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Textual criticism

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 is copied, errors were introduced by the human scribe. The difficulty in textual criticism is that it is not always immediately apparently 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).

Table of contents

Methods of Textual Criticism There are three fundamental approaches to textual criticism: copy text editing, eclecticism, and stemmatics.

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 text examined 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.


Eclecticism is the practice of examinating a wide number of manuscripts and selecting the variant that seems superior, usually on internal grounds. In this approach, no one manuscript is theorectically favored, but, in practice, the eclectic critic tends to have a couple of favorites, often chosen based on external consideration, to resolve doubtful cases.

Eclecticism is the dominant method of editing the Greek text of the New Testament, in which the critical text (Nestle-Aland, 27th edition) is not to be found entirely in any one manuscript but is a combination of readings from various manuscripts. Even so, mnuscripts of the Alexandrian text-type are the most favored, and the critical text has a decidedly Alexandrian tinge.


Stemmatics is the 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 the 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.

Textual Criticism of the New Testament

The New Testament has been preserved in more manuscripts (about 5,000 Greek and 10,000 Latin) than any other ancient work. 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, 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 Western are clearly superior.

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.

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