On Textual Criticism

Since we do not have the original manuscripts of the New Testament (the autographs), we must rely on copies of it, and we must determine which copies are closest to the original and most accurate and reliable. This is the biblical science of textual criticism. As there are variants (small differences) in many of the existing copies of the NT, these copies must be carefully compared, examined and assessed.

Textual critics seek to study the variants and come up with a “critical text” – something which best approaches the original text by dealing with the variants. Because we have an abundance of manuscript copies (nearly 6000 partial and complete portions of the NT), we can reliably construct the original.

bible3Sometimes textual criticism is referred to as lower criticism, as distinct from higher criticism. As Geisler and Nix explain: “Lower criticism is concerned with the form or text of the Bible and attempts to restore the reading of the original text, the autograph. Not to be confused with higher criticism, which studies the value of a document, lower critics study the form of the words and structure of a document.”

They continue: By textual criticism “scholars attempt to seek and eliminate errors by using plausible explanations for emendations that have crept into the text.” Or as Lee Martin McDonald put it more recently, “The primary goal of textual criticism is to establish the original wording of the text insofar as that is possible.”

Thus textual criticism is concerned with the original languages (Hebrew, Greek, etc) and not the various translations into other languages. The Greek text which underlies most modern translations is currently published as the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, 4th edition and the quite similar Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th edition.

All this is obviously important for many reasons. For one, when we speak of the Bible as being authoritative and inerrant, we are of course only referring to the original text. English – or other language – translations are not inerrant. Thus by seeking to get as close as we can to what the originals were like, we can have even greater confidence in the Bibles we now possess in our own tongues.

And we need to be reminded of just how good these Bibles are in terms of reliability. For example, critics will make much of the known variants or differences found in the thousands of manuscripts we do possess (ranging from the second to the fifteenth century). But the overwhelming number of these variants are very minor indeed, and do not adversely impact upon any major doctrines.

As paleographer and textual critic Frederic Kenyon once put it, “The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true Word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries.”

This whole topic is huge and entire libraries have been penned on it. Let me offer a few basic principles, and then look at one reason why all this is so crucial for believers. Aland and Aland (The Text of the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1995) offer “Twelve Basic Rules for NT Textual Criticism”. Here are the first four:

-Only one reading can be original, however many variant readings there may be.
-Only the readings which best satisfies the requirements of both external and internal criteria can be original.
-Criticism of the text must always begin from the evidence of the manuscript tradition and only afterward turn to a consideration of internal criteria.
-Internal criteria (the context of the passage, its style and vocabulary, the theological environment of the author, etc.) can never be the sole basis for a critical decision, especially when they stand in opposition to the external evidence.

In a somewhat different listing, Gleason Archer looks at the internal and external evidence and says priority should be given in the following order (in simplified fashion):

1. The older reading is to be preferred.
2. The more difficult reading is to be preferred over the easier reading.
3. The shorter reading is to be preferred.
4. The reading that best explains the variants is to be preferred.
5. The reading with the widest geographical support is to be preferred.
6. The reading that most conforms to the style and diction of the author is to be preferred.
7. The reading that reflects no doctrinal bias is to be preferred.

Suffice it to say that since textual criticism is both a science and an art, there are differences amongst scholars about many aspects of this. But the point remains that since most of us are not privy to the original languages, and none of us have access to the originals, we must rely on the expertise of these scholars to provide us with translations which come as close as possible to those non-extant originals.

If we can master the original languages, so much the better. But given that most of us are not in that place, this is where we make use of the help of others as they seek to get us as close as possible to the original texts of the original authors.

This far too sketchy outline is only meant to whet your appetite. See the bibliography I provide below for helpful books that look at all this in great detail. But the reason I raise this is because of a comment that just came my way. It has to do with a piece I did on Mark 16:17-18. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/06/02/difficult-bible-passages-mark-1617-18/

In it I noted the simple truth that the long ending of Mark 16 (vv. 9-20) may not be a part of Mark’s original gospel. I spent five paragraphs discussing this before moving on to the passage in question. Yet for my efforts I got this comment sent to me:

“Perhaps most importantly, these verses are not even in the best New Testament manuscripts”
That’s a major red flag to me, stopped reading there. I agree that picking up snakes like that is putting God to the test, but how could God have given us the wrong Bible for some 1900+ years? Beware of taking away from Scripture, brother.

Um, as would hopefully be clear by now, I of course was doing no such thing, nor did God. I did not ‘take away from Scripture’ and God did not give us a ‘wrong Bible’. As I stated in my article, NT scholars have debated just where the book of Mark ends: whether at v. 8, or with a longer ending (vv. 9-20), or elsewhere.

