Nerd Stuff: Textual Criticism

I wrote the following article on my church’s blog and thought it was so nerdy I’d repost it here.


How do we get our English Bibles? What are the documents that the Bible translators work from? Haven’t all of the original documents been lost or destroyed? Is it true that all we have now are copies of copies and that they are full of errors?

The questions of Bible translation are difficult and complex. Some scholars would have you believe that we are in an impossible position because we don’t have any original documents and all we’re left with is a bunch of error-ridden copies of copies [of copies of copies…]. Like in the game “Telephone” where a message is passed from person to person and is inevitably changed at the end, the message of Scripture has been passed on so many times that we can’t possibly discover the original. Bart Ehrman even says that there are more errors in our New Testament documents than there are words!

And technically speaking, he’s right. There are more errors than the words. And we don’t have any of the original documents. All we have are copies of copies and all of them are at least slightly different from each other. What a hopeless state we’re in! We can’t possibly trust the Bible! My whole system of faith is falling apart! 

While it would certainly be easier if we had all of the original manuscripts of the Bible, we are not without hope. We can identify, with as much assurance as possible, the original readings of Scripture. As the man says, “There’s an app for that.” Our app is called textual criticism, and it is a proven scientific method for determining the original reading of ancient texts. Let’s do a contemporary English example.

Imagine that you’ve got five pieces of paper that are all supposed to say the same thing, but they’re all different. Your task is to reconstruct the original message of which these five are copies. Let’s look at them:

  1. Thee Bucki’s will win the national champion ship this year.
  2. The Buckees wil wind the nashunal championship this year.
  3. The Buckeyes will win the Big Ten Championship this year.
  4. The Wolverines will win the National Championship this year.
  5. The Buckeyes will win the National Championship this decade.

Now let’s examine each one in turn. #1 was clearly written by someone unfamiliar with college football, but you can still discern a coherent message if you know what they probably meant to say. #2 was written by an awful speller. #3 was written by someone who lacked faith. #4 was written by a heretic. #5 was written by a revisionist historian.

With these five texts in front of you, you can begin to piece together the original message. The first word is obviously The, with the only variant being a misspelling. The second word is interesting, not because of the misspellings, but because of #4’s insertion of “Wolverines”. In this instance, you would likely conclude that the original reading is Buckeyes, but you may also add a footnote that says something like, “one obviously heretical document substitutes Wolverines“. The third, fourth, and fifth words are easily discernible: will win the. The sixth word is interesting because you have another substitution. But which one is it? By all appearances it should be National, but if document #3 is unusually credible and strong, it could be Big Ten. In this case, it’s wisest to go with National, but to also include a footnote for Big Ten. The seventh and eighth words are clearly Championship this. The final word seems obvious, but we have another example of a single pesky variant. Here again, we’ll choose year but have a footnote for decade.

So our final text would read: The Buckeyes1 will win the National2 Championship this year3.

And we can be quite certain that this is, indeed, the word of the Lord.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email