As a subset of historical criticism, textual criticism in the past two centuries has been given an essential but ultimately subservient role, as implied in the term “lower criticism.” It has been deemed an indispensable first step in interpretation: in order to analyze a text, one would first need to determine the precise wording. Such an approach presupposes that the main goal of textual criticism is to recover the “original text” of the writings which were later to become the canonical New Testament. The very notion of the “original text,” however, is today considered highly problematic by the majority of contemporary text critics (Epp 1999), and some of them prefer to use the term “initial text,” or in German Ausgangstext, instead (Holmes 2013). More importantly, in the last few decades there has been a growing interest in textual variants and the insights that they provide into the theological, social, and cultural presuppositions of the copyists and readers throughout the centuries. While New Testament textual criticism still remains a discipline dominated by male scholars, among those interested in textual history and so-called narrative approaches women are far better represented than among those focused on determining the “original text.”

Traditionally, textual critics have applied a set of principles or criteria (see the “twelve basic rules for textual criticism” in Aland and Aland 1989, 280–281). These criteria, however, can never be applied mechanically. While such a caution is readily acknowledged by textual critics and most consider textual criticism both an art and a science, throughout the history of the discipline there has always been a temptation to describe the method as neutral, “objective,” and thus more “scientific” than other approaches in biblical studies. This temptation is still present, yet contemporary scholars tend to be more aware of how an exegete’s presuppositions may influence her or his text critical decisions. In a recent monograph, entitled provocatively The Erotic Life of Manuscripts, Yii-Jan Lin shows how the language and methods used by textual critics since the eighteenth century have aped those of natural scientists, producing a pseudo-scientific discourse aimed at presenting the discipline as akin to biological sciences, masking the racist and male-centered presuppositions (Lin 2016). This pertains also to a computerized method currently used to prepare a new critical edition of the Greek New Testament, the so-called Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM). Lin compares CBGM to phylogenetics.

Scribes and Gender

Textual criticism is grounded in the realization that extant manuscripts (copies produced by hand) differ from one another. Even if few of these differences completely change meaning, prior to the invention of print none of the copies presented readers with exactly the same text. We cannot know for sure which of the variants are due to unintentional errors and which are the result of intentional scribal attempts to “correct” what they perceived as errors in the exemplar. Yet the possibility of scribal corrections is a reminder that ancient scribes were also conscious readers of the texts which they were copying and thus the scribes’ identity, while to a large extent elusive to us, is an important, albeit often neglected, aspect in text critical approaches.

When referring to scribes in discussing text critical issues, scholars customarily use masculine pronouns. It is indeed likely that the majority of those who copied manuscripts containing New Testament writings were men, yet there is also (mainly epigraphic) evidence for the existence of female scribes in antiquity, most of whom were slaves or freedwomen, working for other women (Haines-Eitzen 2000, 41–52).

Typical accounts of the history of textual criticism begin with Origen of Alexandria (184/5–254/5), a prolific ancient Christian theologian and exegete. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, “girls trained for beautiful writing” (korais epi to kalligraphein ēskēmenais) were present when Origen dictated his scriptural commentaries (HE 6.23). While we do not know if these “girls trained for beautiful writing” were involved in scholarly work, there are other erudite women associated with Origen, both in his lifetime and in the subsequent centuries. Palladius in his Lausiac History 64 (419–420) mentions that a certain “learned and most faithful” virgin in Cappadocian Caesaria, Juliana, supported Origen at her own cost for two years. In another story, pertaining to the period after Origen’s death, he reports how Melania the Elder (350–410), “Being very learned and loving literature, turned night into day by perusing every writing of the ancient commentators, including 3,000,000 [lines] of Origen” (HistLaus 55.3). Melania’s fondness for Origen’s writings led to a conflict with Jerome, another famous ancient Christian scholar interested in text critical problems (345–420). Jerome, however, is associated with an even larger circle of ascetic women. In his letters to several of them, in particular Marcella (Ep 23; 27; 28; 32; 34; 37) and Hedibia (Ep 120), he discusses various exegetical problems, including text critical questions.

Other explicit references to women copying biblical texts exist as well. Melania the Younger (383–439) is by her fifth-century hagiographer described as copying (kalligraphousa) Old and New Testament writings and furnishing them to “the saints.” Particularly remarkable as far as female copyists are concerned is a note by the patriarch of Constantinople, Cyril Lucar, dated to 1627, attributing the copying of Codex Alexandrinus to Thecla, “the noble Egyptian woman.” Even if the tradition is difficult to verify, the association of this important fifth-century codex with a woman is noteworthy.

Also telling is the way in which the tradition of female scribes has been treated by (male) scholars. Kim Haines-Eitzen mentions Wettstein, who dismissed the notion that Thecla may have copied Alexandrinus as anachronistic yet did think it possible that the scribe was female due to the abundance of spelling errors (Haines-Eitzen 2011, 6).

