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Textual Criticism and Preaching – Finding the Balance

textual criticism

In the realm of the theological sciences, no subject is as difficult to navigate as that of Old and New Testament textual criticism. Textual criticism involves a vast amount of linguistic consideration, transmission theory, historiographical data, philosophical reasoning, archeological discovery, and intertextual comparison. The number of factors at play makes textual criticism a specialist rather than a generalist science. Perhaps the most important factor in textual criticism is understanding how to approach textual variants in preaching. Since most pastors are generalists rather than specialists, it is important for them to know how to approach variants in their exposition of books of the Bible. How much should a pastor talk about textual variants when preaching through books of the Bible? How should ministers address a textual variant when it is a more questionable reading of the text of the book through which he is preaching? These and many other questions are important for the simple reason that any minister preaching faithfully through the books of the Bible will inevitably be confronted with the difficult task of navigating the variants and using textual criticism.

Textual Criticism and Preaching

One of the first things we have to recognize in this discussion is the distinction between the inspiration of the original text of Scripture, given by God in Hebrew in the Old Testament and in Greek in the New Testament, and the preservation of the original manuscripts. John H. Skilton has rightly explained,

“According to the [Westminster Confession of Faith], the canonical books were given by inspiration of God (I.ii). The Old Testament in the Hebrew and the New Testament in the Greek — the Scriptures in the languages in which they were given — were immediately inspired by God (I.viii). Quite distinct from the inspiration of the original manuscripts have been the care and providence whereby the Scriptures have been kept pure. It is by virtue of these two separate considerations — the immediate inspiration of the sacred writings in their original form and the singular divine care and providence — that the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek are to be regarded as authentical (I.viii). Indeed, far from confusing these two matters, conservative scholars would insist on making a very sharp distinction between them.”1

We both recognize the divine inspiration of the original writing of Scripture and God’s preservation of it. However, these are two different things. In the inspiration of the originals, God gave the church an inspired and infallible written revelation. In the preservation of His word, God has not given us a single manuscript collection for either the Old or New Testament texts. Some have erroneously tried to argue that Textus Receptus, or common Greek text of the New Testament, represents the ipsissima verba, written by the inspired men throughout. The problem with such an argument is that the Textus Receptus is essentially a copy of Erasmus’ Fifth Basle Edition of the Greek New Testament drawn primarily from a few manuscripts in the Constantinopolitan family. It does not take into account the many other manuscripts and variants that lend substantial support to the work of textual criticism. While we should confidently affirm that God has preserved His inspired and inerrant revelation in the original Greek manuscripts, we cannot simply appeal to one single source. God has preserved His inspired revelation in transcribed manuscripts, just not in the original manuscripts in which it was written by “men. . .as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21).

Textual Criticism and Scholarship

Noting that there is not a single manuscript collection in which the word of God has been infallibly preserved does not undermine our confidence in the preservation of the word of God. When we approach this subject, we must remember that we can be confident that the majority of variants–in both the Old and the New Testament–are scribal errors of nothing more than a single letter. Robert Dick Wilson, in his Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament, has helpfully noted that the majority of textual variants in the Masoretic Hebrew manuscripts are merely variants involving the vowels and y. He wrote,

“An examination of the Hebrew manuscripts now in existence shows that in the whole Old Testament there are scarcely any variants supported by more than one manuscript out of 200 to 400, in which each book is found, except in the use of the full and defective writing of the vowels. This full, or defective, writing of the vowels has no effect either on the sound or the sense of the word.”2

The Masoretic text was also that from which the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek translation of the Old Testament) was translated. The differences between the Masoretic text and the Septuagint exists largely on account of the misunderstanding on the part of the LXX translators. As John Skilton has explained,

“The great majority of the variations between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text arise from the fact that the translators supplied different vowels to the consonantal text from those which the Masoretes employed. In numerous other instances the translators had before them the same text as that of the Masoretes, but mistook it, misunderstood it, or interpreted it differently. At times it is clear that the translators were not at all sure what the Hebrew text before them meant and it is quite possible that at some other times, when they did feel sure of the meaning of the text, they were mistaken.”3

Regarding New Testament variants, Skilton helpfully observed:

“There are many variant readings in the extant manuscripts of the New Testament. Although these variants are very helpful in textual criticism, in enabling us to form judgments about relationships among documents and about the merit of different individual manuscripts, and of groups and families of manuscripts, the great majority of them are trivial.”4

