Textual Criticism and its Significance to the New Testament

July 13, 2015 — Leave a comment

In my time studying the Bible some of the things I have learned is the Bible has been “transferred” and copied from its originals documents thousands of years ago. I have sometimes heard people make the following statements about the Bible:

The Bible is nothing but fiction!

The Bible is full of errors!

There’s no way that what we have in the Bible matches the original.

In my studies over the last couple of years I have been grateful to read and learn more about the field of study called, “textual criticism.”

Textual Criticism is a discipline that focuses on discovering what the original writings said. When describing New Testament textual criticism Daniel Wallace writes, “textual criticism is the study of the copies of any written document whose autograph (the original) is unknown or nonexistent, for the primary purpose of determining the exact wording of the original” (Interpreting the New Testament Text, edited by Darrell Bock and Buist Fanning, p. 33).

With this statement and definition of textual criticism it is important to note that there are different manuscripts of the Bible that contain different readings. Meaning, there are different wordings, different arrangements, and differences among the different biblical manuscripts that have survived over the years. However, among these differences very very few are significant differences. For example, most differences in the New Testament are different spellings of words (for example, John can be spelled Ιωαννης  or  Ιωανης), contractions and abbreviations, the and word order changing (Greek does not depend on the word order in sentences like English does). For some commentary on Old Testament textual criticism go here

As an example of just one of the differences of the supposed “changes” in the New Testament is in Ephesians 2:8. Below I will examine the different pieces of evidence to determine which reading is authentic and what the significance might be for each.

Textual Criticism and its Significance to the New Testament

Ephesians 2:8 Textual Criticism Problem
δια πισεως (text) vs. δια της πισεως (variant)


A.  Date and Character of the Manuscripts

1.      Textual Reading

The date and character of the textual reading is much better than the variant reading. The text reading includes two fourth century majuscule (a “majuscule” manuscript is simply a manuscript in upper case Greek script) manuscripts of which each has a a high level of character. א and B are both 4th century manuscripts (Alexandrian text type). Metzger and Ehrman both cite these two manuscripts as being the primary and most valuable Greek manuscripts (The Text of the New Testament, pp. 62-67). As these two manuscripts are the earliest support for the reading they are therefore the closest to the original among the manuscripts we have for Ephesians 2:8. Furthermore, the text reading also has D* which comes from the 6th century Western text type tradition.

2.     Variant Reading

The variant reading contains one piece of evidence from the 5th century called “A”, a manuscript from the Alexandrian text type. A ranks among א and B as great representatives of the Alexandrian text type (Ibid., 67), yet there is only one manuscript that supports this variant reading. Additionally, this manuscript is 5th century and is later than the 4th century א and B manuscripts. After this 5th century reading there is no further external evidence that supports this reading until the 9th century which includes K, L, ψ, Gothic M, and 249 (some of these manuscripts I just listed can be dated later, but I have listed the earliest possible date as a conservative position since I in support of the textual reading)

B.  Geographical Distribution of these Manuscripts

1.     Textual Reading

The geographical distribution of the textual reading is strong because of the support from two Alexandrian majuscule manuscripts (א and B) as well as three Western manuscripts (D*, F, and G). Additionally, the text reading is also supported by P.

2.     Variant Reading

Majuscule evidence for this variant reading has one piece of evidence from the Alexandrian area (A) along with two from Byzantine (K and L) along with two from other locations (ψ and D2). The minuscule evidence is similar with two Alexandrian (81. and 1881.), Byzantine (Gothic M), and three other (365., 630., and 1241.). The most important element of the geographical distribution of this variant reading is what is missing: Western. There appears to be no geographical distribution of this variant reading in the Western region of the text.

