Textual Criticism

While there is much discussion regarding the fidelity of the transmission of the NT text, very little attention is given to the OT.  I’ve long been looking for a good book dedicated to OT textual criticism, written from the perspective of a conservative text critic, so I was happy to come across John F. Brug’s Textual Criticism of the Old Testament

Brug does a great job of explaining the manuscript resources, how text critics go about establishing the original text, ancient and modern criticism of the text, and many examples of the variants with a fair assessment of which are original.  What I was particularly interested in is his explanation of the differences between the Greek translation and the Hebrew, as well as the differences in names and numbers in parallel passages such as Kings and Chronicles.

The book is under 200 pages, so it’s very digestible.  I would highly recommend this as an intermediate introduction to OT textual criticism.

This past week has brought to the public’s attention the discovery of two important manuscripts: one of Leviticus and one of the Qur’an.


The Leviticus manuscript was actually discovered in 1970 in a Torah ark from a Byzantine-era synagogue excavated at Ein Gedi in Israel. It was burnt by a fire, however, and could not be deciphered until now. The scroll was found to contain Leviticus 1:1-8. It is dated no later than the 6th century A.D. (when the synagogue and village were burned).

Burnt Leviticus scroll 1

Burnt Leviticus scroll 2













Two pages of the Qur’an (portions of Surahs 18-20) were discovered inside the codex of another late 7th century Qur’anic manuscript at Birmingham University.  Radiocarbon dating of the manuscript has revealed an age of A.D 568A- 645.  Muhammad lived from A.D. 570 – 632, making it a live possibility that the manuscript fragment was composed while Muhammad was still alive.


That’s an easy answer: p52 (a fragment of John 18).  Perhaps not.  P52 is typically dated to A.D. 125-175. There is a fragment of Matthew 21, p104, that is dated to A.D. 100-200.  The mean age of both manuscripts is A.D. 150, but if p104 is as early as its terminus a quo, then p104 may be the earliest NT manuscript.






Of course, there is still the possibility that we have a fragment of Mark’s gospel dated to before A.D. 90. The court is still out on this one since the research on this fragment has yet to be published. If it turns out to be a valid date, it would be the first NT fragment from the first century to be discovered – an exciting prospect indeed!

Christian apologists have long pointed out that when it comes to textual reliability, the NT is in a league of its own compared to all other ancient texts.  According to NT manuscript expert Daniel Wallace, there are 1000x more copies of the NT than the average ancient Greek text.  If we stacked the NT manuscripts on top of each other, they would reach more than a mile high.  Not only are there more manuscripts for the NT than any other ancient text, but the gap between the original text and our first copies is smaller for the NT than other ancient texts.  There are 3x as many NT manuscripts within 200 years of the original text than the average Greco-Roman text has in 2000 years.

Unfortunately, many of the statistics appearing in apologetics literature are outdated.  Additional manuscripts of both the NT and other ancient texts continue to be discovered.  Clay Jones wrote an article for the Christian Research Institute in 2012 providing the latest stats.  The article was recently posted on the CRI website.  Check it out and see how the NT compares to other ancient Greek texts.

According to Daniel Wallace:

The total number of catalogued Greek New Testament manuscripts now stands at 128 papyri, 322 majuscules, 2926 minuscules, and 2462 lectionaries, bringing the grand total to 5838 manuscripts.

CSNTM has also “discovered” two more minuscule manuscripts in the summer of 2013 on our European expeditions which will most likely receive their Gregory-Aland numbers in due time.

Daniel Wallace is a prominent evangelical NT textual critic.  He has written about the field in various places, but never in much detail, and never in a book dedicated to the topic.  So I was very excited when I heard he was editing a collection of essays on the topic.  

Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament is not a general book on the topic of NT textual criticism, but a collection of essays criticizing the analysis and methodology of Bart Ehrman.  Indeed, if you have heard any of Wallace and Ehrman’s three debates, you will already be familiar with much of the material Wallace presents in his chapter.  But it is nice to have that wealth of information put to print and to have access to all of the details Wallace provides in the footnotes.  Here are a few facts about the NT manuscripts that are of note:  (more…)

Daniel Wallace revealed some additional details regarding some early NT papyri manuscripts in a video interview with Michael Licona, one of which is the highly touted first century fragment of Mark. 

