A recent comment on another question demonstrated a common perspective, namely that textual criticism is usually a bad thing when interpreting scripture (some would even go so far as to say that it is always a bad thing, such as those who insist that Textus Receptus is an inerrant manuscript compilation). Several questions have already been asked on this site dealing with redaction criticism, historical criticism, and the difference between higher and lower biblical criticism. This question is concerned specifically with textual (lower) criticism's proper role in biblical hermeneutics, if any. When attempting to understand an author's intent in biblical writings, we must face the facts that:

  • The original autographs no longer exist, so extant (known, existing) copies are often used to make a determination.
  • Various copies of surviving ancient manuscripts differ in their actual wording due to scribal errors that crept in through the process of copying and re-copying.
  • Many manuscripts only contain incomplete sections of the original.
  • Thousands of extant manuscripts (of varying textual content) dating from the 3rd century to the 16th century must be considered.
  • Manuscript evidence suggests different textual traditions that developed geographically over time, which must also be factored into the process.

While many have argued that higher criticism and redaction criticism are problematic when accompanied with radical skepticism, what role should textual (lower) criticism play when interpreting scripture? Is it possible to be intellectually honest and reject all forms of textual criticism, or is even this lower form of biblical criticism harmful to the translation process? Why or why not?

While this statement does involve opinion, please also include examples from scripture, history and/or manuscript evidence to strengthen your response. Also, please keep responses on topic concerning lower criticism. There are other great questions already on this site addressing other forms of criticism.

  • I wouldn't say 'always' a bad thing, but 'most always used to diminish the authority and authenticity of scripture' I would (of course I wasn't really clear on my other comment). Commented Feb 14, 2012 at 8:08
  • Thanks for the clarification. I was using that comment to illustrate a much larger issue, but I also do not want to incorrectly portray your statement (since I linked to it), so I will edit my question to reflect this.
    – Dan
    Commented Feb 14, 2012 at 16:14
  • Are you still seeking a better answer for this?
    – swasheck
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 20:41
  • Your response was great, I voted it up. But I was still hoping for a response as to what role lower criticism plays in the translation process. You did make it clear that it is valuable in this process, but did not develop how this piece (lower criticism) fits into the large puzzle of translation. I suppose I may not have worded the question clearly, as there are no other responses.
    – Dan
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 23:58

1 Answer 1


First, my understanding of "lower" is that it is not in honor, or esteem, but in terms of layers of the critical methods. Text criticism is an attempt to deal with the actual text itself and as such, it is at a lower level (subterranean, perhaps?) of examination. It always confused me, but that's how I reconciled that in my head.

I do not believe that it is possible to be intellectually honest and reject text criticism if the objective is to arrive at a translation that most accurately reflects the current state of the manuscripts. I do not believe that every single Christian must be well-versed in text criticism. I do believe that those who have assumed the great challenge and work of translation should employ text criticism.

For example ... > 1 John 5:8 (NIV)

8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

We can see that most modern English translations render it something like above.

The King James Version has this: 1 John 5:8 (KJV)

8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

The phrase focusing on unity ('in one') is found in Vulgate manuscripts, but not in early Greek manuscripts. The discipline of text criticism allows us to logically reason that it was a late addition ... perhaps because someone saw an opportunity to reinforce a theological point. While it is a theological point with which I agree, it is irresponsible to include it as "original."

I would argue that discarding text criticism is harmful to the translation/interpretation process. Having said that, I've not read any of your links so I don't know what the objections are.

  • 2
    Thanks for your reply. The Johannine Comma is an excellent example of a positive application of textual criticism.
    – Dan
    Commented Feb 14, 2012 at 21:58

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