Answering a Question I Get All the Time: The Places to Start in Studying New Testament Textual Criticism

I regularly get questions just like this:

Mark, I am thankful for your book Authorized, which I recently finished. I currently pastor a church that is KJV-Only and I am personally reviewing that position for myself and in the future of possibly leading the church in a different direction. I have not yet come to a fully formulated position but I am getting closer each day. I know that you have purposefully avoided the textual side of the debate, but would you have any other resources (articles, books) that you have written or would recommend on that topic? I would greatly appreciate any guidance there. Thank you for the blog and work you are doing. May God bless. Thank you. —X.

So I’ve written a standard reply to send. Here goes!

First: thank you! Thank you for reaching out and for your kind words. I have indeed purposefully avoided the textual debate on my YouTube channel and in direct conversation with my KJV-Only brothers. I’ve done this because the Bible (it seems to me) is far clearer on the principle that “edification requires intelligibility” (1 Cor 14) than it is on the textual debate (I lay out portions of that case here). I want to lay importance on what the Bible says rather than speculating about matters I’ve convinced it doesn’t address. There simply is no statement in the Bible telling me to expect a perfect set of Hebrew or Greek biblical manuscripts.

I do, then, have a viewpoint on textual criticism: I uphold the mainstream evangelical position, the one adopted by the overwhelming majority of Bible-believing experts in Greek. And if you want a popular level introduction to the topic written by me, I’ve got that. But I’d like to be more detailed—and (kind of!) evenhanded. I’d like to make some reading recommendations on both sides.

Judging the state of any argument means looking at all the major players on all sides of the coin (in arguments, coins can be polyhedrons). And “major players” is defined by, really, one criterion: influence. Is a given writer read and cited? Can you detect his influence among those who espouse the overall viewpoint?

Given that criterion, let me give you my top TR-defense recommendations and my top CT-defense recommendations (with one MT-defense recommendation in the middle).

The Best TR Defenders

In my judgment, E.F. Hills gives the best and most influential defense of the TR I’ve seen: The King James Version Defended (original title: Text and Time: A Reformed Approach to Textual Criticism). Hills is definitely among the best trained of all the TR defenders; he studied at Yale, Westminster, and Harvard.

If you read the book, I would skip over everything that isn’t really talking about the KJV and the TR. He talks for a long, long time about the evils of higher criticism (evils I fully agree are evils, like doubting the Pauline authorship of Pauline epistles), and it just isn’t relevant to the topic. But when he gets into talking about why Scrivener’s TR—rather than other slightly different TRs—is the best TR, he speaks with a clarity that I have had a very hard time finding anywhere else among TR defenders. He raises the hard questions, and though I am not satisfied with his answers, I came away greatly appreciating his tone and his thoroughness.

Theodore Letis is also often cited (The Ecclesiastical Text: Criticism, Biblical Authority & the Popular Mind), and he is the most entertaining and energetic writer among TR defenders. His arguments against Warfield’s views of textual criticism, and his arguments appealing back to John Owen’s views instead, have been widely repeated within pro-TR circles. But his viewpoint is somewhat confusing, in my mind. I and a better-qualified-than-me friend tried hard to establish whether he was against the concept of inerrancy or just the label, but we couldn’t figure it out. I didn’t get the straight answers out of Letis that I got out of Hills.

Dean Burgon is also often cited—but not so much used, I think. He really doesn’t have the same position on the TR as Hills; whenever I read Burgon, I hear the spirit of current TR defenders (which, in my judgment, is not a good thing: he’s not very charitable) but not necessarily their arguments.

I could name people today who are also influential, but at the key points where the battle really rages, I think they’re just elaborating on points already made by Hills. Empirically speaking, Hills is the go-to guy for the top TR defenders today. He is the one they reach for when their opponents ask them those hard questions. Hills ideas’ of 1) the “maximum certainty” he believes the TR position provides and of 2) “providential vs. miraculous preservation” are ideas I have had quoted to me numerous times, precisely when I press hardest at what I perceive to be the central weaknesses of the TR position. Many people find his viewpoint persuasive.

The Best Majority Text Defenders

There’s one major name in Majority Text defense: Maurice Robinson. He knows how to engage constructively: I enjoy reading his comments on a blog I’ll recommend below. He’s got various articles, but perhaps this is the place to start: “New Testament Textual Criticism: The Case for Byzantine Priority.”

I tend to see this position as mediating between TR views, which tend to be strident and dogmatic, and Critical Text views, which tend to be too academic and insufficiently theological (though I think this is changing). The Majority Text proponents I know—get ready for a massive, sweeping generalization—tend to dislike a textual critical view that is merely academic, tend to like the KJV, but tend to recoil from the anti-intellectualism and frankly malicious pugilism common among TR defenders.

The Best CT Defenders

On the critical text side, I’ve got a number of recommendations—but with a preface first. The field of textual criticism is extremely detailed, because it tries to account for an unbelievable amount of complicated evidence, most of which is written in ancient languages, and not just Greek. It is, therefore, like drinking from several fire hoses at once.

