Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows how rewarding and satisfying it can be, but also how difficult at times — it has been said it takes a lifetime truly to learn a language. Consider the student—the young scholar or minister—struggling in the first efforts to learn Biblical Hebrew or Greek. But there is another “language” that serious students of Scripture should learn: the language of Textual Criticism. Like any scientific (or artistic) discipline, Biblical Criticism (and Textual Criticism, in particular) has developed a kind of language, a technical terminology that is vital to understand, but which can seem most confusing at first. It takes patience and devotion to study, in order to gain experience and facility with this language, but the rewards are great: for it can result in a much better appreciation and understanding of the text of Scripture.
To begin with the very word criticism: from the Greek (kri/si$, noun; kritiko/$, adj.; kri/nw, vb.; and other related words). Kri/nw (krínœ) has the basic meaning “select”, “decide”, “judge”; kri/si$ (krísis) is usually translated “judgment”. Indeed, this word group has a similar range of meaning as “judge/judgment” in English; it can be understood: 1) in a positive sense, i.e., to use or offer good/sound judgment; 2) in a legal or neutral sense, i.e., to pass/render judgment on an issue; 3) in a negative sense, i.e., to judge harshly/unfairly. The words “criticism/critical” can also be understood in a similar way. Often it is meant in a negative sense (to criticize someone), but it also can have an objective or positive meaning (to think or analyze critically). When referring to Biblical Criticism, it is in this latter sense: to offer informed, sound analysis regarding different aspects of Scripture.
Biblical Criticism can be divided into a number of specialized fields of study:
- Textual Criticism: Analysis of the text of Scripture.
- Historical Criticism: Analysis of the historical background of a book or passage, this may also include: a) an examination of the historicity of any events or details recorded; b) study of the historical development of the writing itself.
- Literary Criticism: Analysis of the book or passage within its literary context (i.e., as a written work). This term can be understood narrowly, or broadly, touching upon the following related fields:
- Form Criticism (Formgeschichte): Study of the form, function, and purpose of a passage, usually at the level of an individual section (pericope), including a determination as to the literary type (genre) and “life setting” (Sitz im Leben).
- Source Criticism (Urgeschichte): Examination of the (possible or likely) sources used by the Biblical author/editor; these may be earlier documents, or other traditional (oral or written) material.
- Redaction Criticism (Redaktionsgeschichte): Study and evaluation of the way the Scriptural text may have been put together, generally assuming the use of various (oral or written) sources, by the author/editor(s). This term is largely synonymous with “Composition Criticism” (Kompositionsgeschichte), which examines authorship more generally. See further below on “Redaction”.
- Rhetorical Criticism: Analysis of a passage (or book as a whole), according to the standards and practices of ancient rhetoric. This ofter refers more narrowly to Greco-Roman practices shared by New Testament authors, but can also be used broadly to cover a wide range of literary devices (esp. figures of speech, and the like).
- Canonical Criticism: Study of the passage (or book) within the context of the established, traditional Canon of Scripture. This looks specifically at: (a) a book in its final form, as it would have been transmitted through Church history, and (b) its role in the development of doctrine, liturgy, etc. within the wider Christian community.
- Other specialized terms could be cited, but these are the most familiar and widely used.
In the past, one might occasionally refer to texual criticism as “Lower” (i.e., simply examining the text), and other types of study (especially historical and source criticism) as “Higher” (i.e., questions of authorship, date, historicity, etc.). However, this distinction was never very helpful, and has long since been abandoned. The label “Higher Criticism” has survived—largely as a term of derision—only within Traditional-Conservative circles.
It should be pointed out that a gulf still exists between Critical and Traditional-Conservative scholarship. This is less of a polarity than it is a continuum—scholars today would ‘fit’ somewhere between the extremes. This also applies to Evangelical Protestant scholars, who typically adopt and apply most basic Critical methods (if not always accepting their premises). It is in the area of Textual Criticism that there is most common ground, largely free from thorny (and often contentious) questions of authorship, historicity, nature/extent of inspiration, and so forth. And yet, for Protestants, at least, who accept the maxim Sola Scriptura, can there be a more vital, fundamental area of study than the text of Scripture?
What follows below is a kind of “Outline Introduction” to Textual Criticism.
THE TEXT OF SCRIPTURE:
An Outline Introduction to Textual Study and Textual Criticism
- TEXT: Latin textus, from texere (“to weave”); the common word “text” can be defined as “the content of any written document”; or, perhaps better, “the written content of any document”, to distinguish text from accompanying visual illustrations, and so forth. A text is generally understood as a literary (written) product, but for ancient texts there is often an aspect of oral production and transmission as well (see below).
