Is a Textual Variant Both Meaningful and Viable?


I’ve stated repeatedly in previous articles that most textual variants are simple mistakes made by scribes when copying the New Testament, but some changes are intentional1. When trying to decide if a variant could be original, textual scholars start by asking two questions:

Is the Variant Meaningful?

Often, mistakes do not create a meaningful text. Spelling errors may produce a series of letters that aren’t really a word. Jesus instructed Christians to “Love your neighbor as yourself”2, but if a scribe accidentally replaced the “n” with an “m”, the text would say “Love your meighbor as yourself”, an obvious error. “Meighbor” isn’t meaningful, so it fails the first question.

In other cases, a misspelled word may result in a variant which is a real word, but not the correct one. In these cases, the second question arises.

Is the Variant Viable?

Here’s an example Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, New Testament Textual Critic and Executive Director of The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, offered in the documentary Fragments of Truth3. Does the beginning of this sentence seem familiar?

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. (Preamble to the United States Constitution)

What if someone copied the US Constitution and accidentally wrote “Onion” instead of “Union”? Accidentally closing the top of a “U” to make an “O” would be easy to do. The result would be “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Onion….” Is that a meaningful sentence? Yes, it is grammatically correct and can be understood. Is it a viable variant? It might be, if the majority of the population of the United States were geneticists trying to engineer the perfect onion that was easy to grow and tasted delicious, but that’s not reality. Most copies of the Constitution have the word “Union”, so it’s easy to demonstrate “Onion” is not a viable variant in this context.

Can a Variant be Both Meaningful and Viable, but Incorrect?

1 Thessalonians 2:7 (ESV) is often translated “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” The Greek word translated “gentle” is ἤπιοι, but some Greek manuscripts use the word νήπιοι, which can be translated as “infants” or “young children”. Apparently, there are a few manuscripts that misspell the word and it becomes “horses”. “But we were horses among you…” is obviously not the correct reading (unless Mr. Ed wrote the verse).

“But we were infants among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” makes less sense than “gentle”, because an infant isn’t like a nursing mother. However, the manuscript evidence suggests “infants” is the older reading. Only one existing papyrus manuscript (P65; A.D. 200-299) has this verse, and it uses “infants”. Some later parchment manuscripts (Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, Codex Bezae) also use “infants”, but in three of those codices a later corrector changed the word to “gentle”.

One of the two words is incorrect. Textual scholars believe “infants” is more likely to be the original reading, but the United Bible Societies gives this a {C} rating4 because of the uncertainty. English Bibles typically translate the word as “gentle” because it is easier to understand.

The Holy Spirit inspired the original authors of the Bible, so we know the original text was exactly what God intended. Even though the oldest existing manuscripts have “infants”, it’s possible “infants” is a corruption that occurred even earlier, but later manuscripts have the correct word, “gentle”.

Conclusion

Dr. Daniel B. Wallace has stated about 70% of all textual variants are spelling differences, and less than 1% (and perhaps as few as 0.2%) of textual variants are both meaningful and viable.5 Although there may be up to half a million textual variants in over 5,000 existing Greek manuscripts6, scholars have doubts about the original readings for only about 26% of the 1,392 significant variant units (364 are in question)7 in the New Testament. That’s a far smaller number than skeptics would like people to believe.

Resources

Footnotes

  1. What are Intentional Textual Variants?
  2. And a second [commandment] is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:39 ESV)
  3. Wallace, Dan. Fragments of Truth. Rhys-Davies, John (Narrator) and Evans, Craig (Presenter). (Faithlife Films, 2018)
  4. Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, third edition (Stuttgart, Germany: United Bible Societies, 1975) Page 629.
  5. 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. (Wallace, Dan. Fragments of Truth. Rhys-Davies, John (Narrator) and Evans, Craig (Presenter). (Faithlife Films, 2018; documentary))
  6. How Many Textual Variants Exist in the New Testament Manuscripts?
  7. What are Variant Units?

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