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Rembrandt van Rijn, Scholar at His Writing Table, Modified section of the painting.
Scholar at His Writing Table

Modern Bibles Derive from Textual Criticism

Different Bibles and what they do to you. The Bible is a collection of texts from Judaism and Christianity. There is no single "Bible", but Bibles with varying contents - there are different recensions with different selections of texts, which largely overlap, though.

Most people are apt to take texts on trust, even to prefer a familiar version, however debased or unauthentic, to the true one. Such people are saved from themselves by the works of good textual critics. (EB)

Is there a Best Bible Translation in English? It means a lot to be fed with the best versions and not succumb to doubtful or deranged passages. Those unaware of the details dealt with in textual criticism might think that there are no corruptions in the Bible. And yet, in the New Testament, and in particular in the Masoretic texts of the Old Testament, changes, corruptions, and erasures have been found by scholars. Textual corruptions fool people, and fooled persons may become victims. There is good reason to see through books that expose all sorts of unfair, biased material too.

What is needed is a wonderful tool for essential bible research without biased plotting, one that does not hide cruelties, tribalism, craziness, absurdities and contradictions much else that makes the "Good Book" bad reading for good people. One may get armed with The Skeptic's Annotated Bible (2012, also online) by Steve Wells against such Bible features and what they do to people. Wells presents the King James version with remarks attached, and has found 472 contradictions, 2,187 absurdities, 231 false prophecies and much else over the years (so far). He points out 507 instances he considers "Good Stuff". He uses icons to mark different kinds of messages. It is a thorough work.

There are sites online for different Bible versions. So it is possible to compare easily. The Gold Scales' 'Search' button leads to some pages to choose among. Tip: NIV is good. NIV stands for 'New International Version'.

Dr Bart D. Ehrman has written books on forgeries and corruption in the the Bible.

So you thought the Bible is free from corruption? Better think twice.

Later-added: is that a problem? The first church was ill-famed for its forgeries, such as putting words into the mouth of Jesus quite a lot. So which is the best Bible translation? Which is closer to the original text? What translations tend to prefer original Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew purport rather than later and possibly later-added material? Good Bibles today seek to stipulate when many questionable passages were included in the old times if they are not in the early texts. If such later-added material looks severely "out of tune" with older or other passages and is left out of late for such reasons, then these omissions are pointed out, and a reason for leaving them out is given. That can be good help, enabling a reader to see for herself or himself.

But there is more: Dr Geza Vermes has tried to sort the most likely original sayings of Jesus, calling his result The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (2005). It is a scholar's attempt at weighing likelihood after likelihood, without finding any clear proof that any saying ascribed to Jesus, is authentic. He wrote nothing himself, and most of his apostles were fishers and not very studied, and the gospels were put down in writing decades on decades after his execution. [More of Dr Vermes]

It tells of a religion based on writings for Jews only, and with forgeries added to them to let him seem interested in helping non-Jews, which the living Jesus did not want to. He wanted his teachings, Kingdom, salvaton and healing ministry kept for Jews alone, and gentiles were strictly kept out of it, with only a couple of exceptions. Considering the evidence, we can accept that also! (Vermes 2010:39, 41 etc.)

OK proof of the faults of a faith is largely not welcome among dogmatised victims of it, forgeries and all.

Findings abound. As a result of such efforts at understanding the gospels one may get an overview that leaves out the Missionary Command as spurious. Some bibles say the passages are later additions, and others also tell they are spurious. Here is such an overview - a summary of long years of study. The renowned Bible scholar Geza Vermes sums up:

Fl. During his days of preaching, Jesus of Nazareth addressed only Jews, "the lost sheep of Israel" (Matthew 10:5-8; 15:24). His disciples were expressly instructed not to approach gentiles or Samaritans (Matthew 10:5-8). On the few occasions that Jesus ventured beyond the boundaries of his homeland, he never proclaimed his gospel to pagans, nor did his disciples do so during his lifetime. The mission of the 11 apostles to "all the nations" (Matthew 28:19) is a "post-Resurrection" idea. It appears to be of Pauline inspiration and is nowhere else found in the Gospels (apart from the spurious longer ending of Mark [Mark 16:15], which is missing from all the older manuscripts). Jesus' own perspective was exclusively Jewish; he was concerned only with Jews. (Vermes 2012)

In the light of such information, one is given clues that lead to considering how far common Christianity is rooted in a series of later-added forgeries.

