New Testament Textual Criticism

How seriously should we take this field of study?

I have encountered a great deal of writing and video content related to New Testament textual criticism in recent months. This has led me to want to understand more about this field of study and to try to discern the extent to which the field is important both to me personally and to people of faith in general. With these aims in mind, I have been doing some research, the results of which are the contents of this article.

After praying to God for his guidance in relation to this subject, I read a couple of books by the agnostic New Testament critic Bart Ehrman. I later found a three-part video series entitled ‘Can We Trust the New Testament?’ by a vicar named John Allister, whose blog you can find here. I found John’s video series interesting and helpful and in one of his videos he recommended a book entitled Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (InterVarsity Press, 2019) as a good resource for those wishing to look deeper into the subject. I went ahead and purchased a copy of that book and the remainder of this article will be a discussion centring upon some of the key themes of the book and my response to some passages from the book which struck me as important. All quotations in this article are from that book.

Is Textual Criticism an Important Subject?

Textual Criticism involves trying to come to an ever-deeper understanding of sacred Scripture. Textual critics explore the ways in which the text of Scripture has been handed down through history. Often the aim is to reproduce the original texts (or ‘autographs’) with the greatest degree of accuracy possible. 

Textual critics examine manuscripts (whether entire copies of books or in the form of fragments) and use linguistic and historical methods to try to understand how genuine they are, the time period in which they were written, who the author is, and other related matters. These are important considerations for people of faith who believe their sacred Scriptures are ‘God-breathed’ (see 2 Timothy 3:16 in the New Testament), because unless we know what the ‘inspired’ authors of the originals wrote, how do we really know what God said and therefore what we should believe?

Muslims refer to Christians and Jews as ‘People of the Book’. This demonstrates the centrality of Scripture to these faiths, and the Qur’an — also regarded as sacred Scripture — is of course the foundation of Islam. So we can see that Scripture is central to all three of the major monotheistic Abrahamic religions, and these religions represent the beliefs of the majority of people of faith on the planet.

Without textual criticism, we wouldn’t have the Scriptures we have today, through which so many of us have come to faith and on which we have based our lives. These considerations demonstrate the importance of the subject area.

On the Specialist Nature of the Field of New Testament Textual Criticism

Because it is debatable and hotly contested which writings should and do constitute the Christian sacred Scriptures, this makes the field of textual criticism immensely complicated, even to the extent that reaching a full understanding of the subject would be impossible for any human being. Not only is the study of countless manuscripts and fragments central to the field, but also the knowledge of the original languages in which the Scriptures were written. A knowledge of linguistic philosophy and hermeneutics is also important. This means that New Testament textual criticism is a very specialist subject area and not a subject that a layperson could ever understand in any real depth (although experts in the field, if they are good communicators, should be able to convey their findings in a way accessible to everyone, one might argue).

I’m sure that scholars working in this subject area experience a great deal of stress due to the complexity of the subject, and this is both a cause for respect for their hard work and also a note of caution for those who might be considering studying the subject. I am personally someone whose level of scholarship falls somewhere between academic (I have a BA (Hons) degree and a PG Cert in Philosophy and Religion) and layperson (I am not a ‘career academic’ or teacher in an academic institution at this stage in my life). I would not claim to be an expert in this field after reading a few books, and nor should anyone else.

What is the Value of New Testament Textual Criticism?

Myths and Mistakes… features fifteen chapters, each written by a different author (or authors). Each chapter aims to shed light on a different area of misunderstanding within the field of New Testament textual criticism.

In Chapter 3, in a section titled ‘Be clear about manuscripts’ (limited) apologetic value’, author Jacob W. Peterson makes the point that being able to argue for the accuracy of the sacred Scriptures in terms of their consistency with what was originally written by, say, Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, has only limited apologetic value. The author writes,

[M]anuscripts alone cannot prove the truth of Christianity. What manuscripts can do is provide evidence of a reliable text. A reliable text attested by thousands of manuscripts is just that: a reliable text. But a reliable text is not a guarantee of reliable content. Just as a reliable text of Thucydide’s History of the Peloponnesian War still requires interpretation and verification to assess its historicity, so does the New Testament. Having a reliable enough text is undoubtedly important, because without it arguing for the accuracy of the material would be impossible. Yet providing arguments for the trustworthiness of a text’s actual claims is not something with which textual criticism can help. Those types of important arguments must come from other fields of inquiry.

(pp 68-69)

One important point Peterson is highlighting is that the issue of trusting the sacred Scriptures is just as much a matter of faith as anything else, and this should temper the ambitions of textual critics. There are limitations to what the field of New Testament textual criticism can achieve in converting people to Christianity. Other considerations from other disciplines are vitally important. This follows on from what I was saying about the very specialist nature of this subject in my introduction, and I will have more to say about this in my conclusion.

Can We Ever Be Sure We Have the Actual New Testament Text?

In the field of New Testament textual criticism, a lot of energy is expended attempting to uncover what was contained in the ‘original texts’ — those texts written, for instance, by Paul or Matthew. However, it’s debatable whether achieving such an aim is realistic or actually even possible. In Chapter 4 of Myths and Mistakes…, author James B. Prothro writes,

That New Testament scholars have a vast amount of evidence for the text is unquestionable. However, the wealth of textual data is not enough, on its own, to prove that our reconstructed text reliably matches the original compositions; to believe that we can reconstruct the original well with all the evidence depends largely on whether one trusts whether we have accurate methods for attaining that goal with the evidence we have. This is open to question, logically at least. For those such as atheist objector Robert Price, there will never be proof enough that anything we have corresponds to the original because we do not have the originals against which to check our reconstruction. The gap between the originals and our earliest copies still leaves the logical possibility that all the copies we’re working with descend from already corrupted manuscripts.

