Who Wants to Know About Textual Criticism?

August 25, 2016

This is the first in a series of posts on Textual Criticism of the New Testament and the Church that will run through 2016 and into 2017. Part 2 entitled “Answering the Telephone Game: The Reliable Transmission of the Text of the New Testament” will be out next month.

I have had the privilege of teaching Christian Studies at the graduate and undergraduate level for almost fifteen years now. I have also had the privilege of being a lay pastor for most of those years and a vocational pastor for four of them. Throughout this time, the Bible questions I get most consistently from students, pastors, and church members are related the field of textual criticism. The folks who ask me these questions don’t typically know the term “textual criticism,” but their questions are deeply rooted in the history of the transmission of the text of the New Testament. I get questions about the Old Testament too, but this series of blog posts will focus on the New Testament, because that is my area of expertise. The questions get posed to me in a dozen different ways, but, at their core, I am most commonly asked:

  • How do we know that the text of the New Testament wasn’t accidentally corrupted through the process of centuries of copying?
  • What evidence is there that scribes didn’t irreparably tamper with the text of the New Testament as they copied it?
  • How do we know that our English translations are good representations of the original language of the New Testament?

All of these questions want to know essentially the same thing: Is the English Bible I have open in front of me right now a reasonably accurate representation of the inspired text of Scripture? The answer to that question is a resounding “Yes!” but the folks who ask these questions have some legitimate concerns. Their questions aren’t dumb. In my future posts, I will address each of these questions. But before I develop my answers, I think we should take a closer look at the questions.

Question 1: How do we know that the text of the New Testament wasn’t accidentally corrupted through the process of centuries of copying

This is the most logical to ask of the three questions above. Anyone who knows even a little about how we got our Bible has wondered about this at some point. The New Testament was completed almost two thousand years ago, and it was copied by hand—by amateurs and by experts—for the better part of fifteen hundred years before the wide-spread use of the printing press began to dominate the process of manuscript production. Most people know very little about the reproduction of the manuscripts of the New Testament before the printing press, so it is easy for them to imagine that Bible copying worked a lot like the telephone game we played as kids. For the uninitiated—in the telephone game we would put our chairs in a circle, nominate one kid to start it off, and have that kid whisper something silly into the ear of the kid sitting next to her. That kid then whispered the message just as he heard it into the ear of the kid sitting next to him, and so on until the message had been whispered all the way around the circle. Then the last kid would stand up and triumphantly repeat the message which had, by then, been hopelessly mangled through the process of transmission.

It makes sense to ask if the transmission of the New Testament could have also happened that way. It stands to reason that some of these scribes made mistakes, doesn’t it? It also stands to reason that most of those mistakes were caught and corrected by other scribes, but how do we know that all of those mistakes were caught? What if some mistakes in the text have survived into the modern day? What if they are at crucial places in the New Testament? How would we know? These are definitely the questions that Christians should be asking, and they are. I hear from them all the time.

Question 2: What evidence is there that scribes didn’t irreparably tamper with the text of the New Testament as they copied it?

If you played the telephone game as a kid, then you know there was that one kid who tried his best to ruin the game for everyone else. He’d add to the message before he passed it on or he’d change it into something he thought was funnier. We all know that kid. Isn’t it possible, then, that scribes did that same thing with the manuscripts of the New Testament? And worse, what if there wasn’t just one trouble-making scribe at work? What if there was a conspiracy of scribes to radically alter the text of Scripture to suit their own ends?

The claim that the New Testament as it looks today might be the result of a conspiracy isn’t exactly new, but it is having a revival of sorts in popular culture. Consequently, it is natural for Christians to wonder about the truthfulness of such claims as well as to wonder how to answer them.

Question 3: How do we know that our English translations are good representations of the original language of the New Testament?

This isn’t technically a question for New Testament Textual Criticism. I do get asked this a lot, and this question nearly always arises out of mistaken text-critical assumptions. First, people do wonder if maybe the history of translating the New Testament didn’t also happen a little like the telephone game. I’ve had many people ask me something like: “But how do you know what Jesus really taught? Wasn’t the Bible translated from Greek into Latin and then into German and then into English?” That sounds a lot like the telephone game to me, but is that really how translations are really produced in the modern day? Is that how we got the King James Version or the ESV? They are good questions, and Christians are right for wanting to know.

Second, most people instinctively understand that the process of translating involves a good bit of interpreting. How accurate can a translation be? How do we know that the translations haven’t made something out of the New Testament that it never intended to be? Just like that misbehaving boy who ruined the telephone game for everyone or that misguided scribe who intentionally corrupted the text of Scripture for his own ends, how do we know that translators aren’t doing the same thing now? Most Christians have wondered about this. I get their questions all the time.

So, who wants to know about textual criticism? In my experience most Christians do at some point in their walk with Christ. Questions about the Bible are, after all, some of the most important questions any believer can ask. It is our job as Christian leaders—teachers, pastors, small group leaders, disciplers—to answer their questions about God’s Word intelligently and faithfully. In my experience we don’t do that nearly as well as we should, so I hope that this series of blog posts on textual criticism, in which I will endeavor to answer the questions raised above, will be a helpful resource to the Church in this area.

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