In a nutshell:

  • Number: There are 7 papyri manuscripts of the gospels and Paul’s letters
  • Size: All manuscripts are less than 1 leaf
  • Dates: 1 is probably 1st century, 4 from the 2nd century, and 2 that are probably 2nd century but could be dated to the 3rd century
  • NT Books represented:
    • 1 = Matthew
    • 1 = Mark (possibly 1st century)
    • 1 = Luke
    • 1 = Romans
    • 1 = First Corinthians
    • 2 = Hebrews

I can’t wait to find out more about the collection in 2013!

It’s long been the conclusion of scholars that Esther and Nehemiah are the only books of the OT not represented among the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The May/June 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), however, reports that Norwegian scholar, Torleif Elgvin of the Evangelical Lutheran University College in Oslo, Norway, and Esther Eshel of Bar-Ilan University are publishing a collection of two dozen previously unknown DSS fragments from Cave 4, the Bar-Kokhba caves, and Wadi ed-Daliyeh in a book titled Gleanings from the Caves (T&T Clark publishers).  If this checks out, then Esther would remain the only book not found in the DSS.  Of course, if Nehemiah and Esther were written on the same scroll as most scholars believe, then while we may not have an extant copy of Esther from the DSS, there is good reason to believe the text was present in the community as part of the Nehemiah scroll.

In the early 20th century German theologian Walter Bauer proposed that Christian orthodoxy is a historical fiction.  Heretics were not those who departed from the original teachings of Jesus and the apostles, but those on the losing side of a political battle for dominance by one group of Christians over another.  Orthodoxy represents the side who won, not the side of those who remained faithful to Jesus’ teachings.  There is no such thing as Christianity per se, but rather a collage of various Christianities.

While Bauer’s proposal was severely critiqued by other scholars and joined the ash-heap of theological history, as is the case with most bad ideas, someone comes along later, picks up the idea, brushes off the ashes, repackages it, and tries to sell it again.  Such is the case with the Bauer thesis.  Today it is being peddled by people such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels.  Speaking to a postmodern generation that prizes diversity, detests absolute truth claims, and thinks truth claims are an attempt to gain power and exert control, they have found a receptive audience for their pluralistic view of Christian origins and history.  For them, the only true heresy is orthodoxy itself: the claim that there is one enduring truth, and one Christian faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints.


That’s the claim Daniel Wallace made during his most recent debate with Bart Ehrman at UNC Chapel Hill.  In his summary of the debate at Parchment and Pen, Wallace writes:

We have as many as eighteen second-century manuscripts (six of which were recently discovered and not yet catalogued) and a first-century manuscript of Mark’s Gospel! … Bart had explicitly said that our earliest copy of Mark was from c. 200 CE, but this is now incorrect. It’s from the first century. I mentioned these new manuscript finds and told the audience that a book will be published by E. J. Brill in about a year that gives all the data. … I noted that a world-class paleographer, whose qualifications are unimpeachable, was my source.”

Later he described the newly discovered manuscript as “just a small fragment.”  Nevertheless, if this is a manuscript copy of Mark’s gospel, and if it can be reliably dated to the 1st century AD, this would be the greatest NT manuscript find to date, surpassing even p52 (a small portion of John’s Gospel, dated to ~125 AD)!  We’ll have to wait and see.

UPDATE 2/16: Dr. Wallace has written specifically on this issue on the Dallas Theological Seminary website and added a tiny bit more information by saying “it was dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers. He said he was ‘certain’ that it was from the first century.” In the comments I have also quoted Dr. Ben Witherington III regarding the owner of the fragment, and a bit more detail about it.  Witherington made it sound as if it is much more than a “small fragment.” I guess we’ll have to wait until next year to see how small is small.

