Textual criticism

From Academic Kids

Textual criticism is a branch of philology that examines the extant manuscript copies of an ancient or medieval literary work to produce a text that is as close as possible to the original. The original is called the autograph.

Before the invention of printing, literary works had to be copied by hand and each time a manuscript was copied, errors were introduced by the human scribe. The difficulty in textual criticism of differing manuscripts of a single text is that it is not always immediately apparent which variant is original and which is an error. The task of the textual critic, therefore, is to sort through the variants and establish a "critical text" that is intended to represent the original by explaining best the state of all extant witness. In establishing the critical text, the text critic considers both "external" evidence (the age, provenance, and affiliation of each witness) and "internal" considerations (what the author and scribes were likely to have done).


Methods of Textual Criticism

There are three fundamental approaches to textual criticism: copy text editing, eclecticism, and stemmatics. Techniques from the biological discipline of cladistics are now also being used to determine the relationship between manuscripts.

Copy Text Editing

With copy text editing, the textual critic selects a base text from a manuscript thought to be reliable. Often, the base text is selected from the oldest manuscript of the text, but in the early days of printing the copy text was often a manuscript that was at hand.

Using the copy-text method, the critic examines the base text and makes corrections (called emendations) in places where the base text appears wrong to the critic. This can be done by looking for places in the base text that do not make sense or by looking at the text of other witnesses for a superior reading. Close-call decisions are usually resolved in favor of the copy text.

The first published, printed edition of the Greek New Testament was produced by this method. Erasmus, the editor, selected a manuscript from the local Dominican monastery in Basle and corrected its obvious errors by consulting other local manuscripts. The Westcott and Hort text, which was the basis for the Revised Version of the English bible also used the copy-text method, using Vaticanus as the base manuscript.


Eclecticism is the practice of examining a wide number of manuscripts and selecting the variant that seems best. Evaluation uses internal and external evidence. In this approach, no single manuscript is theoretically favored. Instead the critic will form opinions about individual manuscripts.

Since the mid 19th century, eclecticism, in which there is no a priori bias to a single manuscript, has been the dominant method of editing the Greek text of the New Testament (currently the United Bible Society 4th edition and Nestle-Aland, 27th edition). Even so, the oldest manuscripts, being of the Alexandrian text-type, are the most favored, and the critical text has an Alexandrian disposition.

  • External Evidence

The critic forms an opinion about the individual manuscripts available. For example, one manuscript may have a tendency to drop words. Another manuscript may have a tendency for interpolations. After evaluating how the reliability of individual manuscripts applies to a particular problem, he will form an opinion about which variant has the strongest manuscript support.

  • Internal Evidence

Various considerations can be used to decide which reading is the most likely to be original. Sometimes these considerations can be in conflict.

One of the techniques is lectio difficilior potior ('the harder reading is stronger') based on taking the more difficult reading as being more likely to be the original. It is based on the idea that copyists are more likely to simplify and smooth a text they do not fully understand.

Another scribal tendency is called "Homoioteleuton" meaning "same endings". Homoioteleuton occurs when two words/phrases/lines end with the same sequence of letters. The scribe, having finished copying the first, skips to the second, omitting all intervening words.

Another technique is to examine the other writings of the author to decide what words and grammatical constructions match his style.

The process of evaluating internal evidence also provides the critic with information that helps him evaluate the reliability of individual manuscripts. Thus there is an inter-relationship between internal and external evidence.


Stemmatics is one of the most rigorous approaches to textual criticism and requires the reconstruction of the history of text by examining the variants for patterns of error. In particular, stemmatic critics use the principle that "a community of error implies a unity of origin" to decide whether a group of manuscripts are descended from a lost intermediate, called a hyparchetype. Then, relations between the lost intermediates are determined by the same process, so that all extant manuscripts can be placed in a family tree or stemma codicum descended from a single archetype.

