Primarily for my own benefit and revision, there’ll be some posts over the next few weeks covering the basics of textual criticism (TC). This is the first one.
Paul Wegner defines textual criticism as:
the science and art that seeks to determine the most reliable wording of a text (p24 of “A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible”)
The need for TC arises because there are no know originals of the biblical manuscripts. We don’t have the actual letter that Paul wrote to the Romans. Nor do we have the actual scroll that Moses(?) wrote Deuteronomy on. Rather, what we do have are lots and lots of copies of these documents, and all the other books that make up the Bible.
The problem is that no two of these copies are identical. There are minor differences between each. There is major agreement on the whole, but words, letters, vowels, accents vary from manuscript to manuscript. And this is where TC comes in. TC is what happens when someone takes account of the variations for a given text (usually working on small units, one verse at a time) and makes a suggestion about which of the variation is more likely to be what Paul (or whoever) wrote, and which variation(s) are mistakes or deliberate changes.
TC is commonly seen and referred to as a New Testament discipline, but that’s not the case. TC is just as relevant to the OT as the NT. The main difference is that TC of the OT is such a vast work that it doesn’t seem to get the same scholarly attention. Also, since a knowledge of Greek is more popular among Christians, preachers, pastors than Hebrew is, then discussions of Greek manuscripts are more readily available than the same work done in Hebrew.
(I recently wrote a short post about an issue of OT TC regarding Lev 9:4 – take a look).
More details about TC in general can be found on Wikipedia.
Probably the most detailed resource for all thing TC in the NT is the The Encyclopedia of New Testament Textual Criticism
The next TC post will introduce some of the most significant manuscripts in NT TC.