What are Textual Variants?


Last week I started a new series with the article Why are there Variations in Different Translations of the New Testament?. Textual Variants are places where ancient manuscripts attest to more than one reading of a passage. There are about 138,000 words in the Greek New Testament, and it’s unreasonable to think anyone could copy it without making a single mistake. Most of the variants are simple spelling errors or other accidental mistakes.

Some changes to the Greek text were deliberately made. For example, the  Greek New Testament uses idioms1, some of which don’t make much sense to 21st century Christians. The Good News of Jesus Christ spread quickly across the vast first century Roman Empire, and different locals had different idioms, ways of speech and life experiences. Even in ancient times, scribes and translators changed the text slightly to clarify parts, making it more easily understood by the audience.

Greeks and orientals [people of the East] viewed the written word differently. For orientals the very letter had a sanctity of its own. The Hebrew text of the Old Testament, like the text of the Quran, is alike in all manuscripts (except for unintentional errors). For Greeks it was the message contained that was sacred.2

Modern scholars don’t know the exact words that were originally written in the New Testament, so they use multiple manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, which have slightly different wording in some places, to try to reconstruct the original wording. These copies of the New Testament were written decades, or even centuries, after the individual books of the New Testament were written. How is it possible to know what the authors originally wrote?

In my article How Many New Testament Manuscripts Exist?, I showed there are over 5,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts available. When copying the New Testament, different scribes made different errors. If most manuscripts have the same word in a verse, but a few manuscripts have a different word in the same place, it’s likely the word used just a few times is not original3. The abundance of manuscripts give scholars the opportunity to study the text of these manuscripts with the goal of determining the text of the original autographs4. Textual variants and the study of them, Textual Criticism5, are to be expected when studying ancient manuscripts. 

When I think about the variants among the manuscripts, all of our diverse manuscripts, not just in Greek, but also in Latin and other languages, and when I think of the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which share many stories in common, but don’t always tell the stories in exactly the same words, I’m reminded of what Jesus told his disciples in Matthew chapter 136. He has given them seven parables about the kingdom of heaven. He’s asked them if they understand; they assure him that they do, and he said “Good, because the scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a scholar or a householder who can open up the treasure box, the thesaurus and reach inside and pull out old stuff and new stuff.” In other words, Jesus is telling his disciples “If you really understand what I’m saying, you’re better than just a parrot that repeats word-for-word what I taught. You understand what I taught and you can adapt it, because you’re going to have to. You’re going to be preaching in contexts where it’s a different culture, it’s a different language. You have to show me that you understand my words and can apply them in a variety of settings.” And invariably that will create some variations. So in a sense, the manuscripts that we have, the four-fold Gospels that we have, hark back to Jesus himself, the way he taught his disciples, the way he instructed them, and the commission that he gave them in teaching the world his teaching.7

Christians should not be concerned about textual variants in the Bible. The study of New Testament textual variants applies to Greek New Testament manuscripts, and most people in the world don’t know Greek. Even if there were a standard Greek text every Biblical scholar agreed contained the exact words of the Biblical authors, there would still be disagreements on how to translate the Greek text into other languages. There are dozens of English versions of the Bible that have slight differences in wording (see Bible.com), but these Bibles have the same meaning8. If the English versions can have differences, why would anyone assume differences in the Greek manuscripts means Christianity is false?

Daniel Wallace… [states] that some “noncentral” beliefs or practices seem to be affected by viable variants but that “no viable variant affects any cardinal truth of the New Testament.”9 Both qualifications (“viable” and “cardinal”) are important and match what we have here called difficult and important variants. In this sense, Wallace is surely right that no core Christian doctrine (e.g., the resurrection, the deity of Christ, salvation, the Trinity) is based solely on a textually difficult passage.10

 


This series will primarily be about New Testament textual variants, but I’ll also refer to some variants from the Old Testament. Many of the textual criticism principles are also applicable to other written works, such as the ancient Greek philosophers and the Greek and Roman historians.

Bibliography

Footnotes

  1. Andrews, Edward D. Idioms in Bible Translation (Christian Publishing House, May 6, 2018) Accessed 29-Mar-2020.
  2. Aland, Kurt, and Aland, Barbara. The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism Translated by Erroll F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: 1987) Page 286.
  3. There are exceptions. In some cases, the oldest and most reliable manuscripts differ from the majority.
  4. What’s the Difference Between an Autograph and an Original?
  5. Criticism: the work or activity of making fair, careful judgements about the good and bad qualities of somebody/something, especially books, music, etc. (Oxford Learners Dictionary, 2nd definition)
  6. Matthew 13 (ESV)
  7. Evans, Craig. Fragments of Truth. Rhys-Davies, John (Narrator) and Evans, Craig (Presenter). (Faithlife Films, 2018)
  8. There are some exceptions where cults have changed theologically significant passages in the Bible to support their own beliefs, but these corrupted Bibles are the exception rather than the rule, and the changes can be detected.
  9. Komoszewski, J. Ed, Sawyer, M. James and Wallace, Daniel B. Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006) pg. 114.
  10. Gurry, Peter J. “Why Most Variants are Insignificant and Why Some Can’t Be Ignored” In: Hixson, Elijah and Gurry, Peter J. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019; Logos) Page  207. (Amazon) (Logos)

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