- Document: Latin documentum (“lesson, instruction, proof”) from docere. Any written record of information. The “text” is the verbal, literary content of any specific document.
- Text-form: The specific form or shape of any text, the (complete) content of any literary or written document. The term refers to any unique written product (e.g., an individual book such as the Gospel of John), or any smaller writing which makes up a larger work (i.e., a source used by the Gospel).
- Original Text: Sometimes referred to as the “autograph” (see below): the original authored (or redacted) text, either in the sense of a documentary draft or original published version.
- Final Text: This term sometimes means the same as “Original Text”, that is, the “final” authored or published form of a text, from which all copies and authorized versions would be made
- Established Text: May mean the same as “Original Text” or “Final Text”, with the sense of having been “established” as correct by later scribes or scholars.
- Authorized Text: An authoritative copy, sometimes referred to as a “Textual Archetype” or “Archetypal Text”; synonymous with the term “exemplar” (see below); careful scribes would normally make copies from an established authorized copy
- RECENSION: From Latin recensere, recensio (“review, enumerate, enumeration”); “recension” is the common term to describe a significant or major revision of a text, generally in the sense of a secondary modification of an established text or literary work.
- VERSION: From Latin vertere, versio (“to turn, turning”); “version” has a broad range of meaning; here it normally refers to a (secondary) description, adaptation, arrangement, or translation of a text. Generally speaking, a “recension” is closer to the original text than a secondary version; however, occasionally “version” is used to refer to a form of the original text. As indicated below (under “Textual Witness” and “Manuscript”), the term often has a specific technical sense of “Foreign Language Version” (translation).
Note on Oral Production & Transmission: From ancient and prehistoric times, down to the present (in some parts of the world), much documentary and narrative content has been modified and transmitted orally, at least to a large extent. The public production or performance of oral material is, in many respects, tantamount to publishing a text. Many ancient texts (such as the Old and New Testament Scriptures) would have had a significant oral component to their transmission and publication, and may also have incorporated oral traditions in the authoring. In ancient times, letters (epistles) and other texts would have been dictated or recited to a secretary or scribe. It is a mistake to think of ancient texts as entirely written products, the way they would be created through writing (or typing) today.
See also the section below on “Establishing the Text”.
- AUTHOR: Latin auctor, from auctere (“to increase”); here meaning the source or originator of a text. For ancient documents, it is often impossible to establish a single author; likewise, it is generally difficult to determine authorship, as many ancient texts are technically anonymous. Sometimes, scholars will use the term “author” in a broad or generic sense, as referring to any and all persons involved in creating the “original” (or “final”) form of a text.
- Traditional Sources: In some instances, the original written form of a text may indicate a long or substantial development, involving the inclusion of earlier oral and/or written sources (which may no longer survive). Many ancient religious and narrative texts, in particular, likely contain much traditional material.
- Transcription: Many ancient texts also were, or may have been, given their original written form by scribal transcription – that is, an oral recitation or production which is recorded by a private secretary or professional scribe. In such instances, the writing style and technique of the scribe can effect the form of the text, adapting an oral form to the conventions of writing.
- EDITOR/REDACTOR: An “editor”, is one who “edits” – from Latin edere (“to bring forth”); here the term indicates one who prepares a text for public use or presentation (that is, to publish a text). If an ancient author were not a scribe, it would likely be given to a professional scribe for publication, involving corrections and other possible modifications. A “redactor” (or “redaction”), from Latin redigere (“to bring back, reduce, compress”), usually refers to more significant or substantial editing of a text. Sometimes, if an author has shaped previously existing traditional or written sources to form a new original text, such an author is considered a redactor. Occasionally later scribes or editors, may (either intentionally or unintentionally) produce an entirely new recension or version of the text (see below).
- SCRIBE: A literate writing professional, specifically a copyist (see below), who may also be an “Editor”
- COPYIST: Scribes throughout history would also be engaged in copying ancient texts; ideally the copies would be made from established authorized texts (or “exemplars”). Throughout the process of hand-copying, numerous changes – many, if not most, unintentional – may be introduced into the text. These hand copies are called “manuscripts” (see below).
