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New Testament Textual Criticism

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New Testament Textual Criticism examines the existing manuscript witnesses to the New Testament in order to produce a text that is as close as possible to the original. The New Testament has been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work, having over 5,300 Greek manuscripts dating from the 3rd century to the 16th century. The task of the textual critic, therefore, is to sort through the variants and establish a "critical text" that is intended to represent the original by best explaining the state of all extant witnesses.

The King James versus modern translations

Textual basis for the King James Version

"Erasmus, a Dutch scholar, under patronage of Froben the printer of Basel, had been preparing a Greek NT and it was published early in 1516. "It was the first published (printed with movable type) Greek New Testament. At the urging of a publisher who wanted to do be first, he prepared it very hastily, as he himself admitted. He had only about half a dozen Greek manuscripts, none of them earlier than the tenth century AD. In 1522 Erasmus published his third edition. His 4th edition in 1537 contains his definitive text.

"The next important step was taken by Robert Estienne (Stephanus), whose 3rd edition, "Regia," a folio published in Paris in 1550, was a distinct advance, and, though based directly upon the work of Ximenes and Erasmus, had marginal readings from 15 new manuscripts, one of which was Codex Bezae. Theodore Beza himself worked with Stephanus' son Henri and brought out nine editions of the NT, but no great critical advance was made in them. The same may be said of the seven Elzevir editions brought out at Leyden and Amsterdam between 1624 and 1678, the second, that of 1633, in the preface of which occurs the phrase "Textum ergo habes nune ab omnibus receptum", became the continental standard, as the 1550 edition of Stephanus had for England. The 1550 edition of Stephanus was the so called "Textus Receptus", used by the translators of the KJV." R.P. Nettelhorst

See also: Textus Receptus and King James only movement

Textual basis for modern translations

The eighteenth century brought the recovery of many additional early NT Greek manuscripts which led to great strides in the study of these witnesses. Collation, categorization, and textual analysis of the many manuscripts led to the development of proposed Greek texts which departed from the Textus Receptus of the KJV. Critical Greek texts published by Constantin Tischendorf (1849), Karl Lachmann (1850), and Samuel P. Tregelles (1857-1872) led to the Westcott-Hort Greek New Testament (1881) of which major portions were used in the translation of the English Revised Version of 1881. While scholarly controversy and differing views accompanied the early use of the new "critical" Greek texts, a permanent shift away from the Textus Receptus had begun.

The Greek text which underlies most modern translations such as the NASB (1971), NIV (1973) and ESV (2001) is currently published as the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament, 4th edition (usually cited UBS4), and the essentially identical Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th edition (usually cited NA27).

This Greek text is described both as a critical text and an eclectic text. It is "critical" in that it contains a scholarly "apparatus" which footnotes the major textual variations with specific identification of particular ancient manuscripts (MSS). It is "eclectic" because the text itself is the result of a committee endeavor which takes what is deemed to be the "best" reading of a verse or passage to arrive at a concensus regardless of the particular manuscript, type, or family. In general, the current critical texts follow the Alexandrian text type but is not as radically Alexandrian as Westcott and Hort Greek text of 1881.

For some elementary insight into the criteria used in arriving at an "eclectic" text and the various text types which exist, see below.

Don't make a mountain out of a mole hill

The details of the textual variants among the existing manuscripts is the focus of textual criticism. Discussions regarding "which is the best Greek text" can often cause concern for the laymen. However, we should not let scholarly concerns "make a mountain out of a mole hill."

"When one examines the variations between the Greek text behind the KJV (the Textus Receptus) and the Greek text behind modern translations, it is discovered that the vast majority of variations are so trivial as to not even be translatable (the most common is the moveable nu, which is akin to the difference between "who" and "whom!) . . . When one compares the number of variations that are found in the various MSS with the actual variations between the Textus Receptus and the best Greek witnesses, it is found that these two are remarkably similar. There are over 400,000 textual variants among NT MSS. But the differences between the Textus Receptus and texts based on the best Greek witnesses number about 5000 -- and most of these are untranslatable differences! In other words, over 98% of the time, the Textus Receptus and the standard critical editions agree." Daniel Wallace

Criteria in modern translations

Twelve Basic Rules for NT Textual Criticism, (Aland, 275-276).

  • Only one reading can be original, however many variant readings there may be.
  • Only the readings which best satisfies the requirements of both external and internal criteria can be original.
  • Criticism of the text must always begin from the evidence of the manuscript tradition and only afterward turn to a consideration of internal criteria.
  • Internal criteria (the context of the passage, its style and vocabulary, the theological environment of the author, etc.) can never be the sole basis for a critical decision, especially when they stand in opposition to the external evidence.
  • The primary authority for a critical textual decision lies with the Greek manuscript tradition, with the version and Fathers serving no more than a supplementary and corroborative function, particularly in passages where their underlying Greek text cannot be reconstructed with absolute certainty.
  • Furthermore, manuscripts should be weighed, not counted, and the peculiar traits of each manuscript should be duly considered. However important the early papyri, or a particular uncial, or a minuscule may be, there is no single manuscript or group of manuscripts that can be followed mechanically, even though certain combinations of witnesses may deserve a greater degree of confidence than others. Rather, decisions in textual criticism must be worked out afresh, passage by passage (the local principle).
  • The principle that the original reading may be found in any single manuscript or version when it stands alone or nearly alone is only a theoretical possibility. Any form of eclecticism which accepts this principle will hardly succeed in establishing the original text of the New Testament; it will only confirm the view of the text which it presupposes.
  • The reconstruction of a stemma of readings for each variant (the genealogical principle) is an extremely important device, because the reading which can most easily explain the derivation of the other forms is itself most likely the original.
  • Variants must never be treated in isolation, but always considered in the context of the tradition. Otherwise there is too great a danger of reconstructing a "test tube text" which never existed at any time or place.
  • There is truth in the maxim: lectio difficilior lectio potior ("the more difficult reading is the more probable reading"). But this principle must not be taken too mechanically, with the most difficult reading (lectio difficilima) adopted as original simply because of its degree of difficulty.
  • The venerable maxim lectio brevior lectio potior ("the shorter reading is the more probable reading") is certainly right in many instances. But here again the principle cannot be applied mechanically.
  • A constantly maintained familiarity with New Testament manuscripts themselves is the best training for textual criticism. In textual criticism the pure theoretician has often done more harm than good.

