Textual Criticism of the New Testament and the Church: Some Helpful Resources

November 15, 2016

This is the fourth in a series of posts on Textual Criticism of the New Testament and the Church that will run through 2016 and into 2017. Part 3 can be found HERE. This post was originally scheduled to be “What to Think about Manuscripts, Texts, and Variations,” but I have received numerous questions about good resources on this issue, so I am making that post now. Part 5 will be entitled “What to Think about Manuscripts, Texts, and Variations” and will be out next month. 

Every Christian who wants to know more about the ancient manuscripts and modern translations of the New Testament needs to be armed with at least two books: a good history of the Bible and a good introduction to textual criticism. Those interested in more advanced study will want a more academic work on textual criticism as well as some solid books that deal with textual criticism and apologetics. And those who have had the tremendous opportunity to study New Testament Greek in college or seminary should also be armed with a good Greek New Testament and a thorough textual commentary. My recommendations for all of these, with some explanation, are below.

A good history of the Bible and a good introduction to textual criticism for any Christian who wants to know more:

The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible by Paul D. Wegner (Baker, 2004).

This great book is designed to be a college textbook, but don’t let that scare you away. It is accessible, well organized, and full of interesting pictures. Wegner divides his work into five parts: a fairly thorough description of the Bible and its parts, a history and description of the canonization of the Bible, a description of the ancient manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments, a quick survey of the early versions of the Bible and the impact of the printing press, and a lengthy description of English translations of the Bible.

New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide by David Alan Black (Baker, 1994).

This short little book, written by a former colleague of mine, is an excellent primer to New Testament textual criticism. It covers the three major foundational categories in the field: a survey of the materials of the New Testament (scribes, scrolls, paper, codices, etc.), a brief history of the transmission of the text of the New Testament, and an explanation of the work and conclusions of textual critics. Black also gives us some examples of textual criticism at work and three appendices for those who want to dig a little deeper.

Some more academic works on textual criticism as well as some solid books that deal with textual criticism and apologetics for those who want a more advanced treatment of the issues:

The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration by Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman (Oxford, 2005).

Those of you who have done some reading in the field of New Testament apologetics may be surprised to find a book on this list with the name Bart Ehrman attached to it (he is a notoriously skeptical and atheistic New Testament scholar). This is, however, a standard work in the field of textual criticism, and for its first thirty years Metzger (who was neither skeptical nor atheistic) was its only author. It is still, on the whole, a fantastic reference for any faithful student of the New Testament. In part one Metzger covers in some great detail how ancient books were made and provides a very thorough list of ancient manuscripts, versions (ancient translations), and quotations of the ancient New Testament by the Church Fathers. In part two Metzger details the history of textual criticism from the ancient church until now. And then in part three he covers the various theories concerning how to do textual criticism and how to decide which manuscript is most likely correct when the manuscripts of the New Testament disagree (we will cover much of this in our next blog post). This book covers essentially the same topics as Black’s book above, but in much greater detail and with much more scholarly documentation.

Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography and Textual Criticism by Philip Comfort (B&H, 2005).

Comfort’s book is as academic and as thorough as Metzger’s, but it is also more focused. Comfort minimizes discussions of history and translations and focuses more directly on ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, why they are different from one another, and what we ought to think and do about that. There is little reason for most pastors and students to buy both Metzger and Comfort. If you are frequently called on to answer questions about translations and the history of the text, buy Metzger. Otherwise Comfort will serve you well.

Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture by J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace (Kregel, 2006).

This book and the one below are works on specific issues in New Testament apologetics. Reinventing Jesus is a response to the more popular claims of some of the skeptical, secular New Testament scholars like Bart Ehrman. Each chapter deals with a separate but related claim about the canon, the deity of Christ, Christianity’s relationship to other ancient religions, etc. Part Two deals specifically with the question of the political corruption of the New Testament. It is a small but very timely work and definitely worth having.

Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Question to Unseat the Biblical Christ by Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace (Nelson, 2010).

Just like Reinventing Jesus, this book deals with popular false claims about Jesus and the New Testament. The chapters in Dethroning Jesus focus primarily on conspiracy theories, the kind commonly heard on the Discovery Channel and in novels like The Da Vinci Code. Chapter one deals handily with claims about the corruption of the New Testament by copyists. This also is a small, timely work and a helpful one to have on the shelf.

A Greek New Testament and textual commentary for those blessed enough to be able to study Greek in college or Seminary:

The Greek New Testament (German Bible Society, 5th edition, 2014).

If you have studied some Greek and are looking for a Greek New Testament, this is a great one to have. It has a thorough, scholarly apparatus (a list of how other Greek manuscripts of the New Testament read when the ancient manuscripts disagree), and it also has a dictionary of the most common words in the Greek New Testament which is a very helpful aid for students.

New Testament Text and Translation Commentary by Philip W. Comfort (Tyndale, 2008).

Your Greek New Testament like the one above will present you with a Greek text that is generally agreed upon by Greek scholars and will provide you with an apparatus in the footnotes of how all the other Greek manuscripts that disagree read. This textual commentary will walk you through how scholars reached the conclusions they reached—how they weighed the geographical distribution of a reading, how they evaluated the number and age of the manuscripts, and how they analyzed the internal evidence. Not every scholar will agree with all of Comfort’s analysis, but it is an essential tool for everyone wishing to study New Testament textual criticism.

In the midst of all this talk about corruption and variations in the ancient Greek manuscripts it is important to remind ourselves just what we are talking about. Remember, we have manuscripts of the New Testament from all across the history of the transmission of the text. Those manuscripts are remarkably similar to one another considering they were copied by hand for 1,500 years, and though scribes do sometimes make errors, most of those amount to nothing more than variations in spelling and are pretty easy to spot. Additionally, as all of the works above will confirm, there is little evidence of “corruption” in the New Testament, and none of this changes anything how the text reads concerning the person of Christ, the gospel, or Christian doctrine.

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