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Is Textual-Criticism Relevant Today?

Textual Criticism - What is it?

Not one of the original manuscripts of the Bible is still in existence today. Textual criticism is a methodology used to try and determine what the original manuscripts of the Bible said based primarily on the manuscripts that are still in existence.

The methodology in use today is highly controversial and causes considerable debate. There are so many variables to consider, the chances of arriving at a fully restored text are highly improbable and come with no guarantees. There are many assumptions that must be made to undertake textual criticism today. Some of these are discussed below.

What is the Difference Between Alexandrian and Byzantine?

Alexandrian and Byzantine are the two major Greek text-types that underlie the New Testament. Both text-types use a form of Greek called Koine Greek which in English means Common Greek. Koine Greek was also the language used to write the original New Testament.

The overwhelming majority of extant Greek texts (90%) come from places that were part of the Byzantine Empire. For many centuries the primary language of the Byzantine Empire was Koine Greek. It is the Byzantine text-type from which the Textus Receptus originated.

The next major group is Alexandrian, or Egyptian. These texts were used by the early church in Egypt. The Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus are the oldest complete examples of the Alexandrian text-type.

There are other text types such as the Western text-type which can be found in many Latin manuscripts (generally used by the Catholic church) and the Caesarean text-type which is poorly attested, and not everyone accepts its classification as an independent textual family.

The Issues in Current Textual-Criticism Methodology

While a few of the issues are listed below, this article does not seek to address all the tedious issues of textual‑criticism in great detail. There are simply not enough early Byzantine manuscripts left in the world today to form a valid comparison. This article presents the futility of textual‑criticism in its entirety. The issue in itself is shown to be wholly inappropriate to sound scripture.

Here are just a few of the issues with the modern methodology of textual‑criticism:

  • The assumption that older manuscripts are superior is flawed. The assumption takes no account of how many transmission points there were from the original texts (how many times the manuscript has been copied). In truth, there is no way of knowing how many transmission points a manuscript has, which makes the age of a manuscript irrelevant in the process.
  • There is an assumption, without proof, that later manuscripts were copied numerous times and are further removed from the original texts than earlier manuscripts. This takes no account of the location and availability of the original texts and the simple fact that a single generation of transmission could span over many decades or centuries. Again, there is no way of knowing so the process is flawed from the outset. When Theodore Beza used the 5th century Codex Bezae for his 1598 Greek manuscript he made a transmission point jump of a thousand years. There is no proof that early scribes did not do the same thing and work from a very early master copy, or even an original autograph.
  • There is no scientific correlation between the age of a manuscript and the number of copyist errors it may contain. The Alexandrian Codex Sinaiticus contains over 23,000 errors and corrections and yet critical‑text advocates rely on its 4th century origin for its credibility.
  • The transmission history of the Alexandrian text-type is volatile and has a propensity for corruption through the issues that plagued its location. This is evidenced through the extant writings of early Alexandrian church fathers like Origen who testified that manuscripts in Alexandria were already corrupt by 200 AD.

It is not only the original texts that are lost to history, but a vast number of the early manuscripts that scholars like Desiderius Erasmus had access to. Trying to attempt textual‑criticism is frustrating from all angles, because we can no longer prove that Erasmus did not use 2nd or 3rd century manuscript variants any more than it can be prove that he did. What we can prove is that far more manuscripts were available to Erasmus than any scholar can access today.

Most textual-criticism scholars do not believe we can completely restore the original text with the Alexandrian manuscripts we have today. Most readily admit that new finds are constantly changing the text and there are some false readings unique to the Alexandrian text that are always being changed to accommodate new finds.

It is also self-evident when reading through Bruce Metzger's Textual Commentary that critics often disagree what the best reading should be for new finds. Prof. Bart Erhman has said on a number of occasions that it is no longer meaningful to talk about the recovery of the autographs and this is representative of just about every textual critic today.

There are too many assumptions with modern textual-criticism methods that do not stand up to scrutiny. So many manuscripts from antiquity no longer exist, the best anyone could achieve today, based on what little is left, is to make a guess, and that simply is not good enough. At best, the Alexandrian text is a work‑in‑progress and it shows no signs of ever reaching a conclusion. The chances that textual‑criticism could arrive at a final restored text is purely wishful thinking.

But 5,800 Manuscripts Still Exist!