More interesting still: Is something based on old forgeries truly valid and impeccable?

"Go and throw a mountain into the sea," to test it, for the true followers - that is, Jewish ones - are told they may do it in Matthew 21:21. Later, non-Jewish adherents were given just four requirements and no self-maimer gospel sayings of Jesus, and note it well. (Acts 15:18-21; 21:25)

Anyone among those who say they are followers of Jesus, can prove if they are so by throwing a mountain into the sea by doing the talk, and not the walk. Christianity failing to have any mountain-throwers, is that a good thing? It depends in part on how big the tsunamis from the mountains might be. So far it has not been a big problem. And in any case the true follower has another promise up his sleeve, so to speak: "Still the waves" is handy if it works . . . (see Mark 4:35-41 in the light of John 14:12) and think, "A genuine follower can do better, says our Leader!"

How welcome is it that common Christianity is rooted in forgeries?

Consider what forgeries may do to people. But the long-range, delicate problem is what Jesus says he will to to hypocrites and evildoers who claim him, even miracle-workers who do not do as he tells in all the gospel ways. Assuming they did miracles but not the supreme miracle of being acceptable to heaven's door-man Jesus as non-Jewish miracle workers who ignored a vast array of his sayings, that is. (Matthew 7:22-23).

So, based on what is in the gospels, also called internal evidence of its kind, including forgeries and other interesting stuff for Jews only, we are told, one comes to realise there are no true Jesus followers around, and the sooner the better. What we find are Christians of many kinds (Acts 15:18-21). Are they victims of old forgeries? As it is, many forms of traditional Christianity are rooted in old forgeries and editions, but with many "full dress impressive" Pagan parts and rituals included from the early centuries in the Roman Empire.

Get informed against folly faith the sooner the better

Going into Some Delicate Details

A good Bible version helps us to detect meanings rather than ride phrases and obsolete ways of wording.

The best translations are paraphrasing or mistranslating texts less than others. See for yourself by comparing Bible verses in different translations. There are online site that help such comparison work. [Find some if you can, via the 'Search' entry on top of this page.]

This said, the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible is the most widely read English translation today. It is of good quality, understandable plain English, and much accurate for most part. It is considered to hold the original meaning of the Bible because it attempts to capture the entire thought behind each verse. It omits certain passages (as Matthew 18:11 and Acts 8:37) as unauthentic and spurious, passages that other translations do not omit or do not omit all of, for some reasons.

So some recent translations omit a few verses that are not included in the oldest and best Bible manuscripts. It is done to accurately preserve the original Bible text. An example: "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen," in Matthew 6:13. Those words are not found in any of the oldest manuscripts of Matthew, and can be dropped for such a reason. Whether Jesus said them or not, is a good question. The oldest evidence does not go for them, and conjectures (guessing) is not a good basis for a translation.

A word like 'Amen' is misused too -

It follows

The more recent Bible translators have applied textual criticism and a broader knowledge of the background of some Bible verses. Thus, recent developments in scientific dating methods, Biblical scholarship and archaeology have brought about many more accurate English translations of the Bible than King James' Version (KJV) of 1611. Teams of translator scholars have tried to convey the true meaning of the best among the supposedly oldest available manuscripts to the modern reader, and the best translations for people of today and tomorrow are not in archaic English, for the main thrust has been to carry across significant meanings in quite ordinary language rather than archaic ways of wording that may be misunderstood or not understood tolerably well.

Here is an example: English lacks a "he-she pronoun" that applies to men and women equally well. The Swedes have very recently introduced "hen" and their solution, from han, he, and hon, she. It means a "human". The common he-she pronoun in the original Hebrew translated as "he" or "him" in English Bibles can be more accurately phrased to convey the inclusive sense of the original manuscripts. Thus, "He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth me" in King James' Version (KJV) is changed to "Whoever receives one whom I send receives me," in the New Standard Revised Bible (NSRB).

