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Textual Criticism – Briefly

Note: This is a second excursus in my series on Biblical criticism. When I begin my next entry, dealing with the parable of the sower, I will begin by discussing textual issues and applying these principles.

I was encouraged to make a few notes on textual criticism after I read the collection of essays The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research. This reminded me of some of the issues of textual criticism that tend to give non-scholars problems in reading the Bible.

Non-scholars usually encounter textual criticism when there is a note in their Bible that says something like, “Other ancient authorities read . . .” or “mss . . .” followed by an alternate reading for a passage. Sometimes this starts with brackets being put around a block of text. John 7:53 through 8:11, for example, is bracketed in my NRSV Bible with the note “The most ancient authorities lack 7:53-8:11; . . .” The question many laypeople have is what are these ancient authorities, and why should they care?

Textual criticism is simply the study of the various manuscripts, or witnesses, to the text of the Bible in order to determine the text that is closest to the autograph. “Manuscripts” here may include Greek manuscripts, lectionaries, quotes in church fathers, or versions in other ancient languages. For textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, some of the witnesses are different, as are some of the details of practice, but in general they are quite similar. In addition, many scholars are also interested in other stages of the text. They recognize that while we use the manuscripts to determine the original text, for the person who made the manuscript, and those who used it, that was their Bible. It wasn’t a stage leading to something else. They would use it as their scripture. We can learn something about them from the way that manuscript was made and copied.

But for this entry, I’m focusing on how we work to discover the text closest to the autograph. First, no two ancient manuscripts are completely alike. Thus we must do textual criticism in some sense before we can have a Bible. We might just decide to grab one manuscript, presuming it’s complete, and use that one, but even that is a decision about the text. In practice, translators depend on textual critics, who produce editions of the text. An edition is basically a text produced by the editors’ best conclusions about the text of each passage. Usually, it will have a critical apparatus, which is simply a listing of the other variants, or options that could have been chosen.

The textual critic is presented with two types of evidence:

1. External evidence – the manuscripts, quotations, and so forth, that are available to him. From these he can get a picture of all the different readings for the passage he is working on.

2. Internal evidence – the things that are likely to have happened in copying. We know from observing how people copy that certain errors are more likely. If copying is done by ear, with one person reading a manuscript, and the other writing down what he hears, similar sounding words may be confused. Letters that look similar can be confused when copying by eye, or the eye can skip over from one word to anther that looks much like it. This can result either in duplicating part of the text or in omitting part of it.

There are some simple rules for this. In general, in evaluating external evidence, an older manuscript is better than a newer one, simply because it is likely that it has not been through as many generations of copying. You can see that a more precise rule would be to look for how many times a manuscript has been copied, i.e. how many generations it has been through. Unfortunately, we don’t usually know that for sure. On average, however, an older manuscript will have been through less generations.

Internal evidence is more slippery. Here are some of the basic rules:

a. Choose the more difficult reading, provided it is not nonsense. Basically, if a scribe corrected a passage, it was probably from something he did not understand to something he did.

b. Choose the shorter reading. This is based on the notion that scribes generally tending to add rather than to omit. This has been called into question, however, by James R. Royse, “Scribal Tendencies in the Transmission of the Text of the New Testament” in The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research. He cites studies that have found that scribes tended to leave out more than they added. It would be easy to think this is more important than it is, but remember that each of these rules is simply one piece of evidence in the whole puzzle.

c. Choose a reading that agrees with an author’s style. We know something about how Paul wrote. If a reading is substantially different, it might be an error.

d. Choose the reading that best explains the others. One reading may create an error that another one corrects. The one that motivates the correction must be earlier than the correction.

You can see that internal evidence is much more subjective, but it is often the only way to choose various readings.

This is a very short introduction. I will comment further as I examine textual issues in the passages I use for examples in this series.

For more information see my book What’s in a Version?. For more information specifically on textual criticism, see my review of The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research. In that review I link to some more basic volumes as well.

[Updated January 18, 2015 to correct links to my book review of The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research.]

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