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Carmina Cantabrigiensia Manuscr-C-fol436v

Carmina Cantabrigiensia, Manuscript C, folio 436v, 11th century

Textual criticism (or lower criticism) is a branch of literary criticism that is concerned with the identification and removal of transcription errors in the texts of manuscripts. Ancient scribes often made errors or alterations when copying manuscripts by hand.[1] Given a manuscript copy, several or many copies, but not the original document, the textual critic seeks to reconstruct the original text (the archetype or autograph) as closely as possible. The same processes can be used to attempt to reconstruct intermediate editions, or recensions, of a document's transcription history.[2] The ultimate objective of the textual critic's work is the production of a "critical edition" containing a text most closely approximating the original.

There are three fundamental approaches to textual criticism: eclecticism, stemmatics, and copy-text editing. Techniques from the biological discipline of cladistics are currently also being used to determine the relationships between manuscripts.

The phrase lower criticism is used to describe the contrast between textual criticism and "higher" criticism, which is the endeavor to establish the authorship, date, and place of composition of the original text.


Textual criticism has been practiced for over two thousand years. Early textual critics were concerned with preserving the works of antiquity, and this continued through the medieval period into early modern times until the invention of the printing press.

Many ancient works, such as the Bible and the Greek tragedies, survive in hundreds of copies, and the relationship of each copy to the original may be unclear. Textual scholars have debated for centuries which sources are most closely derived from the original, hence which readings in those sources are correct. Although biblical books that are letters, like Greek plays, presumably had one original, the question of whether some biblical books, like the gospels, ever had just one original has been discussed.[3]

In the English language, the works of Shakespeare have been a particularly fertile ground for textual criticism—both because the texts, as transmitted, contain a considerable amount of variation, and because the effort and expense of producing superior editions of his works have always been widely viewed as worthwhile.[4] The principles of textual criticism, although originally developed and refined for works of antiquity, the Bible, and Shakespeare,[5] have been applied to many works, extending backwards from the present to the earliest known written documents, in Mesopotamia and Egypt—a period of about five millennia.


The textual critic's ultimate objective is the production of a "critical edition". This contains a text most closely approximating the original, which is accompanied by an apparatus criticus (or critical apparatus) that presents:

  • the evidence that the editor considered (names of manuscripts, or abbreviations called sigla),
  • the editor's analysis of that evidence (sometimes a simple likelihood rating), and
  • a record of rejected variants (often in order of preference).[6]



Folio from Papyrus 46, containing 2 Corinthians 11:33–12:9

Before mechanical printing, literature was copied by hand, and many variations were introduced by copyists. The age of printing made the scribal profession effectively redundant. Printed editions, while less susceptible to the proliferation of variations likely to arise during manual transmission, are nonetheless not immune to introducing variations from an author's autograph. Instead of a scribe miscopying his source, a compositor or a printing shop may read or typeset a work in a way that differs from the autograph.[7] Since each scribe or printer commits different errors, reconstruction of the lost original is often aided by a selection of readings taken from many sources. An edited text that draws from multiple sources is said to be eclectic. In contrast to this approach, some textual critics prefer to identify the single best surviving text, and not to combine readings from multiple sources.[8]

When comparing different documents, or "witnesses", of a single, original text, the observed differences are called variant readings, or simply variants or readings. It is not always apparent which single variant represents the author's original work. The process of textual criticism seeks to explain how each variant may have entered the text, either by accident (duplication or omission) or intention (harmonization or censorship), as scribes or supervisors transmitted the original author's text by copying it. The textual critic's task, therefore, is to sort through the variants, eliminating those most likely to be un-original, hence establishing a "critical text", or critical edition, that is intended to best approximate the original. At the same time, the critical text should document variant readings, so the relation of extant witnesses to the reconstructed original is apparent to a reader of the critical edition. In establishing the critical text, the textual critic considers both "external" evidence (the age, provenance, and affiliation of each witness) and "internal" or "physical" considerations (what the author and scribes, or printers, were likely to have done).[3]

The collation of all known variants of a text is referred to as a Variorum, namely a work of textual criticism whereby all variations and emendations are set side by side so that a reader can track how textual decisions have been made in the preparation of a text for publication.[9] The Bible and the works of William Shakespeare have often been the subjects of variorum editions, although the same techniques have been applied with less frequency to many other works, such as Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass,[10] and the prose writings of Edward Fitzgerald.[11]


Eclecticism refers to the practice of consulting a wide diversity of witnesses to a particular original. The practice is based on the principle that the more independent two transmission histories are, the less likely they will be to reproduce the same errors. What one omits, the other may retain; what one adds, the other is unlikely to add. Eclecticism allows inferences to be drawn regarding the original text, based on the evidence of contrasts between witnesses.

Eclectic readings also normally give an impression of the number of witnesses to each available reading. Although a reading supported by the majority of witnesses is frequently preferred, this does not follow automatically. For example, a second edition of a Shakespeare play may include an addition alluding to an event known to have happened between the two editions. Although nearly all subsequent manuscripts may have included the addition, textual critics may reconstruct the original without the addition.

The result of the process is a text with readings drawn from many witnesses. It is not a copy of any particular manuscript, and may deviate from the majority of existing manuscripts. In a purely eclectic approach, no single witness is theoretically favored. Instead, the critic forms opinions about individual witnesses, relying on both external and internal evidence.[12]

Since the mid-19th century, eclecticism, in which there is no a priori bias to a single manuscript, has been the dominant method of editing the Greek text of the New Testament (currently, the United Bible Society, 4th ed. and Nestle-Aland, 27th ed.). Even so, the oldest manuscripts, being of the Alexandrian text-type, are the most favored, and the critical text has an Alexandrian disposition.[13]

External evidence

External evidence is evidence of each physical witness, its date, source, and relationship to other known witnesses. Critics will often prefer the readings supported by the oldest witnesses. Since errors tend to accumulate, older manuscripts should have fewer errors. Readings supported by a majority of witnesses are also usually preferred, since these are less likely to reflect accidents or individual biases. For the same reasons, the most geographically diverse witnesses are preferred. Some manuscripts show evidence that particular care was taken in their composition, for example, by including alternative readings in their margins, demonstrating that more than one prior copy (exemplar) was consulted in producing the current one. Other factors being equal, these are the best witnesses.

