Fall 2017 Semester Highlight: Textual Criticism

This past fall semester I began my academic internship at the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM). Dr. Daniel Wallace (the professor with whom I took Honors Greek I and II) is its president. CSNTM has the goal of digitizing Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. The result is an online library of stunning high res images that can be viewed for free by scholars and the curious alike at csntm.org. This internship is partly helping a worthwhile nonprofit in its day to day affairs, and a fairly intense introduction to the field of textual criticism.

What is textual criticism? IT IS SCARY AND THREATENING. IT WILL DESTROY YOUR FAITH. Just kidding. It is necessary and whether any of us realize it or not, it is foundational to every single standard English translation (yes, even including the KJV—no one gets a pass).

As a discipline it becomes a necessary process for any document when the following are true: 1) The original (autograph) is lost, 2) There is more than one copy, and 3) the copies are different from one another.[1] Textual criticism is performed on ancient Greek literature as well as Shakespeare. Consider that even if the original is lost and only one copy was made, textual criticism is impossible because there are no other copies to compare. There are over 5,000 Greek NT manuscripts, and not one of them is a perfect match to another. Naturally, there is a LOT of material to compare towards the goal of recovering the text of the original (even if the original manuscript is lost).

Copyists made mistakes. Some by accident, and some on purpose. Textual critics sift through all the evidence and make judgments concerning which variants in a given passage of Scripture go all the way back to the biblical author, and which were introduced later.

Most translation committees feel quite confident that the evidence is strong for the variants they have chosen as original but you can look up in nearly any Bible a few places where they are uncertain enough to include a note. You’ll see this as a footnote or marginal note that says something about early witnesses. That means there is good evidence for an alternative reading.

For a fun and also controversial example that shows the textual criticism behind the scenes, look up John 7:53-8:11. This is the story of the woman caught in adultery. Your Bible (whether it is hard copy or electronic) more than likely has a note that says something like, “Not found in the earliest witnesses.” It may even have brackets indicating that the translation committee doesn’t think it was part of the original, but because it is so well known, they felt the need to include it with a caveat. The facts: We have copies of John in the original Greek going all the way back to at least 150 CE. In all the copies from 400 CE and earlier, not one of them has John 7:53-8:11—they go from 7:52 straight into 8:12 (of course, chapter and verse numbers were invented only a few hundred years ago).[2] This is what the note, “not found in the earliest witnesses” means.

You may wonder how this affects the doctrines of Scripture like inerrancy, inspiration, and authority. First, it is important to point out that nearly all conservative scholars aside from a very few in the KJV only camp apply these words to the autograph (the document actually penned by a biblical author) and not any of its copies. You can see why it is so important for us to get back as close to the original wording as possible, because it is that wording that is inspired and inerrant. The good news is that the vast majority of differences between copies are simple spelling differences and word order changes that do not change the meaning at all. The challenging news is that there are so many hundreds of thousands of variants, that even if 99% are trivial, the other 1% make up many thousands of significant differences. There is room for improvement, but as far as I can tell so far, we are very close to letter for letter accuracy.

This is the smallest tip of an iceberg and I am excited to get back into this fascinating field of study in this Spring semester. I will officially complete the internship in May 2018. I have found textual criticism so interesting, that I am, at the present moment, a New Testament Textual Criticism Emphasis in the Master of Theology program.

[1] Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed., xv.
[2] Chris Keith, The Pericope Adulterae, 123.