The Methods of Modern Textual Criticism

My last post was intended to give some context to the work that modern Biblical scholars do in order to give us the Bibles that you and I read. In short, I noted that, because writings in the ancient world had to be copied by hand, mistakes and intentional alterations were commonly made while the books that made it into our NT were copied. This leaves us with thousands of various manuscripts and fragments, many of which differ from one another in more than a few areas.

What we have in our English NT are translations of copies that were made over a century after the originals were supposedly written. The earliest copy of Galatians that we have, for example, is dated to around the year 200 CE, some 150 years after the apostle Paul wrote the original.

Thus, the problem that biblical scholars are attempting to solve with much of their work could be summarized as follows: How can we know what the originals of the NT books said considering what we have today are copies of copies of copies that were written much later than the originals and most of which differ from one another due to errors (or deviations from the originals) made by the copyists?

I want to highlight some of the tools that scholars employ in order to help them solve this problem. (The following is summarized from Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus).

There are two categories of evidence that scholars look for when attempting to determine which readings are more likely to reflect the originals: external and internal. External evidence has to do with examining everything about the manuscripts themselves rather than what they actually say. Internal evidence looks into the content of each manuscript.

External Evidence

  • Number – How many manuscripts support a given reading of a text? This criterion is rather straight forward. If more manuscripts support one reading over another then this counts as evidence for the reading that has greater representation being more original. However, in isolation this criterion offers us rather weak evidence. The fact that more manuscripts reflect a given reading over another does not ipso facto mean that that reading is more likely original. It simply means that the given reading was copied more than others.
  • Age – How old is the manuscript? Older manuscripts are generally believed to reflect the original better than later manuscripts because it’s thought that texts get changed more with the passing of time. However, this criterion, like the ‘Number’ criterion above, must not be applied uncritically. Sometimes manuscripts that are in fact from a later time better reflect the original because they were copied from manuscripts that predate our oldest surviving manuscripts as well as the copies that the earlier manuscripts used. For example, a manuscript from the 8th century may have been dependent on a non-extant manuscript from the 3rd century whereas an earlier manuscript we have from the 5th century may have been dependent on one from the 4th. In this case, the 8th century manuscript would be considered more reliable despite its later date.
  • Geography – Where was the manuscript written and how does it compare to manuscripts that originated in other areas? Readings that are attested to in multiple geographic regions are thought to be more reliable. If a number of manuscripts from Antioch, for example, support one reading whereas manuscripts from Alexandria, Rome and the region of Asia Minor support another reading then the reading from Antioch is thought to likely represent a local variation rather than the original.
  • Reliability of the manuscript – Has the manuscript proven to be reliable in the past? After rigorously applying the above criteria as well as others to the manuscripts that we have for many years, scholars have been able to show that some manuscripts are more trustworthy than others. For example, if a manuscript from Rome represents one reading and a manuscript from Palestine represents another then scholars will take into consideration how both of these manuscripts have fared in the past with other variant readings. If the manuscript from Rome contains more variants that scholars believe to be reliable then this counts as evidence in favor of the reading in the Roman manuscript. Ehrman’s illustration is helpful: “When you know that a person is prone to lying, then you can never be sure that he or she is to be trusted; but if you know that a person is completely reliable, then you can trust that person even when he or she is telling you something you can’t otherwise verify” (kindle location 2089).

Internal Evidence

  • Intrinsic Probabilities – What was the original author of this text most likely to have written based on writing style, vocabulary and theology? If a given reading contains words that can be found nowhere else in this author’s corpus or if the theology seems to contradict what’s known of this author’s theology from his other works then the reading under consideration is more than likely a later scribal addition.
  • Transcriptional Probabilities – Which reading is likely to have been the result of a scribe’s  redaction? The more problematic reading is likely to be original based on the fact that later copyists would want to harmonize or simplify any difficult passages they were copying. This criteria, which many scholars believe to be the most reliable text-critical principle, is summarized well in the following adage: The reading that best explains the existence of the others is more than likely to be original.

Copying the Bible

Reading the Bible as we know it isn’t possible without the work of countless scholars who, over the course of the last few centuries, have devoted their professional lives to making it possible for us to do so. This was the point I tried to make in my last post and here I want to elaborate a bit on what that scholarship actually looks like. In short, I want to ask the following question: What sort of work is required in order to give us our Bibles?

I’ll try and answer that question with my next post but first some background.

From the beginning Christianity was a religion of the book. That is, from the outset Christianity was a movement that was centered around a number of writings that the various churches scattered throughout the Mediterranean found authoritative. This can be best explained by remembering that Christianity began as a Jewish movement and Judaism was also a bookish religion. Thus the early Christians, seeing themselves as a part of the Jewish tradition, understood the Hebrew Bible (that is, what Christians today call the “Old Testament”) as very much their own book. We could say that the early Church’s “Bible” was a form of what we today call the Old Testament. There was no New Testament.

It didn’t take long, however, for specifically Christian writings to surface. The apostle Paul began to write around the year 50 CE (some 20 years after Jesus was crucified) and the gospels that are included in our canon were soon to follow, being written sometime between 70-95 CE (Mark being the earliest and John the latest). These writings, along with countless others, many of which didn’t make it into our New Testament, quickly took on an aura of authority and so began to be widely copied and circulated throughout the Roman world.

I want to emphasize that last part: these texts were copied by hand. In a world without the luxury of the printing press, there was simply no other way to copy texts but by rewriting them by hand. This was no doubt a tedious and time consuming task.

But who was responsible for copying the texts of the early Church?

In a brilliant little book called Misquoting Jesus, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman attempts to answer this very question. One of the things that Ehrman makes clear is that outside the Christian community in the rest of the Roman world, texts were copied by professional scribes or literate household slaves. Generally speaking, the copyists were doing there work for others whether their patron or master. Within the Christian community, however, the texts were copied by those who themselves wanted the text. If a letter or gospel showed up in a Christian community and it was desired then a literate Christian from that community would take the time to copy the book by hand.

It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to see how quickly something like this could get out of hand. And get out of hand it did. The Christian theologian and scholar Origen, writing some 200 years after the earliest Christian texts were produced had this to say about the matter:

The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please. (Origen’s Commentary on Matthew as quoted in Ehrman)

Origen mentions two types of textual alterations here. The first might be described as a simple slip of the pen on the part of the copyist and the second is a blatant changing of what the text said in order to, presumably, bring the text more into alignment with the copyist’s own theological agenda. Both were commonplace in the early days of these texts.

The result of these alterations, whether the result of an honest mistake or a blatant and purposeful changing of the texts, is that today we are left with thousands of different manuscripts and fragments most of which differ from each other in one way or another.

The task of the scholars whose job it is to help produce the Bibles that you and I read, then, is to figure out which of these manuscripts most likely represent the earliest form of the book under consideration. A number of brilliant techniques have been developed by scholars in order to aid them in this task and it’s these techniques that I’ll highlight in my next post.