I’ve been asked a good bit lately by readers of the blog and random emailers how we can know, or if we can know, what the authors of the New Testament actually wrote — if we don’t have their original copies.  By far my best selling book (Misquoting Jesus) is about that, as is my best known scholarly book (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture).  It’s the issue I first got most interested in (as an 18 year old!) when it came to serious scholarship, and its the field of study I devoted nearly twenty years to it as a scholar.  So, well, I’m interested!

It’s been over seven years since I gave anything like a full explanation of the entire field of New Testament “textual criticism” (which does not mean what a lot of people think!), and I’ve decided it’s high time I go over it again.  This will take a number of posts!


The first thing to emphasize is that the term “textual criticism” is a technical term with a very specific meaning.  Lay people often misuse the term, not knowing that it refers to a particular and highly specialized field of study.  The term does *not* simply mean “the study of texts” or “literary analysis of texts” or anything similar.  Thus, if someone is engaged, for example, in the interpretation of a text, that is *not* “textual criticism.”

Instead, textual criticism is the discipline that seeks to reconstruct the text that an author wrote when we no longer have his or her original, but only later copies.  That is to say, it is the discipline that tries to establish what the original words were – or at least tries to decide which words to print if there are a variety of options.   (In fact, it tries to reconstruct the text of the author even if we *have* the original.   I’ll explain below.)

Suppose you have a play of Shakespeare, or a poem of Wordsworth, or a history of Cicero, or a treatise of Aristotle.   You don’t have 

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the actual document that the author himself produced by hand.   You have later copies of the document.   Possibly the copies come from the lifetime of the author (as with Wordsworth); possibly the copies come from not too long after his lifetime (as with Shakespeare); possibly you have copies that come from many centuries later (as with Cicero and Aristotle).   In any event, if you have more than one copy, in almost every instance (or, I suppose, literally every instance?), the copies will have differences among themselves, with one copy having one word/sentence at a certain place and another copy having a different word/sentence – in many of their words/sentences.

If you have that situation, how do you know which word/sentence the author actually wrote?  Someone – a scribe copying the document – made a mistake.   If you have lots of copies and lots of differences, then probably lots of scribes made lots of mistakes.   These may have been simply accidental errors (the scribe was sloppy, or inattentive, or distracted, or sleepy, or ignorant); others of them may have been made on purpose (the scribe thought something was wrong in the text and so changed it, or didn’t like what it said and changed it, or thought he had a better way of putting it and changed it, etc.).

So if you want to know what the author wrote – Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Cicero, or Aristotle —  and you have copies that have mistakes in them, you need to figure out which copies have the mistakes and which copies have the original.   And you almost never will have an easy situation in which one copy never has a mistake and the others all do have mistakes.  Instead, one copy will be right in one place but wrong in another, another copy will be right in a different place but not another, a third copy will be right in yet a different place but not another, and so on and so on.

Textual criticism is the discipline that deals with this problem of trying to figure out what are the changes of the text and what are the words of the original text.

As it turns out, you need textual criticism for every book that has come down to us.  Even if you only have one copy.  Even if the one copy you have is the original.  Suppose you have a short story written by the young Charlotte Bronte, and you have it in the very pieces of paper that she herself wrote (Last week I actually saw one of her short stories that she wrote in a microscopic hand as a young person, displayed at the Pierpont Morgan Library in NYC).   But there are lines crossed out and marginal notes and rewritings found here and there.   An editor has to choose which words to print and which to leave out.  In other words, he has to do textual criticism.

When it comes to ancient works – Cicero and Aristotle rather than Charlotte and Anne Bronte – the problems are exacerbated because there are usually many, many more years separating the surviving copies from the originals.   If an original was produced in, say, the fourth century BCE, but our surviving copies do not show up until the twelfth century CE, then obviously there is at least a 1500-year gap between the composition of the writing and its earliest surviving copies.   The earliest copy will almost certainly not have been produced by a scribe who was copying Aristotle’s original copy.  He will be copying a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of the original.   But all the intervening copies (all of which will almost certainly have both reproduced mistakes of their predecessors and introduced mistakes of their own) will have been lost.   As well as the original.  All we have is the copy made 1500 years later (and the other copies from about the same time or even later).

Textual criticism is the technical and highly specialized discipline that works to reconstruct the original text and to figure out how, when, where, and why it got changed.

Let me stress several major points about this discipline.

  • It needs to be applied to all literary texts that have come down to us from the past. This isn’t simply something done for one text or another.  It’s done for ALL texts.
  • That includes the books of the New Testament. We don’t have the originals or copies of the originals but only copies of copies of copies of the originals, as I will explain more fully in my next post or two.
  • Scholars who engage in this work are not as a rule insanely pessimistic about the possibilities of getting back to a pretty close approximation of the original text in most cases. That is to say – some people reading my books have not picked up on this enough – there are good reasons for thinking that most of the time we can get back to a fair approximation of what ancient authors wrote, even if there are places (sometimes many places) (and sometimes many very important places) where there are real grounds for doubt.
  • There are rigorous criteria that are used for engaging in this kind of analysis. It’s not guesswork.  It’s pretty hardcore.  That’s why very few literary specialists engage in this kind of work.   I’ll explain more about the standard criteria that are used in subsequent posts.