What are Variant Units?


In my article two weeks ago1, I wrote there are an estimated 200,000-500,000 textual variants in the Greek New Testament manuscripts. Last week2 I showed spelling errors are counted, but most aren’t significant.

Variant Types

The types of textual variants that exist in New Testament manuscripts are split into two  broad categories:

  • Insignificant Variants are errors that are usually found in only a few manuscripts and that can easily be detected and corrected. Insignificant variants are often unintentional, such has misspelled  words.
  • Significant Variants are readings that have affected the transmission of the New Testament, and could legitimately be the original wording. Significant variants may be intentional, such has adding words to clarify a concept, or unintentional, such has writing the wrong word. The primary criteria for a variant to be considered significant is that it must be meaningful in the context.

Professor Peter Gurry uses an example from John 183 to show how many variants exist, compared to how many are considered significant:

Even with these variants, we still need to ask just how many of these variants in John 18 are important to the meaning. To gain some sense of that, consider that the NA284 edition, which is designed for academic study, includes 154 variant readings in this chapter of John. The UBS5 edition, designed specifically for Bible translators, includes just ten. The more recent Tyndale House Greek New Testament lists twelve variant readings. If we consider a few well-regarded commentators on John, we note that D. A. Carson discusses just three variants, and C. K. Barrett eight. How many of these deserve the notice of typical English Bible readers? Based on the major modern translations, the answer is zero. Not a single note about any variant in John 18 is to be found in the ESV, NIV, NRSV, or even the richly footnoted NET. The translators of these versions are right in this since all of the major variants in John 18 are easily resolved, do not significantly affect the meaning, or both.6

Variation Units in the New Testament

Textual variants7 occur when the wording or spelling in a manuscript is different from the standard text. Is counting textual variants a good way of determining if the New Testament we use today is an accurate reflection of what the Biblical authors wrote? No, it isn’t. Textual variants show the changes made in over 5,000 manuscripts, and most of those changes were accidental, although some were intentional.

Rather than counting the number of changes scribes made while copying the New Testament, a better way of showing changes is to count variation units. A Variation Unit is a place in the New Testament where there is more than one possible, meaningful reading. Although the number of textual variants may seem alarming, Christians really wonder how many places in the Bible they read might contain errors, not the number of times scribes made mistakes while copying the Bible.

There are about 138,000 words in the Greek New Testament (depending on which critical edition is being used), but only 1,3928 variation units are considered Significant in Dr. Bruce Metzger‘s book A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament9, for decades the standard reference book for New Testament textual criticism. This book documents the variation units that Bible translators need to be aware of to ensure an accurate translation. Other variation units are considered insignificant and unnecessary for consideration by Bible translators.

UBS Ratings

United Bible Societies (UBS) uses a rating system to show how confident the editorial committee is in selecting the textual variant they believe is the original wording for a variant unit. The tables below show the number of Significant variation units for each book of the New Testament, and for the New Testament as a whole.

  • The letter {A} signifies that the text is certain.
  • The letter {B} indicates that the text is almost certain.
  • The letter {C} indicates that the Committee had difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text.
  • The letter {D}, which occurs only rarely, indicates that the Committee had great difficulty in arriving at a decision. In fact, among the {D} decisions sometimes none of the variant readings commended itself as original, and therefore the only recourse was to print the least unsatisfactory reading.10

