Textual Criticism & Inerrancy

Textual Criticism & Inerrancy

Harold W. Hoehner

Dr. Harold W. Hoehner is Professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. This article is reprinted from materials published by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy of which Dr. Hoehner is a member.

—Reprinted by Permission

Article X of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states: “WE AFFIRM that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original. WE DENY that an essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of biblical inerrancy invalid or irrevelant.”

The problem. As mentioned in the above statements, we do not have the autographs (originals) of the authors of the Bible, only copies of the original. Furthermore, there are times when we have a mixture of various readings on the same paragraph. To a great extent this mixture of texts is due to the fact that the scribe copied the Scriptures by hand. Most of these variances were due to the unintentional error of the scribe whereby he may have skipped a line left out a word, misspelled a word, repeated a word, put in another word because he could not read the manuscript from which he was copying, or similar errors that come about when copying literature. There were a few scribes who intentionally changed the text as they copied. Their reasons were varied. Some made an effort to improve grammar, others emphasized a particular bent in theology, and still others attempted to harmonize the text with a parallel passage. Hence, for various reasons before the printing presses in 1450 there was incomplete conformity in the copies of the Scripture.

The purpose. Textual criticism is of great importance to those who hold to the inerrancy of the Bible because we want to get back to what the original writer wrote — no more, no less. Greenlee succinctly defines the science and art of textual criticism by saying: “Textual criticism is the study of copies of any written work of which the autograph (the original) is unknown, with the purpose of ascertaining the original text.” (J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism, Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964, p. 11). Thus textual criticism is practiced not only in biblical literature but in any literature, when the original is unknown. Therefore, we who hold to inerrancy must not shun textual criticism, but take careful note of it in order to determine what was originally written.

Many fear textual criticism thinking that it is an attempt to eliminate portions of the Bible. It is thought that the textual critics are trying to get rid of certain portions thus beginning with 100% and ending with 90% of the Bible. On the contrary, a more accurate picture is that we have 110% of the Bible (all the manuscripts available) and we want to get back to the 100% (the absolute original text).

A couple of illustrations will suffice. In Ephesians 5:2 some manuscripts read: “Walk in love just as also Christ loved us.” In this particular case we have twice as many readings (“us” and “you”) or 200% of what was there originally. In this case probably the better reading is the first one and if that is accepted you have 100% reading in this instance. Notice, if the other reading were preferred it would not affect any doctrine. To be sure this is a rather simple example, but it serves to illustrate the point. However, many textual problems are identical or very similar to this one.

Another example would be an insertion between Luke 6:4 and 5 which reads: “On the same day he saw a man working on the Sabbath. He said to him, ‘Man, if on the one hand you know what you are doing, you are blessed; but if on the other hand you do not know, you are cursed and a transgressor of the law.’” Is this the Word of God? One can be certain that it is not because this reading is found only in a sixth century manuscript and not found in other manuscripts. Hence, by not accepting this reading, we are back to the 100%. We have eliminated a fabrication of a scribe rather than eliminating any portion of the Word of God.

Therefore, because of the absence of the original text, textual criticism in biblical studies is the study of the various copies of the text in order to ascertain the original words of the Bible. It is a most important tool for the inerrant position.

The promise. Although some difficult decisions must be made in attempting to discover the original reading, we must realize that the Bible has been accurately preserved in several ways unparalleled in any other literature of the ancient world. First, the quality of the manuscripts, with few exceptions, is far greater than that of any other kind of literature. Although there are variations that come in copying manuscripts, the biblical manuscripts have been copied with the greatest of care. This was remarkably substantiated with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. Before this discovery the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament could not be dated before A.D. 900. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls made available Old Testament texts that date back to 100 B.C. and they are remarkably close to the text of A.D. 900 — only pointing to the persistent accuracy of scribal copying.

Second, the Bible has many more manuscripts copied over the span of time than any other ancient literature. In the New Testament alone there are well over 5000 Greek manuscripts. Furthermore, we have many manuscripts that are very early. One fragment of John 18:31-33, 37-38 is dated as early as A.D. 125-150, only thirty to seventy years after John wrote the Gospel (depending on when one dates the Gospel). This is unparalleled in other ancient literature. In this secular literature it is not uncommon to have only a few manuscripts (many times under ten) which date well over 1000 years between the original and extant copies. How do we know whether or not there were changes made during this time? Yet many times historians build much of our ancient history on so few manuscripts!

We conclude then, the Bible has so many and such qualitative manuscripts, we can be assured of getting back to the original words of the Bible.

The procedure. While we cannot go into the intricacies of the science and art of textual criticism in just a couple paragraphs, several principles may be stated. A textual critic first takes into account the age of the manuscript, the idea being that the older manuscript is probably copied from one that is nearer to the time of the original. The character of the manuscript is also observed, believing that a carefully copied manuscript is not apt to have as many errors as a carelessly copied one. Third, the number of manuscripts is noted, for it is safe to think, as in the case of the illustration of the insertion between Luke 6:4 and 5 above (where the words are in only one manuscript and not in over 5000 others), that it is not part of the original. These are only a few of many factors that are considered in ascertaining the original reading.

The procedure of textual criticism is well illustrated in a story given by Young. He states:

Suppose that a schoolteacher writes a letter to the President of the United States. To her great joy she receives a personal reply. It is a treasure which she must share with her pupils and so she dictates the letter to them. They are in the early days of their schooling, and spelling is not yet one of their strong points. In his copy of the letter Johnny has misspelled a few words. Mary has forgotten to cross her t’s and to dot her i’s. Bill has written one or two words twice and Peter omitted a word now and then. Nevertheless, despite all these flaws about thirty copies of the President’s letter have been made. Unfortunately, the teacher misplaces the original and cannot find it. To her great sorrow it is gone. She does not have the copy which came directly from the President’s pen; she must be content with those that the children have made.

Will anyone deny that she has the words of the President? Does she not have his message, in just those words in which he wrote to her? True enough, there are some minor mistakes in the letters, but the teacher may engage in the science of textaul criticism and correct them. She may correct the misspelled words, she may write in those words which have been omitted and cross out those which are superflous. Without any serious difficulty she may indeed restore the original. (Edward J. Young, Thy Word is Truth, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957, p. 57).

Conclusion. Do we believe Alexander the Great conquered the world? Do we believe that Octavius defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 B.C.? If we do, we must remember that these events are based on the evidence from a very few manuscripts in comparison to the Bible. We have so many more copies of the text. Furthermore, in working on the problems of the texts, we discover very few places in the entire Word of God pose any serious question of what have been the words of the original writers, and in no case is there any essential element of the Christian faith that has been affected. So we who hold to inerrancy should welcome the study of textual criticism, because of our desire to restore 100% of what was written as the Word of God.