A Crash Course in the Textual Discussion


When I first started learning about the textual variants in my Bible, I had a great number of misconceptions about textual criticism. I thought myself rather educated on the matter because I had read the KJV Only Controversy twice and had spent hours upon hours watching the Dividing Line. Yet, when it came down to actually understanding anything at all about the matter, I realized I didn’t know anything. Even though I knew a lot of text-critical jargon, and could employ that jargon, much of the arguments I had learned were factually incorrect or misinformed. A comment on my YouTube channel earlier today demonstrated to me that many others are in the same boat I was in. 

The fact is,I couldn’t tell you why the Papyri were significant, or even how many Papyri were extant and what sections of the Bible they included. I couldn’t even name a proper textual scholar, except for maybe Bart Ehrman, but I thought he was just an angry atheist. I had heard that the CBGM was going to get us to a very early text form, but I couldn’t explain how or if that text was reliable. I knew that textual criticism was changing, but again, I didn’t know what those changes were or how they affected my Bible. There are a lot of downsides to getting your information from one or two sources, especially if those sources are simply interpreters of textual scholarship and not textual scholars themselves. The only thing that I had really adopted from the sources I had interacted with was confidence that I was on the right side of things, without really knowing why. I developed a list of questions that I wish somebody had asked me before I adopted the axioms of the Modern Critical Text, and perhaps they will be helpful for my reader.

  1. How did the Papyri finds impact the effort of textual scholarship?
  2. Is the concept of “text-type” a driving factor in the current effort of textual scholarship? 
  3. Which manuscripts are primarily used as a “base text” of the modern critical text as it is represented in the NA27 and 28? 
  4. What is the Editio Critica Maior (ECM)?
  5. Which textual scholars are involved in creating the Editio Critica Maior (ECM)? 
  6. What is the Initial Text, and how is it different than the Original?
  7. What is the difference materially between the Received Text and the Modern Critical Text?
  8. What is the CBGM, and how is it impacting modern Greek texts and Bible translations? 
  9. Which scholars are contributing to the current effort of textual scholarship, and what are their thoughts on the CBGM and ECM? 
  10. What do the scholars who are editing the modern Greek New Testament as it is represented in the Nestle-Aland/UBS platform think of the text they are creating? 
  11. What is the TR?

This “quiz” of sorts is a good litmus test as to whether or not you are up to date on the current trends in textual criticism. 

