Around two thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth went about the land of Israel doing good, healing the sick, casting out demons, accomplishing other signs and wonders, and teaching the Israelites regarding the Kingdom of God. Through His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus of Nazareth demonstrated how He was the Messiah of God, the Lord and Savior of all men.
Nevertheless, Jesus, as far as we can tell, did not write out His message. The Apostles, early followers of Jesus whom He empowered through the Holy Spirit to proclaim His message and establish the guidelines of how people would live in His Kingdom, initially went about the land of Israel as well as the rest of the Mediterranean basin proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus and His Kingdom.
We know about these events because these Apostles and some associates of theirs wrote down accounts of Jesus’ life, the foundational moments of the early church, and letters to various churches in what we now consider the New Testament. For the Christian, the New Testament proves crucial to the purposes of God as He has established them through Jesus: they are our only source documents regarding the life of Jesus and the early days of the Kingdom written by those who themselves saw those events happen or were in constant contact with those who did.
For Christians, the New Testament is authoritative for faith and practice. The Apostles were given authority by Jesus to bind on earth what had been bound in heaven, and loose on earth what had been loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:18). This authority was never transferred to anyone else, nor could it be, since much of the authority inherent in the Apostles was based in their participation in and witness of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (cf. Luke 24:44-48, Acts 1:8, 16-22, 1 Corinthians 9:1). The Apostles were empowered to lay hands on Christians to give them the measure of the Holy Spirit featuring speaking in tongues and prophecy, by which Christians were able to exhort and encourage each other and their fellow man in the Gospel of the Kingdom (cf. Acts 8:14-16, 15:32, 19:1-6, 1 Corinthians 14:1-40). The Apostle Paul gives notice to the Corinthians how that which they are prophesying in part will be completed, and at that point, the speaking in tongues and prophecy would cease (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10), which happens toward the end of the first century. By common confession, by the end of the first century, the Apostles have passed on and the gifts of speaking in tongues and prophecy were not active. From this point on, Christians would turn to the New Testament, the collection of writings by the Apostles and their associates, inspired by God to present the message of the Gospel of the Kingdom, to understand more about the life of Jesus and how they were to serve Him. Even though Jesus reigned in heaven and the Apostles had passed on, Jesus and the Apostles could still speak to every successive generation through the words preserved in the New Testament. There is no other credible source of authority to which to turn in order to learn about Jesus and the Kingdom established in His name and through His blood save the New Testament.
According to the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus and the Apostles, everyone is accountable before God in Christ: a day of judgment will come, and everyone from every place under heaven throughout time will be called to account before Jesus for how they have lived (cf. Matthew 25:31-46, John 12:48, Acts 17:30, Romans 2:5-11). Therefore, even though we live two thousand years after the events described in the New Testament, we remain as accountable before God as those who saw Jesus in the flesh. Jesus is as much Lord in the early twenty-first century as He was in the first century! If He is Lord, we must serve Him; if we are to serve Him, we must know what is pleasing to Him and what He detests. To that end, the preservation of the New Testament is of the utmost importance, since in its pages we learn of Jesus the Lord and how to serve Him, and its message is profitable for us for every good work (John 20:30-31, 2 Timothy 3:16-17). If there are parts of the New Testament that are missing, we run the risk of not knowing things we must know to serve Jesus. If there are parts of the New Testament which were added later, and are not actually what Jesus and/or the Apostles stated, we run the risk of promoting doctrines and practices which do not honor Jesus to our eternal hurt (cf. Galatians 1:6-9, 1 Timothy 4:1-4).
The integrity of the New Testament, therefore, is crucial for us to maintain confidence in our faith in Jesus. This fact is well-known to the opponents of Christianity: they know that if they are able to discredit the integrity of the New Testament, they will find more success in undermining the truth claims regarding Jesus as the Risen Lord and Christ. For this reason it is necessary for every successive generation to consider the history of the text of the New Testament and to demonstrate our confidence in the text we have.
