TextWhat Pastors Should Know about Developments in Textual Criticism An introduction to new editions, methods, and digital tools for studying the Greek New Testament Peter J. GurryThe NA28 (left) and THGNT (right), opened to the beginning of John’s GospelAugust 4, 2021 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level Pastors are busy. They are expected to maintain competence in a wide range of skills from preaching to counseling, balancing the budget to carefully parsing the doctrine of the Trinity. It can be a lot to keep up with. In this article, I want to help busy pastors with a short introduction to recent developments in New Testament textual criticism. We’ll tackle this in three headings, looking at new editions, new methods, and new digital tools. But first, a word about why textual criticism matters. Textual criticism is that discipline that tries to recover the original wording of a work whose original documents have now been lost. Since no original document survives for the New Testament and since the existing copies disagree with one another, textual criticism is needed for all twenty-seven books. Since we cannot study, teach, and apply the Bible if we don’t know what it says, textual criticism—whether we know it or not—plays a foundational role in pastoral ministry. So, what’s new in textual criticism? New Editions First, there are several new editions of the Greek New Testament that have come out in recent years. The most recent is known as the Tyndale House Greek New Testament (THGNT). The result of over a decade of work, it was produced by a group of scholars at Tyndale House library in Cambridge, England, a premier study center for Biblical studies. The main hallmark of this edition is the editors’ documentary or manuscript-first approach. In practice, this means they have tried to follow the earliest manuscripts not only for the text but also for deciding paragraphing, spelling, and even accenting. In presentation, they have taken a minimalist approach with no text-critical symbols, no headings, and even no hyphens! The result is a text that is ideal for immersive reading and for challenging commonly-held assumptions about where to break the text. Two other important recent editions are the Nestle-Aland Novum Testament Graece 28th edition and the UBS Greek New Testament 5th edition. These two editions have long established themselves as the scholarly standard and they remain so for serious exegetical work on the New Testament. They share the same text between them but differ mainly in how much information they provide in the apparatus. The most important difference between these newest editions of the Nestle-Aland and the UBS is in the method used to establish the main text. In the Catholic Letters (James, 1–2 Peter, 1–3 John, Jude), the editors used a new computer-assisted method to help understand how manuscript texts are related and to help make their decisions more consistent. That method is known as the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method or CBGM—a mouthful for sure, but an important development in New Testament textual criticism nonetheless. As a result of applying the CBGM, the NA28 and UBS5 text changed in thirty-three places in the Catholic Letters with more changes on the way for Acts in future editions. A pastor with an older edition of the NA or UBS who is preaching on one of these Catholic Letters may want to update to the new edition in order to be aware of where these changes are. Alternatively, buying the new Tyndale House Greek New Testament might be a great way to approach a familiar book in Greek in a new way. A New Method The CBGM has been in development since the early 1980s, but its results have been widely available only in the last five years. While not known for being simple, it essentially harnesses the power of the computer and the vast increase in our knowledge of New Testament manuscripts to help scholars make better, more consistent textual decisions. The method works by using the overall relationship between texts to resolve particular textual problems. For example, if the computer shows us that two distantly-related texts share the same variant reading, this might indicate that the reading was created independently by the scribes of those texts. This, in turn, could suggest that the reading is less likely to be original. Beyond that, the CBGM can even help us tell the larger story of how the New Testament text has been copied over centuries. And that too can help us determine or confirm the text. A diagram like this helps scholars use the overall relationship of texts to relate individual variants. The method has now been applied thoroughly to the Catholic Letters and most recently to Acts and Mark. The data are available online. This resulted in thirty-three changes in Mark, fifty-two in Acts, and thirty-three in the Catholic Letters. Most of these don’t affect English translation let alone theology. But a small handful are significant. The most important change, in my opinion, is found at 2 Peter 3:10 where the NA28 and UBS5 now read that in the day of the Lord, “the earth and all that is in it will not be found.” The inclusion of the word “not” where before there was none is obviously important. More significant still, this reading has no known Greek manuscript support, raising serious questions about its validity. Notably, this change has already affected the CSB translation and may well affect the recently announced revision of the NRSV. The advent of the CBGM allows us to quantify scribes’ fidelity like never before. Just as important for a pastor, however, is the evidence the CBGM provides for how well the New Testament text was copied overall. To be sure, there are many variants in our New Testament manuscripts—perhaps as many as half a million. Most of these are trivial or easily resolved and, when considered in light of how many times our New Testament books were copied, what stands out most is how faithfully scribes did their work. The advent of the CBGM allows us to quantify this fidelity like never before. In the Catholic Letters, for example, there are two manuscripts that agree at 99.1 percent of all places where there is variation in the 123 manuscripts used by the CBGM. They only differ in a total of twenty-seven out of 2,859 places where they were compared. That is quite remarkable. The average textual agreement between all pairs of witnesses reaches 87.6 percent. That too is impressive. Similar numbers occur in Acts. Dr. Gurry’s book provides a complete introduction to the CBGM These new data expose just how absurd some popular claims about the Bible really are. Take, for