In the words of Daniel B. Wallace, Textual Criticism is:
- The study of the copies of any written document whose original (autograph) is unknown or non-existent, for the primary purpose of determining the exact wording of the original.
When it all comes down to it, we do not have the original manuscripts or autographs of any New Testament document today. If the original text of the NT still existed, if we had them with us today, then there would be no need for textual criticism, but since we do not have the original autographs, it is a very necessary practice. If all of the many copies and fragments of NT manuscripts which we do have today were exactly alike, textual criticism would not be possible.
But as we have it, there are around 5,700 copies and fragments of New Testament Greek manuscripts which we do have today, none of which are completely identical. Then there are also thousands of manuscripts which have been translated into other languages, as well as quotes and citations from Greek to Greek or Greek to other languages. The total of all known manuscripts today, both of Greek and translations of Greek, is around 25,000. There are an estimated 400,000-500,000 Textual Variants-Differences between all of these manuscripts available to us. That seems astounding. Many of them though are small errors/differences such as spelling mistakes, though others are quite significant. TC is the practice of sifting through all of this and carefully deciding what is the closest to the actual wording of the original text. We have Greek New Testaments today because of the careful work of many scholars who have labored diligently to find out what the closest thing to the exact reading of the original autographs is. And so we today, as a result, have our English Bibles. God has preserved His Word for us over many years and through a diversity of means, but this does not mean that TC is no longer needed.
Since TC is sometimes looked down upon, there are several common misunderstandings-objections to this practice that should be mentioned and responded to.
1. We don’t have the original manuscripts, so all the research and Textual Criticism which is done is just speculation. We have no concrete way to really know what the autographs said, so why bother with TC? It's a hopeless pursuit.
If this were true, then we should all disregard our English Bibles in their entirety right now and stop reading and trusting them. For, we would not know what is true and what is false, what is right and what is erroneous, what is authentic and what is synthetic.
2. There are plenty of good men doing the work of Textual Criticism, so we don’t need to. I will let them do it while I sit back and enjoy the benefits of their study. The final outcome of our English translation is enough. Where there is doubt as to the English text, I will use programs and tools to see what the original says.
Though there are men who have published and are publishing literature on TC, we certainly as Christians should not be ignorant of this at all. The fact is that English translation is not enough in this sense. And, we cannot find out the things we need to know through computer software if we do not know the language of the NT itself.
3. We need to just trust that the English Bible is God's inerrant Word and stay away from textual criticism. If practiced, TC will cause people to doubt their English Bibles.
This argument does not have any foundation to stand upon, and as such, is just speculation. If it were not for TC, we would not even have English Bibles. Believing that the Bible is God's Word must have a basis and foundation by which base itself on. Part of that is faith, but fact must also play a role, there must be a trustworthy object to place the faith in. This is where TC comes in. We want our Bibles to be as close as possible to the original manuscripts. That is the goal of TC.
So to summarize and clarify:
- We are almost 2000 years removed from the original autographs of the NT.
- We do not have today any copies or fragments of the original autographs-manuscripts.
- Of the thousands of manuscript copies or fragments that we do have, they all differ in many places.
- NT Textual Criticism is not bad, but good, profitable, and needed if we are to figure out the original wording.
- NT Textual Criticism when done correctly, will be a faith builder for us in the character and inerrancy of the Scriptures, not a faith destroyer.
These are just more reasons to study and learn Greek. Staying on the other side of the fence, on the side of translation, will cause us to miss many precious jewels and treasures which we cannot ever know unless we embark on the lifelong journey of studying NTG. Thankfully, you don't have to stay there. You can learn NTG!
Dear Christian reader, you have so much reason to be grateful and thankful for the practice of NT Textual Criticism, because without it, you would have no English Bible of any character to read. God truly has preserved His Word for us, even until today! If this does not make you rejoice, what will? If this does not make you want to learn Greek, I don’t know what will.
From here I highly recommend the following two resources:
1. Concise lectures on NT Textual Criticism from Dan Wallace:
2. Dave Black's book New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide. See my friend John Mureiko's review of it here.