Textual criticism of the Bible

Articles about the Holy Bible

What can textual criticism tell us about the Bible?

The flaws in the Biblical text present a problem to those who believe the Bible is without error, but not to Latter-day Saints

What can textual criticism tell us about the Bible? Does it have anything to say about the Bible being without error, as some Christians claim?

Most Latter-day Saints are not interested in searching the Bible for errors, or highlighting its flaws, though they readily admit that no text can be perfect or without error when mortals are involved in writing, transcribing, transmitting, or translating it. (See Book of Mormon—Introduction.)

The flaws in the Biblical text present a problem to those who believe the Bible is without error, but not to Latter-day Saints. Some additions or removals might have been corrections that came from earlier unknown sources (see the example for Hebrews 1:3 above in this page, and "Words missing in Alma 32:30" as an illustration), but still in a scholarly point of view, it is evident that the Bible has been changed many times and contains errors.

Bart Ehrman was a Biblical inerrantist when he entered the study of the New Testament (he started off at the very conservative Moody Bible Institute), but ultimately lost his faith over the 200,000 to 400,000 variant New Testament readings.[1] As he wrote, "There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament."[2]

Ehrman's slide into agnosticism illustrates the dangers of inerrantism. His inability to have complete confidence that every word of the Bible was correct led to an inability to trust any of the Bible's witness about Jesus as Lord, Son of God, and Savior.

Latter-day Saints do not rely on scripture—biblical or otherwise—for their knowledge of Christ. They rely instead upon that which provided the scripture in the first place: revelation by the Holy Ghost. They treasure the scriptural witnesses, but do not require perfection from any mortal or mortal work to have faith in the revelations of God.

Textual criticism is a branch of philology or bibliography that is concerned with the identification and removal of errors from texts and manuscripts

Let's begin by defining "textual criticism":

Textual criticism or lower criticism is a branch of philology or bibliography that is concerned with the identification and removal of errors from texts and manuscripts. Ancient manuscripts often have errors or alterations made by scribes, who copied the manuscripts by hand. The textual critic seeks to determine the original text of a document or a collection of documents, which the critic believes to come as close as possible to a lost original....[3]

"Criticism" in this case does not mean "faultfinding." It's a technical term referring to the methods of studying texts or documents for the purpose of dating or reconstructing them, evaluating their authenticity, and analyzing their content or style.[4]

Latter-day Saints reject both Biblical inerrancy and Biblical infallibility

Many fundamentalist Christians believe the Bible is inerrant or infallible. They reject the possibility that the Bible could have errors. For many inerrantists this belief only applies to the original manuscripts of the Bible as written by their authors; some, however, believe that infallibility extends to modern printed Bibles or to a specific translation of the Bible.[5]

Latter-day Saints reject both Biblical inerrancy and Biblical infallibility. They believe that no book of scripture is "perfect" (in any definition of the word) because, although it contains the will of God, it is communicated through the writings of fallible human beings. This includes not only the Bible, but also the Book of Mormon and other modern scriptures.[6]

Latter-day Saints also claim that the Bible has undergone many changes since it was written. Joseph Smith taught:

I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.[7]

The LDS Church does not take any position on which verses in the Bible are accurate and which are not. From a point of faith we use the Bible as a spiritual guide and don't try to pick it apart. Textual criticism is the realm of the scholar. The Church is an institute of faith and revelation, not scholarship.

From the scholarly point of view, the differences in various Biblical manuscripts are well-documented

A few well-known variants include:

  • John 7꞉53-John 8꞉1-11, traditionally known as the pericope adulterae, is not contained in the earliest and best manuscripts and was almost certainly not an original part of the Gospel of John. Among modern commentators and textual critics, it is a foregone conclusion that the section is not original but represents a later addition to the text of the Gospel. Critical text scholar Bruce Metzger summarizes: "The evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming."[8]
  • Mark 16꞉9-20 does not exist in the earliest and best manuscripts. Virtually all scholars believe it was a later addition, added by scribes who felt the original ending was unsatisfactory.
  • 1 Jn 5꞉7-8 — "in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth" — the infamous Comma Johanneum, is accepted as a later insertion by virtually every scholar. It is most interesting that it is the only explicit reference to the Trinity in the New Testament, yet it is not part of the original epistle, but dates from probably the fourth century.
  • Matthew 5꞉22 The phrase "without a cause" appears in some early manuscripts and some writings of early church fathers, but this phrase does not appear in the earliest manuscript (Papyrus 67 dated AD 125-150) nor in the earliest church father writing (Justin dated about 165 AD) of Matthew 5:22. Virtually all scholars believe that this phrase was added by the third century. (It is notable that this phrase is in the King James Bible but it is not in the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith Translation of Matthew 5:22.)[9]
  • John 1꞉18 is notoriously difficult because various manuscripts read either monogenes theos ("the only God") or ho monogenes huios ("the only son").
  • Hebrews 1꞉3 reads "reveals (phaneron) all things" in the Codex Vaticanus, while most manuscripts read "sustains (pheron) all things". This is particularly interesting because there's a scribe's marginal note in the CV that reads "Fool and knave, leave the old reading, don't change it!", indicating contention over an intentional change in the passage.

