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 disciplinesart, classics, history, music, patristics,
philosophy, and religious studies, among otherswhichever 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 centuryoddly enough, as a result of
the invention of the printing pressbecause 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 criticse.g., historical criticism
or literary criticismare 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 evidencenot
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.
- The reading cannot be explained by one or more common scribal errors,
- Dittography (writing the same text twice)
- Errors of hearing
- Substitution of a homophone (misspelling a word because it sounds
like another, e.g., principal/principle, red/read)
- Errors of memory
- Conflation (combining this text with material from another, similar
passage found elsewhere)
- Liturgical adaptations (adding to the text those phrases or formulæ
that typically accompany its liturgical recitation or performance,
e.g., the Doxology)
- Errors of sight
- Homoio___ (dropping a line because two consecutive lines begin with
the same letters/word)
- Homoioteleuton (dropping a line because two consecutive lines end
with the same letters/word)
- Grammatical improvements
- Haplography (accidental ommision)
- 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.)
- Theological corrections
- The reading is attested by multiple independent witnesses (e.g.,
different textual families)
- The witnesses to this reading are more reliable than those for the
- The witnesses to this reading are earlier than those for the competing
- The reading is shorter than competing variants
- The reading is more difficult than competing variants
- Awkward or faulty grammar or syntax
- Faulty geography or other factual errors
- Problematic theology
- 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:
- Identify the textual variants
- 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.)
- For the NT, review Bruce Metzger's handbook of TC variants.
- For the OT, review __'s handbook of TC variants.
- 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).
- Evaluate the evidence for each of the variants you identify
- How many mss. contain this reading?
- How many textual families do these mss. represent?
- How early are the mss. that contain this reading?
- What is the overall quality of those mss. witnesses?
- Evaluate the qualities of the variants themselves
- Which is the shorter one?
- Which is the more difficult one?
- Which reading best accounts for the rise of the other variants?
- Formulate your conclusions
- Choose the reading that you think is the best, in light of all the data
generated in steps AC. 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
- Point-by-point, give your reasons for making this assessment. Clearly
indicate why you are rejecting the other variants as less reliable.
- 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?