The cataloging of a textual variations requires a decision on the primary text and variations are placed in the apparatus. Initially, the primary reading was taken from the majority of manuscripts. Over time questions on this approach arose. The majority text was biased to newer manuscripts and against older manuscripts which were fewer in number. Also there is the general belief that the older the manuscript, the more likely it is to reflect the original. I would summarize the current situation as replacing the majority system which operates without regard to quality with one that places the greatest emphasis on manuscripts which are perceived as higher quality.

Regardless of which system is used, the result is a primary and a secondary reading. For example, consider Matthew 27:35:

And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. (ESV)

Then they crucified Him, and divided His garments, casting lots, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet: “They divided My garments among them, And for My clothing they cast lots.” (NKJV)

The ESV omits the prophetic element from Psalm 22:18 which the King James family includes. The quote itself is not wrong as it is included in John (19:24), but the ESV reflects a position the quote was not in the original Matthew and so follows Mark and Luke, in which it is also lacking.

One could also examine the issue taking a hermeneutic approach. On one hand Matthew's extensive use of the OT argues for inclusion; on the other, if excluded there are 14 "original" quotations.1 Since Matthew makes specific reference (1:17) to the number 14 in the genealogy, it seems logical he would be purposeful to "follow up" with exactly 14 OT references. In this case hermeneutics affirms the decision to omit the OT reference as not original and suggests the reason why it was added to Matthew but not Mark or Luke.

Another example is in 1 Corinthians:

and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (11:24 ESV)

and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” (NJKV)

"Broken" is included in the majority of manuscripts and in Orthodox traditions such as The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Arguably, the practice of reciting this text attests to its authenticity, despite its absence in manuscripts considered to be of a better quality.

What role should hermeneutics play in determining and/or validating decisions over which text best represents the original?

1. There are fourteen quotations introduced with almost identical formulas: 1:22-23; 2:5b-6; 2:15b; 2:17-18; 2:23b; 3:3; 4:14-16; 8:17; 12:17-21; 13:14-15; 13:35; 21:4-5; 26:56 [see 26:54]; 27:9-10. Dennis C. Duling, HarperCollins Study Bible, HarperCollinsPublishers, 1993, p. 1860.

  • Regarding a premise of the question: Of the 14 'original' quotations mentioned, Matthew 13:14-15 does not necessarily exhibit strictly 'identical formula' to the other mentioned verses, such that it should be taken as a 'narrative' assertion of the 'as the prophet said' formula; since it is arguable that Jesus himself spoke the words(Mark 4:10-12). Obviously this is a single example in the context of a broader issue, but an example to be interpreted nonetheless.
    – user21676
    Feb 26, 2020 at 4:08

3 Answers 3


Hermeneutic considerations in textual criticism are known as "internal evidence" and they often play a vital role in helping determine the original text. In textual criticism, one is trying to deduce an original text through a weighing of evidence. A good textual critic will take into account all available evidence (external and internal) in the process of trying to reconstruct the original text.

Suppose we're rummaging through the town dump and behold, we find the torn pages of two books:

Book א:

Baby's First Book by Some Guy
A is for Apple
B is for Ball
C is for Cat
D is for Dog
E is for Elephant

Book B:

Baby's First Book by Some Guy
A is for Apple
D is for Dog
E is for Elephant

This is a very exciting find. They appear to be two variants of the same text, but someone wonders which best reflects what the original book looked like: the shorter version or the longer one? Book א or Book B?

Now, there is scant external evidence here. Our best efforts at dating the texts are only accurate to tell us they were both made sometime in the last twenty years. We only have two copies, so we can't go with a majority text. And there's no real geographic distribution to speak of, since both copies were found in the same town dump. And we scour Google Scholar in vain looking for someone who might have quoted this book in a paper once.

Hopefully it doesn't take much training in textual criticism to see how hermeneutical consideration might lead us to a pretty good guess about the reading of the original text in this case. Being familiar with the "Baby's First Book" genre and the modern alphabet, we can probably guess that page containing "B is for Ball" and "C is for Cat" has been lost from Book B and that our critical text should favor the reading in א.

When it comes to the text of the Bible, though, things are many times not straightforward. Different evidence can point in different directions.

The external evidence might pull in different directions. One reading might be in more manuscripts, but another one is in older manuscripts. Is this because these early manuscripts were corrupted? Or did a corrupted manuscript get copied in an area that produced a high volume of copies? One has to weigh the interpretive options.

Likewise, internal evidence is open to interpretation. For example, the Psalms are often constructed with an acrostic so that we might have similar considerations to the example story above. However, if a letter is missing from a Psalm that otherwise forms an acrostic, was is deleted by accident or did the original author intentionally omit it for some reason?

Similarly, one of the commonly cited principles when weighing internal evidence is lectio difficilior, meaning the more difficult reading should be preferred. The thought behind this is that a scribe might be copying a text and think it doesn't make sense and might make a small change to "correct" it. It's hard to imagine, on the other hand, a scribe thinking that a text makes too much sense and changing it to try and make it make less sense. Some readings, however, are deemed too hard and must be simple mistakes. What is "too hard" is open to interpretation. The textual question in Jude 5 is a great example where there is debate on whether this principle should apply.