Establishing the Text:
A fundamental aspect of studying ancient texts is the recognition and analysis of the textual history of a document or written work, looking at all surviving textual evidence – that is, all forms and versions of the text which exist today (see below on “textual evidence”) – and attempting to establish a reliable form of the text for study. The “established text” (see above on “authorized text”) will ideally be as close as possible to the “Original Text”. Texts surviving from ancient times will have gone through centuries (perhaps millennia) of copying, editing, correcting, and other modifications – over such a long time, with all work done by hand, numerous changes and corruptions naturally occur (see below on “textual variants” and “textual corruption”). A principal goal of textual study and criticism is to (try to) recover the original form of the text.
- AUTOGRAPH: As indicated above, the “autograph” (from the Greek, “writing from one’s own [hand]”) is basically synonymous with the “original” form of the text; a hand written (or transcribed) copy of the authored text. This may be a draft, by a first documentary hand, or a secondary edition for publication. Very few autographs of ancient texts have survived.
- EXEMPLAR: Another term for an Authorized Text or Archetype (see above); a reliable and authoritative form of the text (identical with, or close to, the original), from which manuscript copies would be made. After centuries of copying, accurate exemplars would be harder to preserve.
- MANUSCRIPTS: Hand-written copies of a text. Manuscripts (sometimes abbreviated MS[S]) can be divided into two basic categories:
- Original Language Manuscripts: Copies of the text (or a recension) preserving the original language in which it was authored. For the New Testament scriptures, these are copies of the original Greek texts.
- Versions and Translations: These generally refer to copies of the text translated into other languages. For the Old and New Testament scriptures, there are many foreign language manuscripts (translations), which are important for establishing the original text. For some texts, special versions of the original text, in the same language, may also exist.
- EXTRACTS AND CITATIONS: Portions of a text may also be preserved in other sources, including other written texts. For example, ancient Christian authors quote or cite portions of the New Testament scriptures. In addition, extracts of ancient texts may be written or inscribed on stone, pottery, clay tablets, jewelry, amulets, paintings and works of art, and so forth.
- PRINTED EDITIONS: Printed editions of texts do not appear, at least in Europe and the Near East, until the mid-15th century (c. 1450 A.D.). Most printed editions are, in some sense “Critical Editions” (see below). Of course, many printed translations of major texts have also been made. Early printed editions (from the Renaissance, 15th-17th centuries) of ancient texts have helped to preserve and transmit texts from ancient and medieval manuscripts which might otherwise have been lost.
Analyzing the Text (with the intent of establishing the text) — Textual criticism proper:
Below are the fundamental terms related to the work of analyzing and establishing the (original) text, which is the primary goal of Textual Criticism.
- TEXTUAL WITNESS: A witness to a particular text(form). Any document which contains (any portion of) the text. For New Testament, the main categories of Textual witness are as follows:
- Greek Manuscripts — Manuscript copies of the New Testament writings. Which can be divided into:
- PAPYRI: The early papyrus copies (codex or scroll), found in Egypt, but representing substantially the text as it would have been known in various locations throughout the Roman world. There have been discovered more than 120 such manuscripts (indicated by the symbol Ë), most of which date between 200-600 A.D., though a few are (or may be) from the 2nd century. Among the earliest and most important of these are:
The Chesty Beatty Papyri: Ë45 (four Gospels and Acts), Ë 46 (Pauline epistles), and Ë 47 (Revelation)
The Bodmer Papyri: esp. Ë66 (John), and Ë75 (Luke-John)
- UNCIALS: Manuscripts (Codices) written in Uncial letters — large, rounded (“majuscule”) letters, something akin to writing with capital letters in English. This handwriting style dominated codex production 200-800 A.D. More than 300 Uncials have been found, including many of the earliest and best MSS:
a (Codex Sinaiticus, 4th cent.), A (Codex Alexandrinus, 5th cent.), B (Codex Vaticanus, 4th cent., the earliest complete NT), etc.
These MSS are numbered “01”, “02”, and so forth, with common letter designations up to “045”.
- MINUSCULES: Manuscripts written in a smaller, cursive-style script, which became the dominant style after 900 A.D. The majority of New Testament MSS (more than 2800) are minuscules.
- Versional Manuscripts — Manuscripts of early translations (i.e., foreign-language versions). For New Testament studies, the most important of these are the (Old) Latin, (Old) Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Georgian. Occasionally Arabic and Gothic versions are also cited.
- Patristic Citations— The text of the New Testament as it appears in the writings of the so-called Church “Fathers” (i.e., “patristic”), the prominent Christian leaders and writers (bishops, apologists, theologians, monastic figures) of the ancient and medieval periods. The early Church Fathers (c. 150-450 A.D.) especially are a valuable witness for the text; however, analyzing them can be a very tricky business. Older scholarship is rife with unreliable or inaccurate citations. New critical editions of writings of key Fathers, as well as solid studies on their use of Scripture, have helped greatly — but much work remains to be done.