Have you ever heard it said—or said it yourself—that if all the Bibles and Biblical manuscripts in the world were destroyed tomorrow, we could reconstruct all but 11 verses of the NT from the writings of the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers alone?  Recently, while listening to an interview featuring NT textual critic, Daniel Wallace, I learned that this claim is demonstrably false.[1]  Unfortunately this has been repeated in one form or another by many individuals, including prominent NT textual critics.

Apparently this misinformation began to circulate widely in 1841 with the publication of Robert Philip’s memoir of John Campbell titled The Life, Times, and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John CampbellThe Life contains a written anecdote of Campbell, who was rehearsing a story told to him by Reverend Dr. Walter Buchanan pertaining to the research David Dalrymple conducted into the church fathers’ citations of the NT.  According to Campbell, Buchanan and Dalrymple were both in attendance at a literary party when someone raised the question: “Supposing all the New Testaments in the world had been destroyed at the end of the third century, could their contents have been recovered from the writings of the three first centuries?”  No one had an answer.  According to Campbell, two months later Dalrymple contacted Buchanan and reported to him that he had taken up the question raised at the party, researched the writings of the church fathers, and had an answer to the question.  According to Campbell, Buchanan told him that Dalrymple told Buchanan he discovered that all but 7 or 11 verses (Dalrymple could not recall the exact number) of the NT were quoted in the early church fathers.


The Israel Museum teamed up with Google to make high-resolution, searchable images of the Dead Sea Scrolls available online.  It even provides a translation for you.  To begin with, only five scrolls are available for viewing.  Two of them are Biblical documents: the Great Isaiah Scroll, the Habakkuk commentary.  This is really cool!

FYI, last month I posted a link to a site that allowed you to view the Great Isaiah Scroll.  That link is now connected to the Israel Museum/Google Dead Sea Scroll site.

The picture above is a picture of Isaiah 7:14 in the Great Isaiah Scroll.


While doing some research on the Dead Sea Scrolls I discovered a website that shows the entire Great Isaiah Scroll found in Qumran.  The site allows you to literally scroll through the scroll, and provides a zoom feature as well.  Very cool!

The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts recently released a video series on NT textual criticism oniTunesUniversity.  I’ve delayed blogging about it until after I could watch all the videos.  I assumed they would be superb given the presenter: Daniel Wallace.  My assumption was correct.  Not only is the content tremendous, but the video quality is great as well.  If you would like a good, well-rounded introduction to NT textual criticism, do yourself a favor and watch these videos.  You won’t be disappointed.

Updated 6/28/11

George Houston has addressed an interesting question that has direct applicability to the reliability of the NT documents: How long did manuscripts remain in use?  From the available evidence Houston concludes that some manuscripts continued to be used for 200-300 years before they were finally discarded, while the majority were used for at least 100 years.

While Houstonlooked at secular documents, Craig Evans had this to say about religious documents:

Most of the [Dead Sea] scrolls were one hundred to one hundred-fifty years old when the community ceased to exist. However, approximately 40 scrolls, many of them Bible scrolls, were 200 to 300 years old—and evidently still in use—when the community was destroyed. The same holds in the case of a number of Christian Bibles. Fourth-century Codex Vaticanus was re-inked in the tenth century, which shows that it was still being read and studied some six hundred years after it had been produced. Codex Sinaiticus was corrected in the sixth or seventh century. Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, produced in the fifth century, was in use four or five centuries before being overwritten in the twelfth century. Retired and discarded mss were not corrected: only those still in use.

If this is true of the NT autographs as well, then the popular claim that the early transmission of the NT text was wild and erratic is false. The gap between the original autograph and our earliest copies would be largely bridged. Churches and scribes could have checked their manuscript copies against the originals for an extended period of time following the death of the apostles, correcting any errors that might have crept in.  There are two reasons to think the church preserved and continued to use the originals for some time.  First, manuscripts were valuable and would not be quickly discarded.  They would only be discarded once they had deteriorated from use.  Secondly, the NT autographs were viewed as authoritative documents, and as such they would have been preserved by their original recipients.  Indeed, Tertullian seems to affirm that at least some of the original manuscripts were extant in his day: “Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over [to] the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally.” (AD 180 — it is possible that Tertullian was not claiming these churches had the original autographs, but rather that they had copies of the autographs that were not corrupted as were the copies used by heretics)

HT: Larry Hurtado

A new website, The Ehrman Project, has launched.  It’s dedicated to evaluating and responding to Bart Ehrman’s claims.  It examines each of his three best-selling books: Misquoting Jesus, God’s Problem, Jesus Interrupted.  There are eight video responses to each book, each one covering a different topic.  There are also links to related books and articles. 

