most complete and exact system of vocalization. The earliest dated manuscript from that tradition is a codex of the Prophets from the Karaite synagogue of Cairo dated ad 896. Today the standard Hebrew text of the OT, Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica (3rd ed and later), is constructed on the basis of the Tiberian Masoretic tradition.

HEBREW OLD TESTAMENT: Who Were the Masoretes and Why Are They So Important?

Standardization of both the consonantal text and vocalization succeeded so well that the manuscripts that have survived display a remarkable agreement. Most of the variants, being minor and attributable to scribal error, do not affect interpretation.

New Testament. The history of transmission of the NT text is quite different from that of the OT. The nearness in date of extant manuscripts to the original writing, the brevity of the period of oral transmission, the shorter period of time over which the whole process took place, and the absence of early standardization have enabled the textual critic to move closer to the original text through comparison and collation.

Reconstruction has usually been associated with a so-called genealogical method. That method attempts to work back through the process of transmission in order to identify different families of manuscripts and their interrelationships. Prominent scholars in the field have been Johann Albrecht Bentley (1687–1752), Brooke Foss Westcott (1825–1901), Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828–92), Hermann von Soden (1852–1914), and Burnett Hillman Streeter (1874–1937). Streeter’s work illustrates the directions of the process. Although he worked primarily from the four Gospels, his diagrams and theories pertain to the whole NT.

What Are Textual Variants [Errors] and How Many Are There?

Streeter began his research with the intention of isolating the forms of text current in the great centers of Christendom. Using quotations of the church fathers for evidence, he identified the forms of the NT text peculiar to each center. He posited the widest divergence of text by about ad 200. The diagram represents the conclusions of his study:

Streeter’s Theory of Text Types

Streeter’s diagram delineates the primary categories of geographical distribution. The Alexandrian text (named after Alexandria in Egypt) was prepared in an area marked by scholarly traditions. The chief witnesses are Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, P66, and P72. Scholars agree that the Alexandrian is the best ancient text, on the whole, and that it reflects the original NT text from early in the 2nd century.

The Western text reflects a less standardized text which resulted from disciplined control of the manuscript tradition. Some scholars hesitate to designate it as a text type. Codex Bezae and the Old Latin manuscripts, reflecting that tradition, are characterized by additions and striking omissions. The Western text also represents an early state of the text; it was used by such 2nd- and 3rd-century writers as Marcion, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian.

The Eastern text, represented chiefly by the Caesarean text, is found in Codex Kordethi and two different subfamilies of minuscules. That text type was brought to Caesarea by Origen (d. ad 253 or 254). It appears to be based on the Alexandrian text, but includes many Western readings. It is the least homogeneous of the three major textual families. (In fact, more recent scholarship questions even the existence of the Caesarean text.)

The Byzantine text, as the diagram indicates, is a combination of the other three. Its compilers chose to include two or more variant readings for a passage rather than make a decision about the relative value of the competing readings (the process called conflation). The result of that combination of text types is that the distinctive readings of the Byzantine text are usually secondary in quality.

Introduction of cursive writing (minuscule manuscripts) began in the early part of the ninth century. By that time, the Byzantine text type had become the dominant family and nearly all manuscripts in the cursive script were copies of that inferior text type.

Introduction of printing in the 16th century soon led to the printing of a Greek NT. The first one was the Complutensian Polyglot, a collection of versions in various languages (hence polyglot) named after the Spanish town in which it was produced (Alcalá, but Complutum in Latin). It was printed in 1514–17, but was not released until 1521 or 1522. The first Greek NT to be published (i.e., released for sale) was that of Desiderius Erasmus in 1516. The textual base for Erasmus’ edition was a half-dozen minuscule manuscripts. The earliest (codex 1 from the 10th century) was used least, since it was based on earlier uncial texts and Erasmus thought it to be erratic.

Robert Estienne (also known as Stephanus, 1503–59), a Paris printer, published his third edition of the Greek NT in 1550. It closely approximated the 4th and 5th editions of Erasmus. The same basic textual tradition appears in the 1633 edition of the Elzevir brothers. The preface to that edition states in Latin “the reader has the text which is now received by all, in which we give nothing changed or corrupted.” From the words “text … received” (Latin textum … receptum) came the term “Textus Receptus” to designate the standard text. Subsequent editions copied the Textus Receptus faithfully. All principal Protestant translations in Europe prior to 1881 (including KJV) were based on the textual tradition of Erasmus, which was in turn based on a few relatively late manuscripts from the Byzantine “family.”

Methodology. The search for an adequate methodology to handle the many variant readings found in manuscripts is inseparably intertwined with our understanding of the history of transmission. The basic issue in textual criticism is the method used to decide the relative value of those variant readings. Many factors must be evaluated in order to arrive at a valid decision.

