What are Unintentional Textual Variants?

Textual Criticism studies the differences found in manuscripts, called textual variants, of which there are two types: unintentional changes and intentional changes. This article focuses on the unintentional types of textual variants; a later article will be about intentional textual variants.

In an ideal situation, a professional scribe will have a pristine copy of a book, and smooth blank sheets of parchment or paper without defects. There will be adequate lighting, and no distractions. The scribe will be able to copy every letter without making a mistake, and the end result will be a perfect copy of the source manuscript. The Hebrew Soferim train for years and have over 4,000 rules to follow when copying the Torah1, but that training is an exception to normal practices. All scribes, whether amateur or professional, will make mistakes when copying a long document; New Testament scribes were no exception. I’ll give just a few actual examples below.

Copying from a Written Source

Most manuscripts were copied from written sources, but the sources might be of poor quality, due to age or damage. The scribe may have poor lighting, bad eyesight, or not be fluent in the language. Any of these could cause the scribe to misread the source and make mistakes in the new copy.

Source Manuscript has Bad Handwriting or Scribe’s Bad Eyesight

Bad handwriting in the source manuscript was especially problematic, as some people who copied the New Testament were enthusiastic amateurs rather than professional scribes. Bad handwriting or eyesight could lead to:

  • Letters not being fully formed, or similarly shaped letters could be misidentified:
    • Hebrew: ד (Dalet) and ר (Resh) – Genesis 10:42 lists a people group called the Dodanim (דֹּדָנִים), while 1 Chronicles 1:73 lists the same group as Rodanim (רוֹדָנִים).
    • Greek: Γ (Gamma), Π (Pi), Τ (tau) – In 2 Peter 2:13, most Greek manuscripts read ΑΠΑΤΑΙΣ (deceptions)4, while some use ΑΓΑΠΑΙΣ (pleasures, love feasts)5.
  • If letters were written too close together, the scribe may split words incorrectly. Many early manuscripts were written using Scriptio Continua6, which did not use spaces or punctuation, which was especially problematic.
    • Fission – Incorrectly splitting words, so one word in the source manuscript is written as two words in the copy.
    • Fusion – Incorrectly combining words, so two words in the source manuscript are written as one word in the copy.

Other Common Unintentional Errors

  • Dittography – When a scribe accidentally copies a letter, word or phrase twice. In Codex Vaticanus, Acts 19:347 has the phrase “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” twice, while other manuscripts have it only once.
  • Textual variant Dittography - Codex Vaticanus (Page 1411) - Acts 19:34 - “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians”
    Textual variant Dittography – Codex Vaticanus (Page 1411) – Acts 19:34 – “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians”
  • Parablepsis – From Greek meaning “to look at the side”. This occurs when a scribe misses some of the text in the source, resulting in copying errors called Haplography, with sub-categories of Homoeoarcton and Homoeoteleuton.
    • Haplography – The accidental removal of a letter, word or phrase when it appears twice in close proximity.
    • Homoeoarcton (Homoioarcton, Homoioarkton) –  When two lines start with the same letters and the scribe accidentally skips one of the lines or verses.
    • Homoeoteleuton (Homoioteleuton) – When two lines end with the same letters and the scribe accidentally skips one of the lines or verses. In Codex Sinaiticus, the original scribe skipped Luke 10:328, probably because it ends with the same word as Luke 10:31. A corrector added the verse as a footnote.
      Textual variant Homoeoteleuton - Codex Sinaiticus - Luke 10:32 - Verse is missing in the original text, but a corrector added it in a footnote.
      Textual variant Homoeoteleuton – Codex Sinaiticus – Luke 10:32 – Verse is missing in the original text, but a corrector added it in a footnote.
  • Metathesis – Accidentally switching the order of letters or word. Word order in Greek its less important than in many other languages.
  • Substitution of synonyms
  • Adding marginal notes, or glosses, to the text – Sometimes a scribe would add a note to the margin, and a later scribe would copy the note into the text. This type of change may be unintentional or intentional.

Copying from an Oral Source

Books can also be copied from an oral source, such as a person reading a book during a church service, or a lecture reading a book for a group of scribes. The person speaking may not enunciate clearly, or the scribe could be hard of hearing. Words and letters which sound the same could cause the scribes to write down a word or phrase incorrectly.

  • Homophony – Words which sound alike, but are spelled differently. e.g. English There, Their and They’re.
  • Itacism – Different letters that are pronounced similarly.
    • Hebrew similar sounding letters: e.g. א (Alef) and ע (ʿAyin); ת (Tav) and ט (Tet); ס (Samekh) and שׂ (Shin)
    • Greek similar sounding letters: e.g. α (Alpha) and ο (Omicron), and ω (Omega)

Can Changes Be Detected?

The unintentional changes described above represent the vast majority of textual variants in the New Testament. In most cases, scholars can compare multiple manuscripts  and determine which variant was likely the original reading.



  1. Who are the Hebrew Sofer?
  2. The sons of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. (Genesis 10:4 ESV)
  3. The sons of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim. (1 Chronicles 1:7 ESV)
  4. Their destruction is their reward for the harm they have done. They love to indulge in evil pleasures in broad daylight. They are a disgrace and a stain among you. They delight in deception even as they eat with you in your fellowship meals. (2 Peter 2:13 NLT)
  5. They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. (2 Peter 2:13 NIV)
  6. What is Scriptio Continua?
  7. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:34 ESV)
  8. 31 κατὰ συγκυρίαν δὲ ἱερεύς τις κατέβαινεν ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ ἐκείνῃ, καὶ ἰδὼν αὐτὸν ἀντιπαρῆλθεν 32 ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ Λευίτης κατὰ τὸν τόπον ἐλθὼν καὶ ἰδὼν ἀντιπαρῆλθεν. (Luke 10:31-32 SBLGNT); 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. (Luke 10:31-32 ESV)

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