Quartz Hill School of Theology

B725 Bible Methods

Introduction and Textual Criticism


To make known the fact that the Bible speaks today as well as it did in ancient times, to its original audience, and to us, is the goal of all theological work. It is particularly the goal of Biblical Studies. To accomplish this goal, students of the Bible use different tools; just as a mechanic uses different tools for different tasks.

The name given to this scientific study of the Bible is exegesis; and the tools of exegesis are Textual Criticism (which seeks to establish the original text of a document), Literary Criticism (which seeks to examine the literary units of a document), Redaction Criticism (which attempts to determine the workings of a document's editor), Form Criticism (which seeks to establish the purpose of a particular form), and Tradition Criticism (which looks at various traditions and how they are used in a document or group of documents).

The reason that these tools must be used is because the Bible was written by people over a period of several centuries in foreign languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek). These languages must first be translated (therefore, the Biblical exegete must know these langauges before he or she can progress at all). Then the tools mentioned above are employed in order to establish the meaning of the text. That text, clearly explained, can then be used in Preaching and Teaching in the church. Without exegesis the Bible is subject to the crudest subjectivism. It is made to say things it never intended to say in ways it never said them! The task of exegesis is therefore the most important in all Theological work. If the text does not speak to us (which only occurs when correct exegesis has taken place), then what we will have is a lot of folks telling the text what it says! (This, by the way, is unforunately what happens the majority of the time).

This does not mean that the text only speaks to the past. But only when we hear it speak in its own voice can we hear it speak to us.

Now to accomplish the task of exegesis, the exegete must use the tools which will be outlined in this course. He or she must also make use of excellent exegetical tools. these tools are:

1. The original texts (the Hebrew text and the Greek New Testament). The exegete MUST ALWAYS base his work on the originals. This is the ONLY way that proper exegesis can be accomplished.
2. Grammars. The student must have a good Greek Grammar and a good Hebrew Grammar.
3. Lexica. The student must be able to find the meaning of unknown words and therefore must make use of a lexicon.
4. Concordances. The student must be able to find how a word is used -- and for this a concordance is invaluable. Of course this must be a Greek and Hebrew concordance for the respective testaments.
5. Introductions. The student must have and make use of books which introduce the Biblical texts.
6. History. The student must have a history of Israel as well as a history of the Greek and Roman world.
7. Commentaries. The final tool (and the one to be used last, not first,) is the commentary.

With these tools in hand, the student is enabled to procede to the extremely important task of Biblical exegesis. And we can now move on to our first tool of Biblical exegesis: textual criticism.

Textual Criticism

The basic principles of textual criticism of both Testaments are the same (though, as is true in every area of Biblical studies, some scholars would argue the opposite). Therefore, I will describe those basic principles before we examine the two parts of the Bible separately.

There are thousands of copies of verses, chapters, and books of the Bible that have been discovered. The entire Bible is well attested in antiquity. There are far more copies of it preserved from ancient times than there are of Homer, Socrates, or Virgil, or any of the Classics. Thus the Bible is the best attested document of the ancient world. This is extraordinary considering the fact that there were no photocopy machines in antiquity. Each manuscript from antiquity was copied by hand. There were, as a result, inevitable mistakes which crept into the text. Scribes would sometimes leave words out, or add words to clarify a passage. Sometimes they adjusted a text to agree with their theological presuppositions and other times they attempted to copy by memory (which is always hazardous). And still at other times the scribe would misread or mishear a text and thereby write erroneously. These reasons help account for 99% of the variants which are found in the Bible. There are over 5000 documents which represent the New Testament and several representing the Old Testament (we shall have to discuss why this is so later).

Along with the blessing of numerous copies comes the bane of contradiction. No two copies of the Greek New Testament are exactly alike in every word. The Hebrew text is likewise attested in the same manner. The task of Textual Criticism is to recover the most original reading of a verse, passage, or book. The tools which are used by textual critics are well tried; to such an extent that the text of the Bible is over 95% certain. The remaining 5% concerns matters which are predominately orthographic (that is, having to do with spelling variations). The few variants which would affect doctrinal or theological points are well known to scholars; but headway is made with each passing day.

