The Science of Textual Criticism

"The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever." (Isaiah 40:8).

Since inspiration, by its very definition, extends only to the original manuscripts of the Bible, and since none of the original manuscripts are in existence today, how can we rely on the accuracy of our modern Hebrew and Greek Bibles? The answer to this question is found in the science of Textual Criticism.



Textual criticism is scholarly work with available manuscripts aimed at the recovery within the limits of possibility of the original text.

We do not have the original papyri that Moses used to write the Torah. We do not have the original letter of Paul to the Galatians which contains his own signature. All we have are copies. In some instances they are copies of copies of copies.

Textual criticism involves carefully examining those copies to find out what is the original text.



There are two basic kinds of criticism in use among Biblical scholars today. They ought to be distinguished from the outset.

1. Higher Criticism.

Higher Criticism looks to the outside factors of the book. It asks such questions as...

m Who wrote the book?

m Where was the book written?

m When was the book written?

m What outside factors influenced the writing of the book?

m Why was the book written?

These questions are not in themselves bad. In fact, we usually deal with these question whenever we set out to study a book of the Bible.

However, many who have become involved in Higher Criticism have become geared to attacking the Bible as to its authenticity and trustworthiness.

The father of this type of Higher Criticism is Julius Wellhausen (1878). He formulated and popularized a theory called the Documentary Hypothesis.

Wellhausen taught that the books of the Pentateuch were not written by Moses, but rather came about through the efforts of four separate sources. This became known as the JEDP Theory, after the four supposed sources.

J - Stands for a document written in 850 B.C. It is called this because of its extensive use of the work "Jehovah" when speaking of God.

E - This is said to use "Elohim" for God and is said to have been written in 750 B.C.

D - Stands for the book of Deuteronomy. It is said to be the scroll of the Law which Hilkaiah, the priest, found in the Temple during the reign of Josiah.

P - This is said to be a Priestly Document written in 450 B.C. It is the one which contains all of the genealogies and lists, as well as the regulations concerning the sacrifices.

According to Welhausen, the Bible is not the inspired Word of God, but rather contains mistakes and flaws all throughout.

2. Lower Criticism.

This is also referred to as "Textual Criticism" because it deals with the original text of the Scriptures.

Its objective is to determine as closely as possible what the original text said on the basis of a study of the existing copies.

The study of Textual Criticism is not new. The early church father Origen wrote a book on the Old Testament text called the HEXAPLA in 250 A.D.

However, discoveries of manuscripts in recent years have added a great new impetus to the science of Textual Criticism.


We have already noted what Textual Criticism is - the study of copies in order to determine the content of the original text.

But why is Textual Criticism needed? The reason for Textual Criticism is because we do not have the original manuscripts of the Scriptures. They have long since either been lost or destroyed or crumbled to dust. All that we have left are copies that have been made.

For hundreds of years, the documents of Scriptures were copied by hand. Occasionally, a scribe might make a mistake as he was transcribing a manuscript. Years later, that mistake would be copied by another scribe who was using that manuscript as a source. Thus, certain errors might be copied in succeeding copies.

As a general rule, the older manuscripts are thought to have the fewest errors. This is because there was less of a chance for errors to creep in from the source manuscripts from which they were copied. Hence a third-generation copy might be considered to be more accurate than a sixth-generation copy.

For example, perhaps a scribe was copying from a manuscript which had been copied from the original text. He source text would then be a "second-generation" copy.

As our scribe comes to Romans 8:1, he pauses for a moment to stretch his cramped fingers. Then as he begins again, his eyes slip down several lines and he begins to copy this phrase:

"...who do not walk according to the flesh."

Then he continues on to verse 2 and the verses which follow (keeping in mind that the verse divisions had not yet been added).

Do you see what has happened? The scribe has made a mistake in copying. The source text reads:

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

However, the scribe's new copy now reads differently. It says:

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh."

In the years that follow, other scribes use this new manuscripts as their source text. Naturally, they will copy the same mistake that was previously made.

Perhaps one of these scribes will make still another alteration so that his copy now reads (his reason might be to further clarify the text):

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the spirit."

In the years that follow, other scribes use these new manuscripts as their source text. Naturally, they will copy the same mistake that was previously made.

Further on down the line, still another scribe skips over the small Greek word mh, thus changing the text still further. Now it reads:

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who walk according to the flesh, but according to the spirit."

As a result of this last mistake, we now have fourth and fifth generation manuscripts which also contain this error.


"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

First Error

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh."

Second Error

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the spirit."

Third Error

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who walk according to the flesh, but according to the spirit."



There are three general types of errors:

1. Unintentional Errors: Those taking place as a result of a mistake on the part of the scribe.

a. Errors from faulty eyesight.

