POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Reconstructing the Word of God...What is Textual Criticism?

Today at the POCBlog, we have a guest essay by my friend and Jacob’s Wellian Scott C. Jones…this was written in conjuncture with his teaching of John 8:1-11 at Jacob’s Well on 10/25/2009.


Grab a Bible and consider what you’re holding: a bound volume - pretty cover and all - of a bunch of documents written long ago over the course of hundreds of years. It may come as a shock to realize that none of the handwritten originals of these documents exist today. Nothing that Paul - or any of the other Biblical writers - wrote exists in the form that came from their pens. In fact, most of those handwritten drafts probably vanished from the face of earth within 10-20 years of their composition. Yet we still believe that what you’re holding in your hand is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. We very much have what was written. How can that be? How can we say that we know exactly what the original authors wrote, if we don’t have their original manuscripts in hand?

Inerrancy Clarified

Well, first let’s briefly clarify what Christians mean when they call the Bible “inerrant.” The doctrine of inerrancy doesn’t hold that your NIV or ESV translation is the exact words that God inspired the original authors to write. For one thing, Moses and Paul didn’t speak English. The Old Testament was almost entirely written in Hebrew, and the New Testament in a common Greek dialect. As such, your English translation is at least one step removed from the exact original wording. However, there is also the above mentioned reality which is that we don’t have any of the exact original Hebrew or Greek manuscripts. Therefore, it is important to clarify that inerrancy holds that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”1 That may seem to question our reliance on Scripture as the Word of God, but before we despair, it’s important to consider that he have literally thousands of copies of the Biblical documents. And though almost all of these copies have small variations at certain points, our reliance on “second-hand” copies of the originals is no cause for alarm.

Textual Criticism to the Rescue?

If this all seems disconcerting, consider the meticulous science of textual criticism. Textual criticism is “the science that compares all known copies of a given document in an effort to trace the history of variations in the copying process so as to discover the original form of the text.”3 Did you get that? If not, picture this: you send a handwritten letter to a friend. Your friend receives the letter and wants other people to read what you’ve written. However, she wants to keep the original for herself. So, she decides to hand copy the original letter and sends copies out to 10 different friends. They’re so inspired by your words that they too decide to hand-write copies and send them to their 10 best friends. And so on and so on. Eventually there would be hundreds of copies of your original letter. As you might imagine, by the one-hundredth copy, there might be a slight difference in wording here and there. Some of the copyists might have corrected your grammar in certain places or changed the wording a bit to improve a phrase that wasn’t entirely clear to them. They also could have simply messed up in the copying process and left things out or switched words by mistake. Now imagine that your friend lost your original letter and wanted to reconstruct it as exactly as possible. What would she do?

Well, she would first try to get her hands on the original copies she herself had made. If she couldn’t find those first copies, she’d probably start compiling a bunch of other people’s hand-written copies. She’d then sit down and do a thorough examination of those copies. If she found differences in the copies she’d ask herself a series of questions to determine what the original actually said. Those questions might include: Does this sound more or less like the way my friend normally writes? Which is more likely to be an improvement on the original, rather than the original itself? Which copy came earlier in the copying process and is therefore less likely to have been varied along the way? Is the variation an understandable mistake in spelling (i.e.–God becoming good); if so, is one clearly correct given the context? Is there a difference in one later copy that doesn’t appear anywhere else in the earlier copies? Did someone clearly forget a line or phrase that seems to show up in a majority of the copies? Here is an example. You give it a try on the following:

  1. Today I went to worship at Jacob’s Well. It was awesome.
  2. Today I went to worship Jesus at Jacob’s Well. It was awe inspiring.
  3. Today I went to worship Jesus at Jacob’s Well. It was awesome.
  4. Today I worshipped Jesus at Jacob’s Wel. It was awesome.

