The Modern Critical Text

What is the Modern Critical Text?

The Modern Critical Text, or just the Critical Text, can be defined in several ways. Broadly speaking, the Modern Critical Text is actually a collection of printed editions that share the same basic structure modeled after manuscripts such as Codex Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. This is distinct from texts that represent the majority of manuscripts or the Received Text. More specifically, one could say that “the” Modern Critical Text is represented by the Nestle Aland and United Bible Society printed Greek texts (NA28/UBS5). Further, the Modern Critical Text can also be described by a methodology with which somebody approaches the text of the New Testament. For example, one could take the NA28 as a base text and through analysis or perhaps study of a Greek commentary such as Metzger, and select readings against the opinion of the editorial team from the apparatus. In this sense, the Modern Critical Text can take many forms depending on who is using it. We see this demonstrated by the differences in opinion between the Tyndale House Greek New Testament team and the NA28 editorial team. Anecdotally, laymen and apologists often will defend readings against the opinion of the official printed texts as well.

In less words, there is not one Modern Critical Text, there are a number of Modern Critical Texts, perhaps an endless amount. The printed editions of the Modern Critical Text might possibly considered more of a tool than a text. This seems like a fair assessment, especially if we consider how translation teams and scholars utilize such printed texts. There are no English Bible translations that represent exactly any of the printed editions of the Modern Critical Text as printed in the NA28/UBS5 or Tyndale House Greek New Testament. It may even be more accurate to say that the Modern Critical text is more of a methodology than an actual text.

If we wish to dive even further, there is yet another Critical Text to consider – the Editio Critica Maior (ECM). The ECM is the most comprehensive Critical Text that has ever been attempted to be produced. It is set to be completed around 2030. What perhaps makes the ECM the most unique is that it is a history of New Testament manuscript transmission through the first 1000 years of the church, not an attempt to reconstruct the original. One of its purposes is to answer questions regarding how the text was changed and received by Christians.

What is Modern Textual Criticism?

This question, like the first, is not simple to answer. Simply speaking, textual criticism is a subcategory of textual scholarship, philology, and literary criticism. Textual criticism is practiced on any work of antiquity in which there are multiple manuscripts that present different readings than each other. Depending on who you ask, the goal of textual criticism might be defined in two ways. The first goal of textual criticism is to identify which reading is original. The second is understanding how the variant reading came to be or perhaps the history of textual variation. The focus of textual scholarship tends to be the latter, as text criticism is only required when the original manuscript of a work is no longer surviving (extant). Without the original source document, it is impossible to say with certainty that the conclusions of textual critics represent exactly what was originally penned.

This is necessary due to the thin nature of New Testament manuscript data from the first 400 years of the church. There isn’t a single complete manuscript for over 300 years from the time of the Apostles, which is an extraordinary amount of time for a text to change. This being the case, the work of textual criticism tends to focus on how the text developed because this can be observed in extant copies of the source document, whereas any conclusions on the original text cannot be verified due to lack of original text and the significant gap of time between the time the original was penned and the earliest complete extant manuscript of the New Testament. Based on this analysis, textual critics and scholars present justifications for why they believe one variant came before the other and avoid making any determinations as to what was contained in the original.

There are many approaches to textual criticism, and in the case of New Testament textual criticism, a mix of stemmatic/genealogical and eclectic methodologies are employed. Most recently, New Testament textual criticism has found favor with the Coherence Based Genealogical Method, though it has received its due criticism and there isn’t one single method of textual criticism as a result. Since what might be considered the “official” effort of textual criticism has not been completed as of yet, the practical application of producing a final form of the text has not been achieved. Many scholars, such as DC Parker, consistently speak against the idea of a “final form” of the text altogether.

Why Should Anybody Care About Textual Criticism?

This is the most practical and important question that every Christian should ask themselves. Textual criticism impacts the words and footnotes that are printed in every modern Bible. Since all modern Bibles include the opinions of textual scholars in the footnotes, it is important that Christians understand what these footnotes mean so that they can read their Bible. In this blog, my reader will find that I am strongly opposed to this effort, in large part due to the burden it puts on the average Christian to know a basic amount of textual criticism simply to read their Bible. Since the scholars themselves are uncertain of the form of the original text of the New Testament, the average Christian, who does not have the skills or training, inherits this uncertainty from the scholars without any ability to question or make sense of this uncertainty.

For example, there is a note above or below Mark 16:9-20 in modern Bibles where you will read that “Some earliest manuscripts do not include Mark 16:9-20.” This note does not speak to whether or not the passage was originally there, nor does it provide the manuscript information that constitutes “some manuscripts.” By adding brackets to the text and inserting this note, it leads the reader to believe that they should not read this passage as original, despite not having the whole picture of the data. In reality, two early manuscripts dated 300+ years after the original was penned exclude this passage, and the thousands of manuscripts we do have contain it. Now, counting manuscripts isn’t necessarily definitive proof for originality, but that is information that the editors of the ESV and other modern Bibles decided to withhold from the reader.

Most importantly, Christians should care about the effort of Modern Textual Criticism because it dictates to them how they should read their Bible. It tells them which passages they should and shouldn’t read without including the data they used to make such a determination. It does so without actually setting forth what is or isn’t original and often removes passages from the main text in such a way that makes the removal easy to miss (cf. Romans 16:23-25 ESV). There are many places in the ESV, for example, that simply skip from one verse to the next without even changing the versification of the passage. See John 5:3-5, where the ESV goes from verse 3 to verse 5, excluding verse 4.

That is to say, that if you read a modern Bible, Modern Textual Criticism impacts you. As a result, those that read a modern Bible should probably understand the effort itself and decide if the methodology is something they support and are confident in. In many cases, modern Bibles have removed passages and verses from the main text on the basis of two manuscripts that are dated over 300 years from the original. The effort of Modern Textual Criticism is not slowing down, and as the ECM is developed, there are dozens of places where the editors have expressed that the original can simply not be known. Since the direction of Modern Textual Criticism is trending in the direction of more uncertainty regarding the original text, the practical impact of this effort will undoubtedly effect the average Christian more and more every year.

More Articles on This Topic

Evaluating the Modern Claim of Better Data

Yes, Doctrine is Affected

There is No Modern Doctrine of Preservation

The Most Dangerous View of the Holy Scriptures

Does the Modern Apologetic Offer a Meaningful Response to Bart Ehrman?

Has the CBGM Gotten Us to 125AD?

Common Sense Arguments Against the Critical Text

Damning Quotes from Textual Critics