The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever. (Isaiah 40:8)
We hear the word criticism and instantly, we get nervous. Criticism carries a large cloud of negative feelings with it. We have all been criticized. Whether constructive or unfair, criticism hurts. It reveals a failing on our part or it points out something that others may not like about us.
When we think of textual criticism in regard to the Bible, this makes us very uncomfortable. We can all admit fallibility within ourselves. We are human. However, if we criticize the Scripture, we are actually criticizing the Author, God, and that does not sit right with us.
So, is that what textual criticism is actually seeking to do? Is this process man putting himself in the place of judge over God and His Word?
What is Textual Criticism?
Textual criticism, also sometimes referred to as lower criticism, is the science of studying ancient manuscripts to determine what the original manuscripts of the Cannon said. Essentially, it is taking writings that have been found through history and critically studying them to determine what the writers of the Bible originally wrote.
First it is vital to understand how these writings were handled during these times. There was no printing press or Dropbox. Everything was hand written. Since there were no websites or telephones to transmit the Good News, copies were made of the writings and disseminated throughout the world. When a church would receive a writing, they would copy it and send it on to the next church. During the next few centuries, monks took up the job of copying these writings. The rules for copying were extremely strict. It was tedious work but they knew they were handling God’s Word and He is not to be trifled with.
The process of textual criticism became necessary because we do not have the original manuscripts (writings) of the Apostles and Prophets. Due to the type of material used during Biblical times, the parchments have long disintegrated. Some were lost and others were destroyed in wars and burning of cities. However, because of God’s love and mercy, He has preserved His Word. Today, we must rely on more contemporary copies to determine what the originals said.
This fact may cause us to panic a bit. We don’t have the originals? How can we be sure what was originally said? We are relying on fallible men’s copying abilities to give us the Truth?
These are all great questions and may make our grounding a bit less stable if it were not for the science of textual criticism.
Number of Copies
If we take a note someone copied from another note, we may only be slightly confident in what the original said. If we take ten copies and they are all identical, we are fairly certain we know what the original note said. If we take hundreds of notes that are identical, there is no question as to what the original note said.
For the New Testament alone, we have tens of thousands of copies with virtually no differences. The only differences between copies mainly come down to very minor variances. The few more serious variances are very rare. The topic of variances in manuscripts may be something I spend more time on in the future. You can rest in knowing they are rare, most are exceptionally minor, and they do not change the doctrinal teaching found in our Bibles of today.
This same science is applied to many other writings of the ancient world. For example, Homer’s Illiad has the second most existing manuscript copies of an ancient writing at an astonishing 643. That is 450 more than the next work on the list, the writings of Sophocles. The New Testament blows all other writings of the ancient world out of the water at 24,000+ copies. This abundance of copies is clear indication of the reliability that the Bible we have today is accurate to the original autographs (writings).
Age of the Copies
Another important thing to look at when determining the reliability of a copy is to look at its age. The more recent a copy is to the original, the more likely it is to be accurate. Looking at the other writings of the ancient world, other than the Bible, again, Homer’s Illiad comes in at the first copy discovered so far being 500 years after the original. Most ancient manuscripts are more than a thousand years after the original writing. Keep in mind this gives scholars a very good confidence that what we have for Homer’s Illiad is very accurate. Again, the New Testament takes the cake at less than thirty years. There is less than thirty years difference from the original writing and the earliest copy of that writing.
It is interesting that scholars do not question the reliability of the other top writings of the ancient world. However, when it comes to the Bible, despite the overwhelming mountain of evidence, secularists question its reliability.
Textual criticism is not criticizing or judging the Word of God. It is using the overabundance of ancient texts to assure us that the Bible we hold in our hands today conveys the original message of God. Textual criticism of the Bible should strengthen our confidence in the reliability of our Bible as the source of God’s Word to us. As God has promised us in Isaiah 40:8, His Word will stand forever.
- “Digital Dead Sea Scrolls”. 2017. Dss.Collections.Imj.Org.Il. Accessed May 9. http://dss.collections.imj.org.il.
- Kurschner, Alan. 2007. “Reasons Why Textual Criticism Is Essential For God’s People – Alpha And Omega Ministries”. Alpha And Omega Ministries. http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/2007/03/07/reasons-why-textual-criticism-is-essential-for-gods-people/.
- Marlowe, Michael. 2017. “Textual Criticism Of The Greek New Testament”. Bible-Researcher.Com. http://www.bible-researcher.com/title.html.
- Slick, Matt. 2008. “Manuscript Evidence For Superior New Testament Reliability”. Carm.Org. https://carm.org/manuscript-evidence.
- Smith, Colin. 2008. “An Introduction To Textual Criticism: Part 1-Introduction – Alpha And Omega Ministries”. Alpha And Omega Ministries. http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/2008/03/18/an-introduction-to-textual-criticism-part-1-introduction/.
- Smith, Colin. 2008. “An Introduction To Textual Criticism: Part 2-The Writing And Transmission Of Ancient Documents – Alpha And Omega Ministries”. Alpha And Omega Ministries. http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/2008/03/20/an-introduction-to-textual-criticism-part-2-the-writing-and-transmission-of-ancient-documents/.
- Stevenson, John. 2017. “Has The Bible Been Changed?”. John Stevenson Bible Study Page. Accessed May 9. http://www.angelfire.com/nt/theology/theology/05text.html.
- Stevenson, John. 2017. “In Search Of Ancient Manuscripts”. John Stevenson Bible Study Page. Accessed May 9. http://www.angelfire.com/nt/theology/theology/06mss.html.
- “Textual Criticism – What Is It?”. 2017. Gotquestions.Org. Accessed May 9. https://www.gotquestions.org/textual-criticism.html.
- “The Center For The Study Of New Tetstament Manuscripts”. 2017. Csntm.Org. Accessed May 9. http://www.csntm.org.
- “The Manuscripts | The Institute For Creation Research”. 2017. Icr.Org. Accessed May 9. http://www.icr.org/bible-manuscripts/.
- Vincent, Marvin. 1899. “A History Of The Textual Criticism Of The New Testament”. Monergism.Com. https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/vincent_textualcriticism.html.
- “What Is Textual Criticism?”. 2017. Compellingtruth.Org. Accessed May 9. https://www.compellingtruth.org/textual-criticism.html.