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Ten Facts about NT Textual Criticism

ttfonttc 1 the original autographsFact One: The Originals


The original copies of the 27 books of the NT (called the ‘autographs’) were written between about AD40 and AD100 in Koine (i.e. common) Greek, the language of the ordinary man of the Mediterranean world. We no longer possess the original copies of these books written by the authors themselves.



Not only was the NT originally written in Greek, but as well as this, it is probable that at least 20 of the 27 original 'autographs' of the books of the NT were originally in the possession of Churches in greater Greece (Greece, Greek Asia Minor and the Greek Mediterranean islands) - the heart and centre of the Church by AD 100. Virtually every one of John's, Paul's, Peter's and James' writings (and if we add Luke's and Jude's we have 23 out of the 27 NT books) was probably originally located in the Greek heartland of the Church. Only Matthew, Mark, Romans and Hebrews were originally sent elsewhere.

Fact Two: The Copies

The original writings of the New Testament were copied many times by early Christians. However, no two copies in our possession today are identical. All these copies (called ‘manuscripts’ because they were ‘copied by hand’ before the invention of printing presses in the 1400's) have differences. These are mostly the result of mistakes in the copying process over the years, although some are deliberate alterations. Thus, it is virtually certain that every manuscript we have contains mistakes.

While Christian believers (like the present author) hold that the original documents of the authors of the New Testament were inspired by God and were therefore without error, no textual critics affirm the idea that God inspired anyone else. No scribe was inspired to produce a perfect handwritten copy of the original documents, neither was any later editor of the New Testament text inspired by God to produce a perfect text of the New Testament, nor were any translators of the New Testament inspired by God in their efforts to translate the New Testament into other languages. Any claims of such Divine supervision over such scribal, editorial or translation efforts are heresy and nonsense.

Fact Three: Why We Can Trust the Copies

There are three reasons why we can be confident that the copies of the NT present us with what the original NT actually said. Firstly, we possess a number of manuscripts that are very early, dating from before the middle of the 2nd Century. P52 is a fragmentary manuscript of John 18, dated from about A.D. 125 – less than 50 years after John’s Gospel was originally written. P66 (containing virtually all of John’s Gospel) dates from about A.D. 200. The earliest complete NT is found in Codex Sinaiticus, dated in the A.D. 300s.

Secondly, we have a large number of these hand-written copies. There are over 5 600 Greek manuscript copies of various parts of the NT. These date from the A.D. 100s right through to the 15th Century. We have far more manuscript copies of the NT writings than we do for any other ancient Greek or Latin author – and our manuscript copies of the NT date from much closer in time to when they were originally written than do the copies of any other ancient book. For example, the greatest book of ancient Greek literature, Homer's Iliad, was written about 900BC. However, we only possess about 650 copies of the Iliad, and the oldest copy dates from 400 BC. In other words, the earliest copy in our possession dates from 500 years after the book was originally written. Yet for the New Testament, the gap between the original New Testament and the earliest copy we have of it is less than 50 years.

Thirdly, these early and numerous copies of the NT say virtually exactly the same thing as our present-day Bibles – there are no huge discrepancies. The vast majority of differences between the copies we posses are trivial differences like spelling variations and obvious slips of the pen. While there are some difficult places (which textual critics debate over), we can be confident that the correct reading at any disputed point is found amongst one of the variant readings found in the manuscripts we possess. Finally, the differences between the manuscript copies do not affect any major teaching or doctrine of the New Testament. We can therefore be very confident that virtually all of the original wording of the New Testament is preserved in these copies.

Fact Four: Types of Manuscripts

There are four main types of Greek manuscripts. Firstly, the earliest copies of the NT we possess are called Papyri (because they were written on papyrus). At the beginning of the 20th Century, archaeologists discovered these Greek manuscripts buried in the sands of Egypt, some dating back to the second Century A.D. To highlight the importance of these manuscripts, they were given their own numbering system – a letter P prefixed to their number. Whilst many of these are the most ancient copies of the NT we possess, many of them are no more than small scraps with very little of the NT written on them. At present there are about 120 papyrus copies of the NT (and their number is increasing as more are found).

Secondly, there are the Uncial or majuscule manuscripts. These were manuscripts written in capital letters, written on parchment (animal skins), dating mainly from the Fourth to Ninth Centuries. Some of the most famous of these manuscripts are A (Codex Alexandrinus), Codex Sinaiticus, B (Codex Vaticanus) and D (Codex Bezae). Uncials are now designated using a zero in front of a number, eg. Codex Sinaiticus is 01, A (Alexandrinus) = 02, B (Vaticanus) = 03, etc.