THE DOCUMENTARY APPROACH in New Testament Textual Studies

Reading Manuscripts. Modern science has provided a number of aids for deciphering a manuscript. Scientific dating procedures help to determine the age of the writing material. Chemical techniques help clarify writing that has deteriorated. Ultraviolet light enables a scholar to see traces of ink (carbon) in a manuscript even after the surface writing has been effaced.

Each manuscript must be studied as a whole, for each has a “personality.” It is important to identify the characteristic errors, characteristic carelessness or carefulness, and other peculiarities of the scribe(s) who copied the material. Then the manuscript must be compared with other manuscripts to identify the “family” tradition with which it agrees. Preservation of common errors or insertions in the text is a clue to relationships. All possible details of date, place of origin, and authorship must be ascertained.

Scribal errors fall into several distinct categories. The first large category is that of unintentional errors. Confusion of similar consonants occurred frequently. Corruptions also resulted from incorrect division of words (earliest manuscripts omitted spaces between words in order to save space). Confusion of sounds occurred, particularly when one scribe read to a group of scribes making multiple copies. In the OT, the method of vocalization (addition of vowels to the consonantal text) created some errors. Omission of a letter, word, or phrase created new readings. Repetition of a letter, word, or even a whole phrase was also common. Omission (called haplography) or repetition (called dittography) could be caused by the eye of a scribe slipping from one word to a similar word or ending. (Confusion of similar endings is called homoeoteleuton.) Normally, unintentional errors are fairly easy to identify because they create nonsense readings.


Intentional errors are much more difficult to identify and evaluate. Harmonizations from similar materials occurred with regularity (sometimes unintentionally—especially in the closely parallel materials of the synoptic Gospels, where the well-trained mind of a scribe could recall the wording of parallel material subconsciously). Difficult readings were subject to improvement by a thinking scribe. Objectionable expressions were sometimes eliminated or smoothed. Occasionally synonyms were employed. Conflation (resolving a discrepancy between two variant readings by including both of them) often appears. Conflation is particularly frequent in the NT family of manuscripts known as Byzantine.

Thus, the more obvious errors are detected and eliminated and the peculiarities of the particular scribe are identified and eliminated. Then more subtle criteria for identifying the reading most likely to be the original must be employed. Procedures for applying such criteria are similar in both OT and NT work.

Development of Methodology. The search for an adequate methodology has engaged the attention and labor of many scholars over the years. Methodology is in a constant state of refinement in light of additional discoveries and new insights into the history of transmission. The history of the development of textual methodology is an enlightening study. Here we have room for only a brief overview of the history of NT methodology.

The first printed editions of the Bible (16th century) forced scholars to outline their principles of textual criticism. The first texts to be printed reflected the manuscripts then in greatest abundance and most readily available to the editor. Dominance of the Textus Receptus as the standard text of the Greek NT for the next 300 years overshadowed earlier and more valuable texts.

Soon after the printing of the Greek NT, the process of collecting and evaluating textual variants began. Of the many scholars who contributed to that process, only a few can be mentioned here.

John Mill (1645–1707) produced an edition of the Greek NT showing 30,000 variant readings. Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687–1752), after studying the variants that had been collected, arrived at the insight that witnesses should be “weighed” instead of being simply counted. Sheer number of manuscripts (a kind of “majority rule”), he believed, was an insufficient basis for confident decision. Johann Jakob Wettstein (1693–1754), a contemporary of Bengel, produced a two-volume Greek NT (1751–52) that contained a massive number of textual variants and provided the system of manuscript classification still in use today.

Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745–1812) carefully analyzed the processes employed in making decisions among variant readings, arriving at a set of 15 rules to be followed. Skillfully applying his canons of criticism, he produced an edition of the Greek NT that abandoned the Textus Receptus in many places. Karl Lachmann (1793–1851) was the first recognized scholar to make a complete break with the Textus Receptus, creating a complete text on the basis of recognized principles and rules.

Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745 – 1812) New Testament Textual Criticism Scholar

Constantin von Tischendorf (1815–74), famous for his discovery of Codex Sinaiticus, searched avidly throughout Europe and the Near East for manuscripts of the Greek NT, published a great number of discoveries, and combined the new evidence with existing materials to produce eight major editions of the Greek NT.

The scholars most influential in the development of methodology were Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort. Both were Cambridge professors interested in refining the processes of methodology and in rigorously applying them to the text itself. The principles they so carefully delineated became the model from which modern textual critics have operated.

On the basis of their investigations, Westcott and Hort distinguished four principal groupings or families of manuscripts. The diagram (“The Westcott and Hort Theory of Text Types”) depicts their reconstruction of the relationships between the types of texts.

