Textual Criticism

Textual criticism is required because no two existing manuscripts (mss) are identical. Hand copying has
resulted in an estimated 200,000 variants. However, when it is realized that virtually all of these
variants relate to trivialities, and there are approximately 5,000 Greek extant manuscripts, the
total number of variants is not so discouraging. In all actuality, the more manuscripts, the more
variants, this results in a better text, with more certainty of its original reading.

There are two complicating factors in NT textual criticism.

1. Time interval between original composition and extant copies; the more copies, the variants
2. The greater the number of manuscripts, the more difficult the task of collating and critiquing
the variants

Types of Manuscript Errors: The errors in hand-copied mss fall into two main categories, which also
appear in secular works:

1. Unintentional errors due to human frailties (sometimes because of deteriorating state of mss):
a. Haplography—the writing of a letter, syllable, or word only once when it should have
been written more than once
b. Dittography—the writing twice of that which should have been written once
c. Metathesis (transposition)—reversing the proper position of letters or words
d. Fusion—combing two words into one
e. Fission—dividing up of a single word into two words
f. Homophony—substituting one homonym (similar sounding word) for another
g. Misreading of a similar appearing letters
h. Homoioteleuton (same ending)—omission of an intervening passage because a
copyist’s eye had skipped from one ending to a second similar ending
i. Homioarcton (same beginning)—omission of an intervening passage because a
copyist’s eye had skipped from one word beginning to a second similar beginning
j. Accidental omission of words where not repetition is involved
k. Misreading vowel letters as consonants (Hebrew only)
l. Confusing abbreviations

2. Intentional changes due to scribal emendation:
a. Orthography—correction of spelling or syntactical variations
b. Harmonization—making two seemingly contradictory passages fit together more
readily
c. Doctrinal Prejudice—“smoothing out” places where doctrines viewed as questionable
could originate
d. Historical Improvement—changing historical details so as to make the test appear to
be more historically accurate

Principles of Textual Criticism:

1. External Evidence (refers to matter relating to background of the manuscript):
a. Chronological—the date of the text type in the ms. (not necessarily the ms itself) is
important. Generally speaking, earlier text types are to be preferred to latter ones.
b. Geographical—a wide geographical distribution of the manuscript witnesses, which
agree in supporting a variant, is important. This is to be preferred to ms. witnesses
having close proximity or relationship.
c. Genealogical—as manuscripts are collated and compared, various tendencies are
revealed. Manuscripts, having the same tendency in variants, are referred to as
families or text types.
d. Numerical—the number of manuscripts supporting a variant must also be considered.
However, there may be many copies made from an inferior original (exemplar). Thus,
ms. support is to be “weighted” rather than “counted.”

2. Internal Evidence (refers to the manuscript itself).
a. Transcriptional Probability relates to the habits and characteristics of the copyist:
1)The more difficult reading is to be preferred, especially if it is sensible, since the
tendency of scribal emendation is to produce a superficially “improved” reading.
2)The shorter reading is to be preferred unless it arose from homoioteleuton,
homoioarcton, or an intentional deletion (scribal emendation).
3)The more verbally dissonant readings of parallel passages is to be preferred, since
there was a scribal tendency to harmonize seemingly divergent accounts.
4)The less refined grammatical construction, word, etc., is preferred because scribe
tended to smooth out rough grammatical constructions.
5)The reading, which best explains the other variants, is to be preferred, since it
most likely gave rise to the rest of the readings.
b. Intrinsic Probability relates to the style and characteristics of the original author (what
the original author would have likely have written:
1)The style of the author in the immediate book and elsewhere
2)The immediate context of the passage
3)The harmony of a reading with the author’s teaching elsewhere, and with canonical
scripture as a whole
4)The influence of the author’s background

Utilizing External and Internal Evidence:

Note: the above rules must be handled with care. In some cases, situations cancel each other out. It is
often said that textual criticism is an art as well as a science. The following factors of external and
internal evidence should be given the following priority in determining the correct reading:

1.The older reading is to be preferred.
2.The more difficult reading is to be preferred.
3.The shorter reading is to be preferred.
4.The reading that best explains the variant is to be preferred.
5.The reading with the widest geographical support is to be preferred.
6.The reading which most conforms to the style and diction of the author is to be preferred.
7.The reading that reflects no doctrinal bias is to be preferred.

This section was abstracted from Geisler and Nix, GIB, 367-370; SOTI, 51 and other sources.

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