It can be a disconcerting experience for modern readers of the New Testament to come across verses that are enclosed in brackets and introduced with a phrase such as, “Our earliest manuscripts do not include. . . .” For those who have been taught that our New Testaments are reliable and trustworthy, these brackets raise a number of thorny questions: How certain are we about the New Testament text? If these passages are in doubt, then are other passages in doubt too? And if these passages are not original, then why are they still in our English translations? Unless these questions are answered, the existence of these brackets can become, at least for some, the proverbial fly in the ointment of biblical authority.
As we answer such questions, we need to begin by realizing that book production in the past was different from what we experience in our modern, post-Gutenberg age. In the ancient world, there were (obviously) no laptop computers, spell checks, printing presses, or other modern conveniences to help produce books. If one wanted to write a book, one did it by hand. And if one wanted to see that book “published” and distributed throughout a broad geographical region, copies of that book would have to be made—also by hand. Thus, the New Testament was transmitted the same way every other ancient book was transmitted: it was hand-copied by scribes.
As one might imagine, even the best scribes, from time to time, made mistakes. There’s nothing scandalous about this—it was an inevitable part of copying books, New Testament or otherwise, in the ancient world. Most of these mistakes were run-of-the-mill scribal slips such as spelling errors, word order changes, or the accidental omission of a word. But occasionally, during the copying process, there were larger changes such as the duplication or omission of an entire line, or perhaps a scribe would add words that he thought belonged in the text. In light of such changes, there is an area of scholarly study that examines the multiple hand-copied manuscripts of a book in order to determine what was written by the original author and what may have been a later mistake committed by a scribe. This area of study is called textual criticism.
Although textual criticism is relevant for all documents of antiquity, it is especially important for New Testament documents. After all, as Christians, we believe that the original words of the New Testament writers were inspired by God. These authors wrote down exactly what God, through the Holy Spirit, led them to say. Thus, it is important that we recover the original text of any New Testament book—or at least the earliest possible text—and separate that text from any later scribal changes.