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The Encyclopedia of New Testament Textual Criticism

After a few centuries of that, it's easy to imagine that the text of the New Testament
would no longer bear any relationship to the original. Human beings just aren't equipped
to be exact copyists. And the more human beings involved in the process, the worse the
situation becomes.
Fortunately, the situation is not as grim as the above picture would suggest. Despite all
those incompetent scribes making all those incompetent copies, the text of the New
Testament is in relatively good shape. The fact that copies were being made constantly,
by intent scribes under the supervision of careful proofreaders, meant that the text
stayed fairly ?xed. It is estimated that seven-eighths of the New Testament text is
certain — all the major manuscripts agree, and scholars are satis?ed that their
agreement is correct. Most of the rest is tolerably certain — we probably know the
original reading, and even if we aren't sure, the variation does not signi?cantly affect the
sense of the passage. For a work so old, and existing in so many copies, this fact is at
once amazing and comforting.
Still, there are variations in the manuscripts of the New Testament, and some of them
are important. It is rare for such variants to affect a fundamental Christian doctrine, but
they certainly can affect the course of our theological arguments. And in any case, we
would like the most accurate text of the New Testament possible.
That is the purpose of textual criticism: Working with the materials available, to
reconstruct the original text of an ancient document with as much accuracy as possible.
It's not always an easy job, and scholars do sometimes disagree. But we will try to
outline some of the methods of New Testament textual criticism in this article, so that
you too can understand the differences between Bibles, and all those odd little footnotes
that read something like “Other ancient authorities read....”1
Types of Manuscripts
If the task of reconstructing the text of the New Testament may be compared to a
detective story, then our “witnesses” are the ancient manuscripts. Manuscripts fall into
three basic categories: Greek manuscripts, ancient translations (generally called
“versions”), and quotations in ancient authors.
1. The description above is my de?nition of textual criticism: Determining, as best we can, the original text
of the document. In recent years, with this post-modern tendency to think that methods matter more
than results, there has been a certain tendency to argue that the phases in the history of the
document are the point of textual criticism. I'll say ?at-out that, as far as I'm concerned, this is pure
bunk. Such historical criticism is useful and interesting — but it's not textual criticism, which should
always have its eyes ?xed ?rmly and solely on the original text. Only that and nothing more.
The Encyclopedia of New Testament Textual Criticism