Textual Criticism: Part 3 New Testament

The development of the New Testament text is more clearly understood than that of the Old Testament. Early in the life of the first century Christian church, gospel accounts were being circulated orally and eventually were documented in written form. Furthermore, letters were written by Christian apostles (or dictated to amanuenses who transcribed with the apostle’s final approval) and sent out to specific recipients or churches. These letters were circulated to several churches and due to the growth of the church throughout the Roman empire, more copies of the gospels and letters were needed.  Thus, there was a burst in the development of manuscripts (copies) throughout the following centuries.[1]

With the presence of thousands of manuscripts, textual criticism a necessary discipline, and the same guiding principles given by Wegner for Old Testament textual criticism should be applied to New Testament textual criticism with an added sixth principle

 “1) Manuscripts must be weighed, not counted. 2) Determine which reading would most likely give rise to the others. 3) The more distinctive reading is usually preferable 4) The shorter reading is generally favored. 5) Determine which reading is most appropriate to the context (examine literary structure, grammatical or spelling errors, historical context). 6) Examine parallel passages for any differences and determine why they appear.”[2]

While the focus of the Old Testament discussion was on a single text versus plural texts in the development of the Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament has its own single text versus eclectic text debate, but this debate is focused on the use of texts in the textual criticism process. Some Scholars argue that one text type is preferred in the process based on the view that a particular text type may have been better preserved resulting in greater accuracy. Others prefer to gather the most accurate readings from all the various manuscripts creating an eclectic text; therefore, they argue that this combination of the most plausible readings will create a text that will be closest to the original writing.[3]

Regardless of one’s methodological use of a single text or an eclectic text in the textual criticism process, the various sources available for New Testament textual criticism still should be considered.

Michael Holmes writes, “New Testament textual criticism enjoys an embarrassment of riches with regard to sources of information about the New Testament text.”[4] He further points out that these sources are typically grouped into three categories: Greek manuscripts (consisting of papyri manuscripts, uncial manuscripts, minuscule manuscripts and lectionaries), ancient translated versions of the New Testament in several different languages, and Patristic citations (almost all the Greek New Testament could be reconstructed based on quotations by early christian writers).[5]


[1] Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 1999), 207.

[2] Ibid., 224.

[3] Ibid., 223.

[4] 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), 48.

[5] Ibid., 48-49.