There are many other more sophisticated considerations. For example, readings that depart from the known practice of a scribe or a given period may be deemed more reliable, since a scribe is unlikely on his own initiative to have departed from the usual practice.[14]

Internal evidence

Internal evidence is evidence that comes from the text itself, independent of the physical characteristics of the document. Various considerations can be used to decide which reading is the most likely to be original. Sometimes these considerations can be in conflict.[14]

Two common considerations have the Latin names lectio brevior (shorter reading) and lectio difficilior (more difficult reading). The first is the general observation that scribes tended to add words, for clarification or out of habit, more often than they removed them. The second, lectio difficilior potior (the harder reading is stronger), recognizes the tendency for harmonization—resolving apparent inconsistencies in the text. Applying this principle leads to taking the more difficult (unharmonized) reading as being more likely to be the original. Such cases also include scribes simplifying and smoothing texts they did not fully understand.[15]

Another scribal tendency is called homoioteleuton, meaning "same endings". Homoioteleuton occurs when two words/phrases/lines end with the same sequence of letters. The scribe, having finished copying the first, skips to the second, omitting all intervening words. Homeoarchy refers to eye-skip when the beginnings of two lines are similar.

The critic may also examine the other writings of the author to decide what words and grammatical constructions match his style. The evaluation of internal evidence also provides the critic with information that helps him evaluate the reliability of individual manuscripts. Thus, the consideration of internal and external evidence is related.

After considering all relevant factors, the textual critic seeks the reading that best explains how the other readings would arise. That reading is then the most likely candidate to have been original.

Canons of textual criticism

Codex Sinaiticus-small

Luke 11:2 in Codex Sinaiticus

Various scholars have developed guidelines, or canons of textual criticism, to guide the exercise of the critic's judgment in determining the best readings of a text. One of the earliest was Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687–1752), who in 1734 produced an edition of the Greek New Testament. In his commentary, he established the rule Proclivi scriptioni praestat ardua, ("the harder reading is to be preferred") [16]

Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745–1812) published several editions of the New Testament. In his 1796 edition, he established fifteen critical rules. Among them was a variant of Bengel's rule, Lectio difficilior potior, "the harder reading is better." Another was Lectio brevior praeferenda, "the shorter reading is better", based on the idea that scribes were more likely to add than to delete.[17] This rule cannot be applied uncritically, as scribes may omit material inadvertently.

Brooke Foss Westcott (1825–1901) and Fenton J. A. Hort (1828–1892) published an edition of the New Testament in 1881. They proposed nine critical rules, including a version of Bengel's rule, "The reading is less likely to be original that shows a disposition to smooth away difficulties." They also argued that "Readings are approved or rejected by reason of the quality, and not the number, of their supporting witnesses", and that "The reading is to be preferred that most fitly explains the existence of the others."[18]

Many of these rules, although originally developed for Biblical textual criticism, have wide applicability to any text susceptible to errors of transmission.

Limitations of eclecticism

Since the canons of criticism are highly susceptible to interpretation, and at times even contradict each other, they can often be employed to justify any result that fits the textual critic's aesthetic or theological agenda. Starting in the nineteenth century, scholars sought more rigorous methods to guide editorial judgment. Best-text editing (a complete rejection of eclecticism) became one extreme. Stemmatics and copy-text editing – while both eclectic, in that they permit the editor to select readings from multiple sources – sought to reduce subjectivity by establishing one or a few witnesses presumably as being favored by "objective" criteria.



Stemmatics or stemmatology is a rigorous approach to textual criticism. Karl Lachmann (1793–1851) greatly contributed to making this method famous, even though he did not invent it (see Timpanaro, The genesis of Lachmann's method). The method takes its name from the stemma, "family tree", which shows the relationships of the surviving witnesses. The family tree is also referred to as a cladorama.[19] The method works from the principle that "community of error implies community of origin." That is, if two witnesses have a number of errors in common, it may be presumed that they were derived from a common intermediate source, called a hyparchetype. Relations between the lost intermediates are determined by the same process, placing all extant manuscripts in a family tree or stemma codicum descended from a single archetype. The process of constructing the stemma is called recension, or the Latin recensio.[20]

Having completed the stemma, the critic proceeds to the next step, called selection or selectio, where the text of the archetype is determined by examining variants from the closest hyparchetypes to the archetype and selecting the best ones. If one reading occurs more often than another at the same level of the tree, then the dominant reading is selected. If two competing readings occur equally often, then the editor uses his judgment to select the correct reading.[21]

After selectio, the text may still contain errors, since there may be passages where no source preserves the correct reading. The step of examination, or examinatio is applied to find corruptions. Where the editor concludes that the text is corrupt, it is corrected by a process called "emendation", or emendatio (also sometimes called divinatio). Emendations not supported by any known source are sometimes called conjectural emendations.[22]

The process of selectio resembles eclectic textual criticism, but applied to a restricted set of hypothetical hyparchetypes. The steps of examinatio and emendatio resemble copy-text editing. In fact, the other techniques can be seen as special cases of stemmatics in which a rigorous family history of the text cannot be determined but only approximated. If it seems that one manuscript is by far the best text, then copy text editing is appropriate, and if it seems that a group of manuscripts are good, then eclecticism on that group would be proper.

The Hodges-Farstad edition of the Greek New Testament attempts to use stemmatics for some portions.

Limitations and criticism

The stemmatic method assumes that each witness is derived from one, and only one, predecessor. If a scribe refers to more than one source when creating his copy, then the new copy will not clearly fall into a single branch of the family tree. In the stemmatic method, a manuscript that is derived from more than one source is said to be contaminated.

The method also assumes that scribes only make new errors – they do not attempt to correct the errors of their predecessors. When a text has been improved by the scribe, it is said to be sophisticated, but "sophistication" impairs the method by obscuring a document's relationship to other witnesses, and making it more difficult to place the manuscript correctly in the stemma.

