A Very Brief Introduction To Textual Criticism

The New Testament books were originally handwritten in the Greek language. Such documents are called manuscripts. Copies of the books were made on both papyrus (a paper-like material) and the more durable parchment (from animal hides). At the time the New Testament books were written Greek only had uppercase or capital letters. Manuscripts in capital letters written on papyrus are known as papyri and signified by the letter p and a number. Manuscripts in capital letters written on parchment are known as uncials or majuscules and signified by a number that starts with a zero; some of the uncial manuscripts are also signified by a capital letter of the Roman or Greek alphabet (the most complete New Testament uncial is signified by the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet: Aleph). In the middle ages lowercase letters for Greek were created. Manuscripts written in lowercase letters are known as minuscules and signified by numbers that do not start with zero. Many more minuscule manuscripts still exist and they are often cited together with the symbols Byz or M (in Old English font) or Maj (meaning Byzantine period manuscripts or the majority of manuscripts). Church readings of Sunday selections are called Lectionaries and signified by Lect. Beginning in the second century the New Testament writings were translated into Latin (abbreviated here as lat and the Latin Vulgate as vg), Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic abbreviated as syr) and Coptic (the language of ancient Egypt abbreviated cop), among other languages.

Unfortunately, the original writings of the New Testament no longer exist. They have been destroyed by the processes of time. But the New Testament has been preserved in God's providence by copies being made, first of the originals and then later copies of the copies and so on through the centuries. The earliest complete copy of the New Testament that we now have was made about 300 years after the New Testament was written, although manuscripts of some parts have been found that were copied less than 100 years after the originals were written. For the first fifteen hundred years of copying, copies had to be made by hand. This means that all the types of errors that can creep into handwritten copies can be found in the manuscripts of the New Testament. Additionally, old manuscripts may deteriorate over time, losing edges and having ink fade, and whole pages may be lost. Fortunately, we have enough copies to establish what the original read like with a good degree of certainty. This is the task of textual criticism: to examine the manuscripts and determine what is original text and what are copying errors.

One of the drawbacks of making copies is that once a mistake has been made, unless it is so obvious as to be corrected, it will appear in all the copies of that copy from now on. Because of this, consideration must be given to the age of the manuscripts that contain a particular reading as well as the number of manuscripts that contain it. If an error is made in an early manuscript, all the copies from it will contain that error. If it was an often copied manuscript, there will be many manuscripts that contain that error, so the true text cannot be arrived at by counting manuscripts.

Manuscripts that were copied from the same or similar manuscripts show similar readings and similar errors. These manuscripts are grouped together in what is sometimes called text families, or in this book, types of ancient text. In the second to fourth centuries four major types of ancient text appeared. They are commonly given the names Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean, and Byzantine.

The Alexandrian type of text is slightly shorter than the other kinds of text. It is the kind of text found in the three oldest manuscripts that contain most of the New Testament, as well as the Greek translation of the Old Testament (abbreviated LXX): Sinaiticus (manuscript Aleph(א), 4th century), Alexandrinus (manuscript A, Alexandrian not in the Gospels, but in the rest of the New Testament, 5th century), and Vaticanus (manuscript B; missing 1 Timothy through Philemon, the end of Hebrews from 9:14 on, and Revelation, 4th century). Most textual critics today consider this to be the most reliable form of ancient text.

The Western type of ancient text is the longest of the four kinds. It shows a tendency to paraphrase readings, to add material, and sometimes omit material. The Latin translations, including the Vulgate, generally follow this kind of ancient text, although the Vulgate itself sometimes shows a tendency to follow an Alexandrian reading. This Western type of text is probably the least trustworthy of the four kinds of ancient text. But it did arise very early in the copying of the New Testament, and so where it agrees with the Alexandrian type of ancient text, there is a strong possibility that this is the original reading.

The Caesarean type of ancient text has been identified only for the Gospels. Only a few manuscripts show this kind of text.

The Byzantine type of ancient text seems to be the most recent of the four. It was apparently produced in an attempt to produce a common type of text. It shows a tendency to combine readings of the other types of text. It became the standard Greek text for the church of the middle ages, and so is the text used in most later manuscripts. Some textual critics today prefer this kind of ancient text as being the closest to the original and refer to it as the Majority Text, since it is found in the majority of manuscripts. It is the type of ancient text found in the Gospels of manuscript Alexandrinus (manuscript A). The King James Version was based on this kind of text, although it sometimes follows the Latin Vulgate instead.

When textual critics begin to try to determine which reading is the original text, they do not merely count manuscripts; rather they consider the ages of the manuscripts that have a particular reading, the type of ancient text or texts that these manuscripts belong to, and the character of the copyists of these manuscripts. For this last, they ask questions such as: Was this a careful copyist? What kinds of mistakes did this copyist often (or occasionally) make? Where a reading is found in more than one kind of ancient text, it is more likely to be original than a reading found in only one kind of ancient text.

But textual criticism is not just a matter of looking at the manuscripts that contain the variant readings. The readings themselves must be examined. Sometimes the original reading will be found in only one type of ancient text. The clue to it is often found by asking what would have caused the error. It could have been accidental, due to a mistake of the eyes or ears, or even due to a mental lapse. Or it could have been an intentional change. The textual critic must look for a reason for such a change. In general, copyists were more likely to change difficult readings to easier ones, so the more difficult readings are often the original ones. And they were more likely to add material than omit it, so the shorter reading is more likely than not to be original.

Everyone who has tried to copy something by hand has found out that it is easy to make mistakes accidentally, and the men who copied the New Testament were subject to these same kinds of mistakes. Early Greek manuscripts were written in all capital letters, without punctuation or accent marks, and with no spaces between words, like this:


Sometimes the eye of a copyist would jump back to similar letters and he would copy the same thing twice. Sometimes his eye would jump ahead to similar letters and he would omit the text between them. Sometimes he would mistake one letter for another and thus write a similarly spelled word. Sometimes when several manuscripts were being copied at once by having one man read the text to several copyists, a copyist would make a mistake of the ear and write down a word that sounded like the one that the reader spoke. Sometimes a copyists would remember a more familiar text and unintentionally write that down instead of what he just read or heard. All of these kinds of accidental mistakes are found in the New Testament manuscripts, and the textual critic must watch for them.

But there are also some intentional changes that are found in the manuscripts. Sometimes a copyist would omit or change material that he thought was superfluous, harsh, or contrary to his beliefs or practices. Copyists would often bring parallel passages into perfect agreement by changing one or the other of them to read like the other. This especially happened in the Gospels, where even whole verses were sometimes added to one Gospel from another. It also happened with Old Testament quotations, where copyists had a tendency to change quotations that the writer had paraphrased to read exactly like the Greek Old Testament. Copyists would sometimes replace rare or unfamiliar words with more familiar synonyms. Sometimes they would try to improve the grammar and smooth out the text to read easier. Words that were implied but not stated would be added. Titles applied to God and Jesus would be expanded (e.g., "Jesus" becomes "the Lord Jesus Christ"). The textual critic must be on the lookout for all of these kinds of changes. He must always ask: Is there is any reason why copyists might have changed one reading to another? Often the reason for a change gives the clue to the original reading.

For the reader who wishes to find out more about the science of textual criticism, a good beginning text is Neil Lightfoot's How We Got the Bible and a more advanced text is Bruce Metzger's The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration.

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