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Interview of Daniel B. Wallace on Textual Criticism

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This interview is taken from the Evangelical Textual Criticism Website (

PJW: So, Prof. Wallace, how long would you say you’ve been studying New Testament textual criticism?

DBW: Well, ‘studying’ is a strong word. I’d say I’ve been dabbling in it for 35 years. I started thinking about textual criticism in 1971 when I took a course from Harry Sturz at Biola University. My understanding was that his year-long course on New Testament textual criticism was the only such course in the nation. Sturz, by the way, was a student of Colwell, and had a role in the IGNT Luke volumes.

PJW: What got you into it?

DBW: Harry Sturz was a godly man whose humility was attractive. I got into it because of him. My interest at the time was in Greek grammar, but Sturz got me to think about textual criticism as well.

PJW: How has your thinking about the subject developed over the years?

DBW: I have slowly migrated toward elevating internal evidence to a place in which it has equal value with external evidence. But a decisive moment came in 1987. Up until that time, I had held to Sturz’s view of the text, a view I would label ‘the Independent Text-Type view.’ He saw the Alexandrian, Western, and Byzantine textforms as independent in their archetypes, and all originating in the second century. I held to that perspective for more than a decade and a half. But it began to erode every time I wrestled with the internal data. I took Zane Hodges’ course on textual criticism at Dallas Seminary in the late 70s. There were only two of us in the class who did not embrace his perspective at the end of the course. Although Sturz’s view was not at all identical with Hodges’, the resultant text was often the same. That’s why Sturz worked on the Majority Text. But as I wrestled with so many Byzantine readings that just didn’t have adequate internal evidence, I began to question some things. When I color-coded Aland’s Greek Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum, things started to fall into place. In 1987, I was asked to teach a doctoral course at Dallas Seminary on textual criticism. I was barely into the program, but was asked to teach the course! The department was desperate since it had no one else who knew the discipline as well as I did. As I prepared for that course, wrestling with the internal evidence, thinking about the history of the text, I found myself agreeing more and more with reasoned eclecticism. Remarkably, articles and books from reasoned eclectics that I had read before with strong bias now appeared more reasonable. All this showed me that if someone doesn’t want to consider the evidence, he or she can still do a good job of arguing a case. But in the end, evidence must win out. As William Lane was fond of saying, “An ounce of evidence is worth a pound of presumption.”

PJW: Do you have any hero or heroes in textual criticism?

DBW: I have quite a few heroes! Colwell for his method; Metzger for his learning and insights; Fee for his ability to burst bubbles with data; Tischendorf for his dogged determination in search of manuscripts; Kurt Aland for his vision for INTF; Jerome and Origen for their handling of the textual variants in the pursuit of truth; Sturz for his humility. The list is endless, frankly. I could add Michael Holmes, Bart Ehrman, David Parker, Klaus Wachtel, Barbara Aland, Beate Koester, Maurice Robinson, Zane Hodges, Eldon Epp, Johannes Karavidopoulos, J. K. Elliott, Neville Birdsall, Hort, the Lakes, Kenyon, Skeat, Hoskier, Gregory, Harris, Tregelles, the Nestles. Obviously, I don’t agree with everyone on this list over everything, but each has made a significant contribution to the field.

PJW: You’ve been known for becoming involved in debates about the Majority Text. How would you explain origins of the Byzantine text?

DBW: That’s an excellent question. We don’t have enough concrete evidence to argue decisively about its roots, but the work of Kurt Aland, Gordon Fee, Bart Ehrman, Michael Holmes, and Tim Ralston has helped immeasurably. Aland did some nice work showing that the first father to use the Byzantine text qua text was Asterius, one of Lucian’s students. Fee and Ehrman have shown that the Byzantine text just didn’t seem to exist anywhere prior to the fourth century, and that its earliest form is decidedly different from later forms. This also was the point of Tim Ralston’s doctoral dissertation at Dallas Seminary. Holmes has shown that, in the words of Samuel Clemens, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics”—and statistics are no way to measure authenticity. My best guess on the origins of the Byzantine text—a view that is constantly being shaped—is that it originated in the early fourth century as a consciously edited text, cannibalizing readings from earlier textforms, even to the point of almost obliterating any traces of one of those textforms (the Caesarean). But then it took on a life of its own, developing into a growing text that had several sub-branches. Two major recensions were done on it, one in the ninth and one in the eleventh century. Ironically, the text that Hodges and Farstad produced, and the one that Robinson and Pierpont produced, did not, in every respect, represent the majority until the fifteenth century. Hort’s threefold argument against the Byzantine text is still a good argument that demonstrates the Byzantine text to be secondary, late, and inferior. Although there are a few leaks in the Hortian boat, it’s not enough to sink the ship.

