Hi Friends,

This Sunday in my sermon I raised the question, “How can we know that the gospels contain what Jesus actually said?”  To answer this question, I introduced the subject of textual criticism.  I gave a very rough thumbnail sketch.  If your interest was piqued, below are some excerpts from a 4 part series done on www.bible.org that lay out this subject in detail (https://bible.org/series/new-testament-textual-criticism).

What does criticism mean?

Webster’s Dictionary says that it means “the act of criticizing, usu[ally] negative.” This is the typical definition that first comes to mind because of its widespread use.

However, the third meaning in the dictionary is more relevant to New Testament criticism. It is “the scientific investigation of literary documents (as the Bible) in regards to such matters as origin, text, composition, character, or history.”

The two key words are “scientific investigation.” They do not mean negative criticism.

Further, this specialist in New Testament textual criticism says: Textual critics . . . sort through these [New Testament] manuscripts and the variant readings therein in an effort to reconstruct the original wording of the Greek New Testament. (Comfort, Encountering, p. 289)

Note how he also states the goal in his definition: “to reconstruct the original wording.”

Next, the Oxford Classical Dictionary says that “textual criticism sets out to establish what a text originally said or meant to say.” Another specialist says: Textual criticism is the study of copies of any written work of which the autograph (the original) is unknown, with the purpose of ascertaining the original text (Greenlee, p. 1, emphasis original).

Finally, this specialist defines it thus: Briefly stated, textual criticism is the science and art that seeks to determine the most reliable wording of a text. (emphasis original) He goes on to say that it is a “science because specific rules govern the evaluation of various types of copyist errors and readings, but it is also an art because these rules cannot be rigorously applied in every situation” (Wegner, p. 24).

Isn’t it close to blasphemy to “criticize” the Word of God?

Not according to the third definition in Webster’s Dictionary, quoted in Question Two. In fact, we would not even have a Bible if scholars did not sacrifice their time and energy to get things right. Therefore, just the opposite from the assumed answer is true. No one doing this hard work would be close to blasphemy.


What’s the goal of textual criticism, in the first place?

This textual critic offers a clear purpose or goal:

The purpose of textual criticism, classically defined, is to recover the original wording of an ancient text, no longer extant [existing and known] in its original form, by means of examining the extant manuscript copies and then applying the canons [rules] of the discipline for determining the wording most likely original. (Comfort, Encountering, p. 289)

Other textual critics say virtually the same thing. (See the excerpts in Question Two).

So what kind of scribal errors are there, anyway?

The vast majority of errors are accidental. Here are some examples that have been classified and labeled.

  • Mistaken letters is the confusion of similar letters, such as i for j.
  • Homophony substitutes a similar sounding words, as in there for their.
  • Haplography omits a letter or word usually due to a similar letter or word in context, as in occurrence written incorrectly as ocurrence.
  • Dittography means that a letter or word has been written twice rather than once, such as latterwritten as later.
  • Metathesis is the reversal in order of two letters or words, as in dog for god.
  • Homoioteleuton is an omission caused by two words or phrases that end similarly. For example, in 1 John 2:23 in a MS or two the clause “he who confesses the Son” has been accidentally omitted because originally it was sandwiched in between the same clause appearing twice, “has the father.” The scribe skipped down to the similar two ending clauses and omitted the middle clause.

But are there some deliberate changes? Yes, but they amount to comparatively few and are not always difficult to correct.

  • Changes in spelling or grammar. In Matthew 1:7-8 the name Asaph has been “corrected” in some MSS to Asa, the king of Judah, in conformity to 1 Kings 15:9-14.
  • Clearing up difficulties. According to some MSS, in Mark 1:2-3 the composite quotation from Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 is attributed only to Isaiah the prophet. But some later copyists changed it to “the prophets” to clear up any confusion.

Are there theological changes? Yes, and they also amount to comparatively few. Some scribes, motivated out of zeal or their need to protect doctrine, added or substituted or altered words, phrases, and clauses. Here is an example.

  • In Luke 2:41, 43 the words “his parents” have been changed in a few and late MSS to “Joseph and Mary” (verse 41) or “Joseph and his mother,” “possibly to safeguard the doctrine of the virgin birth.” (Wegner, pp. 53-54)

That is, according to some scribes, saying that Joseph was a parent of Jesus may imply that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus. But the scribes’ “improvement” was unnecessary. It is possible to be a parent outside of physical procreation.

However, these “zealous improvements” do not negatively impact Christian doctrine because other passages in fact support a given doctrine. Other verses, for example, support the doctrine of the virgin Birth. Indeed, it is these undisputed verses supporting doctrine that inform the zealous scribe to “fudge” the text in the first place. The scribe needs a textual starting point before he slips in his “improvements,” long before theologians developed and crystallized theology, derived directly from the Bible.

All of these examples are adapted from Wegner, pp. 44-55, and Metzger and Ehrman, pp. 250-71. For other categories of variants, go to Part Three and Question One.

How is textual criticism done?

Broadly speaking, the technique and art of textual criticism is divided into two main approaches: examining the external and internal evidence.

The external approach studies the manuscripts themselves. How early or late are they? Where do they come from? How do they compare with known reliable ones? Do any of them depend on another, or not? Can they be put into families, as in a genealogy? What scribal style are they written in? Is the style early or late? Can it be used to pinpoint the date of other manuscripts?

