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Textual Criticism

The Science of Textual Criticism

Here's a brief explanation of the theory behind textual criticism.

Textual criticism doesn't have anything to do with making negative statements about texts (eg. criticizing). Instead, it's the technical term for the scientific art of reconstructing ancient texts - it's a hard science (eg. really smart PhD types), whose principles are rigorous (eg. always favor the harder reading), it's practitioners are diverse (eg. more unbelievers and skeptics in this field than believers), and it works for both secular and religious texts.

Fundamentally, what makes textual criticism work is that humans don't typically make random errors; they make common errors, for common reasons. Which means if you study enough texts, you can actually learn how to identify an error and reconstruct how it happened. Some are obvious (mis-spellings). Others are less so (intentional changes). But here's the point, the better you can understand why the change occurred, the better you can figure out what the original text was.

Here's the key - there are two things that make textual criticism work:

  1. lots of source manuscripts (eg. many 'eyes'), and
  2. the older they are the better (because older gets you closer to the original).

Suddenly, what seemed to be a weakness of Scripture actually turns out to be a strength - there are dramatically more ancient witnesses for the biblical texts than for any other documents out there!

For example, let's consider some famous texts which scholars rely on to learn about history...

TextDate WrittenOldest surviving copyGap from originalCopies in existence today
Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War400 BCAD 9001300 years73
Caesar's Gallic War50 BCAD 825875 years10
Tactitus' Histories and AnnalsAD 100AD 850750 years2
New TestamentAD 40 - AD 100AD 350310 years14,000 (5000 Greek, 8000 Latin, and 1000 in other languages)

Did you catch those numbers for the NT documents? They are amazing! Scholars have HUGE numbers of texts to work from. And even though the oldest manuscript is from AD 350, we actually have many fragments from the second and third centuries AD, with the earliest being a portion of the Gospel of John dating AD 120-140 (that's within 40-60 years of the autograph!).

No other works of antiquity come close to this. To state it another way, your average New Testament down at Barnes & Noble is translated from a Greek text that rests on far better historical evidence than your college history books on ancient Greece and Rome. No modern textual scholar (secular or otherwise) will dispute this.

Are we saying that you shouldn't trust your college history books? Of course not! We're saying that you CAN have a high degree of confidence that the New Testament on your bedstand is very close to what was originally written back in the 1st c. AD. Wow. That's kind of cool!