And as any Bible worth its salt will note – at least in a marginal note – there are legitimate reasons to not see this portion of Scripture as part of the original Marcan text. The RSV marginal note for example says this:

Mark 16:20 Some of the most ancient authorities bring the book to a close at the end of verse 8. One authority concludes the book by adding after verse 8 the following: But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Other authorities include the preceding passage and continue with verses 9–20. In most authorities verses 9–20 follow immediately after verse 8; a few authorities insert additional material after verse 14.

The NIV marginal note is similar:

Mark 16:8 Some manuscripts have the following ending between verses 8 and 9, and one manuscript has it after verse 8 (omitting verses 9-20): Then they quickly reported all these instructions to those around Peter. After this, Jesus himself also sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen.

And the ESV:

Mark 16:9 Some manuscripts end the book with 16:8; others include verses 9–20 immediately after verse 8. At least one manuscript inserts additional material after verse 14; some manuscripts include after verse 8 the following: But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. These manuscripts then continue with verses 9–20

Most Bibles include this portion of Mark, along with the explanatory note. And almost all good critical commentaries will discuss this issue at length as well. So I did not take away anything from the Bible! But this person seems rather ignorant about the very basics of Bible translation, questions of canon, and textual criticism. Thus this article.

And of course it likely raises more questions than it answers. Much more needs to be said about these matters, even in an introductory fashion. But I discuss it here so that we might have a slightly better understanding of the Bibles we possess, how they came to be, and why they are the way they are.

As I say, much has been written about these complex issues, so the short listing I provide below will be of real help to anyone who wants to take these matters further:

Canon and Translations – A Brief Bibliography
Aland, Kurt and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament. Eerdmans, 1995.
Beckwith, Roger, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church. Eerdmans, 1986.
Brake, Donald, A Visual History of the English Bible. Baker, 2008.
Bruce, F.F., The Books and the Parchments. Pickering & Inglis, 1963.
Bruce, F.F., The Canon of Scripture. IVP, 1988.
Brunn, Dave, One Bible, Many Versions. IVP, 2013.
Comfort, P.W., The Complete Guide to Bible Versions. Tyndale House, 1991.
Comfort, P.W., Early Manuscripts and the Modern Translation of the New Testament. Tyndale, 1990.
Comfort, P.W., ed., The Origin of the Bible. Tyndale, 1992.
Dewey, David, Which Bible? IVP, 2004.
Earle, Ralph, How We Got Our Bible. Baker, 1971.
Fee, Gordon and Mark Strauss, How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth. Zondervan, 2007.
Greenlee, J. Harold, Scribes, Scrolls, and Scriptures. Eerdmans, 1985.
Harris, R.L., Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible. Zondervan, 1957.
Hill, C.E., Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Jobes, Karen and Moises Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint. Baker, 2000.
Kostenberger, Andreas and David Croteau, eds., Which Bible Translation Should I Use? B&H, 2012.
Kruger, Michael, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. Crossway, 2012.
Kruger, Michael, The Question of Canon. IVP, 2013.
Kubo, Sakae and Walter Specht, So Many Versions? Zondervan, 1983.
McDonald, Lee Martin, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority. Hendrickson, 2007.
Metzger, Bruce, The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions. Baker, 2001.
Metzger, Bruce, The Canon of the New Testament. OUP, 1987.
Metzger, Bruce, The Text of the New Testament. OUP, 1968.
Patzia, Arthur, The Making of the New Testament. IVP, 1995.
Grudem, Wayne, et. al., Translating Truth. Crossway, 2005.
Rhodes, Ron, The Complete Guide to Bible Translations. Harvest House, 2009.
Ryken, Leland, Bible Translation Differences. Crossway, 2004.
Ryken, Leland, The Word of God in English. Crossway, 2003.
Ryken, Leland, Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach. Crossway, 2009.
Scorgie, Glen, Mark Strauss and Steven Voth, eds., The Challenge Of Bible Translation. Zondervan, 2003.
Thomas, Robert, How to Choose a Bible Translation. Christian Focus Publications, 2005.
Wegner, Paul, The Journey from Texts to Translations. Baker, 1999.
Wilson, Derek, The People’s Bible: The Remarkable History of the King James Version. Lion, 2010.

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9 Replies to “On Textual Criticism”

  1. Thanks Bill. Our local church has joined the rush to claim Hell is for only a period of time, but I found this somewhere; ??????? ??????? = eternal punishment
    ???? ??????? = eternal life

    aion and aionos definitely can mean “age” or “period of time,” they also mean “eternal.” The word’s context helps us to determine its meaning. So if we assume that these words primarily mean “age” or “period of time,” what happens when we apply that definition to John 3:16 where aionos is used?
    For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son so that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have life for a period of time.
    Not as encouraging, is it?

