Textual Criticism and Biblical Inerrancy

Textual Criticism and Biblical InerrancyOne of the frequently asked questions that we receive is whether or not we believe that the Bible is inerrant. The problem with the question is that rarely does the questioner explain what they mean by the term “inerrant.” It has become fashionable to use the issue of biblical inerrancy to ridicule Christians. Fundamentalism claims to be a blind belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, and apparent errors in fundamentalist teaching call into question the credibility of the Bible. What is the relationship between textual criticism and biblical inerrancy?

Scholars have used a process called “textual criticism” to evaluate the biblical text. The translators of the King James Version of the Bible used what was called the Textus Receptus (Latin for “received text”). That refers to the dominant manuscript in Greek published in 1516 and available to the King James translators. Since 1516, there have been numerous discoveries of new manuscripts and fragments. In many cases, they are older than the text used by the King James translators. There have also been better understandings of what words mean and how the culture of the time understood those words. Sometimes the translators’ understanding of what the original writer was trying to say may have been affected by the translators’ cultural biases. Comparing the older and more credible manuscripts with the ones used by the King James translators shows some differences (errors), and that is what textual criticism is all about.

It is important to understand that this process of textual criticism does not make major changes in the meanings of words. In the New Testament, only about one word in 1,000 is in any way different between the Textus Receptus and the newer manuscripts. Even when there is a difference, it is rarely of any consequence. Sometimes it was because of a copying error. Sometimes a copyist put a comment in the margin as they translated and printers inserted it into the manuscript. Making the comparisons allows us to get better and better translations, and that is a good thing.

The problem is what we understand biblical inerrancy to mean. Inerrancy does not mean that a particular translation is without mistakes. It does not mean that one specific set of English words have biblical credibility, while others do not. Textual criticism and biblical inerrancy need not conflict.

The notion that those of us who believe the Bible is the Word of God have something to fear from textual criticism is misguided. It is the same kind of error that has caused some people to claim that a particular translation of the Bible is the only one that we can use. We can trust God’s Word, but we have to work to overcome the problems of culture and time. We must consider the changes in word meanings as well as mechanical issues of translation and reproduction. It may take some work, but we need not question the fact that “All Scripture is given by God and is profitable for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man (or woman) of God may be perfect, completely furnished to every good work” (2 Timothy 3: 16-17 from a combination of various translations).
— John N. Clayton © 2019

Higher Criticism and the Bible

Higher Criticism and the Bible
We often deal with people who criticize the Bible for one reason or another. However, some scholars study the Bible and apply what is called biblical criticism. They may be practicing lower criticism (also known as textual criticism) in which they work to determine the correct text of ancient documents. These scholars work with copies of ancient manuscripts of both biblical and non-biblical material to attempt to determine what the original documents said. There is also a method called higher criticism in which scholars deal with the authorship, dating, and unity of manuscripts.

There have been numerous instances over the years in which criticism of these two types has exposed frauds. In the fifteenth century, for example, higher criticism proved that a document called “Donation of Constantine” was not genuine. The events described in the manuscript turned out to be events that happened hundreds of years after the original document was supposed to have been written. Obviously, “donation” was a fraud. In this way, higher criticism can expose frauds and identify claims about manuscripts that could not be true.

At the beginning of the twentieth-century furious debates raged over higher criticism because many viewed it as a threat to the Bible and Christian faith. In our day it has become fashionable to use higher criticism to claim that the Bible is not the inspired Word of God. I confront skeptics in my lectures who use higher and lower criticism to attack the material I am presenting. We need to take a brief look at biblical criticism to understand it and to be prepared to defend the faith.

Higher criticism has sometimes been used to attempt to prove that one book or another in the Bible is fraudulent. In 1805, for example, a scholar by the name of W. M. DeWette tried to prove that Deuteronomy was not written by Moses but by Jerusalem priests in the time of Josiah. DeWette’s assertion was widely accepted until archaeologists proved that many parts of Deuteronomy reflect a period earlier than that of Josiah. In the nineteenth century, it was popular to claim that all ancient biblical manuscripts must be assumed fraudulent unless proven true. Archaeology has mostly removed that negative attitude, but it is not uncommon to run into it even today.

Many proponents of higher criticism attempt to use style as a means of proving a biblical manuscript fraudulent. A good example of this is first and second Peter. The styles of these two books are very different. Why would that be since they are supposedly both written by Peter? Subject matter can make a huge difference in the style of writing. Gilbert Highet of Columbia University pointed out that Cicero had at least six different styles depending upon what he was writing. There is even the possibility that Peter wrote one book in Greek and the other in Aramaic which would automatically produce significant differences in style.

There are questions about the Bible that higher criticism may help us solve. The Bible designates Moses as the author of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy but does not identify the author of Genesis. Jesus identifies Moses as the author of the same four books but makes no mention of the author of Genesis. If higher criticism could verify the authorship of Genesis, it would be a welcomed contribution to our understanding.

However, instead, some scholars have attempted to prove that the first and second chapters of Genesis were written by different authors who disagreed with each other. They ignore the fact that those chapters were written for different purposes and to show different relationships. Higher criticism scholars have also raised questions about the authorship and dates of some of the Psalms and Hebrews. We must remember that higher criticism is the work of people who have preconceived ideas and prejudices that affect their conclusions.

Higher criticism is at best a tool to help us understand some concepts related to God’s Word. If we believe that the Holy Spirit was active and that the Bible was God-breathed, we will not be shaken by the winds of modernism that roar through the religious world today. Excellent and open-minded scholarship has, over the centuries, confirmed and supported the concept that the Bible is the Word of God. Letting the Word speak to us is the doorway to a closer walk with God.
–John N. Clayton © 2018