The Transmission of the Scriptures

John H. Skilton

Part II

Due to the length of this article it has been divided into three parts. The divisions were done arbitrarily and thus do not reflect a natural division within the article itself. Further, the footnotes are "hot linked" for ease of access and use. After reading a footnote use your "Back" button to return to your former place in the text


The text of the New Testament, then, like that of the Old, has been preserved for us in a remarkably pure form. The traditional text of the Hebrew Bible has been guarded against error by copying of the most painstaking type and by scholarly work of a very high order, such as that of the Masoretes. Versions and other materials have come down to us which aid us in our effort to ascertain the original text. The text of the New Testament has survived in an extraordinary abundance and variety of witnesses, some of which are quite early. Kenyon feels justified in saying, “The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true Word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries.”51

If, then, the Scriptures have been singularly well preserved throughout the centuries or even throughout millenniums, if they have been kept pure in all ages, we must recognize that the singular care and providence of God have really been operative in their behalf. It seemed reasonable to us at the beginning of our study to suppose that the God who is sovereign over all and who works all things after the counsel of his will would preserve his Word in a state of essential purity. We have since observed that God’s Word has been preserved throughout the ages in an essentially and remarkably pure form. It is incumbent on us to acknowledge that the praise for the preservation of the Scriptures belongs to God. We are not to attribute the preservation of the Scriptures in a pure form ultimately to circumstance or to the will of man. We are to attribute it ultimately to the design and the working of him whose kingdom ruleth over all.

To give the praise to God in the matter of the preservation of the Scriptures and to acknowledge that we are heirs of the working of a divine providence is of course not to deny that God has used circumstances and men in accomplishing his purpose. One way in which he has brought about his design has been through the regard he has caused his people to have for his Word. In the case of the Old Testament, as Dr. Green would counsel us, that regard early had a bearing upon the manner in which the Scriptures were transmitted.52 As for the New Testament, Dr. Warfield has been heard saying that the care With which it has been copied has undoubtedly sprung from reverence for its words. And for the New Testament also that reverence was early in its rise. The inspired apostolic writings were not regarded by either their authors or by the church in the first century as unauthoritativè. Paul could write, “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him take knowledge of the things which I write unto you, that they are the commandment of the Lord” (I Cor. 14:37). Peter ranked the epistles of Paul with the other Scriptures (II Pet. 3:16). John solemnly writes, “I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto them, God shall add unto him the plagues which are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life, and out of the holy city, which are written in this book” (Rev. 22:18, 19). Such statements as these, along with the whole tenor of the New Testament writings, called forth reverence from believers in the earliest days of the church.

Although it is to be acknowledged that men have exercised care in the transmission of the Scriptures, it must not be forgotten that men have not exercised such care or displayed such skill as to preserve the Scriptures in all copies without variation. Despite the phenomenal care taken with the copying of the Masoretic text, Hebrew manuscripts of that text vary among themselves. Men make mistakes no matter how high their regard for the text which they are copying. In the case of the New Testament, variations may be attributable also in some measure to such special factors as untrained copyists in the early days, the wide geographical extent of the church, the unavailability or loss of the original manuscripts or of standard copies of them for comparison, attempts at harmonization, including Tatian’s Diatessaron, and the survival in early times of authentic information not given in the Scriptures which men might be moved to record in the margins of their manuscripts as glosses and which copyists of those manuscripts might by a very natural misunderstanding include in the text of their new documents.

Dr. Ernest Cadman Colwell thinks that the Greek and Roman Churches did not take such extraordinary care of the text of the New Testament as the synagogue did of that of the Old because they did not ascribe to their Bible the exclusive religious authority which the Jews attributed to theirs. He thinks that the Christian Bible met with a rivalry for authority from hierarchy and creed, from clergy and dogma, which adversely affected men’s zeal for the preservation of the exact text.53 Of course, true creeds properly used and church order agreeable to the Scriptures should foster regard for the Bible and its text. But there can be no question that in the course of time the unique authority of the Bible has not everywhere been recognized, that in the Roman Catholic Church the Bible has not been given its rightful place, and that want of the proper regard for the Scriptures may at times, if not always, produce relative indifference to questions of text. When we commend the care that has been exercised by men in the transmission of the text of the Bible, we do not mean to imply that the care could not have been improved. If the care of men had been greater, the variant readings in our manuscripts would have been even fewer than they are. And when we commend the purity of the text of the Bible as transmitted to us, we are not claiming that any one manuscript offers us a full and unblemished text. Although all our witnesses are substantially correct, all are nevertheless, to varying degrees, imperfect or incorrect. We are required to make choices among the readings which they offer. It is our task to attempt to reconstruct from all the witnesses available to us the text essentially preserved in all, but perfectly and completely preserved in none. It is necessary for us, in God’s providence, according to his appointment, to strive to ascertain the true, the original, text, to obtain by faithful study of all the pertinent materials available and by the application of correct principles, a text which is better than the best found in any manuscript. We must, in other words, engage in what is called textual criticism of the Bible.54