All evidence, then - external and internal - is open to interpretation. Many people erroneously think that external evidence is hard scientific evidence that will protect us from the perils of using judgment in the process, while internal evidence is subject to the vagaries of interpretation. But both kinds of evidence are part of the interpretive process in creating a critical text and subject to the hermeneutical circle/spiral.

To sum: Hermeneutics play an important role in textual criticism as one of many kinds of evidence that should be evaluated by a textual critic. It should not be a controlling role any more than the majority of manuscripts should be, or the antiquity of any one manuscript.


The simple answer to this question is: interpretation should play no part in textual criticism as this opens the door to creating a text that suits our theology.

This would be a very dangerous position of which many infamous cults are guilty and for which they rightly condemned.

The only safety is to keep theology/hermeneutics quite separate from textual criticism.

  • Would you say that is how the apostle Paul approached the issue? Feb 17, 2020 at 23:16
  • @RevelationLad Paul was inspired. He could take a text that meant one thing and reapply it to something else. That does not mean someone in the present can do the same thing.
    – user33125
    Feb 18, 2020 at 1:53
  • Good reply Dottard. +1
    – user33125
    Feb 18, 2020 at 1:54
  • The question deals with the role of hermeneutics in evaluating the decision over which is or is not the best estimation of the original text. Feb 18, 2020 at 2:56
  • I understood the question - and that is the point - hermeneutics should play no role in determining the original text
    – Dottard
    Feb 18, 2020 at 3:20

In the hermeneutic associated with sensus plenior, a second meaning, derived without free-for-all allegory, is observed which acts like security paper. If a literal text were altered, it would theoretically alter the secondary meaning.

Using this method is is apparent that the books in the Catholic Bible which are excluded from the Protestant should not be considered scripture because they do not have a secondary meaning consistent with the rest of scripture.

This is easier to apply to Hebrew texts since they are the primary scripture. The Greek texts appear to be commentary and application of the sensus plenior of the Old Testament. With Greek texts, you must find the OT source to determine the better commentary on it.

Also, when considering NT passages, the additions may be valid teachings. Each gospel is a snapshot of the doctrine being taught by apostles at 10-15 year intervals and were likely delivered by a messenger who was a student of them. It can be argued that while they were read the messenger was there to answer questions. His answers may have been added to manuscripts where the question was addressed.

Validation of the addition as doctrine is performed in the same way as finding the source for unchallenged verses. It becomes mute, once validated in such a way, whether it was in the original penned version, or was part of the explanation given by a messenger, since it would be valid doctrine either way. The authority is the sensus plenior, the hidden prophecies which Christ fulfilled.

Paul's teaching, which appear to be misappropriations, as some would say, do not come by 'inspiration' void of study of the sensus plenior. He taught the Bereans from the Old Testament and they validated his teaching from the Old Testament. If he had said, "Hey look at this new doctrine which God gave to me, and you must just trust me that he did.", they would have chased him away.

Paul was accepted as an authority, not because he said he was one, but because he taught them things they had not seen before, but which were able to be validated from scripture in an objective fashion. This is sensus plenior. This is the same way Jesus taught his disciples; things from scripture they had not seen before but which were able to be validated.

The 1 Corinthian example of 'broken' above is probably a later addition, based on this analysis.

  1. His body was not literally broken so the apparent contradiction is an intentional riddle of sensus plenior

Joh 19:36 For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken.

  1. The Orthodox retain more of the sensus plenior metaphor in symbols than most

  2. When Jesus resisted the temptation to make bread from stones, we retain the symbols that Jesus is the Stone which became the bread. Satan read the prophecy literally; Jesus understood the sensus plenior. Likewise with the second temptation; he had already jumped from the highest place, heaven itself, to become the one standing there in the wilderness. Satan read scripture literally, but Jesus understood the sensus plenior, which he continued to keep hidden until after the cross.

  3. The stone in the wilderness (Jesus 1Co 10:4) was broken.

During the study of the letter, someone had an "aha!" moment and connected the dots and a note was penned to retain the sensus plenior meaning, which then got incorporated into copies.

Though it is probably not an original note, it is a true one.

  • Thank you. Appreciate the answer and the points you make. However, "broken" in 1 Corinthians 11:24 is κλώμενον which is only used to refer to breaking/broken bread, and different from συντριβήσεται in John. The only OT reference I see is Jeremiah 16:7 which also has bread. Feb 26, 2020 at 0:40
  • The Septuagint isn't inspired. And sensus plenior works in riddles of metaphor, based in words. More to it than simply matching words.
    – Bob Jones
    Feb 26, 2020 at 2:23
  • So you are saying someone read συντριβήσεται in John and added κλώμενον to Corinthians? Feb 26, 2020 at 5:53
  • Not at all. I'm saying that the apostles were Hebrew and had almost a dozen words which expressed the idea of broken. The words are all metaphor for the idea. It is the idea that ties them together and which transcends the languages from Hebrew to Greek. The various words have a central concept, which is colored by the words used to express it. "Stone", "rock", "pebble", "boulder" are all metaphor for an idea which is modified by the word chosen. Look at things in the OT that were broken using the various metaphors for the idea of broken.
    – Bob Jones
    Feb 26, 2020 at 12:30
  • The idea of broken includes the metaphor of "torn" when translated into English. It would be silly to debate whether something was broken or torn when they are just metaphor of the same idea. When they understood the sensus plenior of the Rock, they added 'broken' to the verse.
    – Bob Jones
    Feb 26, 2020 at 12:30

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