Textual Criticism - Lesson 1

Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism

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.

Daniel Wallace
Textual Criticism
Lesson 1
Watching Now
Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism

I. Introduction

A. Manuscripts

B. Resources

C. Textual Criticism Methods

II. Definition of Goals of New Testament Textual Criticism

A. Ancient Non-New Testament Documents

B. Ancient New Testament Documents

C. Bart Ehrman, the Textus Receptus and the Quran

III. Secondary Objectives for the New Testament

A. Tracing the Changes

B. The Original Text

  • 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.



I. Introduction

A. Manuscripts

Welcome to an introduction on New Testament Textual Criticism. This is going to be a lay course, although we will get into some of the details of the Greek and I’ll try to explain that as best I can. An overview includes: the definition and goal of textual criticism, textual variances, wordings that is different from one manuscript to another, attempts to changes to textual criticism, materials and methods in creating ancient books, materials for doing textual criticism, which includes the history of its transmission, and illustrations of scribal corruptions including unintentional and intentional changes; often scribes thought the scribe before them had made a mistake and so they tried to correct those mistakes. We will also look at some famous papyri; P52 is an important papyrus because it is the earliest known Greek New Testament copy of any size of any passage of the New Testament. The Chester Beady papyrus is housed mostly in Dublin although there is one leaf in Vienna and thirty leaves at the University of Michigan. It has the earliest copy of Paul’s letters, Mark’s Gospel and Revelation. There are also a number of very Old Testament manuscripts. Then, there is the Martin Boggner Papyri, which are manuscripts that are housed for the most part in Geneva, Switzerland in a small village on the edge of Lake Geneva; however there have been some shifts in the last few years with these. The Most famous, Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus are probably the two most important New Testament manuscripts. Both are from the 4th century and both contain the entire Bible. We have a grand total of four early manuscripts that almost surely contain the entire Bible originally. They are all from the 4th or 5th century; we will spend some time on all four of these. The other two include the Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Frame Conscriptus; Codex Alexandrinus is in the British Library and Frame Conscriptus, also known as Codex C is in the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris. These are 5th century manuscripts, which are, again, very important. Then the most bazaar manuscript of the New Testament is Codex Bezae, named after Thera Bezae, not because Bezae was bazaar but because his manuscript was bazaar. In fact, he gave it to the University of Cambridge with a letter in 1581 saying, ‘this manuscript is eccentric and I figure that the Cambridge University would be the one place that would know how to handle it and would accept it well and appreciate it.

Then there is Codex Washintonianus which is in Washington DC. It is the most important New Testament manuscript that we have in the United States. It is a later 4th, perhaps early 5th century and like Codex Bezae, it is a Gospel manuscript that has the order of the Gospels differently from the traditional order, known as the Order of Gospels. Instead of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, its order is Matthew, John, Luke and Mark; the reason for this, they wanted to put the Apostles first and then Luke and Mark. Some have suggested that the earliest form of the Codex that had all four Gospels in it would have been in the western order and that is going to become an issue that we will deal with later on as we look at the ending of Mark’s Gospel.

B. Resources

The resources for New Testament manuscripts are so vast, that I had to limit things essentially to that which you could access through the internet rather than saying, ‘here’s about five thousand dollars’ worth of specialized books that you guys need to get if you want to learn about textual criticism. All of this is on the internet and all of it is free. The Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Germany which has an English site; this is the largest of all textual criticism’s institutes and it has some very important materials on their site. We will talk about how to use these sites as well. The British Library, both Codex Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus sit next to each other in the British library. There is also the Evangelical Textual Criticism website coming out of Cambridge University from Tyndall House and they also have some good discussions on textual criticism. And finally we will talk about the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. That is the one I know most about and so it will get its own separate lecture.

