The Importance of Textual Criticism

For those who do not know, I am a student at Wesley Biblical Seminary, where I am pursuing an M.Div. One of the graduates recently started a group within Wesley Biblical for studying various methodologies and areas of biblical studies. The first topic that we are tackling is the topic of textual criticism. Prior to this class, I knew what textual criticism was, but since I am still learning the Greek and Hebrew languages, my interaction with the field of textual criticism was severely limited. As I have studied textual criticism in this group and grown in my understanding of the original languages of the Bible, I have come to a deeper appreciation for the discipline of textual criticism. In this post, I want to share some of my thoughts regarding this important discipline.

For those who do not know, the discipline of textual criticism is essentially the practice of examining the manuscripts that are available to us in order to determine what the original reading of a particular passage of Scripture. For several centuries after the original manuscripts of the New Testament were written, there was no printing press. Because this was the case, the text of the Bible had to be hand-copied by scribes. Some of these scribes were professional and did this for a living. Other scribes were not professionals. Whether the particular scribe copying a manuscript was a professional or not, the fact is that these scribes made mistakes in copying. Sometimes, a scribe would accidentally write a word or letter twice. Other times, such as when a word was repeated twice in the same verse, a scribe's eyes would skip from the first instance of the word to the second as he was copying, resulting in an accidental omission of the text in between. Other times, a scribe might mistake one letter for another. Fortunately, we have a large number of manuscripts, and it is incredibly unlikely from a statistical standpoint that two scribes would make the exact same mistake in the exact same place. Because of this, we can be confident that the text that you read is reliable in, say, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (the standard text used for study of the Hebrew Bible) or one of the modern Greek New Testaments put out by organizations such as the United Bible Societies.

Textual criticism has a long history in the church, starting as early as Origen, who lived in the late second and early third centuries AD. One of his greatest contributions was called the hexapla, which took six different manuscripts and placed them side-by-side. If you have ever had a parallel Bible with different versions in each column, you will have some sense of what Origen did with the original language text of Scripture. It has been estimated that this work comprised approximately 6500 pages. Although much of this work has been lost, it still remains important to biblical studies today.

I say all of that to say this: textual criticism has played an important role in the history of the Church, and it plays that same important role today. While some may object to the practice of textual criticism on the grounds that we should just take the text as it has been handed to us, this misses a couple of significant points. The first thing that should be asked here is this: Which of the texts that have been handed to us should we accept, since there are over 5,000? The second thing that should be pointed out is that to refuse to attempt to understand what the original text was is to allow human error to stand unchecked. The fact is that textual criticism is needed.

The point that I am making is that our understanding of Scripture is better off because of the work of textual critics. It would be fantastic if we had the original autographs of Scripture in front of us. The fact is that we do not, but we may actually be just as well off. Having as many manuscripts as we do allows us to get to the original reading to an extraordinarily high degree of accuracy. This is important for us, because it means that we can trust the text in front of us. As I close, I want to highlight that point. You can trust the Bible that you read because textual critics spent countless hours laboring to get at the original reading of the text.


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