Textual Criticism

What is textual criticism?

Textual criticism is the method Bible scholars use to discover what the original manuscripts of the Bible most likely said. Textual criticism is necessary because the original manuscripts of the Bible are no longer in existence. There are thousands of copies of the Bible dating from the 4th century B.C to the 15th century A.D. In these thousands of copies, there are some differences. The vast majority of the differences are minor, i.e. the word order being a little different, a missing "the," a name spelled differently. Textual criticism attempts to determine what the original actually said.

Textual criticism involves considering external and internal factors -- with the goal of determining the most likely original text. External factors include: how many manuscripts say one thing versus the other, when were these manuscripts copied, and where was the manuscript discovered? Internal factors include: what is a possible explanation of the difference, and which of the choices best explains the origin of the other choices?

There are two primary views on how textual criticism should be done.
  • The Majority Text view is that whatever reading occurs in the most manuscripts - that reading should be chosen as the original.

  • The Critical Text view is that all factors should be considered, not just a "majority vote" of all the manuscripts. For example, what if the majority of manuscripts say one thing, but all of the oldest manuscripts say another. Which is more likely to be accurate, manuscripts that have been copied hundreds of times over hundreds of years - or manuscripts that are very close to the time of the original writing?
Whichever view we take, the goal of textual criticism is to determine what the Bible really said when it was originally written.

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