What is Textual Criticism?

By Dr. Herbert Samworth

What do people mean by "textual criticism"? Does it mean that people criticize the Bible? How can I learn more about it?

To answer these questions, it is important to remember that before the invention of printing in the 15th century, all books, including the Bible, were hand-copied. These copies were called manuscripts. Because the Scriptures were God's Word, people recognized the importance of copying them accurately. However, it was inevitable that the scribes would not copy the manuscripts without some variations. The differences in the manuscripts are technically called textual variants. It would be rare, however, that the differences would be the result of a deliberate change by the scribe. Rather, the variants occurred because of scribal inattention, the skipping of lines, a misunderstanding what the text actually said, etc.

At times, the textual variants were noted by the corrector and the correct reading inserted in the margin of the manuscript. Although the scribes sought to keep the text accurate, the number of textual variants increased with the number of manuscripts.

Someone might ask why didn’t the scribes correct the text by comparing it with the original. Unfortunately, the original copies, called autographs, have not survived. In addition, the manuscripts copied from these originals, technically known as the apographs, were not in agreement. Realistically, there are no two manuscripts of a common text that agree exactly.

When it was possible to print the Greek New Testament, the editor would collect the available manuscripts. If there were a number of textual variants in a given verse, he chose to print what he thought was the correct reading. Textual variants were not included in printed Greek New Testaments until the Robert Stephanus edition of 1550 included them in the margins.

Since the first printing of the Greek New Testament, many more manuscript copies of the Greek text have been recovered. Textual criticism attempts to choose the textual variant that appears to be the closest to the original meaning of the author.

Textual criticism is not an attack on the Scriptures. If it is done correctly, it reinforces our confidence in the Word of God. The New Testament has been copied so accurately that only one word in a thousand is in dispute and not one major doctrine of the Bible is affected. We can be confident that we have the Word of God!

The following books deal with the subject of textual criticism. I am listing them in the order in which they should be consulted.

Lightfoot, Neil R. How We got the Bible. Third Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2003.
This is an excellent book on the formation of the English Bible. It covers such diverse topics as New Testament manuscripts, the text of the New Testament, significance of the textual variants, etc. While this is not a book on textual criticism, it incorporates the subject into the larger framework of the transmission and translation of the Biblical text through the centuries until the present. Be sure to secure the third edition of this work as five additional chapters have been added that deal with subjects such as the Greek uncial manuscripts and the papyri. This is an excellent place to start.

Hills, Edward F. The King James Version Defended. Fourth Edition. Des Moines, Iowa: Christian Research Press, 1984.
As can be gleaned from the title of the book, Dr. Hills is an advocate of the King James Bible and its underlying Greek text known as the textus receptus or the received text. While defending his preference for the King James Version, he seeks to base his arguments on sound scholarship as well as ardent piety. This is the best book to appear in defense of the King James Version.

Williams, James B., ed. From the Mind of God to the Mind of Man: A Layman's Guide to How We got the Bible. Belfast, Northern Ireland: Ambassador International, 1999.
This is a book whose title accurately describes its contents. Surprisingly, it was written by a group of fundamentalists who advocate a principled and irenic approach to the question of textual criticism. Its value comes not only from the serious scholarship demonstrated in its chapters, but also from the spirit in which it has been written. As can be expected for books that occupy a mediating position, it has received its share of criticism. Some believe the authors have capitulated to the critics of the King James Version while others are convinced they have not gone as far as they should have in embracing the results of textual studies. This is a book that deserves to be better known. A serious reading can only help the reader as it both raises and answers issues associated with textual criticism.

Metzger, Bruce Manning. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. Third Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
This is a book written by an acknowledged master in the field of textual criticism. Dr. Metzger, Emeritus Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, has given us a model book on the issues relative to the text of the New Testament. While Dr. Metzger writes in a gracious manner, he is a decided advocate of what is commonly known as the critical text of the Greek New Testament. One should not be surprised at this because he was one of the editors of the United Bible Societies edition of The Greek New Testament. There is not another book that covers the field with the same degree of scholarship as this book. It is no wonder that it has been in print since the first edition was published in 1964. It has been used as a textbook in numerous seminaries and graduate schools. Many have been introduced to the principles and history of textual criticism from its reading. While it is not an easy book to digest from a summary reading, it will abundantly repay the serious student.

 

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