How We Got the Bible: Textual Criticism

I. What is textual criticism?

“Textual criticism is the science and art that seeks to determine the most reliable wording of a text.” – Paul Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible, 24

We have many manuscripts (mss) of biblical books, and no two manuscripts are exactly the same. They contain variants, or differences in wording.

II. How much of the Bible contains variant readings?

OT – one current critical edition has one textual note for each 10 words – meaning that 90% is without significant variation.

NT – one current critical edition has notes on 7% of the words.

III. How many manuscripts are there?

We have over 5,700 mss from the Greek New Testament (only 60 are of the entire NT, but the vast majority are of complete books). The earliest one is a fragment of the Gospel of John from the early second century.

We have another 10,000 copies in Latin

We have between 10,000 and 15,000 copies in other languages

We have more than one million quotations of NT writings from the church fathers

By comparison:

Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War: 8 mss, the oldest dated to 900 AD. Also, a few fragments from 1st century AD

Livy, Annals of the Roman People: 142 volumes, but only 35 survive. We have 20 mss, the oldest from 4th century AD

Julius Caesar, Gallic War: only 9 or 10 mss of good quality; the earliest from 900 years after Caesar

IV. What kinds of variants are there?

A. Unintentional

1. Mistaken Letters – confusion of similar letters, as in I Tim. 3:16, where the Greek for “the one who is” was sometimes confused with “God.”

2. Homophones – substitution of similar sounding words. In Rom. 5:1, the Greek for “we have” and “we shall have” sound similar (there is only one letter difference, and those two letters are sometimes indistinguishable).

3. Haplography – the omission of a letter or word, as in Judges 20:13. 9 out of 10 times in the OT, people from the tribe of Benjamin are called “sons of Benjamin,” but here they are just called “Benjamin.” Probably some scribe skipped the word for “sons,” because it looks very similar to the beginning of “Benjamin.”

4. Dittography – writing a letter or word twice instead of once. Mark 3:16 contains the words “he appointed the twelve,” which may just be a repetition of the same phrase from verse 14.

5. Metathesis – a reversal in order of two letters or words. Most manuscripts of Deut. 31:1 read “and Moses went,” but one reads “and Moses finished.” The difference between the two in Hebrew is that two letters have switched places.

6. Fusion – two words that have incorrectly been joined together. Some manuscripts of Mark 10:40 read “but for whom,” and others read “for others.” The first variant is two words in Greek, and the second is those two words joined together.

7. Fission – one word that has incorrectly been split apart. A few manuscripts of Rom. 7:14 have “on the one hand I know”(oida men) instead of “we know” (oidamen).

8. Parablepsis – an omission caused by two words or phrases that begin or end similarly. In I Jn. 2:23 the phrase “has the father” appears twice. Some mss don’t have the words between the two, which means the scribe accidentally skipped from the first one to the second one.

9. Other omissions or additions – sometimes a word or phrase is left out or added and we can’t tell why. For example, some mss lack the words “in Ephesus” in Eph. 1:1.

B. Intentional

1. Spelling or grammar changes – in Matt. 1:7-8, the name “Asaph” was changed by some scribes to “Asa,” because Asa was a well-known king of Judah from the OT (I Kings 15:9-24)

2. Clearing up difficulties – In Mark 1:2-3, there is a combined quote from Malachi and Isaiah. Most early mss attribute it to Isaiah alone, but later scribes tried to clear this up by saying “in the prophets.”

3. Harmonization (commonly between the gospels) – the phrase “it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, in Greek” was added to mss of Luke 23:38, probably to make it sound like John 19:20.

4. Euphemisms – the substitution of a milder term for an unpleasant or more offensive one. In the OT, some writers did not want to write down the name of the god Baal, writing “shame” instead (2 Sam. 4:4).

5. Theological changes – in Luke 2:41, 43, some scribes changed the words “his parents” to “Joseph and Mary” or “Joseph and his mother.” Apparently this was to protect the doctrine of the virgin birth.

6. Additions – some mss of Luke 24:53 add the word “amen,” possibly because some scribes thought a gospel should end this way.

Bart Ehrman claims that there are between 200,000 and 400,000 variants in NT manuscripts, which is more than the 138,162 words in the NT. That is a startling figure. But what does it mean?

According to text critic Daniel Wallace, 70-80% of these variants are spelling differences that can’t even be translated into English and have no impact on meaning. For example, sometimes the Greek word for “John” is spelled with two n’s, and sometimes with one.

Some of the variants are differences in word order. But Greek is different from English, in that word order doesn’t matter. There are many ways to say the exact same thing, but all differences in word order are counted as variants.

“Only about one percent of variants are both meaningful, which means they affect the meaning of the text to some degree, and viable, which means they have a decent chance of going back to the original text.” – Daniel B. Wallace

In spite of what some say, not a single essential Christian doctrine is refuted by a plausible textual variant. Not one.

V. Examples of controversial text critical issues in the New Testament:

A. John 7:53-8:11 – The Woman Caught in Adultery

Most scholars believe that it was not originally in John, because it is not in the earliest and best mss, its writing style and vocabulary are different from the rest of the book.

What difference does it make?

B. Long Ending of Mark (16:9-20)

Most scholars believe that it was not originally in Mark, because it does not appear in the earliest and best mss, and also has a different writing style from the rest of the book.

What difference does it make?

C. 1 John 5:7-8 – the “Johannine Comma”

according to Daniel Wallace, it came from an 8th-century sermon. There are only four manuscripts that have it, and all are from the 16th-17th centuries. It is almost certainly not authentic; it is an intentional theological change.

However, the doctrine of the Trinity did not come from this verse. The Councils of Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451) affirmed this doctrine long before, and the NT is clear that the Father is God, Jesus is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and these three are one. See Matt. 28:18-20, Titus 3:4-6, 1 Peter 1:2, etc.

D. I Timothy 3:16

The best mss read “He was revealed in flesh,” but some others read “God was revealed in flesh.” The first one is probably correct. Ehrman argues that this undermines Christian belief in Jesus as God.

However, this is not the only place in the NT where Jesus is explicitly referred to as God. See John 1:1, John 20:28, and Hebrews 1:8, as well as other verses where it is not as explicit.

Recommended Reading:

Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus.
Paul Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible.


One thought on “How We Got the Bible: Textual Criticism

  1. Elliot's Mom December 18, 2008 / 12:56 am

    What a lot of COOL information! I knew there was a lot more evidence of Jesus’ existence than there was of the existence of some Greek philosophers, but the differences in numbers of manuscripts is ENORMOUS! The specific examples of differences, and what they are like, are great. “Incomplete Bible” (as in some translations) indeed. Pooh. Accepting negative statements about the Bible at face value is never wise. I’ll bet some of the “full of inconsistenies” people haven’t even read it. They’re just passng on rumours, probably started by those bitter about Christianity for reasons other than Bible reading. I’m so thankful you collected all that information and presented it so clearly. The faith of many should be strengthened by that.

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