Text-Critical Analysis

Textual criticism (TC) is the fundamental step that must be completed before an interpretation of any ancient text can be undertaken. The method is used in a variety of disciplines—art, classics, history, music, patristics, philosophy, and religious studies, among others—whichever fields of study rely upon hand-written compositions or copies thereof (i.e., manuscripts, abbreviated mss.) for part of their knowledge base. TC is not unique to biblical studies, nor is it a recent method of biblical study. Already at the turn of the third century C.E., Origen of Alexandria prepared a Hexapla so he could engage in text-critical analysis (TCA) of Old Testament passages on which he was preparing commentaries. Jerome did similar work when preparing the Latin "Vulgate" translation of both testaments in the fifth century. TC saw a resurgence in the sixteenth century—oddly enough, as a result of the invention of the printing press—because the ability to make hundreds of identical copies of a text, for the first time in history, made it more pressing to ensure that the version of the text being printed was the best that could be obtained or established.

Textual criticism sometimes is called "lower criticism" because it provides the foundation for any further textual analysis via methods of "higher criticism." In contrast, other methods that rely upon the reconstructed text created by text critics—e.g., historical criticism or literary criticism—are forms of "higher criticism" precisely because their results are built upon those of the TCA. If the TCA is faulty, any work done by higher critics based upon that faulty TCA collapses like a house of cards. Methodological precision, important in any scholarly endeavor, is absolutely paramount for TC work.

Why Do Text-Critical Analysis?

The purpose of a TCA is to decide which is the most reliable reading for a given text, based on the pluriform extant manuscript evidence—not print editions. "Most reliable reading" does not mean "the exact, original wording" of the text, which is difficult enough to determine for texts from a few decades ago; a fortiori, the original reading of texts that are hundreds of years old is impossible to establish. The "text" in question may comprise one or two words, a phrase, a sentence or two, an entire pericope, or even an entire chapter of a book. TC is not concerned with differences between or among contemporary vernacular translations; such matters of interpretation are relegated to higher criticism. TC of the Bible identifies and analyzes differences in the original Hebrew mss. (in the case of the Hebrew Bible), or the Greek mss. (in the case of the Septuagint and New Testament), or other ancient versions of those Hebrew or Greek texts (e.g., Aramaic, Syriac, Old Latin).

Criteria of Reliability

Text critics of the Bible use similar criteria to weigh the evidence for textual variants as scholars use for adjudicating the historicity of oral traditions. Variants that exhibit a greater number of the following traits tend to constitute more reliable readings.

  1. The reading cannot be explained by one or more common scribal errors, including:
    1. Dittography (writing the same text twice)
    2. Errors of hearing
      1. Substitution of a homophone (misspelling a word because it sounds like another, e.g., principal/principle, red/read)
    3. Errors of memory
      1. Conflation (combining this text with material from another, similar passage found elsewhere)
      2. Liturgical adaptations (adding to the text those phrases or formulæ that typically accompany its liturgical recitation or performance, e.g., the Doxology)
    4. Errors of sight
      1. Homoio___ (dropping a line because two consecutive lines begin with the same letters/word)
      2. Homoioteleuton (dropping a line because two consecutive lines end with the same letters/word)
    5. Grammatical improvements
    6. Haplography (accidental ommision)
    7. Interpolation (Comments that a reader had made in the margins of the first ms. are inserted into the body of the ms. when the copy is made. When a text appears in different locations in various mss., this is a clear indication of scribal interpolation.)
    8. Theological corrections
  2. The reading is attested by multiple independent witnesses (e.g., different textual families)
  3. The witnesses to this reading are more reliable than those for the competing variants
  4. The witnesses to this reading are earlier than those for the competing variants
  5. The reading is shorter than competing variants
  6. The reading is more difficult than competing variants
    1. Awkward or faulty grammar or syntax
    2. Faulty geography or other factual errors
    3. Problematic theology
  7. The reading is the verbal equivalent of a "least common denominator" in that it best accounts for the existence of the other variants

How to do TCA:

  1. Identify the textual variants
    1. Look in the footnotes of your Bible to find comments about text-critical difficulties in particular sections or verses. (If you do not have footnotes, it means you do not have a study Bible. It is impossible to do this exercise without a contemporary study edition of the Bible. Beg, borrow, or buy one before continuing with these instructions.)
    2. For the NT, review Bruce Metzger's handbook of TC variants.
    3. For the OT, review __'s handbook of TC variants.
    4. If your instructor identifies a particular passage as having textual variants but your study Bible does not have notes on the matter, consult a contemporary commentary on the text that includes discussion of TC matters (e.g., the Hermeneia or International Critical Commentary series).
  2. Evaluate the evidence for each of the variants you identify
    1. How many mss. contain this reading?
    2. How many textual families do these mss. represent?
    3. How early are the mss. that contain this reading?
    4. What is the overall quality of those mss. witnesses?
  3. Evaluate the qualities of the variants themselves
    1. Which is the shorter one?
    2. Which is the more difficult one?
    3. Which reading best accounts for the rise of the other variants?
  4. Formulate your conclusions
    1. Choose the reading that you think is the best, in light of all the data generated in steps A–C. NB: If you are evaluating whether a particular variant constitutes an interpolation and you decide that it does, the "best reading" would be the passage without the interpolated material.
    2. Point-by-point, give your reasons for making this assessment. Clearly indicate why you are rejecting the other variants as less reliable.
    3. Summarize the significance of your findings for understanding the passage under consideration. What difference does it make if your chosen reading is the best as opposed to the other variants?