Text Types

The following is adapted from Briggs, 45-47.

New Testament manuscripts can be classified according to certain major families or types. A family type is the name given to a group of texts with a common ancestor. These texts are discerned through the deviations common to a group of manuscripts. For example, some scribal errors made in copying the text in Alexandria were perpetuated in later reproductions of that text type. Classification according to "text type" is the basic point of departure in the actual work of textual reconstruction. For example, one reading of a text that represents a good family type may provide more support for the original text than a dozen readings from a poor family type. These text types are not represented by entire manuscripts but often only segments of them. The modern practice of copying an entire manuscript of the New Testament at once was seldom followed in antiquity. Four family "types" of texts have been sufficiently defined in biblical scholarship to merit listing below.

The Alexandrian Text

This text arose in Egypt and is generally conceded to be the most important one. Westcott and Hort, who named this the Neutral Text, thought that Codex Sinaiticus (4th century) and Codex Vaticanus (4th century) had preserved a pure form of the Alexandrian type of text. Codex is Latin meaning book, i.e. these manuscripts were found bound in book form rather than as scrolls. These two Alexandian texts each comprise almost the entire New Testament as well as significant portions of the Septuagint. It is now evident that these manuscripts had been corrected by later scribes, but they are the most ancient uncials and preserve the Alexandrian text at an early stage. Some of the important papyrus manuscripts also represent this family.

The Byzantine Text

This family has been designated by many names. It is called Byzantine because it was adopted in Constantinople and used as the common text in the Byzantine world. It was produced in Antioch, Syria, under the direction of Lucian near the beginning of the fourth century and has been called the Syrian or Antiochene text. It was used almost universally after the eight century. Both Erasmus, who created the first printed Greek text, and the translators of the King James Version of the Bible used this type of text. It was produced by combining earlier texts and has less value than the Alexandrian text. A (Codex Alexandrinus, 5th century) and C (Codex Ephraemi, 5th century) are the oldest representatives of the Byzantine family. A great majority of late uncials and minuscules belong to this group.

The Western Text

This family of texts was closely related to the church in the west, particularly in North Africa. Although it can probably be traced to the second century, its value has been disputed. It was used by the early church fathers. Its age would seem to suggest great importance, but there are clear indications that it was not carefully preserved. It is best represented by the Old Latin translations, by the Syriac versions, and the church fathers. Its most famous representative is manuscript D (Codex Bezae) for the book of Acts.

The Caesarean Text

This family of texts was widely used in Caesarea from which it derived its name. It seems to have arisen out of the Alexandrian text but was also mixed with the Western text. Consequently, its value is limited. Metzger suggests that it is necessary to distinguish between two stages in its development, the pre-Caesarean and the Caesarean (Metzger, p. 215). Some of its more prominent representatives are W (Washington Codex, fifth century), P45, and two groups of minuscules and lectionaries.

Comment on the confidence and accuracy of the NT Text

"At present, we have more than 6,000 manuscript copies of the Greek New Testament or portions thereof. No other work of Greek literature can boast of such numbers. Homer's Iliad, the greatest of all Greek classical works, is extant in about 650 manuscripts; and Euripides' tragedies exist in about 330 manuscripts. The numbers on all the other works of Greek literature are far less. Furthermore, it must be said that the amount of time between the original composition and the next surviving manuscript is far less for the New Testament than for any other work in Greek literature. The lapse for most classical Greek works is about eight hundred to a thousand years; whereas the lapse for many books in the New Testament is around one hundred years. Because of the abundant wealth of manuscripts and because several of the manuscripts are dated in the early centuries of the church, New Testament textual scholars have a great advantage over classical textual scholars. The New Testament scholars have the resources to reconstruct the original text of the New Testament with great accuracy, and they have produced some excellent editions of the Greek New Testament.

"Finally, it must be said that, although there are certainly differences in many of the New Testament manuscripts, not one fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith rests on a disputed reading. Frederic Kenyon, a renowned paleographer and textual critic, affirmed this when he said, 'The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true Word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries.' " -- Philip W. Comfort, The Complete Guide to Bible Versions, (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.) 1991.


  • Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1995). ISBN 0802840981
  • R. C. Briggs, Interpreting the New Testament Today: An Introduction to Methods and Issues in the Study of the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1982). ISBN 0687193273
  • Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (Oxford Press, 1992). ISBN 0195072979
  • F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments: How We Got Our English Bible (Revell, 1984). ISBN 0800712145

See also

External links

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