Is New Testament Textual Criticism Important?


Before I started writing this blog just over two years ago, I didn’t know what textual criticism was. I knew there were many English Versions of the Bible, but I assumed most of the differences were just choices in the specific English words the translators used to reflect the original Hebrew or Greek word.  That was clearly a naïve view. New Testament Textual Criticism (NTTC) tries to determine if the Greek New Testaments we have today are accurate copies of the original writings of the New Testament authors. The question Is New Testament Textual Criticism Important? can be answered from the perspectives of different groups of people.

  • New Testament Textual Scholars who try to determine the original wording written by the Biblical authors.
  • Pastors should know enough about NTTC to be able to explain why there are different readings in Bible Versions, and why the selected readings have been chosen.
  • All Christians should know enough about NTTC to understand why many Bibles provide alternate readings in the footnotes, but also be confident the Bible they’re reading conveys the information God intended us to have.

What are readers who are not Bible scholars to do about this?… Many no doubt will prefer to trust a particular Bible translation and trust their pastors to provide them additional guidance for textual problems. Whether they fully realize it or not, what they are saying is, “We’re counting on you, Mr./Ms. Translator, or you, Pastor, to make the decision for us as to what the Bible actually says.” But I can tell you that the translators and pastors who are worthy of your trust will reply that they are committed to doing their best, and that is the best they can do. We who do this work all have varying levels of confidence over the textual decisions that we make, and some decisions are very difficult.1

It’s not possible to be completely certain modern Bibles are 100% accurate in every detail, but we can have confidence there are no major errors in our Bibles. Even atheist New Testament textual scholar Bart Ehrman has admitted none of the essential points of Christian theology have changed due to textual variations.23 Consider these points:

  • When Jesus sent out the disciples in Luke 10:14 and the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-205, the disciples probably did not have a prepared speech they recited. Undoubtedly, they spoke of their own experiences.
  • The Gospel was taught orally for years before the books of the New Testament were written, and oral teaching didn’t stop when the books became available.
  • The earliest Christians, the ones who saw and heard Jesus (both before and after the resurrections), each had an individual story to tell. They weren’t limited to a specific text that was memorized.
  • For most of the past 2,000 years, Bibles weren’t readily available, so most people had to rely on priests and pastors for teaching.
  • Even with the Internet, many people still hear the Gospel (using videos and podcasts) rather than read the Gospel.
  • Most people don’t know Biblical Hebrew or Biblical Greek, so they have to rely on translations.

Trying to reconstruct the exact wording of the original books of the New Testament is a worthy goal, but it’s not essential to salvation. God knew the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be proclaimed in every tribe and language and people and nation (Revelation 5:9-10 ESV)6, and each of those would present the message in a different way, a way that would be appropriate and understandable for the culture. God gave great latitude to the authors, scribes and translators to reliably spread the good news. Translations inevitably make compromises to the text, as no two languages have the same grammar rules and word definitions. If Christians are willing to accept variations in translations7, it’s also reasonable there are variations in the Greek New Testament manuscripts.

Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission. The verdict of this science, however, is that the Hebrew and Greek text appear to be amazingly well preserved, so that we are amply justified in affirming, with the Westminster Confession, a singular providence of God in this matter and in declaring that the authority of Scripture is in no way jeopardized by the fact that the copies we possess are not entirely error-free.8

Similarly, no translation is or can be perfect, and all translations are an additional step away from the autographa [original documents]. Yet the verdict of linguistic science is that English-speaking Christians, at least, are exceedingly well served in these days with a host of excellent translations and have no cause for hesitating to conclude that the true Word of God is within their reach. Indeed, in view of the frequent repetition in Scripture of the main matters with which it deals and also of the Holy Spirit’s constant witness to and through the Word, no serious translation of Holy Scripture will so destroy its meaning as to render it unable to make its reader “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).9

Resources

Footnotes

  1. Wilkins, Don. NEW TESTAMENT TEXTUAL STUDIES: Why Should You Care? (Christian Publishing House, 2004) Accessed 22-Dec-2020.
  2. In fact, most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the results of mistakes, pure and simple – slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled word, blunders of one sort or another. Scribes could be incompetent: it is important to recall that most of the copyists in the early centuries were not trained to do this kind of work but were simply the literate members of their congregations who were (more or less) able and willing…. Sometimes scribes grew inattentive; sometimes they were hungry or sleepy; sometimes they just couldn’t be bothered to give it their best effort. (Erhman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005) Pg. 55.)
  3. …the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.(Erhman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperOne, 2007; Paperback) 252. Quoted in Wallace, Dan. Fragments of Truth. Rhys-Davies, John (Narrator) and Evans, Craig (Presenter). (Faithlife Films, 2018) (IMDB.com) (Amazon.com))
  4. After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. (Luke 10:1 ESV)
  5. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)
  6. And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”  (Revelation 5:9-10 ESV)
  7. I have a book that categorizes more than 1,400 English versions of the Bible. Taliaferro, Bradford B. Encyclopedia of English Language Bible Versions (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2013)
  8. Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (Chicago, IL: International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, 1978) Exposition: Transmission and Translation (Bible Researcher) (CARM) (Defending Inerrancy) (SWBTS)
  9. Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (Chicago, IL: International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, 1978) Exposition: Transmission and Translation (Bible Researcher) (CARM) (Defending Inerrancy) (SWBTS)

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