Textual Criticism - Lesson 9

The Role of the Canon in Shaping the NT Text

Because of the radical nature of Christianity, it took some time for OT-based Jews to accept the NT as canonical. But over time, coinciding with the progressive development of a certain “canon-consciousness,” scribes were compelled to modify texts in various ways, not for malicious reasons, but in efforts to clarify, preserve, and revere the sacred scriptures.

Daniel Wallace
Textual Criticism
Lesson 9
Watching Now
The Role of the Canon in Shaping the NT Text




A. Implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection

Scripture is being written again, even though the writings themselves were always authoritative.

B. As canon consciousness emerged in the 2 century, more carful copying was done

1. Gospels by end of first century

2. Paul

3. By the end of the 2nd century about 21 books recognized as authoritative

4. Canon consciousness took about 3 centuries to develop

C. Errors of piety

1. Harmonizations in the Gospels

2. “Corrections” of supposed discrepancies

3. Explanatory glosses

4. Liturgically-motivated additions to explain the text

a) Mark 6–8

b) John 13

5. Revelation struggled to get into the canon and hence has less mss and hence less variants

D. Gospels

1. Accepted as canonical quickly

a) More mss and more harmonizations

b) Shows the scribe had a high view of the trext

2. Some (e.g., Bergin) argue that these early manuscripts were corrupt and produced by heretics

a) Codex Sinaiticus - Hebrew aleph א (01)

b) Codex Alexandrinus (A)

c) Codex Vaticanus (B)

d) Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (C)

e) Codex Bezae (D)

3. Harmonization actually demonstrates a high view of Scripture (e.g., John 4:17)

a) Woman: οὐκ ἔχω ἄνδρα (“I do not have a husband.”)

b) Jesus: ἄνδρα οὐκ ἔχω (“A husband I do not have.”)

c) Scribes change woman’s words to: ἄνδρα οὐκ ἔχω (א, C, D)

III. The Emergence of Local Text-form

  • Since the original autographs of the Bible no longer exist, the primary goal of Biblical Textual Criticism is to determine the exact wording of the original inspired text dispatched from the author with as much accuracy as possible. As a secondary goal, we desire to trace changes to the text and get a window into ancient Christianity.

  • Contrary to popular textual critics, the wrong way to record textual variants is to count each unique variant and multiply by the number of existing manuscripts, rendering millions of variants. On the contrary, the correct method is to count the same variant that occurs across all manuscripts as one variant, rendering not millions but hundreds of thousands of predominantly minor variants.

  • Compared to other ancient literature, the field of Biblical textual criticism possesses “an embarrassment of riches.” New Testament TC absolutely dwarfs the resources of other ancient literature, not only in number of manuscripts and the recent time in which they were produced, but also confirming quotations by extra-biblical writings.

  • The vast majority of NT Variants are minor, easily explained scribal errors that don’t affect the meaning of the text. Among 400,000 textual variants of the NT, over 99% make no difference to the meaning, and less than 1% are both meaningful and viable.

  • Recent attempts to change the goals of NTTC such that critics no longer seek to obtain the original autographs in favor of understanding a writer’s historical contexts undermine the original goal of NTTC. However, faithful textual critics must not subscribe to the notion of a “multivalence” of the original text, but instead pursue the primary goal: to get as close as possible to the original autographs.

  • The vast majority of all copies of the New Testament were probably recorded on scrolls, but copied in codex format. This may lend to the theory that Christians used cutting-edge, easier-to-use media technologies to further the word-based faith.

  • Various materials were used in creating NT manuscripts. Wallace discusses papyrus, parchments, and paper, each with advantages and disadvantages for transmitting the text faithfully.

  • There are three fundamental issues that significantly affect the transmission of the NT Text: early copies and causes of corruption, the role of canon in shaping the text, and the emergence of localized text forms.

  • Because of the radical nature of Christianity, it took some time for OT-based Jews to accept the NT as canonical. But over time, coinciding with the progressive development of a certain “canon-consciousness,” scribes were compelled to modify texts in various ways, not for malicious reasons, but in efforts to clarify, preserve, and revere the sacred scriptures.

