Textual Criticism is the science of studying ancient manuscripts to determine the authentic text of the Bible. It is sometimes called Lower Criticism. It is necessary because we no longer possess the original manuscripts of Moses, Paul and others. Textual Criticism deals with Hebrew and Greek, not English translations. Because of the wealth of materials and the difficulties of the many other languages involved, it is one of the most difficult sciences in Bible study. The following is a brief outline of the basic facts and principles.




1.   Manuscripts.

A.   There are about 1,000 Hebrew manuscripts, plus thousands of mere scraps. The Pentateuch is contained in more of them than any other part of the Hebrew  Bible. Hand-copying by scribes virtually ceased with the introduction of the printing press in the 15th century. Hebrew Bibles were among the first printed books.

B.   Some ancient manuscripts had been destroyed during anti-Jewish persecutions, such as the Crusades. There are far fewer Hebrew manuscripts for the O.T. than Greek manuscripts for the N.T.

C.   There are, however, proportionately fewer variations in the Hebrew than in the Greek. Hebrew scribes were more accurate, mainly for religious reasons but also because they copied in their native languages whereas many Greek manuscripts were copied by those who knew only a little or no Greek.

D.   More than 95% of the manuscripts agree almost verbatim. Those that disagree even tend to disagree with themselves. Jeremiah has more manuscript variations than any other book. Some variations in manuscripts were made in order to counter Christianity, but most were mere slips of the pen or other unintentional errors.

E.   Many manuscripts have Qere and Ketib. That is, a word is written in the margin indicating the true reading or pronunciation of the text.

F.   The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest manuscripts - 1,000 years older than any others, except a few scraps. They date from before AD 70 and probably much older. Yet there is a remarkable agreement between these and the later manuscripts.

G.   The Massoretes were Jewish scribes around the 8th and 9th centuries. Since ancient Hebrew used only consonants, problems arose over the pronunciations. The Massoretes added vowels. They also devised an elaborate system of statistics of word frequency, number of sentences, number of letters in a book, and so on. They also used numerology and gematria. All this insured more careful copying. They sometimes even  destroyed a complete manuscript if it was found to have even a single error.

H.   The Aleppo Codex (10th-11th century) is the oldest manuscript from the old Massoretic tradition known as the Ben Asher text. It was partially destroyed in a fire in Israel in 1948, but photographs remain. It is said to be the official manuscript of Maimonides, the leading medieval Jewish rabbi.

I.    Codex Leningradiensis (10th-11th century) contains the whole O.T., but contains a text from a minority Massoretic tradition. It was made in Babylon.

J.    The Cairo Geniza was an ancient storeroom of thousands of Hebrew manuscripts, but most are mere scraps. It is probably the largest such collection.

2.   Versions.


A.   Greek versions include the Septuagint (c. 150 BC), and those by Aquila (c.130 AD), Symmachus (c.170 AD), Theodotian (c.180 AD) and others. Origen's Hexapla (3rd cent.) contained a Hebrew OT, a Greek transliteration, the Septuagint, Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotian in parallel columns, but most of it is lost.


B.   The Samaritan Pentateuch (about 400 BC) is in a language and script similar to Hebrew. Variations are minor, but some of them are for specific theological reasons - the Samaritans thought they, not the Jews, were heirs of the Covenant.

C.   The Aramaic Targums were paraphrased translations of the Hebrew O.T. Most were written about 200 AD, but some may be pre-Christian and others much later.

D.   Other versions: Latin (Old Latin 150 AD, Vulgate 400 AD), Syriac (2nd to 5th centuries AD), Ethiopic, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, etc.

3.   Families.  Manuscripts and Versions tend to show similar patterns in their variations.

A.   Strict Massoretic is basically that of the Aleppo Codex and the Rabbinic Bibles.

B.   Proto-Massoretic contains patterns of variants from before the Massoretic era, such as in the Dead Sea Scrolls and some of the versions and non-Massoretic Hebrew manuscripts. 

C.   Proto-Septuagint family consists of variants discovered when the Septuagint is translated back into Hebrew and where these variants differ from the Massoretes.

D.   Proto-Samaritan family occurs when the Samaritan is translated back into Hebrew and contains variations from the Massoretc tradition.

4.   Quotations.  Most of the Hebrew O.T. can be found quoted in ancient books.

A.   The New Testament quotes sometimes from the Hebrew, sometimes from the Septuagint where it differs from the Hebrew, and sometimes makes original quotations.