PJW: As someone who teaches in a confessional institution, how, briefly, would you say that theology and scholarship interrelate, particularly with regard to textual criticism?

DBW: Up until the last few years, I would say—and have said—that the practice of textual criticism neither needs nor deserves any theological presuppositions. For example, I am not convinced that the Bible speaks of its own preservation. That doctrine was first introduced in the Westminster Confession, but it is not something that can be found in scripture. But with the rise of postmodern approaches to biblical studies, where all views are created equal, it seems that theology is having a role in the discussion. The question is, Is it the right theology? What I didn’t care for about modernism was its tendency toward dogmatism; what I don’t care for about postmodernism is its tendency toward scepticism. I think we’ve jumped out of the frying pan of modernist certainty and into the fire of postmodern uncertainty. At bottom, historical investigation has to deal with probabilities. These fall short of certainty, but all views are not created equal.

As for the broader realm of the integration of theology and scholarship, I would fundamentally disagree with Michael Fox’s definition of faith as having nothing to do with evidence. Genuine Christian faith is a step, not a leap. The driving force in my pursuit of truth is the Incarnation. Unfortunately, too many evangelicals make Christology the handmaiden of bibliology, rather than the other way around. But the Incarnation requests us and even requires us to investigate the data. And sometimes that pursuit seems to be in conflict with bibliology. My own views on inerrancy and inspiration have changed over the years. I still embrace those doctrines, but I don’t define them the way I used to. The evidence has shaped my viewpoint; and I must listen to the evidence because of the Incarnation.

What I tell my students every year is that it is imperative that they pursue truth rather than protect their presuppositions. And they need to have a doctrinal taxonomy that distinguishes core beliefs from peripheral beliefs. When they place more peripheral doctrines such as inerrancy and verbal inspiration at the core, then when belief in these doctrines start to erode, it creates a domino effect: One falls down, they all fall down. It strikes me that something like this may be what happened to Bart Ehrman. His testimony in Misquoting Jesus discussed inerrancy as the prime mover in his studies. But when a glib comment from one of his conservative professors at Princeton was scribbled on a term paper, to the effect that perhaps the Bible is not inerrant, Ehrman’s faith began to crumble. One domino crashed into another until eventually he became ‘a fairly happy agnostic.’ I may be wrong about Ehrman’s own spiritual journey, but I have known too many students who have gone in that direction. The irony is that those who frontload their critical investigation of the text of the Bible with bibliological presuppositions often speak of a ‘slippery slope’ on which all theological convictions are tied to inerrancy. Their view is that if inerrancy goes, everything else begins to erode. I would say that if inerrancy is elevated to the status of a prime doctrine, that’s when one gets on a slippery slope. But if a student views doctrines as concentric circles, with the cardinal doctrines occupying the center, then if the more peripheral doctrines are challenged, this does not have an effect on the core.

At bottom, theology and faith do have a place in biblical studies. They can function as sort of a quality control on our exegesis. But they cannot be used as a trump card that allows us to ignore the data. Such a view does not honor Christ.

PJW: You’ve traveled a fair bit in search of manuscripts. What were the funniest and most exciting moments of your travels?

DBW: I could go on for several pages on this one! But I won’t bore you with all the details. As for funny moments, eating lunch with the priests and monks at St. Catherine’s comes to mind. Every day, a monk would have to stand and read out of Chrysostom while the rest of us ate. If he mispronounced a word, the Archbishop would clink his glass with a spoon and the monk would repeat the words. I thought, “Hey! I can use that in my Greek classes!”

Another funny incident was when I visited the Vatican library. I had been given written permission to examine Codex Vaticanus. But when I showed up at the kiosk that issues passes, bureaucracy reared its ugly head. My assistant, Mr. (now Dr.) Joe Fantin was with me. When the guards looked at his passport, they were very pleased that a man with such a famous Italian name would be visiting the Vatican library. We immediately reversed roles and I became Joe’s assistant. They gave us passes and we proceeded past the five armed guard checkpoints with no trouble. We ended up spending a week examining the manuscript.

