Unveiling Textual Criticism


Shelterglen University
School of Theology

"Textual Criticism" is process of examining a particular text (in this case the New Testament) and determining what, if any errors exist the actual wording or content. It is also a process of reconciling what may appear to be inadequacies of description or informnation that would make the text more understandable.       


The Timing of the Writing of the Gospels


       Liberal scholars and theologians attempt to date the writing of the gospels much later than they actually were written. The farther they can date them away from the actual events the describe, the more inaccurate they can be perceived by the reader and the interpreter.  

       Matthew often writes in prophetic couplets, but never fulfills Matthew 24:2 about the destruction of the temple which eventually happened in 70 AD. This missing statement is of fulfilled prophecy is highly unlike the text of Matthew’s gospel to neglect.

         Luke’s gospel was written sometime before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. When we combine Luke 1:1-4 with Acts 1:1,2 it is clear to see that they are connected texts written to the same person. The book of Acts ends with Paul in prison in Rome. Traditional historical accounts tell us that Paul was executed in Rome around 64 AD. Luke fails to record the execution – probably because it had not taken place by the time he finished the book.

         Almost all scholars agree that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel as a foundational text reference to write their own gospel. This would indicate that Mark was the earliest document gospel and was written far in advance of Luke and Matthew.   


The Lack of Doctrinal Explanation


1). Doctrine of the Trinity

  • Jesus never teaches the doctrine of the “Trinity”
  • Paul never teaches the doctrine of the “Trinity”
  • The doctrine of the “Trinity” is assumed through its implication.


Matthew 28:19  "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, (NAS)


I John 5:7&8 For there are three that bear record 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 spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. (KJV)


         The doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrine that is presented exceptionally strong throughout the entire Bible. There are no exceptions to its “membership” and is often considered to be a presumption of the canonical texts that the reader believes it through obvious implication. The original implicative hint is revealed in Genesis 1:26        Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; (NAS) the words “Us” and “Our” in the original text refer to deity. Some would argue that this is referring to the angels. But, throughout the Bible angels are never referred to as a deity or referred to on any level of deity, and there is never any mention or illustration of creative powers being invested into angels or being used by angels.  

          The vast majority of those Christians who argue against the Trinitarian doctrine do so on the basis that the rest of Christendom is worshipping three Gods in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is not the case when there is a proper understanding of the compound unity that the one God exists in a manifestation of three separate persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There absolutely no Biblical illustrations of personality fracture, the lack of harmony, or dissention in the persons of the Trinity. It is because He is perfect nature, power and motive in all three existences and in all manifestations. Other less Canonically educated people claim that the Trinity was initiated as a doctrine of the Christian church in 325 AD at the Council of Nicaea. This was the first council of Christian bishops from throughout the Roman Empire that was called, funded and presided by the then Roman emperor Constantine. The primary result of that council was the production of the Nicene Creed, which still stands today as a foundational statement as to the beliefs of orthodox Christianity.

         A careful examination of the last half of the New Testament (Acts through Revelation) very strongly indicates not only the Trinitarian doctrine being implicatively accepted as a standard of faith in those first century believers. The Apostle Paul is the Strongest of its promoters and the most apologetic advocate of the doctrine.


Ephesians 4:3-6 being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (NAS)


2). Weakness in the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth

  • Only two of the four gospels proclaim the virgin birth.
  • Jesus never claims to be born of a virgin.
  • The apostle Paul never mentions the virgin birth at opportune times.


Romans 1:3 concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh,(NAS)


Galatians 4:4 But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, (NAS)


             We believe the doctrine of the virgin birth because it is proclaimed more than once and fits the theology of the incarnation exceptionally accurately. There is a principal in scripture called the “doctrine of two witnesses” or the “plural witness filter” (discussed in greater detail later in this course). This simply indicates that if something is rehearsed more than one time in Bible it may be readily accepted as reliable.  


The “Two Gospels” Argument


             Many liberal scholars and skeptical theologians say that Jesus and Paul actually taught two different gospels. Paul is very quick to defend “his gospel”. 


Galatians 1:11-12 For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.(NAS)


Romans 2:16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. (NAS)


Romans 16:25 Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past,(NAS)


2 Timothy 2:8 Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel, (NAS)


          The difference between the two gospels is that Jesus taught a “moral” gospel to the Jewish population based on personal righteousness (The Sermon on the Mount - Matthew 5,6 & 7), whereas Paul obviously taught a racially universal gospel “based on faith” in the redemptive work of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.