Textual criticism, along with the study of grammar and lexicography, is to be placed in the category of lower criticism — a science which lays the foundations for literary, historical, exegetical, and theological study of the Scriptures and which is preparatory for what is called higher criticism. The latter concerns itself with such matters as the genuineness, integrity, and reliability of the Scriptures and need not be governed by a naturalistic bias, but can be employed by conservatives to the edification of the church.55 In his “criticism” of a textual sort, the conservative scholar will be moved by his regard for the worth of the original text which he is attempting to reconstruct. He will engage in his textual studies not in spite of his view of the Bible, but because of it. Believing that every word of the original manuscripts was breathed by the Holy Spirit, the consistent Christian scholar will be eager to recover every word of those originals. Although recognizing that no doctrine rises or falls with a disputed reading and that most variations are relatively unimportant, the conservative will nevertheless realize that not one jot or tittle of the law of God is actually unimportant (Matt. 5:18) and that our Lord held that even with regard to a brief statement in the Old Testament the Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:34, 35). Accordingly the Christian scholar will strive to recover the exact form of words and phrases used in the original. Variations such as that between short and long “o,” at Romans 5:1, will not seem to him of no consequence. He will be eager to ascertain whether Paul wrote “we have” or “let us have,” ecomen or ecwmen. And, of course, he will be greatly concerned to know what view to adopt with regard to the larger variant readings. He will wish to know whether the Gospel of Mark should end at the eighth verse of the sixteenth chapter or not, whether the so-called “heavenly witnesses” statement in I John 5:7, 8 appeared in the epistle in its original form, and whether the passage concerning the woman taken in adultery, found at the beginning of the eighth chapter of John in some manuscripts, belongs in the Scriptures or not. The conservative scholar, then, in his use of textual criticism will be moved by reverence for the written Word of God. He will not be seeking to tear the Scriptures apart after the fashion of some naturalistic critics, but will be endeavoring to ascertain what the infallible Scripture, which he regards as inviolable, actually is. And his reverence for the Scripture and his labors on the text will be used by God in the preservation and transmission of his Word.

Textual criticism, in God’s providence, is the means provided for ascertaining the true text of the Bible. Its fruits cannot be obtained from any other tree. Most clearly it has been the design of God to require us to labor to know his Word in its original form. No valid appeal can be made to the doctrine of providence to escape the necessity for a thoroughgoing enlightened scientific criticism. God’s special care and providence cannot be expected to guarantee that the type of text used most widely in the past and for the longest time is, in every respect, the best text. All types of text in use in the past were essentially pure: but God, of course, did not grant to men in former times who followed erroneous principles of criticism the fruits of the use of correct principles. And it would be utterly wrong for us to permit our textual criticism to be shackled by the mistakes of the past. It would be absurd for us to expect the past ages, which, whatever their virtues, certainly had manifest limitations, to place the best possible text in our hands and to make textual criticism relatively unnecessary for us.

It should be evident also that we cannot remove the necessity for textual criticism through an appeal to the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit. The witness of the Holy Spirit to the Bible does not involve the direct communication of facts. As Dr. C. Wistar Hodge has said, the witness of the Holy Spirit to the Word “is not the mystical communication of a truth, nor the causing to emerge in consciousness of a blind and unfounded faith. Hence it does not witness to questions which are to be determined by exegetical and historical considerations.”56 We must look for such grounds for the acceptance or rejection of variant readings as God has provided and seek to glorify him by arriving at the truth in the manner which he has made available to us. By the grace of God we may recognize the validity of the claims of certain readings and may make right decisions, we may receive benefits from the working of the Holy Spirit in us, but we ought not to expect that the necessity for consecrated scientific investigation will be removed.

