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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Words of the Bible

Don Stewart :: What Is Textual Criticism? Why Is the Textual Criticism of the Bible Necessary?

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What Is Textual Criticism? Why Is the Textual Criticism of the Bible Necessary?

The Words of the Bible – Question 2

Today, a book is printed from a text that has been written by the author. The work is produced under the supervision of that author. Consequently, we can be confident that the printed form of the work accurately represents the author’s original writing. This, however, is not the case with works written before the invention of printing in the fifteenth century. A number of important points need to be made:

The Originals of Most Ancient Writings Have Been Lost

Before the fifteenth century, all books were produced by hand. Handwritten documents are called manuscripts (abbreviated mss.). In fact, the word, “manuscript” comes from the Latin word meaning, “something that has been written by hand.”

With rare exceptions, the originals of ancient works (also called the autographs) have been lost. The only things that have survived are manuscript copies of ancient works.

The texts that have survived are copies separated from the autographs by hundreds and in some cases, thousands of years. Before we can begin to interpret these works, we must first of all determine what they originally said.

Textual Criticism—the Art and Science of Recovering an Ancient Document

The science of attempting to reconstruct the text of documents is known as “textual criticism.” The person who practices textual criticism is known as a textual critic. While the word, “criticism” usually carries the idea of finding fault with something, this is not the case here. Rather, the term is used with the idea of weighing and evaluating the available evidence to come up with the original wording of a text. Textual criticism collects and examines the evidence about written works in an attempt to recover the original text. Therefore, textual criticism is not criticizing the Bible.

Because no originals exist of the sixty-six books of the Bible, textual criticism must be applied to Scripture to reconstruct the true text.

There Are Two Extremes with Respect to Textual Criticism of the Bible

When we look at the subject of the textual criticism of the Bible, we find two extreme positions that are sometimes held. One position holds that there is no need for any textual criticism, while the other position believes there is no hope of finding the original text. Each of these positions is incorrect.

On the one hand, there are those who do not believe that any textual criticism should be applied to Scripture. They argue that God has preserved His Word intact through certain Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. These manuscripts should be the basis of every translation that is made into another language. No other manuscripts should be consulted except these certain ones that have been “providentially preserved.”

On the other hand, there is the position that it is not possible to recover the original text of Scripture. It is argued that the best we can do is to recover the latest edition of the biblical books that was edited by others than those who wrote the original.

The first position is held by people who have a very conservative view of the Bible, while the second is held by those who have a very liberal attitude toward Scripture. However, neither of these positions is the correct one. Textual criticism must be practiced on the biblical books because there is no one manuscript, or group of manuscripts, that perfectly preserve the original reading.

Yet, we do believe that it is possible to discover what the authors originally wrote. There is no need to assume that the text was changed to such a degree that we no longer have the authors’ original words. The original text can be recovered through the science of textual criticism.

The Situation with the Text of the Old Testament

The great majority of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. There were a few parts written in Aramaic, a language similar to Hebrew. The Aramaic sections of the Old Testament are found in Daniel 2:4-7:28, Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; and one verse in (Jeremiah 10:11).

The remainder was written in the Hebrew language. Biblical Hebrew is also known as “classical Hebrew.” It is interesting to note that the term, “Hebrew” is not found in the Old Testament to describe the language that was spoken by the people. Instead, we have other designations. Isaiah calls it the language of Canaan. We read:

On that day five cities in the land of Egypt will speak the language of Canaan and swear loyalty to the LORD of Hosts. One of the cities will be called the City of the Sun. (Isaiah 19:18 HCSB)

It is called “the language of Judah” in the Book of Nehemiah. Scripture says:

Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. (Nehemiah 13:24 NIV)

Whatever we call it; Hebrew, the language of Canaan or the language of Judah; this is the language in which God chose to reveal His Word to humanity before the coming of Jesus Christ, the long-awaited Messiah, to the earth.

The Necessity of Old Testament Textual Criticism

The various books of the Old Testament were written from approximately 1400 B.C. to 400 B.C. As can be expected with books written so long ago, the originals have long since vanished. In order to reconstruct what the Old Testament text originally said, we have to apply the principles of textual criticism. We have no other choice.

Therefore, textual criticism for the Old Testament is necessary for several reasons:

  1. The first book of the Old Testament was written some 3,400 years ago and the last one some 2,400 years ago. Therefore, the writing of the Old Testament encompassed approximately 1,000 years.
  2. The originals of each book have long since vanished.
  3. The copies that we have differ in some respects. No two manuscripts read exactly alike. Therefore, the textual critic must do his work to reconstruct the text.

The Necessity of New Testament Textual Criticism

In the first century, Greek was the international language. The books of the New Testament were originally written in the common Greek of the day called koine. They were composed from approximately A.D. 50 to 90.

Today, we do not possess the autographs (originals) of the various New Testament books. As is true with the Old Testament, we are dependent upon copies and copies of copies to reconstruct the text. Again, we must apply the science of textual criticism to the New Testament to discover the original wording of the text.

