Posted On March 16, 2018

Bridging the Knowledge Gap in New Testament Textual Criticism

by | Mar 16, 2018 | Theology

Textual criticism is the art and science of finding the original wording of a given biblical text when conflicts between manuscripts (“variants”) arise. Much has been written concerning King James Onlyism and its variations’ impact upon unity in the local church, and plenty of books do well to explain the controversy from a sound, overall perspective. I highly recommend The King James Only Controversy by James R. White in this regard.

The textual variant in Romans 5:1 is presented in this way in the Nestle-Aland 28th edition (as taken from Accordance). Useful for the trained. Useless for the untrained.

The textual variant in Romans 5:1 is presented in this way in the Nestle-Aland 28th edition (as taken from Accordance). Useful for the trained. Useless for the untrained.

And most who have been through serious original language study are aware of textual apparatuses which present variant readings indexed to scripture, for example those at the bottom of the pages in the Nestle-Aland and United Bible Societies texts. (Now called “NA28” and “UBS5” for their updated edition numbers, these are the leading critical Greek New Testament texts.) For those without original language training, these apparatuses are either out of the reach of their capability or useful material for spreading wild conspiracy theories upon the unsuspecting masses.

The textual variant of Romans 5:1 is presented in this way in Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the New Testament. For those who can’t get past parsing Greek verbs or linguistic terms like subjunctive and indicative, this won’t be helpful.

The textual variant of Romans 5:1 is presented in this way in Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the New Testament. For those who can’t get past parsing Greek verbs or linguistic terms like ‘subjunctive’ and ‘indicative,’ this won’t be helpful.

Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament is generally considered an essential resource for the trained, as it explains the textual decisions of the UBS3 editors from inside the boardroom, as Metzger was among its editors. But the level at which it’s written remains too technical for the layperson.

The one resource of which I know that meets this gap, giving access to textual criticism “verse-by-verse” to the layperson is Philip W. Comfort’s New Testament Text and Translation Commentary.

The textual variant of Romans 5:1 is presented here in Philip W. Comfort’s New Testament Text and Translation Commentary.

The textual variant of Romans 5:1 is presented here in Philip W. Comfort’s New Testament Text and Translation Commentary.

I only happened upon one of the longer entries in Comfort’s commentary here in Romans 5:1. Most of them are not this long, but this one does serve to show that we are dealing with some quite technical issues that are difficult to break down to a lay level. “TR” and “NU” in the top right refer to the Textus Receptus and Nestle-Aland/UBS text, respectively. “WH” refers to the Westcott-Hort editions of 1881–1882. As you might imagine, these abbreviations are easier to process in Bible software versus print because you can just hover over or click them.

Like Metzger’s commentary, Comfort is laid out in canonical order rather than topically. And unlike Metzger, its major entries include sufficient manuscript information, the major variants, English translations of each variant, and a listing of major English versions and which decisions each of them made among the variants. An “mg” after the version names above denotes a marginal reading.

Comfort also includes a very informative section in the beginning of the work on the goal of textual criticism, how it’s done soundly, the various manuscripts involved, and a history of Greek and English versions of the New Testament.

Even as one who is seminary-trained in Greek, I personally find myself referring to Comfort much more often than Metzger for a few reasons. One, Comfort’s commentary is much easier on the eyes when attempting to figure out information quickly. Switching back and forth between apparatuses—especially those optimized for screens rather than paper—and Metzger can get unnecessarily laborious. Second, the addition of English translations is still nice, and the data on versions is great to have when conversing with others about what they’re seeing in their Bibles. Third, for those who are trained, it’s good to have an opinion that’s separated from those of the Nestle-Aland/UBS editors, as you presumably already know some of that opinion by your use of their texts.

Romans 5:1, of course, is a major text concerning the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Imagine having preached this and then getting a question from someone about the “let us have faith” variant that calls your entire exegesis into question. I’m not saying that identifying variants like this one is the right thing to do in the sermon every single time. Pastors need to make that call based on what they know of their congregations, not based on some blogger guy’s urging. But I also opine that some textual criticism is necessary for pulpit preparation. As a former Greek professor of mine put it, textual criticism is the first step of exegesis. One must know what text to exegete and exposit. Second, one must be prepared to defend the text and its exegesis from skepticism. Third, textual variants often shed light on historical views of the text. For the trained, untrained, and the previously trained who forgot everything from seminary ten years ago, I commend Comfort’s commentary to you as a first stop for such issues.

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