          This potential discrepancy is not even a remote possibility to anyone who reads the gospel of John. Jesus says in seven different times that we are to “believe in Him” It is quite clear that Jesus was not simply advocating a life of moral chastity or good ethical behavior. He was saying that by believing in Him (who he is or was) and what He would eventually accomplish at Calvary we could receive salvation.


John 6:35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.(NAS)


John 7:38 "He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, 'From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.'"(NAS)


John 11:25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies,(NAS)


John 11:26 and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?"(NAS)


John 12:44 And Jesus cried out and said, "He who believes in Me does not believe in Me, but in Him who sent Me.(NAS)


John 12:46 "I have come {as} light into the world, that everyone who believes in Me may not remain in darkness.(NAS)


John 14:12 "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater {works} than these shall he do; because I go to the Father. (NAS)


Supposed Factual Discrepancies


There are several places in the New Testament where facts about any one event appear to be different or even contradictory to each other in the various gospels.


Jesus’ Last Words


Matthew 27:46-50

46            And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying," Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? "that is," My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?"

47            And some of those who were standing there, when they heard it, {began} saying, "This man is calling for Elijah."

48            And immediately one of them ran, and taking a sponge, he filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink.

49            But the rest {of them} said, "Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him."

50            And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up {His} spirit. (NAS)      


(Mark’s account is nearly identical to Matthew’s – Mark15:34-37)


Luke 23:46

46            And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, "Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit." And having said this, He breathed His last. (NAS)


John 19:30

30            When Jesus therefore had received the sour wine, He said, "It is finished!" And He bowed His head, and gave up His spirit. (NAS)


The last words of Jesus Christ on the cross do not pose any controversy to the reading of the text. It is very conceivable that Jesus uttered (or cry out) from the cross all of what is recorded in all four gospel accounts. The point is that each writer uses their own emotional emphasis to make the point. In this situation none of them are contradicting each other , but rather emphasizing the important words to them as they are writing the account of the crucifixion.      


How did Judas Die?


Matthew 27:3-5

3              Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders,

4              saying, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood." But they said, "What is that to us? See {to that} yourself!"

5              And he threw the pieces of silver into the sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself.(NAS)


Acts 1:18

18            (Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.(NAS)


          This could be a description of the bodily decomposition of Judas. People who committed suicide were generally not given a proper burial. Or it might have also been the search for money on or in corpses of dead Jews by the Roman soldiers. The Roman soldiers may have found the body of Judas Iscariot hanging and eviscerated it in a search for money. It was not uncommon for Jews to swallow their money so as to keep it from the Roman soldiers who might regularly try to confiscate it.  


The Facts around Paul’s Conversion Experience


Acts 9:3-8

3              And it came about that as he journeyed, he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him;

4              and he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?"

5              And he said, "Who art Thou, Lord?" And He {said,} "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting,

6              but rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do. "

7              And the men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but seeing no one.

8              And Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. (NAS)


Acts 22:6-9

6              "And it came about that as I was on my way, approaching Damascus about noontime, a very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me,

7              and I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?'

8              "And I answered, 'Who art Thou, Lord?' And He said to me, 'I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.'

9              "And those who were with me beheld the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me. (NAS)


Acts 26:12-14

12            "While thus engaged as I was journeying to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests,

13            at midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining all around me and those who were journeying with me.

14            "And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.' (NAS)


         This controversy in the rehearsal of Paul’s conversion rendered three separate times in the book of Acts is one of the hardest to reconcile factually. Obviously, Paul did see a light and communicated directly with Jesus himself. It does leave the reader unclear as to the circumstances with the men around him at the time of the incident. We must remain true to the key point of the text, and that is very consistent in the issue of what happened to Paul personally in this conversion experience and his dialogue with Jesus Christ.     


The Last Chapter of Mark


          It is obvious to any scholar that studies the original transcripts of the Gospel of Mark, that the closing verses of Mark were added centuries later to the text for clarification and resolution in regards to the resurrection. Many English translations do not include the last twelve verses in their presentation of this gospel.  


Mark 16:9-20

9              [Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons.

