What a pastor should know about developments in textual criticism. Part 3: New Resources

In this series, Dr. Peter Gurry explains recent developments in New Testament textual criticism. Read part 1 and part 2.

We have been considering what a pastor should know about recent developments in textual criticism, a discipline that aims to recover the original words of the New Testament authors. The previous posts have considered new editions of the Greek New Testament and a new method of practicing textual criticism and now we should mention the accessibility of new resources. Many of these are due to the remarkable work of various organizations and the ability of the internet to connect and share information. Of the many resources I could mention, let me introduce three to you.

1. Images

Ephesians 1.1 P46 in the CSNTM viewer

Ephesians 1.1 in P46 at CSNTM

The first resource is digital images. In the last decade, there has been an explosion of manuscript images made available, often for free, online. The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts is one major organization that has been hard at work to digitize manuscripts all over the world. Whenever possible, they put these images online for free at csntm.org. The search feature is especially useful as it allows you search keyword or verse and to sort results by a range of manuscript feature.

If you were teaching on one of the Gospels, why not introduce your congregation to P45, one of the earliest copies of the four Gospels and Acts? Or maybe you are teaching on Ephesians and want to show a Sunday school class the missing words "in Ephesus" in P46, one of the earliest manuscripts of Paul's letters (note that the book is still titled "To the Ephesians"). Or, share the beautiful artwork in GA 808, a rare complete copy of the New Testament from the 13th–14th century.

Along with CSNTM, many of the world’s great libraries are busy digitizing their manuscripts and putting them online too. Without leaving home, you can now explore Codex Vaticanus (03) held at the Vatican, or the palimpsest Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (04) at the French Bibliothèque nationale, Codex Bezae (05) of the British Library, or see the famous Codex Sinaiticus (01) all in one place, something physically impossible because the manuscript itself is split and housed at four separate institutions. All this is just the tip of the digital iceberg.

2. Virtual Manuscript Room

The Manuscript Workspace in the NT.VMR

The Manuscript Workspace in the NT.VMR

Although looking at incredible manuscripts online is thrilling, tracking them down can be tricky unless you know what to look for. That brings me to the second resource I want to mention called the New Testament Virtual Manuscript Room or NT.VMR.

If I can brag for a minute, the NT.VMR was largely designed and is still developed by one of our own Phoenix Seminary graduates, Troy Griffitts. Troy has been instrumental in developing this remarkable resource which has become indispensable to academic text-critical work.

At the NT.VMR, you can see the official list of New Testament manuscripts, view images of many of them, consult scholarly transcripts of manuscripts, study the history of scholarly conjectures about the New Testament text, discuss these with other people, and so much more. It is a rich resource and it keeps getting more valuable.

3. Free Online Editions

The STEP Bible interface showing John 1 in the THGNT

The STEP Bible allows free access to THGNT as well as other translations and editions.

The final resources I want to mention take us back to the first post in this series which introduced several new editions of the Greek New Testament. Ideally, you will want to have a print copy of one of those editions because each comes with valuable detail in the apparatus or in the margins. But if all you need is the text itself for reading or study, all of these are now freely available online.

For the Tyndale House edition, one can find the text at esv.org/gnt or at stepbible.org, complete with additional vocabulary and parsing help. The NA28/UBS5 text is also online at nestle-aland.com/en/read-na28-online though without the extra helps. These free, digital editions can be helpful for when you're away from your study or if you want to copy and paste the text into your study notes for things like diagramming, color-coding, etc.


In conclusion, we can say two things about advances in New Testament textual criticism. First, the Bibles that we have in our hands now—whether English or Greek—are founded on a solid double foundation of overall good transmission and excellent scholarly study of that history. Because of that, we should not hesitate to preach and teach from these editions even as they alert us to some places that remain difficult. Second, the study of our New Testament text and how it was transmitted to us is advancing in new and promising ways. The new editions, new method, and new resources mentioned in this series give us access to the history of God’s word in ways impossible to imagine even a generation ago.

In the words of a famed text critic from the 19th century, "It cannot be a matter of indifference to know how the New Testament … has come down to us; to look at the Manuscripts from which our fathers drew words of life, to trace the stirring history of the version through which the teaching of Apostles has been made accessible to men of other tongues." Let us be eager to study the remarkable history of God’s book and to share it with God’s people.