The basic thrust of this brief course is to introduce the student to the principles and practice of Biblical textual criticism -- and to demonstrate these principles with examples. These principles apply to both testaments and are:

1. The most important text is the text the author wrote.
2. The texts the authors wrote no longer exist.
3. Only copies of the original text exist.
4. These copies sometimes diverge from one another.
5. The task of the textual critic is to rediscover the original text.
6. For this reason the text critic must know the Biblical Languages.
7. The Textual Critic must also know the languages into which the Bible was first translated.
8. The most important rule of textual criticism is- there can only be one original reading.
9. Variations between texts have a cause.
10. The cause can be either intentional or unintentional.
11. The scribe of a manuscript may make a mistake and give birth to a variant.
12. Or the scribe may give birth to a variant intentionally.
13. Scribal corrections sometime arose because the scribe wanted the manuscript to:

a) make contextual sense
b) make grammatical sense
c) make theological sense

14. Manuscripts must, therefore, be examined so that the most difficult reading outweighs any effort of clarification (for scribes are more likely to simplify and clarify than they are to make a text difficult).
15. And finally, manuscripts must be weighed and not counted (there is no majority rule in textual criticism).

In the following pages we shall examine, first, Old Testament text criticism; and then New Testament text criticism. The student is invited to take their Hebrew or Greek Bible in hand, and, as the voice said to Augustine so many years ago: "Tolle, lege!" (Take, read!).

Old Testament Textual Criticism

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew (and some small portion in Aramaic). As it was copied over the decades and centuries it was inevitable that differences between the various copies would arise. The goal of textual criticism is to remove these errors and restore the original reading. The following examples will demonstrate the kinds of errors that have arisen. In all of the following examples the student will need to have their Hebrew Bible with them in order to look at the textual notes at the bottom of the page on which the passage is found.

1. Errors of sight

a. confusion of similar letters; Is 28:20; Is 9:8; Is 30:33; Isa 42:25; Is 5:29; 2 Kings 20:4; Is 33:1.
b. transposition of letters; Is 9:18; Is 32:19.
c. haplography (leaving out a letter or word); Is 5:8; Is 8:11; Is 26:3f; Is 38:11.
d. dittography (repeating a letter or word); Is 30:30; Is 38:20.
e. Omission by homoioteleuton (leaving off words which have similar endings); Is 4:5f; Is 16:8f.
f. errors of joining and dividing words; Amos 6:12; Is 2:20.

2. Intentional Errors

Besides these errors of sight there are also intentional errors. These deliberate alterations were made for grammatical as well as theological reasons. Some of the most famous of these deliberate alterations are the "Tiqqune Sopherim", the alterations of the scribes. These changes were made for purely theological reasons, and some of them are: Gen 18:22, Num 11:15, 12:12, I Sam 3:13, 2 Sam 16:12, 20:1, I Kings 12:16, 2 Chr 10:16, Jer 2:11, Ezek 8:17, Hos 4:7, Hab 1:12, Zech 2:12, Mal 1:13, Ps 106:20, Job 7:20, 32:3, and Lam 3:20.

So what steps are necessary in order to reconstruct the original reading?

1. The Hebrew (Masoretic) Text must be read.
2. The versions must be consulted.
3. The evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls must be examined, and given preference unless the reading is simply impossible.
4. The manuscripts must be weighed, not counted.

