Textual Criticism is Nothing New

On this page I quote some comments from Augustine, Jerome, and Erasmus which show that textual criticism (the critical evaluation of various readings of the manuscripts) of the New Testament is not a modern invention. Even in ancient times, writers like Augustine and Jerome were faced with the problem of deciding between alternative readings in the manuscripts, and they made decisions on the basis of text-critical principles which sometimes correspond to those of modern scholars.


The following paragraph by Augustine (from his De Consens. Evang. book 3, chapter 7, paragraph 29) shows in what way that Father of the church met the problem of various readings in the manuscripts. The text under discussion is Matthew 27:9-10, "Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one whose price had been set by the sons of Israel; and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord directed me." The English translation of Augustine's Latin is from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ser. 1, ed. Philip Schaff; vol. 6, St. Augustine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans reprint, 1974), p. 191.

"Now, if any one finds a difficulty in the circumstance that this passage is not found in the writings of the prophet Jeremiah, and thinks that damage is thus done to the veracity of the evangelist, let him first take notice of the fact that this ascription of the passage to Jeremiah is not contained in all the codices of the Gospels, and that some of them state simply that it was spoken “by the prophet.” It is possible, therefore, to affirm that those codices deserve rather to be followed which do not contain the name of Jeremiah. For these words were certainly spoken by a prophet, only that prophet was Zechariah. In this way the supposition is, that those codices are faulty which contain the name of Jeremiah, because they ought either to have given the name of Zechariah or to have mentioned no name at all, as is the case with a certain copy, merely stating that it was spoken “by the prophet, saying,” which prophet would assuredly be understood to be Zechariah. However, let others adopt this method of defence, if they are so minded. For my part, I am not satisfied with it; and the reason is, that a majority of codices contain the name of Jeremiah, and that those critics who have studied the Gospel with more than usual care in the Greek copies, report that they have found it stand so in the more ancient Greek exemplars. I look also to this further consideration, namely, that there was no reason why this name should have been added [subsequently to the true text], and a corruption thus created; whereas there was certainly an intelligible reason for erasing the name from so many of the codices. For venturesome inexperience might readily have done that, when perplexed with the problem presented by the fact that this passage could not be found in Jeremiah."

In his treatise On Christian Doctrine (book 2, chap. 14) Augustine writes: "Those who are anxious to know the Scriptures ought in the first place to use their skill in the correction of the texts, so that the uncorrected ones should give way to the corrected."

Examples of Augustine's textual criticism are given by David Schaff in the Introduction to volume 6 of the series Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers:

"Augustin's textual and grammatical comments are few in number, but they cannot be said to be wanting in all value. A few instances will suffice for a judgment of their merit:—

In the Harmony of the Gospels (ii. 29, 67), writing of the daughter of Jairus (Matt. ix. 29), he mentions that some codices contain the reading "woman" (mulier) for "damsel." Commenting on Matt. v. 22, "Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause," he includes the expression "without a cause" without even a hint of its spuriousness (Serm. on Mt. i. 9, 25); but in his Retractations (i. 19. 4) he makes the correction, "The Greek manuscripts do not contain sine causa." Tischendorf, Westcott and Hort, the Vulgate and the Revised English Version, in agreement with the oldest manuscripts, omit the clause. He refers to a conflict of the Greek and Latin text of Matt. v. 39 ("Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek"), and follows the authority of the Greek in omitting the adjective "right" (Serm. on Mt. i. 19, 58). At Matt. vi. 4 he casts out, on the authority of the Greek, the adverb palam ("openly"), which was found in many Latin translations (as it is also found in the Textus Receptus, but not in the Vulgate, and the Sinaitic, B, D, and other manuscripts). Commenting on Matt. vii. 12, "Wherefore all things whatsoever ye would that men," etc., he refers to the addition of "good" before "things" by the Latins, and insists upon its erasure on the basis of the Greek text (Serm. on Mt. ii. 22, 74)."


Thomas Aquinas in his chapter "On Anger" in the Summa Theologica quotes Jerome thus:

"It would seem that it cannot be lawful to be angry. For Jerome in his exposition on Mt. 5:22, 'Whosoever is angry with his brother,' etc. says: 'Some codices add without cause. However, in the genuine codices the sentence is unqualified, and anger is forbidden altogether.'"


Erasmus is quoted in Roland H. Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969), p. 135, as follows:

"You cry out that it is a crime to correct the gospels. This is a speech worthier of a coachman than of a theologian. You think it is all very well if a clumsy scribe makes a mistake in transcription and then you deem it a crime to put it right. The only way to determine the true text is to examine the early codices."