We will, furthermore, not find any infallible solution to textual problems in the deliverances of popes and church councils. The Scriptures do not confer on popes infallibility in determining textual questions, and they certainly do not promise to any men or councils inerrancy in decisions regarding the text. The Church of Rome has had some unenviable experiences with papal ventures in the sphere of textual criticism. Pope Sixtus V, in 1590, published an edition of the Latin Vulgate, with a revised text, which he sought to make authoritative. He prefaced his edition with a bull in which he declared:

In this our perpetually valid constitution. . . we resolve and declare from our certain knowledge and from the plenitude of apostolical authority that that Vulgate Latin edition of the sacred page of the Old and New Testament, which was received as authentic by the Council of Trent is without any doubt or controversy to be reckoned that very one which we now publish, corrected as best may be, and printed in the printing office of the Vatican, to be read in the universal republic of Christendom and in all the Churches of the Christian world, decreeing that it, approved as it is, first by the universal consent of the holy Church and of the holy fathers, then by the decree of the general Council of Trent, and now also by the apostolical authority delivered to us by the Lord, is to be received and held as true, legitimate, authentic, and undoubted in all public and private controversies, readings, preachings, and expositions.57

Variant readings, according to Sixtus’ proscription, were not to be printed in the margin in subsequent editions and the edition then issued was not to be modified. The major excommunication was to be visited upon violators and absolution was to be received from the pope alone.58

Sixtus V died soon after the appearance of his edition of the Vulgate, and his authoritative edition came on evil days. As early as September 5, 1590, according to Dr. Steinmueller, the sale of Sixtus’ Bible was forbidden and the available copies were destroyed.59 Pope Gregory XIV, in 1591, appointed a commission to revise the Sistine Vulgate, and the principles supported by the revision committee were quite drastic.60 The revision was completed on June 23, 1591, and in 1592, Clement VIII, who had become pope in that year, gave his approval to the work of Gregory’s commission, and the newly revised text was published under the name of the late Sixtus V. This edition, which differed from the Sistine Vulgate in some few thousand readings, was supported by a bull, Cum sacrorum. Although it was admitted in the Preface that the new edition was not perfect, any changes in it or marginal insertions of variant readings were forbidden by the bull. The effect of this bull was to hinder for centuries the advance of textual criticism of the Vulgate in the Church of Rome. At long last in our day a critical edition of the Vulgate is being provided under church auspices.61

It appears, then, that we cannot rightly expect providence to place the best possible text of the Scriptures in our hands, or the Holy Spirit to communicate to us information as to which readings are correct, or some ecclesiastical authority to settle infallibly for us questions of text. We must engage in consecrated scientific labor, the method of God’s appointment for us.

In the exercise of the textual criticism necessary for us, we should seek to make use, as already indicated, of all the important materials available as witnesses to the text of the Bible. These include not only manuscripts in the original languages of Scripture, whether of the continuous text or of selected portions of it for use in church services, but also the ancient versions, paraphrases, and citations of the Scriptures.62

Versions, of course, offer many a difficulty to the textual critic. There is a problem of textual criticism for the versions themselves. If we are to use them wisely in our effort to ascertain the original text of the Bible, we must first endeavor to determine what their own original texts were. In the case of the Latin Vulgate, for example, with its thousands of manuscripts, it can be seen that this task of criticism calls for considerable knowledge and sagacity.63 A great amount of work yet needs to be done on the text of the Septuagint.64

Once we have arrived at a competent reconstruction of the original text of a version, we must then seek to ascertain what was the Hebrew or Greek text from which it was made (if indeed it was not a secondary translation). Again we have a task of no little difficulty on our hands. One language is not always able to reflect accurately or unambiguously the expressions of another; translators for one cause or another may render the original inaccurately; translations vary in literalness among themselves and even within themselves; some translators take great liberties with the original. If we were to attempt to translate back into Hebrew or Greek some of the free “translations” of the Scriptures made in our times, we might arrive at a text astonishingly different from the original. Further, we ourselves may err in our interpretation of the translation and in our effort to reconstruct the text on which it was based. Unquestionably the difficulty we meet in our attempt to determine the text on which a version was based should encourage carefulness and restraint on our part.