The stemmatic method requires the textual critic to group manuscripts by commonality of error. It is required, therefore, that the critic can distinguish erroneous readings from correct ones. This assumption has often come under attack. W. W. Greg noted, "That if a scribe makes a mistake he will inevitably produce nonsense is the tacit and wholly unwarranted assumption."[23]

The critic Joseph Bédier (1864–1938) launched a particularly withering attack on stemmatics in 1928. He surveyed editions of medieval French texts that were produced with the stemmatic method, and found that textual critics tended overwhelmingly to produce trees divided into just two branches. He concluded that this outcome was unlikely to have occurred by chance, and that therefore, the method was tending to produce bipartite stemmas regardless of the actual history of the witnesses. He suspected that editors tended to favor trees with two branches, as this would maximize the opportunities for editorial judgment (as there would be no third branch to "break the tie" whenever the witnesses disagreed). He also noted that, for many works, more than one reasonable stemma could be postulated, suggesting that the method was not as rigorous or as scientific as its proponents had claimed.

The stemmatic method's final step is emendatio, also sometimes referred to as "conjectural emendation." But in fact, the critic employs conjecture at every step of the process. Some of the method's rules that are designed to reduce the exercise of editorial judgment do not necessarily produce the correct result. For example, where there are more than two witnesses at the same level of the tree, normally the critic will select the dominant reading. However, it may be no more than fortuitous that more witnesses have survived that present a particular reading. A plausible reading that occurs less often may, nevertheless, be the correct one.[24]

Lastly, the stemmatic method assumes that every extant witness is derived, however remotely, from a single source. It does not account for the possibility that the original author may have revised his work, and that the text could have existed at different times in more than one authoritative version.

Copy-text editing

Codex Vaticanus B, 2Thess. 3,11-18, Hebr. 1,1-2,2

A page from Codex Vaticanus shows a medieval scribe (the marginal note between columns one and two) criticizing a predecessor for changing the text: "Fool and knave, leave the old reading, don't change it!"[25]

When copy-text editing, the scholar fixes errors in a base text, often with the help of other witnesses. Often, the base text is selected from the oldest manuscript of the text, but in the early days of printing, the copy text was often a manuscript that was at hand.

Using the copy-text method, the critic examines the base text and makes corrections (called emendations) in places where the base text appears wrong to the critic. This can be done by looking for places in the base text that do not make sense or by looking at the text of other witnesses for a superior reading. Close-call decisions are usually resolved in favor of the copy-text.

The first published, printed edition of the Greek New Testament was produced by this method. Erasmus, the editor, selected a manuscript from the local Dominican monastery in Basle and corrected its obvious errors by consulting other local manuscripts. The Westcott and Hort text, which was the basis for the Revised Version of the English bible, also used the copy-text method, using the Codex Vaticanus as the base manuscript.

McKerrow's concept of copy-text

The bibliographer Ronald B. McKerrow introduced the term copy-text in his 1904 edition of the works of Thomas Nashe, defining it as "the text used in each particular case as the basis of mine." McKerrow was aware of the limitations of the stemmatic method, and believed it was more prudent to choose one particular text that was thought to be particularly reliable, and then to emend it only where the text was obviously corrupt. The French critic Joseph Bédier likewise became disenchanted with the stemmatic method, and concluded that the editor should choose the best available text, and emend it as little as possible.

In McKerrow's method as originally introduced, the copy-text was not necessarily the earliest text. In some cases, McKerrow would choose a later witness, noting that "if an editor has reason to suppose that a certain text embodies later corrections than any other, and at the same time has no ground for disbelieving that these corrections, or some of them at least, are the work of the author, he has no choice but to make that text the basis of his reprint."[26]

By 1939, in his Prolegomena for the Oxford Shakespeare, McKerrow had changed his mind about this approach, as he feared that a later edition – even if it contained authorial corrections – would "deviate more widely than the earliest print from the author's original manuscript." He therefore concluded that the correct procedure would be "produced by using the earliest "good" print as copy-text and inserting into it, from the first edition which contains them, such corrections as appear to us to be derived from the author." But, fearing the arbitrary exercise of editorial judgment, McKerrow stated that, having concluded that a later edition had substantive revisions attributable to the author, "we must accept all the alterations of that edition, saving any which seem obvious blunders or misprints."[27]

W. W. Greg's rationale of copy-text

Anglo-American textual criticism in the last half of the twentieth century came to be dominated by a landmark 1950 essay by Sir Walter W. Greg, "The Rationale of Copy-Text". Greg proposed:

[A] distinction between the significant, or as I shall call them 'substantive', readings of the text, those namely that affect the author's meaning or the essence of his expression, and others, such in general as spelling, punctuation, word-division, and the like, affecting mainly its formal presentation, which may be regarded as the accidents, or as I shall call them 'accidentals', of the text.[28]

Greg observed that compositors at printing shops tended to follow the "substantive" readings of their copy faithfully, except when they deviated unintentionally; but that "as regards accidentals they will normally follow their own habits or inclination, though they may, for various reasons and to varying degrees, be influenced by their copy."[29]

He concluded:

The true theory is, I contend, that the copy-text should govern (generally) in the matter of accidentals, but that the choice between substantive readings belongs to the general theory of textual criticism and lies altogether beyond the narrow principle of the copy-text. Thus it may happen that in a critical edition the text rightly chosen as copy may not by any means be the one that supplies most substantive readings in cases of variation. The failure to make this distinction and to apply this principle has naturally led to too close and too general a reliance upon the text chosen as basis for an edition, and there has arisen what may be called the tyranny of the copy-text, a tyranny that has, in my opinion, vitiated much of the best editorial work of the past generation.[30]

Greg's view, in short, was that the "copy-text can be allowed no over-riding or even preponderant authority so far as substantive readings are concerned." The choice between reasonable competing readings, he said:

[W]ill be determined partly by the opinion the editor may form respecting the nature of the copy from which each substantive edition was printed, which is a matter of external authority; partly by the intrinsic authority of the several texts as judged by the relative frequency of manifest errors therein; and partly by the editor's judgment of the intrinsic claims of individual readings to originality — in other words their intrinsic merit, so long as by 'merit' we mean the likelihood of their being what the author wrote rather than their appeal to the individual taste of the editor.[31]

Although Greg argued that an editor should be free to use his judgment to choose between competing substantive readings, he suggested that an editor should defer to the copy-text when "the claims of two readings ... appear to be exactly balanced. ... In such a case, while there can be no logical reason for giving preference to the copy-text, in practice, if there is no reason for altering its reading, the obvious thing seems to be to let it stand."[32] The "exactly balanced" variants are said to be indifferent.

