How Do Textual Critics Choose Among New Testament Manuscript Variants?

by 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.

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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…

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RECOMMENDED APOLOGETICS RESOURCES FOR FURTHER READING:

Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and JohnCan We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

Misquoting TruthMisquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus”

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