However, despite such problems as we encounter in our use of versions and our consequent caution, we will find versions witnessing clearly at times to the text on which they were based and providing an important testimony to the existence of that text at the time and place of their emergence — a witness of exceptional value to the textual critic. In the case of the Old Testament, as we have seen, the Septuagint translation gives testimony to a Hebrew text in existence long before the time of the Masoretes; and important early witnesses to its own text are extant. The Chester Beatty Papyri of the Septuagint belong to the second to fourth centuries A.D. The John Rylands Library Papyrus Greek 458 and Papyrus Fuad 266, containing portions of Deuteronomy, probably go back to the mid-second century B.C. Other early manuscripts have been found in the area of the Dead Sea. In the case of the New Testament the first of the Syriac, Latin, and Egyptian versions were made as early as the latter part of the second century or the beginning of the third.

It is likewise important in textual criticism, as has been indicated, to consider the quotations of Scripture found in early writings. As with versions, a work of textual criticism has to be performed on the writings whose witness is being examined. Then we must inquire whether the writers quoted accurately or not. In early times, because of the difficulty and real inconvenience in locating passages in manuscripts and perhaps because manuscripts may not always have been readily available for consultation, there was a great temptation to quote from memory. If the citations are in some other language than that of the original, we have, again as with the versions, a retranslation problem on our hands. But the fruits of study of the early citations are very valuable. They help to date and localize certain readings. Of great interest to the student of the New Testament text are the citations found in the writings of Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, Eusebius, and Chrysostom.

Once we have given requisite attention to the varied available witnesses to the sacred text, we must attempt to make an intelligent selection among the variant readings which they contain. Our choice should be made not in any haphazard fashion, but in accordance with carefully weighed principles. In determining our text we shall hardly be inclined to follow the method by which the texts of the earliest of the printed Greek New Testaments were formed. The first to be published was that of Erasmus. Froben, a publisher in Basel, Switzerland, who had probably learned of the effort being made in Spain to publish a Polyglot Bible (the Complutensian Polyglot), including a text of the Greek New Testament, urged Erasmus to prepare a Greek text of the New Testament for publication. The Complutensian New Testament had been printed by January 10, 1514; but failed to receive papal approval for its publication until March 22, 1520, and apparently was not actually published until about 1522. Erasmus came to Base! for the undertaking. He consulted only a few minuscule manuscripts, none of which contained the entire New Testament, and adopted in the main a text of inferior quality. He used only one manuscript of Revelation and that lacked the last six verses of the book. To supply this defect and to make up for other deficiencies he translated from the Latin Vulgate back into Greek, except for Revelation 22:20, where he made use of Laurentius Valla’s translation. On March 1, 1516, less than a year after he had come to Basel for the undertaking, his Greek Testament was published. The first two editions of his Greek Testament did not contain the poorly attested passage, I John 5:7, 8; but he rashly promised to place this reading in his text if it could be found in any Greek manuscript. A manuscript of the sixteenth century containing this passage was produced, and Erasmus admitted the reading to his third edition in l522.65 It was accepted in the Greek text received for centuries thereafter.

Other early editions of the Greek New Testament do not radically differ in merit of text from those of Erasmus. The second edition of the Elzevirs, publishers at Leiden, in 1633, contained in its preface the words, “Textum ergo habes, nunc ab omnibus receptum: in quo nihil immutatum aut corruptum damus.”66 From this statement, of course, the words familiar in the history of the textual criticism of the New Testament have come — the textus receptus or the “received text.”67 The text of the Elzevir edition of 1624 and the quite similar third edition published by Robert Estienne of Paris in 1550 dominated the text used for more than two hundred years, the former on the Continent, the latter in England. This inferior but long dominant type of text was based, as Souter says, “on Erasmus’ last edition, the Complutensian Polyglot, and a handful of manuscripts — in fact, on something like a hundredth part of the Greek evidence now at our disposal, not to speak of versions and citations.”68 Kenyon grants slight critical value to the received text: The number of MSS. consulted for its production, in all the century from Erasmus to Elzevir, is very small; few of these were of early date, and they were but slightly used; in the main, the text rested upon a few late minuscule MSS. which happened to be accessible to the editors. It must be plain, therefore, that so far as human agency is concerned, the received text (which of course formed the basis of our Authorized Version...) has no commanding claims upon our acceptance, and, indeed, that it would be contrary to all the ordinary canons of textual criticism if it did not need considerable correction by the use of earlier and better authorities.69