As for exciting moments, obviously discovering manuscripts has to rank high on the list. In the past four years, the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts ( has been in the business of taking digital photographs of manuscripts. Although our principal objective is Greek New Testament manuscripts, we don’t stop there. To date, we have discovered over a dozen manuscripts, half of which are New Testament. Among these is an uncial text from Mark 3 and Mark 6 (it’s only two leaves, a palimpsest at the end of a book), discovered by Ivan Yong, my special assistant. We cannot yet positively identify the date because most of the letters have been scraped clean, but tentatively it looks to be between the third and fifth century. If the earlier date is correct, this would be the oldest fragment extant of Mark 3. Another important discovery was of the Assumption of the Virgin. Only five copies are known to exist—or, rather, now six with this one. It’s coeval with the oldest of them.

PJW: Why did you start the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts and what are its goals?

DBW: I started CSNTM in the fall of 2002. Its initial objective is to take or purchase digital photographs of all extant Greek New Testament manuscripts. This is the only institute that I know that is dedicated to this task. There are over 2.5 million pages of such texts, so the job is not something that can be done overnight. Our desire, however, is to post on-line as many of these photographs as we are permitted to. Recently, we have begun to take pictures of facsimiles that are beyond copyright protection. We just posted Alexandrinus on our website. Other manuscripts and rare published Greek texts will follow soon. Our desire is to make accessible to scholars good quality images of the manuscripts so that they can work with them on their computers. We are in no way attempting to compete with the Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung! Rather, we want to supplement what they are doing.

Part of the supplementation involves discovering more manuscripts. CSNTM has leads on over 200 uncatalogued Greek NT MSS right now. I won’t go into the details, but I believe that there are far more than 200 left to be discovered. Eastern European countries, Turkey, and a host of other locales have thousands of uncatalogued Greek manuscripts. Even western European libraries and the United States have uncatalogued Greek NT MSS.

We plan to work with the University of Hamburg to take multi-spectral images (MSI) of palimpsests. Professor Dieter Harlfinger of Hamburg headed up a three-year, 26-nation project (called Rinascimento Virtuale) to do this very thing. Using MSI requires an expert and is quite expensive. But it also can give us data that cannot be discovered any other way.

Once the digital imaging is complete, we should be able to do OCR scans of the documents. A company in Athens is working right now on OCR for minuscules. Uncials will follow. Our dream is to be able to electronically collate all known manuscripts. If so, we could produce in a month for the whole NT what it took Herman Hoskier thirty years to accomplish for Revelation!

Beyond shooting manuscripts and moving toward collations, CSNTM is involved in several other projects. For example, we are creating electronic tools that should help in the study of textual criticism. We plan to discuss several textual problems, publish information on newly-discovered families, and help doctoral students get their theses published. If we had the funds, we could become a resource that pays the subvention fee for fledgling students.

None of this work comes cheap. And getting permission for many sites takes time. If anyone is sufficiently interested in the work of CSNTM, we would love to get more donations (tax-deductible for Americans) as well as permissions to shoot manuscripts. Some on this list can open doors for us; others may be able to help financially. If you’re one of these people, contact me.

PJW: What weaknesses do you see in the way the discipline of textual criticism is currently practised?

DBW: Fundamentally, we need to get beyond reasoned eclecticism. I’m not advocating replacing it, but refining it. Many of the criticisms I’ll mention here have been stated by others; in fact, several scholars are doing something about these matters. But I will list what I think are still some basic problems with the predominant school of New Testament textual criticism:

  • A typical undervaluing of the Byzantine and Western textforms
  • lack of an integrative view of history, the canon, and textual criticism
  • insufficient work done in producing critical texts of the Fathers
  • lack of complete collations of manuscripts
  • insufficient apparatus because of the selectivity of the editors
  • typical overvaluing of external evidence
  • lack of integration of external and internal evidence
  • almost complete absence of discussion about individual scribes’ proclivities
  • lack of integration with other disciplines that impact textual criticism, and vice versa.
  • Very few scholars take the time to actually look at facsimiles of manuscripts. This is where the discussions should begin.

PJW: What do you think are the most significant areas for text-critical research in the future?