The Minuscules were the first sort of Greek manuscripts to come to the notice of Bible scholars in the West after Greek monks fled the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in AD 1453. Minuscules are named after the style of lettering – a small running-writing style. These manuscripts were written from the Ninth Century and onwards and are numbered 1, 2, 3, etc. Minuscules still make up a large percentage of our Greek manuscripts of the NT.

Lastly, there are also many Lectionary copies of the New Testament. These are Greek manuscripts which were used for public reading in the Greek churches. They were therefore not written in the normal order of the NT books, but were written in the order of the lessons of the Church calendar. There are over 2000 of these Lectionary manuscripts (nearly half of all our Greek manuscripts) and these are catalogued with a letter L prefixed to their number.

Not all manuscripts that we have found are altogether alike. The vast majority (over 90%) of the 5600 Greek manuscripts we possess have a very similar standard wording. This is the form of New Testament found in most minuscules, most of the later uncials and the lectionaries.

These copies are sometimes collectively called the Byzantine Text (because it is believed by some scholars that this text with its standard wording was spread from Byzantium in Asia Minor, the centre of the Greek-speaking Church after AD350). None of these copies in our possession date before the 4th Century. Some scholars claim that these Byzantine manuscripts are the least trustworthy of all the manuscripts – even though they make up the overwhelming majority. They say that these manuscripts were ‘disfigured by the accumulation over the centuries of myriads of scribal alterations’ (Metzger in 'A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament', 1971, p xxiii). At other times, some instead argue that these manuscripts were the result of a Recension – that is, an officially-imposed edition which ‘doctored’ the text of the NT. On the other hand, it could be argued that the great uniformity of these copies is proof that they were produced with high levels of accuracy and faithfulness over a period of 1000 years (AD 400 to AD1400).

The handwritten copies of the NT from before the 4th Century show the exact opposite character. These copies not only diverge from the wording of the later standard majority of copies, but they also show more differences amongst themselves. The later high standards of accurate copying are not found in the earlier copies. Perhaps this was because many copies were made privately because of the persecution of Christians during these years. But some of the early copies show more liberties being taken by some early copyists. They often felt free to paraphrase, change words, or add or omit words in the early years of the copying of the NT. It is generally agreed amongst scholars that most of the errors that are found in the manuscripts were introduced within the first 200 years of the copying of the New Testament.

Thus, to account for the different sorts of wordings found in the manuscripts, the manuscripts are generally grouped into what are called Text-Types. Despite problems defining what constitutes a text-type, there are four generally accepted ‘types’ of NT text. These 'Text-Types' are named after the geographical areas in which it is thought that they developed. That is, in the early years of the copying of the New Testament, it seemed to develop different peculiarities in different geographical regions. 

Firstly, there is the Byzantine Text-type. This is the type of New Testament wording found in the vast majority of manuscripts we possess, most of which date from the Fourth Century onwards. Hence it is also sometimes called the Majority Text. There is debate and disagreement over whether it is a good type of text or not. Some scholars rate it the least trustworthy of the text-types, while others hold it to be the best of the four text-types. This is one of the main points of dispute in Textual Criticism.

Secondly, there is the Alexandrian Text-type. This is the wording found amongst manuscripts produced in Alexandria and Egypt generally. Most of the early papyrus manuscripts that have been discovered in Egypt in the last 100 years are of this type of text, as well as some of the early uncials.

Thirdly, there are some Greek manuscripts which have a text often referred to as the Western Text. This is the text found in the Western Mediterranean area (including North Africa) and in the early Latin manuscripts. However, this name is somewhat misleading in that some of the Eastern versions (translations) of the New Testament often have these ‘Western’ readings also.

Lastly, there is some evidence for a fourth Text-Type, the Caesarean Text-Type (although there is no evidence of its existence outside the Gospel of Mark).

Which Text-Type is the best? This is one of the most important questions in NT Textual Criticism. How different scholars value different text-types  is the crucial question which underlies their approach and which determines what their resultant New Testament text looks like.

Fact Five: The Small Percentage of Early Copies we Possess

Despite the fact that we have over 5 000 Greek manuscripts of the NT, we only possess a very small proportion of all the copies that must have existed in the early Christian centuries. The simple fact that all of our 50 or so earliest copies (from A.D. 125 to A.D. 300, the first two centuries after the writing of the NT) come from the same geographically remote localities of Upper Egypt suggests that there must have been significant numbers of copies of the New Testament writings in the many other geographical localities of the Roman Empire in early times (that we do not possess). Another proof that we have an exceedingly small fraction of the total number of manuscripts that must have existed is that there are so few mother-daughter pairs of manuscripts. Hardly any of the 5600 Greek manuscripts we possess are direct copies of other manuscripts we possess. This means that many more manuscripts must have existed which have not been preserved to this day. Indeed, we know from history that some of the severe Roman persecutions of these first two centuries targeted and burned the Christian scriptures. Thus, while it is amazing that so many early copies have been discovered, we can be certain that we only possess the smallest fraction of all those that must have been produced during this period.