  • Although questioned by some critics, most TCs acknowledge four major localized forms of the NT text: Alexandrian, Western, Byzantine, and (questionably) Caesarian. These “cross-pollinated” text families have arisen from diverse historical, cultural and socio-political factors, but all serve to strengthen, and not weaken the integrity of the NT text.

  • While it is undeniable that NT scribes made mistakes of various types in copying the inspired text, understanding the often simple reason for these mistakes renders much reward in understanding the sacred text. The fundamental principle of textual criticism is this: select the reading that best explains the rise of the other readings.

  • Contrary to popular belief, intentional scribal changes were not malicious in nature, but rather displayed pious intentions and a high view of scripture. Scribal corruptions for the most part, did not reflect a desire to obfuscate, but to clarify the scripture.

  • This lecture introduces papyri, critically important as the earliest witnesses of New Testament text. Papyri are some of the most important documents of NT MSS.

  • Since papyri are the earliest records of NT text (containing 50% of NT) they are critical in revealing the original text shape of the NT text. Even Codex Sinaticus and Vaticanus, the two most important NT MSS in the world, are confirmed by Papyri.

  • This lecture describes the most important new Testament manuscripts: the Majuscules, formerly known as uncials. These documents contain the full text of the NT written many times over, on parchment, written in all caps.

  • This lecture continues the discussion about the most important New Testament manuscripts: the Majuscules, formerly known as uncials. This lecture describes Codex Alexandrinus - A, Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus - C, Codex Sinaiticus (Aleph), and Codex Washingtonianus - W - 1906.

  • Since the field of TC is so small, obtaining resources are very expensive. However the internet is still a great place to conduct free TC research. In this lecture, major internet resources for studying NT manuscripts are compared and contrasted.

  • Founded 2002 by Daniel Wallace, the mission of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) is to be a premiere resource in the great and noble task of determining the wording of the autographa of the New Testament. This is facilitated through high-resolution digital photography of extant Greek New Testament manuscripts so that such images can be preserved, duplicated without deterioration, and accessed by scholars doing textual research.

  • The KJV has been rightfully called “the single greatest monument to the English language,” but this is more from a literary rather than a translation standpoint. This is because the Greek MSS behind the KJV text is far inferior to that of modern translations in terms of textual basis, late MSS dates, and a less than perfect process of creation.

  • The arguments used to position the Textus Receptus as the sole textual basis for the true word of God range from questionable to downright irrational. Proponents of this position rely on view of the so-called “doctrine of preservation,” which illegitimately uses certain Bible texts to argue its dubious claims.

  • This lecture describes the major problems of TR-only people, who subscribe to an unbiblical Doctrine of Preservation, which as defined, effectively emerges as a Marcionite view of the Bible. Wallace claims that while there is no biblical, exegetical, or empirical basis to argue for the doctrine of preservation, God has overwhelmingly preserved Scripture in a way that is not true of any other ancient literature.

  • In this lecture, Daniel Wallace describes the discovery of Sinaiaticus, and its importance to the field of textual criticism. He recounts fascinating details about his visits to St. Catherine’s, the oldest Christian monastery, at the base of Mount Sinai, Egypt.

  • This lecture summarizes the life of Constantine von Tischendorf [1815-1874], and his very important discovery of Codex Sinaiticus.

  • This lecture describes highlights of the history of NT TC since the TR. Describing the formation of the textus receptus, Wallace also characterizes major players in the process of arriving at the modern text.

  • This lecture describes Westcott and Hort, and how they dethroned the Textus Receptus by proving that the Textus Receptus was late, inferior, and secondary.

  • This lecture is 1 of 3 lectures on reasoned eclecticism. Eclecticism is the process of compiling a text from multiple sources, while reasoned eclecticism consists of rectifying the differences and evaluating variants based on both their attestation and intrinsic merit.

  • This lecture is 2 of 3 lectures on reasoned eclecticism.

  • This lecture illustrates the principles of reasoned eclecticism.

  • Was Jesus "moved with compassion" or "indignant" when he saw that his disciples could not heal the man with leprosy?

