Prof. Douglas Kuiper, professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Trinity PRC


Suppose you are reading the Bible, the NIV or ESV, for instance. You keep seeing footnotes saying that some manuscripts add or omit a word or phrase, and that other manuscripts use different words. Then you come to Mark 16:9-20, Mark’s narrative of Christ’s ascension into heaven and His words to His disciples immediately preceding it. You notice that in the ESV the entire passage is sandwiched between double brackets [[…]] prefaced with this remark: “[Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20.]”1 The NIV presents the text without double brackets, but still separates it from the preceding verses, and includes a more specific note: “[The two most reliable early manuscripts do not have Mark 16:9-20.]”2

A similar thing happens with John 7:53-8:11, the story of the woman whom the Pharisees caught in the act of adultery. In the ESV, the story is preceded with this note: “[The earliest manuscripts do not include 7:53-8:11].” The NIV informs us that “[The earliest and most reliable manuscripts do not have John 7:53-8:11.]”

No brackets alert you to the fact that John 5:4 is missing in the NIV and ESV; the narrative simply moves from verse 3 to verse 5.3 Footnotes in the NIV and ESV draw attention to the omission, but do you usually read footnotes? If not, you would overlook the omission.

Textual criticism: a brief explanation

What is going on?

Several answers could be given. One answer is this: what is going on is textual criticism. New Testament textual criticism is the scholarly work of comparing the readings of every currently known Greek manuscript of the New Testament, observing the differences in the readings, and trying to give a reasonable explanation for these differences, with the goal of determining as best as possible the exact Greek words that the Holy Spirit originally inspired.

Textual criticism, in itself, is not something that should alarm us. How textual criticism is carried out can be a reason for concern; future articles will return to this. But textual criticism is lower criticism, in dis­tinction from higher criticism. Lower criticism deals with the words of Scripture, and has as its goal to deter­mine as best we can which words the Holy Spirit used. It presupposes divine, verbal inspiration; in fact, the doctrine of inspiration motivates believing scholars to determine as best they can which exact words the Holy Spirit used.

Higher criticism, by contrast, is an attempt ratio­nally to demonstrate that the books of the Bible were actually written by those who claimed to write them (David, Mark, Paul, for example), and were actually ad­dressed to those to whom they say they were originally addressed, and were actually written in light of the cir­cumstances they claim to be addressing. In other words, higher criticism refuses to take the Bible’s witness to these matters at face value, and attempts to demonstrate it. In the end, while some higher critics might at times find interesting arguments that support the assertions that Paul wrote Galatians, many higher critics use their conclusions to undermine the Scripture’s testimony that Paul wrote to the Galatians in the mid-first century.

To be clear, not everyone who does the work of tex­tual criticism has a high view of Scripture. Some of the scholars might be unbelievers who are interested in the matter merely because they enjoy studying ancient doc­uments. Others do the work of textual criticism in the service of higher criticism. Their motives and goals are wrong. But the field of textual criticism as such is not wrong. Believers may engage in it; more to the point of these articles, believers may observe the principles by which it is carried out, and work to understand it, with a view to defending the authenticity of the entire Word of God, from start to finish.

Textual criticism: technical and scholarly

Textual criticism is a technical, scholarly enterprise. It is not an art; it is more of a science. When done properly, it adheres closely to sound principles.

In other words, when the ESV and NIV inform the reader about what some manuscripts say, and assert that some of these manuscripts are more reliable than others, it is telling the average Bible reader, the layman, about technical matters that scholars have noted, and about which the reader is in no position to judge. If some scholar tells me that manuscript X is reliable, and that manuscript Y is not reliable, who am I to contradict him? In other words, without any further information, these comments are unhelpful, and the reader has no ability to evaluate them.

In fact, many conservative Reformed pastors would say that the statements are misleading. True, some man­uscripts are “the earliest,” that is, they are the oldest manuscripts available to us as of today. In the future, it is possible that even earlier ones be discovered. But the statements are misleading in three respects.

