How Do Textual Critics Choose Among New Testament Manuscript Variants?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Textual critics are the scholars who study the manuscript evidence for the New Testament and determine which readings among the various manuscripts are likely to be the original (see previous post for background).  Although the vast majority of the variants are simple spelling or word order errors made by copyists, there are some variants in the manuscripts that are more significant.

Textual critics use some basic criteria to help determine which readings are most likely the original and which variants were added or modified by copyists.

The first category of criteria is external.  External evidence has to do with the kinds of manuscripts that support a reading.

The first criteria is the age of a manuscript.  Generally, the older the manuscript, the more likely it contains the original text.

Second, the number of manuscripts that support a reading must be taken into consideration.  If we only have a variant reading in a single manuscript, it probably was not in the original text.

Third, the geographical range of a textual variant must be considered.  If a variant reading can be found in manuscripts from many different locations, it is more likely original.  A reading found in manuscripts from only one geographical region is more suspect.

Fourth, many, but not all, textual critics favor the readings from the Alexandrian family of manuscripts, as opposed to the Byzantine and Western families of manuscripts.  Why?  They argue that the Christian scribes in Egypt were more careful copyists.

The second category of criteria is internal.  Internal evidence has to do with the actual words of the text.

The first criteria has to do with intrinsic probabilities, probabilities based on what the author of the text most likely would have written.  Textual critics study the vocabulary, writing style, and theology of an author and see if the textual variant is something that author would have written.  If the text in question is completely different in style, vocabulary, and theology, it renders the reading somewhat suspect.  The opposite is, of course, true.

The second internal criteria is called transcriptional probability.  This criteria asks whether a textual variant is more or less likely to have been created by a scribe or copyist.  Copyists generally tended to harmonize texts that appeared contradictory and expanded upon shorter texts.  So when there are two variants to be compared, the shorter one which does not attempt to harmonize is to be preferred.  Another way to state this is that readings which are more difficult to explain and which are shorter in length are usually preferred.

None of these criteria can be applied in isolation, but these are the kinds of questions that textual critics ask.  It is obviously not an exact science, but most of the time these kinds of questions can lead scholars to the most likely reading of a text.  In fact, no essential doctrines of Christianity are in question because of textual variants.  There is almost no question that we have the words of the original authors in 99+% of the text of the New Testament.

If you’re interested in some of these variants, many of them are found in the footnotes of most English Bible translations.  Check them out for yourself!