Textual Criticism - Lesson 11

Scribal Corruptions (unintentional)

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.

Daniel Wallace
Textual Criticism
Lesson 11
Watching Now
Scribal Corruptions (unintentional)


A. Unintentional errors

B. Intentional changes (easiest to identify)

C. Importance of the Classifications


A. Confusion of letters (mostly capital letters)

1. Rom 6:5

2. 1 Tim 3:16

B. Homoioteleuton (similar endings)

1. Haplography (writing once what should have been written twice, 1 John 2:23)

2. Dittography (writing twice what should have been written once)

3. Homoioarchton (similar beginnings, 1 Thess 2:13–14)

4. Homoiomeson (similar middle)

C. Metathesis (transposition, Mark 14:65)


A. The evidence that this happened is virtually non-existent

B. Also, the amanuensis might incorrectly hear the author dictate

1. Romans 5:1

2. 1 Thess 2:7


A. Substitution of synonyms

B. Transposition of words

C. Transposition of letters

D. Assimilation of one passage to a more familiar one


A. Marginal notes in the exemplar could mistakenly be incorporated into the text

B. John 5:4

C. John 3:15


A. John 1:1

B. John 1:30


Choose the reading that best explains the rise of the others

  • 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.




A. Illustration of Scribal Corruptions (part 1) – Unintentional Errors

1. Kinds of Corruptions

There are two kinds of corruptions: unintentional and intentional errors and changes. Another way we have used this is described as meaningful verses non-meaningful and viable versus non-viable errors. These are different ways of thinking about how the scribes do things. Sometimes it is difficult to tell
whether a variant was intentional or unintentional. For some scribes it may have been a conscience change while for others, they may have made exactly the same change that wasn’t intended at all. The vast majority of textual changes in manuscripts are unintentional and they are the easiest to detect.

2. Classifications

We have classifications of these unintentional errors. Establishing demonstrable scribal changes provides us with insight into textual problems whose solution may not be self-evident. Sometimes it is a question over whether the version using the Septuagint or the non-Septuagint version was used. Clear categories of errors become the basis for assessing possible scribal corruptions in any given instance. I have never looked at a manuscript that doesn’t have errors in it. It is very easy to classify so many of these errors and it becomes a basis for assessing these corruptions in other places where we are not sure where the original text is; can we attribute this reading to an unintentional error so that we might discount its value in this place. A major task in determining the wording of the autographa is to eliminate the possibilities of corruption on the basis of known types and their causes. This is called internal evidence which has to do with what a scribe would be likely to do. It is also known as transcriptional evidence or transcriptional probability. Initially, you may think that is very subjective and so how can we possibly tell what a scribe would have been likely to do. We use transcriptional probability every day when we read and especially when we read emails. Scribes make mistakes; we see this in newspapers and especially when blurbs are posted on the internet in regards to spellings or grammatical errors such as punctuation. So, we see these kinds of mistakes made all the time.

3. Six Categories of Unintentional Errors

a. Errors of Sight

There are three basic types of errors of sight. The first is where a scribe confuses the letters. The second is where you have homnoioteleuton which has to do with words or lines of similar endings. It could be the endings of lines or endings of words where they get confused. The third kind is Metathesis which involves transposition where you will transpose letters that are flipped around. We all make these kinds of errors in reading documents.

1.) Confusing Letters

In confusing letters, most discussions of letter confusion are concentrated on capital letters, since all New Testament Manuscripts through the 8th century were in majuscule script, that is, capital letter script. Scholars say that they need to write out this text in capital letters and then see whether it is possible for someone to have made a mistake by the letter confusion. In Greek, a number of capital letters look very different than the lower case. By writing those letters out, they can see how scribes could have skipped over things. Bruce Metzger said that it is scarcely necessary to consider similarities of letters in the subsequent minuscule script, for the overwhelming proportion of variant readings originated prior to the period of the minuscule manuscripts. This is the general view but yet here is something that is fascinating about this; the manuscripts of the New Testament, the original texts in many cases were probably not written in capital letters, but were written in cursive, a kind of a running hand type of thing. We know that cursive manuscripts existed in BC times. Generally speaking, it is a broad rule of thumb when somebody is writing to a government official or someone of greater authority in society; they use majuscule script. This is what we have seen in ancient papyri. But if they have a lower status in society, they would often use the cursive script.

