One of the drawbacks of making copies is that once a mistake has been made, unless it is so obvious as to be corrected, it will appear in all the copies of that copy from now on. Because of this, consideration must be given to the age of the manuscripts that contain a particular reading as well as the number of manuscripts that contain it. If an error is made in an early manuscript, all the copies from it will contain that error. If it was an often copied manuscript, there will be many manuscripts that contain that error, so the true text cannot be arrived at by counting manuscripts.
Manuscripts that were copied from the same or similar manuscripts show similar readings and similar errors. These manuscripts are grouped together in what is sometimes called text families, or in this book, types of ancient text. In the second to fourth centuries four major types of ancient text appeared. They are commonly given the names Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean, and Byzantine.
The Alexandrian type of text is slightly shorter than the other kinds of text. It is the kind of text found in the three oldest manuscripts that contain most of the New Testament: Sinaiticus (manuscript Aleph(א)), Alexandrinus (manuscript A, Alexandrian not in the Gospels, but in the rest of the New Testament), and Vaticanus (manuscript B). Most textual critics today consider this to be the most reliable form of ancient text.
The Western type of ancient text is the longest of the four kinds. It shows a tendency to paraphrase readings, to add material, and sometimes omit material. The Latin translations, including the Vulgate, generally follow this kind of ancient text. It is probably the least trustworthy of the four kinds of ancient text. But it did arise very early in the copying of the New Testament, and so where it agrees with the Alexandrian type of ancient text, there is a strong possibility that this is the original reading.
The Caesarean type of ancient text has been identified only for the Gospels. Only a few manuscripts show this kind of text.
The Byzantine type of ancient text seems to be the most recent of the four. It was apparently produced in an attempt to produce a common type of text. It shows a tendency to combine readings of the other types of text. It became the standard Greek text for the church of the middle ages, and so is the text used in most later manuscripts. Some textual critics today prefer this kind of ancient text as being the closest to the original and refer to it as the Majority Text, since it is found in the majority of manuscripts. It is the type of ancient text found in the Gospels of manuscript Alexandrinus (manuscript A). The King James Version was based on this kind of text, although it sometimes follows the Latin Vulgate instead.
When textual critics begin to try to determine which reading is the original text, they do not merely count manuscripts; rather they consider the ages of the manuscripts that have a particular reading, the type of ancient text or texts that these manuscripts belong to, and the character of the copyists of these manuscripts. For this last, they ask questions such as: Was this a careful copyist? What kinds of mistakes did this copyist often (or occasionally) make? Where a reading is found in more than one kind of ancient text, it is more likely to be original than a reading found in only one kind of ancient text.
But textual criticism is not just a matter of looking at the manuscripts that contain the variant readings. The readings themselves must be examined. Sometimes the original reading will be found in only one type of ancient text. The clue to it is often found by asking what would have caused the error. It could have been accidental, due to a mistake of the eyes or ears. Or it could have been an intentional change. The textual critic must look for a reason for such a change. In general, copyists were more likely to change difficult readings to easier ones, so the more difficult readings are often the original ones. And they were more likely to add material than omit it, so the shorter reading is more likely than not to be original.
Everyone who has tried to copy something by hand has found out that it is easy to make mistakes accidentally, and the men who copied the New Testament were subject to these same kinds of mistakes. Early Greek manuscripts were written in all capital letters, without punctuation or accent marks, and with no spaces between words, like this:
But there are also some intentional changes that are found in the manuscripts. Sometimes a copyist would omit or change material that he thought was superfluous, harsh, or contrary to his beliefs or practices. Copyists would often bring parallel passages into perfect agreement by changing one or the other of them to read like the other. This especially happened in the Gospels, where even whole verses were sometimes added to one Gospel from another. It also happened with Old Testament quotations, where copyists had a tendency to change quotations that the writer had paraphrased to read exactly like the Greek Old Testament. Copyists would sometimes replace rare or unfamiliar words with more familiar synonyms. Sometimes they would try to improve the grammar and smooth out the text to read easier. The textual critic must be on the lookout for all of these kinds of changes. He must always ask: Is there is any reason why copyists might have changed one reading to another? Often the reason for a change gives the clue to the original reading.
For the reader who wishes to find out more about the science of textual criticism, a good beginning text is Neil Lightfoot's How We Got the Bible and a more advanced text is Bruce Metzger's The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration.