Why are there Variations in Different Translations of the New Testament?

Textual Variation, Matthew 3:16
This entry is part 1 of 36 in the series What is Textual Criticism?

Have you ever looked at the footnotes in a Bible and seen an alternate wording? Perhaps a note that starts with “some manuscripts add….”, “Other ancient authorities add” or even “This clause not found in early mss”? For example, the last verse of the Lord’s Prayer1 can be written several ways:

  • And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:13 ESV)
  • And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:13 NIV)
  • And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. (Matthew 6:13 KJV)

Why are there differences in these English translations? These versions are very similar, but the NIV2 adds two words to the ESV3 text, while the KJV4 adds an entire sentence. Did the translators not translate the Bible correctly?

Both the ESV and NIV acknowledge there are alternate readings which could be legitimate understandings of the verse. The ESV footnote for Matthew 6:13 is “Or the evil one; some manuscripts add For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” The NIV footnote for Matthew 6:13 is “Or from evil; some late manuscripts one, / for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.5 The manuscript evidence shows all three of these ending for Matthew 6:13. Which one did the Apostle Matthew actually write?6

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. (2 Timothy 3:16 NLT)

As the Scriptures say, “People are like grass; their beauty is like a flower in the field. The grass withers and the flower fades. But the word of the Lord remains forever.” And that word is the Good News that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:24-25 NLT)

The original scripture inspired by God had no errors in it, and God promises His word will last forever. However, He doesn’t promise every edition of the Bible would be copied with 100% accuracy. Sometimes when people copied (or translated) the New Testament, they made mistakes. In his book Miracles: A Preliminary Study, author, scholar and theologian C.S. Lewis wrote that after a miracle occurs (such as the divine inspiration of scripture), the regular laws of nature will still apply:

The moment it [the miracle] enters her [nature’s] realm, it obeys all her laws. Miraculous wine will intoxicate, miraculous conception will lead to pregnancy, inspired books will suffer all the ordinary processes of textual corruption, miraculous bread will be digested.7

When Greek manuscripts show different ways of reading a passage, they’re called Textual Variants (referring to possibly legitimate readings), or Textual Corruptions (referring to probable mistakes). The study of textual variants and textual corruptions in the New Testament focus Greek New Testament manuscripts, because scholars are trying to reconstruct the original wording of the New Testament, and it is generally believed all of the books were written in Greek.8

The Bible isn’t alone in having textual variants. Abraham Lincoln wrote five copies of the Gettysburg Address, and each has slightly different wording, and the contemporary newspaper accounts also differ. Which one contains the actual words President Lincoln spoke at the battlefield in Gettysburg, PA, on November 19, 1863? Two of the copies by Lincoln were written as drafts before the speech, while the other three were written after the event. The copy on display in the Lincoln Room at the White House, and inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, is the last one Lincoln wrote, several month after the speech. This version is the one farthest removed from the speech, and is possibly the least accurate. Do any of the written copies contain the exact words he spoke?  Should any of these be considered the original? All of them faithfully represent the meaning of the speech, even if none have the exact words Lincoln used.

In a similar way, Greek manuscripts of the New Testament have differences, but those differences don’t change the overall meaning of the text. More importantly, those differences don’t change any core beliefs about Christianity.

But there’s a simple way to demonstrate how trivial the differences between ancient manuscripts really are in terms of their effect on the body of truth that the Bible reveals. We have lots of doctrinal differences within Christianity, right? But there are no Calvinist manuscripts/versions, Arminian manuscripts/versions, Pentecostal, Reformed, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Congregationalist, Egalitarian, Complementarian, Integrationist, Cessationist, or Continuationist manuscripts/versions.9

The fact that variations exist in the New Testament isn’t proof that Christianity is a false religion, but rather it reflects two truths about people: 1) People make mistakes when copying manuscripts (Unintentional Changes); 2) People adapt the text to help increase understanding of the text by the audience (Intentional Changes). Both of these types of changes can be made without changing the intended meaning of the text.



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  1. Matthew 6:9-13 (KJV)
  2. New International Version
  3. English Standard Version
  4. King James Version
  5. None of the online KJV Bibles I referenced had footnotes.
  6. The Apostle Matthew wrote in Greek, not English. Clearly, I’m showing English translations of the Greek text.
  7. Lewis, C. S. Miracles: A Preliminary Study (London: The Century Press, 1947) Page 72. (Amazon – different edition) (Archive.org)
  8. The church father Origen of Alexandria wrote tradition indicated Matthew was written in Hebrew. (Origen of Alexandria (A.D. 184-253). Quoted in: Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XXV, Paragraph 4. (CCEL.org))
  9. Leedy, Randy. Should Differences in Biblical Manuscripts Scare Christians? (LogosTalk: December 28, 2016; Blog) Accessed 03-Mar-2020.

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