So what kind of script did Paul use in writing to the churches where he wanted to show that he was a humble person? He would often use the majuscule script, one would think. I think this, especially in writing to Philemon where he appeals to him as a brother. He said that he could have commanded him
but instead he appealed to him as a brother that Onesimus would no longer be a slave. But in writing to the Galatians he is mad, and so I think he would have written that in cursive and probably 2nd Corinthians also. There has been no research on this whatsoever. Two examples would include Romans 6:5 where there are two Landas and one Mu, they look very similar to each other. Paul is saying that we have become with him in the likeness of his death, we will be like him in his resurrection, or together we have been like him in the likeness of his resurrection. Also in 1st Timothy 3:16, a very famous passage of who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory. So Paul is telling us that either God was revealed in the flesh or who was revealed in the flesh. The Greek word ‘who’ is hoss, omicron and sigma. Only in later manuscripts you would put a small ‘c’ over the omicron which makes it an ‘h’ sound. This was one of those scared names, so they wouldn’t write the whole word out. So putting a line through the omicron, it changes it to a Theda and if you put a horizontal line above both letters, it tells you to read it as a symbol. So two horizontal stokes, you have God instead of who. It is possible that early scribes confused one from another. It is more likely that later scribes, because of insisting on the deity of Christ, wanted to change ‘who’ to God. In order to deal with these issues, you must know Greek to understand them.

2.) Homoioteleuton

So the errors of sight involve homoioteleuton. This is the cause for two types of errors, either haplography or dittography. Haplography means writing once what should have been written twice and dittography means writing twice what should have been written once. Most scholars consider homoioteleuton as similar endings of lines but it also could be similar endings of words on the same line. There is also homoioarchton and homoiomeson, those with similar beginnings and those that are similar in the middle. By-the-way, these manuscripts did not separate these words out until many centuries later. It would be just one running word through the whole text. A classic example of haplography in the Byzantine manuscripts of 1st John 2:23. ‘No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.’ The words ‘has the Father’ are important here; the Byzantine text skips the second line. You get Textus Receptus people who say that the Byzantine text is a full text, theologically more accurate. These Alexandrian manuscripts take away the ‘blood of Christ’, but here the Byzantine text takes the statement away that you have to confess the son to have the Father. I would say that this could be a theological problem. What is significant is that the majority of Byzantine manuscripts have this omission of the statement of confession suggest that they go back to a common ancestor. That ancestor is the single manuscript that all Byzantine manuscripts arrived.

An example of dittography, the writing twice of what should have been written once, which is due to homoioarchton, the beginning of the line. This is a dittography in Codex Sinaiticus at 1st Thessalonians 2:13-14. ‘And so we too constantly thank God that when you received God’s message, you accepted it,
not as a human message but as it truly is, God’s message, which is at work among those who believe. For you became imitators, brothers and sisters, of God’s churches in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, because you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did, in fact, from the Jews.’ As
the scribe is writing this text out, keys in on the first ‘God’s’ in verse 13 which is eleven lines above ‘God’s’ in verse 14. And he repeated the rest of that verse before catching his mistake. Verse 14 reads in his manuscript, ‘for you became imitators, brothers and sisters of God’s message.’ In verse 14, it was God’s churches.’ So it is repeated that part of verse 13, ‘you accepted it, not as a human message.’ At the beginning, you have an ‘omega nu tu’ is what you have at the beginning of that text and the bottom line and that is where the scribes had realized his mistake. The little curly things in the margin are indicating not to read this because I did a mistake! You see that they wouldn’t cross out the words as such but instead make an indication like this. Also, what’s fascinating is that he does change the wording just slightly in two or three places, spelling changes. So what did he do when he copied it? Did he grab a different manuscript or did he take a break and then came back and missed his place?

