Is Textual Criticism an Art or a Science?

This entry is part 24 of 36 in the series What is Textual Criticism?

My article two weeks ago, How are the Best Textual Readings Determined?, was about the rules textual critics use to decide which reading was most likely original, but performing textual criticism is as much an art as a science.

The word “rules” implies a list of what should and should not be done, with an expected outcome that other people can duplicate. The rules can’t take into account every condition that might have occurred when copying a manuscript, such as sleepy scribe accidentally skipping a word or a line. I think they should be called guidelines, as they point in a direction, but don’t force the critic to a certain conclusion.

Textual criticism is not a branch of mathematics, nor indeed an exact science at all. It deals with a matter not rigid and constant, like lines and numbers, but fluid and variable; namely the frailties and aberrations of the human mind, and its subordinate servants, the human fingers. It is therefore not susceptible of hard-and-fast rules. It would be much easier if it were; and that is why people try to pretend that it is, or at least behave as if they thought so. …every problem which presents itself to the textual critic must be regarded as possibly unique.1

Art comes from a person who is expressing an idea. Copying a manuscript may not seem very artful, but ideas in a scribe’s mind may express themselves in the text. An inattentive scribe is more likely to make unintentional changes2 than one who is concentrating on the task. A thoughtful scribe is more likely to make intentional changes3than one who intended to make an exact copy.

Performing textual criticism is also an art, as the ideas the critic has are expressed in the selection of the variant believed to be original. These include biases the critic may have for certain manuscripts, text types4 or theology5.

Applying the rules of textual criticism to the external and internal evidence brings up more questions than they answer.6. Textual critics have to decide the value dozens or hundreds of manuscripts have to the field of textual criticism. When evaluating a textual variant, is the age of the manuscripts more important than the number of manuscripts that have a specific reading? Does the variant fit into the context well? Does it fit into the writing style of the rest of the passage, chapter and book? These questions (and many others) can’t be adequately answered by following a set of rules. Like playing an instrument, the fundamentals can be taught, but a good player will learn nuances that only come by experience.

It [textual criticism] is a science because specific rules govern the evaluation of various types of copyist errors and readings, but it is also an art because these rules cannot rigidly be applied in every situation. Intuition and common sense must guide the process of determining the most plausible reading. Informed judgments about a text depend on one’s familiarity with the types of copyist errors, manuscripts, versions and their authors. It is a complex process with few shortcuts, but one that can be learned through systematic effort.7

The goal of textual criticism is to find the original text written by the Biblical authors, but line between science and art in textual criticism is very blurry. Since the exact text isn’t known, scholars have to use the best evidence (science) they have available to make educated guesses (art). Modern Bibles may not have the exact words that were originally written down, but we can be confident the meaning in our Bibles are what the author’s intended us to have.


Series Navigation<< What Evidence do Textual Critics Evaluate?What are the Approaches to New Testament Textual Criticism? >>


  1. Housman, A.E. ‘The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism’, Proceedings of the Classical Association, August 1921, XVIII (London, 1922), Pages 68-69. Quoted in: Metzger, Bruce M. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, Third Enlarged Edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992) 219.
  2. What are Unintentional Textual Variants?
  3. What are Intentional Textual Variants?
  4. What are New Testament Text Types?, How do New Testament Text Types Compare?
  5. Are Textual Variants Motivated By Theology?
  6. What Evidence do Textual Critics Evaluate?
  7. 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 24. (Amazon) (Logos)

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