The Work of Textual Criticism

If you have engaged with Christian apologetics, you probably understand that a common objection to the Bible is that it has been changed or corrupted over time.

My response is to point out the number of manuscripts we have of the Bible, the early date of many of the manuscripts, and to give a brief explanation of how this helps us to reconstruct the original text of the Bible through a process referred to as “Textual Criticism.”

As an apologist, it helps to have this information ready for anyone skeptical of our modern text in the Bible. But very few of us have actually done the work of textual criticism, and so there remains a shade of doubt and mystery of this esoteric work and how this all comes together. You know that we have a good handle on the text of the Bible generally speaking, but what about any given verse? For instance, you may be reading the ESV when you stumble across a direct claim to the deity of Jesus, referred to as “God” in John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”

This is an important verse in our search for the true identity of Jesus. Yet you pick up the KJV and the reference to Jesus as God is lost: “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” Translations often differ based on stylistic preferences, but you may suspect we are looking at a textual variant by which the ESV and KJV have chosen different readings. You would be correct!

Now what?

I had the opportunity to study textual criticism in seminary and to actually do the work of a textual critic on this verse, and I would like to walk you though the process. My goal is that by the end, you will have a closer sense of how this process works, even if you don’t have the tools and education in the original Greek language to do the process yourself.

I use the fifth revised edition of Greek New Testament (UBS5) with a critical apparatus.1Please note: I do not suggest you purchase this text for yourself unless you have a decent handle on Biblical Greek. If you turn to John 1:18, you will see the Greek text which they have chosen to use. They select “the only God” which agrees with the ESV translation, but it comes with a footnote pointing us toward the apparatus at the bottom of the page. In the apparatus, you are supplied a list different readings for this phrase and a rating for how confident they are in the one they chose. The differences are:

  1. monogenēs theos which translates into “the only God.” This is the chosen reading, and their rating is B, which means the text is “almost certain.”
  2. ho monogenēs theos which translates into “the only God”2Readings 1 and 2 translate into English the same way. This was not a mistake. Some readings are so subtle that by the time you translate them into English, the difference is completely lost. Reading 2 is the same as reading 1 except that it includes the article ho which is already implied in reading 1.
  3. ho monogenēs huios which translates into “the only son”
  4. monogenēs huois theou which translates into “the only son of God”
  5. ho monogenēs which translates into “the one and only”3Barbara and Kurt Aland, Karavidopoulos, Martini and Metzger, The Greek New Testament, Fifth Edition (UBS5) with Critical Apparatus. pp 307. For ratings, see p. 8*.

Many of us would be content knowing that monogenēs theos is the chosen reading and it is “almost certain” by the scholars who put the apparatus together. However, the apparatus also supplies a list of significant manuscripts for each of the readings, for those who want to come to a decision on their own. Variant 1 is supported by several very important manuscripts: the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus which date to the fourth century, and Papyrus 66 from around 200 AD. Many of the manuscripts for this reading are also from the Alexandrian text-type tradition, which is a tradition that took great care when copying manuscripts. According to Ramsey Michaels, “This is the reading of the best and most ancient manuscripts.”4Michaels, The New International Commentary of the New Testament. p. 92.

Variant 2 has similar manuscript support as variant 1, which is no surprise since they are so closely related. Papyrus 75 supports this reading, and that manuscript dates to the early third century. What it lacks is support from the Vaticanus and the earliest form of the Sinaiticus.

The strength of variant 3 used in the KJV is the wide spread of text type support, and a lot of support from quotations of church fathers who lived very early. The problem with this reading, however, is that most of the manuscript support is quite late, and it is missing many of the more significant manuscripts. It could be that the early church fathers actually used the first reading, but their writings were changed at a later time!
Variant 4 has very little manuscript support, and none of it is even in the original language of Greek.
Variant 5 is only supported by the Latin Vulgate and a Latin father of the same time period. We could deduce that this Latin church father quoted from the Vulgate reading, so we basically only have one source to go by.

So far, we have only looked at external evidence for the five different readings of John 1:18, and we are starting to see that the first reading, the one which makes a direct claim to Jesus as God, has the best manuscript support. Much more work could be done here. We could venture into internal evidence by examining which reading is most likely to have been the cause of an accident, or which reading would likely have been an intentional alteration. We can look at John’s themes and theology and determine which reading best “fits” with his use of language. All this comes together to form a final conclusion about how each of the readings stack up.