New Testament Textual Criticism for Dummies

Copyright © July 19, 2015 by Larry G. Overton

I decided on the title New Testament Textual Criticism for Dummies for this article, the first in a series of articles on the subject. I chose that because the “…for Dummies” thing is so familiar to our culture. Tell the truth: as soon as you read the “…for Dummies” part, didn’t you picture that black and yellow book cover in your head? And maybe that little guy with the spikey flat top and a head shaped like a triangle? for dummies font & image

But then again, I’m not all that comfortable with calling people “dummies” simply because they aren’t in the know about a given subject. So I toyed with some ideas for “smarting up” the “dummies” thing. I thought that maybe substituting a synonym for the “D-word” would resolve my dilemma.

So I got out the old thesaurus. Well, actually, I highlighted the word “dummies” in my draft document on my computer and after a couple of keystrokes brought up a “Thesaurus” dialog box on my computer screen. And so I looked for synonyms I could use instead of “dummies.”

Easy peasy, right? No, not really. What immediately came up were the suggested offerings of imitation, mannequin or copy, with multiple synonyms under each of those headings. So I went to an online thesaurus, but got the same results. Their dictionary defined dummy as “a stupid person,” but that’s offensive, isn’t it?

So I explored what I consider to be synonyms for dummies in the sense that I mean it. My first thought for an alternative was “…for the Ignorant,” but that didn’t seem to be much of an improvement.

I considered “…the Uninitiated,” but that made it sound like entry into the world of textual criticism required secret handshakes, the taking of oaths and special underwear.

In this age of striving to be kinder/gentler, less offensive or just plain politically correct, somewhere along the way mentally retarded became mentally challenged. So I thought perhaps “…for the Textually Challenged” might work. I thought seriously about this possibility, but it just didn’t seem to clearly communicate what I was trying to say.

A friend of mine likes to use the word knucklehead about himself. The dictionary definition of this is “a stupid person,” so that seems no better than dummies. But when a friend actually prefers to use this term about himself when it concerns a subject he’s not knowledgeable about, well, maybe this would work for my purposes. This synonym was my close second for the title of this series.

But in the end, I decided to go with the familiar. And apparently a lot of people are okay with calling themselves a “dummy” when they really don’t know the subject matter. So, New Testament Textual Criticism for Dummies it is.

Some of my best friends and loved ones are such “dummies.” I know that sounds like a line that actually belies the truth of my claim, as in “Some of my best friends are ___________.” (You can fill in the blank with any number of things: Catholics, Church of Christ, Mexican, black, etc., etc.) But it’s really true; a lot of my family members and close friends are “dummies” about NT textual criticism. And I want to help them, if I can.

This subject can sure make you feel like a stupid person/knucklehead/dummy. Textual criticism is the critical analysis and evaluation of textual information, specifically the written content (“text”) of ancient works. And New Testament (hereafter, NT) textual criticism has more layers to it than an onion.

Say you are reading from your English version of choice, but then you notice a footnote on a certain verse that offers an alternate reading. Or you are reading along in your Bible at a church service or in a Bible study, and the version being read aloud is not the same as yours, and it reads differently.

So you peel back this initial “translation” layer, and you discover that the NT was originally written in Greek. But wait, it gets even more complicated. The NT was not written in the Modern Greek spoken in Greece or on Cyprus today, but in an ancient dialect of Greek. The vocabulary and grammar are similar, but not the same. So a Modern Greek version of the NT does not have the same Greek text written 2,000 years ago. That’s another layer right there.

The next layer we discover is that there are different printed, published editions of the text of the Greek NT from which to translate. The following are just a few of the published editions that have been used in translation work:

The New Testament in the original Greek: Byzantine Textform;

The Greek New Testament according to the Majority Text;

The Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies);

Novum Testamentum Graece (Nestle-Aland).

And there are differences between these Greek texts. Now the differences are plentiful, but not that significant overall. But still, that calls for some decisions to be made when it comes to the text.

