Problems with Application of Textual Criticism to the Bible
by Dr. L. Bednar
Passing of judgment on biblical-text accuracy regarding likely faithfulness to the autograph originals is called textual or lower criticism. It’s assumed that all texts show a degree of departure from readings of the autographs, and that it’s possible to deduce the original text well enough.
Eclecticism: Supposedly, all manuscript families are consulted, and readings are selected through scholars' judgment. However, the Greek Received Text underlying the KJV, and based on the Traditional Text (~94% of all manuscripts), isn't valued, and the type called Alexandrian (~4% of manuscripts) is made the primary basis of modern critical texts. A critical text is formed by selection among manuscripts, and has never in history existed as a single text representing autograph originals.
Stemmatics: Genealogical relationships of manuscripts that place them in families have supposedly been identified, but "families" mix, and one can never with any true certainty arrive at a single archetype approximating an autograph. The method is futile, as seen in that a family known as the Caesarean, is now thought to be just a mixture of other families, not a separate one, and one called the Western is now suspected to be of similar nature. The concept of text families is questionable, the better way to classify texts being the degree of variance from the Received Text, as determined by collation.
Cladistics: This approach, borrowed from biological-evolutionist notions, assumes text-types form a series of related branches of development. What results is a lot of branches with no autograph trunk. Even if branches did point to one archetype, this might be just an early singular case of deviation from the autographs.
Copy Text Editing: In this approach, popularized by Westcott and Hort, a master manuscript is selected, and adjusted through others. The Alexandrian Vaticanus was selected as a master copy, and other Alexandrians (~4% of all manuscripts) were utilized to arrive at the “best” text. Today text-history theory preferring Alexandrian texts is known to be faulty, yet scholars still promote a presumed superiority of the Alexandrian text-type.
Some Specific Tenets
Tenets of textual criticism, supposedly aimed at establishing original readings, only ensure preference for the Alexandrian-type texts, just because scholars think these are the best.
A. For example, textual critics presume any tampering was caused by conservative scribes lengthening a rendering in trying to make difficult readings more orthodox and smoother. Thus clarity of expression and orthodoxy come under suspicion, and the well-known tendency for shorter readings in an Alexandrian text is artificially made a standard of preference. But shorter readings would result from tampering by meddlers seeking to eliminate teachings that they dislike. It's known that heretics tampered with texts in the early-church period of manuscript copying. How can scholars ignore the high potential for tampering in manuscripts that show evidence of text shortening in favor of heresies known to be rampant in the early church during the time frame when the manuscripts were generated? How can they insist that conservative scribes did the tampering, as if they were clearly more inclined than heretics to indulge in the error of changing God’s Word to suit themselves? And how can they possibly accept a predetermined bias against clarity of expression and orthodoxy?
B. Then there’s a tenet that more difficult readings are preferred, presuming original readings were likely to be “difficult” and likely to be “simplified” by tampering of conservative scribes. This ignores the fact that simplistic readings are expected in the text provided through the auspices of God, who will want His will clearly known to man. Thus simplicity of expression becomes suspect, and as usual, conservatives are deemed likely to tamper with scripture. This tenet ignores the fact that difficult readings would arise due to limitations of mere human intellects in tampering efforts aimed at making changes by tampering seem like part of the genuine text.*
*Ewert, D. 1983. From Ancient Tablets to Modern Translations. Zondervan. p160.
Ewert reveals how faulty judgment of critics can be, even when they favor a true reading, as at 1 Cor.15:51 where Paul says, We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. Ewert says this is a true, but difficult, reading since Paul did die. But Paul didn’t speak of himself or his peers as not dying, but of those alive at the Rapture, for we is the church of all the ages. The reading is logical and genuine, and to say it explains the origin of a series of related distorted readings in other texts is very misleading, suggesting this true reading began the corruption seen in other texts. Actually, the orthodoxy of the true reading reveals corruptions seen elsewhere, and the tenet is a misleading artificial device.
