Textual criticism is the method of research used to help determine the most likely reading of the original text of the Bible. Though the original manuscripts of the Bible's books no longer exist or have yet to be found, thousands of early copies exist. Textual critics use a variety of methods in researching these numerous manuscripts to best determine what the original readings most likely were.
What is textual criticism?
For the Old Testament, the most common Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts include the Leningrad Codex (a complete Old Testament from the eleventh century), the Aleppo Codex (a mostly complete Old Testament from the tenth century), the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Old Testament (150 BC—AD 75), comparisons with the Septuagint (Old Testament translated into Greek), and other early translations, as well as numerous portions of Hebrew manuscripts from ancient times.
For the New Testament, there are nearly 6,000 Greek manuscripts in existence. In addition, tens of thousands of quotations and allusions are available in the early church fathers, plus comparison with ancient translations of the New Testament in Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and other languages.
There are several factors employed in textual criticism. The most important factors are: (1) which readings occur in the oldest manuscripts, (2) which readings occur in manuscripts found over which geographic areas, and (3) which readings occur in a significant majority of manuscripts. For the past two hundred years, most scholars have utilized an eclectic method that takes into account as many factors as possible to help better determine what was most likely the original reading of the biblical text.
Some notable issues in the field of New Testament textual criticism include John 5:4 (a debate regarding whether the verse is original), the account of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53—8:11, and the longer ending of Mark. Modern English translations generally include these passages due to their history of being included in English Bibles yet add footnotes regarding the manuscript evidence. In any event, these accounts do not change any core teaching of Christianity.
Textual criticism is a field that helps to better understand how the text of the Bible originally looked. While much effort has been made to help today's readers have confidence in the Bible they use today, textual critics continue to research and study existing manuscripts in an ever-growing field of information to further enhance our understanding of Scripture.
Does the original Bible exist today? What are some of the oldest manuscripts of the Bible currently in existence?
The Dead Sea Scrolls - What are they and why do they matter?
The Latin Vulgate Bible – What is it?
Redaction criticism and higher criticism – What are they?
Are the translations of the Bible inspired?
Truth about the Bible