Textual Criticism: Part 1

In churches around the world, Bibles are opened for the public reading of God’s words.  These Bibles are in many different languages and translations and due to the invention of the printing press and other technological advances, people are able to open their own personal Bible or Bible app and follow along with the reading of holy scripture.

In order to arrive at this point of Bible availability, there has been a long transmission process from the original writings to the Bibles that people open with their hands today.  The original writings have not yet been discovered, but there are many manuscripts (copies) derived from the original writings that have been evaluated and compared with the focus of ascertaining the words of the autographs. Throughout the evaluation and comparison process, scholars have found textual variants or differences among the Old Testament and New Testament manuscripts. Paul Wegner explains the differences and errors found among the plethora of manuscripts of the Old Testament,

It should be no surprise that there are variations between the different Hebrew manuscripts-even with the strict guidelines indicated in the Talmud for copying biblical scrolls,copying mistakes would, over time, be incorporated into the biblical texts. There are simply too many manuscript copies, made over an extensively long period of time, by many different scribes, to assume that all copyist mistakes could be averted. This is even more true given the fact that the temple was destroyed twice and throughout Israel’s history the nation was persecuted and deported from its land.[1]

This explanation can certainly extend to the New Testament manuscripts seeing that there are approximately five thousand Greek manuscript fragments or complete readings that have been evaluated and compared.[2] With the presence of variations in both the Old Testament and New Testament manuscripts, scholars needed to develop textual criticism methods that would assist them in determining the most accurate and reliable presentation of the original writings. [3] Bruce Metzger writes,

Confronted by a mass of conflicting readings, editors must decide which variants deserve to be included in the text and which should be regulated to the apparatus.  Although at first it may seem to be a hopeless task amid so many thousands of variant readings to sort out those that should be regarded as original, textual scholars have developed certain generally acknowledged criteria of evaluation. These considerations depend, it will be seen, upon probabilities, and sometimes the textual critic must weigh one set of probabilities against another.[4]

Therefore, textual criticism is a necessary discipline because in order to study, interpret, apply and proclaim the message that God has communicated through human writers, there must be a consensus about what the text exactly states.[5] In order to further understand the process of textual criticism of the Old and New Testament, one should explore the specifics of each branch of the discipline. The next few post will address these branches.


[1] Paul D. Wegner, “Current Trends,” BBR 23.4 (2013): 473-474.

[2] Bruce M. Metzger and United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament; a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, 2nd ed.(London, New York,: United Bible Societies, 1994), 10.

[3] Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 1999), 177.

[4] Metzger, A Textual, 10-11.

[5] Michael W. Holmes, “Textual Criticism,” in Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues, eds. David Alan Black and David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN.: Broadman & Holman Publishers,2001), 46.