B.   The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha contain numerous quotations, usually translated into Greek. The same is true with the New Testament Apocrypha, the Nag Hamadi writings and the like. The early Christian Church Fathers usually wrote in Greek or Latin, and often quoted the O.T.

C.   The Dead Sea Scrolls include ancient writings which often quote or paraphrase the Hebrew O.T. These usually, but not always, match the Dead Sea O.T. manuscripts.

D.   Ancient Jewish non-Christian writings are full of quotations from the O.T., such as Josephus, Philo, the Mishnah, the Talmuds, the Tosefta, and so on. And lastly there are some brief quotations on coins, pottery, amulets, and the like.  

5. Principles.

A.   Some variations are obvious and unintentional - word order, misspellings, duplication, etc. Variations of a more serious order add, subtract, substitute or rephrase the text. Still, no more than about 1 to 2% is  seriously debated.

B.   Manuscripts must be collated - comparing manuscripts and making a list of the variants, and then cataloging the variations from all the manuscripts.

C.   The scholars then consult the manuscripts and collations, plus the versions, quotations and Massoretic notes. Comparing editions of the Hebrew Bible is also done. It is a painstaking effort. Scholars, like scribes, can make mistakes.

D.   Using the ancient versions is tricky. They all precede the era of the Massoretes. However, some are not literal translations. Moreover, translating back into Hebrew is not always exact - if translation loses something, then double translation also loses something. It is questionable to rely on a versional retranslation if there are no Hebrew manuscripts with that reading.

E.   Conjectural Emendation is basically guessing what the reading should be simply according to context or the editor's theology (usually liberal). Some Hebrew Bibles contain such guesses without support from Hebrew or even the versions.

F.   Scripture forbids adding to or subtracting from the Bible (Rev. 22:18-19). But it also promises that God has and will providentially protect His Word through the course of history (Matt. 24:15).




1.   Manuscripts. About 5,366 of all kinds, excluding those in category E.

A.   Papyri are the oldest. There are about 100 of them, many mere scraps. Most date from before 300 AD. Most belong to the Alexandrian family, being from Egypt.

B.   Majuscules were usually written on sheepskin parchment in capital letters called uncials. Most are from before the 9th century. There are some 274 majuscules and about 80% of them are from the Byzantine family, 10% from the Alexandrian and the rest from the Western and Caesarean families. The most important ones: Codex Sinaiticus (discovered near Mt. Sinai), Codex Vaticanus, Codex Bezae, Codex Alexandrinus. Some are palimpsests - a parchment was erased by scraping and then written over, but by careful study we can read the original writing.

C.   Miniscules were written in cursive handwriting in small letters, some on parchment but most on paper. They usually date from after the 9th century and are by far the largest number of manuscripts (2,795). About 90% are from the Byzantine family.

D.   Lectionaries are collections of the N.T. for public reading in Church services, usually numbered sections of the Gospels. Of the 2,209, some 245 are uncial majuscules and 1,964 are in cursive miniscule script. Most are Byzantine.

E.   Miscellanous portions have been found among ancient inscriptions on the walls of the Catacombs, or on ostraca (some 1,624 small scraps of pottery) or amulets.

2. History.

A.   Many ancient manuscripts were destroyed by Roman persecution. Others were intentionally buried or destroyed once a copy was made, lest the first one fall into sacrilegious disrepair. Younger manuscripts were obviously copied from older manuscripts, most of which no longer exist.

B.   Not all scribes knew Greek well, especially after 500 AD. Some manuscripts were copied one by one, others in tandem as a scribe dictated from one manuscript to several scribes at once. Later scribes often corrected a manuscript. Some variations are due to alteration by known heretics to suit their nefarious purposes.

C.   Over 200,000 variants are known to exist. A massive and exhaustive effort is being made to collate and catalog them all. Most variants are minor: misspellings, word order, duplication, etc. More significant ones add, subtract, substitute or rephrase. Even so, only about 2-5% of the entire text is seriously debated. The largest sections in debate are Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:59-8:11.

D.   Only a few manuscripts contain the whole N.T. Many contain mere scraps or individual books (the Gospels are most represented). Acts contains the most variants, while Revelation has fewest manuscripts but proportionately the most variants in number and kind.