Another example: "A man is justified by faith." But the Greek word anthropos, "human being", applies equally to both sexes. Therefore a better translation is "a person is justified by faith" in the NRSV (The New Revised Standard Version Bible) and TNIV (Today's New International Version of the Bible) - better because it accurately reflects the he-she meaning of the Greek word that translations take off from.

So publishers of the most recent Bibles are now open to using "she-he" terms where both sexes would have been implied in the original Hebrew and Greek languages.

The "whoever" gets his or her turn . . .

Textual Criticism

Textual criticism is a branch of philology and literary criticism, and is concerned with identifying and removing transcription errors in texts, both manuscripts and printed books. A goal shared by many is to bring about texts that are meant to be as near as possible to their (purported) original forms - And more modestly, at least to detect forms of the text that were current in some places in the ancient world.

There is, further, one universally valid principle of textual criticism: that each case is special. Another point is that much learning or mastery of method will not compensate for a lack of common sense. (EB). A. E. Housman wrote:

A man who possesses common sense and the use of reason must not expect to learn from treatises or lectures on textual criticism anything that he could not, with leisure and industry, find out for himself. What the lectures and treatises can do for him is to save him time and trouble by presenting to him immediately considerations which would in any case occur to him sooner or later. (EB)

Accordingly, with much common sense there is a way, in theory.

When ancient scribes translated or copied manuscripts by hand, some of them made errors and also changed their texts in several places. So it fairly often shows up that when texts are transmitted, texts vary. The task of the textual critic is to detect and, so far as possible, undo the errors, omissions and additions and try to reconstruct the original text as well as as possible. A textual critic's work can culminate in a "critical edition" that comes closer to the (lost) original than other editions before him or her.

Critical texts are edited according to conventions, and follow certain general principles. In preparing his text for printing the critic will adopt modern conventions of presentation and punctuation and a normalised orthography.

A textual critic's work can culminate also.

Stages of Textual Criticism

The critical process can be divided into three stages: (1) recension, (2) examination, and (3) emendation. However, "(2) and (3) are in practice performed simultaneously, and even (1) entails the application of criteria theoretically appropriate to (2) and (3)". (EB)

1. Recension

This involves reconstructing of the earliest form or forms of the text that can be inferred from the surviving evidence, whether internal or external. Relevant information must be sought. Having assembled his evidence, the critic may decide how she or he will handle the problems. There are different approaches. The outcome is that the number of usable texts is generally reduced to those who are asserted to be the most "authoritative."

2. Examination

The aim of examining a transmitted text is to determine whether it is "authentic", or whether any transmitted variants of it can be so. The critic is "most of the time" faced with pairs (sometimes triplets) of variants, all with a presumptive claim to be considered authoritative.

3. Emendation

The try to restore the transmitted text to its authentic state is called emendation. There may be a time gap, sometimes of several centuries, between the earliest inferable state of the text, and the original. If examining a transmitted text convinces a critic that the text or its variants are not authentic, he may resorts to conjecture (guesswork). There are good guesses and others. "In practice the making of conjectures, as distinct from testing them, is intelligent guesswork . . . The best critic is he who discriminates best." (EB)

Set ways of textual criticism

The eclectic approach. One may draw from several sources and variant readings and combine readings by the eclectic (selective) approach. The reason for such an approach is that independently transmitted stories are less likely to reproduce the same errors. Eclecticism allows inferences to be drawn about the original text too. In the seach for a good manuscripts, the oldest manuscripts tend to be more favoured than later manuscripts. And there is much more to take into account - scholars have developed guidelines of textual criticism. Among the rules of the thumbs and the caveats are:

  • One rule of the thumb is that "the shorter reading is better", based on the idea that scribes were more likely to add than to delete. However, scribes may have omitted material inadvertently.
  • The evaluations and interpretations of editors may be all too subjective.
  • The idea that the version that appears most often is the correct one, may be wrong too. A less recurrent but plausible variant may be the correct one.

Eclectism is fit if there is a group of good manuscripts to begin with, and that has to be determined also.