example, the Newsweek cover story from a few years ago that went so far as to say that you and I have never even read the Bible because “at best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.” The implication that the Bible can’t be trusted is hard to miss. In fact, most of us have been reading substantially the same Greek New Testament for two thousand years thanks to careful scribes. And rather than being an impediment to faith, modern textual criticism actually supports it. Even Marcus Borg, a New Testament scholar who is far from being an Evangelical Christian, has written that “with only a few minor exceptions, we can be confident that the Gospels and the New Testament as a whole reliably report what was originally written.” Yes, verbiage will change in certain places as a result of further research, and tricky textual problems do remain. But because of the overall fidelity of scribes over 1500 years combined with the herculean efforts of textual scholars, we can be confident that the text we have in our Greek editions and in our English translations is more than enough to ground our faith in the New Testament’s witness to Jesus Christ. The advent of cutting-edge methods like the CBGM have made that more apparent than ever before. New Digital Tools Having surveyed new editions of the Greek New Testament and a new method of practicing textual criticism, let’s consider a final area of development: new resources. Many of these new digital tools are due to the hard work of various organizations and the ability of the internet to connect and share information. Let me introduce three to you. Images The first resource is digital images. In the last decade, there has been an explosion of manuscript images made available, often for free, online. The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) is one major organization that has been hard at work to digitize manuscripts all over the world. Whenever possible, they put these images online for free at csntm.org. The search feature is especially useful as it allows you to search by keyword or verse and to sort results by a range of manuscript feature. The manuscript viewer at CSNTM allows for incredible resolution, here showing the start of Hebrews in P46 If you were teaching on one of the Gospels, why not introduce your congregation to P45, one of the earliest copies of the four Gospels and Acts? Or maybe you are teaching on Ephesians and want to show a Sunday school class the missing words “in Ephesus” in P46, one of the earliest manuscripts of Paul’s letters (note that the book is still titled “To the Ephesians”). Or, share the beautiful artwork in GA 808, a rare complete copy of the New Testament from the 13th–14th century. Along with CSNTM, many of the world’s great libraries are busy digitizing their manuscripts and putting them online. Without leaving home, you can now explore Codex Vaticanus (03) held at the Vatican, or the palimpsest Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (04) at the French Bibliothèque nationale, Codex Bezae (05) of the British Library, or see the famous Codex Sinaiticus (01) all in one place, something physically impossible because the manuscript itself is split and housed at four separate institutions. All this is just the tip of the digital iceberg. Virtual Manuscript Room Although looking at incredible manuscripts online is thrilling, tracking them down can be tricky unless you know what to look for. That brings me to the second resource I want to mention called the New Testament Virtual Manuscript Room or NT.VMR. The NT.VMR keeps the official catalogue of NT manuscripts If I can brag for a minute, the NT.VMR was largely designed and is still developed by a Phoenix Seminary graduate named Troy Griffitts. Troy has been instrumental in developing this resource which has become indispensable to academic text-critical work. At the NT.VMR, you can see the official list of New Testament manuscripts, view images of many of them, consult scholarly transcripts of manuscripts, study the history of scholarly conjectures about the New Testament text, discuss these with other people, and so much more. It is a rich resource and it keeps getting more valuable. Free Online Editions The final resources I want to mention takes us back to the new editions of the Greek New Testament mentioned earlier. Ideally, you will want to have a print copy of one of those editions because each comes with valuable detail in the apparatus or in the margins. But if all you need is the text itself for reading or study, all of these are now freely available online. STEP Bible is online software that allows work in the original languages For the Tyndale House edition, one can find the text at esv.org/gnt or at stepbible.org, complete with additional vocabulary and parsing help. The NA28/UBS5 text is also online though without the extra helps. These free, digital editions can be helpful for when you’re away from your study or if you want to copy and paste the text into your study notes for things like diagramming, color-coding, etc. Conclusion In conclusion, we can say two things about advances in New Testament textual criticism. First, the Bibles that we have in our hands now—whether English or Greek—are founded on a solid double foundation of overall good transmission and excellent scholarly study of that history. Because of that, we should not hesitate to preach and teach from these editions even as they alert us to some places that remain difficult. Second, the study of our New Testament text and how it was transmitted to us is advancing in new and promising ways. The new editions, new method, and new resources mentioned in this series give us access to the history of God’s word in ways impossible to imagine even a generation ago. In the words of B. F. Westcott in the 19th century, “It cannot be a matter of indifference to know how the New Testament … has come down to us; to look at the Manuscripts from which our fathers drew words of life, to trace the stirring history of the version through which the teaching of Apostles has been made accessible to men of other tongues.” Let us be eager to study the remarkable history of God’s book and to share it with God’s people. This article was originally published at the Phoenix Seminary blog and is also available in Polish. Peter J. Gurry Peter (PhD, University of Cambridge) is Associate Professor of New Testament and Codirector of the Text & Canon Institute at Phoenix Seminary. He is the author of Scribes and Scriptures: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible (with John Meade) and Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (with Elijah Hixson).