  • Why was the man waiting for so many years at the pool of Bethesda? Was there really an angel stirring up the waters and healing the first one in?

  • Do these two passages call Jesus “God”? Thankfully, the Bible affirms the divinity of Christ many other ways and in many other passages than these two.

  • This lecture presents some very technical arguments for why Daniel Wallace believes that the phrase “ουδεουιός” (nor the Son) is not an authentic part of Matthew 24:36.

  • This lesson teaches you to appreciate the rigorous historical research required in biblical studies and the importance of respecting dual authorship. It sharpens your understanding of external and internal textual evidence and their implications for a passage's authenticity.
  • The text of Mark 16:9-20 is most likely not part of the original inspired text of scripture, and v 8 is Mark's intended ending.

  • This lecture evaluates popular translations of the Bible in terms of their textual basis. The bottom line is that while all translations are interpretations, The Spirit of God has ensured that the truth of the scriptures can be found in any one of them, and reading widely among different versions is good to promote understanding about different concerns of TC.

  • As time progresses in the field of Textual Criticism, we continue to get razor-thin closer to the original manuscripts. The good news is that with all the known variants, no essential doctrine of the Christian faith is jeopardized by any viable variant, so we can have great confidence in the text of our Bibles to provide us all we need for life and godliness.

Dr. Daniel Wallace is one of the world's leading textual critics. His ministry, the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM.org) is currently the most prolific organization for discovering, photographing, and cataloging ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. In this class, he discusses the issues of textual variants, how ancient manuscripts were made, the types of errors that we can see in the manuscripts, the issue of the Textus Receptus and its role in the King James translation of the Bible, the historic work of Westcott and Hort, and ends with discussions of the most famous textual problems.

Dr. Wallace gives a three hour summary of this class in our Academy program. The first of the lectures is here.

Please visit Dr. Wallace's ministry, Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts and support them financially. 

Thank you to our friends at Credo House for sharing this class with us. You can purchase their workbook or the DVDs for the class from them.



B. The Role of the Canon in shaping the New Testament Text

1. As Canon consciousness Emerged, More Careful Copying was done

The most world-changing event that ever happened is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And if you think about being a Jew in 1st century Israel; what kind of a momentous changes that would imply. You have a person like Paul who hated Christians and was putting them into prison and was happy when they were killed. This was because they claimed that this man Jesus must have been cursed because he was hung on a tree. As Deuteronomy says, cursed is everyone that is hung on a tree. God must have cursed Jesus by hanging him on a tree. How could these Christians possibly say that God had raised him from the dead? This was something way ahead of the eschaton. Why would he choose this one person who was definitely cursed? Paul felt that this was against everything he believed in regards to the Bible. He felt that if Christianity is true, that Jesus was really raised from the dead, then I will simply throw away the Bible. That was the only option he had. That was why he was so mad at Christians because they were going to unravel all of Judaism. Now when he got converted, he believes that there are two trues; yes, God cursed Jesus by sending him to his death but God blessed him by raising him from the dead. How and why would God do this? So Paul came to recognize that Jesus must have died, not as a sinner but as a substitute for sin and sinners, for us. So he begins to get really strong on substitutionary atonement. He was the first apostle who begins to recognize those things. The others were beginning to see this because Paul as a theologian understood these issues. So Jesus whom they followed, they knew he was a prophet, a righteous man and born of a virgin and now they begin to realize that he was God in the flesh. The very moment that Jesus was baptized by John and coming up out of the water; ah, this is God in the flesh! There was no way they could have thought that. It took some time and you need to remember that these were Jews who had the Scriptures for some four hundred years. No prophet had come along in all that time until John the Baptist said that he was heralding in the Messiah. This was of course, strange. And for the apostles to claim that Jesus was God was far more radical than anything that had ever happened before. So you have this massive upheaval with all the implications of the dead and resurrection of Jesus.