Therefore, textual criticism of the New Testament is also necessary for three basic reasons:

  1. We do not possess any of the original writings of the New Testament. Like the Old Testament, we are dependent upon copies to reconstruct the text.
  2. The copies of the New Testament manuscripts we now possess differ in some respects from each other because of scribal mistakes that have crept into the text. As is true with the Old Testament, no two manuscripts are exactly alike. While the differences are mostly accidental, there are differences among the manuscripts.
  3. In the case of the New Testament, there is an abundance of material to evaluate.

Before any type of biblical interpretation can begin, we must first determine what the text originally said. Therefore, textual criticism of the Scripture is an absolute necessity.

Some Important Observations about Textual Criticism

There are a number of important observations that should be made about the science of textual criticism. They include the following:

1. Textual Criticism Is Not Limited to the Bible

Textual criticism is not limited to the Bible. No originals exist of any of the classical writers such as Plato, Aristotle or Euripides. Likewise, none of the original writings of the early Christians still exist, or even the original works of William Shakespeare. Therefore, textual criticism is a discipline that is used for any ancient or modern work where the originals have vanished.

2. The Rules Are the Same for All Written Documents

The rules by which the textual critic seeks to discover the original text of a document are the same for the Bible as they are for non-biblical documents. There are no special rules that need to be applied when attempting to reconstruct the text of Scripture. The text of the Bible is evaluated and reconstructed in the same way as we would evaluate the writings of Shakespeare.

Of course, that does not mean that the Bible and Shakespeare have the same value. The Bible is unique in the fact that it is God’s sole revelation of Himself to the human race. Yet to reconstruct the text of each document, the same principles must apply.

3. Believers and Unbelievers Practice Textual Criticism the Same Way

Textual criticism is practiced by both believers and unbelievers. While they may disagree as to the nature of the Bible, there is no disagreement when it comes to the subject of textual criticism. Both use the same Hebrew Old Testament and the same Greek New Testament. Both examine the same manuscripts and the same variant readings that are found in the manuscripts. When examining the text, the same rules are applied by both believers and unbelievers and the same conclusions are drawn. Therefore, the practice of textual criticism is not a battleground between believers and unbelievers.

4. The Practice of Textual Criticism Is Not Easy

The practice of textual criticism is not easy. One must attempt to reconstruct a document by working backward with the evidence that still exists. Sometimes there is an abundance of evidence to help reconstruct a text, while at other times there is little evidence to follow. Whatever the case may be, reconstructing an ancient text is both an art and a science. It is a science because there are certain rules to follow, but it is an art because these rules cannot be applied in a mechanical way.

5. The Present Text of the Bible Is an Accurate Representation of the Original

Something has to be said about where the evidence eventually leads. When all the facts are in, it will be seen that the text of the Bible has been transmitted to us in a very accurate way. We can be confident that the Bible we read today represents what was originally written. Consequently, competent translations of Scripture are the authoritative Word of God. We can read them with confidence and rely on the promises contained within its pages.

The great textual scholar of the last century, Sir Frederic Kenyon, put it this way:

The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true Word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries. (Sir Frederic Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, New York, Harper and Row, 1958, p. 55)

There is more. Even if we would adopt every possible alternative reading that is found in Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, the text would still read basically the same!

Indeed, the story of the Bible would be essentially the same, and the reader would get the same central message of who God is and what He wants from His creation.

Therefore, when we put the Bible through the art and science of textual criticism, it demonstrates that God’s Word comes through loud and clear.

Summary – Question 2
What Is Textual Criticism? Why Is Textual Criticism of the Bible Necessary?

When the very first book of the Bible was written, the text began to be transmitted through various copies. The text continued to be transmitted by hand written copies until the invention of printing in the fifteenth century. Textual Criticism is a science attempting to establish the correct text of a document. It is applied to secular as well as sacred works. The rules for its practice are the same whether the text is sacred or secular. The textual critic works with the materials available and works backward to establish, as best as possible, how the text originally read.

Textual criticism is necessary in both testaments. The originals of each book of the Old Testament no longer exist. The copies that still exist have different readings in the text. Textual criticism is also necessary for the New Testament. The originals no longer exist, the manuscripts that do exist differ from one another and there is an abundance of material to consider.

Therefore, to recover the original wording of Scripture, the science of textual criticism must be applied.

We also noted that textual criticism is not limited to the Bible—every document with a missing original must undergo textual criticism. The same rules apply to believers and unbelievers who practice this discipline.

Textual criticism is a science and an art. It has rules, but they are not to be applied mechanically. Finally, it is important to emphasize that the text we have today is an accurate representation of the original.

Why Is It Important to Discover What the Bible Originally Said? ← Prior Section
What’s the Difference Between the History of the Text of the Old Testament and the History of the Text of the New Testament? Next Section →
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