Critical Text Of The New Testament: Methodology and Implications

Critical Text Of The New Testament: Methodology and Implications

Mohamad Mostafa Nassar

1. Introduction

Recently, we have come across some very strange claims by the Christian missionaries that the New Testament has been restored to 98.33% accuracy (well some have even claimed 99.8% of the literal text!) and it is the Word of God. The crucial question is why would the Word of God require restoration. The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines restoration as:

Main Entry: res路to路ra路tion

1 : an act of restoring or the condition of being restored: as a : a bringing back to a former position or condition : REINSTATEMENT <the restoration of peace> b : RESTITUTION c : a restoring to an unimpaired or improved condition <the restoration of a painting> d : the replacing of missing teeth or crowns.

2 : something that is restored; especially : a representation or reconstruction of the original form (as of a fossil or a building)

Why would the Word of God need the restoration? Was it because it got corrupted in its transmission and hence requires restoration to its pristine form? The question that needs to be addressed first is the problems surrounding the New Testament manuscript tradition. The Interpreter’s Dictionary Of The Bible succintly defines it as:

It is safe to say that there is not one sentence in the NT in which the MS tradition is wholly uniform.[1]

The lack of uniformity in the manuscript tradition is further aggravated by the fact that the original copies of the New Testament books have perished long ago. Hence there is no way of verifiying what the ‘original’ reading is:

The original copies of the NT books have, of course, long since disappeared. This fact should not cause surprise. In the first place, they were written on papyrus, a very fragile and perishable material.[2]

Since the manuscript tradition of the New Testament is not uniform down to a single sentence, naturally, there was a need to know what the ‘original’ reading could be. The resulted in the construction of various critical texts of the New Testament through out the history.

One of the first critical editions of the New Testament to appear on the world stage was that of John Mill. He began his studies of New Testament textual criticism which were to come to fruition thirty years later in an epoch-making edition of the Greek text, published exactly two weeks before his death. He collected evidence from Greek manuscripts (about 100), early versions,

and Fathers that lay within his power to procure and the total variant readings which came up were about 30,000. With increased availablity/discovery of manuscripts new variants were found that resulted in the critical editions of Tischendorf, Westcott-Hort, von Soden, Vogels, Merk, Bover, and Nestle-Aland.

2. Formation Of A Critical Text: Methodology and Implications

Our chief concern here is with the widely used critical edition of Nestle and Aland called Novum Testamentum Graece Cum Apparatu Critico Curavit (from now on Nestle-Aland24 as the information is taken from 24th edition) and the methodology involved in making it.

The readings giving in this critical apparatus offer all the variations of the text editions of Tischendorf, Westcott-Hort, and the edition of Weiss. In addition to this number of readings from von Soden edition is also included.[3] 

Almost all the variant from the manuscript witnesses are included except practically unimportant differences of orthography.[4] The manuscripts cited include the Greek as well as translations of Latin, Syriac, Gothic, Armenian, Sahidic, Bohiric, Ethiopic, Arabic manuscripts etc.[5] Only the earliest Church Fathers are cited, as a rule, and even these only when no Greek manuscript, or none of importance, support the text in question.[6]

An example of how the Nestle-Aland24 critical edition looks like is shown below. The variant readings of the text are given at the bottom of the page. The details of how to read the material at the bottom of the page is available in the critical edition itself.[7]

The above image of the Gospel of Mark is taken from Novum Testamentum Graece Cum Apparatu Critico Curavit, by Erwin Nestle and Kurt Aland.

It is worthwhile to know how the textual critics chose a particular reading to be authoritative. The New Testament scholars like David Parker from University of Birmingham add a word of caution and differentiate between what is desirable, i.e., to know the ‘original’ text and what can be attained from the colossal mass of variant readings in the New Testament manuscripts. Apart from that he also comments on the status of Novum Testamentum Graece Cum Apparatu Critico Curavit.

We have, however, to distinguish at any rate between the desirable and attainable. Caution rightly prevails in the Introduction to the most common u sed edition of the Greek New Testament, the small blue volume known as Nestle-Aland:

Novum Testamentum Graece seeks to provide the reader with the critical appreciation of the whole textual tradition… It should naturally be understood that this text is a working text (in the sense of the century-long Nestle tradition); it is not to be considered as definitive, but as a stimulus to further efforts towards redefining and verifying the text of the New Testament.[8]

Therefore, the Nestle-Aland editions have been a working texts not the ‘original’ text. And they will continue to remain in the future as more and more manuscripts are examined and new variants added. Further, David Parker emphasizes the fact that the text in the Novum Testamentum Graece edited by Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland (27th edition, Stuttgart, 1993) was agreed upon by the committee as the ‘best’ reading and it has nothing to do with the ‘original’ text.