  • Dan Wallace’s Credo House lectures are really fantastic. And they’re free online. You can’t beat hearing from the top evangelical textual critic, the guy who’s actually traveled the world and handled countless NT manuscripts. And Wallace has most certainly been influential. Key articles he wrote for BibSac over the years still get cited, and debates and books he participated in get cited, too. But those lectures of his are the place to start.
  • A shorter and maybe a little easier place to start is with a recent Crossway book by Dirk Jongkind, An Introduction to the Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge. I loved the Christian spirit in the book. (Here’s my very positive review!) Dirk is definitely a player, definitely influential. But this recommendation is not one I make because he’s often cited, but because he gives the mainstream evangelical position so clearly and succinctly. This is the view you’ll encounter everywhere you go except within the various forms of KJV-Onlyism. Standard introductions to hermeneutics like Osborne’s Hermeneutical Spiral (an excellent, life-changing book) will also offer good overviews of the field.
  • The standard-though-dated academic introduction to New Testament textual criticism comes from a name you should generally trust and one you shouldn’t: Metzger and Ehrman. I haven’t read the edition to which Ehrman contributed, only the one by Metzger written prior to Ehrman’s involvement. But I gather (?) that the new book is still generally considered a reliable introduction. Metzger’s work was very straightforward, and his Textual Commentary is a standard work you should consult if you get into New Testament textual criticism (my friend Elijah Hixson has put together a whole list of such commentaries). It explains the reasons editors of the critical text made the individual decisions they did. (Note: the SBLGNT is a good tool for pastors to keep up with the minimal details of NT textual criticism.)
  • Lexham Press does have a very serviceable introduction to textual criticism of both testaments in the Lexham Methods series. See Textual Criticism of the Bible. Amy Anderson is an evangelical textual critic who has kept up to date with the New Testament side of the discipline.
  • Go ahead and go through the study exercises at the site I released not long ago, kjvparallelbible.org. Look for yourself at every (translatable) place where the TR and CT differ; it’s all presented neutrally, in English, on a site that I made with the help of professors from KJV-Only institutions.
  • I have indeed written about textual criticism for Bible Study Magazine, an issue we got some really positive feedback on. I’ve also dealt with arguments for perfect preservation on a somewhat more popular level on my blog—and on a more intense academic level in the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal.
  • And, finally, start to read evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com to sample the conversation as it is now, and pick up Myths and Mistakes of New Testament Textual Criticism, headed up by Elijah Hixson and one of the proprietors of that blog, Peter Gurry. That book is the state of the current evangelical textual-critical art, correcting a number of common ideas about the discipline. Gurry and John Meade and their Text & Canon Institute at Phoenix Seminary are the up-and-coming thing in evangelical textual criticism of both testaments. They’re young and energetic; I’ve met both of them and am excited to see the work they do (I happen to know there’s more to come!). Their book has really been well received, and I have enjoyed it immensely. I think these two will gain influence over time.

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

7 Comments

  1. Paul A. Himes on September 5, 2020 at 10:49 am

    I second that Myths and Mistakes of New Testament Textual Criticism is a fantastic book (working through it right now). Frankly, this is a book that even scholars need to read to avoid making common mistakes.

    • Mark Ward on September 5, 2020 at 10:50 am

      Right! Anything you’d add to my post, Paul?

      • Paul A. Himes on September 5, 2020 at 2:31 pm

        I appreciated your fairness! A good post overall.
        If you want to get really, really technical 🙂 then Dr. Robinson (who was one of my mentors at Southeastern) would distinguish between a straight “Majority” position and his own “Byzantine” position. There are, in fact, places where (hypothetically at least) the Robinson-Pierpont Byzantine 2005 GNT will not follow a straight-up majority reading.
        Also, the critical text is much more diverse than it used to be, I would suggest. The “Coherence-Based Genealogical Method” of Wasserman, etc. is still a critical/eclectic text, but it’s definitely a different methodology.

  2. Alexander Thomson on September 13, 2020 at 4:09 am

    Mark, Sorry to intrude, but just a quick query – I can’t access the KJV posts : are they not now accessible? Thanks!

    • Mark Ward on September 13, 2020 at 9:02 am

      Alexander, does this link work?

      https://byfaithweunderstand.com/kjv/

      • Alexander Thomson on September 14, 2020 at 4:16 am

        Mark,
        Thanks for your quick reply!
        The link leads to another link, and then up comes the message that you’re looking for could not be found”!
        The same seems to be true of all archived material, KJV and other.
        Also, although i was and am subscribed to your blog, and to other blogs hosted(?) by the same storage(?) device, I never get any of the promised email prompting messages for any of them!
        It must be that the technology is not for this latterly-middle-aged technofumbler!

        • Mark Ward on September 14, 2020 at 7:19 am

          Thank you for alerting me to both these problems. Will take a look.

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