C. Textual Criticism Methods

We will discuss the Greek text behind the King James Version. There are a lot of things that people are simply unaware of as far as the Greek text is concerned. The Textus Receptus actually was part of an advertising blub that came out in a Greek New Testament twenty-two years after the King James Version was translated. In 1633 the Elzeviers at Leiden, his uncle and nephew produced a Greek New Testament and what they said, ‘here is the text that has been received by all;’ so it is the received text as such. We will deal with this text, plus the doctrine of preservation. It will be important to discuss if there is such a doctrine and if so, does it mean that Greek New Testament is the one that God has preserved. We will also discuss the history of discipline sense the Textus Receptus. If we go back to the first published Greek New Testament done on a printing press; it was Erasmus’ Greek New Testament published on March 1, 1516. It was original called Novum Instrumentum but we will call it Textus Receptus because this is the term that has been adopted; it is essentially Erasmus’ text from 1516 for a couple of centuries afterwards. We will discuss the disciplines since his text was published.

We will talk about Codex Sinaiticus which is one of the most fascinating discoveries of the New Testament manuscripts ever. In fact, Constantine Tischendorf discovered it in 1844 and 1859. Interestingly, he is the man after whom Indiana Jones, the movie character was patterned. They don’t look at all alike but nevertheless they seemed to have used Tischendorf’s historical background. We will also talk about Westcott and Hort, two very evil men, according to some, who were part of an occult and the dethroning of the Textus Receptus. We will talk a little about their lives and theories of how they ended up dethroning this Greek New Testament that had been the standard text since 1516. We will also discuss the methods for doing textual criticism, principles of reason collectivism which involves looking at the information internally as well externally. What was the scribe likely to do? What was the author likely to have written? The external evidence has to do with the evaluation of these manuscripts in terms of their date and character. We will look at manuscripts that are in a group, a particular family; what are the best family representatives. What are the best manuscripts that represent that type? There isn’t one manuscript that can be traced back to an original, so you look for the best representative of that particular family. We also look at geographical distribution, a very important issue. When there is a particular reading, the wording that we find in some of the manuscripts, for example of a church father in the 3rd century in Carthage and we find it in a Latin manuscript in Rome in the 3rd century and we also find Greek manuscripts in Egypt. Well, we start putting those things together; this same wording is found in three different witnesses over a widely geographical area; perhaps it goes back to an earlier ancestry. So we will see how the internal and external evidence works together.

This course can only provide material that represents a tip of a tip of the iceberg of material that is available. But there will be enough information given to give you an idea of what is going on with these manuscripts. Then we will look at some famous textual problems that are in the Gospels, in Paul’s letters and other parts of the New Testament as well. I will include the two most important or biggest textual problems in the New Testament in terms of number of verses: Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11. Those two passages involve twelve verses each and there is a lot of emotional baggage that is attached to them in terms of authenticity. The people who fight over this are fairly dramatic and fascinating. Nevertheless, in these two passages, we will see if they affect any doctrines and the question will be ask whether there are other passages like this? However the reality is, there are none; as these are the largest passages by far of any textual variance! We have about two dozen places where we have one or two verses, and then everything else after that is much smaller. That gives you a basic overview and then we will summarize all of this and review some of the material and more questions in regards to it.

II. Definition and Goals of New Testament Textual Criticism

A. Ancient Non-New Testament Documents

In general, for any ancient document, we can say that textual criticism is the study of the copies of any written document; I mean, hand written copies whose originals that are often called autographs are unknown or no longer existent; the primary purpose of determining the exact wording of the original. We even have to do textual criticism on documents that were written after the printing press was invented in 1454; for example, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of which we don’t have the original document that Lincoln wrote. What we have is five very early first generation copies that were written by his secretaries and we have hundreds of people that were there when he gave the address; there were journalists who took notes and published what he had to say in their newspapers. So even after the printing press was created, it is sometimes difficult to get it exactly right. But for the ancient world, we have virtually no original documents of any ancient literature. We have original documents of non-literary things: like letters, notes, etc. but not in a literary sense.