Participating scholars include Ben Witherington, Darrel Bock, D.A. Carson, Daniel Wallace, Alvin Plantinga, et al.  One of the coolest features of the site is that you can pose a question on the blog, and it will be answered by one of the scholars!  So if you have any difficult questions related to the issues Ehrman raises, now is the time to ask them.

HT: Ben Witherington

Many people are under the impression that the Textus Receptus (TR) printed by the Trinitarian Bible Society was the Greek text used by the KJV translators to translate the NT.  Not so.  The TR was not the Greek text used by the KJV translators.  Instead, it is a Greek text based on the KJV, created 270 years after the KJV was published!  To understand why, let’s explore the history of the TR in a little detail.

The story begins in 16th century Europe.  Catholicism was the religion of Europe, and Jerome’s Latin Vulgate was the Bible of the church—and had been for over 500 years.[1] In 1504, however, the Catholic humanist scholar by the name of Desiderius Erasmus came across a manuscript by the Italian humanist Lorena Valla (1407-57)—an event that would forever change Erasmus’ life, as well as the future of Bible translations.  Valla’s manuscript contained a host of annotations to the Vulgate, noting those places where it was not faithful to the Greek text.  Erasmus became enamored with Valla’s approach, and determined to carry on his work.


I have long been interested in the debate over the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20, known as the long ending of Mark (LEM).  Recently, I read Perspectives on the Ending of Mark: 4 Views by Daniel Wallace, David Alan Black, Keith Elliott, Maurice Robinson, and Darrell Bock.  Each author takes a different perspective on the ending of Mark:

  • Wallace = LEM is not original.  Mark ended his gospel at 16:8. (In Bock’s closing summary of the book, he noted his agreement with this position.)
  • Elliott = LEM is not original.  Original ending has been lost.
  • Robinson = LEM is original.
  • Black = LEM is original, but was added by Mark as part of a “second edition” to round our Peter’s lectures.

Of the four, I think Wallace presented the most convincing case, and Black the least convincing.  I will summarize the evidence/arguments for and against the LEM in hopes that this will help you sort through this issue as much as it helped me.


Back on 9/14 I posted “Re-measuring Goliath: 9’9” or 6’9”?” In the comments section I brought up an issue I want to make the focus of a new post: the quality of the Masoretic Text of the OT. It seems that it may not represent the original wording in significant places, particularly in books like Jeremiah and 1 and 2 Samuel. Here are the relevant portions from J. Daniel Hays’ article:

As in the book of Jeremiah, there is quite a difference between the Septuagint text of 1-2 Samuel and the Masoretic Text of 1-2 Samuel. Also similar to the textual situation in Jeremiah is the fact that in 1-2 Samuel the Hebrew text from the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QSama) generally aligns with the Septuagint over against the MT. In addition, the story in 1 Samuel 16-18 represents the place where the differences between the two are the most severe. In the Septuagint text of Codex Vaticanus, our oldest complete Greek Bible, 1 Samuel 16-18 is 44% shorter than in the MT. Not only are entire verses missing but entire paragraphs are missing. In the David and Goliath narrative these include 17:12-31, twenty verses that explain about David and his brothers and how he came to be at the battle, and 17:55-58, the four puzzling verses in which Saul doesn’t seem to know who David is in spite of the fact that David had been playing music for Saul back in 1 Samuel 16. As in Jeremiah, the differences between the Septuagint and the MT go well beyond anything that could be attributed to scribal errors or transmission mistakes. And 4QSama generally (but not always) agrees with the Septuagint against the MT. Either somebody added a large chunk of text to the original autograph, somebody deleted a large chunk of text, or else two different accounts of 1-2 Samuel developed separately.