(pp 83-84)

This is a very important point that is often overlooked, in my experience. Not only is it possible that we will never be able to find the autographs themselves, it is also impossible to prove that any manuscript we have in our possession is not corrupted, perhaps even in a major way. The only way we could prove with certainty what the autographs said is if we were sure we had them. Every argument for the text’s reliability is therefore dependent on opinion and conjecture, and arguing for reliability is just as much a matter of faith as it is a matter of reason.

Apologists may argue that the textual critical methods they employ give them great confidence that their findings are reliable. The relative ignorance of the layperson over the intricacies of these methods may be enough to persuade many laypeople that we really do have a reliable text. But there is a lot of room for scepticism once one begins to investigate the subject more closely.

In the introduction to Chapter 5, author Elijah Hixson writes the following:

For evangelicals, the attraction of early manuscripts is understandable. As Michael J. Kruger writes, “The less time passed between the original writing and our earliest copies, the less time there was for the text to be substantially corrupted, and therefore the more assured we can be that we possess what was originally written.”

(p 90)

But is this a sound philosophical argument? Does length in time really equate directly to likelihood of corruption? Isn’t it logically just as likely that early manuscripts could be corrupted as later ones? In light of these questions, I’m not sure whether Kruger’s argument is convincing.

On the following page Hixson writes,

“Early manuscripts of the New Testament are not always good witnesses to the original text either. P72 (P.Bodm. VII-VIII) is the earliest substantial manuscript of 1-2 Peter and Jude, but it seems to have been written by a rather careless scribe. A number of scholars even mention that P72 appears to have a noticeable tendency to change the text in order to emphasise the divinity of Jesus. James R. Royse writes of P72, “We seem to be compelled, therefore, to conclude that here too [at Jude 5] the scribe has deliberately introduced a reading in order to ascribe Deity to Christ.” Bart Ehrman mentions the same reading in P72 as one of the “orthodox corruptions of Scripture” he writes about. Even if the scribe was not actually responsible for the “orthodox corruptions”, they are in the manuscript, and there are enough of them to form a pattern. It is therefore inadvisable to assume without qualification that earlier is always better, more accurate, or less likely to contain “corruptions” when one of the earliest manuscripts of 1-2 Peter and Jude looks as though it was written by a copyist who changed the text in places to make a stronger case that Jesus is God.”

(pp 91-92)

The contents of the above quoted paragraph reflect the idea that the labours of those who work in the field of textual criticism do not necessarily make us any clearer about matters related to Scripture. I am not claiming that textual criticism confuses matters (although it may at times), only that explorations into the subject area can do just as much to increase uncertainty in relation to the reliability of the text as certainty.

Conclusion

Taking the points discussed in this brief overview on board, it is arguable that studying New Testament textual criticism is of only limited value to people who are committed to serving God. There is no doubt that there is some value in the work that textual critics undertake, because Scripture is such an important part of religion. But that value should not be overestimated. Just as valuable (if not more so) is praying directly to God to reveal truth, and weighing with our conscience what we read in Scripture in order to determine whether we believe it to be God-ordained and true.

A few personal reflections may be helpful here.

I used to approach the religion of Islam with great scepticism, largely because of impressions about the religion given via mainstream media. I was very surprised by the sense of truth I felt when I actually read the Qur’an in its entirety for the first time, but the feelings of assurance I experienced were evidently God making me appreciate the text as important. As a point of hermeneutics, texts in themselves do not embody meaning; meaning is something that God brings to our minds and bodies (through our thoughts and emotions) as we read and reflect. God clearly does use texts as ‘indicators of meaning’ in certain circumstances, so that when you read a sentence you may respond in a similar way to someone else. But this is not necessarily the case, and this is not the same as saying meaning is contained within texts. Lines and curly symbols on a page do not embody meaning: meaning comes through an act of God bringing certain impressions to our minds and bodies as we read and reflect.

The above discussion of hermeneutics is intended to convey my belief that New Testament textual criticism has only limited value when considered in relation to the broader subject of pleasing God, which many people would argue is the central purpose of religion.

The aspects of religion that please God (according to Islam):
– Being mindful of God
– Asking God for forgiveness
– Praying regularly
– Giving our money and resources to charitable causes

The aspects of religion that please God (according to Christianity):
– Love of God
– Love of neighbour
– Forgiving others
– Praying for others

It is notable that none of these goals is furthered very much by the study of the intricacies of textual criticism. But this is not to deny that there is value in reading and correctly understanding the Scriptures, as this is one of the primary ways people come to learn more about God and God’s will. So the academic field of textual criticism is important, I believe, and those who are dedicated to this field are not wasting their time, though the importance of their work always needs to be qualified.

Some people may have a God-ordained calling in the area of textual criticism. I don’t think I’m one of those people (though I might be, God does as he wills) but looking into this area of faith and theology has been very interesting and helpful to me. My arguments in this article relate to the study of the New Testament texts, but my arguments can be expanded to the field of the textual criticism of Scripture in general, including the sacred texts of non-Christian religions that are Scripture-focused.

Despite the fact that I have emphasised its specialist nature, I do believe studying this field could help people to come to a more mature understanding of their sacred Scriptures, and this in turn could help them to convert others to their chosen religion. A deeper understanding of Scripture might also help to counteract radicalism from people who, for instance, take one Bible version to be the entirely inerrant word of God (down to every single word and phrase), such as those in the KJV-only movement, for example.

I hope this article, though only a sweeping overview, has offered some useful food for thought and proved to be an encouragement in some way for someone. Thanks be to God for his wondrous works and his ceaselessly fascinating sacred Scriptures.