Michael D. Coogan
The Need for Textual Criticism
No original manuscript of any biblical book has survived. This situation, which may seem unusual to us, is actually quite normal for ancient writings, and even for those from only a few centuries ago. For instance, none of Shakespeare' plays is available in the original manuscript from Shakespeare' hand, and for most of them there are two or more early printed versions with many differences between them. For the biblical books, numerous copies or partial copies, varying greatly in age and quality, have been preserved in various parts of the world. Occasionally, as with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (the Qumran documents) in the midtwentieth century, new copies turn up. Nevertheless, for the entire text of the Bible, scholars are faced with a situation in which they have multiple manuscripts that have been copied by hand so that each is a unique product, unlike a modern printed book, and therefore the copies differ among themselves in many places, some differences being trivial and some important. Given this situation, scholars have had to develop a methodology for deciding which wording should be followed in cases where the copies disagree. This methodology is called textual criticism because it is a way of assessing a text through critical comparison of its different copies.
Textual criticism is not used only on religious writings. Any important text where there is not a definitive, printed edition backed up with an author' manuscript or corrected by the author may need to undergo textual criticism. Typographical errors, omitted words, even graphic elements like incorrect indentions of poetic lines, can all mean that a text does not reflect the original author' intentions completely. The methods may have to be adapted to differing circumstances, but the principles have been developed over centuries and have been checked when manuscripts have been found that can confirm or refute reconstructions of a text. Most important, there is widespread agreement among textual scholars on the methods and procedures that should be used, even when the results in certain cases remain in dispute.