B. Ancient New Testament Documents

For the New Testament, textual criticism is the study of the handwritten copies of the New Testament who’s original, the autograph, is unknown or non-existent and so the primary purpose of determining the exact wording of that original text is the fundamental goal. The definition and goal of textual criticism is virtually identical. Why is it necessary for the New Testament? First of all, the autographs no longer exist; we don’t have them anymore, instead of the autograph, we have copies of those originals which surely disappeared within a century of being written. They would have been written on papyrus. Literary papyri of any good quality were actual roles which had tags attached to them to say what the document was. Recent studies have suggested that these literary papyrus roles that were used on a semi-frequent basis would last as long as two or three hundred years. You compare that to New Testament documents, these were not read just for literature as such but instead it was read because life was at stake. The life of a religious group that was persecuted; they wanted it to be right and disseminated. So, these manuscripts would have been examined very frequently. You can easily see a scenario like Paul writing a letter to the Romans; other churches find out about it and ask for a copy. Then they come across a copy of Paul’s letter copied by someone else and find some discrepancies between the two. So they think they should send someone to Rome to find out what the problem is. This kind of thing must have happened over and over again. So the original New Testament manuscripts would have worn out from being read aloud and from being copied so frequently. So, most scholars are quiet convinced they would have fallen apart within a century of their production. So, they no longer exist.

The second reason why textual criticism is necessary is because there are differences among the copies. In fact, there are between six and ten differences among the two closest early manuscripts we have per chapter. If you multiple that out by two hundred and sixty chapters, we have over two thousand differences among these manuscripts. That is quite a few. Then you look at manuscripts that don’t agree with each other very much, now we are looking at a fairly sizeable number. If we still had the autographs, then textual criticism wouldn’t be necessary. Or if all of the copies were exactly alike, then textual criticism would not be possible. It is not that it wouldn’t be necessary, they might be all alike based on a later copy; so, it might still be necessary but it is something that couldn’t be done. To a degree, this second category is what Muslims face. They claim that all copies of the Quran are exactly alike which isn’t the case at all. What we do know historically is that Caliph ‘Uthman, the leader of the Muslim religion within a few decades after Mohammed gathers up all the copies of the Quran which were different from one another and burned all of them except his own preferred copy. And so, then there were strong penalties about making any kind of errors in coping the Quran from that point on. That was good for the history of the Quran after that point. It doesn’t help us at all for covering the Quran before that. Even Westcott and Hort talked about this, saying that it isn’t possible to get back to the original Quran, because Caliph ‘Uthman destroyed all of these earlier copies. So, if we had the autographs, it wouldn’t be necessary and if all the copies were exactly alike, textual criticism would not be possible.

C. Bart Ehrman, The Textus Receptus and the Quran

What is interesting, even Bart Ehrman has a view that is very similar to what Muslims have about their own sacred text; his view is along the lines of what Textus Receptus people have. These folks who are King James only and this Greek New Testament that Erasmus put together; they tend to say that is exactly what the original text says and Ehrman has argued that if God took the trouble to inspire the text, then he should have taken the trouble to preserve the text exactly in every single manuscript. But his problem with Christianity is that it isn’t Islam. His problem with the bibiology of us dealing with the texts of the New Testament is that he wants it to be like what the Muslim claim for Islam. And what KJV people claim for the Textus Receptus. And yet no Christian theologians throughout the last two thousand years has ever suggested, oh yeah, this is what we expect that the text has been preserved exactly in all the manuscripts, just like the original. But that is what Ehrman wants. In a sense, he is disappointed the way God has done things. We will talk about his views as we get into this course.

So, textual criticism is no different from the textual criticism of any other major religion. New Testament is no different; that is, we don’t have the originals, the copies differ. And I said that Muslims argue that all of their copies are exactly alike and yet even the Quran has manuscripts that have errors in them, although this isn’t admitted by Muslims. The Quran is starting to be seriously investigated by scholars in last few years; Christian scholars and others are examining the Quran. We have a leaf of a manuscript of the Quran that has several erasures and rewrites in it. This is a very minimal text and yet you see a half a dozen places where the texts have been erased and rewritten. Recently there have been some manuscripts of the Quran in the process of being published that are known as parchment manuscripts where the texts were scraped off and it was reused with more texts being written on top of it. Both texts are Quranic but they don’t say the same thing. And so you wonder why that happens; it seems to have happened because these scribes felt that they couldn’t have any mistakes in the Quran and therefore to make sure of this, they erased the under-text that had those mistakes and create new ones. And now with phenomenal new technology, we can read that under-text that we didn’t know existed before.