C. And there’s a tenet that a reading best explaining the origin of other readings is preferred. This encourages the notion of manuscript variance promoting a series of manuscripts with progressive variance. The series could only be related to copyist error or tampering, and never to providential preservation, and critic judgment about which reading is correct is subjective. An effort to identify a true reading in this way is basically flawed since that which is truth to one critic is error to another, and mere justifying of opinion is the likely result. Indeed, the actual existence of such a series is questionable since it may only appear to men to be be a related series. Even if the series is real, the best expected result is to identify a faulty precursor of increasingly troublesome variance, which might help decide on the valid reading, or might only eliminate one of multiple inaccurate readings considered by scholars to be possible candidates for an origin in the autographs. It's doubtful that even this minimal value will be achieved since tracing the origin of a line of erroneous readings is subjective, being dependent on the thinking, and often the bias, of an investigator, so a certainty of conclusions is never going to be realized.
D. And there’s the tenet stipulating that Alexandrian-Text readings, the main basis for modern-version New Testaments, are to be preferred since they are presumed to be closer to original renderings than others, just because scholars believe this is the case. Of course, this is the most blatant & biased tenet guaranteeing preference for the renderings of Alexandrian texts.
E. Another tenet guaranteeing preference for Alexandrian-text readings stipulates that oldest extant (available) readings are preferred, and scholars have long accepted the Alexandrian manuscripts as the oldest extant. But the age tenet is not followed in cases of more recent finds of non-Alexandrian readings in papyri that are older than Alexandrian manuscripts,* so the tenet is applied only if it supports Alexandrian readings.
H.A. 1984. The Byzantine Text Type & New Testament Textual
Criticism. N.Y. Thomas Nelson. p53-95
The Result of application of the tenets
Selection and use of tenets is based on subjective opinion and bias, so it’s hardly a surprise to find that most often results of applying various tenets don’t agree well enough to support a particular reading. Thus still more subjective judgment is used to decide which subjectively-derived tenet must take precedence. Unsurprisingly, the notable lack of consistency in results shows that the tenets are inadequate to derive original readings. The extremes of subjectivity to which the process can go become evident when we learn that scholars sometimes ignore a preponderance of evidence from their own preferred manuscripts, and choose according to personal opinion. Textual criticism is incredibly subjective and biased, and it varies from one scholar to another, and we should ask how mere men can decide what is the Word of God, and what is not.
Textual criticism is bias with an appearance of scholarship. Predetermined opinion underlies selection of readings by textual scholars, and they focus on what they prefer, and ignore what they dislike. The result is favoring of texts subject to likely tampering in the form of shortened, heretical or difficult readings or an association with a series generated through error. The methods utilized determine selection among readings through mere preference, and automatically reject any renderings of non-preferred manuscripts. There’s no objectivity in any of this reliance on theory and bias of men, and no consideration at all of God’s role in the preservation of His Word for His people.
We include this aspect of criticism to further illustrate how unsound the business of biblical criticism really is. Higher criticism deals with efforts to establish the origin of the text to understand its historical context. It is concerned with matters like the assigned authorship, the dates of writing, the intent of the writers and the identity and needs of the recipients.
Source criticism: This suggests scripture is based on sources in a society’s history accounts,* which is just an attempt to reduce scripture to the level of human record-keeping. It arose from observations like the fact that in the Pentateuch Moses is spoken of in the 3rd person in a statement like The Lord spake unto Moses, which suggests to scholars that a later writer recorded private inaccurate views of events in the Pentateuch. But likely, Moses wrote parts of the books personally and dictated parts to an associate so that the authorship was always that of Moses, but the writing itself was often that of an associate, as in the case of Paul’s epistles. Actually, the common use of the 3rd person in the Pentateuch shows that the writer doesn’t dare to misrepresent matters, as expected of one dealing with sacred truth.
