Teaching Textual Criticism to Undergraduates


A prominent and passionate textual critic once described his field as follows: “Textual criticism may be the only approach to the biblical text where the difference between ‘rod’ and ‘staff’ is significant. It has the capacity to be uniquely boring work, more so than any other critical method.”

With that being said, I spend an entire day in my Literature of the Bible class (a freshman-level survey course) teaching textual criticism. To the utter shock of my colleagues, this is frequently one of the most enjoyable days of the semester, and many students speak fondly of it in their course evaluations. Here’s how I approach it.

I set the stage by describing the transmission of biblical texts as a game of written telephone that involves thousands of writers over thousands of years. Because these texts were copied by hand, I explain, small errors (variants) were introduced over time. I introduce textual criticism as the process…

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