What are Intentional Textual Variants?

This entry is part 11 of 36 in the series What is Textual Criticism?

Last week I wrote about What are Unintentional Textual Variants?, and this week I want to focus on intentional changes scribes made to the New Testament text.

Intentional changes are often harder to detect than unintentional changes. A spelling mistake should be easy to detect, unless the new word it produces is a legitimate word, and one that make sense in context. The author of an intentional change will try to make the change fit into the context properly, making it harder to determine that the wording is not original.

Odd though it may seem, scribes who thought were more dangerous than those who wished merely to be faithful in copying what lay before them. Many of the alterations which may be classified as intentional were no doubt introduced in good faith by copyists who believed they were correcting an error or infelicity of language which had previously crept into the sacred text and needed to be rectified. A later scribe may even reintroduce an erroneous reading that had been previously corrected.1

Some types of intentional changes include:

  • Adding marginal notes, or glosses, to the text – Sometimes a scribe would add a note to the margin, called a gloss, and a later scribe would copy the note into the text. This type of change may be unintentional or intentional. Part of 1 John 5:7-8 may be an example of a gloss being added to the text. King James Version includes a phrase that explicitly refers to the Trinity, but Greek manuscripts older than the ones available to the translators of the KJV do not include the phrase.2
    • 7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. (1 John 5:7-8 KJV)
    • 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. (1 John 5:7-8 ESV)
  • Clarification – Adding or rearranging words to remove ambiguity. For example, there are four variants in existing Greek manuscripts at the end of Acts 8:16: Lord (κυρίου), Christ (Χριστοῦ), Jesus Christ (Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ) and Lord Jesus Christ (κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ). Most English translations use Lord Jesus. The Greek word κυρίου3 can mean lord, master, sir or owner, not necessarily referring to God, so scribes wanted to ensure the readers knew the verse was referring to Jesus.
    • …for he [the Holy Spirit] had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 8:16 ESV)
  • Conflation – When there are two (or more) possible readings and the scribe is uncertain which was original, the two may be combined into a single reading.
    • …and [the Disciples] were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:53 ESV)
    • And they [the Disciples] stayed continually at the temple, praising God. (Luke 24:53 NIV)
    • And [the Disciples] were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen. (Luke 24:53 KJV)
  • Euphemistic Changes – Words or phrases that were considered inappropriate or offensive were changed to acceptable ones.
  • Harmonization – An attempt to make parallel passages, particularly in the Synoptic Gospels, have the same details. 
  • Spelling and Grammar Changes – “Archaic language tended to be updated to the language contemporary with the community and culture in order to further comprehension.”4
  • Theological Changes – These occurred because God or other biblical persons were displayed in an unfavorable or irreverent manner
    • “Genesis 18:22 originally stated that ‘God remained standing before Abraham.’ However, the image of standing before someone had come to denote a role of servitude to that person. Therefore, the sentence structure was rearranged.”5 Most English translations use a variation of “Abraham still stood before the LORD”, but vestiges of “God remained standing before Abraham” sill exists in some translations.
      • The other men turned and headed toward Sodom, but the LORD remained with Abraham. (Genesis 18:22 NLT)
      • So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD. (Genesis 18:22 ESV)
    • Jesus says he doesn’t know when the second coming will be, which some people thought was blasphemous, so the phrase “nor the son” was removed from Matthew 24:36 in some manuscripts.
      • But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. (Matthew 24:36 ESV)
      • But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. (Matthew 24:36 KJV)

The non-Christian philosopher Porphyry of Tyre (A.D. 234 – A.D. 305) admitted making changes to secular texts when he copied them, but kept the meaning of the text.

For I myself call the gods to witness, that I have neither added anything, nor taken away from the meaning of the responses, except where I have corrected an erroneous phrase, or made a change for greater clearness, or completed the metre when defective, or struck out anything that did not conduce to the purpose; so that I preserved the sense of what was spoken untouched, guarding against the impiety of such changes, rather than against the avenging justice that follows from the sacrilege.6

Like Porphyry of Tyre, the New Testament copyists strived to keep the meaning of the text, while introducing changes that would make it easier for the audience to understand it and apply to it their lives. There were a few people who deliberately tried to change the theology of the Bible to fit their own distorted understanding of Christ’s work, but these altered copies of the Bible can be easily detected as heretical.

Despite the fact that there have been intentional modifications to the text in order to provide clarity and relevance to the community contemporary with the scribe, modern readers need not be concerned that these changes compromise the reliability or accuracy of the Bible we have today. In many cases the changes are obvious and scholars can identify the original reading with a high degree of confidence.7



Series Navigation<< What are Unintentional Textual Variants?Is a Textual Variant Both Meaningful and Viable? >>


  1. Metzger, Bruce M. The Text of the Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, Third Enlarged Edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992) 195.
  2. This is called the Johannine Comma (Latin: Comma Johanneum).
  3. κυρίου: Strong’s G2962
  4. McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 116. (Amazon)
  5. McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 117. (Amazon)
  6. Porphyry of Tyre (A.D. 234 – A.D. 305). Quoted in: Eusebius of Caesarea. Praeparatio Evangelica. Book 4, Chapter 7. (Tertullian.org)
  7. McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 117. (Amazon)

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