This text was agreed by a committee. When they disagreed on the best reading to print, they voted. Evidently, they agreed either by a majority or unanimously that their text was the best available. But it does not follow that they believed their text to be ‘original’. On the whole, the textual critics have always been reluctant to claim so much. Other users of the Greek New Testament accord them too much honour in treating the text as definitive.[9]

So, as far as the Novum Testamentum Graece (edited by Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland) is concerned, one can say that the committee itself does not make a claim that it restored the ‘original’ text of the Bible!

It is worthwhile adding that the committee at one point of time consisted of Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Bruce Metzger, Allen Paul Wikgren and Carlo Maria Martini. These five names should be actually expanded to seven as Nida and Barbara Aland also made significant contributions.[10]

Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, whose names are synonymous with the best of modern New Testament textual criticism, inform us about the various problems with this committee text.

A “committee text” of this kind is occasionally regarded as problematical, and at times it may be so. In a number of instances it represents a compromise, for none of the editors can claim a perfect acceptance record of all recommendations offered.[11]

Nota Bene: It has nothing to do with the individual members of the committee being inspired by God or their text is inspired by God, leave alone they restoring the original text!

In the footnotes, Aland and Aland mention one of the dissenting votes of the editorial committee:

This may be inferred (at least to a degree, because not all the committee members were equally quick to write) from the dissenting notes included in A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, a volume compiled by Metzger at the request of the editorial committee utilizing the minutes of the committee sessions (London and New York: 1971; 2nd ed., 1975).

Of the total of thirty dissenting votes, seventeen represent Metzger alone; eight, Metzger and Wikgren; two, Wikgren alone; one, Metzger and Martini; one, Metzger and Kurt Aland; and one, Aland alone. While a certain tendency may be detected here in the distribution of majorities and minorities, the variety of combinations also witnesses to the lack of any consistent lines of division.[12]

Further, they highlight the criticism of their own critical apparatus and its methodology and of course, its defense as well as the problem of textual criticism arising from the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament itself.

On the whole each of the editors is probably satisfied that the new text represents the best that can be achieved in the present state of knowledge. In evaluating the new text from a philological view the objection can admittedly be raised that the procedure followed (of textual decisions based on shifting majorities) is anomalous; one of the basic principles of philology is that a critical text should be edited by a single responsible editor following consistent principles. This objection is quite reasonable, but it is not relevant to the present situation. 

Editorial methodology for a classical Greek (or Latin) text proceeds essentially by constructing a stemma to demonstrate the mutual relationships of its extant manuscripts, and then reconstructing the original text on the basis of insights gained from a complete view of the history of the text (distinguishing daughter manuscripts from their parent exemplars, and eliminating them from further consideration).

But the construction of such a stemma for the New Testament text is inconceivable either now or in the foreseeable future, not only because the number of witnesses to the New Testament text is incomparably greater than for any profane Greek text (in addition to more than fifty-four hundred Greek manuscripts there are also early versions and quotations by Church Fathers),

but also because of basic factors characteristic of the transmission of the New Testament text. Due to the constant change of relationships among manuscripts, each New Testament text requires its own individual treatment with a fresh consideration of not only the external but of the internal factors as well.

The label of “eclecticism” which has frequently been applied to this method is not strictly appropriate, and suggests false associations. Perhaps the modern method of New Testament textual criticism may be more aptly described as a local-genealogical method (i.e., applying to each passage individually the approach used by classical philology for a whole tradition).

When editorial responsibility is not borne by a single scholar working alone but shared by several scholars (assuming that each is duly qualified with the necessary knowledge and skills, and is at home with the history of New Testament textual transmission), the deliberations of such a committee promise to issue in a far more thorough evaluation of the viewpoints and possibilities even if, or rather precisely because, each of the editors represents a different background and perspective.[13]

It is pretty clear that as long as the new manuscripts are evaluated, the critical text of the new Testament would remain as a working text. As far as restoring the ‘original’ reading is concerned, it is pretty clear from the above discussion that what goes into the critical text as most ‘authoritative’ reading is more of a human choice than the Word of God. Indeed, it is reflected in the use of Nestle-Aland’s critical edition in translating the New Testament from Greek to other languages.

Since Nestle-Aland’s critical edition is very complicated to be used in the translation of the New Testament in other languages, there was a growing need for new edition of Greek New Testament which would serve this purpose.

This need was materialised in the form of The Greek New Testament, GNT2, (of course, based on Nestle-Aland’s critical text) which has the following features:

  1. A critical apparatus restricted for the most part to variant readings significant for translators or necessary for establishing the text;
  2. An indication of the relative degree of certainty for each variant adopted as text;
  3. A full citation of the representative evidence for each variant selected;
  4. A second apparatus giving meaningful differences of punctuation. Much new evidence from Greek manuscripts and early versions has been cited. A supplementary volume, providing a summary of the Committee’s reasons for adopting one or another variant reading, will also be published.[14]

An example of how the GNT2 critical edition looks like is shown below.

