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.

The Bible And Anti-Intellectualism

I’ve been told more than a few times that I rely too much on the opinions of scholars when it comes to reading and interpreting the Bible. Instead of reading books that talk about the Bible, I’m told I ought to “just read the Bible” and “believe what it says.”

Those who advocate this just-read-the-Bible-and-do-what-it-says approach fail to acknowledge, however, the centuries of Biblical scholarship that have taken place in order to allow them to read their Bible in the first place.

The truth is, all of us, especially those of us who don’t know the Biblical languages (Hebrew and Aramaic for the OT and Greek for the NT), are dependent on the work of countless scholars who have devoted their professional lives to sorting through the wealth of ancient manuscripts in order to determine which ones are the earliest (more on this in another post) and then translating these manuscripts into English so that we can read them in our native language.

There simply is no such thing as “just reading the Bible” apart from the work of modern Biblical scholarship. If you read your Bible in English then you are dependent on the work of modern scholars.

The great irony of anti-intellectual Fundamentalism is that it’s fully dependent on centuries of rigorous intellectual achievement. That is, those who claim we ought not concern ourselves with the work of modern Biblical scholarship but instead on the Bible and the Bible alone are themselves dependent on the very scholarship that they scorn–and often unknowingly!

As if the Bible dropped out of the sky, bound and translated with a nifty 1 year reading plan placed at the back for your devotional convenience…


See also: Reading the Bible Is More Complicated Than You Think OR Why Proof-Texting Is Bad OR The Lens Through Which I Read the Bible


Why You Should Disagree With The Bible

In my last post I discussed some of my own biases that I have when approaching the Bible. The first one was that I think being faithful to the Bible–that is, to the over-arching narrative that is told through the Scriptures and continues through the life of the Church–sometimes requires us to disagree with and/or critique certain texts that we find in the Bible.

One of the reasons why I believe we must disagree with certain texts is because this is precisely what we see the apostles doing with the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in the book of Acts:

As [Peter] talked with [Cornelius], he entered and found many people assembled. And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for” (10:27-29a, emphasis mine).

It is true that that the word for “unlawful” in the Greek denotes a cultural taboo rather than the written Law, however, the fact that Peter is willing to break with the ancient Jewish tradition requiring Jews to stay separate from Gentiles is far from inconsequential. Peter’s rationale for breaking from the ancient tradition is that God showed him that no person was unholy or unclean (see italics). In other words, God spoke a new and fresh word to Peter, a word that required him to rethink what faithfulness to his tradition looked like.

Later on in Acts 15 the Apostles debate with a group of Pharisees about whether or not Gentile converts must be circumcised. Sylvia Keesmaat, in her essay Welcoming the Gentiles: A Biblical Model For Decision Making, notes that by arguing that Gentile converts must be circumcised in order to become a part of the covenant people of God, the Pharisees had both Scripture and tradition on their side. In other words, there was absolutely zero precedence for allowing the Gentiles in without circumcision and obedience to the Law of Moses. Yet, this is precisely what the apostles argue for:

The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the necks of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (15:6-11).

After having met personally with Cornelius and seeing that God had poured out his Spirit on him, Peter could not deny that God was up to something radically new. His vision of the sheet and the unclean animals also contributed to his arguing for something that was contrary to both Jewish tradition and Scripture.

The implications of this are huge.

As Christians living in the 21st century do we still believe that God is speaking? Is it possible for God to speak a word to his Church today that would require us to critique our own tradition as well as the Bible itself? Does faithfulness to the living God who moves and speaks sometimes require that we disagree with certain texts in the Bible?

I think the answer must be yes to all of the above.


Reading the Bible Is More Complicated Than You Think OR Why Proof-Texting Is Bad OR The Lens Through Which I Read The Bible

One of the first things I realized when I became a Biblical Studies major is that reading the Bible isn’t as easy as many make it out to be. That’s because reading the Bible requires that we interpret what we’re reading and interpretation is a tricky endeavor. It’s tricky because every one of us brings a whole wealth of prior knowledge, experience, biases, etc. to the table when we read the Bible.

A helpful illustration is the idea of a pair of glasses. Each of us, when dealing with the Bible, reads the text through a pair of lenses that we have on. The lens through which you read the Bible is composed of your own biases, past experiences, theological tradition, former conversations with people of influence, etc. All of these serve as a framework for you to make sense of the words you read in the Bible. They make up  your lens.

So when we when read the Bible we’re not reading it objectively. We’re reading it from a very particular perspective. That means that whatever interpretation we derive from the text is automatically going to be a subjective interpretation, one that’s been influenced by the lens through which we have read the Bible.

No matter how sincerely we pray for God to grant us the “correct” interpretation when reading the Bible we have to recognize that whatever we end up with will be dependent upon our own lens. There’s no such thing as divine objectivity when it comes to reading the Bible.

This is why proof-texting is not a good way of engaging in conversation about difficult issues. Proof-texting is when your friend quotes Genesis 1 as if that somehow settled the evolution debate. Proof-texting is often accompanied by statements like “It’s as clear as day in the Bible” or “The Bible clearly says in such and such a passage that….” The problem with quoting any Bible passage as if it settled any debate is that no Bible passage is self-interpreting. You and I could read the same Bible passage and derive totally different meanings from it. That’s because the Bible doesn’t say anything. It’s a book. You actually have to read it and interpret it.

Proof-texting ignores the fact that reading the Bible is more complicated than quoting a Bible passage as if it settled the issue. The proof-texter fails to acknowledge the lens through which the text under consideration is being read and understood.

Something we all could do a little bit more of is owning up to our own biases and presuppositions. We all need to acknowledge what our own lens looks like.

The following are some of my own biases and theological commitments that I bring to the table when reading the Bible. This is my attempt to own up to my own personal Bible reading lens:

  1. Being faithful to the Bible must include our being critical of, and even at times disagreeing with the text under consideration.
  2. The Bible doesn’t speak with one voice.
  3. Violence is never redemptive.
  4. God has to be at least as nice as Jesus (compliments of Tripp Fuller over at Homebrewed Christianity).
  5. The Bible and science are not at odds with one another.
  6. Biblical interpretation must always translate to a more loving and inclusive response to those who are different than us (otherwise it’s disqualified from being a “correct” interpretation).
  7. Liberation of the oppressed is a major theme of the biblical narrative.

When I read the Bible I read it with these assumptions. I recognize that, because of these biases, my reading of the Bible is highly relative and subjective. Subjectivity is not something we ought to fear, however. All knowledge is situated knowledge, that is, everything we know about the world is conditioned by our own personal experience of the world. This reality is not necessarily good or bad…it just is. 

Thus, since we can’t avoid them, it’s time we start owning up to our own biases so that when we address the difficult issues of our day we can better understand where everyone’s coming from.

What’s your lens? What are the assumptions that you bring to the table when reading the Bible?