1 Timothy 3:16 contains a difference in two words which look very much alike in the Greek text.

b. Errors arising from faulty hearing.

Some scribes would copy from verbal dictation in which one reader would read the text aloud to a number of scribes who would write that text. There are homonyms both in English and in Greek.

c. Errors of the mind.

Sometimes a tired scribe would switch words or even letters in a word by mistake.

For example, the word Elabon ("they received") is Mark 14:65 was changed in one manuscript to Ebalon ("they threw") and Eballon ("they were throwing") in another.

d. Additions due to personal notes.

In the same way that we sometimes write a notation in the margin of our Bibles, scribes would sometimes place an interpretive notation. Since the text itself was handwritten, a later scribe might unintentionally copy down the note with the text, thinking that it was a part of the original.

2. Intentional Changes.

In some cases, scribes made intentional changes to the manuscript which they were copying, not to hurt the text, but to either clarify or to correct what they perceived to be an error.

When Matthew 9:13 has Jesus saying, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners," some copyists could not resist adding the words "to repentance" (from Luke 5:32).

Origen made such an attempt when he substituted the word BETHABARA for BETHANY in John 1:28 - a substitution that is reflected in the KJV.

When faced with two differing texts, a scribe would sometimes copy BOTH readings rather than leave one out. Thus, when a scribe had two variant endings of the book of Luke, he used them BOTH.

"They were continually in the temple PRAISING God" and "They were continually in the temple BLESSING God" was combined to read "They were continually in the temple PRAISING and BLESSING God." (Luke 24:52).

The Jehovah's Witnesses were not the first cult to attempt to rewrite the Bible. It is known that Marcion edited his own version of the Bible, cutting out those parts which were inconsistent with his own personal beliefs.

In each case where an error crept into the text, it would be reproduced in any copies that were made of that text. It is for this reason that the older manuscript tends to be seen as the more trustworthy.



Has the absence of the original manuscripts hurt the trustworthiness of our Bible? I do not believe so.

1. Illustration of a Tape Measure. Dr. Laird Harris gives the following illustration:

"Suppose we wish to measure the length of a certain pencil. With a tape measure we measure it 6 inches. A more carefully made office ruler indicates 6 9/16 inches. Checking it with an engineer's scale, we find it to be slightly more than 6.58 inches. Careful measurement with a steel scale under laboratory conditions reveals it to be 6.577 inches. Not satisfied still, we send the pencil to Washington where master gauges indicate a length of 6.5774 inches. The master gauges themselves are checked against the standard United States yard marked on a platinum bar preserved in Washington.

"Now, suppose that we should read in the newspapers that a clever criminal had run off with the platinum bar and melted it down for the precious metal. As a matter of fact, this once happened to Britain's standard yard!

"What difference would this make to us? Very little. None of us has ever seen the platinum bar. Many of us perhaps never realized it existed. Yet we blithely use tape measures, rulers, scales, and similar measuring devices. These approximate measures derive their value from their being dependent on more accurate gauges. But even the approximate has tremendous value - if it has had a true standard behind it." (Dr. Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible; Page 88-89).

Now, many people object that we have never seen the original manuscripts of the Bible.

That is true. I have never seen a copy of the epistle to the Galatians that contained the handwritten signature of the Apostle Paul.

But other people have. In 200 A.D. Tertullian said that the original writings of the apostles still existed in the churches which those apostles had started. Those original manuscripts could be examined in his day.

We have manuscripts dating back to Tertullian's day and portions that are even earlier. These copies were able to be checked against the originals.

2. Comparison to Writings of Antiquity.

How does this compare to other writings of antiquity that have come down to us?

And yet, none of these writings is ever questioned. On the other hand, the Bible has literally thousands of ancient manuscripts from which we can conduct our investigations in our search for the true text.

In addition to this, there are thousands of quotations of the Bible from the early church fathers. Likewise, we have over 2000 lectionaries - written Bible lessons which quoted the verses which were to be read during the worship service.

This simplifies the job of the textual critic. If he reads a certain phrase in 5,994 manuscripts and finds an alternate reading in only 6 manuscripts, it becomes much easier to determine the true text. Therefore, we can conclude that the Scriptures which we have are trustworthy.



Textual Critics have divided the manuscript evidence into four major categories. These families all contains groups of texts.

1. Old Testament Families.

a. The Massoretic Texts.

The Massoretes were a group of Hebrew scholars who worked at preserving the Scriptures and the traditions of the Jews (the word trwsm means "tradition"). There were initially two groups:

(1) The Eastern Massoretes were located in Mesopotamia.

(2) The Western Massoretes began in Tiberias.

The Western Massoretes eventually gained in prominence and it is the result of their work which survives today.

