Textual Criticism of Biblical and non-Biblical texts

Textual Criticism of Biblical and non-Biblical Texts

by Giuseppe Guarino

Textual criticism does not originate with the Bible. The need to try to extricate oneself from the divergences in the readings of the various manuscripts concerns all the texts handed down and disseminated before the invention of printing.

Already in remote antiquity they tried to remedy the errors of copyists, trying to identify and correct them in order to produce copies more faithful to the original. The copying errors did not escape the scholars of the ancient cultural center of Alexandria, where, as is known, there was the largest library of antiquity already in the third century BC. The Alexandrian scholars, in addition to having developed a system of annotation of errors on the manuscripts themselves, entertained themselves in discussions on the variants, giving rise to the first criteria of criticism of the text of which we have remained trace.

Later in time, in second-century Rome, a treatise by Auto Gellio: Noctes Atticae was published. Gellio’s work is careful and based on a serious evaluation of the manuscripts he himself searched for and compared – an activity that is technically called “collation” and is still the basis of textual criticism today. It was a good work, careful and serious, valid because the study of objective evidence, such as the various manuscripts available to a text, their comparison and evaluation allows to obtain excellent results.

The same cannot be said of Servius, who lived in the second half of the fourth century, who instead prefers the correction of the text of the manuscripts that attract his interest on the basis of criteria related to his personal judgment, rather than evaluating the readings of the various manuscripts. The latter method of work sublimates a textual practice called “conjectural emendation” which represents a method of clumsy or even dangerous approach, if used indiscriminately: it is a correction to the text made in the first person by those who copy it, without any objective support, except their own personal judgment.

Origen, scholar and prolific Christian writer who lived in Alexandria in Egypt in the third century AD, was an active critic of the biblical text. Some of his statements, however, leave rather perplexing, when personal evaluations of the quality of the readings of some manuscripts make him go so far as to use conjectural emendation. Origen belongs to the Alexandrian school and although he was a Christian, his scholarly behavior was affected by the cultural atmosphere that surrounded him.

A generation after that of Origen, Jerome, author of the official Latin version of the Roman Church, the Vulgate, also grapples and discusses the textual problems related to the transmission of ancient texts.

In the Middle Ages, a more defined method of criticism of the text was developed, which took into account several factors. 1. The antiquity of manuscript evidence; Objectively very important: a manuscript closer in time to the original is probably a more reliable witness. 2. The number of manuscripts: A reading in multiple manuscripts is more likely to be authentic. The evaluation of the evidence and the internal considerations of the text contribute for the critic in the search for the original. These principles are substantially applied even today in modern criticism.

In the Middle Ages people felt the value of every single word found in the Bible. This imposed a textual criteria that basically was applied even in the study of non-Christian writings. The liberties that scholars of the time took left their mark, giving rise to updated and annotated editions rather than manuscripts that were the result of simple copying. In this period a very important practice was born which, although in a more evolved form, continues to this day: the annotation in the margins of the text of the variants offered by the manuscripts. This care enables the reader to have sufficient information to judge for himself which variant he prefers or otherwise evaluate the options offered by the various witnesses.

Evaluating manuscript evidence and attempting to understand the types of errors committed by scribes will guide the critic in the search for the original. In his work ‘De fato et fortuna,’ the humanist Coluccio Salutati aligns himself with a well-established tradition when he distinguishes between deliberate errors of scribes (when they ‘boldly change what they do not understand’) and unintentional errors (when they ‘forget absentmindedly due to a distracted mind and a lack of attention’). He also mentions errors caused by interlinear or marginal glosses that infiltrate the text (when they ‘assume glosses from the margins and interlinear spaces of codices as parts of the text to be transcribed’). Istituzione di Filologia Medievale, op. cit., pag. 18.

Often, the issues in the transmission of medieval texts are not as dramatic as with other writings from the past. For example, Petrarch had the opportunity to be present during the editing of the final manuscripts of his works. However, there are still considerations regarding the direct involvement of the author in the copying of his book.

“The autograph does not necessarily coincide with the original, so ‘original’ and ‘autograph’ are not synonyms. In the case of Petrarch’s Canzoniere, we have the original manuscript (Vat. Lat. 3995), which is not entirely autograph. It was partially copied under Petrarch’s supervision by his trusted scribe, Giovanni Malpaghini.” Ibid, p.26.