The books which make up the New Testament were written in Greek between around 40 and 100 CE. For the next 1400 or so years, the books of the New Testament were copied by hand by scribes and monks in order to transmit the text to new areas and/or to successive generations. Only after 1450 CE, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, was the text fully standardized in its publication. As far as we know, the original manuscripts of the New Testament books all perished long ago. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of copies of the New Testament remain: the earliest fragment, from the Gospel of John (𝔓52), dates from the first half of the second century, within 75 years of the original manuscripts, and the earliest complete copies of the New Testament are from the middle of the fourth century, within 300 or so years of the original manuscripts. Many of the copies of the New Testament are translations in other languages like Latin, Syriac, Gothic, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Coptic, and are preserved everywhere from Ireland to Egypt, from Ethiopia to Armenia. The New Testament is, by far, the best attested document from the ancient world in our possession. If we cannot have confidence in the integrity of the New Testament, then we cannot have confidence in the integrity of any ancient document which has been handed down through the copying process.
Yet these New Testament copies are not exactly consistent with each other in every single word and detail; in fact, no two copies of the New Testament are precisely the same in every word and letter. Those who copied the New Testament texts were humans, and despite their best efforts, variations developed in the text. There are thousands of these variants throughout the manuscripts.
If there are thousands of variations in the manuscripts of the New Testament, how can we maintain confidence in the integrity of the New Testament? How can we know how significant these variations are? Do different texts suggest different ways to serve Jesus, or do they contradict each other regarding what Jesus and the Apostles did and taught? How can we maintain confidence in our belief of Jesus as Lord and Christ and how we must serve Him, if the only repository of authoritative messages from Jesus and the Apostles, the New Testament, has so many variations? If the text of the New Testament is so important, how could God allow it to be corrupted in any way?
Some people evade the question entirely by claiming that God directly guided the entire process of transmitting the New Testament text, ultimately believing that God inspired Desiderius Erasmus in the development of his edition of the Greek New Testament, called the Textus Receptus (TR) in 1516, or that God inspired the committee of translators as they translated the King James Version in 1611 (KJV; also known as the Authorized Version, or AV). Yet on what basis should we have any confidence that these men were inspired? Neither Erasmus nor the committee of translators of the KJV claimed inspiration. Instead, they claimed to be part of a long line of people who have sought to analyze all known manuscripts to arrive at a version of the text most consistent with the original manuscripts as can be determined. They did so in full belief that the original authors, and thus the original manuscripts, of the New Testament were inspired by God, and believers do best when they attempt to ascertain the most ancient and thus authentic reading of the texts. In short, they claimed to be textual critics engaging in textual criticism.
When we think of “criticism,” our minds naturally gravitate toward images of censure and rebuke: when we criticize something, we are normally pointing out flaws and problems. Textual criticism is not like this type of criticism: they both share the idea of considering and evaluating, but textual criticism involves the evaluation and analysis of a text, especially in regard to its origin (cf. Webster’s Dictionary). There are two types of Biblical textual criticism: “higher” criticism, which is the attempt to ascertain the literary history of the New Testament texts with a view to who wrote what when and why, and “lower” criticism, which is the attempt to ascertain the textual history of the New Testament with a view of recovering the original texts. For our purposes we will focus on “lower” New Testament textual criticism: the artistic and scientific endeavor to recover the original New Testament text through investigation of all extant manuscript evidence.
Textual criticism matters because it is the means by which we can establish and defend the integrity of the New Testament in light of the thousands of variants which exist among manuscripts. Through the textual critical process of analyzing and evaluating manuscripts, textual critics have discovered that the vast majority of variants involve spelling mistakes. Other variants involve a scribe accidentally repeating a part of the text or skipping a part of the text (duplication or omission). Sometimes scribes would copy one text as if it were a parallel text (e.g. the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:2-4 as the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13, called harmonization). At other times scribes would expand names with additional titles (e.g. “Lord Jesus” for “Jesus,” called expansions of piety).
