What Evidence do Textual Critics Evaluate?

This entry is part 23 of 36 in the series What is Textual Criticism?

Last week I wrote about the rules that textual scholars Kurt and Barbara Aland used to decide which variant reading was most likely original1. Rule two states: Only the readings which best satisfies the requirements of both external and internal criteria can be original.2 Actually, most of the rules can be categorized as external or internal evidence.

External evidence

The external evidence comes from the group of manuscripts that critics use to evaluate a reading3. Readings that don’t have much support in the manuscripts aren’t likely to be original. External evidence includes:

  • The reading that has the best manuscript support. This criterion is contentious, as “best” is ambiguous. The most common ways mean the oldest manuscripts or the most manuscripts, and those two groups have little overlap.
  • Readings found in manuscripts written in wide geographic areas are more likely to be correct than a reading found only in manuscripts from the same area.
  • Readings found in different manuscript genealogies is more likely to be original than a reading found in a single genealogy. (A manuscript genealogy is an attempt to determine what source manuscripts a scribe used when creating a new copy, as in a parent-and-child relationship.)
  • The correct reading is probably found in the writings of the Church fathers and in early translations.

Internal evidence

Internal evidences comes from the context of a reading, and can include:

  • The reading must make sense in the context.
  • The more difficult reading is the more probable reading.
  • The shorter reading is the more probable reading.
  • Readings that have not been harmonized with the same teaching in other books is more likely to be correct.
  • The writing style should be consistent with the rest of the book and the author’s other works.4

The decision may be made either by a immediate and as it were an intuitive judgement, or by weighing cautiously various elements which go to make up what is called sense, such as conformity to grammar and congruity to the purport of the rest of the sentence and of the larger context; to which may rightly be added congruity to the usual style of the author and to his matter is other passages. The process may take the form either of simply comparing two or more rival readings under these heads and giving the preference to that which appears to have the advantage, or of rejecting the reading absolutely, for violation of one or more of the congruities, or of adopting a reading absolutely, for perfection of congruity.5


All of the external and internal criteria above are subjective. Simply following the textual criticism rules won’t give an objective result that all textual critics will agree with (looking at the number of English Bible versions available will attest to that). The rules are guides, but the textual scholars need to have in-depth knowledge about the Bible, the authors, the context the Bible was written in, the existing manuscript and any available information about the culture it was written in. The process of textual criticism is much more complicated than it seems to be from just reading the rules.



Series Navigation<< How are the Best Textual Readings Determined?Is Textual Criticism an Art or a Science? >>


  1. How are the Best Textual Readings Determined?
  2. 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.
  3. What are the Most Important New Testament Manuscripts?
  4. Some passages indicate a scribe was used, so the scribe’s writing style could have influenced the work.
  5. I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord. (Romans 16:22 ESV, authored by the Apostle Paul)
  6. By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it. (1 Peter 5:12 ESV, authored by the Apostle Peter)
  7. Westcott, Brooke Foss and Hort, Fenton John Anthony. The New Testament in the Original Greek: Introduction and Appendix (London: McMillan and Co., Ltd.: 1896) Page 20. (Archive.org)

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