Citing Westcott and Hort, Skilton continued,

“Dr. F. J. A. Hort, who with Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott, published an excellent reconstruction of the original text of the Greek New Testament in 1881 and who prepared for their edition the most important treatise on textual criticism that has ever appeared, says of our New Testament text in that treatise that ‘the proportion of words virtually accepted on all hands as raised above doubt is very great, not less, on a rough computation, than seven eighths of the whole. The remaining eighth therefore, formed in great part by changes of order and other comparative trivialities, constitutes the whole area of criticism.’ Hort is of the opinion that ‘the amount of what can in any sense be called substantial variation can hardly form more than a thousandth part of the entire text.’5

Finally, Skilton appealed to B.B. Warfield to conclude the matter,

“’. . .if we compare the present state of the New Testament text,’ wrote Warfield, ‘with that of any other ancient writing, we must declare it to be marvelously correct. Such has been the care with which the New Testament has been copied, — a care which has doubtless grown out of true reverence for its holy words, — such has been the providence of God in preserving for His Church in each and every age a competently exact text of the Scriptures, that not only is the New Testament unrivalled among ancient writings in the purity of its text as actually transmitted and kept in use, but also in the abundance of testimony which has come down to us for castigating its comparatively infrequent blemishes.’”6

When we approach this subject, ministers can err in one of two directions. First, we can get into such specificity that we run the risk of undermining the confidence God’s people should have in the English translations of Scripture. Or, second, we can gloss over important textual variants and confuse believers as to what to do with them when they come across them in the marginalia of their copies of Scripture. How then does a minister address the more complicated textual variants when preaching through a book of the Bible?

Recently, I have been preaching through the gospel of John. It is well attested by textual scholars that John 7:58–8:11 (i.e., the account of the woman caught in adultery) is highly questionable as to its textual viability in the fourth gospel. There is little manuscript support to conclude that John wrote it. This does not in any way whatsoever undermine the veracity of the Johannine authorship of the fourth gospel. However, we must have the intellectual integrity to recognize that this passage was almost certainly added to what John wrote. It may have been Lukan in nature. There are scholars who have argued for Lukan authorship based on the language and content of the passage.7 Others believe that it was added by a scribe and should have no place in the canon. Of this much we can be sure, the text adds nothing to and detracts nothing from the truth about the character and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. Whether a minister decides to preach it or not, makes very little difference.

If one decided to preach on Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, he might wish to give a very brief introduction to the fact that there is uncertainty about its place in the canon of Scripture. If one decided not to preach on this particular textual variant, he might give a more detailed explanation of why he chose to gloss over it in his exposition. Again, whatever a minister decides to do with such questionable passages as Mark 16:9–20John 7:59–8:11, and 1 John 5:7b–8a he should be careful to note that the addition or subtraction of these passages does not in any way effect the harmony of the doctrines of Scripture. The nature of these texts does not create a contradiction with any part of the canon of Scripture. The addition or subtraction of them regards merely the textual process of the transmission of Scripture.

Conclusion: Textual Criticism, Variants, and Preaching

When we approach the matter of addressing textual variants in our preaching, we should keep a few things in mind. First, we must labor to help the people of God be confident that God has preserved His word for His church in the manuscripts that we have available to us. Second, we should help them understand that the contemporary translations of Scripture are trustworthy throughout (the majority of variants in the ancient manuscripts being of such minor significance as to be related to single vowels; and where there are inclusions of highly questionable variants, none contradict the harmony of the doctrines taught in Scripture). Third, whatever course we decide to follow on preaching more substantial variants, we should address these things generally rather than with great specificity.

  1. Dr. John H. Skilton, “The Transmission of the Scriptures,” inThe Infallible Word: A Symposium by the Members of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, edited by N.B. Stonehouse and Paul Woolley, revised ed. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1967).
  2. Robert Dick Wilson, A Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament(Chicago, [1959]), pp. 61f. Moody Press, Moody Bible Institute of Chicago.
  3. Skilton, Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. See Kyle Hughes’ “The Lukan Special Material and the Tradition History of the Pericope Adulterae,”Novum Testamentum 55.3 (2013): 232–251


This article on textual criticism and preaching originally appeared here, and is used by permission.

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Rev. Nicholas T. Batzig is the organizing pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Richmond Hill, Ga. Nick grew up on St. Simons Island, Ga. In 2001 he moved to Greenville, SC where he met his wife Anna, and attended Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.