Textual critics can discern these patterns in the variants because we have so many manuscripts available over such a long period of time. Through their investigation of all the available manuscripts, textual critics have discerned that the New Testament text in Greek seems to have been standardized in the fifth century, since most of the manuscripts which come afterward follow the same patterns and reflect many of the expansions and harmonizations as described above. This is called the “Byzantine” text family and represents about 80% of existing manuscripts: it underlies the Textus Receptus and the King James Version (and the New King James Version) which was translated from the TR. Textual critics today prefer the “Alexandrian” text family which maintains shorter and more concise readings, based on the early manuscripts and dated from the second through the fourth centuries. Greek New Testaments today, like the United Bible Society’s 4th edition and the Nestle-Aland 27th edition, are based on the “Alexandrian” text family and reflected in most modern translations of the Bible.
The student of the New Testament can, to some extent, see both the results of the 1400 year transmission of the New Testament text by copyists and the fruits of the endeavors of modern “lower” New Testament textual criticism by comparing the readings of the King James Version or New King James Version with the readings in the American Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, or the English Standard Version. The differences which do exist between the two sets of translations do not impact any major doctrine or practice in Christianity, nor do they present significant differences in terms of what Jesus and the Apostles did or taught. To this day one can come to an understanding of the Christian faith and serve Jesus through reading, studying, and applying the New Testament as translated in the King James Version.
Yet those differences do exist. And ever since the New Testament has been copied, many have attempted to engage in the process of textual criticism (whether they knew it or not) in order to attempt to restore and recover the original New Testament text. Origen, in the third century, remarked on different readings in different manuscripts of the New Testament and made arguments for his preferred readings. In the fourth century, Jerome translated the Old and New Testaments into Latin, seeking to reflect the text accurately on the basis of the best linguistic and manuscript evidence. Around the same time as Erasmus in the sixteenth century, Cardinal Jiménez was at work in Spain on what would be called the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, the first printed polyglot Bible in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and Latin, in order to facilitate a better understanding of the history of the text. In the seventeenth century, Theodore Beza printed an edition of the Greek New Testament based on manuscripts dating from the fifth and sixth centuries. In the nineteenth century, Constantin von Tischendorf was responsible for the rediscovery of the fourth century Codex Sinaiticus (א), an important manuscript; B.F. Westcott and F.H.A Hort published The New Testament in the Original Greek in 1880, which would become the basis of the standard Greek New Testaments used today. This same tradition was carried on throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth century with the work of Eberhard Nestle, Erwin Nestle, Kurt Aland, Bruce Metzger, Daniel Wallace, and many others. For over 1700 years, therefore, textual critics have sought to restore the New Testament text to its earliest form in the first century.
Since the witness of Christianity is based in the testimony of the Apostles and their associates as preserved in the pages of the New Testament, and Christians are to use the New Testament as the basis of their faith and practice, confidence in the integrity of the text of the New Testament is crucial for Christians to maintain confidence in their faith and to encourage confidence in others of the validity of its message. To this end, New Testament “lower” textual criticism matters greatly to our faith: through the text critical process, sensible judgment can be made regarding the variants found in the various New Testament manuscripts, allowing us to recover and restore the text of the New Testament as it was originally written and inspired by God. Based upon the evidence from the early manuscripts and the preserved writings of early Christians with their use of the New Testament in those writings, we can have confidence that the Greek texts of the New Testament which we use today accurately reflect the state of the text not long after the originals.
Each successive generation must remain vigilant. Even though the Greek New Testaments used today more accurately reflect the original Greek New Testament than ever before, many opponents of the faith attempt to subvert confidence in the integrity of the New Testament. Variants in the text which have been known for some time are interpreted in the worst light possible; many speak of the “orthodox corruption” of the New Testament, insinuating that the New Testament has been manipulated to say what early Christians wanted it to say. These arguments and insinuations must not be left unopposed. Yet this kind of opposition is precisely why we do well to investigate the history of the transmission of the New Testament and the principles of textual criticism: in so doing we will be better equipped to make a defense for the hope that is in us and explain to others why we have every right to maintain confidence in the integrity of the text of the New Testament (cf. 1 Peter 3:15). Let us stand firm in our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, establishing our faith and practice on the basis of what is revealed in the New Testament, confident that the New Testament we are reading is, on the whole, the same as the New Testament read and heard by the earliest Christians!
Aland, Kurt and Barbara. The Text of the New Testament. Ed. by Erroll Rhodes. Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1989.
Metzger, Bruce. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration. Third Edition. Oxford University Press, 1992.