Editors who follow Greg's rationale produce eclectic editions, in that the authority for the "accidentals" is derived from one particular source (usually the earliest one) that the editor considers to be authoritative, but the authority for the "substantives" is determined in each individual case according to the editor's judgment. The resulting text, except for the accidentals, is constructed without relying predominantly on any one witness.


W. W. Greg did not live long enough to apply his rationale of copy-text to any actual editions of works. His rationale was adopted and significantly expanded by Fredson Bowers (1905–1991). Starting in the 1970s, G. Thomas Tanselle (1934–) vigorously took up the method's defense and added significant contributions of his own. Greg's rationale as practiced by Bowers and Tanselle has come to be known as the "Greg–Bowers" or the "Greg–Bowers–Tanselle" method.

Application to works of all periods

A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream (First Folio)

In his 1964 essay, "Some Principles for Scholarly Editions of Nineteenth-Century American Authors", Bowers said that "the theory of copy-text proposed by Sir Walter Greg rules supreme".[33] Bowers's assertion of "supremacy" was in contrast to Greg's more modest claim that "My desire is rather to provoke discussion than to lay down the law".[34]

Whereas Greg had limited his illustrative examples to English Renaissance drama, where his expertise lay, Bowers argued that the rationale was "the most workable editorial principle yet contrived to produce a critical text that is authoritative in the maximum of its details whether the author be Shakespeare, Dryden, Fielding, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Stephen Crane. The principle is sound without regard for the literary period."[35] For works where an author's manuscript survived – a case Greg had not considered – Bowers concluded that the manuscript should generally serve as copy-text. Citing the example of Nathaniel Hawthorne, he noted:

When an author's manuscript is preserved, this has paramount authority, of course. Yet the fallacy is still maintained that since the first edition was proofread by the author, it must represent his final intentions and hence should be chosen as copy-text. Practical experience shows the contrary. When one collates the manuscript of The House of the Seven Gables against the first printed edition, one finds an average of ten to fifteen differences per page between the manuscript and the print, many of them consistent alterations from the manuscript system of punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and word-division. It would be ridiculous to argue that Hawthorne made approximately three to four thousand small changes in proof, and then wrote the manuscript of The Blithedale Romance according to the same system as the manuscript of the Seven Gables, a system that he had rejected in proof.[36]

Following Greg, the editor would then replace any of the manuscript readings with substantives from printed editions that could be reliably attributed to the author: "Obviously, an editor cannot simply reprint the manuscript, and he must substitute for its readings any words that he believes Hawthorne changed in proof.[36]

Uninfluenced final authorial intention

McKerrow had articulated textual criticism's goal in terms of "our ideal of an author's fair copy of his work in its final state".[37] Bowers asserted that editions founded on Greg's method would "represent the nearest approximation in every respect of the author's final intentions."[38] Bowers stated similarly that the editor's task is to "approximate as nearly as possible an inferential authorial fair copy."[39] Tanselle notes that, "Textual criticism ... has generally been undertaken with a view to reconstructing, as accurately as possible, the text finally intended by the author".[40]

Bowers and Tanselle argue for rejecting textual variants that an author inserted at the suggestion of others. Bowers said that his edition of Stephen Crane's first novel, Maggie, presented "the author's final and uninfluenced artistic intentions."[41] In his writings, Tanselle refers to "unconstrained authorial intention" or "an author's uninfluenced intentions."[42] This marks a departure from Greg, who had merely suggested that the editor inquire whether a later reading "is one that the author can reasonably be supposed to have substituted for the former",[43] not implying any further inquiry as to why the author had made the change.

Tanselle discusses the example of Herman Melville's Typee. After the novel's initial publication, Melville's publisher asked him to soften the novel's criticisms of missionaries in the South Seas. Although Melville pronounced the changes an improvement, Tanselle rejected them in his edition, concluding that "there is no evidence, internal or external, to suggest that they are the kinds of changes Melville would have made without pressure from someone else."[44]

Bowers confronted a similar problem in his edition of Maggie. Crane originally printed the novel privately in 1893. To secure commercial publication in 1896, Crane agreed to remove profanity, but he also made stylistic revisions. Bowers's approach was to preserve the stylistic and literary changes of 1896, but to revert to the 1893 readings where he believed that Crane was fulfilling the publisher's intention rather than his own. There were, however, intermediate cases that could reasonably have been attributed to either intention, and some of Bowers's choices came under fire – both as to his judgment, and as to the wisdom of conflating readings from the two different versions of Maggie.[45]

Hans Zeller argued that it is impossible to tease apart the changes Crane made for literary reasons and those made at the publisher's insistence:

Firstly, in anticipation of the character of the expected censorship, Crane could be led to undertake alterations which also had literary value in the context of the new version. Secondly, because of the systematic character of the work, purely censorial alterations sparked off further alterations, determined at this stage by literary considerations. Again in consequence of the systemic character of the work, the contamination of the two historical versions in the edited text gives rise to a third version. Though the editor may indeed give a rational account of his decision at each point on the basis of the documents, nevertheless to aim to produce the ideal text which Crane would have produced in 1896 if the publisher had left him complete freedom is to my mind just as unhistorical as the question of how the first World War or the history of the United States would have developed if Germany had not caused the USA to enter the war in 1917 by unlimited submarine combat. The nonspecific form of censorship described above is one of the historical conditions under which Crane wrote the second version of Maggie and made it function. From the text which arose in this way it is not possible to subtract these forces and influences, in order to obtain a text of the author's own. Indeed I regard the "uninfluenced artistic intentions" of the author as something which exists only in terms of aesthetic abstraction. Between influences on the author and influences on the text are all manner of transitions. [46]

