It was in the classroom under the instruction of John A. Broadus that A.T. Robertson began to have an interest in textual criticism.[1] With great appreciation for his teacher and father-in-law, Robertson referred to Broadus as a “master of the theme” who taught the class with “zest and great skill.”[2]

            Textual criticism according to Stanley Porter “is the concern to recover the original form of the text by means of rigorous text-critical methodology to the available manuscript evidence.”[3] As Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Robertson taught New Testament textual criticism throughout his teaching career. The great theologian B.B. Warfield even requested that Robertson revise Warfield’s own introductory textbook on the subject, but Robertson was exhausted from researching grammar. Later in his career he ultimately would publish his own book, An Introduction to Textual Criticism of the New Testament in 1925.

            A year later Robertson published a collection of essays entitled Studies in the Text of the New Testament and in that volume Robertson dedicates an entire chapter to answering the question, why textual criticism for the preacher? It seems that Robertson felt the need to come to the discipline’s defense as theological institutions began to remove it from their curriculum. “To the average preacher there is no more uninteresting or uninviting field of study than the textual criticism of the New Testament. Many do not even know the meaning of the phrase. It is not taught in all our theological seminaries.”[4]  Worried that ignorance of the field would result in poor preaching, Robertson with perhaps a little too much drama writes,

“The intelligent minister today cannot afford to remain in complete ignorance of this subject. If he does, he may find himself preaching from a text that some of the Sunday School teachers know is not genuine. Or he may be unable to form an intelligent opinion on the point at issue and have to rely wholly upon the opinion of others. Few things are more dreary than pulpit quotations of scholars on any given point, whether pro or con.”

This past week I was faced with two scenarios that support Robertson’s concern. The first was the textual variant in Mark 1:41. Most manuscripts read, “and being moved with pity/compassion he reached out his hand and touched him”(καὶ ⸁σπλαγχνισθεὶς ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα* ⸂αὐτοῦ ἥψατο⸃). However, an important Greek manuscript has a different reading and it is even favored by the NIV, “Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man” (καὶ ὀργισθεὶς ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα αὐτοῦ ἥψατο). Although I preach from the ESV, many members at Hermon use the NIV and ignoring it from the pulpit didn’t seem helpful.

            The other scenario came from a loved one who sent me a text just this Monday morning. “Question, Matthew 18:11 in the NLT doesn’t exist. It skips from verse 10 to 12. I got a message from someone I gifted the Bible to. I looked it up and found it was added later. Does that information sound accurate?” These examples reminded me that I have the opportunity to protect believers from the false notion that there is “something wrong with their Bible.” In order to maximize that opportunity I need to continue to grow in my knowledge of textual criticism. These questions will not be left in the classroom. They will come from the lips of parishioners, family members, or friends.

With Robertson, I want to be able to encourage Christians to marvel that “through the centuries of repeated copying by so many men in so many languages the text of the New Testament has suffered so little real damage.We may be sure that nothing essential has been lost.”[5]

            Unfortunately, I was unable to take New Testament Textual Criticism as an elective during my MDiv. Every student has to make choices and I chose a class on the Septuagint. It was a great class and I don’t regret it for a second, but I wish I would have had one more elective available! This brings us to an important question. Given that textual criticism is such a technical field and the pastor will likely never achieve expertise in it, should he simply ignore it? Robertson says absolutely not.[6]

“Even if one does not become an expert in it, he will gain a sense of independence in reaching probable conclusions that will be satisfying…There is also a splendid training in clear thinking in this study. One balances the various forms of evidence before he reaches his final conclusion. This mental process calls for insight, weighing evidence, delicate balancing of probabilities, clear grasp of the data, honesty in deciding. These qualities are not confined, to be sure, to this study, but they are so demanded by it that one gains a fine intellectual drill in the exercise of them.”[7]

I will never be an expert in any field, but for the pastor expertise is not the point. Robertson reminds us of the joy of doing difficult things! The task of textual criticism challenges and stretches the preacher in positive ways. As the nonspecialist pastor labors over the text and the evidence, “he will gain a sense of independence…that will be satisfying.”

            Theological retrieval is emphasized today and rightly so! However, we can’t move from text to theology if we don’t have a text. In Why Textual Criticism for the Preacher, Robertson reminds us that students and pastors can’t afford to abandon the seemingly dry work of textual criticism.

            “It is plain that no intelligent minister can afford to be indifferent to the textual criticism of the New Testament, the subject fascinates those who study it long enough to feel at home in it, and it repays amply all the work that one may devote to it.”


[1] A.T. Robertson, An Introduction to Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1925) vii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts, Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015) 1.

[4] A.T. Robertson, Studies in the Text of the New Testament (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1926) 54.

[5] Robertson, Studies in the Text of the New Testament, 64.

[6] A very important distinction needs to be made in regards to those who have theological education available to them and those who do not. Pastors and preachers who fill pulpits, work bi-vocationally, and/or have little access to theological education are a blessing. Ultimately 1 Timothy 3:1-7 provides the qualifications for an elder.

[7]  Robertson, Studies in the Text of the New Testament 58.

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