Significant Variant Units in the Greek New Testament Books

Variant Unit Ratings
(United Bible Society)
Total WordsTotal Variant
Units
{A}
Ratings
{B}
Ratings
{C}
Ratings
{D}
Ratings
% {A} of Total
Per Row
% {B} of Total
Per Row
% {C} of Total
Per Row
% {D} of Total
Per Row
New Testament138,02013925055233541036%38%25%1%
Matthew18,346153327050121%46%33%1%
Mark11,304140454945132%35%32%1%
Luke19,482161447344027%45%27%0%
John15,635149446241230%42%28%1%
Acts18,450197748240138%42%20%1%
Romans7,11179391920149%24%25%1%
1 Corinthians6,83059212215136%37%25%2%
2 Corinthians4,47739121710031%44%26%0%
Galatians2,230271638059%11%30%0%
Ephesians2,4223416117047%32%21%0%
Philippians1,629201073050%35%15%0%
Colossians1,582288128029%43%29%0%
1 Thessalonians1,48114923064%14%21%0%
2 Thessalonians8238332038%38%25%0%
1 Timothy1,591191522079%11%11%0%
2 Timothy1,2389261022%67%11%0%
Titus6594211050%25%25%0%
Philemon3355230040%60%0%0%
Hebrews4,95343201112047%26%28%0%
James1,742237124030%52%17%0%
1 Peter1,684372197057%24%19%0%
2 Peter1,09922876136%32%27%5%
1 John2,141291874062%24%14%0%
2 John2455410080%20%0%0%
3 John2192110050%50%0%0%
Jude46113903169%0%23%8%
Revelation9,85173233118132%42%25%1%
© BibleQuestions.info, 23-May-2020
Bibliography: Andrews, Edward D. What Are Textual Variants [Errors] and How Many Are There? (Christian Publishing House; March 31, 2017; Blog) Accessed 09-May-2020.
Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994)
Wilkins, Don and Edward D. Andrews. The Text of the New Testament: The Science and Art of Textual Criticism (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2017; Kindle) Page 332 (Amazon).

Significant Variant Units in the Greek New Testament

Variant Unit Ratings
(United Bible Society)
Significant
Variant Units
% of Significant
Variant Units
Total Variant Units1392100%
{A} Rating50536.28%
{B} Rating52337.57%
{C} Rating35425.43%
{D} Rating100.72%
© BibleQuestions.info, 23-May-2020
Bibliography: Andrews, Edward D. What Are Textual Variants [Errors] and How Many Are There? (Christian Publishing House; March 31, 2017; Blog) Accessed 09-May-2020.
Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994)
Wilkins, Don and Edward D. Andrews. The Text of the New Testament: The Science and Art of Textual Criticism (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2017; Kindle) Page 332 (Amazon).

As you can see from these tables, the readings for about 74% of the variant units are certain or almost certain. Less than 1% of the variant units (10 locations in the entire New Testament) caused the committee great difficulty in arriving at the correct wording.

Conclusion

The Biblical authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the word of God. Because of the inspiration, the original autographs by the authors (or their scribes) were accurate and meaningful. There’s no particular reason to believe the people who copied the New Testament were inspired, and they made mistakes while copying it.

Non-Christians may claim the Bible isn’t reliable, and point to all the mistakes scribes made while copying the Bible. Counting the mistakes in 5,000 manuscripts gives a wildly inaccurate view of the reliability of the New Testament.  Counting the number of places in the New Testament where scholars debate the original reading shows how accurate the scribes were overall. What’s often ignored is that each manuscript has different mistakes in it, which allows scholars to determine the original reading for over 99% of the New Testament.

All of the essential beliefs in Christianity are taught in multiple places, so even if the wording of a verse in our Bibles isn’t exactly what the author originally wrote, there are other places which confirm the correct teaching. Textual variants aren’t the proverbial smoking gun that proves Christianity is false.

Bibliography

  • Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994)
  • Wilkins, Don and Edward D. Andrews. The Text of the New Testament: The Science and Art of Textual Criticism (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2017; Kindle) (Amazon)

Footnotes

  1. How Many Textual Variants Exist in the New Testament Manuscripts?
  2. Are Spelling Differences Meaningful in New Testament Manuscripts?
  3. John 18 (ESV)
  4. Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, 28th edition. NA28 and UBS5 have the same text, but use different critical apparatus.
  5. United Bible Societies; 5th edition is current. UBS5 and NA28 have the same text, but use different critical apparatus.
  6. 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 196-197. (Amazon) (Logos)
  7. What are Textual Variants?
  8. Wilkins, Don and Edward D. Andrews. The Text of the New Testament: The Science and Art of Textual Criticism (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2017; Kindle) Page 335. (Amazon)
  9. Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994)
  10. Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (second edition), A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (Fourth Revised Edition). Quoted In: Wilkins, Don and Edward D. Andrews. The Text of the New Testament: The Science and Art of Textual Criticism (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2017; Kindle) Page 329. (Amazon)

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