What is Textual Criticism and Why It Matters: Intro

What is Textual Criticism and Why It Matters

Imagine if I wrote a 15 page letter and gave it to you to copy by hand. Let’s say you, in turn, gave it to two other people and they copied. Say each of them gave it to several people and they copied it. Say this continued for 1000 years, and my original, as well as the almost all of the copies up to 200 years were lost. What would you have? What you would have is something similar to what we have with the New Testament. This is what makes textual criticism necessary.

This illustrates what the process of copying would have looked like

This illustrates what the process of copying would have looked like

Textual Criticism is not a term most Christians are familiar with. Yet, without it we would not have Christianity. Yes, it is that important. So, in the next several posts I am going to try to introduce this important topic and then give some examples as to how the actual work is done. We’ll start with some definitions:

These should get us started for now. With each post we’ll add a few more definitions as we delve deeper into the discussion.


An Autograph refers to the original copy of a manuscript written by the actual author of that manuscript.

So for example, the autograph of 1 Corinthians would be the copy that Paul actually wrote (or dictated). We have no autographs from any ancient literary document. They remain either undiscovered or they no longer exist.


A Manuscript is any piece of an ancient document.

P52 The oldest NT manuscript we possess


The New Testament is the most well attested ancient document by far when it comes to the number of ancient manuscripts we have available
to examine. We have around 5,500 Greek manuscripts alone, and when you add in ancient translations into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, etc. the number rises to at least 20,000. Of these manuscripts we have around 124 which were copied within 300 years of the original, a dozen

P52 The oldest NT manuscript we possess

of these being from the second century. If you compare this to any other classical writing, what you’ll find is that no other ancient copy of any literary text exists within 300 years of the original. Not one. And the manuscripts we do have containing copies of

those writings total to about 20 on average, often less. In other words, we can be infinitely more confident that we can trace the NT text back to the original than any other work of antiquity.

Document Date of Originals Earliest MSS  Number of MSS
New Testament 5-100 AD 65-150 AD 5600+; thousands of quotes from Fathers; 8000 versions
Illiad ca. 800 BC ca 400 BC 643
Plato (Collected Works ca. 400 BC ca. 900 AD 7
Tacitus ca. 100 AD 1100 AD 20
Euripides 480-406 BC 1100 AD 330

Textual Variant

Textual Variant is a place in the Biblical text where there exists variation of any kind in the manuscript tradition.1

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to point you to is to show you:

Textual Criticism at work

Textual Criticism at work

In the KJV you find the words

“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one…”

However, the most other modern translation, the portion of the text is omitted. Why? This has to do with textual criticism, and we’ll look more closely at this particular text in a future post.

Textual Apparatus

The textual apparatus refers to a section at the bottom of a page of the biblical text, which indicates the various variant readings in the above text.

Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament

This is the most widely utilized version of the Greek Text. It contains a textual apparatus at the bottom of each page of text detailing the major variants within that portion of text. It is typically the starting point for all of our modern translations.

Textual Criticism

This refers to the practice examining and comparing ancient manuscripts so as to discover what was written by the original author.

So with some basic definitions, in further posts we’ll continue to discuss what TC actually looks like and why it is vital to how we read the Bible.

1. [Dan Wallace defines a textual variant as: “any place among the manuscripts in which there is variation in wording, including word order, omission or addition of words, even spelling differences…”; Stewart, Robert B., ed. the Textual Reliability of the New Testament: Bart D. Erhman and Daniel B. Wallace in Dialogue, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 32.]

Three Unpublished Papyri of the New Testament

Mich papryi

It’s amazing to me how rich the textual history of the New Testament is, and it keeps growing! Read about a few recently discovered papyri fragments of 2 Timothy and Titus at Brent C. Jones’ blog:

Three Unpublished Papyri of the New Testament Discovered at the University of Michigan

The University of Michigan Papyrology Collection contains numerous Coptic biblical manuscripts that have been published over the years, not least of which is the famous Fayyumic codex of the Gospel of John (P.Mich. inv. 3521). There are, however, a number of Coptic fragments at Michigan that have never been published or identified…

via Three Unpublished Papyri of the New Testament Discovered at the University of Michigan – Brice C. Jones.

Early Fragment of Romans Discovered

English: manuscript of the Epistle to the Roma...
English: manuscript of the Epistle to the Romans (fragment) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over at his blog Dan Wallace has posted an article regarding an early manuscript of Romans dated to the early third century. The text it contains is Romans 9:18-21, a cherished text by those who love God’s sovereignty. A great discovery which only strengthens the Christian’s confidence that the Bible we have today accurately represents the word of God given to the apostles. Also, for you text critical nerds he briefly discusses some of the variants. Check it out:

New Early Fragment of Romans « Daniel B. Wallace.

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