Finding the right word-Principles of Textual Criticism

Debra Anderson
01 June, 2003 4 min read

Muslims have an advantage over Christians. Their scriptures – which they believe were given by their god to Mohammed – have been preserved during the last 1,400 years in such a way that there is little variation between manuscripts.

The true God, however, did not see fit to preserve his Word in that way, particularly in the New Testament. Instead, he has left us with more than 5,000 manuscripts, some of which are very similar and some which differ significantly.

From these, his people must determine which readings accurately reflect the inspired, inerrant autographs (original writings).

Sadly, modern textual criticism (as normally taught and employed) is not interested in reproducing the inerrant autographs. Instead, its driving principle is the search for the reading which would most likely have been the source for all variant readings.1

Indeed, some of the principles at the very heart of biblical textual criticism are fated – some would say designed – to produce an erroneous text rather than one in keeping with the intentions of the Divine Author.

What is best?

One of the primary axioms of biblical textual criticism is that the ‘hardest’ reading – the one which is erroneous, grammatically imprecise or which does not fit the context – is more likely to be the source of all others and thus best.

The contention is that a scribe or copyist would be more likely to correct an error he found in the manuscript he was copying rather than make an error. If a copyist in A.D. 500 found a misused word in 1 Peter, he would correct it. Thus, the erroneous reading would be expected to predate the non-erroneous reading, with the underlying presumption that the error is more likely to have been original.

However, Old Testament textual critic Emanuel Tov points out2 that although the rule is logical, it is impractical. Scribal or copyist errors – which by definition post-date the autographs – exist in all manuscripts, and the error itself often creates the hardest reading.

As is seen in modern copying, typing and typesetting, a copyist is just as likely to make an error as to correct one.

Thus, our copyist in A.D. 500 is as likely to have made an error in his copying as to have corrected one, particularly if he was not completely familiar with the language or text. Other factors may also affect a copyist’s performance, such as lighting, temperature, fatigue, and other externals.

Plenary inspiration

Tov also argues that another much-used principle – ‘shortest is best’ – in which the scribe is assumed to have added material rather than deleted it, is problematic for the same reason.

It cannot always be assumed that a scribe would add material into his text.3Indeed, as seen in modern copying, it is as likely that material will be omitted as added.

A copyist who believed in the authority of what he was copying (or of the abbot for whom he was working!) is likely to have been more careful.

Thus, as Tov comments, the twin rules of hardest-is-best and shortest-is-best ‘can be applied to only a small percentage of the readings’, despite these being the ‘main rules mentioned in handbooks on textual criticism and methodological discussions’.4

In seeking the autographs, these two principles often go against the concept of plenary inspiration. The hardest reading is often hard because it is erroneous. The shortest reading can involve the omission of words, leaving the passage more difficult to understand or grammatically unsound.

If God inspired the Scriptures in such a way that they were penned without error, the ‘hardest’ and ‘shortest’ readings would thus have to be considered non-authentic, non-original, non-autographic in many instances.

Under the tenet of ‘authorial intent’ – what God as the Author inspired his servants to write – the original would have to be the reading which is inerrant. Incorrect, difficult or erroneous readings must have been created over time by scribal error.

In genuine textual criticism, it is the inerrant reading which should be the goal.


Another principle of textual criticism which, thankfully, is not practised as frequently as it once was, is ‘conjectural emendation’.

Particularly in cases where all readings are problematic, some critics felt obliged to insert an emendation to produce what they believe to be a better reading – one they consider more in keeping with the intention of the author.5

This has been found by modern critics to be untenable in most instances, and theologically we should find it unacceptable in all cases. God would not rely on the guesswork of textual critics6to preserve his written Word.

Manuscript groups

A great deal of discussion has taken place over which groups or families of manuscripts are the best. Hort and Westcott, in their day, believed that Codex Vaticanus was so free from the corruptions which beset other manuscripts that it could be called the Neutral Text.

Some today, while claiming to seek an eclectic text7(i.e. one selected from various sources), favour the Alexandrian text-type to the essential exclusion of all others.

Other critics focus upon the Byzantine text-type and consider the Alexandrian to be corrupt.

While one may not approve of readings in this or that manuscript, the fact that all these manuscripts exist cannot be ignored. In his providence, God has preserved them all, from the day they were first copied to the present.

Certain limits may rightly be imposed. For example, a manuscript copied after the advent of printing is likely to be of little use in textual criticism. But it is unacceptable to reject an entire family of manuscripts, just because that family does not meet the criteria of a particular set of critical principles.

This is particularly so when we consider that some of those principles do not support the Divine origin of Scripture, and that the various text-families all witness to the spread of the gospel throughout the world.

Divine origin

God is the ultimate Author of Scripture. Since ‘without faith it is impossible to please him’ and ‘whatever is not of faith is sin’, what should be the first qualification for a biblical textual critic?

Surely, it is that he ‘believe that [God] is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him’ (Romans 14:23; Hebrews 11:6).

It is difficult to comprehend how someone who does not believe in the inspiration of the autographs of Scripture can be expected to produce – or even want to produce – a text which adequately conveys that inspiration.

The first, and most important, aspect of textual criticism must be the recognition of the Scripture’s Divine origin. Our principles of textual criticism, as with all knowledge, must begin here: ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’ (Proverbs 1; 7).


Scholarship is absolutely necessary in the textual criticism of the Scriptures, but it cannot be allowed to replace faith and truth.

While we can be thankful that the current tenets of textual criticism have produced a text which in most instances reflects the autographs, we should strive for more. We need principles that will produce a text which, as far as possible, reflects the inspiration and inerrancy of the autographs.

May it be our prayer that our great God will raise up his servants to undertake the task of truly biblical textual criticism!

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