*Johnson, R. 1996. Modern Old Testament Interpretation. "Biblical Hermeneutics." Nashville. Broadman. p101-106
But the associate didn’t just take dictation from Moses. An associate had to write what Moses couldn’t write or dictate…the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth (Num.12:3), and the death of Moses in Deuteronomy would be recorded by an associate. The Spirit dictates to Moses as the author, but an associate recording words of a prophet for the scripture text would be ordained of God as an extension of the voice of the prophet, sharing in the Spirit’s direction of the prophet and adding inerrant notes. This process reflects the gospel by Mark, who was not one of the 12 apostles, but was an associate of the apostle and scripture-penman Peter, their association and Mark’s sharing in the Spirit’s leading of Peter being the likely basis for Mark’s gospel (Mark’s writing was even said to interpret Peter).
Now it's possible that some scripture penmen did use written sources. However, the present writer contends that, if such were the case, these would be, not the accounts of society, but divinely-authorized select parts of written tradition entirely consistent with verbal/plenary inspiration. This would be equivalent in effect to the case of Exodus 34:1 where God gave Moses scripture in His own divine writing on tables of stone.
possible case of source usage is the Genesis account by Moses who may
have used records on the history of Adam in Eden in the first few
chapters. Contrary to scholars, language originated with Adam since
he spoke with God and his family, and named animals. He may have had
writing ability by creation, and it’s possible that he wrote an account
of his times preserved in copies in certain languages. If Moses used
such an account, relible parts would be authorized by God for
inclusion in the Pentateuch in Moses’ communion with God during the
course of the exodus. But, more likely, God gave Moses the necessary
account in all of its detail verbally, as was the case with the law on
And other documents might have been authorized sources for scripture. Scholars say scripture itself indicates this from verses like Joshua 10:13 and Numbers 21:14. But use of sources isn’t at all clear in such verses. Joshua 10:13, illustrative of passages of this type, says And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? There’s no justification to interpret this as speaking of anything more than recording of details of the event in non-canonical Jasher before it was written in the canonical Joshua. While both would speak of the general account, it can't be assumed that the Joshua writer copied the wording from Jasher. The book of Jasher is likely noted as another source of fact since the event is so unique. The wording in Joshua is the inerrant canonical form, and would differ substantially from that in Jasher, the latter being a secular historical account, and secular accounts would likely be written on such a unique historical event, along with associated matters. Skeptical scholars make too much of the idea of sources, and in the process would reduce scriptural authority to that of a fallible history book. It’s possible select parts of providentially-authorized non-canonical written sources like the book of Jasher were utilized to a degree, but more likely such sources are simply quoted as well-known authorities dealing with the subjects discussed in canonical books.
The documentary hypothesis: This famous device from the category of source criticism denies Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, attributing it to four sources at work centuries after Moses. It suggests Pentateuch credibility on history is minimal, and the history of the patriarchs is man’s invention. The theory was highly regarded for a long time, but it was found to be based on poor scholarship that misrepresents scripture, and its misleading nature was exposed by archaeological study agreeing with Pentateuch historical data on laws, customs, names, etc. for the appropriate times in history. The facts support Mosaic authorship & chronology, and refute the hypothesis. Writers in later times postulated in the theory couldn’t possibly have the familiarity with early data seen in the Pentateuch, and verified by archaeology.
Error resulting from the superficial scholarship underlying source criticism is clear in the proposal that chapters 1& 2 of Genesis derive from two different sources with different discordant accounts of the creation. Common sense shows us that chapter 1 presents a broad treatment of the creation, and chapter 2 gives a more specific view of the creation that concentrates on man and his immediate environment, and such an approach is a common literary device.
Other incredibly-superficial scholarship underlying source criticism deals with some supposed discordant double references to incidents in scripture that scholars say suggests different discordant sources in text composition. Examples of this include a supposed first-naming of the town of Bethel by Jacob on two different occasions (Gen.28:19 & 35:15), and a supposed twice changing of Jacob’s name to Israel (Gen.32:28 & 35:10). But these are not discordant double references to a certain event, but are accounts of different matters in related, but different, circumstances.
In Genesis 28:19 Jacob flees from Esau, resting in a place where he encounters God. The text says he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first, contrasting two names for the one city, the first being Jacob’s preference. In 35:15, years later, he is again in distress over a different matter, some killings of men by his sons, and he returns to Bethel, seeking renewed guidance by God. In both Genesis verses, the city is called Luz by locals, and 35:6 says, Luz… that is Bethel, again relating the two names to one town. In 35:15 Jacob didn’t name the city a first time but returned, reaffirming his preferred name for it, one that had not taken hold at that time, but would later on. Bethel means House of God, and that is what the place was to Jacob because he met God there. But it was still Luz to the locals, and Jacob’s preference likely motivated a later change of the name. We have “back to Bethel” experiences in times of trouble, and return to our Bethel to find our way, and we reaffirm our commitment to God.
In Genesis 32:28 Jacob wrestles an angel of God who tells him he has power with God, and that his name shall be no more Jacob, but Israel…speaking of a promise to come. Later fulfillment of the promise is seen in Gen.35:10 that says, Thy name is Jacob: (It’s still Jacob at that point but is about to be changed to fulfill the earlier promise) thy name shall not be called any more Jacob (This is God’s ending of that name for him), but Israel shall be thy name: and he called his name Israel (The change occurred just once at this time).
The so-called Synoptic Problem: New Testament source criticism seeks to identify causes for similarities & differences among the three synoptic gospels.* Regarding Mark’s shorter gospel, critics note that much of it is very similar to Matthew's and Luke’s gospels, so they suppose various naturalistic causes. One suggestion is that Mark’s gospel was written first, and Luke and Matthew copied from him, adding things. Another suggestion is that Matthew was first, and was used by Luke, both being edited by Mark. Incidents in Luke & Matthew that, together or separately, are not in Mark, lead them to imagine other sources, one of which the two writers both utilized. Thus they don't know which gospel came first, or who used what, so they're just speculating. To these critics, sources are the only possible basis of the gospels.
*Blomberg, C. 1987. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Inter-Varsity. p12-25
Now there is much similarity among the synoptics, including verbatim wording and similar non-chronological ordering of events, which are unexpected of independent writers. But such agreement illustrates a common guide of the gospels, God, who controls different writers. And differences in detail illustrate the independent status of writers that God controls. Much overall & specific agreement, along with aspects unique to one or two gospels, reveals that the writers speaking of the same inspired message are independent writers. The shorter gospel of Mark reveals his status as an independent writer of common scriptural events, and other details by Matthew and Luke complete the common message and reveal their independent status. For example, in the Christmas story, Luke’s unique details reveal his independent status, and differences in Matthew complete the common message, and point up his status as an independent writer of God’s message. While the penmen are allowed some variance, the differences fit perfectly into the overall account. Thus the fact of four gospels with parallel accounts of various events shows that God invites us to explore writings He controls, under conditions in which inerrancy is humanly impossible, four different independent mindsets in human writers. Thus gospel inerrancy that we observe in our study will be entirely God’s work. Four identical gospels would serve no purpose, and would suggest copying, but four independent perfectly-correlated gospels defeat skeptics to magnify the glory of Christ, the ultimate scripture writer.
Differences in John’s gospel: Contrasting of John’s gospel with the synoptics is useful. John is different from the synoptics, various crucial points of doctrine and data being found only in John. The many matters exclusive to this gospel further emphasize the independence of the writers, despite their common inspired message. John was the closest to Christ in love and faith, and thus was the writer who most pointedly was an independent one. Due to his closer relationship, John was uniquely chosen to emphasize the deity of Christ, something expected of the one closest in faith, and that is one main way that his gospel is distinctive from the others.
