How Many Textual Variants Exist in the New Testament Manuscripts?


In my article What are Textual Variants? I described textual variants as being any word or phrase in a manuscript that is different from the standard text. If a word is misspelled, it’s a variant. If a scribe accidentally left out a verse, it’s a variant. Any change, no matter how small, is considered a variant. I’ve read about two ways to count textual variants, and they conflict.

Counting Method 1

The first method for counting variants is based on the number of unique variants in all the manuscripts, not the number of manuscripts the variant appears in. If a word is misspelled three different ways in 100 manuscripts, it’s counted as three variants, not 100 variants.

…we only count differences in wording, regardless of how many manuscripts attest to it. All this is to say: a variant is simply the difference in wording found in a single manuscript or a group of manuscripts (either way, it’s still only one variant) that disagrees with a base text.1

Counting Method 2

In this counting method, every variant in every manuscript is counted. If a word is misspelled three different ways in 100 manuscripts, it’s counted as 100 variant.

A variant is counted any time one copy is different from any other copy and it is counted again in every copy where it appears. So when a single word is spelled differently in 3,000 copies, that is counted as 3,000 variants.2

Which Counting Method is Correct?

I’ve read quotes by respected authors and scholars on both sides of the issue. People who spend their entire careers studying textual variants use Method 1, but Method 2 is often cited by people who don’t understand the field of study. There are so many legitimate textual variants that many people assume Method 2 is the correct way of counting them.

Method 1 will always give a consistent number with a given set of manuscripts, regardless of which manuscript is considered the most accurate. Method 2 can give vastly different numbers, even with the same set of manuscripts used above, depending on which manuscript is considered the standard. Let me give a quick example using five hypothetical manuscripts with the American and British spellings of the word “color”, and one misspelling:

Manuscript Number Word Method 1 Method 2
Base Text in MS 1, 2 or 3 MS 4 MS 5 MS 1,2 or 3 MS 4 MS 5
MS 1 Color Base Text Variant 1 Variant 1 Base Text Variant 1 Variant 1
MS 2 Color Base Text Variant 1 Variant 1 Base Text Variant 2 Variant 2
MS 3 Color Base Text Variant 1 Variant 1 Base Text Variant 3 Variant 3
MS 4 Colour Variant 1 Base Text Variant 2 Variant 1 Base Text Variant 4
MS 5 Colur Variant 2 Variant 2 Base Text Variant 2 Variant 4 Base Text
Total Variants 2 2 2 2 4 4

This table uses the spelling “color” three times, the spelling “colour” once, and the misspelling “colur” (a misspelling of “colour”) once. Using Method 1, there’s the correct spelling, and two variant spellings, for a total of two variants; it doesn’t matter which spelling is correct when counting variants. Using Method 2, if “color” is selected as the correct spelling, then “colour” and “colur” are variants, for a total of two variants. But if either “colour” or “colur” is thought to be the correct spelling, then all the manuscripts using “color” are considered to be wrong, and that spelling is counted three times, plus the other incorrect one, for a total of four variants.

I [Dr. Daniel Wallace] took a very conservative approach by only looking at the differences from the majority of manuscripts. But if one started as his base text Codex Bezae3 for the Gospels and Acts and Codex Claromontanus for Paul’s letters4, the number of variants (counted the wrong way, of course) from these two would be astronomical. My guess is that it would be well over 20 million. Or if one started with Codex Sinaiticus, the only complete New Testament written with capital (or uncial) letters, the numbers would probably exceed 30 million—largely because Sinaiticus spells words in some strange ways that are not shared by very many other manuscripts. You can see that the definition of a textual variant as a combination of wording differences times manuscripts is rather faulty. Counting this way results in tens of millions of textual variants, when the actual number is miniscule by comparison. And that’s because we only count differences in wording, regardless of how many manuscripts attest to it.5

How Many Textual Variants Exist in the New Testament?

The total number of variants is unknown, but most estimates range from 200,000 – 500,000. Why is there such a big discrepancy? With over 5,000 New Testament manuscripts6, no one has actually reviewed every word of every manuscript looking for variants, so the numbers are estimates. The task would be practically impossible for a person or group to do manually, but computers are slowly being used for some of the analysis. Also, every time a new manuscript is discovered, there’s the possibility the total number of variants will increase.

Many Christians would likely be shocked to learn there are possibly 500,000 textual variants in the Greek New Testament manuscripts. With over 2,000,000 pages of New Testament manuscripts available for scholars to study, that averages out to about 1 unique textual variant for every 4 pages of text. There are still a lot of variants, but I don’t believe textual variants are nearly as big a problem for Christians as some people claim.

Bibliography

Footnotes

  1. Wallace, Daniel. The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation (DanielBWallace.com, 9 September 2013; Blog) Accessed 29-Apr-2020.
  2. Geisler, Norman L. and Ronald M. Brooks. When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996; Logos book) 160. (Amazon) (Logos)
  3. Codex Bezae only contains the Gospels, Acts and part of 3 John.
  4. Codex Claromontanus only contains Paul’s letters.
  5. Wallace, Daniel. The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation (DanielBWallace.com, 9 September 2013; Blog) Accessed 29-Apr-2020.
  6. How Many New Testament Manuscripts Exist?

Follow, Like and Share

Comments

  1. […] How Many Textual Variants Exist in the New Testament Manuscripts? (3 of 5) […]

  2. […] How Many Textual Variants Exist in the New Testament Manuscripts? (3 of 4) […]

Leave a Reply (The first message from an e-mail address must be approved by a moderator)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.