Practically all scholars agree that the evidence from 4QSama implies that at the time of Christ there were two different Hebrew text traditions of 1-2 Samuel. As mentioned above, the vorlage or text tradition behind the MT in 1-2 Samuel contains many more readily identifiable scribal errors that the tradition reflected in 4QSama/LXX. Furthermore, and of great interest to those of us who try to connect the doctrine of inspiration into our theories of composition, it should be underscored that when using 1-2 Samuel as a source, the author (compiler, editor, etc.) of 1-2 Chronicles (as reflected in the MT) used a Hebrew text from the textual tradition reflected in 4QSama/LXX and not the one that is reflected in the MT of 1-2 Samuel.14 That is, frequently the MT in 1-2 Chronicles disagrees with the MT in 1-2 Samuel, but agrees with the reading in 4QSama and/or the Septuagint. So the inspired author/editor of 1-2 Chronicles either did not have a copy of the MT tradition text of 1-2 Samuel or elected to use the text tradition reflected in 4QSama/LXX, presumably because he regarded it as a superior text.

Our theory of inerrancy has to account for stuff like this. What do we do with ~23 extra verses in the MT version of I Samuel 17-18? If the LXX and DSS preserve the original, inspired form of the book (as seems likely), are we prepared to cross those verses out of our Bibles in the same way we should change Goliath’s height from 9’9” to 6’9”? This is a matter of textual criticism, and is not altogether unlike what we see even in NT text criticism in which the authenticity of long passages is disputed (the longer ending of Mark, the periscope of the woman caught in adultery). The difference here is the quantity of verses that are suspect. Either way, we should be open to the evidence and not shut our eyes to the facts because they make us uncomfortable.

The main reason I bring this up is not to cause anyone to doubt the reliability of Scripture. Indeed, I could write a series of posts arguing for the trustworthiness of Scripture. The reason I bring this up is because it provides an answer for why we find so many contradictions between Samuel and Chronicles when it comes to numbers. For example:

1. In 2 Sam 8:4 David takes 700 horsemen, whereas in 1 Chron 18:4 he takes 7000.

2. In 2 Sam 10:18 David slew the men who drove 700 Syrian chariots, and 40K horsemen, whereas in 1 Chron 19:18 David slew 7000 charioteers and 40K footmen.

3. In 2 Sam 23:8 we are told that David’s chief captain slew 800 men at one time with his spear, whereas in 1 Chron 11:11 he is said to have slain 300.

4. In 2 Sam 24:9 Joab counted 1,300,000 fighting men, whereas in 1 Chron 21:5 he is said to have counted 1,570,000.

Why the discrepancy? It could be due to copyist errors, or a misunderstanding of certain numerical values due to the evolution of the Hebrew numerical system. Given the fact that not all numbers disagree between the two books, this option is unlikely. The best answer is that the Chronicler was using a different Hebrew text of Samuel that had different numerical values in certain places, which means there were at least two competing manuscript traditions of Samuel. Of course, the question remains as to which is the original text, and how the changes were introduced (copyist error, purposeful tampering with the text, misunderstanding of older numerical system, etc.). That is where textual critics enter the stage, and I step off. For what it’s worth, I tend to think the Chronicler was using a superior Hebrew text, and should be given the benefit of the doubt over the MT of Samuel. The MT is a younger text. The DSS and LXX give us a much earlier picture of the text.

Back in November I directed you to a couple of brief articles by Dan Wallace on Biblical textual criticism. His series has continued since then. For those who are interested, here are the other links (in historical order):

The Nature of Textual Variants
Textual Variants: What Issues Are at Stake?
Textual Variants: What Issues Are At Stake? Part 2
Why Did Scribes Make Mistakes when Copying Scripture? Part 1
Why Did Scribes Make Mistakes when Copying Scripture? Part 2
The Significance of Scribal Corruptions to the New Testament
The Composition of the Original Text

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