Bowers and Tanselle recognize that texts often exist in more than one authoritative version. Tanselle argues that:

[T]wo types of revision must be distinguished: that which aims at altering the purpose, direction, or character of a work, thus attempting to make a different sort of work out of it; and that which aims at intensifying, refining, or improving the work as then conceived (whether or not it succeeds in doing so), thus altering the work in degree but not in kind. If one may think of a work in terms of a spatial metaphor, the first might be labeled "vertical revision," because it moves the work to a different plane, and the second "horizontal revision," because it involves alterations within the same plane. Both produce local changes in active intention; but revisions of the first type appear to be in fulfillment of an altered programmatic intention or to reflect an altered active intention in the work as a whole, whereas those of the second do not. [47]

He suggests that where a revision is "horizontal" (i.e., aimed at improving the work as originally conceived), then the editor should adopt the author's later version. But where a revision is "vertical" (i.e., fundamentally altering the work's intention as a whole), then the revision should be treated as a new work, and edited separately on its own terms.

Format for apparatus

Bowers was also influential in defining the form of critical apparatus that should accompany a scholarly edition. In addition to the content of the apparatus, Bowers led a movement to relegate editorial matter to appendices, leaving the critically-established text "in the clear", that is, free of any signs of editorial intervention. Tanselle explained the rationale for this approach:

In the first place, an editor's primary responsibility is to establish a text; whether his goal is to reconstruct that form of the text which represents the author's final intention or some other form of the text, his essential task is to produce a reliable text according to some set of principles. Relegating all editorial matter to an appendix and allowing the text to stand by itself serves to emphasize the primacy of the text and permits the reader to confront the literary work without the distraction of editorial comment and to read the work with ease. A second advantage of a clear text is that it is easier to quote from or to reprint. Although no device can insure accuracy of quotation, the insertion of symbols (or even footnote numbers) into a text places additional difficulties in the way of the quoter. Furthermore, most quotations appear in contexts where symbols are inappropriate; thus when it is necessary to quote from a text which has not been kept clear of apparatus, the burden of producing a clear text of the passage is placed on the quoter. Even footnotes at the bottom of the text pages are open to the same objection, when the question of a photographic reprint arises.[48]

Some critics believe that a clear-text edition gives the edited text too great a prominence, relegating textual variants to appendices that are difficult to use, and suggesting a greater sense of certainty about the established text than it deserves. As Shillingsburg notes, "English scholarly editions have tended to use notes at the foot of the text page, indicating, tacitly, a greater modesty about the "established" text and drawing attention more forcibly to at least some of the alternative forms of the text".[49]

The MLA's CEAA and CSE

In 1963, the Modern Language Association of America (MLA) established the Center for Editions of American Authors (CEAA). The CEAA's Statement of Editorial Principles and Procedures, first published in 1967, adopted the Greg–Bowers rationale in full. A CEAA examiner would inspect each edition, and only those meeting the requirements would receive a seal denoting "An Approved Text."

Between 1966 and 1975, the Center allocated more than $1.5 million in funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to various scholarly editing projects, which were required to follow the guidelines (including the structure of editorial apparatus) as Bowers had defined them.[50] According to Davis, the funds coordinated by the CEAA over the same period were more than $6 million, counting funding from universities, university presses, and other bodies.[51]

The Center for Scholarly Editions (CSE) replaced the CEAA in 1976. The change of name indicated the shift to a broader agenda than just American authors. The Center also ceased its role in the allocation of funds. The Center's latest guidelines (2003) no longer prescribe a particular editorial procedure.[52]


Canterbury Tales

Canterbury Tales, Woodcut 1484

Cladistics is a technique borrowed from biology, where it was originally named phylogenetic systematics by Willi Hennig. In biology, the technique is used to determine the evolutionary relationships between different species.[53] In its application in textual criticism, the text of a number of different manuscripts is entered into a computer, which records all the differences between them. The manuscripts are then grouped according to their shared characteristics. The difference between cladistics and more traditional forms of statistical analysis is that, rather than simply arranging the manuscripts into rough groupings according to their overall similarity, cladistics assumes that they are part of a branching family tree and uses that assumption to derive relationships between them. This makes it more like an automated approach to stemmatics. However, where there is a difference, the computer does not attempt to decide which reading is closer to the original text, and so does not indicate which branch of the tree is the "root"—which manuscript tradition is closest to the original. Other types of evidence must be used for that purpose.

The major theoretical problem with applying cladistics to textual criticism is that cladistics assumes that, once a branching has occurred in the family tree, the two branches cannot rejoin; so all similarities can be taken as evidence of common ancestry. While this assumption is applicable to the evolution of living creatures, it is not always true of manuscript traditions, since a scribe can work from two different manuscripts at once, producing a new copy with characteristics of both.

Nonetheless, software developed for use in biology has been applied with some success to textual criticism; for example, it is being used by the Canterbury Tales Project to determine the relationship between the 84 surviving manuscripts and four early printed editions of the Canterbury Tales.

Application of textual criticism to religious documents

All texts are subject to investigation and systematic criticism where the original verified first document is not available. Believers in sacred texts and scriptures sometimes are reluctant to accept any form of challenge to what they believe to be divine revelation. Some opponents and polemicists may look for any way to find fault with a particular religious text. Legitimate textual criticism may be resisted by both believers and skeptics.


Muslims consider the original Arabic text to be the final revelation revealed to Muhammad from AD 610 to his death in 632. The Qur'an was written down by Muhammad's companions.

Book of Mormon

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes the Book of Mormon as a foundational reference. Some LDS members believe the book to be a literal historical record, while others believe it is inspired rather than historical writing.

Hebrew Bible


11th century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible with Targum

Aleppo Codex (Deut)

A page from the Aleppo Codex, Deuteronomy.

Textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible compares manuscript versions of the following sources (dates refer to the oldest extant manuscripts in each family):

Manuscript Examples Language Date
Dead Sea ScrollsTanakh at Qumran Hebrew, Paleo Hebrew and Greek(Septuagint) c. 150 BCE - 70 CE
SeptuagintCodex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus and other earlier papyri Greek 4th century CE
PeshittaSyriacearly 5th century CE
Vulgate Latinearly 5th century CE
MasoreticAleppo Codex, Leningrad Codex and other incomplete mss Hebrew 10th century CE
Samaritan Pentateuch Samaritan alphabetOldest extant mss c.11th century CE, oldest mss available to scholars 16th century CE
Targum Aramaic11th century CE

Given the sacred nature of the Hebrew Bible in Judaism, those unaware of the details dealt with in textual criticism, might think that there are no corruptions in the text, since these texts were meticulously transmitted and written. And yet, as in the New Testament, in particular in the Masoretic texts, changes, corruptions, and erasures have been found. This is ascribed to the fact that early soferim (scribes) did not treat the text with the reverence given to it later on.[54]

New Testament

The New Testament has been preserved in more than 5,300 Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac, Slavic, Ethiopic and Armenian. The sheer number of witnesses presents unique difficulties, chiefly in that it makes stemmatics impractical. Consequently, New Testament textual critics have adopted eclecticism after sorting the witnesses into three major groups, called text-types. The most common division today is as follows:

Text type Date Characteristics Bible version
The Alexandrian text-type
(also called Minority Text)
2nd-4th century CE This family constitutes a group of early and well-regarded texts, including Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. Most of this tradition appear to come from around Alexandria, Egypt. It contains readings that are often terse, shorter, somewhat rough, less harmonised, and generally more difficult. The family was once thought to be a very carefully edited third century recension but now is believed to be merely the result of a carefully controlled and supervised process of copying and transmission. It underlies most modern translations of the New Testament.NIV, NAB, TNIV, NASB, RSV, ESV, EBR, NWT, LB, ASV, NC, GNB
The Western text-type3rd-9th century CE This is also very early and comes from a wide geographical area stretching from North Africa to Italy from Gaul to Syria. It is found in Greek manuscripts and in the Latin translations used by the Western church. It is much less controlled than the Alexandrian family and its witnesses are seen to be more prone to paraphrase and other corruptions.Vetus Latina
The Byzantine text-type
(also called Majority Text)
5th-16th century CEThis is a group of around 80% of all manuscripts, the majority of which are comparatively very late in the tradition. It had become dominant at Constantinople from the 5th century on and was used throughout the Byzantine church. It contains the most harmonistic readings, paraphrasing and significant additions, most of which are believed to be secondary readings. It underlies the Textus Receptus used for most Reformation-era translations of the New Testament. KJV, NKJV, Tyndale, Coverdale, Geneva, Bishops' Bible, Douay-Rheims, JB, NJB, OSB

Minority Text versus Majority Text

Byzantinischer Maler um 1020 003

Byzantine illuminated manuscript, 1020

The New Testament portion of the English translation known as the King James Version was based on the Textus Receptus, a Greek text prepared by Erasmus based on a few late medieval Greek manuscripts of the Byzantine text-type (1, 1rK, 2e, 2ap, 4, 7, 817)[55]. For some books of the Bible, Erasmus used just single manuscripts, and for small sections made his own translations into Greek from the Vulgate.[56] However, following Westcott and Hort, most modern New Testament textual critics have concluded that the Byzantine text-type was formalised at a later date than the Alexandrian and Western text-types. Among the other types, the Alexandrian text-type (Minority Text) is viewed as more pure than the Western and Byzantine text-types, and so one of the central tenets of current New Testament textual criticism is that one should follow the readings of the Alexandrian texts unless those of the other types are clearly superior. Most modern New Testament translations now use an Eclectic Greek text (UBS4 and NA 27) that is closest to the Alexandrian text-type. The United Bible Societies's Greek New Testament (UBS4) and Nestle Aland (NA 27) are accepted by most of the academic community as the best attempt at reconstructing the original texts of the Greek NT.[57]

A minority position represented by The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text edition by Zane C. Hodges and Arthur L. Farstad argues that the Byzantine text-type (Majority Text) represents an earlier text-type than the surviving Alexandrian texts. This position is also held by Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont in their The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform, and the King James Only Movement. The argument states that the far greater number of surviving later Byzantine manuscripts implies an equivalent preponderance of Byzantine texts amongst lost earlier manuscripts; and hence that a critical reconstruction of the predominant text of the Byzantine tradition would have a superior claim to being closest to the autographs.

Other scholars have criticized the current categorization of manuscripts into text-types and prefer either to subdivide the manuscripts in other ways or to discard the text-type taxonomy.

Textual criticism is also used by those who assert that the New Testament was written in Aramaic (see Aramaic primacy).[58][59]


In attempting to determine the original text of the New Testament books, some modern textual critics have identified sections as interpolations. In modern translations of the Bible such as the New International Version, the results of textual criticism have led to certain verses, words and phrases being left out or marked as not original. Previously, translations of the New Testament such as the King James Version had mostly been based on Erasmus's redaction of the New Testament in Greek, the Textus Receptus from the 1500s based on later manuscripts.

According to Bart D. Ehrman, "These scribal additions are often found in late medieval manuscripts of the New Testament, but not in the manuscripts of the earlier centuries," he adds. And because the King James Bible is based on later manuscripts, such verses "became part of the Bible tradition in English-speaking lands."[25]

Most modern Bibles have footnotes to indicate areas which have disputed source documents. Bible Commentaries also discuss these, sometimes in great detail.

These possible later additions include the following:[60][61]

Other disputed NT Passages
  • Opinions are divided on whether Jesus is referred to as "unique Son" or "unique God", in John 1:18[61]
  • 1 Corinthians 14:33-35. Some scholars regard the instruction for women to be silent in churches as a later, non-Pauline addition to the Letter, more in keeping with the viewpoint of the Pastoral Epistles (see 1 Tim 2.11-12; Titus 2.5) than of the certainly Pauline Epistles. A few manuscripts place these verses after 40[62]

§ It is also worthy to note that various groups of highly conservative Christians believe that when Ps.12:6-7 speaks of the preservation of the words of God, that this nullifies the need for textual criticism, lower, and higher. Such people include Gail Riplinger, Peter Ruckman, and others. Many theological organisations, societies, newsletters, and churches also hold to this belief, including "AV Publications", Sword of The LORD Newsletter, The Antioch Bible Society ( , and others. On the other hand, Reformation biblical scholars such as Martin Luther saw the academic analysis of biblical texts and their provenance as entirely in line with orthodox Christian faith. Many of these men called themselves Christian humanists, precisely because textual criticism (usually of biblical texts) lay at the heart of their work.