The Syrian family of texts was created in the 4th century by an editor interested primarily in an easy, complete text. Stumbling blocks for the reader were reduced to a minimum, with few omissions but many additions of a harmonizing and explanatory nature. Hort described it as presenting “the New Testament in a form smooth and attractive, but appreciably impoverished in sense and force, more fitted for cursory perusal or recitation than for repeated and diligent study.”

The Westcott and Hort Theory of Text Types

The Western Family of texts isolated by Westcott and Hort reflected an early state of transmission, being quoted by Marcion, Tatian, Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Cyprian. The Western text was characterized by love of paraphrase, by freedom to change, omit, or insert materials that increased force or definiteness, by interchange of various forms, and by assimilation or harmonization.

The Alexandrian text was used by the Alexandrian fathers (Clement, Origen, Dionysius, Didymus, and Cyril). It reflected the literary taste of Alexandria in its emphasis upon correct syntax and style.

CAN WE TRUST THE WESTCOTT AND HORT 1881 GREEK TEXT?: Were Westcott and Hort Occultist Unbelievers?

The Neutral text was best represented by the great codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. Westcott and Hort felt that text was most free of mixture and corruption (hence its name) and came closest to the originals. Their high opinion of the Neutral text led them to accept its readings unless strong evidence pointed in another direction.

The work of Westcott and Hort marked a turning point in textual criticism and opened the way for modern critical editions of the Greek text and the burgeoning list of modern translations. A chief contribution of their work was identification of the Syrian text (called Byzantine by most other scholars) as a later text marked by conflations and never quoted by any church father prior to the Council of Nicaea (325).


Two other major contributors to the development of textual criticism were Hermann von Soden and Eberhard Nestle (1851–1913). Von Soden collected much manuscript evidence, worked with particular diligence on minuscules, and produced a monumental edition of the Greek NT (1902–13). He also invented a new system of nomenclature and symbolism. Von Soden’s massive work has been discounted for its methodological errors and inaccuracies in collation. Eberhard Nestle initiated a compact edition of the Greek NT based upon current methodology. It was a marvel of succinctness with a wide variety of information and has now gone through 26 editions, the latest edited by Erwin Nestle and Kurt Aland.

Brooke Foss Westcott (1825 – 1901) World Renowned New Testament Textual Scholar

The most recent Greek text of the NT is published by the United Bible Societies (3rd ed, Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger, and Allen Wikgren). Instead of seeking to provide all available evidence, it is designed to provide a textual base for translators. Thus, only textual problems significantly affecting translations are discussed. An accompanying textual commentary outlines the method by which the editors arrived at their decisions.

Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828 – 1892) World Renowned New Testament Textual Scholar

Principles of Methodology. Through the work of textual critics in the last several centuries, certain basic principles have evolved. The primary principles for each of the Testaments can be briefly summarized.

  1. OT. (1) The basic text for primary consideration is the Masoretic text because of the careful standardization it represents. That text is compared with the testimony of the ancient versions. The Septuagint, by reason of age and basic faithfulness to the Hebrew text, carries much weight in all decisions. The Targums (Aramaic translations) also reflect the Hebrew base, but they exhibit a tendency to expansion and paraphrase. The Peshitta (Syriac), Vulgate (Latin), Old Latin, and Coptic versions add indirect evidence, although translations are not always clear witnesses in technical details. Use of such versions does enable scholars to employ comparative philology in textual decisions and thus expose early errors for which the original reading probably has not survived.

(2) The reading that best explains the origin of other variants is preferable. Information from reconstruction of the history of transmission often provides additional insight. Knowledge of typical scribal errors enables the critic to make an educated decision on the sequence of variants.

(3) The shorter reading is preferable. The scribes frequently added material in order to solve style or syntax problems and seldom abridged or condensed material.

(4) The more difficult reading is more likely to be the original one. This principle is closely related to the third. Scribes did not intentionally create more complex readings. Unintentional errors are usually easy to identify. Thus the easier reading is normally suspect as a scribal alteration.

(5) Readings that are not harmonized or assimilated to similar passages are preferable. Copyists had a tendency to correct material on the basis of similar material elsewhere (sometimes even unconsciously).

(6) When all else fails, the textual critic must resort to conjectural emendation. To make an “educated guess” requires intimate acquaintance with the Hebrew language, familiarity with the author’s style, and an understanding of culture, customs, and theology that might color the passage. Use of conjecture must be limited to those passages in which the original reading has definitely not been transmitted to us.

  1. NT. The basic principles in the textual criticism of the NT are similar to those in OT work. The procedures of Westcott and Hort can be reviewed briefly with some modification in light of more recent discussions.

The first step is to evaluate the strength of the evidence for competing readings. The date of the manuscripts (with attention to the date of the texts they reflect), the range of geographical distribution of the witnesses in each category, and the genealogical relationships of the major textual families must be taken into consideration.