Gender in Text Critical Practice

The modern discipline of New Testament textual criticism developed between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, yet for a long time it remained a field of study almost exclusively practiced by male scholars. Among the few exceptions from the nineteenth century are the twin sisters, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, who discovered important manuscripts at St. Catherine’s monastery at Mount Sinai, the most invaluable of which was a fifth-century palimpsest with Old Syriac Gospels (Soskice 2009). Even as late as the second part of the twentieth century, the sole female scholar whose contribution to New Testament criticism is universally acknowledged was Barbara Aland. She served as the director of the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster, Germany [] from 1983 until 2004 and is the only woman who since the twenty-seventh edition is listed as part of the editorial committee of the most widely used pocket critical edition of the New Testament, Novum Testamentum Graece, commonly referred to as “Nestle-Aland.” Barbara Aland and Kurt Aland are also co-authors of a well-known introduction to textual criticism, the only such introduction co-authored by a woman of those listed in the bibliography of the fourth edition of Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman’s Text of the New Testament (2005).

Only in the twenty-first century has New Testament textual criticism ceased to be a discipline almost exclusively practiced by male scholars. This is reflected in the leadership as well as the selection of papers presented at the annual sessions of the New Testament Textual Criticism Section of the Society of Biblical Literature []. Its recent chairs include scholars such as Kim Haines-Eitzen (2001–2007), AnneMarie Luijendijk (2007–2012), and currently Jennifer Knust. It is symptomatic, however, that few of these scholars seem to be interested in the traditional goals of textual criticism, such as reconstructing the “original” or the “initial” text. Rather, they tend to focus on broader issues in textual transmission and related themes, such as the identity of the scribes.

Select New Testament Text Critical Issues and Gender

Among the widely discussed New Testament textual problems, several involve gender. These discussions not only shed light on gender biases characterizing those involved in the transmission of the New Testament but also expose the prejudices of textual critics themselves. In addition, the discussions raise questions of power relations, whether in the process of copying texts or in contemporary scholarship. In spite of the recurring assertions to the contrary, debates about gender-related textual variants give lie to the idea that textual criticism provides an “objective,” scientific set of criteria to evaluate textual problems.

Disappearing Women

Textual critics often distinguish between intentional and unintentional changes in the text, while others prefer to avoid these adjectives and instead use the terms “conscious” and “unconscious” (Parker 1997, 37). In both cases copyists are presumed to have altered the text. It is not always easy to determine whether the change was made consciously or not, and both types of changes could lead to removing women from New Testament writings. In P46, the earliest papyrus codex containing the Pauline letters, instead of the feminine form of the name of Aquila’s companion in 1 Corinthians 16:19 we encounter the masculine form Preiskas. This could be due to the copyist’s conscious alteration, but it is also possible that this singular reading is a result of dittography: an unintentional/unconscious repeating of the letter sigma, with which the next word begins, an error that was likely to occur when copying the text in a continuous script (Kurek-Chomycz 2006, 109–111).

While the change of Aquila’s companion’s gender in 1 Corinthians 16:19 in P46 is often overlooked or at most blamed on the copyist’s “carelessness,” in the letter to the Colossians we come across an example of a woman disappearing from the New Testament most likely due to a conscious “correction.” In Colossians 4:15, the author passes greetings to “brothers” in Laodicea and to a person called either Nympha (thus a woman) or Nymphas (a man’s name) and her/his house church. The name in Greek is in the accusative, Nymphan, and especially without any accents it could be a form of either gender. One might expect that the possessive qualifying the house would shed more light on the host’s gender, but textual tradition is divided in this regard. The masculine pronoun autou, “his,” is found in the majority of witnesses, including manuscripts traditionally classified as Byzantine and “Western.” The feminine form, autēs, “her,” found in Codex Vaticanus and a few other witnesses, is deemed more likely original, mainly because it is less plausible that the masculine form would have been changed into the feminine than vice versa. It is thus possible that difficulties with accepting a woman as hosting a house church, probably implying also a leadership role that she played in the local community, resulted in a “corrected” form of the pronoun. The plural form autōn, “their,” attested in the famous fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus and other manuscripts, could be due to similar concerns.

