Statistical Analysis and Textual Criticism

I would like to suggest to you another point of connection between mathematics and faith: the practice of textual criticism. Textual Criticism (TC) is the study of the copies of any written document whose autograph (the original) is unknown, for the purpose of determining the exact wording of the original. In short, this is process by which our modern day Bibles are written.

Why such an emphasis on the original copies of the text? Historically, the doctrines of the inerrancy and inspiration of scripture have applied solely to the original autographs. While we can certainly believe that God has providentially overseen the transmission of the text from generation to generation, the authority of the biblical text lies in its original authorship (both divine and human) and not in scribal copies.

The quote below is taken from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

Article X, Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

Since only the original autograph is considered to be the inspired Word of God, we have a duty to attempt to recover the original as much as possible. As Christians committed to biblical authority we should be especially interested in textual criticism. We need to approach this task with humility and not with dogmatism. There are a great many things about the history of transmission of NT manuscripts that we cannot be absolutely sure about. At the same time, we need to realize that the phrase “with great accuracy” is a statistical statement and there is much that statistical reasoning can bring to bear on the subject of textual criticism, and by extension, our understanding of the original biblical text.

I must confess that the application of statistical methods to textual criticism is a new interest of mine that I am just now beginning to explore. while my seminary training has provided me a background in textual criticism, and my my math training has provided me a background in statistical inference procedures, I have never formally crossed the two. Part of my motivation in this post is to hopefully get some feedback to help me focus my thinking. Below are some of the resources I have come across so far. Let me know what you think and I hope to have more to share in the coming months.

Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts

Organization founded by DTS New Testament professor Dan Wallace – dedicated to the digital preservation of manuscripts and the discovery of new ones

Analysis of Textual Variation by Timothy J. Finney

Ebook I came across after an initial search on this topic – applies statistical inference procedures in aanalyzing variant manuscripts on the book of Hebrews

A Statistical Approach to Textual Criticism by M.P. Weitzman

Article produced from a preliminary search – argues for a need to increase the use of formal statistics in TC

Inerrancy and Worldview by Vern Poythress

Work on inerrancy by a new testament scholar who also holds a Ph.D. in mathematics

Actual vs random agreements (B, Heb, multistate)
Analyzing agreements among variant manuscripts from the book of Hebrews (Finney)

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