Classical texts

While textual criticism developed into a discipline of thorough analysis of the Bible — both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament — scholars also use it to determine the original content of classic texts, such as Plato's Republic.[63] There are far fewer witnesses to classical texts than to the Bible, so scholars can use stemmatics and, in some cases, copy text editing. However, unlike the New Testament where the earliest witnesses are within 200 years of the original, the earliest existing manuscripts of most classical texts were written about a millennium after their composition. Other things being equal, textual scholars expect that a larger time gap between an original and a manuscript means more changes in the text.

See also


  1. Ehrman 2005, p. 46
  2. Vincent. A History of the Textual Criticism of the New Testament
    "... that process which it sought to determine the original text of a document or a collection of documents, and to exhibit, freed from all the errors, corruptions, and variations which may have been accumulated in the course of its transcription by successive copying."
  3. 3.0 3.1 Tanselle, (1989) A Rationale of Textual Criticism'
  4. Jarvis 1995, pp. 1–17
  5. Montgomery 1997
  6. "The apparatus criticus is placed underneath the text simply on account of bookprinting conditions and in particular of the format of modern books. The practice in ancient and medieval manuscripts of using the outer margin for this purpose makes for far greater clarity." Maas 1958, pp. 22–3.
  7. Gaskell, 1978
  8. Greetham 1999, p. 40
    "Tanselle thus combines an Aristotelian praktike, a rigorous account of the phenomenology of text, with a deep Platonic suspicion of this phenomenology, and of the concrete world of experience (see my ' Materiality' for further discussion). For him—and, I would contend, for the idealist, or 'eclectic' editing with which he and Greg-Bowers are often identified, whereby an idealist 'text that never was' is constructed out of the corrupt states of extant documents—ontology is only immanent, never assuredly present in historical, particularized text, for it can be achieved only at the unattainable level of nous rather than phenomenon. Thus, even the high aims of eclectic (or, as it is sometimes known, 'critical') editing can be called into question, because of the unsure phenomenological status of the documentary and historical."
  9. McGann 1992, p. xviiii
  10. Bradley 1990
  11. Bentham, Gosse 1902
  12. Comfort, Comfort 2005, p. 383
  13. Aland, B. 1994, p. 138
  14. 14.0 14.1 Hartin, Petzer, Mannig 2001, pp. 47–53
  15. Aland K., Aland, B. 1987, p. 276
  16. "Critical Rules of Johann Albrecht Bengel". Retrieved 2008-05-24. 
  17. "Critical Rules of Johann Albrecht Bengel". Retrieved 2008-05-24. 
    "Brevior lectio, nisi testium vetustorum et gravium auctoritate penitus destituatur, praeferenda est verbosiori. Librarii enim multo proniores ad addendum fuerunt, quam ad omittendum."
  18. "Theories of Westcott and Hort". Retrieved 2008-05-24. 
    "The reading is to be preferred that makes the best sense, that is, that best conforms to the grammar and is most congruous with the purport of the rest of the sentence and of the larger context." (2.20)
  19. Mulken & van Pieter 1996, p. 84
  20. Wilson and Reynolds 1974, p. 186
  21. Roseman 1999, p. 73
  22. McCarter 1986, p. 62
  23. Greg 1950, p. 20
  24. Tov 2001, pp. 351–68
  25. 25.0 25.1 Ehrman 2005, p. 44.[1] See also [2].
  26. Quoted in Greg 1950, pp. 23–24
  27. McKerrow 1939. pp. 17–8, quoted in Greg 1950, p. 25)
  28. Greg 1950, p. 21
  29. Greg 1950, p. 22
  30. Greg 1950, p. 26
  31. Greg 1950, p. 29
  32. Greg 1950, p. 31
  33. Bowers 1964, p. 224
  34. Greg 1950, p. 36
  35. Bowers 1973, p. 86
  36. 36.0 36.1 Bowers 1964, p. 226
  37. McKerrow 1939, pp. 17–8, quoted in Bowers 1974, p. 82, n. 4
  38. Bowers 1964, p. 227
  39. quoted in Tanselle 1976, p. 168
  40. Tanselle 1995, p. 16
  41. quoted in Zeller 1975, p. 247
  42. Tanselle 1986, p. 19
  43. Greg 1950, p. 32
  44. Tanselle 1976, p. 194
  45. Davis 1977, pp. 2–3
  46. Zeller 1975, pp. 247–248
  47. Tanselle 1976, p. 193
  48. Tanselle 1972, pp. 45–6
  49. Shillingsburg 1989, p. 56, n. 8
  50. Tanselle 1975, pp. 167–8
  51. Davis 1977, p. 61
  52. "Aims and Services of the Committee on Scholarly Editions"". The Committee on Scholarly Editions, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. Retrieved 2008-05-24. 
    "The editorial standards that form the criteria for the award of the CSE "Approved Edition" emblem can be stated here in only the most general terms, since the range of editorial work that comes within the committee's purview makes it impossible to set forth a detailed, step-by-step editorial procedure."
  53. Schuh 2000, p. 7
  54. Tov 2001, p. 9
  55. W. W. Combs, Erasmus and the textus receptus, DBSJ 1 (Spring 1996), 45.
  56. Ehrman 2005, "For the most part, he relied on a mere handful of late medieval manuscripts, which he marked up as if he were copyediting a handwritten copy for the printer. ... Erasmus relied heavily on just one twelfth-century manuscript for the Gospels and another, also of the twelfth century, for the book of Acts and the Epistles. ... For the [last six verses of the] Book of Revelation ... [he] simply took the Latin Vulgate and translated its text back into Greek. ..." (pp 78–79)
  57. Encountering the Manuscripts By Philip Comfort, 102
  58. Dunnett & Tenney 1985, p. 150
  59. Klijnl 1980, p. 14
  60. Ehrman 2006, p. 166
  61. 61.0 61.1 Bruce Metzger "A Textual Commentary on the New Testament", Second Edition, 1994, German Bible Society
  62. Footnotes on 14:34-35 and 14:36 from The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version: A New Annotated Edition by the Society of Biblical Literature, San Francisco, 1993, page 2160. Note also that the NRSV encloses 14:33b-36 in parentheses to characterize it as a parenthetical comment that does not fit in smoothly with the surrounding texts.
  63. Habib 2005, p. 239


