The Work of Textual Criticism
by Matthew Tingblad
For those of you who have engaged with Christian apologetics, you probably understand that a common objection to the Bible is that it has been changed or corrupted over time. Our response is to point out the number of manuscripts we have of the Bible, the early date of many of the manuscripts, and give a brief explanation of how this helps us to reconstruct the original text of the Bible through a process referred to as “Textual Criticism.”
As an apologist, it helps to have this information ready for anyone skeptical of our modern text in the Bible. But very few of us have actually done the work of textual criticism, and so there remains a shade of doubt and mystery of this esoteric work and how this all comes together. You know that we have a good handle on the text of the Bible generally speaking, but what about any given verse? For instance, you may be reading the ESV when you stumble across a direct claim to the deity of Jesus, referred to as “God” in John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” This is an important verse in our search for the true identity of Jesus. Yet you pick up the KJV and the reference to Jesus as God is lost: “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” Translations often differ based on stylistic preferences, but you may suspect we are looking at a textual variant by which the ESV and KJV have chosen different readings. You would be correct!
I had the opportunity to study textual criticism in seminary and to actually do the work of a textual critic on this verse, and I would like to walk you though the process. My goal is that by the end, you will have a closer sense of how this process works, even if you don’t have the tools and education in the original Greek language to do the process yourself…