- Lectionaries — These are the books with lessons (“lections”, i.e., Scripture passages) for liturgical use — that is, for public reading in the churches and monasteries. The lessons are arranged in order, according to the Church calendar. More than 2,000 lectionaries have been catalogued, nearly all from the Byzantine period proper (10th-15th cent. A.D.), but they may often preserve much older liturgical information. The synaxarion portion covers the “regular” holy days of the year, the menologion portion, the days specifically related to the lives of Mary, the Apostles, and other Saints.
- TEXT TYPE or TEXT FAMILY: Groupings of Manuscripts which are closely related. “Text Type” especially implies a broad grouping, extending back many centuries, and including a large number of MSS. “Text Family” is the more general term to discuss any significant grouping of related MSS. Typically four major Text Types have been defined:
1) Koine (or Byzantine): Representing the majority of MSS, dating primarily from the Medieval period (10th-15th centuries), from the region of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire. Some scholars today would refer to this properly as a “Recension”. In older parlance, it was sometimes called the “Syrian” text.
2) Egyptian (Alexandrian): An early and widespread Type, represented by a number of important Papyri and Uncials (such Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus). It is especially in connection with Vaticanus (B), that this text was called “Neutral” by Westcott and Hort (meaning an especially reliable, “pure” form of the text). With some misgivings, this opinion has been generally confirmed by scholars today.
3) “Western”: The label is something of a misnomer, and is almost never used without quote marks today. However, this does seem to represent an early and discernible form of the text, most notably in the important (and somewhat peculiar) Beza Codex (D), but also in a number of other MSS, including some of the Old Latin and Syriac versions.
4) “Caesarean”: Many scholars today are unwilling or reluctant to refer to this as a meaningful Type, as it seems to be represented by a relatively small number of MSS, and even then often of a mixed character.The entire terminology of “Text types” has been, to some extent, abandoned today, in favor of more localized “textual clusters” or “textual groups”. The discovery and detailed study of the Papyri has led to a shift in methodology—instead of starting with later manuscripts (with the assumption of established “types”) and working backward, there is an increased tendency to begin with the Papyri and important uncials, with clusters grouped around these key early MSS. These relationships also must be determined from book to book, rather than for the entire NT. For example, a primary early textual group (at least for the Gospel of Luke & John) would be Ë75-B-Ë66.
In recent decades, especially following the pioneering work of E. C. Colwell and E. W. Tune in the 1960s, there has also been an increase in quantitative methods (such as the Claremont Profile Method) for analyzing these Manuscript relationships. A basic thumbnail for textual affinity is about 70% agreement between MSS, with a gap of 10% between their neighbors (see Colwell, Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the NT [Leiden: Brill] 1969, p. 59).
Such relationships are determined by the differences (“variant readings”) which exist between manuscripts.
- TEXTUAL VARIANT(S): or, “Variant Reading(s)”. Any variation in how the text reads — that is to say, differences between the text, at any given point, between two (or more) textual witnesses. In the case of the New Testament, of course, this refers almost exclusively to differences between the Greek Manuscripts. This topic will be discussed in much more detail in the next part (follow-up article). However, at least one important term will be defined here:
- Variation Unit: This is a term coined by E. C. Colwell & E. W. Tune (see their 1964 article “Variant Readings: Classification and Use”, reprinted in Colwell, Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the NT [Leiden: Brill] 1969, p. 96-105). A variation-unit is any portion of text, delimited according to the natural (grammatical-syntactical) “elements of expression”, where the Greek MSS present at least two variant forms. These “elements” of expression would typically entail (connected) parts of speech, or a specific phrase. Larger units of variation, such as entire sentences or sections, in instances of major add/omit variants and interpolations, do not as readily apply.
NOTE on the term “Textual Corruption“: Believers may find the term “corruption” unsettling in relation to the Scriptures; for those unfamiliar with the terminology, some explanation is warranted. Certainly no sense of moral or doctrinal corruption is intended—it is entirely an objective, neutral term. Anytime changes (accidental or intentional) are introduced into the text during the process of copying: that constitutes textual “corruption”. This assumes that there was, in fact, a specific original text which was “pure”, and that all variants are evidence of scribal corruption. The primary goal of Textual Criticism is, and should be, to establish the original text; though there is much debate as to how far it is possible to achieve this goal.