Answer Key

  1. The Papyri, while initially exciting, did not yield the kind of fruit that many would have hoped. In the first place, they disproved Hort’s theory that Codex Vaticanus was earliest text, because the Papyri included readings that were not extant in the Alexandrian manuscripts, which were called “Earliest and Best” all throughout the 20th century and even still today by some. This means that the Papyri do not vindicate the Alexandrian text form as “earliest”, and in fact, they prove that there were other “text forms” circulating at the same time. While the Papyri may be helpful in establishing that the Bible existed prior to the fourth century, every single Christian, in theory at least, believes this to be true regardless of the Papyri. Christian apologetics were done successfully well before the discovery of the Papyri. The Christian faith is one which believes that the eternal Logos became flesh in the first century, lived a perfect life, died on a Roman cross, was dead for three days, rose again on the third day, appeared to a group of disciples and a multitude of others, then ascended to the right hand of the Father. This is established without the Papyri, as the Bible is not established based on the Papyri. Further, there are less than 150 Papyri manuscripts, and many of them are scraps. We could not construct a whole New Testament with the Papyri manuscripts. So while the Papyri may to some serve some sort of apologetic purpose, their value as it pertains to actually creating a Greek New Testament is much less significant than other later New Testament data. 
  1. Due to the pre-genealogical coherence component of the CBGM, the concept of text-types has largely been abandoned by textual scholars, except for perhaps the Byzantine text-type, which is largely uniform. Due to algorithmic analysis driven by the power of electrical computing,  modern critical methods have demonstrated that the manuscripts formerly classed in the Alexandrian, Western, and Cesarean text families do not share enough statistical similarity to be properly called a text-family. Further, the current text-critical scholars have adopted a different method, which focuses primarily on evaluating individual verses, or readings, rather than manuscripts as a whole. So not only are the manuscripts formerly classed into the Alexandrian, Western, and Cesarean text families not families, the concept of text families is not necessarily being used in the current methodology. 
  1. The two manuscripts which serve as a “base-text” for the NA/UBS platform are Codex Vaticanus (B), and Codex Sinaiticus (Aleph). Significant variations between the Received Text and the Modern Critical Text are typically the result of prioritization of these two manuscripts over and above the readings found in the majority of manuscripts or other manuscripts. This is shifting as the concept of text-types is being retired, but the text as it exists in modern Bibles generally reflects the text form of just two manuscripts. As the CBGM is implemented, this may cause certain Alexandrian readings to be rejected, but as it stands, modern Greek Texts and Bibles heavily favor the two manuscripts mentioned above. These two manuscripts do not belong in the same family, which is to say that they likely do not share one common ancestor or ancestors. It is possible that perhaps that they share a cousin manuscript, but even that is speculative. 
  1. The Editio Critica Maior (ECM) is a documented history of the Greek New Testament up to about 1,000AD which considers Greek manuscripts, translations, and ancient citations of the New Testament. The ECM also provides information on the development of variants according to the analysis of the editors. The first edition was published in 1997 and is slated to be finished by 2030. The ECM is not necessarily a Greek New Testament per se, but rather a history of how the text is said to have evolved in the first 1,000 years of the church. This means that it excludes copies made from manuscripts after 1,000AD that predate 1000AD. For example, if a manuscript was copied in 1300AD from a manuscript created in 500AD, the readings from the 1300AD copy will not be considered, despite preserving very old readings. The main text printed in the ECM contains the readings which are said to be the earliest, though there are many places where the editors of the ECM are split in determining which reading came first. Due to these split readings, the ECM functionally serves as a dataset, which the user can individually evaluate to select which readings they believe to be the earliest. A current weakness of the ECM is that it does not consider all of the extant data, and it is yet to be seen if the final product in 2030 will incorporate all extant New Testament witnesses. As it stands, it is an incomplete history of the New Testament, despite being the largest critical edition produced to date. 
  1. It is difficult to find all of the men and women working on the ECM, but some of the scholars who have worked on, or are working on the ECM are Holger Strutwolf, DC Parker, and Klaus Wachtel. The Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Munster is overall responsible for the project. The ECM is supported by the Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities. 
  1. The conversation of the Original text vs. the Initial Text is still one being hotly debated amongst textual scholars, but Dr. Peter Gurry defines it as, “The ECM editor’s own reconstructed text that, taken as a whole, represents the hypothetical witness from which all the extant witnesses derive. This hypothetical witness is designated A in the CBGM, from the German Ausgangstext, which could be translated as “source text” or “starting text.” The relationship of the initial text to the author’s original text needs to be decided for each corpus and by each editor; it cannot be assumed” (Peter Gurry, A New Approach to Textual Criticism, 136). Simply put, the Initial Text is the “as far back as we can go text.” It is up to the editor, or perhaps the Bible reader, whether or not that Initial Text represents what the writers of the Bible actually wrote. It is important to keep in mind that the Initial Text is likely to favor texts from a particular region. That is to say, that the Initial Text produced by scholars is only one of many potential Initial Texts. Despite the fact that many are optimistic regarding the Initial Text, the fact stands that there are many readings in the ECM which the editors are split on which reading is initial. That means there is no consensus on what the Initial Text is, or what it will be. How this will be determined has yet to be seen. I comment on the discussion here and here
