Monday, August 08, 2011

The Absolute Basics of the History of Textual Criticism

I've subscribed to Koinonia's "Mondays with Mounce", a series by William Mounce, author of "The Basics of Biblical Greek". Mounce is on vacation, and Koinonia is republishing some of his past installments.

This afternoon I came across one, discussing the "disappearance" of John 5:4 from modern translations, and in the process, Mounce gives one of the best five-cent overviews of Textual Criticism I've seen:
Here is the basic reconstruction.

1. The writers wrote their gospels and epistles and sent them to their churches.

2. These documents were copied so they could be shared. In the process of copying, changes were introduced. (By the way, this is not academic conjecture; we have these different manuscripts and can see the differences for themselves.)

Some changes were accidental but others appeared to be intentional, but not always for nefarious reasons. It is often to add an explanation, or substitute an easier word to understand, or to harmonize the gospels, etc.

In John 5:4, most believe that a scribe (the person doing the copying) thought it was puzzling why the man would lie there for 38 years. Perhaps he knew a tradition that said the angel periodically came down to stir up the waters and the first person in was healed, and so he added in the verse. (Others would argue that for some reason the verse was dropped off.)

3. As time progressed (and as we can tell from archaeology), biblical manuscripts were collected in five different geographical areas. Since the center of the church was in Rome, this area had the greatest number of copies.

4. Erasmus (1500s) created a Greek text based on two manuscripts from the 12th century (Matthew through Jude) and another 12th century manuscript for all but the last 6 verses of Revelation. He went from the Latin back into Greek to get those last 6. His work became the basis of the King James translation.

5. 150 years ago we started digging up new manuscripts that were in fact [much] older (by centuries). They came from a different geographical area than the majority of the texts we currently had, and they were different in places. For example, they did not have John 5:4.

And so the science of textual criticism was born, which is the science of determining which of the different “readings” is most likely original.

The general preference is to see scribes as adding verses, not removing them. For that reason, and others, most feel that John 5:4 was added after the fact; there is no good reason why it would have been omitted.

But God in his sovereign love made sure that the differences among the manuscripts would not hinder our faith.


  1. very helpful post, thanks.

  2. I learned about this particular textual issue when I was about 18. I was attending an Assemblies of God Church and a certain visiting husband and wife team of self-styled spiritual warfare gurus hinged some of their teaching on this verse. Not only was the passage John 5:4 uselessly proof-texted I couldn't find it in any modern Bible translation except as a footnote. I wrote to the pastors at my church to tell them that this team of travelling spiritual warfare gurus seemed like quacks. I don't know if they ever got invited back to the church again and since I'm Presbyterian now it's fairly moot.