Finally, before moving on to biblical textual criticism, let’s consider some data on the quantity of surviving manuscripts of certain ancient books up to the present day.

For Italian literature of the fourteenth century, the oldest manuscript of the Divina Commedia is the Landiano (Piacenza, Biblioteca Comunale Passerini Landi cod. 190), which is dated to 1336, just 15 years after the author’s death. http://www.danteonline.it is a website where you can find information about manuscripts of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Naturally, the state of the text of this work is more than excellent.

The same cannot be said for older books.

Bruce Metzger is one of the main authorities in the field. He reports: “Homer’s Iliad… the ‘Bible’ of the ancient Greeks, is preserved in 457 papyri, 2 uncial manuscripts (all in capital letters), and 188 minuscule manuscripts. Among tragic authors, Euripides has the most witnesses; his works are preserved in 54 papyri and 276 parchment manuscripts, all of which can be dated to the Byzantine period.” Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, Oxford University Press, ed. 1980, p. 34. The same scholar continues to highlight how Tacitus’ annals, specifically the first six books, are transmitted in a single manuscript dating back to the 9th century.

The issues related to the criticism of the biblical text differ significantly from those concerning other texts. Regardless of whether one considers the Bible the Word of God or not, the approach of those evaluating its manuscript evidence must be radically different.

The textual critic who engages with the biblical text must take into account two very important factors: 1) The biblical text has the best and most secure manuscript attestation one could hope for in a book of such antiquity. 2) The amount of material available is both their greatest ally and their main adversary.

Furthermore, the paths diverge: the Old and New Testaments are indeed distinct textual realities.

The Old Testament is much older than the New Testament. If we agree with traditional dating, the Pentateuch dates back to the 15th  century BC, and the last prophetic writings to the 5th  century BC.

The manuscript evidence of the Old Testament in its original language has been preserved by the Jewish people, who have no rivals in the preservation of the biblical text. This has resulted in the availability of various medieval manuscripts that transmit the Hebrew Old Testament in a nearly uniform manner. The so-called Masoretic text, named after the significant contribution of Jewish scholars called Masoretes, forms the basis of biblical versions from the Reformation onwards.

The shadows on the text of the Old Testament were many, also given the objective proximity of the textual evidence in our possession.

In 1946, however, a fortuitous – or providential – discovery near the Dead Sea unearthed a series of manuscripts hidden before the Roman destruction of 70 AD. In the so-called Qumran caves – 11 in all – the remains of almost the entire Hebrew Bible were unearthed, and the manuscript evidence of the Old Testament at our disposal suddenly became a thousand years older than those hitherto available to us.

The surprising conclusions drawn about the reliability of the text in our possession are summarized by Ellis R. Brotzman in his Old Testament Textual Criticism, page 95, where he in turn quotes Burrow, Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 304: “The manifold differences in spelling and grammatical forms between the manuscript of St. Mark and the Masoretic text make their substantial agreement on the words of the text all the more significant… It is surprising that through something like a thousand years the text has undergone so little alteration.” Divergences in spelling and grammar are very important because they attest to the independence of manuscript evidence and thus the greater significance of their substantive agreement.

In the same book Brotzman states: “Text criticism, by its nature, focuses on variants, but 90% or more of the text that exists without any variation must be taken into account,” Ibid, p. 23.

I do not know if there is any other ancient text of which this can be affirmed. We must also take into account that we are 3500 years after Moses and 2400 from the time the last books of the Old Testament were written.

Brotzman concludes on the state of preservation of the Hebrew Scriptures: “Most of the Old Testament text is ascertained, and the variants that exist can in most cases be traced back to primary or secondary readings,” ibid., p. 24.

In simple terms, we can confidently approach the Old Testament in our possession, as all evidence assures us that it is practically identical to the original, so much so that I feel I can openly say that: if we do not consider ourselves sure of the authenticity of the Old Testament in our possession, I do not think we can look with less suspicion at any other ancient book. Put simply, we have more title to say: “the prophet Isaiah wrote” than we have the right to say: “Homer wrote” or “Aristotle said”, or “Euripides said”; or “Aeschylus wrote”, etc…

So much for the science of textual criticism.

