Here’s a good question about why so many New Testament textual critics (those who study the manuscripts of the New Testament) are evangelical Christians.



Bart, is it fair to say that many textual critics chose their field of expertise out of a passion to find out just what did God really say? I’ve no axe to grind here, just wondering what you’ve observed working with so many in the discipline. It’s definitely something I considered ever since a street preacher pointed out my shiny new NIV had relegated Acts 8:37 to a footnote.



I need to begin by explaining what the questioner means by “textual critic,” so we are all on the same page.  Many people – including scholars in non-literary fields – think of “textual criticism” in very broad terms as the “detailed study of texts” – that is, the systematic attempt to interpret a literary text from a scholarly point of view, or to compare texts with one another to see their similarities or differences, or to point out their internal contradictions and inconsistencies, or to set them in their original historical context, etc. etc.  All of these endeavors are vitally important – not just for the New Testament, but also for Homer, Virgil, Beowulf, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and, well, every author; but no, none of them is “textual criticism.”

Textual criticism is the attempt to establish what an author originally wrote whenever there is some uncertainty about it.  For example, if Dante wrote the Inferno by hand, and we don’t actually have the hand-written copy he produced, and different surviving copies of the work have differences among them – which one is most like what he actually wrote?  That is especially a big issue, for example, for Shakespeare (massively important for Hamlet and other plays) and … well, and the New Testament.

Textual critics of the New Testament all know full well that we have thousands and thousands of manuscripts not just in Greek, the original language, but in other ancient languages such as Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, and others.  Moreover, these copies all have differences in them.  So how can we know what the author of Luke, or Hebrews, or Revelation originally wrote, if we don’t have the original copy or a faithful reproduction of the original or any obvious way of knowing the original apart from diligent and highly trained detective work?  Answer: we can’t know.  WE have to do trained work.  Textual critics are ones who have spent years getting the training.

Let me tell you, it ain’t easy.  Every academic field has difficulties.  But there are very few fields within the humanities as difficult as textual criticism, especially when it involves ancient texts.

The interesting thing about the discipline is precisely what this questioner is suggesting.  Evangelical Christians who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God down to its very words make up the majority of New Testament textual critics.  By a (very) large margin.  And so the question is why?  Why are most of the people who are engaged in this arcane, highly technical, and famously difficult field committed Bible-believing Christians?  Or another way of putting it, why do so many committed Bible-believing Christians who want to become biblical scholars choose, specifically, textual criticism?

I think I have a pretty good sense of the answer to this one, both because I (academically) know the history of the discipline and (personally) know most of the leading scholars — including the prominent evangelicals among them.  Even more, it is how I started out, as an evangelical who believed the Bible was the inspired word of God and wanted to become a textual critic.

So why do evangelicals so frequently go that route?  I would say that, as a rule, it is for one of three reasons.

First: theology.  It is precisely because of their theological convictions that many evangelicals want to devote their lives to knowing what the NT authors originally wrote.  If the original words of the Bible were inspired by God, then it is important to know what those words were.  Scribes occasionally (OK, often) changed the words.  But who cares what some anonymous scribe thought or wanted to say?  We want to know what GOD wanted to say!  And so we have to figure out which words come from scribal changes and which from God.  We can throw out the former and will revere the latter.  Any time a verse is worded in different ways, only one of those ways is original (assuming the original itself wasn’t lost along the way, so that *all* we have are various kinds of changes); we need to figure out which one it is.  For me, personally, this was THE MAIN REASON I wanted to become a textual critic.

Second: apologeticsThe term “apologetics comes, as you might suspect, from the word “apology,” which in this context decidedly does not mean saying you’re sorry.   Apology in its technical sense refers to a “reasoned defense” of a view  – say an ideological perspective, a philosophical position, or a religious claim.  Christian apologists make, or try to make, intellectual arguments for their religious views, trying to show, for example, what the actual evidence is that Jesus was really born of a virgin or raised from the dead, or that the human race was created not evolved, or that the Bible is the word of God without mistake.  In some periods of Christian intellectual history – including right now, as we speak – one reason often adduced for doubting that the Bible is the inspired word of God is that it doesn’t seem to be all that important, or even plausible, that God inspired the words of the Bible if we don’t’ know what the words are.  Evangelicals who go into textual criticism often do so in order to be able to show that we know the original words and that therefore there is no reason for doubt: we have the very Word of God.

