What is New Testament Textual Criticism?

I’ve spent several months researching and writing about Textual Variants1 (and I spent six months before that researching New Testament manuscripts2) to bring me to this point: What is New Testament Textual Criticism? New Testament Textual Criticism (NTTC) is not about criticizing the New Testament, but uses the word criticism in the sense of careful study.

Criticism: the work or activity of making fair, careful judgements about the good and bad qualities of somebody/something, especially books, music, etc.3

The traditional goal of NTTC is to study ancient manuscripts with the intent of recreating the original text of the New Testament, as nearly as possible. The New Testament was written in Greek, but none of the original Greek manuscripts still exist. For nearly 1,000 years, the Catholic church exclusively used Latin, and much knowledge of the Greek manuscripts was lost.

Johannes Gutenberg’s introduction of the printing press to Europe about 1450-1455 dramatically changed history. The first book Gutenberg printed was the Latin Vulgate Bible4, but within 100 years the Protestant reformation started, and the Bible had been printed in Greek (Eurasmas and Compulsation polyglot editions), English (Tyndale, Coverdale, Taverner’s Bible) and German (Martin Luther) (and possibly other languages I’m not aware of). The printing press allowed hundreds, or even thousands, of Bibles to be printed at a time, rather than a scribe laboriously handwriting each one.

Over the past five hundred years there have been numerous attempts to reconstruct the original Greek New Testament readings. Although New Testament scholars have studied Greek manuscripts for centuries, in 1881 Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Antony Hort published The New Testament in the Original Greek, groundbreaking work they labored over for 28 years. There have been several attempts at creating critical editions of the New Testament in the nearly 140 years since Westcott and Hort published their Greek New Testament. These include:

Why is there a need for multiple versions of the Greek New Testament? If the New Testament was originally written in Greek, don’t we have the original text? Unfortunately, none of the existing Greek New Testament manuscripts has an exact copy of the original text. Manuscripts often contain errors, so the purpose of textual criticism is to find and correct the errors.

Most of the text in the New Testament isn’t disputed. Even though most manuscripts (of any significant length) will contain errors, most of the errors are easy to recognize and correct. In the article How Are Textual Variants and Variation Units Related?, I showed there are 15 possible, legitimate endings for Colossians 2:2 found in the existing Greek New Testament manuscripts, but textual scholars are almost certain they know which one was likely the original.

The first responsibility of any interpreter of the Bible is to determine precisely what the author wrote. The primary goal of textual criticism is to establish the original wording of a text insofar as that is possible. Since none of the original manuscripts, or autographs, has survived antiquity, text-critical scholars evaluate a myriad of ancient manuscripts that often are remarkably different from each other, in order to determine the earliest or most original reading possible.5

Scholars start with the assumption that the original readings exist among the thousands of manuscripts. The task of textual criticism is to search the manuscripts and find the original readings for every part of the New Testament and combine them into a single text, called a Critical Edition. New Testament Textual Scholars study the existing Greek manuscripts to identify any variants in them, then collate the variants for a variation unit to determine which reading is most likely original.

The job of the textual critic is very similar to that of a detective searching for clues as to the original reading of the text. It is reminiscent of the master detective Sherlock Holmes who could determine a number of characteristics of the suspect from the slightest of clues left at the crime scene. In our case the “crime scene” is the biblical text, and often we have far fewer clues to work from than we would like. Yet the job of the textual critic is extremely important, for we are trying to determine the exact reading of a text in order to know what God has said and expects from us.6

Christians don’t need to be concerned that different manuscripts may not have the exact same wording. In most cases, the variant readings for a passage have the same meaning, they’re just worded slightly differently. There are only a few places where there’s debate about whether the passage should even be in the Bible, but in no case does any theology depend on selecting a certain reading.


  • McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017)  Chapter 4: Have the Testament Manuscripts Been Transmitted Reliably, Section V: Comparing Textual Traditions, Methods for Determining the Best Reading  (Amazon)
  1. What are Textual Variants?
  2. What are New Testament Manuscripts?
  3. Oxford Learners Dictionary, 2nd definition. Accessed 11-Aug-2020.
  4. What is the Gutenberg Bible?
  5. McDonald, Lee Martin. The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007) 356. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh and Sean McDowell. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 113. (Amazon)
  6. Wegner, Paul D. A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods and Results (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006) Page 23. (Amazon) (Logos)

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