The job of the textual critic is very similar to that of a
detective searching for clues as to the original reading of the
text. It is reminiscent of the master detective Sherlock Holmes who
could determine a number of characteristics of the suspect from the
slightest clues left at the crime scene. In our case the "crime
scene" is the biblical text, and often we have far fewer clues to
work with than we would like. Yet the job of the textual critic is
extremely important, for we are trying to determine the exact
reading of a text in ortder to know what God has said and expects
Paul D. Wegner, "Textual Criticism of
the Bible", pp 23.
"The method of textual criticism which has been generally
practised by editors of classical Greek and Latin texts involves two
main processes, recension and emendation. Recension is the
selection, after examination of all available material, of the most
trustworthy evidence on which to base a text. Emendation is the
attempt to eliminate the errors which are found even in the best
"The application of critical methods in the editing of classical
texts was developed principally by three German scholars, Friedrich
Wolf (1759-1824), one of the founders of classical philology,
Immanuel Bekker (1785-1871), and Karl Lachmann (1793-1851). Bekker
devoted his long life to the preparation of critical editions of
Greek texts. Bekker collated some 400 manuscripts, grouped existing
manuscripts of an author into families where one was derived from
another, and published sixty volumes of improved editions of Greek
authors. Lachmann went further than Bekker, showing how, by
comparison of manuscripts, it is possible to draw inferences as to
their lost ancestors or archetypes, their condition, and even their
"The basic principle which underlies the process of constructing
a stemma, or family tree, of manuscripts is that, apart
from accident, identity of reading implies identity of origin.
Often, however, difficulties hinder the construction of a stemma of
manuscripts. A disturbing element enters when mixture has occurred,
that is, when a copyist has had two or more manuscripts before him
and has followed sometimes one, sometimes the other; or, as
sometimes happened, when a scribe copied a manuscript from one
exemplar and corrected it against another. To the extent that
manuscripts have a "mixed" ancestry, the genealogical relations
among them become progressively more complex and obscure to the
Bruce Metzger, The
Text of the New Testament, pp. 156-159.
Kurt & Barbara Aland's 12 Textual Critical Rules
- Only one reading can be original, however many variant
readings there may be.
- Only the readings which best satisfies the requirements of
both external and internal criteria can be original.
- Criticism of the text must always begin from the evidence of
the manuscript tradition and only afterward turn to a
consideration of internal criteria.
- Internal criteria (the context of the passage, its style and
vocabulary, the theological environment of the author, etc.) can
never be the sole basis for a critical decision, especially when
they stand in opposition to the external evidence.
- The primary authority for a critical textual decision lies
with the Greek manuscript tradition, with the version and
Fathers serving no more than a supplementary and corroborative
function, particularly in passages where their underlying Greek
text cannot be reconstructed with absolute certainty.
- Furthermore, manuscripts should be weighed, not counted, and
the peculiar traits of each manuscript should be duly
considered. However important the early papyri, or a particular
uncial, or a minuscule may be, there is no single manuscript or
group or manuscripts that can be followed mechanically, even
though certain combinations of witnesses may deserve a greater
degree of confidence than others. Rather, decisions in textual
criticism must be worked out afresh, passage by passage (the
- The principle that the original reading may be found in any
single manuscript or version when it stands alone or nearly
alone is only a theoretical possibility. Any form of eclecticism
which accepts this principle will hardly succeed in establishing
the original text of the New Testament; it will only confirm the
view of the text which it presupposes.
- The reconstruction of a stemma of readings for each variant
(the genealogical principle) is an extremely important device,
because the reading which can most easily explain the derivation
of the other forms is itself most likely the original.
- Variants must never be treated in isolation, but always
considered in the context of the tradition. Otherwise there is
too great a danger of reconstructing a "test tube text" which
never existed at any time or place.
- There is truth in the maxim: lectio
difficilior lectio potior ("the
more difficult reading is the more probable reading"). But this
principle must not be taken too mechanically, with the most
difficult reading (lectio difficilima) adopted as
original simply because of its degree of difficulty.
- The venerable maxim lectio
brevior lectio potior ("the
shorter reading is the more probable reading") is certainly
right in many instances. But here again the principle cannot be
- A constantly maintained familiarity with New Testament
manuscripts themselves is the best training for textual
criticism. In textual criticism the pure theoretician has often
done more harm than good.
Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The
Text of the New Testament, pp. 275-276.
New Testament Text Types
New Testament manuscripts can be classified according to certain
major types or families. A family is the name given to a group of
texts with a common ancestor. These texts are discovered through the
deviations common to a group of manuscripts. For example, the errors
made in copying the text in Alexandria were perpetuated in later
reproductions. Classification according to families is the basic
point of departure in the actual work of textual reconstruction. One
reading of a text that represents a good family may provide more
support for the original text than a dozen readings from a poor
family. Caution is required at this point lest a generalization
become misleading. Families are not represented by entire
manuscripts but often only segments of them. The modern practice of
copying an entire manuscript of the New Testament at once was seldom
followed in antiquity. Thus, several families of texts may be
represented in a single manuscript. Four types of families of texts
have been sufficiently defined to merit discussion1.
text-type (also called Neutral or Egyptian) is the form of the
Greek New Testament that predominates in the earliest surviving
documents, as well as the text type used in Egyptian and
Coptic manuscripts. Up until the 9th century, Greek texts were
written entirely in upper case letters, referred to as Uncials).
Most modern New Testament translations, however, now use
an Eclectic Greek text that is closest to the Alexandrian text-type.
Alexandrian readings tend to be shorter; and are commonly regarded
as having a lower tendency to expand or paraphrase. Some of the
manuscripts representing the Alexandrian text-type have the
Byzantine corrections made by later hands (Papyrus 66, Codex
Sinaiticus, Codex Ephraemi, Codex Regius, and Codex Sangallensis)3.
This family has been designated by many names. It is called
Byzantine because it was adopted in Constantinople and used as the
common text in the Byzantine world. It was produced in Antioch,
Syria, under the direction of Lucian near the beginning of the
fourth century and has been called the Syrian or Antiochene text. It
was used almost universally after the eight century. Both Erasmus,
who created the first printed Greek text, and the translators of the
King James Version of the Bible used this type of text. It was
produced by combining earlier texts and has less value than the
Alexandrian text. A (Codex Alexandrinus, fifth century) and C (Codex
Ephraemi, fifth century) are the oldest representatives of the
Byzantine family. A great majority of late uncials and minuscules
belong to this group1.
This family of texts was closely related to the church in the west,
particularly in North Africa. Although it can probably be traced to
the second century, its value has been disputed. It was used by the
erly church fathers. Its age would seem to suggest great importance,
but there are clear indications that it was not carefully preserved.
It is best represented by the Old Latin translations, by the Syriac
versions, and the church fathers. Its most famous representative is
manuscript D (Codex Bezae) for the book of Acts1.
This family of texts was widely used in Caesarea from which it
derived its name. It seems to have arisen out of the Alexandrian
text but was also mixed with the Western text. Consequently, its
value is limited. Metzger suggests that it is necessary to
distinguish between two stages in its development, the pre-Caesarean
and the Caesarean (Bruce M. Metzger, The
Text of the New Testament, p. 215). Some of its more
prominent representatives are W (Washington Codex, fifth century),
P45, and two groups of minuscules and lectionaries1.
1 R. C. Briggs, Interpreting
the New Testament Today: An Introduction to Methods and Issues in
the Study of the New Testament, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1982),
2 Philip comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary,
The Encyclopedia of
New Testament Textual Criticism
Student’s Guide to
New Testament Textual Variants By Bruce Terry