Third: professional career.  Graduate students in New Testament studies, just like graduate students in any academic discipline, almost always do a PhD because they want to have high-level credentials and respect from colleagues in what they do.  There are very few disciplines in which a person’s theological views create real and serious difficulties.  If you are a Mormon, or Buddhist, or observant Jew – nothing about your personal religious views should have much bearing on your ability to do a PhD in physics, or anthropology, or French literature.  Your views do not prevent you from accepting the widely held premises of your discipline.

But there are other fields where religious views could in principal prove detrimental to a graduate student’s work.  Take fundamentalist Christians.  There is nothing stopping a fundamentalist from getting a PhD in applied mathematics, or medieval French art, or Latin.  But a committed fundamentalist who believe that the Bible was literally true and inerrant would have real difficulty doing work in, say, evolutionary biology (creation!) or, probably, geography (age of the earth!  The flood!).

The problem is especially intense, though, in the (much smaller) field of New Testament studies. There are certain assumptions, views, ideas, approaches, methods that simply do not work well with conservative evangelical understandings of the Bible.  If you think the Bible is without mistake of any kind, it is very difficult to engage in the kind of critical study of the New Testament that is promoted in research universities and non-Christian colleges (whether Princeton or Florida State or Appalachian State University, or Swarthmore, or Kenyon College or … or pick your secular school….) – work that admits that Paul may not have written Colossians, or that John may not be historically accurate, or that Luke has a different view of salvation from Mark, or that many of the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels are based on oral traditions that were altered over the years.   And that makes it difficult for evangelicals to get a PhD in many areas within New Testament studies.  But not all.

One of the famously attractive fields for an evangelical interested in the highest attainable degree in the field is textual criticism.  And that is because theological views, at least in theory, have almost nothing to do with the actual research, even at the PhD level.  The advanced student is learning how to deal in detail with ancient languages (not just Greek and Latin but possibly Syriac, Ethiopic, and/or Armenian); she learns how to “collate” manuscripts (determine a manuscript’s differences from others word for word, even letter for letter: I used to *love* doing that!); she learns how to evaluate reasons for thinking one reading is older and better than another, and how to argue for which one the author originally wrote.

In theory, theological beliefs have nothing to do with it.  And so the student’s beliefs don’t get challenged by their work.  And so there is less mental and emotional anxiety.  And so even though the training is technically more difficult than most other subfields of New Testament studies, it is personally easier.  And it achieves other aims, allowing the young scholar to get the highest level credential, and respect broadly in the wider field, and the qualifications needed to teach.

Such a student almost never would get a position teaching in a major research university, because these do not have positions in New Testament textual criticism, only broadly in biblical studies, or even yet more broadly in religious studies.  And if a prospective instructor does not accept the views, assumptions, and methods assumed and applied by everyone else in the field, that would create a problem.  But such students certainly can teach in Christian contexts.  And so many evangelicals go that route.

Some of the top research in the field of NT textual criticism is being done by evangelicals today, some of it astounding.  We all applaud that – at least I do.

A problem arises only when this kind of work gets turned on its head into some kind of “apology” for evangelical causes, as if showing what an author probably wrote originally has anything to do with whether what he wrote is true or not.  Textual criticism cannot say a single thing about the truth claims of an author’s text, about whether he was right or wrong.  It can only (try to) show what the author originally wrote.  People who claim that knowing what an author wrote somehow shows that what the author wrote is right (even if these people have have PhD’s in the field) are simply being duplicitous or stupid (or both).

And unfortunately, there are some of those out there, at least among the evangelical crowd, who sometimes say such crazy things as “we can trust the New Testament because we have more manuscripts than for any other ancient document.”  Good grief.   Our decision to trust an author is never based on the number of copies of his book.