Reflections and Blog

What Is Textual Criticism of the Bible?

As part of explaining John 1:29-34 in the Sunday sermon, I mentioned “textual criticism.” What exactly is textual criticism, and should its use undermine or bolster our confidence in the Bible we have today?

To answer most directly, textual criticism is the process of using the surviving copies of an original text no longer in existence to recover the original wording of that text. Sometimes also called “lower criticism,” textual criticism is not to be confused with what is called “historical criticism” or “higher criticism.” When it comes to the Bible, historical criticism basically uses man’s wisdom to reject what the Bible says about itself to assert the “real” history or origin of each Bible book. Thus, historical criticism is basically useless for the Bible-believing Christian. Textual criticism, on the other hand, is quite useful, even essential. Textual criticism uses manuscript comparison to discern what was and is the original biblical text.

Textual criticism is necessary since we Christians no longer have the original, inspired writings or autographs of the Bible. The original Bible books/letters have been lost (cf. 2 Ki 22:8), destroyed (cf. Jer 36:23), or have simply deteriorated. What we have today are many copies of the Bible and many copies of copies of the Bible hand-written during the ancient and medieval eras.

But how accurately can we reconstruct the Bible with these copies? Have our Bibles simply turned into a tragic game of telephone, with the original writings hopelessly distorted over time?

Not at all! Because what is remarkable from studying the copies, even those written in different centuries, is that the copies are so consistent with each other! Though there are indeed differences between the surviving manuscripts, the differences are easily resolved or are not significant to the meaning of the biblical text.

Let me illustrate the situation of biblical textual criticism with a simplified example. Let’s say we have the following three sentences, which are all copies of an original sentence now lost. From studying these copied sentences, can you discern what the original sentence would have been?

Copy A: Justin took his frends to the sunny beach.
Copy B: Justine took his friends to the beach.
Copy C: Justin took his friends too the shore.

By seeing how the copies deviate from one another but also how they remain consistent with each other, we can quickly discern that the original sentence probably was: “Justin took his friends to the beach.” Yet notice that the same basic sense of the original is retained in each copy, despite their differences! And notice, too, the straightforward nature of their differences.

The situation above is just like we see with the biblical manuscripts. Most of the variants we see in our surviving Bible copies are insignificant and easily identified: spelling errors, variants that don’t make sense, or variants that don’t substantially change the text’s meaning. Less than 1% of Bible manuscript variants make sense and do change the text’s meaning, but these variants never appear in passages that affect any core teachings of the Bible.

The science of textual criticism really took off during the Renaissance period, around 1350-1550 AD, when ancient manuscripts became more available to people in Western Europe and when the printing press made copying those manuscripts much easier. Today, by comparing surviving manuscripts and by paying attention to which manuscripts came earliest and are most reliable, we can be more confident than ever that we have the same text that was originally given by the apostles and prophets.

In the end, Christians don’t need to be afraid of textual criticism, for in it God’s faithfulness to preserve his word is actually seen afresh:

Isaiah 40:7-8,
The grass withers, the flower fades,
When the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.

Questions to Consider:
1. Some people like to challenge Christians by claiming that many errors have accumulated in the Bible across the centuries. How should Christians respond?
2. Would it be much better for Christians if we still had the original autographs of each Bible book today instead of just copies? Why or why not?
3. How should you respond to the fact that God has provided a reliable copy of his supernatural word to you today in your own language?