A Computer Aid for Textual Criticism -- By: James D. Price

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 08:1 (Spring 1987)
Article: A Computer Aid for Textual Criticism
Author: James D. Price

A Computer Aid for Textual Criticism

James D. Price

Several basic principles of NT textual criticism have been employed in designing a computer program that groups manuscripts into probable genealogical relationships, constructs a resulting genealogical tree diagram, and identifies the statistically most likely reading of a text. The program has been initially applied to the books of Philippians, 1 Timothy, and Jude using the variants listed in UBSGNT2. The results indicate that the program has potential as an aid to NT textual criticism.

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The use of computers in biblical studies is viewed by many with considerable skepticism. Computer studies in literary criticism have led some scholars to reject Pauline authorship of certain epistles,1 and others to reject the traditional authorship of portions of some OT books.2 These studies are based on debatable presuppositions and methodology, the criticism of which is beyond the scope of this work. Such use of computers to provide mathematical proof or disproof of authorship led Bonifatius Fischer to question whether this was “charlatanry or scholarship.”3

However, after discussing many limitations of the use of computers in biblical studies, Fischer wrote favorably of their use in the field of textual criticism:

After so much pessimism we come at last to a field where the computer is of great importance to the student of the New Testament, indeed where it opens up a new dimension and makes possible what hitherto the scholar had not even dared to dream of: that is, in textual criticism.4

Proper Theory and Methodology

Fischer further discussed the importance of proper theory and methodology in creating a computer program as an aid for textual criticism, and the vanity of expecting a computer to reconstruct the exact history of a text and its manuscript copies. However, he concluded that the manuscript relationships that could be discovered through the use of a computer would be of great value to the textual critic in reconstructing the transmissional history of a text. He visualized two stages in the process—a mathematical stage and an evaluative stage:

Two stages must be distinguished. In the first the relations between the manuscripts and the texts are defined on the basis of all their readings, irrespective of whether these readings are true or false: this stage is a purely mathematical process which can be done by a computer...

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