Scholars suspect fraud in John’s gospel, saying his words at times blend seamlessly with those of Jesus. This is questionable but, if true, would not be a surprise, due to verbal/plenary inspiration. God gave John special privilege in reporting on the deity of Christ. This relationship to Christ makes John’s gospel unique in various ways, and we could expect to see special proof of inspiration in his writing. It may be that John shows us inspiration in its ultimate form, in that his words might take on resemblance to the speech of the very deity empowering his writing. Thus scholar skepticism of this type would prove John truly is a prophet of God, reproducing God's words. This would be no different from the Psalms where David, in speaking of himself, at times moves seamlessly into speaking future words of Jesus Christ the Son of David. For example, in Psalm 69, up to verse 20, David speaks of his own reproach by his enemies, and in verse 21, there’s a seamless transition to Jesus’ words on His reproach and offering to Him of gall & vinegar on the Cross. The gall & vinegar would be symbolic of David’s experience with his enemies, but they were literal aspects of Christ’s experience with His enemies.
Lastly, we note a difference between John’s gospel and the synoptics that scholars see as a glaring contradiction, the different chronology of Christ’s cleansing of the temp- le, this event occurring early in chapter 2 in John’s gospel, by contrast with accounts in the synoptics where it occurs in the final days of Christ’s earthly ministry. We discuss the temple cleansing here to further point out how misguided scholar skep- ticism is regarding inerrancy of scripture.
There’s no confusion of gospel writers on the time of temple cleansing. Rather, the gospel of John is different, due to special illumination given to this writer. John’s gospel deals with final days of Christ’s earthly ministry much more extensively than the synoptics do, this being a primary subject dealt with throughout chapters 11-21. And emphasis on Christ’s final earthly days, centering on His death on the Cross, begins very early in John chapter 2 in the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana. The wine relates to Jesus’ death, as seen in His response to Mary’s request for wine, telling her His hour (the Crucifixion) is not yet come (the wine symbolizes His blood). In chapter 3 He emphasizes lifting-up of the Son of Man to Nicodemus as He tells how the brazen serpent of Moses is symbolic of His own Crucifixion. In chapter 5, the wrath of Jews against Him for healing on the Sabbath day emphasizes His coming appointment with the Cross, and He speaks of the death and resurrection of mankind in a manner that relates to His own death and Resurrection. In chapter 6 He gives a lengthy discourse related to His death on the Cross as He speaks of eating His flesh and drinking His blood (in a spiritual sense) to the Jews, and He speaks of the future betrayal by Judas. Chapter 7 begins with a note on the danger of His walking among the Jews since they already seek to kill Him, and He also speaks of the giving of the Spirit that will follow His death. Chapter 8 deals with an account of Jews who try to deliver Christ to the authorities by trying to trap Him in His words regarding a woman taken in adultery, and here He speaks of the coming cross in verses 20-28. Chapter 9 deals with Christ’s Sabbath-day healing of a blind man that enrages the Jews, and further emphasizes the coming Cross. In chapter 10, in verses 10-18, Christ notes He has come to give His life for His sheep, and later in this chapter, He again incurs the wrath of the Jews that will lead to the Cross.
All chapters in John, except 1 and 4, deal with a primary emphasis on final days of Christ’s earthly ministry, so its no surprise that temple cleansing of the final days appears early in chapter 2. The chapter deals with just two events, the Cana-wine miracle and the temple cleansing, which is for the purpose of connecting the two. Wine prophesies of a human temple-cleansing that will come at the close of Christ’s earthly ministry. The Cana wine symbolizes Christ’s blood in death (Jn.2: 4), and cleansing of sin merchandising in God’s Jerusalem temple (Jn.2:13-17) symbolizes cleansing of sin merchandising in the human temple ordained as the temple of God. Intentional correlation of the literal temple with the human one is seen in John 2:19 where Christ, standing by the Jerusalem temple, emphasizes His body, instead of the building, as the true temple of God. Also in John 2:19, Christ says His temple body will die and be resurrected, emphasizing bearing of our sin and shedding His blood in death to cleanse us of sin merchandising, and make our bodies proper temples for God’s name by His Spirit to dwell in. Thus the symbolic blood of the Cana wine connects to symbolic human-temple cleansing at the Jerusalem temple, and both prophesy of the Cross.