You will often hear critical-text advocates say that over 5,800 Greek manuscripts exist today which is more than enough to reconstruct what the Bible originally said.

But when this figure is broken down it tells a very different story:

  • Many of the 5,800 manuscripts are only papyri fragments which act only as small witnesses to various verses in Uncial and Minuscule manuscripts.
  • Many manuscripts are in a deteriorated condition so that only part of the manuscript is readable.
  • The greatest majority of extant manuscripts are later than the 10th century.
  • Over 2,200 of these manuscripts are actually lectionaries. (A lectionary is a book or listing that contains a collection of scripture readings appointed for worship on a given day or occasion).
  • The New Testament is made up of 29 different books, written by different apostles, at different times, and in different locations, with different styles. Until the 3rd and 4th century books were treated separately or in small collections.
  • Most manuscripts are not complete Bibles but some contain at least one complete copy of a single book of the New Testament.
  • The earliest manuscript of a New Testament text is a business-card sized fragment from the Gospel of John, Rylands Library Papyrus P52, which may be as early as the first half of the 2nd century.
  • The first complete copy of single New Testament book appears in the 3rd century.
  • Over 90% of extant manuscripts are from the Majority Text or Byzantine and are not Alexandrian text-type manuscripts.

In truth, there are only 260 extant manuscripts (not including fragments) of all the text-types that exist today, that come from before the 10th century.

There are only 16 extant Greek manuscripts (including fragments) of the Book of Revelation today that are from before the 10th century. Of the 16 early manuscripts only 4 are from the Byzantine text-type.

No one from any other scientific discipline would consider the small number of manuscripts left today, enough of a representative sample to conclude a reliable result.

The Making of the Textus Receptus

While manuscripts were destroyed before Desiderius Erasmus lived, this is insignificant compared with what has been destroyed in the past 100 years alone. Erasmus lived from 1466 to 1536. Since then many manuscripts and religious volumes have been destroyed through war, book burning and natural disaster. We are no longer in a position to see all the manuscripts that influenced the critical decisions Erasmus made when he wrote his edition of the Textus Receptus. The opportunity is lost to history. His legacy however, has been the foundation of many Christian religions for five centuries. His work has been handed down through the generations of believers to ensure its preservation. The same can also be said of the Byzantine texts on which it was based.

As well as his travels, Erasmus was prolific in his correspondence with many universities, monasteries and libraries throughout Europe and the Middle East. Through his correspondence he gained access to many other variant manuscript readings which were either sent to him on request or sent to him as alternatives. One example of this is his correspondence with Paulus Bombasius, the head of the Vatican Library (copies are extant in the library).

From 1510 to 1515 Erasmus was Professor of Divinity at the Cambridge University in England, and judging by his correspondence, much of his manuscript variant information was collated in this period. When Erasmus finally made the Greek Novum Testamentum omne he only needed a handful of mainstream manuscripts to which he then applied his collation of critical variant readings; the variant readings he had evidenced in his travels and correspondence over the many years beforehand.

Critics of the Textus Receptus are fond of pointing out that Erasmus used only a small handful of 12th century manuscripts when he created his first Textus Receptus but as we have seen this is not true. Further to this the Textus Receptus was refined by Stephanus in 1550 and refined even further by Theodore Beza in 1598.

Among the manuscripts Theodore Beza used in his translation work he had the Codex Bezae Cantabrigensis, which is a 5th century manuscript. This codex contains most of the four Gospels and the book of Acts, with a small fragment of 3 John, which makes up 60% of the New Testament. Despite his diligent work he could only find a relatively small number of refinements and many of these were so minor they make no difference to the text in an English translation. It is the 1598 Beza on which the King James Bible is mainly based.

Consequences of Lost Manuscripts

How many more manuscripts existed in the time of Erasmus? The short answer is: we do not know. All we do know is that far more existed then, than we have today. How do we know this? There are over a million extant quotations from early church fathers who quoted from early manuscripts. Many of the quoted manuscripts no longer exist. However, many of their quotations support the Erasmus readings. This is only part of what is referred to as external evidence.

The futility of textual-criticism can be demonstrated in a simple analogy; you cannot bake a cake if you do not have the ingredients. You can try, but you will most likely fail in the process. In the same way; you cannot complete the jig-saw of textual‑criticism if many of the pieces are missing.

