The New Testament documents were produced a millennia and a half before the invention of the printing press. Any text produced in antiquity was therefore produced by hand; any copy of that text was likewise produced by hand. Hence the term manuscript – “manu” (for hand, as in manual) and script (for writing, as in…well, script).
We who live in a post-Gutenberg age need an orientation to the world of writing and reading that came before us. In some ways it was very different from ours; in others, quite similar. Our initial exposure to ancient methods of reproducing texts may cause us to wonder how they managed to keep copies faithful to the original. However, continued study will bring us assurance that we can not only be confident that we know what Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, and other authors of antiquity wrote, but that, for the very same reasons, we can be even more confident about what the apostles of Jesus Christ wrote.
Because, of course, each document in antiquity was written by hand, it was subject to error – however slight. And while these ancient scribes probably copied more accurately than you are I would have been able to do, we still need to review their work in such as a way as to be able to discern when and where those errors occur, so that we can correct for them. The good news is that each copy is a potential for correcting another, and the more copies we have, the easier it is to identify the errors, and, conversely, the correct wording of the original. The scholarly discipline which has arisen to manage this task is called textual criticism.
Textual criticism does not mean criticizing texts. Rather, it means critically analyzing copies in a way that best reconstructs the wording of the original text. Textual criticism is not a field unique to the Bible. It has a role to play in all texts produced before the printing press – including the writings of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, Julius Caesar, and all other authors of antiquity.
The glossary below will help you navigate the field of textual criticism by introducing you to some of its terms. I have also included terms related to translation, because, at least for those of us who read in English, translation is as much as issue for us as the text and its transmission. That is, for us to read what the original authors intended to be read, we must look through a process of translation as well as a process of copying. The good news is that both translating and copying work well enough that we can today read in English the writings of the ancient world…and have the opportunity to understand them. Of course, understanding (i. e., interpretation) is another matter entirely. However, it cannot even begin properly if we do not have a settled or stable text to read. Textual criticism and translation work together to give us just that kind of text.
Alexandrian text – This is one of the four text types or text families (see “text type” below for the others).
autograph – the original document written by the original author
Byzantine text – the family of copies adopted in Constantinople (another name for Byzantium) and used as the common text in the Byzantine world. It was produced in Antioch, Syria, and has also been called the Syrian or Antiochene text. Erasmus and the King James Version translators relied on it. “Of the MSS that are now known, almost all of those from the eightth century and later are Byzantine in their readings, and these comprise between eighty and ninety percent of all presently known MSS.” (Greenlee, p. 41, see Bibliography). This is one of the four text types or text families (see “text type” below for the others).
Caesarian text – One of the four major “text types” (see below), it seems to have arisen out of the Alexandrian text but was also mixed with the Western text. As a result, its value is limited. The name is associate with the city of Caesaria in Palestine. “Some textual scholars have disputed the existence of a separate Caesarian text-type…” (Greenlee, p. 41, see Bibliography). This is one of the four text types or text families (see “text type” below for the others).
codex (singular; plural is codices) – Latin for “book.” Distinguished from a scroll.
Codex Alexandrinus –
Codex Bezae –
Codex Sinaiticus – (c. 350 AD) – the oldest manuscript of the complete New Testament (codexsinaiticus.org)
Codex Vaticanus –
codices (plural; singular is codex) –
critical text –
eclectic text – contrasted with “single text.”
Erasmus – Desiderius Erasmus made the Greek New Testament available in Europe.
extant – remaining
external evidence – witnesses (compare and contrast with internal evidence)
internal evidence – variants (compare and contrast with external evidence)
King James Version – 1611
lectionaries – schedules of portions of biblical texts to be read on certain days or dates
licuna (pl., lacunae) – a missing segment of text
LXX – abbreviation for the Septuagint; Roman numeral for the approximate number translators who worked on it.
Martin Luther – translated the Bible into German so that it could be read by the German masses.
majuscule – capital letters
majority text –
minuscule – cursive
MS or ms (singular; plural is MSS or mss) – manuscript; that is, handwritten text
neutral text –
P45 – recovered manuscript from early 3rd Century.
P52 – a fragment of John 18, stored in the John Rylands Library, dated 100-150 (by C. H. Roberts in 1935) and 125-175 (by Orsini and Clarysse in 2012). It is perhaps the earliest manuscript evidence of the New Testament that we have, but see also P104.
P66 – c. 175 AD
P104 – a fragment of Matthew 21 dated 100-200 (by Orsini and Clarysse in 2012), which would put it in the same range as P52.
paleography – the study of ancient writing systems and the deciphering and dating of historical manuscripts
papyrus (singular; plural is papyri) – a common writing material in ancient times, from which our word “paper” is derived. “The scroll of the Gospel of Matthew would have been about thirty feet long, which was about the practical limit for the length of a papyrus scroll.” (Greenlee, p. 7, see Bibliography). “Papyrus was the most common writing material until the third Christian century…” (Greenlee, p. 9).
parchment – writing material made from the skins of animals; easier to write on and lasting longer than papyrus. “…by the fourth century of the Christian era, parchment had displaced papyrus as the most common writing material…” (Greenlee, p. 10, see Bibliography).
reasoned eclecticism –
Septuagint – translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (abbreviated as LXX). The majority of Old Testament quotations found in the New Testament seem to come from the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew version of the Scriptures.
single text – contrasted with eclectic text
text type – There are four major text types or “families” of New Testament texts: Alexandrian, Byzantine, Caesarian, and Western. See each of these above and below.
textual apparatus –
textual criticism – the scholastic and professional discipline of examining copies of ancient texts for the purpose of identifying as closely as possible what was originally written by the ancient author. The goal of textual criticism is to recover the original text from a pre-printing press world. Textual criticism applies to all texts of antiquity, but it is a much more active field when it comes to the Bible because the quantity of manuscript copies is so much greater than that of any other ancient texts.
textual variant – any place among the manuscripts in which there is variation in wording, including word order, omission, even spelling differences
Textus Receptus –
Count Tischendorf –
transcriptional probability – (compare and contrast with intrinsic probability)
William Tyndale (1494-1536) – translated the Bible into English so that it could be read by lay people. Tyndale’s translation was the first English Bible to draw directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, the first English one to take advantage of the printing press, and first of the new English Bibles of the Reformation.
Vulgate – the principal Latin version of the Bible, prepared mainly by St. Jerome in the late 4th century, and (as revised in 1592) adopted as the official text for the Roman Catholic Church.
Westcott and Hort –
Western text – associated with Rome, this is one of the four text types or text families (see “text type” above for the others).
More information on these terms as well as others can be found in the article on New Testament Textual Criticism in the online resource Theopedia. (Some of the definitions above were taken in part or whole from that article; all the rest were gleaned from various books and online resources I have researched.)