III. Secondary Objectives for the New Testament

A. Tracing the Changes

The secondary objectives for the New Testament, is to trace the changes to the text in various places and times to gain a window on the shape of ancient Christianity. It is important for us to know how the Christian faith was worked out and viewed in various regents of the ancient world. What you need to recognize, the texts that these people inherited, the one that they used is the one they considered to be the authorized as authoritative Scripture. It is just like in England after 1611, the authorized Scripture was the King James Bible. That is what God must have inspired and that is what they used for centuries. Or the Latin Vulgate that was the principle texts used by Roman Catholics for over a thousand years. That was the inspired Scripture for them. Whether they matched the original or not, the fact was, they were what Christians in those parts of the world and in those times regarded as Scripture. So, it is interesting to see what they considered to be Scripture and how they changed Scripture to fit in with their own cultural needs. We also need to distinguish between manuscripts of the New Testament and manuscripts of other early Christian writings. For the most part, other early Christian writings are far more corrupt than New Testament manuscripts, especially those that were produced by heretics or at least by some who were not correct in their orthodoxy. For an illustration: the Gospel of Thomas had major textual upheavals. It is not a Gnostic gospel as many think it is; it is Gnostic like or proto Gnostic or at least open in becoming Gnostic. The only full copy we have of it was found in Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945 and we also discovered that at least three Greek fragments that we didn’t know were part of the Gospel of Thomas until this whole book was published. These fragments began to surface in the late eighteen hundreds; nobody knew what they were. They finally realized that these texts were part of the Gospel of Thomas. But when comparisons were made between the two, there was upheaval in regards to the order of the sayings of Jesus and what the actual words were. Timber Shootie has done the work for this; he was an intern of mine at Dallas Seminary. He studied Coptic and Greek and wrote a chapter in a book called cracking Thomas; a text critical look at the transmission of the Gospel of Thomas. He compared the Greek fragments with the Coptic in places where they lined up. When it comes to the corruption of the New Testament, it doesn’t go through the same kind of upheaval and massive alterations as other ancient texts, even other ancient religious texts go through.

B. The Original Text

Until a few years ago, everyone thought they knew what original text meant. But in 1999, Elden Epp who represents the dawn of North American textual critics today wrote a very important article called the Multi-balance of the term, original text in New Testament Textual criticism, done in the Harvard Theological Review. Epp got scholars to start thinking about what they meant by original text. Some of these definitions include: the form of the text before it was published, maybe the working text that an author used. So, if John was writing the Gospel of John, he may have the text of his Gospel, the one he is going to mark up and edit. The second text would be the autographic text; the form of the text when it was dispatched from the author. That is the one that needs to be considered by far. It is the one that virtually all New Testament scholars thought was the original text. Most New Testament scholars
think in regards to the original text think was the last form of the text that was under the control of the author. As soon as he sent it out, he no longer had control of it. So it was the last form that he had control of, which is the autographic text, the original text. This is not the working draft that he has been editing and changing before it gets published. Then there is the canonical text, the form of the text when New Testament books became canonical, that is when they were considered as Scripture and there are some questions about whether textual problems were a part of what was considered in the whole discussion. In other words, take Mark 16:9-20, did the early church feel that Mark’s Gospel was Scripture only if it included those twelve verses or if only they excluded those twelve verses? Or was that a relevant question? Was it the book itself considered canonical, even though there was recognition that there were textual variances that were not resolved? And then finally, there is the interpretive text from a given local with interpretive alterations to the texts; the form of the text in any given area is going to have until the time of the printing press has to be different. They are hand written manuscripts and so they will not be identical. So what do we consider as being the original text?

The common sense answer to this question is to embrace definition number two, the document that left the author’s hands as it was dispatched to the primary readers. It is the last stage of the text while under the author’s control. This is also known as autographic text or the autographs or an autographer is another term that is often used or the Ausgang text which means the exit text, as it exits the realm of the author. This is what we mean when we speak about the original text.