Book Thoughts #4: „The Text of the New Testament” by Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman

When I took a New Testament Text class in seminary five years ago, we used a different textbook than Metzger and Ehrman. I have wanted to read through The Text of the New Testament ever since. It did not help, however, that I am rather a slow reader and my seminary reading list was always longer than I could manage. This year I took the new testament textual criticism class at Cambridge and I thought it was also a good time to finally read Metzger and Ehrman.

The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration was originally published by Bruce Metzger in 1964. It is a classic textbook from which generations of students learned the art of New Testament textual criticism. Subsequent editions by Metzger were published in 1968 and 1992. The fourth edition (and the one I have read) published in 2005 was co-authored by Metzger’s former student Bart Ehrman. Its reception was rather mixed. Prof. Parker wrote a severe review in The Journal of Theological Studies in which he points out many of its shortcomings.1 Among other things, he criticised the selection of the material retained from previous editions and this edition’s failure to mention or interact substantially with some important developments in the field up to 2005. Parker mentioned, among other things, ignoring the editio critica maior of Münster and the work of Wallace’s Centre for New Testament Manuscripts. A more favourable review was published by Daniel Wallace in The Journal of Evangelical Theological Society.2 Although he does take issue with a number of things in the book, he also states that this book remains the standard handbook on NT textual criticism. Even with its few flaws, this volume should be read, underlined, digested, and quoted by all students of the NT text. It rightfully deserves to be within arm’s reach of all who study the sacred Greek Scriptures.

So what are my thoughts after reading? One should certainly look elsewhere to be brought up to date with the current state of research. If this book was not up to date in 2005, it is even less so today. One would want, for example, to be introduced to the research on scribal habits or learn more about  coherence based genealogical method. But for myself, The Text of the New Testament was still very informative and thoroughly engaging as an introduction to the field and its history. I particularly enjoyed the narrative structure of the book. It begins with the making of ancient books, introducing the reader to materials, ink, book-forms and paratextual features such as kephalaia, Eusebian canons or superscriptions. After learning how the first copies of the New Testament were made, the reader is taken through the history of transmission from papyri, through majuscule codices, to medieval minuscules. He or she is also familiarised with manuscripts of early translations and patristic citations. Subsequently, the reader gets acquainted with the history of the printed edition beginning with the early modern editions and ending with the developments in scholarship that lead to the overthrow of the textus receptus. The third major part of the book deals with the ‘restoration’ of the text and introduces the reader to the history of modern textual criticism and the methodology used to reconstruct the original text. The whole book, therefore, is ordered chronologically, with a survey of the creation of early copies, their transmission through later manuscripts and printed editions, and modern research used to ‘restore’ the original readings. This structure is, however, somewhat disrupted by a discussion of the major text-types in chapter 8.

Overall, it was a delightful and very helpful read and I did learn a lot. I suppose this would be my go-to textbook for an introductory class in textual criticism. But The Text of the New Testament is not free from shortcomings. In addition to being somewhat outdated, it is not always internally coherent. Both Wallace and Parker point out examples of this fault in their reviews. For instance, on page 275 we learn that early copies were made in a rather uncontrolled way, but on pages 277-278 we are told that in early Alexandria the process of making copies was controlled. Some of these discrepancies arise from the dual authorship of the book, and one has to regret that the contributions of each author are not marked.

Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

  1. D. C. Parker, ‘The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. By Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman. Fourth Edition. Pp. xvi + 366. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0 19 516667 1, 0 19 516122 X (pb.). n.p.,’ Journal of Theological Studies 57, no. 2 (2006): 551-567.
  2. Daniel B. Wallace, „The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. By Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, xvi + 366 pp., $79.00,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society, 49, no. 4 (2006): 821-824.

2 thoughts on “Book Thoughts #4: „The Text of the New Testament” by Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman”

  1. Gerhard H. Visscer

    Thanks for this review, Filip. I remember as well being fascinated by Bruce Metzger’s book when I first read it as a young man. Your review made me think: I bet Filip would love Stephen Neill’s book The Interpretation of the New Testament. It’s an older work and a more general work on the history of NT scholarship. But it’s a great read as well. A younger Tom Wright was involved with it either as editor or as contributor. May God bless you, brother….!

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