  1. The difference between the Received Text (TR) and the Modern Critical Text (MCT) is significant. The MCT is at least 26 verses shorter, as it excludes the ending of Mark (Mk. 16:9-20), the Pericope Adulterae (Jn. 7:53-8:11), the Comma Johanneum (1 Jn. 5:7), John 5:4, Acts 8:37, and Romans 16:24. There are also a number of places where the readings are different, such as John 1:18, and 1 Tim. 3:16. There are also places in the MCT like 2 Peter 3:10 where the readings has the opposite meaning as the TR. Many advocates of the MCT are quick to point out that the TR does not have Greek manuscript support for Revelation 16:5, but the MCT also has readings that do not have Greek manuscript support, like 2 Peter 3:10, mentioned above. This does not mean that the verses cannot be supported, just that it is rather hypocritical that many MCT advocates demand extant manuscript support when there were manuscripts available at one time that may have had a reading. In many of the doctrinally significant places where the MCT and TR differ, the TR contains readings found in the majority of manuscripts, whereas the MCT represents a small minority, and in some places, just two manuscripts (Mk. 16:9-20). In other places, the TR contains minority readings, though I argue that these minority readings can be substantiated by the consensus of commentaries, theological works, and Bible translations throughout the history of the church. In any case, the amount of variants in the within the TR tradition is minute compared to the amount of variants that must be reconciled within the MCT tradition. 
  1. The Coherence Based Genealogical Method (CBGM) is “a method that (1) uses a set of computer tools (2) based in a new way of relating manuscript texts that is (3) designed to help us understand the origin and history of the New Testament Text” (ibid. 3). The CBGM uses statistical comparison to determine how closely related two witnesses are to each other, and then text-critics evaluate that comparison to determine which reading potentially came first in the transmission history of the text. This is the method that is primarily being used to construct the ECM. To see a basic overview of the method, please refer to this video, which is a thoughtful and helpful examination of the CBGM. I comment on the CBGM more here.
  1. The scholars that are using the CBGM and creating the ECM have varied opinions on what is being constructed. Men like Eldon Epp and DC Parker do not believe that the ECM has anything to say about the original, or authorial text of the New Testament. Others are more optimistic, such as Dirk Jongkind and Peter Gurry. As it stands, it has yet to be demonstrated how the ECM can definitively say anything about the original or authorial text, as the methods of the CBGM do not offer this sort of conclusion. Further, it has yet to be shown how a text with split readings can be said, in any meaningful way, to represent one unified Initial Text, let alone an original. That is to say, that the ECM contains the potential for multiple Initial Texts. The problem of split readings in the ECM has yet to be addressed adequately as far as I know. 
  1. The scholars creating printed Greek texts such as the NA/UBS platform do not believe they are creating original texts. They are simply creating printed texts that serve as a tool in translation and exegesis. The editors are typically disinterested in speaking to whether this text represents the authorial text, that is up to the user of the printed edition. This is evident in the fact that the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland text and the 5th edition of the United Bible Society text are not a final text. Due to the ongoing creation of the ECM, these printed Greek texts are going to change, even optimistic scholars, such as Dr. Peter Gurry, comment that these changes “will affect not only modern Bible translations and commentaries but possibly even theology and preaching” (ibid. 6).
  1. The Received Text (TR), is the form of the Greek New Testament as it existed during the first era of printed Greek Bibles during the 16th century after the introduction of the printing press in Europe. Up to that point, all books were hand copied. There is not one “TR”, per se, but rather a corpus of Greek Texts which are generally uniform. The places of variation between the TR are minor when the significance of these differences is considered. The opinion of textual scholar Dr. Edward F. Hills was that these variations amount to less than 10. High orthodox theologians such as Turretin considered such variations to be easily resolved upon brief examination. This was the Greek text that the Westminster Divines considered “Pure in all ages” and is the text platform that the Reformed and Post-Reformation Divines used in their commentaries and theological works from the middle of the 16th century up to the higher critical period when Hort’s text (Based on Vaticanus, generally the same text that is used for the ESV) was introduced as an alternative. There are varying views on what “the” TR is, but across all of the printed editions of the Received Text corpus, the differences are so minute that it can be considered the same Bible nonetheless. Modern debate tactics have introduced much confusion into the definition of “the’ TR, but the fact stands that this sort of question was not a problem to the men who used it to develop protestant theology up to the higher critical period. Adherence to the TR is based on the vindication of readings by the use of such readings by the people of God in time over and above extant manuscript data, which cannot represent all of the manuscripts that have ever existed, since a great number have been lost or destroyed.