2. Readings Could Sneak into the Text before it Became Well-known in a Particular Form

This brought on recognition that these writings were authoritative, but it wasn’t immediately thought of as the New Testament as such. No, but they did recognize that this was a letter from Paul; we know that he is an apostle and we recognize that his authority is very high, but is it on the level of the Old Testament Prophets. It took some time for them to embrace this. So this canon consciousness is something that slowly emerged. And we know that the Gospels were accepted as Scripture earlier on; probably before the end of the 1st century. Paul’s letters were accepted as authoritative and later as Scripture. By the end of the 2nd century there were about twenty-one books that were recognized as authoritative and valid for us in worship services. So the consciousness emergence lasted for about three centuries. As soon as people begin to think of it as Scripture, they began to be more careful. And yet there was a new kind of textual variant precisely because they now recognized it as Scripture.

3. When New Testament books began to be considered Scripture, errors of piety began to creep into them 

The kinds of errors that came about were perhaps inherent readings that were born out of piety. They would very frequently try to harmonize the texts, assuming that the last scribe didn’t get it quite right. They would make corrections of supposed discrepancies. They would enter explanatory glossies perhaps in the margin and somehow it would be entered into the text eventually. So these were liturgically motivated as the Scriptures were used in the church over and over again. In Mark 6-8, for eighty-nine verses in a row in the standard critical Greek text, the Nestle Aland Greek text, Jesus is not mentioned once by name or by title. We don’t have sermons by Jesus in Mark’s Gospel; you have that in Matthew, Luke, and John but not in Mark. Most of this is narrative; we see him at center stage all the way through; eight nine verses in a row, he is never mentioned. We know that Jesus is in view because
imbedded in the verb is the pronoun he. Sometimes it gets confusing as one wonders who the he is that’s being talked about. So what would a scribe be likely to do, especially if they are reading a portion of that text in church; reading these two stories in church today. It starts out by, ‘so he said to them.’ So,
because of this liturgical usage, it becomes an impulse for adding words to the text in order to explain it. We photographed one of the early manuscripts, a lectionary from John 13. It starts out, ‘so he said to them’ and the lectionary changes both the he and them to ‘Jesus said to his disciples.’ So in reading such a passage, he can’t just start with pronouns.

So one of the interesting things in regards to the shaping of the Canon is that the Book of Revelation was very slow to get Canonical status and ironically precisely because of this, we have fewer copies made and therefore less corruption. It really wasn’t accepted fully until the 4th century and that is when most scholars would say that the Byzantine text came into existence in the 4th century, maybe earlier. So the Byzantine manuscripts of Revelation are actually fairly good. This was because in the two hundred and fifty years of copying up until that point, you might only have ten generations of copies for that time. But for the same two hundred and fifty years, the Gospels would contain perhaps fifty generations because they were highly valued and copied continually. So we see that due to the canonical status of a book caused them to change the text. The textual critics love this sort of thing, especially those manuscripts with different variants.

4. Errant Readings Born by Piety

Every Gospel manuscript of any substantial length has harmonization in it. So what does this tell us about the motives of the Scribes? Dean Burgin who was dean in the late 1800s was the primary adversary to Westcott and Hort and the Greek New Testament they published in 1881. This set a new gold standard for modern translations in Modern Greek texts. The best work that has been done since then has stood on the shoulders of Westcott and Hort. Burgin was a big fan of the King James Version Bible and of the Textus Receptus, although he wasn’t totally adamant in regards to this. Against Westcott and Hort, he argued that their favorite manuscripts were malicious and evil and were produced by heretics. So Burgin picked especially on Codex Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, Vaticanus, the Ephraemi Rescriptus and Basie. These were manuscripts from the 4th and 5th century. The letters by which these go by are: Alef, A, B, C, and D. Burgin argued that all of these manuscripts were terribly corrupt and were produced by heretics. One of Burgin’s spiritual errors was Wilber Pickering and he argued that Alfef and B came from a sewer pipe. That was his wording. But all of these manuscripts have harmonization of the Gospels and often as singular readings. That means that they alone have that harmonization. This is strong evidence that these scribes were orthodox and had a high view of Scripture. If you have a singular reading where only that manuscript had that, then almost surely that particular scribe invented it or it came from his own ancestry and he accepted it. All of them do this harmonization.