This fact leads to some cautionary lessons. One lesson is that excessive confidence in the wording found in the earliest copies may be unwarranted due to their limited number and the localized nature of their witness to the NT text: they represent a tiny fraction of the total number of MSS that must have existed throughout the Roman world in the centuries from which they come. The sensational nature of the discovery of these early MSS copies of the New Testament has, somewhat understandably, resulted – in some quarters – in a relaxation of the critical caution that perhaps should have attended the reception of their texts. 

Another important lesson is that it is highly unlikely that we possess all the variant readings that have existed at a particular trouble spot in the New Testament. This means that it might be quite presumptuous of textual critics to pronounce upon which variant reading at a particular spot gave rise to all the other corrupt forms of the text at this spot. This would be like a judge handing down a verdict in a case in which important evidence had not come to light.

Fact Six: Other Language Versions

Apart from the Greek manuscripts, the NT was also translated into a number of other languages very early on: Latin, Syrian, Coptic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Slavic and others. There are, in fact, more copies of the NT in Latin (about 10 000) than in Greek (5 000). These other language copies also help us to work out what the NT originally said.

For example, if the Greek manuscripts have different readings at a particular point in the New Testament and we wish to work out which reading is correct we can look at the other Versions to see what their reading is. If virtually all of the other language versions of the New Testament side with one of the options in our Greek manuscripts, we would assume that this is the correct reading. How would all of the different Versions independently come up with the same reading – unless it was the correct reading? It would be very surprising if all of the other language versions independently read the same error. Thus, the Versions often provide some help in determining the correct reading.

Or to give another example, if a reading is only supported by Versions from the same area of the Roman world where the Greek manuscripts that have this reading also come from, we can safely assume that this is simply a reading peculiar to that one geographical area. We often find that the readings of some of the early Greek manuscripts are only supported by Egyptian dialect Versions, or alternatively, by early Latin Versions. This heavily suggests that these Greek readings are only the peculiar readings of these geographical areas – Egypt or the Latin-speaking West. If these readings had wider support among the Versions, then we could have more confidence in them.

Some of the Versions that are considered important are:

  1. The Latin. There are Old Latin manuscripts (usually noted as 'It' with a superscript lower case letter or letters, for example: a, d, aur, k) as well as the Latin Vulgate, the 4th Century translation of the Bible into Latin by Jerome.
  2. The Syriac. There are a number of different translations into Syriac - notably the Sinaitic, the Curetonian , the Peshitto, the Harklean, the Philoxenian and the Palestinian version.
  3. The Coptic (i.e. Egyptian dialects). The two main versions of the Coptic are the Sahidic and the Bohairic, but there are other minor versions as well.
  4. The Armenian 
  5. The Georgian 
  6. The Ethiopic 
  7. The Old Church Slavonic.

There are problems, of course, with these Versions. Just like different language versions of the New Testament today, not everything in one language is always directly transferable into another. Sometimes the differences in the Greek manuscripts do not cross the language barrier clearly. Nevertheless, we can make good use of these early language Versions in our quest to work out what the wording of the original Greek New Testament was.

Fact Seven: Quotations in the Writings of the Church Fathers

Another aid in determining the original reading of the NT is to look at how early Christian writers quoted the New Testament. In fact, the vast majority of the NT can be reconstructed from the writings of the early Christian ‘Fathers’, who quoted it extensively in their sermons, commentaries and arguments. These quotations from the NT found in the writings of the early Church 'Fathers' can to help determine what the NT they read from said. The Church Fathers thus lend additional witness to certain readings. They particularly help in dating and locating readings, because we often know when and where the Father who quoted them lived.

There are problems with the Church Fathers, too. We do not always know whether they were giving a strict quote, a paraphrase, a passing allusion or quoting from (poor) memory. We must be cautious about quoting them. Nevertheless, they are also a valuable resource.

Fact Eight: Printed Editions of the NT

After the arrival of the printing press, scribes were no longer required to copy the NT by hand. Instead, printed editions of the NT were produced. An Edition is where an Editor or Editors have compiled a version of the New Testament by comparing a number of manuscripts (mss) and deciding upon a reconstruction of the original wording of the NT. The word Text refers to the words or wording of an individual manuscript or the wording of such an Edition of the Greek NT.