E.   Copying by hand virtually ceased after the invention of printing in the 15th century. The largest collections of manuscripts are in the Vatican, the British Museum and the Greek Orthodox monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece.

3. Families. The variations in manuscripts tend to fall down into 4 categories or families.

A.   Byzantine (or Majority Witness) makes up some 80% or more of the manuscripts and variations, plus some of the ancient versions. Moreover, those in this family are almost entirely identical and uniform. Most are from the Eastern Mediterranean.

A.   Alexandrian manuscripts and readings mainly come from Egypt. These readings tend to subtract (or conversely, say some,  the Byzantine tends to add to the Alexandrian). 5-10% of the manuscripts are in this family. Even though they tend to be older, they do not agree with themselves as much as the Byzantine manuscripts do.

B.   Western manuscripts come from the Western Mediterranean and make up about 5% of manuscripts, plus some versions and Fathers. Also not uniform, they tend to add.


C.   Caesarean manuscripts contain mixed readings from other families. Some scholars deny that this is even a family as such. These supposedly came from Casarea. They number less than 5% of the total


4. Versions.


A.   Latin: The first translation of the N.T. was probably into the Old Latin (c.150 AD). Jerome later translated the N.T. into the Latin Vulgate, which became the standard in the Catholic Church (thus, there are over 8,000 Vulgate manuscripts). The Old Latin tends to be Western, the Vulgate tends to be Byzantine.

B.   Syriac: The Old Syriac is found in only 2 or 3 manuscripts from the 3rd-5th centuries and contain only the Gospels. The Peshitta was the standard; scholars date it as early as the 2nd or as late as the 5th century. Plus minor ones.

C.   Coptic: There were two major translations into a Grecianized form of Egyptian. The first was the Sahidic (3rd cent), then the Bohairic (4th cent), plus minor ones.

D.   Other versions:Gothic, Ethiopic, Georgian, Armenian, Arabic, Slavonic, Anglo-Saxon, etc. 

5.   Church Fathers. The whole N.T. could be reconstructed from their quotations alone.

A.   Some of them quoted verbatim, others paraphrased, others only made allusions.

B.   Their patterns vary like the versions: some Byzantine, others Alexandrian, some Western.

C.   Fathers from whom most quotations can be culled: Augustine, Origen, Chrysostom, Jerome. 

6. Principles.

A.   As with the O.T., complete collations are being made, but a definite pattern has emerged. All variations, versions and Fathers must be considered. Readings must be judged by age, locality spread, number, and how they explain the other variants.

B.   Conjectural Emendation is questionable, but accepted by many even when manuscript evidence is non-existent.

C.   The Majority Witness school says that the Byzantine family basically contains the true text. This text is the one underlying the KJV and NKJV.Only a minority of scholars accept this view; most who do are usually Fundamentalists or Greek Orthodox.  This view says the other families are defective; older manuscripts survived because they were defective and therefore not used or copied. This text has basically been printed in most Greek editions before 1830 (Erasmus, Stephanus, Beza, Elzivir, etc) and recently in The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text.

D.   The Neutral Text school basically upheld the superiority and virtual infallibility of the Alexandrian family. It was popularized by Westcott and Hort. When the papyri and majuscules  agree, that is the authentic text.

E.   The Eclectic School is the predominant view today. It says that no one family should predominate, though the Alexandrian is the best. But a reading accepted by 2 or 3 of the other families against the Alexandrian would outweigh it. This school sometimes accepts Conjectural Emendations. This view also stresses the Genealogical Method: the authentic text was grandfather to the 4 families, each of which contain distinctive traits of the original. This view usually says the Alexandrian or the Western is the oldest, the Byzantine the youngest and least reliable. This text is that which underlies the NASB, NIV, ASV, RSV, etc.

F.   Finally, Providential Preservation (Matt. 24:15) applies to the N.T.  Let us neither add nor subtract from the Bible (Rev. 22:18-19). True textual criticism must be scholarly and reverent. As difficult as it is to scholars, and bewildering to non-scholars, it is an important field of research being conducted around the world.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. Geisler, Norman; and Nix, Gary; A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press). Wurthwein, Ernst; The Text of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans). Metzger, Bruce; The Text of the New Testament NY and Oxford: Oxford University Press) [Eclectic].  Pickering, Wilbur N.; The Identity of the New Testament Text (Nashville: Nelson) [Majority Witness].