While scholars routinely note the presence of the masculine pronoun in Colossians 4:15 in the so-called “Western” tradition (on which see below), few notice that in the same manuscripts (but not those representing the Byzantine text), the pair “male and female” (arsen kai thēly) is inserted in Colossians 3:11 before “Greek and Jew” (Grosso 2011). While it can be explained as a harmonization with Galatians 3:28, the result is that Colossians 3:11 proclaims not only the end of distinctions between different ethnic groups but also between the sexes. This variant reading makes it difficult to argue for a consistent anti-women bias in this textual tradition. Another woman who “disappears” from the New Testament, though only in one manuscript, is Damaris (Acts 17:34). The reference to her is absent in the fifth-century Codex Bezae, which in the book of Acts attests a highly peculiar text. It is important to distinguish between the fate of women like Nympha and Damaris, however, and that of another, better known case of a woman concerning whose gender there has been much confusion, namely Junia (Rom 16:7). The case of Junia is strictly speaking not a text critical problem, since there is no indication that the scribes considered Junia a man; the controversy regarding her gender dates to a later period and is reflected mainly in some twentieth-century editions of the Greek New Testament and in a number of nineteenth- and twentieth-century English translations (although in German the masculine form of Junia’s name appears already in Luther’s Bible; see Epp 2005).

An Anti-women Tendency in the “Western” Text?

The designation “Western” text is a misnomer, as most scholars now recognize. What is more, the very concept of “text types” has been subject to heavy criticism (Wachtel 2017), and the aforementioned CBGM is characterized by a shift away from the traditional text types (Wasserman & Gurry 2017). But others still use the term “Western” in reference to what was believed to represent a separate “text type,” which differed from Alexandrian and Byzantine “text types,” and which is often supported by Old Latin but also Syriac and Coptic witnesses. It has been argued that certain “tendencies” can be detected in the “Western” text or at least in a manuscript that was previously considered the main witness to the “Western” text, Codex Bezae (D), especially in the text of Acts of the Apostles. This includes an anti-Judaic tendency (Epp 1966 and 2003) but also what some have referred to, rather anachronistically, as an “anti-feminist” tendency (Witherington 1984). While the term is nowadays avoided, the claim that this textual tradition or the text attested in a specific manuscript (the D-Text of Acts, as Brock 2003 refers to it) displays an anti-women bias is still often repeated. The text of Acts in Codex Bezae is around one-third longer than that attested in other major manuscripts. Some of these additions or other changes in the text may have resulted in playing down the significance of women or, possibly, enhancing the significance of their male companions, as happens with Prisca and Aquila in Acts 18 (Kurek-Chomycz 2006, 118–128). It is doubtful, however, whether it is warranted to speak of any specific tendency. Rather, it may be better to speak of “effect or result” (Holmes 2003). Regardless of the scribal motives, certain readings found in Codex Bezae and other witnesses do affect the presence of women in Acts in a negative way. Nonetheless, even if some of the scribal changes are intentional, they are probably more indicative of the cultural environment in which copyists worked than their conscious intention to marginalize women in the New Testament.

Silencing Women

1 Corinthians 14:33b–35 has been the subject of ongoing exegetical and text critical debates. Verse 33b is by contemporary exegetes usually read together with what follows rather than what precedes, thus emphasizing the universality of the prohibition (“as in all the churches of the holy ones”). This is reflected in the majority of translations. But as Gordon Fee (2014, 772, n. 690) notes, “The idea that v. 33b goes with v. 34 seems to be a modern phenomenon altogether” (see the detailed discussion of external evidence to substantiate this assertion in Lavrinoviča 2017). The controversial passage is attested in all the witnesses, yet in some Greek and Latin manuscripts and several diglots (bilingual codices) vv. 34–35 are found after v. 40. Due to this evidence, as well as the allegedly un-Pauline character and the problems with reconciling the passage with 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, a number of commentators support the thesis that 33b–36 (or only 34–35) are an interpolation. According to this view, the verses could have been introduced as a marginal gloss, stemming from a milieu similar to that in which 1 Timothy 2:11–21 originated. Other commentators defend the verses’ authenticity but argue that they constitute a quotation from or echo the assumptions of the Corinthian men, with whom Paul disagrees (Odell-Scott). Among textual critics, Fee is one of the most ardent defenders of the interpolation theory, yet as noted by Vander Stichele (1995), this theory is supported by considerably fewer female than male authors (see esp. Wire 1990, 149–152). This is possibly related to feminist theologians’ awareness that denying Pauline authorship is too facile a solution: such a strategy may serve those whose primary goal is to exonerate the historical Paul but will not erase the damaging effect that these verses have had on women’s lives throughout the centuries and the highly problematic way in which they continue to be used in some Christian traditions. In spite of some assertions to the contrary, scholars continue to disagree concerning the status of vv. (33b)34–35. As Caroline Vander Stichele (1995, 253) observes, “The interpolation hypothesis might … be a way of solving the problem that the canonicity and Pauline authorship of 1 Cor 14:34–35 poses for Christians today.”

Pericope Adulterae—What Does Gender Have to Do with It?