First, “earliest manuscripts” might leave the reader with the impression that we are talking about a large number. The NIV at least is forthright and specific: two! Of hundreds of manuscripts that contain the gos­pel accounts, two do not contain these verses!

Second, who says, and on what basis, that these are the “most reliable”? We have moved from fact (“ear­liest”) to interpretation (“most reliable”). Perhaps the interpretation is wrong. Or, perhaps these manuscripts are reliable in regard to their witness to other passages, but not reliable in their witness to these passages. The words “most reliable” express an opinion which, I will argue in future articles, is based on false premises.

Third, the statements leave the impression that at the time these two earliest manuscripts were written, the church apparently did not know of these verses, or consider them part of the Bible. What the reader is not told is that Greek manuscripts are only one category of wit­nesses to the reading of a given passage; other evidence might suggest that the church did know of these verses and consider them part of the Bible.

So, the footnoted comments in the ESV or NIV are unhelpful. They make assumptions about which the reader is not told, and regarding which there is differ­ence of opinion even among scholars. And they leave the impression that perhaps these verses do not actually belong in Scripture. To suggest such is a very serious matter! It implies that either the church for about fif­teen hundred years considered something to be God’s Word that in fact is not part of the revealed gospel, or that late in history some men are suggesting something is not properly part of God’s Word, when in fact it is. The warning of Revelation 22:18-19 comes to mind: this is no small thing.

The scope and goal of these articles

The scope of these articles is limited to New Testament textual criticism. Old Testament textual criticism is also a scholarly field of study. Some of the same principles that govern New Testament textual criticism also govern Old Testament textual criticism, but the two fields are sufficiently distinct that we limit ourselves to the New Testament.

One goal of these articles is to explain the techni­cal and scientific matter called New Testament textual criticism, on a level that laypeople (hopefully) can un­derstand. To be clear, when you finish reading all these articles, you will not be experts in the matter. I am not an expert in the field. I teach a unit on the basic princi­ples of New Testament textual criticism, but that makes me no expert. The experts devote their entire life-work to the matter.

But why bother informing the laymen of this? Be­cause of a second goal: that when you read footnotes and other notes included in Bible versions such as the NIV and ESV, you remain convinced that the supposed­ly disputed passages are, in fact, God’s Word. Were you to hear a preacher preach on them, you can say with confidence. “That is the Word of God!” Were you to read a Bible version that suggests they should be omit­ted, you may say with confidence, “But their inclusion is part of God’s revelation to the church of all ages!” And if you ever hear a person suggesting that these passages are not in fact part of God’s Word, you may say without hesitation, “But they are!”

The third goal is to demonstrate that the Greek text underlying the New Testament of our King James Ver­sion is sound and reliable. That, really, is the bigger issue at stake. The late 1800s saw a shift in views of Scripture and views of the Greek texts underlying the New Testament of the English translations. Conse­quently, almost every English Bible translation since the Revised Version of 1881 (United Kingdom) and the American Standard Version of 1901 (United States) is based on a different Greek text than is the KJV. The only exception to this is the New King James Version, which uses the same textual basis as the KJV itself.

Having stated three pos­itive goals, let me be clear what my goal is not: my goal is not to examine the ESV or NIV at length and point out their weaknesses. They have their weaknesses. The KJV has its weaknesses too. Any product of men, which men have weaknesses, will have weaknesses. But that is not the point for now. The point for now is that the textual basis of the KJV/NKJV is one of the strengths of these versions, and the textual basis of every other English translation is one of its weak­nesses.

I do not say that one who reads the ESV or NIV is not reading the Word of God. God’s Word transcends Bible versions. Some English translations, really para­phrases, do not deserve to be called translations of the Holy Scriptures. But the NIV and ESV are translations of God’s Word.

But if, in the providence of God, before our Lord re­turns, a new Bible version is produced that can really equal the KJV as regards its textual basis, it must be a version that uses the same textual base as the KJV uses, and does not think that two ancient manuscripts out­weigh hundreds of others.

Next time, I hope to present a brief historical survey of the good and bad developments of textual criticism.

1 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles), 2001.

2 The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 1978.

3 The KJV includes John 5:4, which reads, “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”