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.]


Tracing: Romans 2:1-5

The above video is a step-by-step tracing of Romans 2:1-5. Now I’d like to discuss the passage briefly based on the tracing that I just did. (You can see an introduction to Tracing here)..warning: the Music at the end comes on pretty loud. Still getting used to this app!

 “Therefore, you have no excuse, every one of you who passes judgment.”

Paul is drawing a conclusion based on a previous argument, and if we were to go back and read chapter 1 we would see that Paul has just demonstrated that all those who sin apart from the law are still under God’s condemnation, for they suppress the knowledge of God which is given to thrm in the creation itself. Now, Paul turns to those who have the law and therefore believe they are safe. He states that those who pass judgment are themselves without excuse. Why? Because they practice the very same things by which they judge others. Paul then points out what every good Jew already knew, that God rightly judges those who practice such things (i.e. those things mentioned in chapter 1).  This time however Paul has included the Jews themselves for they also practice such things. So, just as Gentiles are under condemnation from sin so are the Jews, therefore God rightly judges all men because he rightly judges all who practice sin.

“But do you suppose this, O man… That you will escape the judgment of God?”

Paul then asks to rhetorical questions which provides the grounds for their condemnation. First, they suppose they will escape the judgment of God; second, they take for granted God’s kindness they did not know it should lead them to repentance. These questions reveal the attitude of the heart of those who outwardly might seem godly, and it is this attitude which provides the basis of their being without excuse and under God’s condemnation.

“… You are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.”

 This is the conclusion that Paul draws. What he has argued so forth demonstrates the hard and unrepentant heart of those Jews who would judge others that consider themselves safe solely on the basis of their Jewish identity. No, they too are under the righteous and just wrath of a holy God.

This passage should stop anyone in their tracks who believes that they are right with God simply based on what they perceive to be good deeds.  There is no one who is free from sin, therefore there is no one who is not under the just wrath of a holy God.  This is the bad news, yet it absolutely pales in comparison to the good news of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. More on this next time…

Enhanced by Zemanta

Tracing 101

46 is the earliest (nearly) complete manuscrip...


Tom Steller wrote,

Because the Bible alone is the inerrant, infallible authority for what we are to believe about God and how he wants us to live, it is no surprise that we bring a lot of baggage to the text. By nature we don’t like the thought of absolute authority residing in anyone outside of ourselves. What if God commands me to do something I don’t want to do? Or what if he portrays himself in a way that differs from the way I think he should be? This would lead to a tremendous pressure to import our own meanings into the text rather than content ourselves with the author’s intended meaning wherever it leads us.

Because this is true, we (all christians) should make it our life’s aim to rightly divide God’s word. It will not do to believe what sounds good to us, or what we hear others say, for Christian faith is not only one of community, but it is also a personal faith. We each must be in God’s word every day; studying it, memorizing it, living by it. This is the foundation of the Christian faith: to know the Lord Jesus Christ, who is revealed to us in his word.

One helpful tool to inductively study God’s word is called Biblical Tracing.

Dr. Schreiner recently asked me to grade for his Romans class, and when I looked at the syllabus I realized there would be quite a bit of tracing involved. However, I am fairly new to the concept, so I began reading up on it and tracing passages to become better familiar with the method. I can now say that I believe it to be an extremely helpful initial step in Biblical study, and one I would recommend any Christian to utilize.

Below is a video I did explaining and illustrating this Bible study method.. It is a way to trace an argument through passages of Scripture which allows for a visual representation of that argument. In doing so it requires you to think carefully about a passage and the flow of its argument. This is extrememly important as many erros made when it comes to Biblical interpretations arise out of “proof texting” rather than listening to the context and the argument a particular author is making.

FYI, feel free to skip through the pauses and goofy transistions. I was playing around with a new app called educreations. It’s really pretty neat!

Here are some further resources to help in this regarding, including the ones I mentioned in the video:

Biblearc: This is a very helpful website that explains many of the concepts of arcing/tracing. If you can dish out 10 bucks a year they also have a really great app that makes arcing very user friendly. If you don’t care to learn arcing or utilize their app, you can still watch the tutorial videos to help you get a better grasp of the different relationships.

Tom Schreiner: My PhD supervisor, Dr. Tom Schreiner, as written a wonderful little book called Interpreting the Pauline Epistles in which he has a chapter on tracing. It explains the method in detail and provides several helpful examples. You can download the chapter free here.

John Piper: Piper has also written a book detailing this method, although he utilizes “arcing.” His book however explains the different relationships between propositions and so it will be helpful in that regard, whether or not you are interested in arcing. Here is the pdf.

Also, if you check back with me every so often I’ll try to post a similar video of a weekly tracing. There won’t be any introduction, a walk through whatever text I do that week. If there is a particular passage you want to see traced, let me know and I’d be happy to do that as well.

I hope that you have found this to be beneficial and that you see the benefits of a method like tracing. The closer we read and think through God’s word the more it will become a part of our daily lives. Happy study!

Enhanced by Zemanta