The Massoretes developed a system of vowel-points, but there was initial resistance to this among certain Jewish groups who felt that this was a sacrilegious adding to the Word of God.

b. The Septuagint Family.

This was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, formed in 250 B.C. in Alexandria, Egypt. The problem with the Septuagint was that it made no attempt to be a word-for-word translation. It was, instead, a "Dynamic Equivalent," much as is the New International Version.

There were also wide variations within different copies of the Septuagint.

c. The Samaritan Pentateuch.

The Samaritan Pentateuch differs from the Massoretic Text in about 6000 instances (most of these are mere differences in spelling).

One interesting difference is seen in Exodus 20:17 where an eleventh commandment is inserted - to build a sanctuary upon Mount Gerazim.

About 1900 of these instances the Samaritan Pentateuch agrees with the Septuagint against the Massoretic Text.

d. Dead Sea Scrolls.

The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls had a profound impact upon Old Testament Textual Criticism. On the one hand, there was evidence that the Massoretic Scrolls were very accurate in their rendition of the Hebrew Bible. At the same time, it was discovered that there were some Hebrew manuscripts which seemed to follow the Septuagint reading. This indicates that perhaps some of the differences in the Massoretic Text versus the Septuagint are not just translational but point to differences in copiest transmission.

2. New Testament Families.

    1. The Proto-Alexandrian Texts.

This group is also referred to as the Neutral Text and the Hesychian Text. This family of texts is represented by the some of the oldest Texts, including the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus, both dating back to the 4th century.

It is also represented by Papyrus 66 and Papyrus 75, both of which date to the beginning of the third century.

It was originally thought that these texts do not exhibit the grammatical and stylistic polishing that were found in some of the other families. However it is now evident that these manuscripts were corrected by later scribes.

b. The Western Text.

These texts were used in the West and particularly in North Africa. This family of texts is represented by Codex Bezae (Codex D) as well as the Old Latin and Syriac translations, some of which are as early as the 2nd century.

It was used by Marcion, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian. It was rejected by Wescott and Hort.

c. The Byzantine Text.

Also known as the Syriac Text. It was adopted in Constantinople and was used as the common text in the Byzantine world. A great majority of late uncials and minuscules belong to this group

It is from this family that Erasmus produced his Textus Receptus. Martin Luther also translated his German Bible from this family. The King James Version reflects this family of texts.

Dr. Laird Harris makes the following observation about this family of texts.

"Scrutiny of the Byzantine family reveals a multitude of small mistakes and numerous unexpected readings which seem unreasonable." (Dr. Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible; Page 92).

It is for this reason that most of the modern translations have turned away from the Byzantine Family to use a compilation of the Western and Neutral Texts.

d. The Alexandrian Text.

This family of texts originated in Alexandria, Egypt. It includes Codex Ephraemi (Codex C), the Coptic Versions, and certain of the Alexandrian early church fathers.

e. The Caesarean Text.

This is thought by some to be a compilation of the Western and Alexandrian readings.

It is associated with Origen and Eusebius as well as with Codex Koridethi, a manuscript containing the gospels which was discovered near the Caspian Sea and dates to the ninth century (Q).

In summary, we find that the textual evidence can be catagorized into five major groups. The oldest of these is the Proto-Alexandrian. The great majority of manuscripts are in the Byzantine Family.

Textual Family




Older Texts: Sinaiticus; Vaticanus

2nd-4th Century



3rd-12th Century


Bezae & Latin Fathers

2nd-13th Century


Compilation of Alexandrian & Western?

3rd-13th Century


Textus Receptus; KJV

5th-10th Century

Harris notes the advantages of the fact that the manuscript evidence is divided into these various families.

"It thus develops that we do not have an embarrassing welter of three thousand manuscripts disagreeing in confusing ways, but that these manuscripts have been copied with considerable care from a few old and standard editions." (Dr. Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible; Page 91).

Has God's word been lost? Not at all. When all of the texts have been examined, the total amount of differences found between the various texts is very small indeed. Furthermore, not a single doctrine is to be found to be changed in any manuscript.



1. The Early Text is to be Preferred.

The earlier the generation of manuscript, the less time it would have to become corrupted by errors.

2. The Shorter/Longer Text is to be Preferred.

There is some debate about this point. It is thought by some that it is easier to unintentionally leave out a passage than it is to add one. If this were true, then it would be the LONGER Text that would be preferred. This seems to be especially true when we compare the Septuagint with the Massoretic Text.

3. Diverse Geographical Reading is to be Preferred.

If a manuscript is attested within several different families of texts which originated at different areas within the ancient world, then it would generally seem more trustworthy.

4. The More Difficult Reading is to be Preferred.

Because scribes sometimes sought to correct what they perceived to be difficulties, readings which contain "problem passages" are usually thought to be the more trustworthy.

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