How are the Best Textual Readings Determined?

This entry is part 22 of 36 in the series What is Textual Criticism?

Last week I wrote about New Testament Textual Criticism1, the practice of studying ancient Greek manuscripts and the textual variants2 in them, then trying to determine which variant is most likely to be the original text. A starting assumption is that the original text has been preserved somewhere in the existing Greek manuscripts, and early  translations or quotes by the church fathers will be able to confirm those readings. New Testament scholars have been working on the problem for centuries, and have developed rules to guide the process.


The  oldest sets of rules I was able to find (in English) were by Johann Albrecht Bengel (1725), Johann Jakob Griesbach (1796) and Fenton John Anthony Hort (1881), available on the web site (Bengel, Griesbach, Hort). A study of Greek manuscripts clearly shows there is a high degree of consistency in the text of the New Testament, and that most textual variants are simply scribal mistakes. All New Testament textual critics would agree with with Bengel’s first rule, written nearly 300 years ago:

By far the more numerous portions of the Sacred Text (thanks be to God) labour under no variety of reading deserving notice.3

There have been some contradictions in the rules, though, over the centuries. Bengel’s 12th rule states “…more witnesses are to be preferred to fewer….”, while Bruce Metzger, one of the leading New Testament Textual Critics in the 20th century, is attributed as saying “…manuscripts should be weighed [evaluated based on evidence], not counted.” Bengal had relatively few manuscripts available to him, and each one was probably considered important. Over 200 years later, Metzger was aware of over 5,000 manuscripts and was able to determine which ones were the most reliable.

Textual Criticism Rules

The husband-and-wife team Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland are two of the most respected New Testament Textual Critics in the past 50 years. Below are the rules the Alands use4, although I’ve removed some of the comments they added to the rules.

  1. Only one reading can be original, however many variant readings there may be.
  2. Only the readings which best satisfies the requirements of both external and internal criteria can be original.
  3. Criticism of the text must always begin from the evidence of the manuscript tradition and only afterward turn to a consideration of internal criteria.
  4. Internal criteria (the context of the passage, its style and vocabulary, the theological environment of the author, etc.) can never be the sole basis for a critical decision, especially when they stand in opposition to the external evidence.
  5. The primary authority for a critical textual decision lies with the Greek manuscript tradition, with the version and Fathers serving no more than a supplementary and corroborative function, particularly in passages where their underlying Greek text cannot be reconstructed with absolute certainty.
  6. Furthermore, manuscripts should be weighed, not counted, and the peculiar traits of each manuscript should be duly considered.
  7. The principle that the original reading may be found in any single manuscript or version when it stands alone or nearly alone is only a theoretical possibility.
  8. The reconstruction of a stemma [a “family tree”] of readings for each variant (the genealogical principle) is an extremely important device, because the reading which can most easily explain the derivation of the other forms is itself most likely the original.
  9. Variants must never be treated in isolation, but always considered in the context of the tradition.
  10. There is truth in the maxim: lectio difficilior lectio potior (“the more difficult reading is the more probable reading”).
  11. The venerable maxim lectio brevior lectio potior (“the shorter reading is the more probable reading”) is certainly right in many instances.
  12. A constantly maintained familiarity with New Testament manuscripts themselves is the best training for textual criticism.


The reason textual critics don’t agree on all the rules is because there is so much that simply isn’t known about the original text of the New Testament. I want to comment on some of the rules, but some of these bring up more questions than answers.

(1) Only one reading can be original: Some scholars argue there may have been more than one copy of some of the books, in which case there could be more than one original reading. For example, Revelation was addressed to seven different churches. Was there one copy passed among the seven churches, or did John write seven copies? Were all seven copies exactly the same? If not, is only the first considered the original, or could each of the seven be an original?

(6) Manuscripts should be weighed, not counted; and (3) Criticism of the text must always begin from the evidence of the manuscript tradition and only afterward turn to a consideration of internal criteria: Every verse in the New Testament is found in dozens, if not hundreds, of manuscripts. Although the maxim “weighed not counted” is important, a reading which doesn’t have good support in the existing manuscripts5isn’t likely to be original, and critics probably won’t spend much time considering it.

(10) The more difficult reading is the more probable reading; and (11) the shorter reading is the more probable reading:  These two rules are related, because the difficult readings are often the shorter readings. Difficult can refer to the theological teaching of a passage, or it can refer to grammer. Textual critics using these rules state that scribes were more likely to expand the text to explain difficult concepts or make grammatical corrections than to shorten it. Opponents to these rules believe God would not have inspired difficult readings, therefore, the longer readings are more likely to be original. Both points are reasonable, but they conflict.


None of these rules guarantees textual critics will always be able to find the original text of the New Testament. As I wrote about in What are Variant Units?, United Bible Societies (UBS) uses a rating system from “A” to “D” to show how confident the scholars are the the selected reading is correct. The rules are not rigidly followed, but are meant to be guides for evaluating textual variants. Since people use different sets of rules to evaluate textual variants, different results can occur. What matters most is that the textual variants don’t change any theology taught in the Bible.


Series Navigation<< What is New Testament Textual Criticism?What Evidence do Textual Critics Evaluate? >>


  1. What is New Testament Textual Criticism?
  2. What are Textual Variants?
  3. Bengel, Johann Albrecht. Gnomon of the New Testament, translated by Fausset, Andrew R. (Philadelphia: Smith, English and Co., 1860) Page 13. (Google)
  4. Aland, Kurt, and Aland, Barbara. The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism Translated by Erroll F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: 1987) Page 275-276.
  5. What is a Singular Reading?

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