In the two centuries that followed the establishment of the “received text,” much work was done in the study of the materials of textual criticism and some progress was made in the theory of criticism. Bengel, Semler, Griesbach and Scholz attempted the classification of authorities for the text into groups or families. A notable advance was made by Karl Lachmann (1793-1851) and a new period in the history of the textual criticism of the New Testament was introduced in 1831 with his publication of an edition of the New Testament in Greek which deserted the textus receptus and in which he offered a text which he had endeavored to form by critical selection. Constantin Tischendorf (1815-1874) edited and published the text of many ancient manuscripts, among them the highly meritorious fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus, which he discovered at the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai. In the eighth edition of his Greek New Testament, an edition with an admirably full critical apparatus, he gave much weight to readings found in this manuscript. In fact his eighth edition contains more than 3,000 modifications of his seventh edition, which was published before he discovered this codex. Influential, scholarly opposition to the received text was furnished in Great Britain by Samuel P. Tregelles (1813-75).

The greatest contribution to the textual criticism of the New Testament that has yet been made, however, is that of Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901), and F. J. A. Hort (1828-92), whose edition of the New Testament has already been mentioned. The principles which they enunciated and followed (and which are to some extent set forth and interpreted below) have exercised a great influence since their day and some of their most important conclusions have received general acceptance. Their work has provided the basis for subsequent developments.

Part III


  1. Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, p. 23.
  2. Green, op. cit., p. 144. On minor changes introduced by those somewhat out of line with strict Judaism, see Edward J. Young in Wilson, op. cit., pp. l80f.
  3. Ernest Cadman Colwell, The Study of the Bible (Chicago, 1937), Pp. 47ff.
  4. Green writes of textual criticism that “its function is to determine by a careful examination of all the evidence bearing upon the case the condition of the sacred text, the measure of its correspondence with or divergence from the exact language of the inspired penmen, and by means of all available helps to remove the errors which may have gained admission to it from whatever cause, and to restore the text to its pristine purity as it came from the hands of the original writers” (op. cit., p. 162).
  5. See Robert Dick Wilson, The Lower Criticism of the Old Testament as a Preparation for the Higher Criticism (Princeton, 1901). See also Green, op. cit., pp. 160ff.
  6. C. Wistar Hodge, “The Witness of the Holy Spirit to the Bible,” The Princeton Theological Review, XI (1913), 71. Dr. Hodge also says: “The Witness of the Holy Spirit to the Bible, then, is not objective in the sense of being the mystical communication to the mind of a truth or proposition, nor is it a subjective inference from Christian experience. It is simply the saving work of the Holy Spirit on the heart removing the spiritual blindness produced by sin, so that the marks of God’s hand in the Bible can be clearly seen and appreciated. . . . Those who are born of the Spirit have their minds and hearts enlightened so that they are enabled and persuaded to accept the objective testimony which God gives to the Bible, and to recognize immediately or behold intuitively the marks of God’s hand in the Scripture” (pp. 63f.).
  7. Green, op. cit., pp. 127f.
  8. A Roman Catholic writer, John E. Steinmueller, in A Companion to Scripture Studies (New York, 1941), I, 192, says that this bull “today is commonly recognized as not having been properly and canonically promulgated.”
  9. Ibid.
  10. See ibid., p. 193.
  11. Publication began in 1926 with the appearance of the revised text of Genesis.
  12. In the case of the Old Testament it is well to consider medieval quotations of manuscripts not extant now.
  13. The Wordsworth-White critical edition of the New Testament text began appearing at Oxford in 1889, when the first part, the Gospel of Matthew, was published. An Editio Minor of the entire New Testament appeared in 1911.
  14. For literature on the Septuagint and texts see Eissfeldt, op. cit., pp. 701ff.
  15. Caspar René Gregory says of the manuscript brought to Erasmus’ attention that “there is every reason to believe that this manuscript was written, with the words added, to compel Erasmus to add them, as he then did, ‘for his oath’s sake,’ like Herod, to his text” (Canon and Text of the New Testament, New York, 1907, p. 374).
  16. These words have been translated, “Therefore thou hast the text now received by all: in which we give nothing altered or corrupt.”
  17. See Gregory, op. cit., p. 444.
  18. Souter, op cit., pp. 96f.
  19. Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, p. 272.


Dr. John H. Skilton, Th.B, Ph.D., was professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has written many articles and is the General Editor of Scripture and Confession: A book about Confessions Old and New (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973). This article is taken from The Infallible Word: a Symposium written by the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1946), pp. 141-195.

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