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Textual Criticism and the Authority of Scripture

Textual Criticism is the practice of using hand-written copies (i.e., manuscripts) of an ancient document in order to figure out what the original document would have said.

Conservative, evangelical scholars do this with the text of the Bible. We do not have the original writings of the Bible, but we have many, many copies. Because of this, we can reconstruct what the original text of the Bible would have said with a high degree of accuracy. As more manuscripts are discovered, we are able to use them to adjust our understanding of the original text of the Bible and come even closer.

Christian apologists often celebrate how we live in a time where textual criticism is alive and well. We are closer to the original text of the Bible than ever before, and discoveries of Biblical manuscripts are still being made. When it comes to the New Testament, there are over 5,800 manuscripts in the original Greek language, and thousands more in other languages. This far surpasses the manuscript count of any other ancient historical text. We can marvel at how much God has done to preserve his Word.

But at the same time, textual criticism comes with heartache. Beloved passages—John 7:53–8:11 and Mark 16:9-20—have been called into question because they fail to show up in our earliest manuscripts. We also have many words and several verses which have been modified or removed in modern translations because we lack the evidence to believe that they were truly part of the original document. Even further, there are theological issues we are forced to wrestle with. Why isn’t God’s word perfectly preserved? Isn’t God able to preserve his own text through all generations of Christianity? What does this mean theologically for our understanding of God and Scripture? For some Christians, this can be devastating.

Allow me to offer a couple thoughts this…

  • I am grateful that mainstream Christianity insists we ask the hard questions of our original text. Many other religions refuse to do this with their holy books.
  • We should not confuse issues of textual criticism with issues of Biblical inerrancy. If it can be shown that the text of Scripture is wrong about something when it was attempting to be right, then the entire doctrine of inerrancy falls apart. But textual issues relate to what the text of Scripture says, not whether it’s right.
  • Nowhere in mainstream Christian or Jewish history have we ever assumed that the Bible would be perfectly preserved for us. Nowhere does God, Israel, or the church promise that human mistakes would never creep into the Scripture as it was copied. This is why the Jews and early Christians were so careful to copy the text; they wanted to assure as little human error as possible.
  • Jesus says in Matthew 5:18 that “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” This passage is not about the textual transmission of Scripture. Jesus is talking about the Old Testament Law and how it relates to us in light of his mission to fulfill the law (Mt. 5:17, 19).
  • Of all our work going through textual issues, never has a core doctrine of historical Christianity ever been jeopardized. Yes, some disputed texts give doctrinal information, but never does the doctrine hang on that text alone.
  • Nothing catches God by surprise. He knew that people would make mistakes copying the text of Scripture. Evidently, God was okay allowing it to happen.
  • If we had the original writings of the Bible, all of our textual problems would go away in an instant. That would be nice. But perhaps God has not given this to us because we would likely turn those pages into sacred mystical relics and start worshipping them instead of God. People are already doing this with our printed English Bibles.
  • In some ways, these small textual adjustments over the years are not very different from our small theological adjustments over the years. For just as we discover new Biblical manuscripts, so also we discover new insights from the original languages, historical settings, archaeological discoveries, etc., which have adjusted our understanding of Scripture. Once again, these changes have not affected the core doctrine of mainstream Christianity.

What about John 7:53–8:11?

This is a beautiful story of Jesus showing mercy to a woman caught in adultery. In relatively recent times, we have realized that this text does not show up in our earliest manuscripts of the New Testament, and so most scholars (both conservate Christian and non-Christian) conclude that this text was not originally written by John. This is particularly troubling for Christians because, unlike most textual issues, this is not just a word or phrase. It’s an entire Biblical passage! How should we understand this?

  • Even if this was never supposed to be part of the Bible, that doesn’t mean it never happened. The story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery was likely a real event passed down orally among Christians, just like any other story of Jesus in the gospels before they were put into writing.
  • Just because we have a later addition does not mean it was a malicious attempt to put lies in the Bible. Perhaps a well-intentioned scribe confused the oral tradition with the written tradition of Jesus. Thinking that it had been removed, the scribe may have put it back in as a “corrective,” even though it was never supposed to be there in the first place.
  • Another possibility—though not without its own theological concerns—is that the Holy Spirit inspired a well-intentioned scribe to include this story in the gospel of John. This would mean that the story was still inspired and that it was part of God’s plan all along for the finalized version of the Gospel of John. Of course, this raises valid concerns about apostolic authority. But we must also acknowledge that Deuteronomy 34 (the death and burial of Moses) was not written by Moses.
  • Though unlikely, it could be that we will find even earlier manuscripts of John which include this story. But for now, our best posture as faithful Christians is to conclude that the story was probably unoriginal to John.