3.) Metatheses

These are errors of transposition. This is switching the order of letters and words or phrases. This indicates how the scribe copied. The scribe in creating Codex Bezae copied as many as nine words that he could have transposed into whatever order he wanted. In fact, there are categories of mistakes that scholars have looked at. Are they errors of addition, omission, substitution or transposition? Those are the four different groupings of how we lay the variants out. Then there is a fifth grouping, a total rewrite of the verse. That fifth grouping is reserved for Codex Bezae because it does so many bazaar
things, we have to include that. Then there is the scribe of P75 that writes out one or two letters at a time. Its transpositions are only two letters at the most. You might think that if a scribe knows Greek really well, that is a scribe that we can trust. And when a scribe who doesn’t know Greek very well, that’s the one you can’t trust. And sometimes you have these Textus Receptus people or even people who stand behind the majority text saying things like the scribe of P75 probably didn’t even know Greek. If that is the case, then his manuscripts are very good because he isn’t creative enough. He doesn’t know the language well enough to make additions and substitutions and changes. The scribe who created Bezae knew Greek so well that he doesn’t just put words at the end of the line; he does every line as a sense line by phrases. So the lengths of them are different. He knows Greek very well but he is also copying a great amount of text at a time. So here is this scribe that knows Greek well that we can’t trust as much as a scribe who doesn’t know Greek. The kinds of mistakes that he makes are easily found because they are not intentional.

Mark 14:65 is an illustration of Metathesis: ‘the servants received him with many blows.’ This is elabon. Or ‘the servants struck him with many blows.’ This is ebalon. The difference between ‘l’ and ‘b’ are being transposed. The servants received or struck is a transposition.

b. Errors of Hearing

This presupposes that the scribes worked in a scriptorium where the reader spoke the words aloud for the scribes to copy. The evidence of this happening is virtually non-existent, especially before Christianity was legal. Nevertheless, reading in the ancient world was almost always out loud. The scribe would look at the text, read it aloud, remember it and copy it. If he read it or remembered it incorrectly, he would write it incorrectly. And so, hearing is very important. More important than this, the amanuensis, the original secretary for the New Testament documents, the person writing down what the apostle is saying, that creates that original letter to the Romans. That amanuensis may have heard incorrectly what the author was dictating. I think there are probably two places where the amanuensis missed something and third where Paul entered something into the margin as an afterthought. What is interesting, Bruce Metzger argued in Romans 5:1, the first one we will talk about, that the secretary miss-heard Paul and so he wrote down the wrong letter. But what you get at the end of all Paul’s letters is a note penned by him saying that he had checked the document and that it was definitely from him. We see that in 2nd Thessalonians 3:17 where he said, ‘I Paul, write this as I do in all of my letters.’ He doesn’t say those same words in all of those letters. This is a hint that he takes the pen from the secretary and writes something out. We see this in Galatians 6 where he says, ‘see what big letters I’m writing.’ The idea is that he wrote in big letters because he was blinded on the road to Damascus. No, that is probably not what is going on here. Instead, he is probably saying that he isn’t a professionally trained scribe; I am not the amanuensis, writing by dictation. I’m the actually author and consequently I’m telling you that I have written this. That tells us that he would have cleaned these manuscripts up before they were sent out.

I’ve been a professor for almost thirty years and when I ask a secretary to write something, such as a form letter for instance. I will first write the whole letter out and show that secretary. So, after a while, she will understand that this is what I want done. Then after a while, I will not even talk to the secretary and have her to write it out. I will always read those letters to make sure that is what I wanted to say. Is it my wording? Not every point; in fact, sometimes not at any point. But it is the gist of what I wanted to communicate? Yes. If it is written differently or too colloquial, I can’t sign it. This was what Paul was
doing. So, inerrancy may say that the original text is inerrant, but it doesn’t say that it isn’t messy. So, I think Paul corrected his text in a couple of places in the original. The first place is Romans 5:1 where it says we have peace with God or let us have peace with God. We have talked about this before. It is the difference in Greek between echomen verses echomen, εχομεν vs. εχωμεν; although both of them would have been pronounced in the exact same way in the 1st century. Echomen, the indicative with the omicron means we have peace. Echomen with the omega means let us have peace. In Codex Sinaiticus, leaf 63, verso column two near the bottom, it has echomen, but some later scribe changed the omega to omicron. How do we solve this problem? For the most part, our early manuscripts have the subjunctive. But the context seems to be on the side of the indicative. It just so happens that the oldest manuscript of this passage, a fragment of five verses, has the indicative. This is from the 3rd century. Again, Bruce Metzger suggested that the secretary just missed what Paul said and he write the subjunctive in. But he doesn’t suggest that Paul would have corrected this and put the omicron in.