Another illustration of Scribal Piety is John 4:17. απεκριθη η γυνη και ειπεν ουκ εχω ανδρα λεγει αυτη ο ιησους καλως ειπας οτι ανδρα ουκ εχω. Normally in regards to harmonization, we think of harmonization between two Gospels, especially the synoptic Gospels. But this is an illustration that happens just in John chapter 4. Remember Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well? The woman answered and said to him, I don’t have a husband. Jesus had just said to go and call your husband to come here. He was talking to the Samaritan woman. It was noon when she came to draw water which was the worth time to go and draw water because of the heat or unless she was trying to avoid the other women in the village. And so Jesus said, that’s correct, you have five husbands and the one you are living with now is not your husband. What is interesting is, in the Greek, the underlined here: I don’t have a husband versus a husband I don’t have. When Jesus quotes correctly, you have said, ‘a husband I don’t have,’ he changes the word order. In Greek the word before it is a conjunction introducing a direct quotation. How do I know that? He doesn’t say, ‘correctly you have said that you don’t have a husband.’ Instead, he says, ‘correctly you have said that I don’t have a husband.’ So Jesus is quoting her. But when he quotes her, he changes the word order. This caused some scribes problems. So what do they do? Three of these five manuscripts, they don’t change Jesus’ words but they change the woman’s words so that they now conform to what Jesus said. It is not that Jesus misquoted her; it is that she had said it wrong in the first place. So she has to conform to what he quoted. This is really strange. One of the scribes goes so far as to add, ‘correctly’ to make sure that Jesus couldn’t hear three words in a row correctly. Here is the reality; Jesus didn’t quote her exactly for a purpose; she is saying, ‘I don’t have a husband.’ Jesus replied, ‘correctly a husband, I don’t have.’ Lady, you have somebody else at home! Even in changing the word order, Jesus revealed that he knows quite a bit about her. So these supposedly evil malicious scribes that were not producing Christian Scriptures were trying to introduce all sorts of errors, changed the woman’s wording because it doesn’t harmonize with what Jesus said. I wouldn’t call that malicious. These were simply early pious scribes who were trying to get the text correct.

C. The Emergence of Local Text Forms

1. Text-types

A definition of a text-type includes a group of manuscripts that have a consistent pattern of readings. This is different from patterns in other manuscripts. They will frequently have readings only within that group. One such type is the Alexandrian because it comes from Egypt which was considered the number one accurate copying center. That is where classical texts were produced with incredible precision. The western texts ended up being produced in Rome but soon spread over the entire empire. The Byzantine text started in the east and stayed there. The Caesarean text in Israel may or may not be valid. So you have this nomenclature that is disputed today by some textual critics.

Let’s say for example the NIV, the New American Standard, The King James and we don’t have a printing press. So how do we have these Bibles? People wrote manuscripts by hand based on what the Pastor is saying on Sunday morning. He preaches out of the text and you are writing it down. The first
year of seminary, all you are doing is writing out the entire Bible that you can read. Maybe it is for personal use. Let’s say that the NIV is produced primarily in Chicago with the New American Standard being produced in Loss Angeles; and then the King James Bible being primarily produced in London. So,
you grow up in England and all you know is the KJV of the Bible. You move to America and attend seminary. So when you copy out the NIV, do you think it is possible, you are copying out and at some point you don’t remember the text or some words or you remember the wording of a different translation? You are going to mix King James readings in with NIV writings and readings. So, when you hear someone preach from the Scriptures, you can almost always tell what Bible they are preaching from. These are patterns of readings that people had to get use to; that is the idea of text types.