The next layer of the NT textual criticism “onion” is the Greek manuscripts behind those edited, printed texts. Before the printing press, documents were copied by hand (which is what manuscript means). There are well over 5,700 such manuscripts of the Greek NT known to us today. And no two are exactly the same.

But while there may be a lot of small differences between them, most of the differences are so inconsequential that they don’t even show up in translation. But still, the existence of those differences, many of them minor but some more significant, accounts for the differences between those printed, edited texts that translators use today.

And you can peel back from the manuscript layer to reveal four basic categories of Greek NT manuscripts. And yet another layer reveals “families” or groupings of the thousands of manuscripts. These groupings are identified by textual critics by variations in their readings of the text. To these critics, such identifiable variant readings indicate families or text types or text forms. They come up with names for these different textforms, but as if all of this isn’t complicated enough, these critics don’t all agree on how to identify or name these groups of manuscripts.

So is this onion/layers analogy of mine giving you an impression of an involved, complicated topic? I hope so, because to put it plainly that is the truth of the situation. NT textual criticism is not a simple subject to discuss. But even so, you can’t simply dismiss it as unimportant, or not relevant to your life. If you read your Bible, even if you only read it in English, you are affected by textual criticism.

But even though NT textual criticism is a complicated subject, it is still possible to learn enough about the topic to inform and benefit your reading of the Scriptures. Rest assured, you can learn this stuff. I’m not saying it will be easy, but it’s doable. And as I said before, I want to help, if I can.

So here is what I propose to do. With this very article, I am initiating a series of articles on the subject of New Testament Textual Criticism for Dummies. And by the way, since that whole title is a mouthful, it is going to get old, whether from the perspective of your reading it or my writing it. So most of the time I will abbreviate that title to NTTCD, and likewise abbreviate the reference to New Testament textual criticism as NTTC.

My next article in this series will deal with the issue of trust. That’s what most of this is going to come down to anyway. If you can’t read Greek, if you don’t have access to the edited Greek texts, let alone the thousands of Greek manuscripts they’re based on, then you are going to have to take someone else’s word for a lot of this, so trust is an issue. Do you trust the “pastor” or “minister” or whatever the appropriate designation is for your clergyman of choice? Do you place your trust in the translators of your particular version of choice? More on this next time.

Following that will be a glossary of terms. There’s a lot of terminology that textual critics use in discussing this subject. I’m thinking it will be helpful to have the major terms identified and defined in one place, so that you can continually refer back to it for future reference.

In installments to come, I will be addressing those manuscripts of the Greek NT, identifying those four basic categories, and then the different textforms or families of those manuscripts. And then I will devote an article to those edited, printed and published Greek New Testaments that translators have worked from down through the years.

Still other future articles will deal with what footnotes in some English translations call “other ancient witnesses.” This refers to ancient versions, translations from the original Greek into languages such as Syriac, Georgian, Ethiopic, Coptic and Latin. In addition to the witness of ancient versions to how the original Greek read, there are many thousands of quotations by ancient Christian writers. Future articles will deal with these categories of evidence.

After looking at all of those categories of evidence to how the NT in its original form was written, I will discuss principles of textual criticism. It should come as no surprise that textual critics down through the centuries have come up with principles governing the application of textual criticism to the Greek NT. I will discuss that as well.

And after all of that, I plan to write articles in this series that deal with specific examples of applied textual criticism. In other words, specific verses or passages that differ in the Greek texts and therefore impact translations differently will be addressed. For example, when Jesus was talking about being angry with a brother without cause, did He actually say “without cause,” or was that an addition (accidental or otherwise) by some scribe many years removed from the original Gospel? I plan to address that issue, and many others like it, in this series.

Okay, there you have it, my plans for a new series of articles to be posted here on my website. I know this isn’t a particularly popular topic, or that high of a priority one for most people. But God help me, I love this stuff! This is the kind of study I really enjoy doing. So I plan on taking this on. If there are more than just a few people out there that see this series as something interesting to follow, I will be more than a little surprised…but pleasantly so, I assure you.