I suspect that this is exactly what happened; the scribe wrote the subjunctive and Paul corrected the omega to the omicron. And when it got to the Romans, they would have wondered who wrote the small ‘o’, and so that would probably have been copied it as the subjunctive. Then others would have
recognized it as Paul’s correction and then the indicative would have spread. So some of these passages are very difficult to figure out on the basis of the manuscripts but the internal evidence suggests something else. Then there is 1st Thessalonians 2:7 which is the same category. ‘Although we could have imposed our weight as apostles of Christ; instead we became little children/gentle among you…’ The difference between little children and gentle is nepioi and epioi, νήπιοι vs. ἤπιοι in Greek. The previous word ends in a nu, ἐγενήθμεν. The NIV 2011, TNIV and the NET Bible are the first modern translations to have little children in the text. The Net Bible is the first one to do it, even though it is a reading that would .be naturally changed to gentle.

c. Errors of Memory, Judgment, Fatigue, and Carelessness

Errors of memory are responsible for the substitution of synonyms, transposition of words and also of letters and sometime the assimilation of one passage to another, a more familiar passage. That was frequently more to due to intention on the part of the scribe. There are errors of judgment as well. You could have marginal notes in the exemplar that could be mistakenly incorporated into the text, but you are not sure whether the scribe meant for this to be a verse that he put into the text or was it just a commentary on it. And so, if in doubt, you don’t leave it out. John 5:3-5 is a good illustration of an error of Judgment in KJV that says ‘in these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.’ Some of this is found in the King James but not in the oldest manuscripts. There is also John 3:13, ‘and no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.’ That which is in italics is found in the King James but not in the older manuscripts. I think that in John 5:3b and 4, the scribes saw a marginal note that he put into the text. If that is true, it becomes the only place in Scripture where it teaches the principle of God helps those who help themselves. The first person that jumps into the pool gets healed; this poor guy has been sitting there for thirty-eight years trying to get in first. I don’t think this is a biblical principle but it is in the King James Bible. John 3:13 is more difficult to tell whether it is Jesus who is talking or if John is narrating. So you have, even the Son of man which is in heaven; is Jesus saying this or is this John narrating the story. Then in regards to fatigue and carelessness, after hours of copying text anyone would be prone to made nonsense changes to the text. It is even possible to tell the number of hours a scribe worked by seeing a greater cluster of errors to begin to occur. It is difficult to distinguish these from errors due to carelessness in many manuscripts unless one examines each manuscript carefully.

Errors of fatigue and carelessness are seen in Codex L, a very important manuscript yet sloppily done. John 1:1 says in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Like every other manuscript in every other language we have, that is what it says in John 1:1. But Codex L adds a word, the article ‘the’ before God in the last part of the verse, thus we should translate it, ‘and God was the Word.’ What Codex L and one other manuscript of all the hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts we have on John 1:1 says ‘the God’ and instead of just God. In John 1:30, ‘after me comes air,’ when the Greek word is supposed to be anair. You either put an ‘n’ in there or you don’t. Is it, ‘after me comes a man or me comes air.’ This is an error due to carelessness and fatigue where the scribe left out that ‘nu’.

4. Summary of Unintentional Errors

So, scribes made mistakes and determining what sorts of mistakes they made takes skill and imagination. Knowing the basic categories of unintentional errors helps to eliminate possibilities for error. The fundamental principle of textual criticism is to choose the reading that best explains the first of the others.