Further Reading

About the Author

Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017. He teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across Greek grammar, New Testament textual criticism, the General Epistles, and the history of Biblical scholarship. Learn more about Dr. Gurry here.

What a pastor should know about developments in textual criticism. Part 2: A New Method

In this series, Dr. Peter Gurry explains recent developments in New Testament textual criticism. Read part 1 and part 3.

In our last post, I briefly introduced two new editions of the Greek New Testament, the Nestle-Aland (NA28) and the United Bible Societies (UBS5) and noted that a new computer-aided method was used to edit their text in the Catholic Letters. The new method is known unmemorably as the "Coherence-Based Genealogical Method" or CBGM for short and in this post, I want to introduce it to you very briefly. The CBGM has been in development since the early 1980s, but its results have been widely available only in the last five years.

2. A New Method

The CBGM is not known for being simple, but essentially it harnesses the power of the computer and the vast increase in our knowledge of New Testament manuscripts to help scholars make better, more consistent textual decisions. The method works by using the overall relationship between texts to resolve particular textual problems. For example, if the computer shows us that two distantly-related texts share the same variant reading, this might indicate that the reading was created independently by the scribes of those texts. This, in turn, could suggest that the reading is less likely to be original. Beyond that, the CBGM can even help us tell the larger story of how the New Testament text has been copied over centuries. And that too can help us determine or confirm the text.

Textual flow diagram for 1 Peter 1.23

A diagram like this helps scholars use the overall relationship of texts in the CBGM to help relate individual variants.

The method has now been applied thoroughly to the Catholic Letters and just recently to Acts too. The data are available online. This resulted in 54 textual changes in Acts and 34 in the General Epistles. Most of these don't affect English translation let alone theology. But a small handful are significant.

The most important change, in my opinion, is found at 2 Peter 3:10 where the NA28 and UBS5 now read that in the day of the Lord, “the earth and all that is in it will not be found.” The inclusion of the word “not” where before there was none is obviously important. More significant still, this reading has no known Greek manuscript support, raising serious questions about its validity. Notably, this change has already affected the CSB translation and may well affect the recently announced revision of the NRSV.

Just as important for a pastor, however, is the evidence the CBGM provides for how well the New Testament text was copied overall. To be sure, there are many variants in our New Testament manuscripts—perhaps as many as half a million. Most of these are trivial or easily resolved and, when considered in light of how many times our New Testament books were copied, what stands out most is how faithfully scribes did their work. The advent of the CBGM allows us to quantify this fidelity like never before.

In the Catholic Letters, for example, there are two manuscripts that agree at 99.1 percent of all places where there is variation in the 123 manuscripts used by the CBGM. They only differ in a total of 27 out of 2,859 places where they were compared. That is quite remarkable. The average textual agreement between all pairs of witnesses reaches 87.6 percent. That too is impressive. Similar numbers occur in Acts.

A New Approach to Textual Criticism coverThese new data expose just how absurd some popular claims about the Bible really are. Take, for example, this Newsweek cover story from a few years ago that went so far as to say that you and I have never even read the Bible because “at best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.” The implication that the Bible can't be trusted is hard to miss.

In fact, most of us have been reading substantially the same Greek New Testament for two thousand years thanks to careful scribes. And rather than being an impediment to faith, modern textual criticism actually supports it. Even Marcus Borg, a New Testament scholar who is far from being an Evangelical Christian, has written that “with only a few minor exceptions, we can be confident that the Gospels and the New Testament as a whole reliably report what was originally written.”

Yes, verbiage will change in certain places as a result of further research, and tricky textual problems do remain. But because of the overall fidelity of scribes over 1500 years combined with the herculean efforts of textual scholars, we can be confident that the text we have in our Greek editions and in our English translations is more than enough to ground our faith in the New Testament’s witness to Jesus Christ. The advent of cutting-edge methods like the CBGM have made that more apparent than ever before.

Further Reading

About the Author

Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017. He teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across Greek grammar, New Testament textual criticism, the General Epistles, and the history of Biblical scholarship. Learn more about Dr. Gurry here.