It is the purpose of textual criticism (formerly known as ‘Lower Criticism’) to try to recover as far as possible the authentic words of the books of the Bible as they were originally penned. It is an enormous task. Nothing at all remains of any of the authors' own writing. What we do have is a vast number of texts copied by scribes, versions translated into ancient languages, and a host of quotations in the Fathers which act as checks on the various MSS. It was so easy for mistakes to creep in: a word or two could be omitted by mistake, or repeated; if scribes were writing from dictation words of similar sound could be misheard. Sometimes a scribe could produce an alteration for doctrinal reasons.

1. The OT

The basic text of the Hebrew OT is that provided by the Masoretes around 500–1000 CE, on which very few variants exist. Before this time, the Hebrew script consisted only of consonants. The Masoretes then introduced pointing (vowel signs) and they were scrupulous about accuracy. Their work can be tested by the Hebrew of some of the Dead Sea scrolls, MSS older by 1,000 years than any other extant Hebrew MS. The Hebrew of the OT can be checked by translations, especially those in Greek, notably the LXX of the 3rd cent. BCE, translated for the use of Jews in Egypt. Other Greek translations were made, and in 245 CE Origen arranged the OT (in a work called the Hexapla) in six parallel columns: Hebrew, a Greek transliteration, three Greek translations, and Origen's own translation. The Greek translation included the deuterocanonical books of the Apocrypha which were not in the Hebrew OT, and it was the LXX version of the OT that was used by the first Christians. A Latin translation from the Hebrew was made by Jerome; it is called the Vulgate. The Hebrew OT was translated into Syriac early in the 1st cent. CE; it was adopted by the Christian Syriac Church, and known as the Peshitta (which also contains most of the NT).

2. The NT

Thousands of Greek MSS exist, of which the oldest almost complete MSS go back to the 4th and 5th cents. CE. Some 2nd- and 3rd-cent. fragments are on papyrus; other MSS are on parchment; all were bound in the form of books (Latin codices). They have a continuous text which may be in uncials (capitals) or minuscules (lower-case letters); some are organized as lectionaries, with portions for the daily services. The words do not have breathings or accents, and there are no spaces between words, no punctuation marks, no divisions into chapters and verses. The most important uncials are Codex Sinaiticus of the 4th cent., Codex Vaticanus, and Codex Alexandrinus. The Codex Bezae contains both Greek and Latin texts of the gospels and Acts. The earliest fragment of a papyrus MS is of John 18: 31–4, 37–8, discovered in Egypt and published by C. H. Roberts in 1935, dated about 130 CE, and now in Manchester.