Textual‑criticism today is at best an interesting exercise, but its ability to produce a reliable text is fraught with controversy. You cannot say on one hand that you have translated an accurate and reliable Bible and then contradict this statement by producing a new revision the next time someone digs up another fragment of papyri. So how can it be meaningful to undertake textual-criticism today?

Textual‑criticism generates millions of dollars in research funding. Investors live in hope of one day finding the holy grail (an original autograph). The printing presses churn out millions of copyright Bibles to fund the process. Updated versions perpetuate the promise of on-going funds for an entire industry. This worldly process will not let itself be devastated by outsiders; the derision of those who seek to expose the folly is a matter of survival.

What is the Alternative?

To criticize something without a viable alternative is never productive. The question is: If we stop debating textual variants, what else is there that gives us faith in the Textus Receptus to provide God's word?

  • The Textus Receptus has a long and rich history. In four of the past five centuries it was accepted exclusively as the true word of God.
  • The first Textus Receptus was produced at a time which immediately precedes one of the most turbulent times in Christian history. It was produced by a highly qualified scholar whose work was respected by scholars for many centuries.
  • The Textus Receptus was preserved through history in the Byzantine text-type which has been in constant use through the Greek speaking churches since the first and second century.
  • The most widely accepted and trusted Bible translations in English speaking history have been translated from the Textus Receptus.
  • The greatest number of quotations made by the early Church Fathers support the readings in the Textus Receptus.
  • The greatest majority of extant manuscripts today are more closely related to the Textus Receptus than the minority readings of other manuscript types.
  • Later versions of the Textus Receptus used 5th and 6th century manuscripts which is within one or two centuries of manuscripts used for the modern version of the critical text. The difference is insignificant because the number of transmission points from the originals is unknown on both sides.

The Right Man at the Right Time and Place

Erasmus was born in 1466, just 13 years after the fall of Constantinople. No biblical scholar was better placed in history, to gain access to manuscripts coming out of Constantinople with the religious refugees who fled into Italy. After the threat of the Islamic expansion to the east, Erasmus travelled through the academic cities of Italy and he was well received in Rome. There is little doubt that his visits to the universities and libraries of the region, would have contributed greatly to his ongoing quest to furnish the church with a new and more accurate New Testament.

The most powerful event of the fifteenth century was the development of printing. Erasmus was right at the point in history when books would, for the first time, become both affordable and accessible. No longer were manuscripts hand-copied to order, and the preserve of the rich alone. By 1501 there were more than a thousand print-shops in Europe, which had produced some 20,000,000 copies of 25,000 titles. All the works of Erasmus were published through the printing press and found their way into the hands of a wide range of people.

The Skeptics

None of this is enough to convince the skeptics among critical-text advocates. Most have been so indoctrinated with derisions of scholars like Desiderius Erasmus and are so enamored of their own methodologies they cannot see the forest for the trees. Many of these people only speak in terms of textual variants and this is generally because the extent of variance between manuscripts in the Alexandrian text-type is vast. In the four gospels alone the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus have over 3,000 variances.

On the other hand the different versions of the Textus Receptus have relatively few variances between them. There are only a few hundred variants between all of them. Some of the differences are so minute they make no difference to an English translation. Such a low occurrence of variants should be seen objectively as a factor of reliability and quality.

The complete Alexandrian manuscripts in existence today were created in the 4th century and although scholars and theologians like Erasmus and Theodore Beza were aware of the Codex Vaticanus, it was rejected as unreliable until the late 19th century.

The most likely reasons why these early manuscripts were rejected was through early church fathers like Origen who testified that manuscripts in Alexandria were already corrupt by 200 AD, and Origen was there as a witness. Another reason scholars of the Erasmus era were skeptical was because Coptic was the common tongue of Upper Egypt and there is evidence to suggest the Greek text were influenced by their own Coptic speaking churches. Koine Greek itself was first used in Alexandria from 330 BC and linguists have always believed it evolved under the weight of local influences.

In any event, finding more of these rejected manuscripts in the 21st century doesn't change why those who came before us saw them as corrupt. It simply means we have more of these formerly rejected and corrupted copies.

A Final Note...

To believe in the Alexandrian text, you would have to believe that God withheld the Bible from the day-to-day services of the Christian church for one and half thousand years and this goes against the very word of God itself.


For this cause also thank we God without ceasing,
because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us,
ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth,
the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.
- 1 Thessalonians 2:13