What is the Purpose of Textual Criticism?

This entry is part 34 of 36 in the series What is Textual Criticism?

The purpose of Textual Criticism is actually quite simple: restore the text to the original form the author wrote (or as close to it as possible). Textual criticism isn’t just used in New Testament studies, but also Old Testament studies, and by scholars working on the text of other ancient writers, both religious and secular.

The process of textual criticism, however, can be extremely complicated. There are many manuscripts which have slight variations (beyond spelling changes and errors, which aren’t considered significant), and textual critics have to review the material to determine what text was most likely original. Textual critic James Snap, Jr, writes about some factors that may have been responsible for the changes in a text:

  1. LITURGICAL ADJUSTMENTS. Portions of the New Testament were divided into sections; each section was assigned an annual day or occasion on which it was to be read. These sections were often supplements by introductory phrases to provide some idea of their setting in the text, and by insertions which served to provoke the performance of a liturgical action when a particular passage was read. Liturgical adjustments also include the replacement of pronouns with nouns, and the addition or expansion of titles.
  2. LINGUSTIC ADJUSTMENTS. These consist of instances in which ancient koine Greek was conformed to Attic modes of expression, or in which terms, word-order, spelling, and syntax were conformed to later local standards.
  3. THEOLOGICAL ADJUSTMENTS. Copyists expected the text to promote orthodox theology; as a result they sometimes made explicit a theological statement which was otherwise merely implicit, or adjusted the text in order to prevent misunderstanding of potentially question-raising words or phrases. On rare occasions, copyists suspected that a copy in their possession had been corrupted by heretics, and this provoked them to create what they perceived to be a more orthodox statement. Also, heretics did in fact corrupt the text, and their copies were sometimes acquired by non-heretical copyists who were sometimes aware and sometimes unaware of the corruptions.
  4. ANTI-JUDAIC ADJUSTMENTS. Some copyists, interpreting the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the failure of the Second Jewish Revolt in AD. 132-134 as signs of divine displeasure, removed or adjusted statements in the text which appeared favorable to the Jewish people as a whole.
  5. SEPTUAGINT CONFORMATION. Loose quotations, combined quotations, and paraphrases of the Septuagint, the popular Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, were adjusted so as to conform more precisely or more fully to the Septuagint, or to the form of the Septuagint known to copyists.
  6. RETRO-TRANSLATION. The Greek text of the New Testament books was translated into other languages, such as Latin, Syriac, and Sahidic. On rare occasions, a bilingual copyist allowed his knowledge of, and familiarity with, the versional form of a passage to affect the fidelity of his transmission of the Greek text. This sometimes resulted in the creation of a Greek translation of material that originated in a non-Greek manuscript
  7. SACRED NAMES. Very early in the transmission-stream — apparently earlier than the sub-archetypes of all text-types copyists contracted several words of special significance, such as “God Lord “Jesus Christ and “Spirit: The list of contractions varied among locales, and among copyists. Variant-units involving these words should be approached with special caution.
  8. SCRIBAL FORMATS. Features such as the type of handwriting, the length of lines, paragraph-formation, the addition of accompanying commentaries or margin-notes, colophons, decorations, illustrations, and other embellishments introduced by copyists can help identify a manuscripts place in the text-stream.1

Since the New Testament is nearly 2,000 years old, it’s not surprising that many changes have been made to particular copies. Most of them accidental, some with good intentions, and a few deliberate attempts to conform the Bible to a particular belief (rather than the belief conforming to the Bible). The vast majority of the changes in the manuscripts can easily be identified by textual scholars.

The importance of textual criticism is threefold. First and foremost, it attempts to establish the most reliable reading of the text. Second, in cases where a definitive reading is impossible to determine, it can help to avoid dogmatism. Third, it can help the reader better understand the significance of marginal readings that appear in various Bible translations. Textual criticism is not a matter of making negative comments or observations about the biblical text; instead it is the process of searching through the various sources of the biblical texts to determine the most accurate or reliable reading of a particular passage.2

What matters most is not that any particular manuscript is an exact copy of the original Bible books, but that there are so many copies of the Bible (in Greek and other languages) that we can be certain the message the Bible writers wanted us to have is available.  Textual criticism allows scholars to examine manuscripts and create a text that this very similar to the original books of the Bible. No theology is based on a single passage in the Bible, so even if textual critics don’t get the text 100% correct,  we can be certain no theology has been lost.



Series Navigation<< Why are Some Verses in Square Brackets?Do We Have What The New Testament Authors Wrote? >>


  1. Snapp, James, Jr. New Testament Textual Criticism Goals and Guidelines (Curtisville Christian Church, December 2006) Accessed 07-Dec-2020.
  2. Wegner, Paul D. A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods and Results (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006Logos; Logos) Page 24-25. (Amazon) (Logos)

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