Generally, the earlier and more numerous the manuscripts, the better, but the dating is not a fixed rule. Sometimes it may be assumed that a later manuscripts(eighth or ninth century) may come directly from a reliable and early, but unknown, manuscripts.

The internal approach evaluates the manuscript’s words on the page and all the variants. It answers such questions as these: Are there spelling or grammatical characteristics that would favor one reading over the others? Does the author commonly use words, phrases, or clauses a certain way? Is there an identifiable reason that a copyist would change a word or phrase? What is the overall theology of a NT author (Wegner, pp. 238-39)?

How many scribal errors are there? Are there hundreds of thousands?

That number is misleading, because even the smallest spelling variant is counted. To use an example in English, a variant may be –ed after a word (answered) or without an –ed (answer).In Greek the word order of a sentence is much more flexible than in English. So if the word order changes in even the slightest way without changing the meaning (see Question Fifteen below, and Part Three, Question One), then this too is counted as a variant. Such trivial differences are counted in the grand total.

Plus, there are several million pages of manuscripts. If there are 500,000 variants (and that number is too high), then that would be much less than one variant per page, on average. Thus, saying that there are hundreds of thousands of variants turns the huge number of pages into a vice, when the huge number is in fact a virtue of NT manuscripts. Critics want us to believe that even more manuscripts pages would make the NT less reliable, but that is wrongheaded.

So what is the total of more significant variants? It amounts to a surprisingly small percentage of the entire NT.

Most modern textual critics can agree on the bulk of the text (some 95 percent of it perhaps). It is the remaining 5 per cent or so where disputes occur and differing conclusions may be found. These discrepancies are the cause for most of the variants to be seen in the footnotes of our translations (Elliott and Moir, p. 8). Also, some scholars put the number as high as 99% (see Part Three, Question One). We nonspecialists do not have to debate over trivial variants. For us, the Scripture is 95-99% established. No other text coming out of the Greco-Roman world comes even close to this startling outcome, but a very, very far distant second.

These variants do not overturn or negate Christian doctrine. If one word or clause is being scrutinized in one verse, then the entire sweep of the New Testament supports basic doctrine, such as the deity of Christ (see Question Fifteen, below).

We need, therefore, to get a perspective. No one should doubt the Bible’s reliability in terms of the manuscripts attestation.

How many manuscripts are there?

The official listing (as of 2006) of the several important categories of Greek New Testament manuscripts can be summarized as follows:


Majuscule MSS…317

Miniscule MSS…2877

Lectionary MSS…2433


Source: Komoszewski, J. Ed, M. James Sawyer and Daniel B. Wallace. Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture. Kregel, 200

Further, the quotations of the New Testament in the writings of the church fathers have not yet been factored into the calculations.  So extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament. (p. 126)  If our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were to be destroyed (this means, I assume, that the manuscripts would be destroyed), then we could reconstruct the New Testament from the quotations of the church fathers alone.

An excerpt from an academic

Sometimes academics need to get out from behind their computers and to dialogue with people other than their colleagues and students. Bruce Metzger graciously did this with Lee Strobel in the latter’s The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998). They met on a Saturday at Princeton University, where Metzger used to teach before his retirement. We listen in on four portions of their conversation.

First, Strobel asks why it is so important to have thousands of manuscript to support a document like the New Testament. Metzger replies:

Well, the more often you have copies that agree with each other, especially if they emerge from different geographical areas, the more you can cross-check them to figure out what the original document was like. The only way they’d agree would be where they went back genealogically in a family tree that represents the descent of the manuscripts. (p. 59)

Metzger says here that the copies would agree if and only if there really were originals. And the more manuscript copies we have, the better chance we have of finding the wording of the originals, after we sift through all of the manuscripts.

Second, Strobel asks Metzger about the comparison of the New Testament texts and later manuscripts with those of non-Christian texts and manuscripts, such as the Roman historian Tacitus, Jewish historian Josephus’ Jewish War, and Homer’s Iliad. “How does the New Testament stack up against well-known works of antiquity?” asks Strobel.

“Extremely well,” [Metzger] replied. “We can have great confidence in the fidelity with which this material has come down to us, especially compared with any other ancient literary work.” (p. 63).

Third, Strobel asks about the variations in the manuscripts. “Do they tend to be minor rather than substantive?”

“Yes, yes, that’s correct, and scholars work very carefully to try to resolve them by getting back to the original meaning. The more significant variations do not overthrow any doctrine of the church. Any good Bible will have notes that will alert the reader to variant readings of any consequence. But again, these are rare.” (p. 65).

Fourth and finally, Strobel asks what Metzger’s scholarship has done to his personal faith.

“Oh,” he said, sounding happy to discuss the topic, “it has increased the basis of my personal faith to see the firmness with which these materials have come down to us, with a multiplicity of copies, some of which are very, very ancient.” (p. 71).

Then Strobel started to ask, again, if scholarship has diluted Metzger’s faith.

He jumped in before I [Strobel] could finish my sentence. “On the contrary,” [Metzger] stressed, “it has built it. I’ve asked questions all my life. I’ve dug into the text, I’ve studied this thoroughly, and today I know with confidence that my trust in Jesus has been well placed.” . . . Then he added, for emphasis, “Very well placed.” (p. 71)