Observing the relationship between textual criticism, biblical inerrancy and the study of New Testament manuscripts

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Jude 1:1 “Jude, a slave of Jesus Christ and a brother of James: To those who are the called, loved by God the Father and kept by Jesus Christ.” (NASB)

Introduction and review from the last post:

In our last post (https://biblicalexegete.wordpress.com/2015/09/06/lessons-learned-about-deciphering-manuscripts-from-a-new-testament-greek-scholar/) we looked at some lessons in reading New Testament manuscripts that were introduced by New Testament professor and Greek scholar Dr. William Varner. This blogger had opportunity to participate and learn with others in an open type discussion forum started by Dr. Varner at https://faithlife.com/william-varner/activity.  For ten days Dr. Varner posted digitial photographs of three major Greek manuscripts Codex Siniaticus (designated by the Hebrew letter “א”), Vaticanus (designated by the English upper-case “B”) and P75 (meaning papyri # 75) of Jude 1:1-5. By interracting with these manuscripts, Dr. Varner used the opportunity to teach basic skills in sight reading and basic study of the documents.

Today’s post wants to consider some further observations regarding what typically is experienced when beginning to study ancient New Testament manuscripts. The post will be divided into three general subjects that are interrelated to this area of study:

1. Defining textual criticism, its purpose and necessity

2. Understanding the relationship of biblical inerrancy to the study of ancient manuscripts and textual criticism

3. An example of studying ancient New Testament manucripts and a little bit of textual criticism

The first two parts of this post will aim to give a brief introduction to the definition and importance textual criticism and how it relates to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. The third part will rely mostly upon Dr. Varner’s teachings (mentioned above). The post will then end with some final thoughts and applications for the reader. The goal of today’s post is to orientate the reader to the fascinating world of the study and history of the New Testament text, so as to foster appreciation of the history and preservation of God’s Holy Word.

1. Defining textual criticism, its purpose and necessity

Dr. David Alan Black, an expert in New Testament textual criticism and Professor of New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, defines the discipline and necessity of New Testament textual criticism in his book: New Testament Textual Criticism, page 12: “The importance of New Testament textual criticism is best seen in its purpose: to recover the original text of the New Testament from the available evidence. Two factors make New Testament textual criticism a necessary field of study. The first is none of the original manuscripts (often called ‘autographs’) of the New Testament have survived. No one can say why this is so – except that a sovereign God designed it that way. Perhaps if an autograph had survived, it would have been worshipped or exploited as a relic. More probably the originals were worn out after repeated reading, both private and public.” 

Dr. Black writes a second observation about textual criticism: “The second reason why textual criticism is necessary is because of the numerous mistakes in the extant copies of the New Testament. These mistakes must be identified, and the correct reading deduced, before exegesis can take place. New Testament textual criticism is, therefore, basic to all other biblical and theological study.”1

In reflecting upon Dr. Black’s clear explanation, a couple observations are in order. First, when mention is made of “textual criticism”, readers may be tempted to think of such a study as being negative due to the word “criticism”. However, when the term “criticism” is used in the study of ancient documents, the term simply refers to the method of analyzing and closely documenting any differences between handwritten copies of the original source document.

Secondly, in the centuries leading up to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, all documents, including the Old and New Testaments, were hand written. Anytime a given document of any book of the Bible was read or preached from in a worship service, natural use over a period of time would require new copies to be made.

2. Understanding the relationship of biblical inerrancy to the study of ancient manuscripts and textual criticism

So how do the observations of textual criticism and variations among the manuscripts not cancel out a commitment to Biblical inerrancy and authority? The biblical doctrine of inerrancy proceeds on three interrelated grounds. The first ground is Jesus and the apostles’ view of scripture as divinely inspired and without error. By Jesus’ day, the autographs of the Old Testament were no longer available. It is likely He and the apostles taught and preached mainly from what was then existing copies of the Greek Old Testament such as the Septuagint or similar Greek translations. Inerrancy has to do with the original documents. As R. Laird Harris in his book: “Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible” has pointed out, a second and equally important doctrine, preservation, deals with how well those words have been preserved in our copies and translations. Jesus and the Apostles never disputed the Divine authority possessed by their copies of the scriptures. Hence, Jesus and the apostles set the tone for understanding how we can still argue for manuscripts and translations as carrying the authority of God’s inerrant word while recognizing that all of God’s words are preserved among our extant manuscripts and copies. As Harris notes concerning Christ’s authority: “His authority provides adequate grounds for the doctrine of verbal inspiration.”2

Since Jesus and the apostles operated on an undeniably high view of scripture as God’s word, the second ground for retaining Biblical inerrancy is in understanding that only the original autographs possess this quality. It must be acknowledged that since God is a God who does not lie (Titus 1:2) and since He has communicated to man by revelation of words (Exodus 24:4; Luke 24:44) then it follows that the words revealed and inspired by Him would be without error as originally given. Practically speaking, one cannot expect to derive purer copies of the New Testament from a less-pure source. However, it is much more reasonable to deduce that inerrant autographs, inspired and revealed by God to the prophets and apostles, could in their wording and sentiment be preserved among copies that are imperfectly copied.

This then leads us to our third reason for being able to maintain biblical inerrancy in light of textual criticism – the doctrine of preservation. Textual criticism is important due to the fact that it acknowledges that we do not possess the autographs. This presents no problem to a high view of scripture, being that the basis and goal of textual criticism is to recover the original text. Scholars of both conservative and liberal bents have regularly acknowledged that no document of antiquity is better preserved than the New Testament (the Old Testament is very close in its level of preservation).

