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The Value of Textual Criticism
Delve into the authenticity of the New Testament through the lens of textual criticism. Explore the historical evidence, the reliability of manuscripts, and the continuity of divine teachings. Discover the connection between ancient writings and contemporary faith.
Textual criticism, the art and science of recovering the original text of a document from the copies and translations that have survived, is crucial in our understanding of the New Testament. It strives to bring us as close as possible to the original words inspired by the Holy Spirit and recorded by the authors of the New Testament. Sir Frederic Kenyon, former Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum, commented that “the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed” through the work of textual criticism (Kenyon, 1940, p.23).
The Number and Age of New Testament Manuscripts
To understand the authenticity of the New Testament, one must first examine the number and age of the manuscripts available. As of today, there are approximately 5,898 Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin Vulgate, and 9,300 in other early versions (Wallace, 2020; Andrew 2020). This rich collection of manuscripts, more than any other ancient work, demonstrates the New Testament’s substantial historical support.
Many of these manuscripts are remarkably old. The John Rylands Papyrus (P52), for instance, is dated between 117 and 138 C.E. and contains parts of John 18:31-33 on one side and John 18:37-38 on the other. This fragment, despite its size, testifies to the early circulation of John’s Gospel (Metzger & Ehrman, 2005, p. 52).
Despite the inevitable minor variations introduced through centuries of copying, a remarkable 99.5% agreement exists among the New Testament manuscripts. The remaining differences, often concerning spelling, word order, and other minor details, do not affect doctrinal teachings (Comfort, 2005, p. 183).
Indeed, John 1:1 in P66, a manuscript dated to the late second or early third century C.E., reads in translation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This critical Christological passage remains unchanged in comparison with our contemporary translations, indicating the preservation of key doctrines across the ages (Comfort & Barrett, 2001, p. 255).
The Chain of Custody
To further solidify the reliability of the New Testament text, one can examine the “chain of custody,” a term borrowed from legal disciplines, referring to the continuity of possession of a document. Church Fathers quoted extensively from the New Testament, thus providing a rich secondary source of textual evidence. In fact, if all New Testament manuscripts were lost, virtually the entire New Testament could be reconstructed from the quotations of the Church Fathers alone (Geisler & Nix, 1986, p. 429).
The Role of Translations and Lectionaries
Translations and lectionaries also play an essential part in affirming the New Testament’s authenticity. For instance, the Syriac Peshitta, dating from the early fifth century C.E., provides an invaluable record of the New Testament text as it was understood by the ancient Syrian Church. Lectionaries, the collections of Scripture readings for worship services, provide an additional, vital line of evidence.
In conclusion, the quantity and quality of New Testament manuscripts, their remarkable internal consistency, and the supplementary evidence from Church Fathers, translations, and lectionaries attest to the authenticity of the New Testament text. Through the careful work of textual criticism, we can be confident that the New Testament we read today faithfully represents the original writings, as moved by the Holy Spirit.
About the Author
Andrews, Edward D. (2020). FROM SPOKEN WORDS TO SACRED TEXTS: Introduction-Intermediate New Testament Textual Studies. Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House.
Comfort, P. W. (2005). Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Comfort, P. W., & Barrett, D. P. (2019). The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic; 3rd edition.
Geisler, N. L., & Nix, W. E. (1986). A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
Kenyon, F. G. (1940). The Bible and Archaeology. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.
Metzger, B. M., & Ehrman, B. D. (2005). The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Wallace, D. B. (2020). Revisiting the Number of New Testament Manuscripts. In M. H. Barnes (Ed.), Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.