John 7:53—8:11, the story of the encounter between Jesus, the “scribes and the Pharisees,” and the woman caught in adultery, is missing from the earliest witnesses, while some others add it after John 7:36 or 21:25 or even Luke 21:38. The earliest manuscript in which it appears is Codex Bezae, and currently the majority of scholars regard this textually highly unstable passage as secondary. As a result of this evidence, but also possibly because the passage “breaks with the patterns that feminist scholars discern in the Fourth Gospel’s treatment of women” (Green 2000, 240), it is often marginalized even in feminist scholarship.

In the past gender tended to figure in text critical discussions of the Pericope mainly implicitly, as exemplified by the use of the so-called “suppression” theory: the explanation that the church preferred to “suppress” the story due to Jesus’ leniency toward the “adulterous” woman, supposedly contrasting with the early church’s strict teaching on adultery. The “suppression” theory has been used both to defend the Pericope’s authenticity and to argue for its delayed insertion. Gail O’Day is one of the few proponents of (a version of) the theory in whose analysis gender features centrally (O’Day 1992, 640). More recently Chris Keith has offered a highly critical assessment of the “suppression” theory, arguing instead that the Pericope is an interpolation inserted in order to highlight claims of Jesus’ literacy (Keith 2009). Continued debates about the passage’s textual status, even if often not engaging directly with questions of gender, reveal scholars’ attitudes to these questions as well as their other interests and projects, rather than being a merely “objective” academic debate about a textual problem.


The situation in New Testament textual criticism has changed significantly in the last few decades, especially when compared to the very limited attention paid to gender and the absence or at least the marginalization of female textual critics throughout most of the twentieth century. Still, much remains to be done. There continue to be articles published in the area of textual criticism whose authors seem to be oblivious to issues of gender and to recent developments in the field. Similarly, authors of biblical commentaries still often hold simplistic views concerning the reconstruction of the “original” text as the basis for their commentary rather than attempting to glean insights for the interpretation of the biblical text also from textual variants attested throughout the centuries. At the same time, as the series Feminist Companion to the New Testament and Early Christian Writings shows, feminist interpreters rarely engage in any detail with text critical problems. These authors’ seeming reluctance to engage with more “traditional” historical critical approaches and their lack of confidence that engaging with text critical issues can lead to fresh insights prevents many of them from delving more deeply into textual criticism. Yet as the work of scholars such as Kim Haines-Eitzen, Yii-Jan Lin, Jennifer Knust, and others demonstrates, there is potential for a fruitful exploration of scribal practices, of textual variants as an element of reception history, and of the work of textual critics themselves. Even more importantly, there is still much to be explored as far as the relationship between the three is concerned.


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  • Brock, Ann Graham. “Appeasement, Authority, and the Role of Women in the D-Text of Acts.” In The Book of Acts as Church History/Apostelgeschichte Als Kirchengeschichte, edited by Tobias Nicklas and Michael Tilly, pp. 205–224. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2003.
  • Epp, Eldon Jay. “Anti-Judaic Tendencies in the D-Text of Acts: Forty Years of Conversation.” In The Book of Acts as Church History /Apostelgeschichte Als Kirchengeschichte, edited by Tobias Nicklas and Michael Tilly, pp. 111–146. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2003.
  • Epp, Eldon Jay. Junia: The First Woman Apostle. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.
  • Epp, Eldon Jay. “The Multivalence of the Term ‘Original Text’ in New Testament Textual Criticism.” Harvard Theological Review 92, no. 3 (1999): 245–281.
  • Epp, Eldon Jay. The Theological Tendency of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis in Acts. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1966.
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  • Green, Elizabeth E. “Making Her Case and Reading It Too: Feminist Readings of the Story of the Woman Taken in Adultery.” In Ciphers in the Sand: Interpretations of The Woman Taken in Adultery (John 7.53–8.11), edited by Larry J. Kreitzer and Deborah W. Rooke, pp. 240–267. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.
  • Grosso, Matteo. “The Diversification of Colossians’ Text and Women’s Status in the Early Church.” TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism 16 (2011).
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  • Holmes, Michael W. “From ‘Original Text’ to ‘Initial Text’: The Traditional Goal of New Testament Textual Criticism in Contemporary Discussion.” In The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis, edited by Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes, pp. 637–688. 2d ed. Leiden, Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2013.
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  • Keith, Chris. The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2009.
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  • Soskice, Janet. Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels. London: Chatto & Windus, 2009.
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  • Wachtel, Klaus. “On the Relationship of the ‘Western Text’ and the Byzantine Tradition of Acts—A Plea Against the Text-Type Concept.” In Novum Testamentum Graecum: Editio Critica Maior III: Die Apostelgeschichte, Part 3: Studien, edited by Holger Strutwolf et al., pp. 137–148. Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2017.
  • Wasserman, Tommy, and Peter J. Gurry. A New Approach to Textual Criticism: An Introduction to the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method. Atlanta and Stuttgart, Germany: SBL Press and Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2017.
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Dominika A. Kurek-Chomycz