The Textus Receptus (Latin, meaning Received Text - i.e. the wording that had come to be received or accepted by people at the time as the correct original wording of the NT) is the name given to the oldest of the printed Greek New Testament Editions. It was first prepared by Erasmus in AD 1516. This was the Greek Text upon which the German version of Luther, the English version of Tyndale and later the Authorised Version (AV or KJV) of AD 1611 were based. The name Textus Receptus (TR) was attached to this version of the Greek NT in 1633 by the printers the Elzevir brothers. This was the standard form of text from roughly the fourth century right down to the nineteenth century. The problem with this text was that it was based on a very small number of quite late manuscripts that Erasmus was able to find in Basle as he was hurrying to publish the first printed edition of the NT in Greek in AD 1516.

The English Revised Version (RV) of 1881 was based on a new Greek text prepared by two Cambridge scholars, Westcott and Hort. This Greek Text was the basis and starting point that the most commonly used modern Greek texts of the New Testament – those prepared by the Nestle family (and later also Kurt Aland - hence, Nestle-Aland) and by the United Bible Societies (UBS) – were based upon, although the UBS committee has made numerous changes to this text over the four editions that have been prepared.

Fact Nine: The Canons of Textual Criticism

Textual Criticism is the task of reconstructing the original NT by comparing the different manuscript copies in our possession and weeding out errors that have crept into the copying process.

Due to the fact that the MSS of our Greek NT frequently diverge from one another - even MSS of the same text-type, although some text-types do so more than others - textual critics have traditionally relied upon some 'rules' or 'canons' to guide them in deciding which reading to accept as the correct one. 

Some of the 'canons' are truisms (like 'choose the reading which gave rise to the others'). This canon is also an example of a canon with sound theoretical, but sometimes limited applicable, validity.

Canons which deal with the sorts of errors that scribes are believed to have habitually been guilty of introducing into the NT text are called canons of Transcriptional Probability. Some of the most commonly cited transcriptional canons used to justify the preference for certain readings are:

  • Prefer the shorter reading. This is based on the reasoning that scribes were more likely to add to the text than to omit from it.
  • Prefer the more difficult reading. This is based on the reasoning that scribes were more likely to try to correct the text than to make it more difficult.
  • Prefer the non-harmonized reading, that is, the reading which does not accord with a passage elsewhere in the New Testament, particularly in the case of the Synoptic Gospels with their many parallels. This is based on the reasoning that scribes would be more likely to make a passage conform to some other passage in the New Testament rather than produce a discordant wording.

These canons were formulated by early textual critics in the 16th -18th centuries, but their justification has relied more upon ‘common sense’ than any data or research that showed that scribes did certain things in certain ways. Increasingly, studies into the behavior of scribes are showing that these canons are in need of revision – scribes often in fact did the opposites of what has long been believed and taught. Thus, omission of material is the easiest mistake to make, and recent studies show that scribes tend to omit far more than they add. Similarly, any scribal error made while copying a sentence from the NT is likely to have made it more difficult to understand.

We can also try to decide what is the correct reading by thinking about what Authors of Scripture might have originally written (based on their vocabulary, writing-style and theological outlook). This is called Intrinsic Probability: we should prefer the reading that is more in keeping with the Author's style and theology, based on the reasoning that an author will stick to the same style of writing and theological tendency.

Both of these sorts of reasoning processes (transcriptional and intrinsic probability) are referred to as Internal Evidence, that is, evidence from within the MSS themselves. In contrast, arguments based on the number, quality or diversity of the MSS supporting a reading are referred to as External Evidence

Fact Ten: Different Approaches to Textual Criticism

New Testament textual criticism is in a different league to the textual criticism of any other ancient book. With about 25000 manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek and other ancient languages, NT textual criticism has abundant resources at its disposal. Sorting out all the information about these manuscripts and what words they contain is an enormous task. Fortunately, the main evidence for the re-construction of the original New Testament is the Greek manuscripts which number about 5600.

There are a number of different approaches to the problem of working out what the Original Text of the New Testament was.

  • Some Editors prefer the readings of the earliest copies we have discovered – on the basis that the older the manuscripts, the better the text should be and closest to the Originals.
  • Other Editors feel that there is safety in numbers and that the Original text of the New Testament should be found in the majority of manuscripts, even if they are later manuscripts.
  • Other Editors prefer a Traditional text of one sort or another – a text that has been honoured by the Church as the correct text over the Centuries.
  • Other Editors prefer to be free to pick and choose between the many manuscripts (called Eclecticism) so that they can choose readings depending on what makes the most sense at a given point in the New Testament. After all, this is the usual from of textual criticism that most of us engage in when reading a letter or newspaper (if you mentally corrected my deliberate mis-spelling of the word 'form' in this sentence, you have just done the same thing).
  • Finally, some Editors prefer to be able to do two or even three of these things at the same time!

This is where Textual Criticism gets interesting. Different people put differing degrees of emphasis upon different ways of determining what the original text of the New Testament said. One person might not look at the evidence the same way that another does. This means that Textual Criticism always involves a human element of subjectivity.

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