Prior to entering into the Textual Discussion, I think it wise that Christians are up to date on not only the updated jargon, but also the information that underlies the jargon. If one wants to argue that the Papyri are definitive proof of one text being superior to another, he should be ready to substantiate that claim by demonstrating how the readings of the Papyri have impacted modern text-critical efforts. In the same way, if somebody wishes to stake a claim on the CBGM, it should also follow that one should be ready to demonstrate how this method has proved one conclusion or another. Simply saying that the Papyri and the CBGM have “proven” a particular text right or wrong is simply an assertion that needs to be substantiated. It may be the case that the claim is correct, but it is important that we hold ourselves to the same standard an 8th grade math teacher might hold us to, and “show your work.” The fact stands that a Bible cannot be constructed from all of the Papyri and the CBGM has introduced a “slight increase in the ECM editors’ uncertainty about the text, an uncertainty which has been de facto adopted by the editors of the NA/UBS” (ibid. 6). 

It is easy to get caught up in conversations on textual variants and the scholarly blunders of Erasmus, but these discussions do not come close to addressing the important components of the Textual Discussion. An important reality to consider when discussing variants from an MCT perspective is that the modern critical text is not finished, and the finished product is not claiming to be a stable or definitive text. The opinions on a variant may change in the next ten years, and new variants may be considered that have been ignored throughout the history of the church. One might make a case for why Luke 23:34 is not original, but the fact is that it is impossible to prove such a claim by modern critical methods without the original to substantiate the claim against. Even in the case of 1 John 5:7, which is admittedly a difficult verse to defend evidentially, it cannot be proven that other manuscripts contemporary to Vaticanus and Sinaiticus excluded the passage, because those manuscripts are no longer extant. Since it is well known that other Bibles with different readings existed at the time of our so called earliest manuscripts (because of the Papyri!), we can at least say with confidence that these two manuscripts do not represent what all of the Bibles looked like at that time. That is to say, that those who argue vehemently for Bibles which closely follow these two manuscripts are simply putting their faith in the unprovable claim that the other contemporary manuscripts did not have the readings that explode into the manuscript tradition shortly after and even minority readings that made it into the TR. Some people, like James Snapp, have developed entire textual positions which recognize this problem, which I consider a sort of mediating position between the Received Text and the Modern Critical Text. Unlike many of the MCT advocates, James Snapp is more than willing to show his work.  

In any case, it is high time that the bubble of Codex B is pricked. Times have changed, and even the most recent iteration of modern text-criticism has supposedly done away with Hort’s archaic theories. It may be time that Christians stop appealing to the Papyri and the CBGM without actually understanding what those two things are, and instead pick up some of the literature and become acquainted with what has changed since Metzger penned his Text of the New Testament. In my opinion, Snapp has answered many of the questions that modern textual scholars are unwilling to answer with his Equitable Eclecticism. While I believe his position still faces the same epistemological problems as the ECM and the CBGM, it certainly is an upgrade from the MCT. I hope that this article has helped people understand the effort of modern textual criticism better, and perhaps even sparked interested in investigating the information themselves. 

Sources for Further Reading on Modern Textual Criticism

D.C. Parker, editor of the ECM for the Gospel of John

Peter Gurry’s Introduction to the CBGM

Peter Gurry and Elijah Hixson’s Latest Book

The Latest, Authoritative Work on the Pericope Adulterae (Jn. 7:53-8:11)

Sources for Further Study on the Received Text Position

Audio from the Text and Canon Conference 

Audio from Dr. Jeff Riddle’s Word Magazine

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