The Versions of the Old Testament

If the versions must be consulted in a study of the Old Testament text, then we must know

1. The Samaritan Pentateuch. This is a version of the Old Testament Pentateuch which must be used cautiously. It tends to be periphrastic and thus is not necessarily a help in determining the original text.
2. The Septuagint. This is a translation of the Old Testament in Greek and is worthy of special consideration. It represents a text type which is centuries older than the Masoretic text. Yet at certain places it also tends to be expansionistic. That is, it tends to add to the text portions which it hopes will be explanatory (as it does in Esther and Daniel, as well as in Jeremiah).
3. The Aramaic Targums. This version of the Old Testament is interesting to consult, but not a reliable guide to the original text, as it is simply an expansionistic paraphrase of the Hebrew text.
4. The Syriac Version. Very similar to the Aramaic targum.
5. The Old Latin. This version is good and very helpful in reconstructing the text.
6. The Vulgate. Jerome's translation of the Old Testament, it is also very useful in reconstructing the text as it existed in the 4th century A.D.
7. The Dead Sea Scrolls. Though these texts are clearly not translations of the Old Testament (as they are also in Hebrew and Aramaic), these texts represent a type 1000 years older than the Masoretic text.

Using all of these tools the student examines them together and using his or her best judgment decides which text best represents the original reading. Though this may sound quite hazardous, those trained in textual criticism are quite capable of making these judgments. (The present student must recall that this course is simply an Introduction to text criticism (among other things) and not a full course on text criticism in all its glory).

New Testament Textual Criticism

Our purpose is to introduce the student to the theory and practice of the textual criticism of the New Testament. Textual criticism is the science which seeks to establish the text which most closely matches the earliest state of a document. In particular, New Testament textual criticism strives to establish the original reading for the Greek text of the New Testament. In addition, text criticism also seeks to understand the history and transmission of the text.

The essential tools for work in New Testament text criticism are:

1. a concordance. The text critic (and exegete) must make frequent use of a good concordance. In this way the exegete will be able to see how words are used in other portions of the text and will thus be able to better determine the original text.
2. a dictionary (or Lexicon). The exegete must know the meaning of the word before he or she can determine if it makes sense in its context.
3. a grammar. The student must know the grammar of the language in which he or she is working in order to determine corrections that scribes may have made for grammatical reasons.
4. a synopsis. In New Testament studies it is important to make use of a synopsis of the Gospels. Scribes sometimes harmonized one Gospel with another, and use of a Synopsis can help the student see how and where this has happened.
5. commentaries. The exegete would do well to examine how others have understood the text.

The Versions of the New Testament

The New Testament was written in Greek. But very soon afterwards it was translated into Latin, Syriac, Sahidic, Coptic, and other minor languages of the Mediterranean Basin. These versions are somewhat useful in reconstructing the text of the New Testament, but it is very rare that they can be considered more reliable than the Greek tradition.

The Causes of Textual Variants

The first cause of variants in the text is "scriptio continua". That is, the oldest manuscripts of the NT were written in continuous script. There were no breaks between words, so if a scribe later on, when words were divided, misdivided a word, a variant would arise. cf. Mk 10:40. το δε καθισαι εκ δεξιων μου η εξ ευωνυμων ουκ εστιν εμον δουναι αλλ οις ητοιμασται. The Letters αλλοις can be divided as αλλ οις or they can be left as αλλοις. The meaning is either that the seats beside Jesus are reserved either for certain ones already designated, or for others not so designated.

Other variants arose because letters were sometimes confused. These letters are easily confused:

Σ and Ε
Θ and Ο
Γ, Π and Τ, especially if they were next to each other.
ΛΛ (two lamdas side by side) and Μ
Δ and Α

In Rom 6:5 the text reads αλλα and the variant is αμα. This is easily explained when one realizes that the scribe has confused ΑΛΛΑ for ΑΜΑ.

Another reason for textual variants was the simple matter of fatigue. Scribes were scribes and nothing else. Lighting was bad and conditions were poor.

Still another reason why scribes made mistakes was that they would skip words at the beginning or end of sentences because they were similar. We have all experienced the phenomenon of reading a book and glancing away for a moment and when we return to our reading we are further down the page because our eye has skipped a portion of text because the lines are similar. Cf. Mt 5:19.