(Additional variant readings can be found on Wikipedia's article on textual criticism.)

Is textual criticism of Biblical texts superior to receiving revelation on that text through a prophet of God?

Textual criticism is still a discipline that is often controversial and unreliable in its ability to ascertain an original text

Let us ask ourselves-if God is continuing to reveal His will and word to men, either to individuals or to prophets through the Holy Spirit, which would you prefer? The knowledge of scholars who cannot guarantee truth, or the witness from God? And, which is more reasonable? The fact that God allowed His word to be corrupted, and then intended to reveal the truth of His word, over several hundred years of textual criticism in an effort to identify original truth? Yet, textual criticism is still a discipline that is often controversial and unreliable in its ability to ascertain an original text. The alternative is that it was God's intention that we study the scriptures and go to Him to gain a witness of the truth through His Spirit. While the LDS Church has never denied the importance of text-critical tools and language studies to more correctly understand the text, they also state firmly that only revelation from God can give us confidence in His Word and in any interpretation of it.

Scholarship is insufficient to produce the inspired autographs of the Bible

Consider this relevant question. It has long been recognized that the Greek Old Testament (frequently cited in the Gospels) is in many places grossly different from the traditional or Masoretic text. Because it was a translation, it was long believed that these differences were due, at least in part, to the translational process. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament were all Greek (the LXX). [10] These included the Codex Sinaiticus, the Codex Alexandrinus, and the Codex Vaticanus. One of the more obvious differences in the text occurs within the Book of Jeremiah, where the LXX preserves a text that is approximately twenty percent shorter than the Jeremiah found in the traditional text and modern Bibles. However, at Qumran, amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest copy of Jeremiah known to exist (4QJer b) is a Hebrew copy of the shorter form. [11] So, the question now arises, which version is more authentic? Both have claim to great antiquity, both are very well attested to in ancient times, and both cannot be original. So scholarship cannot yet determine the truth. Likewise, at the time of Joseph Smith, scholars were reasonably convinced of the originality of the Johanine Comma, and actively defended it. [12] Yet today, no serious scholar would ever propose that the text is original. Unless we are assuming that the science of textual criticism has been perfected, and that there will be no more discoveries that change the world of biblical studies, we can only conclude that scholarship is insufficient to produce the inspired autographs of the Bible. We can only turn to God. Yet, it is precisely this type of revelation that is denied by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.


  1. The estimate is Ehrman's; see Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (HarperSanFrancisco, [2005] 2007), 89. ISBN 0060859512. ISBN 0060738170.
  2. Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (HarperSanFrancisco, [2005] 2007), 90. ISBN 0060859512. ISBN 0060738170.
  3. "Textual criticism," Wikipedia (accessed 11 September 2007).
  4. Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1), Random House, Inc., s.v. "criticism" (accessed 11 September 2007).
  5. For further reading, see the Wikipedia articles on "Biblical inerrancy" and "Biblical infallibility".
  6. }The authors of the Book of Mormon disclaim inerrancy/infallibility at least five separate times: Title Page ("And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men"); 1 Nephi 19꞉6; Mormon 8꞉17; Mormon 9꞉31-33; Ether 12꞉23-26.
  7. Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 327. off-site
  8. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies; 2nd Revised edition, 2005), 187.
  9. Daniel K. Judd and Allen W. Stoddard, "Adding and Taking Away 'Without a Cause' in Matthew 5:22," in How the New Testament Came to Be, ed. Kent P. Jackson and Frank F. Judd Jr. (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2006), 157-174. ISBN 1590386272.
  10. The LXX, or the Septuagint is a very ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, translated into the Greek around the third century BC. Besides the traditional books of the Old Testament, it also contained the pseudo-canonical books of the Apocrypha. The Roman Orthodox Church adopted the Greek text, and from it was translated the Latin Vulgate. The LXX provides a great deal of information to biblical scholars not only because of its age and available early manuscripts, but also because it is a translation and thus provides assistance from time to time in understanding the original Hebrew. It is also worth noting that the New Testament, when it quotes the Old Testament, frequently quotes the LXX and not the traditional text.
  11. There are several publications that contain a discussion on this topic. For example, see Eugene Ulrich, "The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible," Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999), xviii, 309.
  12. See for example John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1811), 662-664.