Nel Brace

Textual Criticism for the Rest of Us

Nel Brace | 13 April 2020 | 7 min read

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”[1]

For a 21st century believer, Paul’s statement implies two prior assumptions as he considers the authority of the biblical text: the original Scriptures were true and, what we have before us today is an accurate copy of these autographs. The discipline of textual criticism concerns itself with the latter. Broadly defined, it is the study of any written compositions of which the original is only survived by copies that contain variants (differences) in the text. It is a science since it is governed by rules and it is an art since the rules cannot always be applied rigidly.

Thus, Biblical Textual Criticism is the attempt to discover, as nearly as possible, the original text of Scripture as written by the original authors using manuscript copies.

Textual criticism must not be confused with Higher Criticism, which is concerned with the literary and historical background of a text and asks questions about its date of composition, authorship, and audience. It is also not Palaeography, that is, the study of a document as a physical artefact (its size, colour, format etc.) which can be done without ever looking at the actual text.

Textual criticism precedes any other study of Scripture. Before you can know what the Bible teaches and how it applies to your life, you need to have the actual text, that is, the words that make up its content, in front of you. Every teacher of the Bible (and one could argue any serious student of it as well) should understand the process of textual criticism and ideally be able to practice it as well. It is foundational to all biblical studies. “Interpretation, teaching and preaching cannot be done until textual criticism has done it’s work.”[2]

Manuscripts (handwritten copies) are the “tools” of this “trade.” It is the work of the textual critic to compare and note variants (differences) between these manuscripts with considerations for their age as well as their geographical origin. Through such a comparison and the artful application of the rules of textual criticism, a text critical version of the original document can then be compiled.

Compared to all other ancient texts, Biblical manuscripts are largest in number, of high quality, from a wide geographical area, and in relative close proximity to the time of the composition of the original documents. All of these attributes assist the textual critic in his work of discovering the original wording.

It is hardly surprising that the biblical autographs are not available to us. Primitive writing materials, age, turbulent circumstances, and general usage are all factors that made it highly unlikely that the original documents would survive. Some might even argue that it is the providence of God that no single autograph is available for alteration and that a myriad of manuscripts from different areas and times bear a more trustworthy witness to the original words.

Critics of the reliability of the Bible will often point to the high number of variants that exist between manuscripts of the biblical text. Though this allegation might sound alarming, it is important to remember that the number of variants can be directly attributed to the large number of manuscripts that are available for comparison. More copies mean more differences. It is also important to understand the nature of these errors. One has to ask: do they have any significant bearing upon the meaning of the text?

New Testament textual critic, Daniel Wallace categorises four kind of variants: Spelling and nonsense readings which accounts for 75% of variants in the New Testament. These differences in spelling and obvious scribal errors are easy to detect and do not affect the meaning of the text. Changes that cannot be translated and synonyms are also not relevant to the meaning of the text. This would include differences in word order which, unlike in English, do not alter the meaning of a sentence in the original languages. Meaningful variants that are not viable are changes of which the meaning is different and sensible, but highly unlikely. Finally, there are also meaningful and viable variants. These comprise less than 1% of the variants and although they affect the meaning of particular passages, no central doctrine of Christianity is at stake.[3]

Biblical textual criticism is a vibrant discipline and trained scholars are still finding, dating, cataloguing, analysing, and comparing recent manuscript discoveries.  No other ancient text has undergone such academic scrutiny and no other ancient text can claim such a rich text critical heritage. Most importantly, no ancient text can claim such accuracy. Footnotes in your Bible that highlight verses where significant variants exist between manuscripts do not cast a shadow over the text. Rather, they bear witness to a vigorous, transparent, and systematic process by which the reader is assured that the text in his hand resembles as nearly as possible the words of the original authors.

It is incumbent on every believer to familiarise himself with the history of and evidence for the Biblical text. The scholars who dedicate their life’s work to the preservation of the biblical text deserve our support and prayers. Most importantly though, through reading, studying, and meditation this Text must be allowed to teach, reproof, correct and train all who follow the Christ of whom it speaks so that they may be complete and equipped.

Suggested Readings

Black, David A. New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.

Brotzman, Ellis R. and Tully, Eric J. Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2016.

Komoszewski J. ed, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace. Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead the Popular Culture. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006.

Tov, Emanuel. Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Fortress Press, 2012.

Wegner, Paul D. A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods and Results. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.


[1] 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

[2] David Alan Black, New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 12.

[2] “An Interview with Daniel B. Wallace on the New Testament Manuscripts,” available at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/an-interview-with-daniel-b-wallace-on-the-new-testament-manuscripts/ accessed April 11, 2020.

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