If our discussion then shifts to other issues, such as the meaning of original, autograph or who is the author of the book that bears the name of Isaiah or of the Pentateuch himself or even what is meant by “inspiration” of the Bible, this is beyond the subject of this discussion.

Let us now examine then the second great division of the Bible.

The situation for the Greek text of the New Testament is even incredibly better than that of the Old. In fact, I do not believe that there is another book with such a relevant manuscript evidence, direct and indirect as the New Testament, both for age and number of the witnesses.

Papyri manuscripts are written on papyrus, a type of ancient paper. There are around 130 known papyri manuscripts that contain portions of the Greek New Testament. The most famous among them is the Papyrus 52 (also known as the John Rylands Fragment), which is a fragment of the Gospel of John dating to the early 2nd century – 2nd century!

Uncial manuscripts are written in capital letters and are typically on parchment or vellum. There are approximately 322 known uncial manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. Some notable examples include Codex Sinaiticus (4th century) and Codex Vaticanus (4th century), which are among the oldest and most important complete New Testament manuscripts.

Minuscules manuscripts are written in a cursive script, and they date mostly from the 9th century onwards. There are around 2,856 known minuscule manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. These manuscripts are typically more numerous but tend to be later in date compared to the uncials.

Lectionaries are manuscripts that contain selected biblical readings for liturgical use. They are often organized according to the church calendar. There are approximately 2,426 known lectionary manuscripts of the Greek New Testament.

In addition to these direct pieces of evidence, we must consider the indirect ones.

Old Latin Manuscripts.Before the Vulgate was standardized by St. Jerome, there were various Latin translations of the Bible in circulation. These translations are collectively referred to as Old Latin. The number of surviving Old Latin manuscripts is estimated to be several hundred, but it is challenging to provide an exact count due to the fragmented and diverse nature of these manuscripts.

Early Vulgate Manuscripts. Following St. Jerome’s revision and standardization of the Latin text, a new tradition of manuscripts known as Early Vulgate manuscripts emerged. These manuscripts date from the late 4th century onwards. The number of surviving Early Vulgate manuscripts is relatively small, and estimates range from around 30 to 80 manuscripts.

Medieval Vulgate Manuscripts. The Vulgate became the standard Latin Bible in the medieval period and continued to be widely copied. The number of surviving medieval Vulgate manuscripts is much larger compared to the earlier period. It is difficult to provide an exact count, but estimates range from several thousand to tens of thousands of manuscripts.

We could also mention many other ancient translations. The Peshitta (Syriac), Sahidic Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, etc. Of course the number of manuscripts surviving are not as many as they were for the Latin and for various obvious reasons, connected to the misfortunes of these languages.

If such an incredible amount of evidence is not enough yet, the entire text of the New Testament could be reconstructed from the citations found in the so-called Church Fathers.

Therefore, the problem faced by the critic examining the quality of the New Testament text is the staggering quantity of manuscript evidence at their disposal. It is not surprising to suggest that it is highly unlikely for such a vast amount of information to be thoroughly evaluated. The state of preservation of the text is excellent, and the number of variations is relatively small.

In his The Identity of the New Testament Text, Wilbur Pickering argued that the manuscripts contain several hundred thousand variations, but the vast majority of these are spelling mistakes or obvious errors attributable to the neglect or ignorance of copyists. His opinion is that only 5% of the variants are “relevant.”

Westcott and Hort argued something similar when they wrote: “… the quantity of what can really be called a substantial variation represents a fraction of the remaining variants and can scarcely form more than the thousandth part of the entire text,” The New Testament in the Original Greek, p. 2.

There are obviously different theories about the value of this or that group of manuscripts, but the unanimity of scholars is in favor of the objective quality of the text of the New Testament available to us today.

No conjectural emendations are necessary in the application of the techniques of textual criticism: the manuscript evidence is sufficient to reach such certainty that, as I have already said, to doubt the accuracy of the Bible is to cancel the reliability of any other book that has come down to us since before the invention of printing.


Soon available the 2023 Color Edition (6 inches x 9, 170 pages)



Source for extrabiblical philology for this article was the book by prof. Gian Carlo Alessio, “Istituzioni di Filologia” (a.y. 2005 – 2006) found online on the website of the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.