Other variants arose because at times the scribes copied while a lector read the text aloud. Thus letters may be confused because pronunciation was unclear or words were poorly heard. As an example, everyone write down the following sentence: "It was light, and the animals were poorly fed." Now lets see what we all have.

The mistakes we have looked at so far have all been unintentional. But at times scribes would make intentional changes in the text. They did this either to clarify the text or to make an explicit theological comment. The scribe of Codex D (Bezae) is notorious for this very procedure. Cf. Mark 1:37, Mk 1:2.

Scribes also, especially in the Gospel, had sometimes a tendency to harmonize accounts about any page, especially the Sermon on the Mount: compare Matthew and how the scribes sometimes harmonized the version in Luke.

But, lest someone feel that the NT has now somehow become unreliable, let me restate what I have already said: the variants that do occur are mainly spelling and word division. The few theological variants are easily recognized and can be easily discussed. And among these few variants, there are none that alter the basic Christian message. Or, in other words, you can trust the New Testament (assuming you are reading the Original, and not a translation based on an inferior and late manuscript).

The Practice of Textual Criticism

With this understanding of why variants occur and these tools in hand, the student is well armed to pursue the practice of text criticism. The general rules for textual criticism have been indicated earlier in the course. Now the specific rules which pertain to New Testament criticism will be given.

1. Only one reading can be original. Though this might seem unnecessary to say there are still exegetes who think that text criticism is unimportant. Yet when we recall that the author of a text could only write one original, then we have to try to find that original using the tools we have at hand.
2. Only the reading which best satisfies the external and internal criteria can be original. That is, only the oldest and best attested reading can be original.
3. External criteria are the most important. That is, the oldest manuscripts are more important than the youngest.
4. Internal criteria are less important than external.
5. The Greek tradition is more important than the versions.
6. Manuscripts should be weighed, not counted.
7. Certain text families are superior to others. For example, texts from the Alexandrian family are superior to texts from the Byzantine family.
8. The most difficult reading is the more probable reading. This because scribes would correct grammar rather than let a rough reading alone. Thus, to recognize this, the critic must maintain constant familiarity with the text; or, practice makes perfect.

Now, to illustrate these principles, we will examine some New Testament texts where we can practice what we have learned.

We will look specifically at texts which have been determined to be secondary--and thus verses that are in the KJV but which have no support from the earliest and best texts. This means that these verses have been added by scribes in order to clarify or explain the text. The student must look at his or her Greek New Testament in order to examine the evidence. One text will be fully explained, and the student will then be enabled to examine the other evidence.

Matthew 17:21. First, the editors indicate a variant by using a small footnote sign that looks like a t with a dot in it. There are many different footnote marks, all which are explained in the introduction to the text. Then the student will see the verse number in brackets. Then the verse or word in question is found. Then the manuscript evidence is given. The editors simply present the evidence and leave it to the exegete to make his or her own decision.

Other verses which are absent from the oldest texts but present in the KJV (which is, by the way, based on the Byzantine family of texts):

Mt 18:11, Mt 23:14, Mk 7:16, Mk 9:44 and 46, Mk 11:26, Mk 15:28, Mk 16:9-17, Lk 17:36, Lk 23:17, Jn 5:3b-4, Acts 8:37, Acts 15:34, Acts 24:6b-8a, Acts 28:29, Rom 16:24 and others.

If the student looks at his Greek New Testament he will notice that at the bottom of every page there are variants listed. Most of these are minor or insignificant. Others are major and very significant. The student must learn the methods of text criticism and then practice, practice, practice the art of text criticism.


Read Aland's Text of the New Testament.

Examine the Hebrew text of Genesis 1 and the Greek text of Mark 16 and determine for yourself the evidence for verses 9-20; or, give the reasons why you would leave these verses out of the text. Use all of the tools available to you and write up your results in essay form.

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Quartz Hill School of Theology
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