What Is Textual Criticism, and Why Is It Necessary?

Textual Criticism

The Bible was written at a time when the means for sharing documents were far different from the technology we have today.

When the church in Thessaloniki received a letter from the apostle Paul in the mid-first century, the believers there would have read it aloud in their gatherings, and then devoted followers who recognized the value of Paul’s words would have produced handwritten copies of the letter to pass around to a wider audience. By the end of the first century, Paul’s letters were being copied as a collection.

Copying manuscripts

Hand-copying of the Pauline corpus continued through the centuries, until Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type in fifteenth-century Germany. With some variation, this process of repeated hand-copying happened with every book in the Bible—the New Testament books in Greek, and the Old Testament books in Hebrew and Aramaic.

In addition to these original language manuscripts, Christians translated their sacred texts into other languages. The Old Testament documents were translated into Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Syriac, and the New Testament documents were translated into Latin, Coptic, and Syriac, followed later by Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Slavonic, and Arabic. The Bible was repeatedly recopied within each of these languages. Further, Jewish and Christian scholars quoted the sacred texts in their own writings, which others also copied and translated to dispense and preserve.

Textual criticism: comparing manuscripts

This proliferation of hand-copied texts resulted in thousands of manuscripts, no two exactly alike. Textual criticism is the discipline that guides scholars in establishing what the authors of the Bible wrote. This is especially important for those who value the Bible as God’s Word. While most Christians may never study the original languages or engage in advanced textual criticism, the work of textual critics enables us to know with confidence what God has said through the human authors.

The word “criticism,” which today often connotes negativity, derives from an older usage, meaning “to analyze or investigate.” Textual criticism involves analyzing the manuscript evidence in order to determine the oldest form of the text. Such analysis also reveals historical evidence about the transmission of the text, scribal habits, theological biases, and more. Biblical scholars engage in this discipline, as do scholars in the broader field of literature. For example, the writings of most ancient authors, such as Plato or Shakespeare, may be published as a “critical edition,” in which scholars have sifted through manuscripts to identify errors that may have crept into the text and to determine the author’s original intention.

Because the original biblical manuscripts (called autographs) have not survived, we must depend on handwritten copies, none of which agree with each other 100 percent. The task of the textual critic is to resolve variations in the readings of these ancient manuscripts by identifying and “removing all changes brought about either by error or revision.”1

When successful, textual criticism results in the best representation of the Ausgangstext, or the ancient form of the text that is the ancestor of all extant copies, the beginning of the manuscript tradition.

Are our translations accurate?

Though there are thousands of variation units in the text of the Bible, the text is remarkably reliable. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke says the most recent critical edition of the entire Old Testament (BHS) has no significant variation in 90 percent of the text. Of the thousands of instances of variation in the Bible, nearly all of them concern spelling, word order, synonyms, and other elements that do not affect meaning at all. Those variation units that affect the meaning of a biblical text are found in the footnotes of any good English Bible. Even these variants do not affect doctrine or theology.2


This excerpt is adapted from Textual Criticism of the Bible by Amy Anderson and Wendy Widder.


    1. W. Gooding, “Texts and Versions: The Septuagint,” New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed, ed. D. R. W. Wood (Leicester, England: Inter-varsity Press, 1996), 1172.
    2. Amy Anderson and Wendy Widder, Textual Criticism of the Bible, ed. Douglas Mangum, Revised Edition, vol. 1, Lexham Methods Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018), 11.


  1. What is the relationship between “Textual Criticism” and the “transmission” of the text? Are they the same? For example, since Paul was reading and citing the LXX his words are “variants” of the Hebrew text, no?

    I mean, if we say that the Hebrew is “accurate” and Paul’s writings are “accurate” (when compared to any extant LXX) what are we really saying about the text?

    On the one hand we are self-congratulatory about the “accuracy” of our texts and translations but on the other hand there is documented for us loud and clear the obvious reality that the “accurate readings” of the NT and the “accurate readings” in the Hebrew OT are different. So I’m always forced to retrace the transmission back to the Hebrew thru the LXX, and when I do it is pretty different. Do we have a measure of consistency between the NT and the Hebrew OT by which we can get a more realistic percentage of agreement? Do scholars say that if we do that trace that the scriptures are congruous 100% of the time? 90%?

  2. Craig Giddens says

    “The simple hard reality before us is that there has not been found any pre-Christian Greek Old Testament; there is no undisputed extant LXX known to exist today that was written prior to Christ.”