One text only. The other approach is to choose just one surviving text that is thought to be the best available one and see if there are parts of it that can be emended -

Higher criticism. Textual criticism lays the foundations for "higher criticism", which seeks to establish authorship, date, and place of composition of the original text. "The operations of textual and "higher" criticism cannot be rigidly differentiated: The methods of textual criticism, insofar as they are not codified common sense, are the methods of historical inquiry." (EB)


Stemmatics, stemmology or stemmatology is a method of supposedly rigorous textual criticism, and works from the principle that "community of error implies community of origin." That is, if two text variants have a number of errors in common, they might have been derived from a common intermediate source, and are a family of a sort, stemming from the same root text.

The critic seeks to determine the possible root text by examining variants at hand and select text from them. The editor has to resort to skills of identification and good judgement to get to a good-looking reading. After the selection, the text may still contain errors, since there may be passages where no source preserves the correct reading. The editor is then left to examine some and find corrupted passages and so on. Where the editor concludes that a text is corrupt, it is corrected by "emendation" (divinatio) and guesswork (conjectural emendations).

However, the critic Joseph Bédier (1864–1938) noted that for many works more than one reasonable stem text could be postulated. He thereby quite undermined the supposed firm foundation or the "rigour" of stemmology by showing the method was not as rigorous or as scientific as its proponents had thought it to be - and that the critic resorts to guesswork (conjecture) "at every step" of the process. Bédier concluded that the editor should choose the best available text and emend it "as little as possible" - How little is that? There may be no agreement about it. Judgements may differ.

Copy-text editing

When copy-text editing, the scholar fixes errors in a base text, often with the help of other texts. The Revised Version of the English bible, for example, has resulted from the copy-text method. The art of such editing involves choosing one particular text that is thought to be particularly reliable, and then to emend text passages that are obviously corrupt.

The copy-text is not necessarily the earliest text available. Moreover, in "The Rationale of Copy-Text" (1950), Sir Walter W. Greg proposed that the "copy-text can be allowed no over-riding or even preponderant authority so far as substantive readings are concerned." The editor would have to form opinions about the copies at hand and about what might be original texts. Also, an editor should be free to use his judgment to choose between competing readings.


Cladistics - in biology, the technique is used to determine the evolutionary relationships between different species. In textual criticism, the text of a number of different manuscripts is entered into a computer, which records all the differences between them. The manuscripts are then grouped according to their shared characteristics. The method works as well as its designed program and data power lets it. Cladistics assumes that different manuscripts are part of a branching family tree and uses that assumption to derive relationships between them.

There is ample material to put into the computer: The New Testament has been preserved in more than 5,800 Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages. There are about 300,000 textual variants among the manuscripts; most of them are changes of word order and other rather trivial matters.

Sorting the handed-over material: Text-types

New Testament textual critics have sorted Bible text versions at hand, the "witnesses", into three major groups or "families", and approached them by eclective (selective) measures or strides. The groups are called text-types. The most common division today is:

1. The Alexandrian text-type (also called the "Neutral Text" tradition; less frequently, the "Minority Text") - 2nd–4th centuries CE (Current Era)

This family constitutes a group of early and well-regarded texts, including Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. Most of this tradition appear to come from around Alexandria, Egypt and from the Alexandrian Church. It contains readings that are often terse, shorter, somewhat rough, less harmonised, and generally more difficult. The family is believed to be the result of a carefully controlled and supervised process of copying and transmission. It underlies most modern translations of the New Testament, and the NIV among them.

2. The Western text-type - 3rd–9th centuries CE.

Manuscripts sorted under this text-type come from a wide geographical area stretching from North Africa to Italy, from Gaul to Syria. It is found in Greek manuscripts and in the Latin translations used by the Western church. Its text versions are seen to be more prone to paraphrase and other corruptions. It is sometimes called the Caesarean text-type, but some New Testament scholars would argue that the Caesarean constitutes a distinct text-type of its own.

3. The Byzantine text-type; also, Koiné text-type (also called Majority Text) - 5th–16th centuries CE

This group encompasses around 80 percent of all manuscripts; most of them are made later than manuscripts of the two first text-types, the Alexandrian and Western types. The Byzantine text-type had become dominant at Constantinople from the 5th century on and was used throughout the Byzantine church. It contains the most harmonistic* readings, paraphrases and significant additions, and most of these manuscripts are believed to be secondary readings.

