Textual Criticism – Friend or Foe?

Textual criticism is the science of searching out the original text through comparison of variations and external evidence (like quotes from non-Biblical sources). It is sometimes viewed skeptically in our community, but when it is properly understood and rightly applied it can be very beneficial1. Bro Stephen Green writing in the Testimony Magazine stated his belief that:

“God has ensured that we have available the Truth about His purpose and the means of our salvation, but He has not provided us with the exact originals of His Word to the New Testament prophets and writers, only very close to it. We should do our best to get as close as we can”.2

Widder provides a neat summary of recent history of attitudes to textual criticism,

“By the 19th century, scholars had begun to engage in textual criticism to determine the ‘original text.’ At the same time, some biblical scholars questioned the veracity and historicity of the Bible. This convergence of questions and scholarly investigation led many critical scholars to dismiss the Bible as a flawed, ancient document with no value for modern faith and practice. In response, Christians rose to defend the Bible. In the process, though, many conservative Christians came to view the discipline of textual criticism as ‘another scholarly weapon in the many-sided attack against Scripture.’ In an extreme position, some Christians—beginning with a widely held evangelical belief that the autographs of the biblical text were inspired and inerrant—argued that ‘God must have faithfully preserved these autographs throughout the history of the church and that the original text [can] be found in the TR [or Textus Receptus].'”3

Proponents of this view today are “King James Only” Christians, who consider textual criticism a “theologically suspect and completely unnecessary” endeavor.3
Thankfully the Christadelphians have typically avoided the KJV only approach – although it would be fair to say that the work of textual critics is often viewed with suspicion (as is evident in the bulk of Bro Green’s otherwise well researched article). The Foundation clause in our statement of faith says the scriptures are “without error in all parts of them, except such as may be due to errors of transcription or translation”4
There is no avoiding textual criticism. Those who advocate for the Textus Receptus as the ideal text within our community are unwitting beneficiaries of textual criticism. The Textus Receptus is predominantly based on the work of Erasmus of Rotterdam who Widder notes “used several late Byzantine manuscripts for his edition; when he lacked Greek manuscript evidence, he used the Latin Vulgate. He issued several amended editions of his NT, with the final edition printed in 1535”.5 Incidentally the Latin Vulgate supplied Erasmus with the last 6 verses of Revelation. The KJV is therefore based on textual decisions made by Erasmus and other scholars.
The value of textual criticism cannot be denied when we apply consistent interpretation principles. Regarding 1 John 5:7, Robert Roberts quotes approvingly from the Revised Version as follows:

“ ‘This text is not contained in any Greek MS. which was written earlier than the fifth century. It is not cited by any of the Greek ecclesiastical writers, not by any of the earlier Latin fathers, even when the subjects upon which they treat would naturally have led them to appeal to its authority. It is, therefore, evidently spurious, and was first cited, though not as it now reads, by Virgilius Tapsensis, a Latin writer of no credit, in the latter end of the fifth century; but by whom forged is of no great moment, as its design must be obvious to all.’ Such is a statement of the grounds upon which the passage has been omitted from the Revised Version”6

The vast wealth of copies of the text – over 5,700 Greek ones alone7 – is one of the strong witnesses to both the historicity of the events described in the New Testament. Furthermore it provides excellent evidence for non believers of the integrity of the text in current use (demonstrably we can discern most tampering because of the textual evidence as in the 1 John 5:7 case). Hence we assure people based on external evidence that they are dealing with God’s word largely free of human addition/deletion.
There are instances where textual criticism may yield answers which we don’t want to hear. However on the grounds of consistency we have to acknowledge the issues. We are not devotees of a particular version, nor a particular textual tradition but of God and his son.
There is a further issue. We can be skeptical of the approach of some biased textual scholars like Bart Ehrman. This concern may be reasonable. However as Bro Pearce noted in 1968 at the start of an excellent series of articles in the Christadelphian Magazine “to assess [properly] the worth of ancient documents requires a profound knowledge of the original tongues which very few possess, and the writer of these lines is certainly not one of them. We are compelled therefore to use the writings of those who are competent”8.
So what then? Knowingly or otherwise we all benefit from textual criticism and it is used on occasion in our community (and has been for a long period). This is consistent with our desire to get as close to the original as is possible. It can give us confidence that God’s Word has been preserved for us accurately over the centuries and we can therefore know we build on a firm foundation when we ground our lives in Biblical morals.

(1) See for example Whittaker, H., Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (Cannock, Staffordshire: Biblia Books, 1985), 113, 117.
(2) Green, Stephen. “For or Against Modern Versions?” Testimony Magazine 69 (1999): 244-249.
(3) Widder, W. Textual Criticism of the Bible, vol. 1 of Lexham Methods Series, ed. Douglas Mangum (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013), 159.
(4) The Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith. (1997). (electronic ed.). Birmingham, UK: The Christadelphian.
(5) Widder, Textual Criticism, 111.
(6) Roberts, R. Christendom Astray from the Bible (West Beach, South Australia: Logos Publications, 1984), 136-137.
(7) Metzger, Bruce & Ehrman, Bart. The Text of the New Testament Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration 4th Ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 50.
(8) Pearce, F.T. “The Text of the Old Testament” The Christadelphian 105 (1968): 399.

Some recommended reading:

  • Comfort, P. (2005). Encountering the manuscripts: an introduction to New Testament paleography & textual criticism. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman.
  • Widder, W. (2013). Textual Criticism. (D. Mangum, Ed.) Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  • Metzger, Bruce. Ehrman, Bart. (2005) The Text of the New Testament Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration Fourth Edition Oxford. Oxford University Press