  2. G’day Bill,

    Could it be that Mark ends as suddenly as it does (i.e. without the longer ending) because it’s an evangelistic tract? Mark deliberately ended at 16v8 so that a reader might find a Christian and ask, ‘so what happened next? Was Jesus alive?’ That would give a Christian an opportunity to explain the truth of the resurrection in a personal way.

    Whatever, the fact that the longer ending is the most significant textual question in the New Testament is itself significant. With this as the almost sole exception, copyists didn’t add bits at their whim or to embellish the text. The longer ending doesn’t add much that’s new; and the author may have missed Mark’s subtle evangelistic intention.

    Copyists even didn’t add to the prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD (Like Mark 13) ‘and see, that happened a few years ago.’ They didn’t add bits because, right from the beginning the text was regarded as Scripture and not to be added to. It may also be that the gospels were all written before 70 AD.

    Anyway, goodonya again, Bill.

    Andrew Campbell

  3. Hello,
    This is my first comment but I enjoy your posts immensely. Just mentioning, we have a similar case with John 7:53-8:11. Thanks for the blogs, they are a blessing.

  4. I love the fact that the Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed books like Isaiah pretty much verbatim over a much longer period of transcribing than the NT but of course, transcribing is not translation and this is where problems can occur because you often have to make a choice between terms that are not quite the same and you often miss the original nuances. I once saw a documentary where a group of isolated African tribesmen could not distinguish between two colors that we readily can and after discounting color blindness, the scientists proposed the idea that it was because they simply did not have a word for the color. Now that has huge implications does it not? When Moses asked God His name I get the feeling God was a little offended but without a term or something to hang our mental concepts onto, we tend to be at a complete loss.

    I personally don’t have the slightest problem with the end of Mark because it seems very clear to me that Mark was using the style difference to underline the difference between the OT and what was to happen at Pentecost. The actual difference between the OT and NT is in fact dramatic and so the style had to reflect what had been achieved. The difference in style reflects how Mark saw the phenomenal change through what Jesus had accomplished through Him being crucified and rising from the dead. How would you do this without a change in style? Ending Mark at 16:8 is a little like ending John at 21:3 with Peter going fishing.

  5. Hi Bill. There’s a great need for this article. The whole KJV only business is tiresome, annoying, and makes for ridiculous and unnecessary splits among Christians. I gave a Chinese woman a Bible in Mandarin. She read it and came to believe on Jesus and trust Him alone for her salvation. Question for KJV hair-splitting fanatics…should I now go and tell her she was deceived by a text that was clearly NOT the KJV, and that she probably is unwittingly on the fast track to hell? Ridiculous, and in some cases, downright cruel

  6. Hi Bill
    A number of years ago now, I was asked to lecture in biblical Greek at a respected theological college in Brisbane. On the first day of the semester, the academic dean called me in to tell me the syllabus had been changed and I also had to lecture in textual criticism as well for the last half of the 14 week semester!
    This was a major challenge, not only because of the amount of work involved, but also I was reluctant to lecture in what I saw as a ‘liberal’ topic.
    However, as I researched it, I came to realise its importance to anyone who believes the Bible to be true. So, when I started the first of my 7 lectures, I posed the following
    questions to the class: 1. “Who here believes the Bible to be true?” (Everyone put their hand up!); and 2. “If someone said to you that in the 5,200 or so extant pre-printing press Greek manuscripts we have today (many of which are just fragments), there are over 150,000 differences, how would you respond?” (adding that these stats are correct!). At this point, the class went silent!
    I then continued by telling them that the following 7 weeks would explain HOW most of those errors came about and, more to the point, how even the most liberal of scholars accept that there is really only any debate over about 40 verses in the NT and, crucially, none affect basic Christian doctrine. At this point, the smiles came back to the class!
    I am a strong believer in biblical apologetics and can defend the Bible’s accuracy from any of several directions. As such,
    I’m also a firm believer in doing it from a point whereby we
    can equip other true believers to know what we have – at least in the UBS/NA text – IS the truth.
    By way of amazing coincidence, yesterday I happened to visit the Chester Beatty library in Dublin and was looking at some of the very early papyrus fragments which help give us that assurance.

  7. To illustrate the problems with translation I had reason to read Eph 5:11-12 in the Catholic – New Advent Bible which says :-

    11 As for the thankless deeds men do in the dark, you must not take any part in them; rather, your conduct must be a rebuke to them; 12 their secret actions are too shameful even to bear speaking of.

    and was astounded to see the Greek – akarpos or the Latin – infructuosis translated into the English – “thankless” when the obvious translation is “unfruitful.” What Paul was clearly doing, in a rather euphemistic way, was referring to fornication. This is in stark contrast to the rather blunt terms such as the Greek – “arsenokoites” for homosexuals used in the letters to the Corinthians. It is interesting to see how Paul tailors his words in response to his intended readers but using the term “thankless” nearly removes the intended meaning.

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