BASIC PRINCIPLES OF
According to Carl Holladay, text criticism is the attempt to
"establish the original wording or form of the biblical text
insofar as this is possible" (HarperCollins Dictionary
of the Bible, 141). This is a formidable task for students
of the NT, who encounter evidence from literally thousands of
ancient manuscripts, versions, citations, lectionaries, and the
like. How, given multiple texts that read differently, does one
arrive at a most likely reading?
Over the decades, New Testament scholars have developed some
canons for textual analysis. Most of them are grounded in simple
common sense, but two rules stand apart as the most basic.
See Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the
New Testament, ch. 8, for a fuller treatment of many of the
topics discussed here. See also Bart D. Ehrman, The New
Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian
Writings (2d ed.), 442-50, for an exceptionally lucid
- Choose the reading that best explains the origin of the
others. In theory, at least, there originally was a
single text for each NT document. As copies multiplied,
so did the textual discrepancies. But (in theory) each
discrepancy may be traced to specific moments in the
transmission of the text. A scribe may intentionally have
altered the text for any of a number of reasons, or
perhaps a transcriptional error has come into play.
Ultimately (in theory), a single manuscript is the origin
of all other readings.
- In order to judge a particular reading, one must first
construct its history. In other words, one should be able
to explain how an hypothetical original text gave rise to
other readings (Metzger 207).
These two principles provide the larger framework, but other
principles enable us to make reasonable judgments in specific
First, there is external evidence.
External evidence has to do with the various manuscripts
- The date of a particular reading
is important. In this case, it is not primarily the age
of the manuscript that matters, but our ability to trace
particular readings to types of texts with strong and
ancient pedigrees. Some later mss. tend to agree strongly
with very ancient ones; by association, those later mss.
may carry more authority than some mss. that actually
- The geographical distribution of
a reading is significant, though often difficult to
discern for beginning readers.
- The text-type of a manuscript
source can be significant. Witnesses are weighed rather
than counted. Readings supported by both Alexandrian and
Western witnesses are usually superior. (Except B D G in
Paul, where B is somewhat Western.) Often the Alexandrian
text alone will provide the most probable reading. But
every case must be judged on its own merits; text-type
alone rarely settles the issue.
- Most manuscripts belong to the Koine or
Byzantine type. While the Koine witnesses
are the most numerous -- and provide the basis
for the Textus Receptus from which the KJV
derives -- they generally represent an inferior
text-type. According to Metzger, the Koine text
reflects the combination of elements from other
text-types by Lucian of Antioch in the late third
century (Text, 212).
- The most important witnesses include A
(Alexandrinus, except for Paul) E F G H
and most minuscules (largely medieval
- The Western text-type provides the
clearest example of scribal innovation (e.g., the
Western Text of Acts is about ten percent longer
than other text-types.) It is also very ancient.
- The most important witnesses are D
(Bezae) and the Old Latin versions. For
Acts, p29, p38, and
- The Caesarean text-type shares common
features with the texts used by Origen while he
was in Caesarea. Its readings are quite diverse
in their affinities with other text-types.
- The most important witnesses include Q (the Greek letter
theta represents Codex Koridethi) W fam.
1 fam. 13.
- The Alexandrian text-type derives from
scholarly circles in ancient Alexandria and can
be traced to the second century.
- Its primary witnesses include p45
p46 p75 ) (the Hebrew
letter Aleph represents Codex Sinaiticus)
B (Vaticanus) Clement of Alexandria, and
some of Origen's writings. For Paul A
(Alexandrinus) shows Alexandrian
Second, there is internal evidence.
Internal evidence has to do with the intrinsic likelihood of the
- The more difficult reading is to
be preferred. Scribes are more likely to smooth things
out than to rough them up.
- However, "the reading deemed original should be in
harmony with the author's style and usage elsewhere"
- The shorter reading is to be
preferred. Scribes tend to add rather than subtract
material. Exceptions include parablepsis arising from
homoeoteluton or the omission of material for stylistic
or theological readings (see rule 1).
- When some readings parallel other biblical texts, the divergent
reading is to be preferred. Again, scribes
are more likely to harmonize sacred texts than to create
discord among them.