You just did some good textual work and most likely came to a decision as to which was the original.4

Examining the Evidence

By asking this series of questions, your friend would be doing textual criticism. Luckily there are many faithful Christians (and non-Christians) who have given their lives to this very task with respect to the reconstruction of the original manuscripts of Scripture.  Still more exciting is the reality that they have an enormous amount of material with which to work. Compared to other ancient documents, the New Testament has an almost unfathomable number of early copies. For instance, the well-known historians Thucydides and Herodotus wrote around 500-400BC. There are, at most, 75 copies of their original work and many of those are one or two pages of multi-volume histories. The oldest manuscripts we have of their work date from the first century AD (400 years after they lived). In comparison, there are approximately 5,700 copies of the NT written in its original language (Greek), accompanied by 10,000 Latin copies and literally a million smaller quotations in the sermons and writings of the early church fathers.  The earliest of these copies date from the early second century A.D., just decades after the originals had been penned.5 If necessary, read those numbers again. It is truly amazing how thoroughly preserved the New Testament documents are, due to this abundance of handwritten, early copies.

Strong Confidence

Given this plethora of evidence there is an understandable amount of variance between the copies. In fact, in the NT alone there are approximately 400,000 variants among the manuscripts. However, it is absolutely critical to understand the nature of these variations.  Most are simple spelling or copying errors which are immediately spotted. Furthermore, they are almost universally without consequence to any basic Christian doctrine. As theologian Wayne Grudem explains:

“Even for many of the verss where there are textual variants … the correct decision is often quite clear, and there are really very few places where the textual variant is both difficult to evaluate and significant in determining the meaning. In the small percentage of cases where there is significant uncertainty about what the original text said, the general sense of the sentence is usually quite clear from the context.”6

Or as Daniel Wallace suggests:

“In the final analysis, no cardinal doctrine, no essential truth, is affected by any viable variant in the surviving NT manuscripts. For example, the deity of Christ, his resurrection, his virginal conception, justification by faith, and the Trinity are not put in jeopardy because of any textual variation. Confidence can therefore be placed in the providence of God in preserving the Scriptures.”7

The lack of the original hand written manuscripts should not cause us to throw away our reliance on Scripture as the only authoritative guide for life and doctrine. Quite the contrary—we have the New Testament as it was written. In the same way, the existence of differences between copies should not draw us away from the tough work of textual criticism. Rather, we should praise God that in his sovereign wisdom he has given us a wealth of manuscripts with which to determine what those original documents said.

John 7:53-8:11

This text is a great example of the contribution textual criticism makes to our confidence in the veracity and reliability of the Biblical documents. Most English Bibles will include the heading {THE EARLIEST MANUSCRIPTS DO NOT INCLUDE JOHN 7:53-8:11} before this passage. Well, before you freak out and claim that Jacob’s Well doesn’t preach Scripture, a brief word on this heading. Basically, none of our earliest full copies of the Gospel of John include this particular episode. However, the scene itself is widely talked about in very early Christian literature. While scholars disagree as to where the scene is best placed chronologically, they almost universally agree that given the many references to the story outside of Scripture, this definitely happened – and was widely known to have happened – some time in the course of Jesus’ ministry. The reason it’s been put here is that Jesus is hanging around the temple at this point in John’s Gospel (the other Gospels have much briefer accounts of this particular period in Jesus’ ministry) and it’s a pretty good bet that this would have happened around that time. Textual critics have felt it necessary to include this story somewhere in the Gospels as it is the only story of its kind (a story we know happened because of strong, widespread evidence, but one that wasn’t written down by the four Gospel writers). And so, most Bible editors agree that this is the best place to place it. However, they don’t want to mislead us and suggest that this was definitely written by the hand of John (in fact, much of the language is very un-Johnlike or non-Johannine, for you scholars). And so, they include this somewhat shocking heading just to provide honest, full disclosure. Textual critics take their work very seriously, as they are reconstructing the inspired word of God. The lengths they’ve gone to make sure we understand the source of this particular account underscores their diligence and respect for the Scriptures. As Wallace said above, God in his providence has preserved the Scriptures for his people; and the textual critics are one of the tools God has chosen to use in that process.

Joining you in treasuring God’s Word,

Scott C. Jones


  1. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 90.
  2. Daniel Wallace, “The Reliability of the New Testament Manuscripts,” ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2587.
  3. J.B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I.H. Marshall, “Textual Criticism” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1992), 827.
  4. Yes, it was #3.  Thanks to Reid Monaghan for adding this illustration.
  5. Wallace, “Reliability,” 2588.
  6. Grudem, “Systematic,” 96.
  7. Wallace, “Reliability,” 2589.