2. General Considerations

So, you get this mixture in these manuscripts because we don’t have any pure manuscript of any text form today, except for the later Byzantines. Let me illustrate it with Luke 24:53 and we will come back to this illustration in another lecture. This is the last verse in Luke’s Gospel, ‘and they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.’ So Jesus has just ascended up to heaven and here the pronoun they refer to was the apostles. They were in the temple blessing God or they were in the temple praising God, or it could read, they were in the temple blessing and praising God. The Alexandrian manuscripts say, ‘they were in the temple blessing God.’ The western manuscripts say, ‘they were praising God.’ The Byzantine manuscripts say that they were blessing and praising God. That is the difference between the text types. You are going to have the groups where they just separate from each other and what is interesting, Westcott and Hort says that there are several places where the Byzantine texts seem to conflate the western and Alexandrian readings. They argued that the Byzantine text was a later text form and it tried to preserve all the textual traditions. So the scribe who is putting together the Byzantine text and looks at the Alexandrian and see that everyone in the temple were blessing God; and in the western manuscript, they were praising God. He is wondering which to use, blessing God or praising God. I don’t have time for this so I will say both, blessing and praising. So this kind of thing did happen though not frequently. What Hort pointed out was that only the Byzantine conflates from these other groups. It is never the other way around, which strongly suggests that it was a secondary text form.

3. Text-types and numerical preponderance

So what does numerical superiority prove? We have two manuscripts that are the ancestors for these other copies. The first manuscript has sixteen copies representing three generations while the second manuscript gets five copies representing two generations. This shows us what we see among New Testament manuscripts. The Alexandrian manuscripts were produced in Egypt but in the 7th century, Egypt got overrun by Islam resulting in a cut off of the Alexandrian texts. Meanwhile, the Byzantine texts rises with the vast majority coming from the 9th century and later where the majority of the Alexandrian manuscripts from a much earlier time; the first eight centuries. But earlier, Constantine changes the Capital from Rome to Byzantium, now called Constantinople, today Istanbul, Tuckey. Then declares the whole of the Roman Empire as being Christian; he asks Eusebius to print him fifty Bibles for the Empire. All of a sudden, we are dealing with a text form that is going to spread over the east and a few centuries later, Greek is no longer spoken anywhere else in Europe, just in Asia Minor and Greece which was the largest cluster of churches. So numerical superiority is due to historical conditions and it doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of the text. Also, a later manuscript may be more valuable than an earlier one. So textual scholars don’t count manuscripts, they weigh them.

4. Text-types and Genealogical Solidarity

So we can reconstruct the local original from the copies that still exist and we can take a reading back earlier in the manuscript that it appears in. So a manuscript might be 5th century or it might be 10th century, but the wording in that manuscript could go back many centuries earlier. Ultimately, we don’t have the New Testament documents, the actually originals, but the wording in at least some of our copies goes all the way back to the originals. So, for example, in text A, we don’t have the original, first or second-generation but all those manuscripts agreed with each other. So, you can reconstruct the local original from the copies especially when they have a high amount of agreement internally with each other. Is it possible that a single manuscript can represent the archetype against all other witnesses? Yes, that is definitely possible because you can have a manuscript that is a better copy than the others.

We have talked about Alexandrian, Western, Byzantine and Caesarean text types. The Alexandrian text form probably goes back to 2nd century. It is one that we see in papyri; it is a very careful tradition and it was not done as an intentional recension but they decided to edit the text to make it look like something else. They did very careful copying. Then the western text form also goes back to the early 2nd century. We have a number of church fathers from the 2nd century that quote the Western text form. It was very widespread and there was no official addition of it, but it originated not in the west but it became a missionary text. It is not a careful tradition, but it is early, and we have to take that into account because it was early. The Byzantine text originates early in the 4th century or maybe the late 3rd century and becomes increasingly widespread. So by the 9th century, it was by far the most popular text. But the overall, the Alexandrian text was more popular. It was heavily edited; a very liturgical text. The Byzantine text form was used in the churches; it was the one that grew up around Constantinople. Ninety percent of our manuscripts are Byzantine and come from the 9th century or later. The liturgy in the churches was driving a lot of this. As they went to various passages they read as scripture that gets imported into the actual text form of the Byzantine that they would use later. You get these explanatory notes like the one I covered earlier. Then we have the Caesarean text form, it may not even exist but if it does, it is probably only in the Gospels. These are from the 3rd century. If it exists it is almost completely absorbed by the Byzantine. If there is a Caesarean text form, it actually would contain the original reading. There are groups of manuscripts that seem to do that against all the rest of the traditions.