Moreover, no major doctrine of Christianity is compromised, altered nor confused by differences and variations among the manuscripts. As a matter of fact, if we were to take all the variations – both small and great – and put them all together, they would account for roughly 3-4 pages out of an average 750 plus page modern edition of the Greek New Testament. Within those 3-4 pages, 75% of the variations account for spelling differences or synonym variations. In short, the science of textual criticism has over the centuries demonstrated an over 99% certainty of the wording of the 138,162 word Greek New Testament. Facts such as these prompted theologian Dr. Wayne Grudem to observe that for all intents and purposes, we do have the original autographs with us today, spread in and through our manuscripts, copies and translations.

These observations have time and time again confirmed to this blogger as a preacher of the Bible for nearly 25 years that the English translations and Greek and Hebrew Bibles from whence sermons and lessons are given to God’s people derive from documents that bear the authority of inerrent, infallible and all sufficient scripture. When textual criticism is rightly understood in its usage of studying the texts of the Old and New Testaments, it can actually demonstrate the reliability of scripture as God’s inerrant words originally revealed, providentially preserved in the manuscripts and most importantly, adhered to as such by Jesus and the Apostles.

With textual criticism’s aim and importance now defined, as well as the relationship Biblical inerrancy has to such a discipline, we can now turn briefly to what it is like when beginning to work with ancient New Testament manuscripts.

3. An example of studying ancient New Testament manucripts and a little bit of textual criticism

If we take all that is written above an observe some work with the manuscripts in one verse, we will witness firsthand all that has been said. On Dr. Varner’s discussion of Jude 1:1, he begins by noting: “Read a Biblical manuscript with me. What strikes you about Jude 1 in Sinaiticus? What Dr. Varner then does is take the Unical script (capital Greek lettering and non-spaced wording) of Sinaiticus and reproduces it in upper and lower-case words in what is called a “transcription”. Dr. Varner then produces the following transcription of Jude 1:1: Ἰούδας Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ δοῦλος, ἀδελφὸς δὲ Ἰακώβου, τοῖς ἐν θεῷ πατρὶ ἠγαπημένοις καὶ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ τετηρημένοις κλητοῖς· 3  Translated in the English of the NASB the passage reads: “Jude, a bond-servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, To those who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ.” Such transcription enables the reader to then navigate ancient manuscripts like Codex Siniaticus, which Dr. Varner then posts (as seen below):

What Dr. Varner then does is ask readers to compare Siniaticus (א) above to another ancient manuscript, Codex Vaticanus. Thankfully in our digital age, we can view online digital files of numerous ancient manuscripts. The following link will take the reader to the Codex Vaticanus homepage, at which the reader will notice the target text of Jude 1:1 in the first six lines of the third right column at http://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.gr.1209/1447?sid=75c2ed1e66522e841714d26dac165b2b

Admittedly the study of these manuscripts can get technical, however for the sake of brevity and readability, I will cite Dr. Varner’s first two observations of Jude 1:1 in these two manuscripts:

1. “Instead of indentation, the first letter of ΙΟΥΔΑC” (corresponding to Ιουδας or Jude) is decorated in the margin. This different style works against the suggestion that א and B were part of the 50 mss commissioned by Constantine. While similar in text type, they differ physically in just too many ways.

2. Keep in mind that later scribes also worked on this manuscript. For example, the accents were added later (14th cent?). Actually some scribe also strengthened each stroke of the ms.” 

The reader should be reminded that manuscripts such as Siniaticus and Vaticanus were copied in the middle to late 4th century, A.D. The fact that scribes worked with these two manuscripts and used them as benchmarks for working with other manuscripts into at least the 14th century (1,000 years later!) demonstrates the long history and usage of them.

Final thoughts and practical considerations

We will close today’s post with five observations. First, we considered the definition of and significance of textual criticism to the study of the New Testament. Such a discipline is necessary for understanding what we mean by the New Testament text, as well as proceeding with the aim that for all intents and purposes, we still have God’s words with us among the manuscripts and translations. Secondly, this post aimed to give the reader a glimpse into a slice of God’s Providential preservation of the New Testament text. Third, the doctrines of the preservation of scripture and inerrancy in the original autographs was taught and/or practiced by Jesus and the Apostles. Fourthly, by witnessing what it is like to work with the manuscripts themselves, a high view of scripture is not overturned because of easier access to digitized versions of these manuscripts, but only heightened. Then finally, when we realize the long history of the New Testament text, and understand how we can with virtual 100% certainty claim that we have God’s words with us in the manuscripts and translations, claiming our Bibles to be the authoritative, inerrant Word of God serves to make more sense of the relationship we see between textual criticism, inerrancy and the study of early New Testament manuscripts.


1. Black, David Alan. New Testament Textual Criticism. Baker Books. 1994.

2. Harris, Laird R. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible. Zondervan. 1957

3. Varner, William. https://faithlife.com/william-varner/activity.

4. Varner, William. https://faithlife.com/william-varner/activity.


About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
This entry was posted in Biblical Inerrancy, Divine Inspiration, Jesus' relationship to the Bible, Preservation of the Biblical Text and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Observing the relationship between textual criticism, biblical inerrancy and the study of New Testament manuscripts

  1. Pingback: Observing the relationship between textual criticism, biblical inerrancy and the study of Old Testament manuscripts | biblicalexegete

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