  • Aland, Kurt , Aland, Barbara (1987). The Text of the New Testament. Brill. ISBN 9004083677. 
  • Aland, Barbara (1994). New Testament Textual Criticism, Exegesis and Church History. Peeters Publishers. ISBN 9039001057. 
  • Bentham, George, Gosse, Edmund. The Variorum and Definitive Edition of the Poetical and Prose Writings of Edward Fitzgerald, (1902), Doubleday, Page and Co.
  • Bradley, Sculley, Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems, (1980), NYU Press, ISBN 0-814-79444-0
  • Bowers, Fredson (1972). "Multiple Authority: New Problems and Concepts of Copy-Text". Library, Fifth Series XXVII (2): 81–115. 
  • Comfort, Philip Wesley (2005). Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textural Criticism. B&H Publishing Group. ISBN 0-8054-3145-4. 
  • Dunnett, Walter M.; Tenney, Merrill C. (1985). New Testament survey. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. ISBN 0-8028-3611-9. 
  • Davis, Tom (1977). "The CEAA and Modern Textual Editing". Library, Fifth Series XXXII (32): 61–74. 
  • Ehrman, Bart D. (2006). Whose Word Is It?. Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 0-8264-9129-4. 
  • Gaskell, Philip (1978). From Writer to Reader: Studies in Editorial Method. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Greetham, D. C. (1999). Theories of the text. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-811993-3. 
  • Habib, Rafey (2005). A history of literary criticism: from Plato to the present. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Pub. ISBN 0-631-23200-1. 
  • Hartin, Patrick J., Petzer J. H., Manning, Bruce. Text and Interpretation: New Approaches in the Criticism of the New Testament. (1991), BRILL, ISBN 9004094016
  • Jarvis, Simon, Scholars and Gentlemen: Shakespearian Textual Criticism and Representations of Scholarly Labour, 1725-1765, Oxford University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-198-18295-
  • Klijn, Albertus Frederik Johannes, An Introduction to the New Testament (1980), p. 14, BRILL, ISBN 90-040-6263-7
  • Maas, Paul (1958). Textual Criticism:. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-198-14318-4. 
  • McCarter, p. Kyle (1986). Textual criticism: recovering the text of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. ISBN 0-8006-0471-7. 
  • McGann, Jerome J. (1992). A critique of modern textual criticism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. ISBN 0-8139-1418-3. 
  • McKerrow, R. B. (1939). Prolegomena for the Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
  • Montgomery, William Rhadamanthus; Wells, Stanley W.; Taylor, Gary; Jowett, John (1997). William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-31667-X. 
  • von Reenen, Pieter; Margot van Mulken, eds. (1996). Studies in Stemmatology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. 
  • Rosemann, Philipp (1999). Understanding scholastic thought with Foucault. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 73. ISBN 0-312-21713-7. 
  • Schuh, Randall T. (2000). Biological systematics: principles and applications. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-3675-3. 
  • Tanselle, G. Thomas; D. C. Greetham, ed. (1995). "The Varieties of Scholarly Editing". Scholarly Editing: A Guide to Research. New York: The Modern Language Association of America. 
  • Tov, Emanuel (2001). Textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress. ISBN 90-232-3715-3. 
  • Van Mulken, Margot ; Van Reenen, Pieter Th van. (1996). Studies in Stemmatology. John Benjamins Publishing Co. ISBN 90-272-2153-7. 
  • Vincent, Marvin Richardson (1899). A History of the Textual Criticism of the New Testament. Macmillan. Original from Harvard University. 
  • Wegner, Paul (2006). A Student's Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible. InterVarsity Press. 
  • Wilson, N. R. p. ; Reynolds, L. (1974). Scribes and scholars: a guide to the transmission of Greek and Latin literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 186. ISBN 0-19-814371-0. 

Further reading

  • Epp, Eldon J., The Eclectic Method in New Testament Textual Criticism: Solution or Symptom?, The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 69, No. 3/4 (Jul. - Oct., 1976), pp. 211–257
  • Aland B., J. Delobel, New Testament Textual Criticism, Exegesis, and Early Church History, Peeters Publishers, 1994.
  • Hagen, Kenneth, The Bible in the Churches: How Various Christians Interpret the Scriptures, Marquette Studies in Theology, Vol 4; Marquette University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-874-62628-5
  • Hodges, Zane C. and Farstad, Arthur L. The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text with Apparatus, Thomas Nelson; 2nd ed edition (January 1, 1985), ISBN 0-840-74963-5
  • Housman, A. E. (1922). "The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism". Proceedings of the Classical Association 18: 67–84. Retrieved 2008-03-08. 
  • Love, Harold (1993). "section III". Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
  • Komoszewski, Sawyer and Wallace, (2006), Reinventing Jesus, Kregel Publications, 2006, ISBN 978-0825429828
  • Metzger & Ehrman, (2005), The text of the New Testament, OUP, ISBN 978-0195161229
  • Schiffman, Lawrence H., Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls: The History of Judaism, the Background of Christianity, the Lost Library of Qumran; Jewish Publication Society, 1st ed. 1994, ISBN 0-827-60530-7
  • Soulen, Richard N. and Soulen, R. Kendall, Handbook of Biblical Criticism; Westminster John Knox Press; 3 edition (October 2001), ISBN 0-664-22314-1

External links



This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Textual criticism. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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