HOW DO WE DETERMINE THE ORIGINAL READING THROUGH The Principles and Practice of New Testament Textual Studies?

In the second step, the probable lines of transmission are evaluated on the basis of copyists’ habits. Several canons of criticism common to both Testaments come into play. (1) The more difficult reading is preferable, since copyists usually worked at a superficial level and smoothed out materials. (2) The shorter reading is preferable, unless created by an unintentional error. (3) Passages harmonized with related material are to be suspected. (4) Readings that reflect stylistic polishing of the text are probably later revisions.

A third step is to determine the author of the material by evaluating the literary style. To do so requires knowledge of the author’s style and vocabulary in other writings for comparison with the work at hand, an understanding of the background against which the material was written, the immediate context of the reading, and the theology and culture of the whole setting.

Recent discussions have raised serious questions about the strength of the genealogical method, resulting in a move toward an eclectic methodology in which the textual critic attempts to use the whole range of evidence available. A textual family with a preponderance of preferable readings is not automatically given the preference in every variant. Although Hort emphasized the priority of external evidence, eclecticism tends to emphasize the internal probabilities—thus placing more weight on linguistic, stylistic, and scribal factors.

Textual criticism is obviously not a simple process. It is impossible to apply its principles and procedures mechanically. Textual criticism is an art and a skill in which a carefully prepared and alert artisan makes a calculated decision on the basis of as broad a range of factors as possible.

Conclusion. It should be remembered that textual criticism operates only when two or more readings are possible for a specific work or phrase. For most of the biblical text, a single reading has been transmitted. Elimination of scribal errors and intentional changes leaves only a small percentage of the text about which any questions occur. Writing in 1940, textual scholar Sir Frederic Kenyon concluded:

The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.

Similar confidence is expressed in the text of the OT.

The field of textual criticism is complex, requiring the gathering and skillful use of a wide variety of information. Because it deals with the authoritative source of revelation for all Christians, textual argumentation has often been accompanied by emotion.

Yet in spite of controversy, great progress has been made, particularly in the last century. Refinement of methodology has greatly aided our understanding of the accumulated materials. Additional aid has come from accumulations of information in related fields of study, such as church history, biblical theology, and the history of Christian thought.

Collection and organization of variant readings have enabled modern textual critics to give strong assurance that the Word of God has been transmitted in accurate and dependable form. Although variant readings have become obvious through the publication of so many manuscripts, inadequate, inferior, and secondary readings have been largely eliminated. In relatively few places is conjectural emendation necessary. In matters pertaining to the Christian’s salvation, clear and unmistakable transmission provides authoritative answers. Christians are thus in debt to the textual critics who have worked, and are working, to provide a dependable biblical text.

Morris A. Weigelt

See Dead Sea Scrolls; Biblical Criticism, New Testament; Biblical Criticism, Old Testament; Bible, Canon of the; Bible; Masora, Masoretes.

Bibliography. F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments; J.H. Greenlee, An Introduction to NT Textual Criticism, and Scribes, Scrolls, and Scripture; F.G. Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the NT; K. Lake, The Text of the NT (rev ed); B.M. Metzger, The Text of the NT (2nd ed); A. Souter, The Text and Canon of the NT. Morris A. Weigelt, “Bible, Textual Criticism of The,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 314–322. Edward D. Andrews, FROM SPOKEN WORDS TO SACRED TEXTS: Introduction-Intermediate New Testament Textual Studies, 2020


3 thoughts on “Textual Criticism of the Bible

Add yours

  1. Read Pickering’s books. His and other’s arguments in favor of the majority text and against the current texts in vogue in textual criticism are unanswerable. There is no way to explain 95% agreement with the Byzantine text and no other text getting even 1% of the remaining 5%. There is no history of any recension occurring. The old copies are just the junk that no one deemed worth copying. The Byzantine text goes back to the autographs which is why they are spread all over the Roman empire from different centuries and different errors showing no copying from each other, yet they all agree in 95% of the text.

    1. Unanswerable? I hardly think so. There is no 95% percent agreement between the Byzantine and Alexandrian manuscripts. At best, you are looking at 85%. And arguably, that is still a blessing, for sure. But no Byzantine reading goes back beyond 440 CE. Maybe you should take a break from your 400,000 textual variants on the Byzantine manuscripts and read Wallace’s paper. The argument in 1881 about which MSS were the originals, Byz and Alex was killed when dozens of papyrus MSS dating to the 2nd and 3rf centuries were discovered in the 20th century and not one had a Byz reading. This ends the conversation for me here because I am not typing in this tie box repeatedly to debate tired old arguments hat have been shown the door a thousand times.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: