Are Spelling Differences Meaningful in New Testament Manuscripts?


Last week I wrote about the estimated 200,000-500,000 textual variants in the Greek New Testament manuscripts1. That’s a lot of variants, but with over 2,000,000 pages of New Testament manuscripts available for scholars to study, that averages out to less than 1 unique textual variant for every 4 pages of text. Now consider, the majority of textual variants in the New Testament manuscripts are spelling differences that don’t affect the meaning of the text.

Legitimate Spelling Changes

Dictionaries are a relatively recent invention, and often there wasn’t a standard way of spelling some words, and some spellings were only used in small geographical areas. Authors and scribes were often creative when spelling words, and sometimes inconsistent.

One-fifth of one percent [0.2%] of all textual variants are both meaningful and viable. Approximately 70% of them [all textual variants] are spelling differences. There was no dictionary saying here’s how you spell words. In fact, John was a very creative speller. In the space of eight verses in John chapter 92, he spells the exact same verb [ἀνοίγω] three different ways in eight verses. Spelling is not an issue that affects anything really.3

Based on the manuscript evidence, textual scholars believe John actually did use three different spellings in  John 9:14-21 (ESV)4 , but don’t know why. The Greek verb he used is ἀνοίγω5 (to open) and can have several legitimate spellings, including the ones John used.

  • John 9:14: ἀνέῳξεν – Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his [the blind man’s] eyes.
  • John 9:17: ἠνέῳξέν – “What do you [the formerly blind man] say about him [Jesus], since he has opened your eyes?”
  • John 9:21: ἤνοιξεν – But how he [the formerly blind man] now sees we [the formerly blind man’s parents] do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes.

It’s easy to imagine some scribes thought the word should be spelled the same way in all three verses, and in doing so created textual variants. Spelling changes would be especially easy in a scriptorium where one person would read the text while several others copied it. The scribes copying it may not know the original spelling, because they were listening to the words rather than seeing them. It would be natural for them to use the same spelling in all three verses, and even scribes in the same room may have spelled words differently.

Spelling Mistakes

Everyone makes spelling mistakes (and so do computers). It would be unreasonable to think someone could copy a lengthy manuscript by hand without any errors. In many cases, the incorrect spelling results in a series of letters that aren’t even a real word, although there may only be one misprinted letter. These types of mistakes are easy for scholars to recognize and correct, and are not considered meaningful variants.

The most common variant is what’s called a movable nu—that’s an ‘n’ at the end of one word before another word that starts with a vowel. We see the same principle in English with the indefinite article: ‘a book,’ ‘an apple.’ These spelling differences are easy for scholars to detect. They really affect nothing.6

Conclusion

Some scribes created manuscripts with many spelling errors. Even manuscripts that are considered to be fairly reliable in their wording7 may be considered unreliable in their spellings.

The swapping of vowels of similar sounds [iotacisms] is quite frequent in codex Alexandrinus…. The [Greek] letters Ν and Μ are sometimes confused. The letter combination ΓΓ is exchanged for ΝΓ…. Alexandrinus has many iotacisms and other cases of the confusion of vowel sounds, e.g. αι in place of ε, ει for ι and η for ι. However, the number of iotacisms is no greater than other manuscripts from that period.8

Some changes in spelling do change the meaning of the text, but these are fairly rare in the New Testament. Even though spelling changes are counted, most of them don’t make any change to the meaning of the text. There are no cases in which a misspelled word changes the theology of the Bible.

Resources

  • Fragments of Truth. Rhys-Davies, John (Narrator) and Evans, Craig (Presenter). (Faithlife Films, 2018)

Footnotes

  1. How Many Textual Variants Exist in the New Testament Manuscripts?
  2. 14ἦν δὲ σάββατον ἐν ᾗ ἡμέρᾳ τὸν πηλὸν ἐποίησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ ἀνέῳξεν αὐτοῦ τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς. 15πάλιν οὖν ἠρώτων αὐτὸν καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι πῶς ἀνέβλεψεν. ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· πηλὸν ἐπέθηκέν μου ἐπὶ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς καὶ ἐνιψάμην καὶ βλέπω. 16ἔλεγον οὖν ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων τινές· οὐκ ἔστιν οὗτος παρὰ θεοῦ ὁ ἄνθρωπος, ὅτι τὸ σάββατον οὐ τηρεῖ. ἄλλοι [δὲ] ἔλεγον· πῶς δύναται ἄνθρωπος ἁμαρτωλὸς τοιαῦτα σημεῖα ποιεῖν; καὶ σχίσμα ἦν ἐν αὐτοῖς. 17λέγουσιν οὖν τῷ τυφλῷ πάλιν· τί σὺ λέγεις περὶ αὐτοῦ, ὅτι ἠνέῳξέν σου τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς; ὁ δὲ εἶπεν ὅτι προφήτης ἐστίν. 18Οὐκ ἐπίστευσαν οὖν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι περὶ αὐτοῦ ὅτι ἦν τυφλὸς καὶ ἀνέβλεψεν ἕως ὅτου ἐφώνησαν τοὺς γονεῖς αὐτοῦ τοῦ ἀναβλέψαντος 19καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτοὺς λέγοντες· οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱὸς ὑμῶν, ὃν ὑμεῖς λέγετε ὅτι τυφλὸς ἐγεννήθη; πῶς οὖν βλέπει ἄρτι; 20ἀπεκρίθησαν οὖν οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ καὶ εἶπαν· οἴδαμεν ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱὸς ἡμῶν καὶ ὅτι τυφλὸς ἐγεννήθη·21πῶς δὲ νῦν βλέπει οὐκ οἴδαμεν, ἢ τίς ἤνοιξεν αὐτοῦ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ἡμεῖς οὐκ οἴδαμεν· αὐτὸν ἐρωτήσατε, ἡλικίαν ἔχει, αὐτὸς περὶ ἑαυτοῦ λαλήσει. (John 9:14-21 NA28)
  3. Wallace, Dan. Fragments of Truth. Rhys-Davies, John (Narrator) and Evans, Craig (Presenter). (Faithlife Films, 2018)
  4. 14Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15So the Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” And there was a division among them. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. 21But how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” John 9:14-21 (ESV).
  5. Strong’s G455
  6. Wallace, Daniel B. Quoted in: Taylor, Justin. An Interview with Daniel B. Wallace on the New Testament Manuscripts (The Gospel Coalition, March 22, 2012; Blog) Accessed 22-Mar-2020.
  7. Codex Alexandrinus uses two different text types, and scholars hotly debate which one is superior.
  8. Andrews, Edward D. From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts: Introduction-Intermediate to New Testament Textual Studies (Cambridge, Ohio: Christian Publishing House, 2020; Kindle) Location 6283. (Amazon)

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