C.  Genealogical Solidarity of the Manuscripts’ Ancestor 

1.      Textual Reading

With two highly respected majuscule texts (א and B) and four minuscule texts (33., 104., 1175., and 1739.) of the Alexandrian text type combined with three majuscule texts (D*, F, and G) from the Western, it appears that this reading derived from a prior original reading and made its way into both the Alexandrian and Western text types. There appears to have been at one time a textual “heir” that shared this reading and that reading was copied into both the Alexandrian and Western text tradition.

2.     Variant Reading

The variant reading is attested to by A, a 5th century Alexandrian text type. However, there is little supporting evidence of this being an “heir” of the original since there are only 10th century Alexandrian readings and 9th century Byzantine readings that share this variant reading.

D.  My Conclusion and Rating of the External Evidence 

Before providing my rating and conclusion I believe it is important to note that there are no papyri that attest to either the text or variant reading. Because papyri are the oldest New Testament manuscripts and closest to the original autographs, I do not believe I can provide an “A” rating to either reading. However, based on the external evidence available I am providing the textual reading a “B” rating and the variant reading with a “C.” My rating of “B” for the textual reading is based on the evidence that it has the oldest manuscript support (א and B majuscule texts from the 4th century) along with strong geographical distribution and genealogical solidarity (this reading agrees with the Alexandrian א and B reading as well as the Western D*, F, and G reading). The variant reading appears to have been in one early Alexandrian majuscule (A which is 5th century, after the both א and B which adhere to the textual reading) which then was copied in the later Alexandrian minuscule manuscripts as well as being copied into the Byzantine text type.


Ephesians 2.8 and Textual Criticism

A.  Transcriptional Probabilities

1.      Intentional Changes

A scribe copying Paul’s letter might have purposefully made a change to Paul’s original words. This attempt by a scribe might have been an attempt to clarify which or what faith is saving faith. And, by adding the article της the scribe was showing that it was “faith” which had provided salvation. An important note: the article in Greek does not change something that is indefinite to definite (for there are many ways that a noun can be definite without the definite article, proper nouns and names for example). However, the article in Greek often is used to conceptualize an individual, class, or quality. In other words, it can be used point out something in order to make that thing more known or clear (see ExSyn, 209-210). Here, it is possible that a scribe added the article at a later time in order to make it perfectly clear which faith and what type of faith had provided salvation.

2.      Unintentional Changes

The first and most obvious unintentional change that might have been made by a scribe is skipping the word της. When looking at the uncial script της looks very similar to πις which is the beginning of the following word. If the scribe was copying down three letters at a time it is possible that a scribe might have been copying the text and finished with δια and then looked past της to πιςτεως therefore unintentionally skipping the article.

B.  Intrinsic Probabilities 

1.      Context

Within the context of the first two chapters of Ephesian it might be possible that the article της is supposed to refer back to the saving faith which Paul passionately encourages and praises at the beginning of his letter (Eph 1:15). This would be what Wallace identifies as the “anaphoric (previous reference)” (see Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 217-220). Based on the context, two options are possible: 1) Paul could have used the anaphoric use of the article in his original letter (the textual reading); 2) a scribe could have added the article at a later time in order to identify the type and kind of faith that has provided salvation (the variant reading).

2.      Authorial Style

A quick look at Paul’s uses of the preposition δια with πιστεως yields the following results. Variant Reading: Paul says, δια της πιστεως 10 times (Rom 1:12; 3:25, 30, 31, Gal 3:14; 26; Eph 3:13, 17; Col 2:12; 1 Thess 3:7). Textual Reading: Paul says δια πιστεως five times (Rom 3:22; 2 Cor 5:7; Gal 2:16; Phph 3:9; 1 Tim 3:15). Therefore, it appears Paul sometimes used the article and sometimes he did not. The internal evidence appears to indicate that Paul was slightly more likely to have have used the article, but that evidence is not clear.

C.  Conclusion and Rating 

I am struggling to provide a rate for either of these variants. Based on the internal evidence I am giving both a C. Neither of the readings appear to make a clear case (at least based on the internal evidence) regarding which is the original reading.

Question: What are your thoughts of New Testament textual criticism? 

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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