DBW: A major desideratum is the complete collation of all extant manuscripts. Only in this way can we fully detect genealogies, families, groups. Only in this way can we know the proclivities of a given scribe (by isolating singular and sub-singular readings). And if we know that, we can judge the value of any manuscript on its readings. If, for example, a certain scribe tends to replace ihsous with kurios, when a textual problem involves these two words, the weight of that scribe’s manuscript in this textual problem can be more accurately determined.

Barbara Aland, Klaus Wachtel, and Michael Holmes have urged scholars to take a closer look at the minuscules. Of course, they are so inaccessible that the trumpet sound hardly causes a stir. If CSNTM can help to make these MSS accessible, we will have done a great service to the body of Christ and biblical scholarship.

As well, much work needs to be done on the lectionaries. Every once in a while, scholars will speak of the value of the lectionaries, but they still are hardly getting looked at.

Other tasks remain, such as making a more careful distinction between a patristic commentary and a minuscule text with commentary. Sometimes the difference between classifying a manuscript as a father or a minuscule with commentary is very slight. Kurt Aland reversed his own decisions on such matters more than once. But since minuscules are considered far more important than fathers, the very label can be the death knell of an otherwise important manuscript.

As well, there are several other kinds of witnesses to the text of the New Testament that have been ruled out of court. No one considers them any more, but they should be given their due. For example, P.Oxy 405, if I recall, is a late second century/early third century papyrus that includes a quotation from Matt 3. At the time of its discovery, it was the oldest manuscript to witness to the text of the New Testament. But it doesn’t get mentioned because there is no classification for it.

Unfortunately, we are very much in the dark regarding versions. There are probably thousands of versional witnesses to the New Testament that have not been catalogued. If CSNTM had the resources, we would be shooting those as well. For now, we have to pass up the many uncatalogued versional manuscripts we have seen so that we can shoot the Greek manuscripts. There needs to be an INTF for versions and fathers, a one-stop shop that has all the data accessible in one location.

In other words, getting a better grasp on the history of transmission and the scribal tendencies is crucial. There are, of course, other goals. But these strike me as of primary importance.

PJW: Do you have a vision for educating the church at large on the importance of textual criticism?

DBW: Absolutely. There is a widening chasm between the church and the academy over biblical studies in general and textual criticism in particular. When the Jesus Seminar produced The Five Gospels it rattled people because they had no context in which to place the discussion, no sense that these scholars were for the most part too liberal for most liberals, and no knowledge that conservative scholarly treatments of the life of Jesus existed. The same kind of lay response occurred when Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was published. More recently and more relevant for textual criticism, Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus has shaken up a lot of people. But if we tell people that they don’t need to worry about such tomes, that everything is under control, we simply confirm them in their prejudices, and widen the chasm a little bit more. I have come to believe that Christian scholars have a duty to the church that we don’t typically consider as part of our job description, viz., close the gap. How? By explaining in lay terms what all the scholarly fuss is about. By offering a different model, but one that is backed up with the best scholarship.

To this end, I’ve recently co-authored a book with Ed Komoszewski and Jim Sawyer. It’s called Reinventing Jesus: What The Da Vinci Code and Other Novel Speculations Don’t Tell You, and it’s coming out in May (in time, we hope, for the movie). Information on the book can be found at Five chapters in this book deal with textual criticism. If Ehrman’s book is the first lay introduction to the field, this might be considered the second.

This book really is the tip of the iceberg for me of introducing the discipline to laypeople. For the past twenty-five years I have done a seminar in churches and schools on textual criticism. The seminar includes the audience becoming scribes and creating six generations of copies of an ancient text (all in English). Each scribe is given specific instructions. Then, the textual critics enter the room (the rest of the audience). Several of the manuscripts have been destroyed or lost by the time they get there. So, they’re working with partial data and big gaps in the genealogies. But with absolutely minimal instruction in how to do textual criticism, they all have to work back to the original wording. And once they reconstruct the original text, I put on screen what the real original text says. Every time, without exception, the group is amazed at how close they got to it. Except for one occasion, they have been able to reproduce the text within two words (once they were three words off). Often they get it exactly right. Yet the extant manuscripts for this project are generally in much worse shape than our late Byzantine manuscripts. It’s a fun activity of discovery and debate, suitable for a postmodern age. When we get all done I can then speak about principles of textual criticism, manuscripts, internal evidence, you name it. They understand because they’ve just experienced it. And they appreciate how the Bible has come down to us.

Related Topics: Textual Criticism

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