10            She went and reported to those who had been with Him, while they were mourning and weeping.

11            And when they heard that He was alive, and had been seen by her, they refused to believe it.

12            And after that, He appeared in a different form to two of them, while they were walking along on their way to the country.

13            And they went away and reported it to the others, but they did not believe them either.

14            And afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining {at the table;} and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen.

15            And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.

16            "He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.

17            "And these signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues;

18            they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly {poison,} it shall not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."

19            So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.

20            And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed.] [{And they promptly reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. And after that, Jesus Himself sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.}  (NAS)


Jesus Forgives the Adulterous Woman


John 8:3-11

3              And the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the midst,

4              they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.

5              "Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?"

6              And they were saying this, testing Him, in order that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground.

7              But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him {be the} first to throw a stone at her."

8              And again He stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

9              And when they heard it, they {began} to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the midst.

10            And straightening up, Jesus said to her, "Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?"

11            And she said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go your way. From now on sin no more."]



           This passage of scripture (sometime referred to as the “Pericope Adulterae”) is not found in the very early manuscripts of the Gospel of John prior to 500 AD. It was believed to be a popular story in the oral traditions of Jesus Christ’s ministry, and thus, was added later. The original language and phrasing of these nine verses is very different from the rest of the Gospel of John. The wording and phrasing appear to be much more like the language of synoptic writers (Mark, Matthew and Luke) Other earlier Bibles (pre Geneva) place the story after John 21:25 (at the end of the gospel). One Bible includes it in the book of Luke after 21:38. Both of these displaced accounts are in Bibles dated between 1000AD and 1400 AD.

            We must ask; Does this story contradict any of the other teachings or ministry of Jesus Christ? Does it flow with the general pattern of inspired scripture, be it the Old or the New Testament? Is there a definite critical reason it should be dismissed or excluded? If not, then we should leave it be as it is.   


Discussing Contradictions 


           These points of “question” or discrepancy make up less than 5 % of the actual text of the New Testament and have virtually no affect on the theological position presented by the authors who wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The accuracy rate of the New Testament far exceeds any other literary document of its era. The entire New Testament could be completely reconstructed simply from the original manuscripts of the early church fathers and doctors (The Patristic Writings).     

          We must also see statements in the New Testament that seem to contradict themselves as possibly being complimentary in nature. An example of this would be in the gospel of Matthew when the angel tells the women at the tomb of Jesus that He is not there. Matthew 28:1-6 Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave. And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. And his appearance was like lightning, and his garment as white as snow; and the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men. And the angel answered and said to the women, "Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. "He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying.(NAS) Then when we read the same account in the gospel of Luke, the situation is seen from a slightly different angle. However, when both accounts are under close inspection, they are actually being complimentary to each other and not contradictory.

            Luke 24:1-5 says “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, bringing the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb,      but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened that while they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling apparel; and as {the women} were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, {the men} said to them, "Why do you seek the living One among the dead?” (NAS)

           When two people have been told the same story, they will more than likely rehearse it from a slightly different perspective as far as emphasis is concerned, mainly because of the influence of their own personality. While they may be pointing out various factors that the other writer did not recite, but it is very clear that they are describing the same event.

           It would be similar to two people going out for dinner together. At the end of the meal one person would talk about the excellent dessert they had at the end of their meal, while the other person would tell you about the wonderful salad that started their meal. Were they both describing the same dining experience? They most certainly are. But their emphasis and perspective is slightly different.

         That is the exact same attitude we must be willing to observe as we look at the four gospel writers. They were four different men writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But they were not programmed “zombies”. Their own personalities and points of emphasis give a certain distinct color to each of the canonical gospels.

          Ultimately, we must opt to see the scripture through eyes of “faith”. When we have to prove or disprove any scriptural text, we have stepped out of the realm of faith and into the thinking of a rational, logical natural human. This doe not mean that we cannot offer a logical or reasonable explanation why something is worded the way it is in a passage of scripture. Nor does it mean that we have to accept everything in ignorant bliss, or simply because someone we revere has taught something to us that way. But it does mean that in our finite relationship with an infinite God, we are allowed and even encouraged sometime to accept some of the more difficult things by looking through the lens of faith that He is “God”, and He knows all things, and what He has said in His Word is going to work out best for us.    

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