After this step, called recensio, the stemmatic critic then proceeds to the step of selectio, where the text of the archetype is determined by examining the variants of the closest hyparchetypes to the archetype and selecting the best ones. After the text of the archetype has been established, the step of examinatio is applied to examine this text for corruptions. If the archetypal text appears corrupt, it is corrected by a process called divinatio or emendatio.

Thus, the stemmatic method adopts the techniques of the other approaches after fitting the manuscripts into a rigorous historical framework. The process of selectio resembles eclectic textual criticism, but applied to a restricted set of hypothetical hyparchetypes. The steps of examinatio and emendatio resemble copy-text editing.

In fact, the other techniques can be seen as special cases of stemmatics, but in which a rigorous family history of the text cannot be determined but only approximated. If it seems that one manuscript is by far the best text, then copy text editing is appropriate, and if it seems that a group of manuscripts are good, then eclecticism on that group would be proper.

The Hodges-Farstad edition of the Greek New Testament attempts to use stemmatics for some portions.


Cladistics is a technique borrowed from biology, where it is used to determine the evolutionary relationships between different species. The text of a number of different manuscripts is entered into a computer, which records all the differences between them. The manuscripts are then grouped according to their shared characteristics. The difference between cladistics and more traditional forms of statistical analysis is that, rather than simply arranging the manuscripts into rough groupings according to their overall similarity, cladistics assumes that they are part of a branching family tree and uses that assumption to derive relationships between them. This makes it more like an automated approach to stemmatics. However, where there is a difference, the computer does not attempt to decide which reading is closer to the original text, and so does not indicate which branch of the tree is the 'root' - which manuscript tradition is closest to the original. Other types of evidence must be used for that purpose.

The major theoretical problem with applying cladistics to textual criticism is that cladistics assumes that, once a branching has occurred in the family tree, the two branches cannot rejoin; so all similarities can be taken as evidence of common ancestry. While this assumption is applicable to the evolution of living creatures, it is not always true of manuscript traditions, since a scribe can work from two different manuscripts at once, producing a new copy with characteristics of both.

Nonetheless, software developed for use in biology has been applied with some success to textual criticism; for example it is being used by the Canterbury Tales Project (http://www.cta.dmu.ac.uk/projects/ctp/about.html) to determine the relationship between the 84 surviving manuscripts and four early printed editions of the Canterbury Tales.

Textual Criticism of the New Testament

The New Testament has been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work, having over 5,300 Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuxcripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Slavic, Ethiopic and Armenian. This compares to less than 700 manuscripts for Homer's Illiad the next most well documented work from antiquity. The sheer number of witnesses presents unique difficulties, mainly in making stemmatics impractical. Consequently, New Testament textual critics have adopted eclecticism after sorting the witnesses into three major groups, called text-types.

  • The Western text-type is also very early, but its witnesses are more prone to paraphrase and other corruptions.

Following Westcott and Hort, most modern New Testament textual critics have concluded that the Byzantine text-type is late, based on the Alexandrian and Western text-types. Among the other types, the Alexandrian is viewed as more pure than the Western, and so the practice of New Testament textual criticism is to follow reading of the Alexandrian texts unless those of the other types are clearly superior.

However, a minority position represented by the The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text edition by Zane C. Hodges and Arthur L. Farstad teaches that the Byzantine text-type represents an earlier text type than the surviving Alexandrian texts, possibly the result of an early attempt at textual criticism.

Textual criticism is also present among scholars who believe the New Testament was written in Aramaic, including Dr. James Trimm and Christopher Lancaster. Often, textual criticism is used by such scholars as evidence for an Aramaic original (see link below).

Textual Criticism of Classical Texts

The much smaller number of witnesses to classical texts permit the adoption of stemmatics, and in some cases, to copy-text editing. However, unlike the New Testament where the earliest witnesses are within a 200 years of the original, the earliest existing manuscripts of most classical texts were written about a millennium after their composition. This puts a greater need for emendation on classical texts than the New Testament, in which the true reading is almost certainly preserved in at least one witness.

See also

External Links

de:Textkritik fr:Critique textuelle pl:Krytyka tekstu


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