What is textual criticism, anyway?  Before we begin talking deeply about textual criticism, it would probably be helpful to know what it is!  Textual criticism is the attempt to ascertain or arrive at the original wording of a text.  Basically, textual criticism is comparing the differences (called variants) in the copies of a document to which we no longer have access; and then using these copies to reconstruct what the original document said.

As an extremely simplified example, let’s say that we have a phrase:

The cat sat in the rain

but we don’t have access to the original sheet of paper on which this phrase was written.  All we have are copies.  But as people copied this phrase, mistakes were made and variants were created:

The cat sat in the rain
The cat sat in the rain
The cat sat on the rain
The cat sat in the train
The hat sat in the rain
The cat sat in the rain
The cat sat in the rane
The dog sat in the rain

and so forth.  When we practice textual criticism, we compare all the differences in these various copies in order to get back to the original phrase: The cat sat in the rain.  Now this is a relatively simple example.  This process is multiplied immensely in its complexity when we encompass the entirety of a whole book!—for our purposes, the individual books of the New Testament.

When we talk about New Testament textual criticism, we are talking about collating (gathering and comparing) all of the handwritten manuscripts of the New Testament that we possess; and then using those copies and their differences to get back to what the New Testament originally said.

Differences among New Testament manuscripts should not scare or bother us, even though they might at first.  Keep in mind that when God gave us the New Testament, he did not use a photocopier!  People, for centuries, copied these books by hand; and people make mistakes.  They leave words out; they add words in; they misspell words or rearrange where the words go in the sentence; they accidentally skip a line.  It happens.  If you do not think people make mistakes when they copy things by hand, sit down and write out the entire book of John some afternoon!  You will quickly see that mistakes are just a reality of the situation.  Recognizing these copying mistakes and fixing them is where textual criticism comes in.

Textual criticism is necessary because we no longer have any of the original New Testament documents (called autographs) straight from the pen of their authors.  If we did, textual criticism obviously would not be necessary: if we had the original copy of 2 Peter, we could just compare all of the copies we have to it.  But God, in his providence, has not seen fit to preserve the actual original documents of any New Testament book.  We do not have THE letter that Paul wrote to Titus.  We have copies of it.  We do not have THE gospel that Luke wrote for Theophilus.  We have copies of it.  When we approach the topic of New Testament textual criticism, or textual criticism at all, we need to understand that we are dealing with copies.

Copies of Copies

The issue becomes even more complex when we realize that we do not have the originals; and we probably do not have direct copies of them, either.  What we have are copies of copies.  Of copies.  Of copies of copies of copies.

Use this graphic as an example.  Only one dot—the dot at the top—is the original autograph of a given book.  Everything else is a copy of something: of the original or of another copy.  Think about it generationally: the manuscript at the top is the original, the copies of it are the first generation of copies, the copies of generation one copies are the second generation, the copies of generation two are the third generation, and so forth. J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism, p. 14.)

It can be discouraging to realize that New Testament textual criticism is dealing with copies of copies of copies of copies.  But things get even worse when we realize that copying errors can compound.

Let’s go back to our simplified example from earlier.  The original said, “A cat sat in the rain”.  Now let’s suppose that someone was copying and accidentally wrote “A cat sat in the train” in their copy (let’s call it Copy X).  Unless someone notices the mistake and corrects it, all of the copies of Copy X will say “A cat sat in the train”.  Theoretically this is a big problem.  Theoretically we might not be dealing with just copies of copies of copies: we might be dealing with mistakes of mistakes of mistakes!

Don’t Despair

But the situation is not nearly so bad as it sounds.  We have God’s promise that he will preserve his words for us.  Psalm 12:6-7 says, ” The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.  Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever”.  Let me reassure the troubled reader: God has not left us hopelessly without his word and the Bible is not riddled with mistakes.  God’s word is totally inerrant.  Textual criticism actually helps us understand and protect the inerrancy of God’s word.

When we are assessing the reliability of a manuscript tradition we are talking about its consistency through time: saying a manuscript tradition is “reliable” means that the modern copies are essentially the same as the ancient ones.  The manuscript tradition (the whole body of textual evidence) for the New Testament is totally unique.  No other ancient book, religious or secular, has the textual evidence that antiquity has given us for the New Testament.  In determining reliability have to look at 1) when the autograph was written, 2) how many textual witnesses (copies or quotations) there are, and 3) how long the time gap is between the original the copies.  With this in mind, consider these facts about several ancient documents:

(From The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell)

The New Testament manuscript tradition is far and away the most reliable manuscript tradition preserved by antiquity.  The closest comparison, for several reasons, is Homer’s Iliad.  But even here the New Testament is immensely better.

First, the New Testament has over eight times the copies that Homer’s Iliad does; and that’s if we are only talking about Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.  According to an article by Daniel Wallace, “Altogether, we have at least 20,000 handwritten manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic and other ancient languages that help us to determine the wording of the original.”  So, if we also included all the copies of the ancient translations of the New Testament that we have, the New Testament has over thirty times as many manuscripts as Homer’s Iliad.

Second, the time gap between the original and the copies is much smaller for the New Testament.  There is a 400 year gap between when the Iliad was written and the earliest copies that we have of it.  By comparison, there is (realistically speaking) only about a 250 year time gap for the New Testament.  Homer’s Iliad is a very close comparison, text-critically speaking, to the New Testament.  The differences in manuscript quantity and time gap are even more radical when we compare the New Testament to other ancient writings.  No other work in antiquity can make the boasts of reliability that the New Testament can.

There are variants in our copies of the New Testament; but this fact emphatically does NOT mean that the New Testament is unreliable or that we have somehow lost the word of God.  According to many scholars, whenever we leave out spelling mistakes and variations that cannot be translated, the New Testament is 98% variant-free.  That is a fact; and that fact is miraculous.

Go Deeper

Explore these pages to learn more about New Testament textual criticism:

Considerations Made By Scholars
Greek Manuscripts
Early Versions of the New Testament
Text Types

Read some of our Blog Posts Involving Textual Criticism