The above image of the Gospel of Mark is taken from The Greek New Testament edited by Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Carlo M Martini, Bruce M Metzger & Allen Wikgren. Note that it provides lots of information on the textual variants and their relative degree of certainty which are needed for the translation than the Novum Testamentum Graece Cum Apparatu Critico Curavit, by Erwin Nestle and Kurt Aland (as shown on top).

This edition is similar to the Nestle-Aland’s critical edition except that it has more details on the textual variants and their relative degree of certainty.

By means of the letters A, B, C, and D, enclosed within “braces” { } at the beginning of each set of textual variants the Committee has sought to indicate the relative degree of certainty, arrived at the basis of internal considerations as well as of external evidence, for the reading adopted as the text. The letter A signifies that the text is virtually certain, while B indicates that there is some degree of doubt.

The letter C means that there is a considerable degree of doubt whether the text or the apparatus contains the superior reading, while D shows that there is a very high degree of doubt concerning the reading selected for the text.[15]

The relative degree of certainty of the textual variants is again based on Committee discussions which involved either a uanimous agreement or voting when they disagreed on a particular reading. Also note that the textual variants are cited with their relative degree of certainty. Certainly, if the original text/literal text has been restored to its original form why their relative degree of certainty? 

What is very clear from the above discussion is that there is no talk of ‘restoration’ of the text of the New Testament to a staggering 98.33% or 99.8%.In fact, the Kurt and Barbara Aland, the editors of the recent edition of Nestle-Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece Cum Apparatu Critico Curavit compare the total number of variant free verses in Nestle-Aland edition with the other critical editions such as that of Tischendorf, Westcott-Hort, von Soden, Vogels, Merk, and Bover. 

It is seen that nearly two-thirds of New Testament text in the seven editions of the Greek New Testament reviewed by Aland and Aland is in agreement with no differences other than in orthographic details.[16] If only about 2/3rds of the Greek New Testament is in agreement in the seven critical editions, there is no way the New Testament could have been restored to a magnificient value of 98.33% or 99.8%.

Needless to add that the information of the punctuation which the Committee has adopted is available in their book.[17] Other details about the differences between Nestle-Aland26 and GNT3 are also available.[18]

3. Conclusion

In conclusion, an act of restoration has connotations of a previous corruption. It can be easily seen that the restored New Testament that we have in our hands today is a product of human endeavour (i.e., a text agreed by a Committee) rather than the actual ‘Word’ of God. This is true for the New Testament in Greek as well as its translation in many languages.

Any claim that the New Testament has been restored to the ‘original text’ based on ignorance because the people who are involved in restoring the Greek New Testament itself do not make such a claim. As far as the claim that the New Testament has been restored to a magnificient value of 98.33% or 99.8% of the original text (well, where is the original text to compare with!) one should just look at the comparison of the total number of variant free verses in Nestle-Aland edition with the other critical editions such as that of Tischendorf, Westcott-Hort, von Soden, Vogels, Merk, and Bover. It comes pretty close to 63%.

And Allah knows best!


[1] G. A. Buttrick (Ed.), The Interpreter’s Dictionary Of The Bible, Volume 4, 1962 (1996 Print), Abingdon Press, Nashville, pp. 594-595 (Under “Text, NT”).

[2] ibid., p. 599 (Under “Text, NT”).

[3] E. Nestle & K. Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece Cum Apparatu Critico Curavit, 1960 (24th Edition), Privilegierte W眉rttembergische Bibelanstalt, p. 66.

[4] ibid.,

[5] ibid., pp. 68-73.

[6] ibid., p. 73

[7] ibid., pp. 74-83.

[8] D. C. Parker, The Living Text Of The Gospels, 1997, Cambridge University Press, p. 3.

[9] ibid.

[10] K. Aland & B. Aland, The Text Of The New Testament: An Introduction To The Critical Editions & To The Theory & Practice Of Modern Text Criticism, 1995, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p. 33.

[11] ibid, p. 34

[12] ibid.

[13] ibid, pp. 34-35.

[14] K. Aland, M. Black, C. M. Martini, B. M. Metzger & A. Wikgren (Editors), The Greek New Testament, 1968 (Second Edition), United Bible Societies, p. v.

[15] ibid, pp. x-xi.

[16] Aland & Aland, The Text Of The New Testament,op cit., p. 29.

[17] Aland et al.The Greek New Testamentop cit., pp. xxxv-xlvii.

[18] Aland & Aland, The Text Of The New Testamentop cit., pp. 30-36.