We see that chapter 2 begins emphasis on the primary subject of John’s gospel in chapters 2-21, and he simply takes the event out of normal order to emphasize this primary subject early. Throughout his gospel he fills in details of matters pertaining to his main emphasis, and speaks of other aspects of Christ’s earthly ministry that are significant for his account. None of this is in any way indicative of contradiction or error, but is simply the writing style John is providentially permitted to use.
The style John exhibits here is like that he shows in the Revelation, where he places matters out of chronological order several times to emphasize certain concepts at crucial points. For example, Revelation 12 gives a brief summary of the history of Israel, the church and Satan that cannot possibly appear in the book chronological order, but is crucial to the theme he presents at this point. Scripture penned by John exhibits a preference for topical order over the chronological. As Augustine noted long ago, this is often characteristic of scripture, certain aspects of emphasis in scripture being far more important than chronological order.
To summarize, the similar gospel message and differences in specifics show us why there are four gospels, to illustrate divine authorship and control among independent human writers. Of course, there are four also since Christ is the main personage of scripture, and four is little enough to devote to His glory in earthly ministry. Scholar source criticism is just skepticism, part of a predetermined agenda distorting truth.
Form criticism: This categorizes scripture passages according to genre or form. It’s based on an assumption that much of the Old and New Testaments was passed on orally before being written down, growing out of the life of the association of the people with other cultures.* This disdains the inspiration standard, suggesting the various kinds of error due to man’s frailties. Such tradition would eventually be recorded, but there would be no basis to presume this written material of human origin would constitute God’s true Word. It would be as if men, rather than God, determined scripture content. The only proper position concerning human tradition is to see God using historical human events in His composition of the Word. This is logical since scripture shows us God dealing with mankind on the basis of historical failure and success.
*Johnson, R. 1996. Modern Old Testament Interpretation. Biblical Hermeneutics. Nashville. Broadman. p101-106
Some see a validity to form criticism in traditions of pagan cultures that resemble scripture accounts somewhat, suggesting to them a common oral human tradition. There are similarities of Hebrew scripture accounts with aspects of non-Hebrew culture, as for example, in the case of the Great Flood, but that doesn't mean that scripture shares aspects of pagan culture. Some similarities in flood traditions are expected since all the world’s inhabitants descended from occupants of the ark, and all had a basic knowledge of the flood event. This knowledge would later become distorted in various religions originating among descendants of Ham and Japheth, while Hebrew descendants of Shem retain a proper authorized account of God’s works eventually recorded in scripture. But more likely, God gave the true account to Moses since all civilizations had eventually distorted its accuracy. Either way, the clear technical and historical superiority of the scriptural narrative is accounted for.
There’s also some similarity between Moses’ law and the law code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian ruler, but that doesn't mean Moses’ law was influenced by this code. Since all civilizations derived from the ark survivors, a degree of commonality of social/political life is expected. In this regard, we must realize that God’s law did not suddenly appear at Mount Sinai, but began in the garden with Adam, and began to develop after Cain slew Abel, long before Hammurabi’s time. It’s very possible there was some transfer of culture and law from the descendants of Shem, to others, and eventually to the Babylonians (see the present writer’s book on Systematic Theology* for more information about development of the law). But, apart from the common ark-survivor origin, similarity is expected as a result of the commonality in the social estate of man that requires obvious common solutions, and in this regard we should ask how many logical solutions there are to each human problem.
*Bednar, L. 2003. Systematic Theology: Toward a Fully Biblical Christian Theology. p259-64. Mechling Books. Chicora, PA