Harmonistic: "the text of one gospel often agrees with that of another against its own Greek". (Howard, 1980)

The Byzantine text-type underlies the Textus Receptus* used for most Reformation-era translations of the New Testament. One of the central tenets in the current practice of New Testament textual criticism is that one should follow the readings of the Alexandrian texts unless those of the other types are clearly superior, whatever that means in any case.

Textus Receptus (Latin: "received text") is the name given to the succession of printed Greek texts of the New Testament which constituted the translation base for the original German Luther Bible, the translation of the New Testament into English by William Tyndale, the King James Version, and most other Reformation-era New Testament translations throughout Western and Central Europe. [WP "Textus receptus"]

Most modern New Testament translations now use an Eclectic Greek text that is closest to the Alexandrian text-type. The United Bible Societies's Greek New Testament (UBS5) and Nestle Aland (NA 28) are accepted by most of the academic community as the best attempt at reconstructing the original texts of the Greek NT (New Testament).

A minority argue that the Byzantine text-type represents an earlier text-type than the surviving Alexandrian texts, just because there are more of them. It could very well be the other way round, though.

Further, some scholars have criticised the current categorization of manuscripts into text-types and prefer either to subdivide the manuscripts in other ways or to discard the text-type taxonomy. Textual criticism is also used by those who assert that the New Testament was written in Aramaic.

Reformation biblical scholars such as Martin Luther saw the academic analysis of biblical texts and their provenance as entirely in line with orthodox Christian faith. Many of them called themselves Christian humanists because textual criticism of biblical texts lay at the heart of their work.

A sample of possibly later addition and disputed passages

Possible later additions are: Mark 16:9-20; Luke 22:43-44; John 7:53-8:11; and 1 John 5:7-8.

Other disputed NT passages: John 1:18; 1 Corinthians 14:33-35: The instruction for women to be silent in churches may be a later, non-Pauline addition to that letter.


Bible criticism, Literature  

Caldas-Coulthard, Carmen Rosa, and Malcolm Coulthard, eds. Texts and Practices: Readings in Critical Discourse Analysis. London: Francis and Taylor, 2003.

Carrette, Jeremy. Religion and Critical Psychology: The Ethics of Not-knowing in the Knowledge Economy. Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor and Francis, 2008. Davis, Todd F., and Kenneth Womack. Transitions: Formalist Criticism and Reader-Response Theory. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002.

EB. Encyclopaedia Britannia. Online or as yearly DVD suite. Sv. "textual criticism".

Ehrman, Bart D. Studies in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament. Leiden: Brill, 2006.

Ehrman, Bart D. The Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Grant, Robert M. Heresy and Criticism: The Search for Authenticity in Early Christian Literature. Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1993.

Howard, George. "Harmonistic Readings in the Old Syriac Gospels." The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 73, No. 3/4 (Jul. - Oct., 1980), pp. 473-491.

Locke, Terry. Critical Discourse Analysis. London: Continuum, 2004.

Metzger, Bruce M., and Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restauration. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Pickering, Wilbur N. The Identity of the New Testament Text II. Paperback ed. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003.

Pickering, Wilbur N. The Identity of the New Testament Text III. Paperback ed. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012.

Pickering, Wilbur N. The Identity of the New Testament Text IV. Paperback ed. Self-Published, 2014.

Holladay, Carl A. A Critical Introduction to the New Testament: Interpreting the Message and Meaning of Jesus Christ. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2005.

van Voorst, Robert E. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.

Vermes, Geza. The Authentic Gospel of Jesus. London: Penguin, 2005.

Vermes, Geza. "From Jewish to Gentile: How the Jesus Movement Became Christianity." Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) 38:06, Nov/Dec 2012.

Vermes, Geza. The Real Jesus: Then and Now. Minneapolis, MI: Fortress Press, 2010.

Wells, Steve. The Skeptic's Annotated Bible: The King James' Version from a Skeptic's Point of View. Np.: SAB Books, 2012. [Online]

WP. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, sv. "Textual criticism".

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