Are Textual Variances Motivated By Theology?


While most textual variants in the New Testament were unintentional1, some changes were intentional2. In many cases, the intentional changes were made to clean up grammar and spelling errors, but in some cases the changes were made to emphasize theological points when a passage was ambiguous.

By about A.D. 400, the New Testament manuscripts had stabilized. Manuscript evidence after this time show that the scribes didn’t make many new meaningful and viable textual variants, but tended to choose between the existing variants when copying the Bible.

Some critics use words like “uncontrolled”, “unstable”, “wild” and “free” when describing the copying practices of the early church prior to A.D. 400. None of the manuscripts written by the early church survive, and few manuscripts survive from the first 150 years of the church. It’s surprising critics can state so confidently that the church didn’t have accurate copies available to them, and that the copies they did have were unreliable. Evidence suggests that some of the New Testament autographs may have been available for over 200 years3.

Unorthodox Changes

One person, Marcion, had heretical beliefs and was excommunicated from the church in A.D. 144. He believed the Jews were no longer part of God’s plan and removed references to them in his version of the Bible, which contained only part of Luke’s Gospel and ten of Paul’s Epistles. The church father Tertullian stated Marcion used a knife, not a pen, to make the Bible fit his theology4.

Orthodox Changes

Some changes were intentionally made to clarify   passages. However, the goal was to remove ambiguity while remaining consistent with related passages.

While it is true that dogmatic preferences inclined scribes to prefer the textual option that they deemed most orthodox from among the available readings, the nature of that influence was not intended to create a knowingly false text but rather a good-faith clarification.5

1 John 5:7-8

There is one particular example I want to point out, 1 John 5:7-8, a change called the Johannine Comma (Latin: Comma Johanneum). These verses are the only ones in the New Testament to clearly and explicitly support the idea of the Trinity. You’ll notice ESV is quite a bit shorter than KJV, and I’ve highlighted the main differences in the verse.

  • 7For there are three that testify: 8the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. (1 John 5:7-8 ESV, 2001)
  • 7For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8And 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, 1611)

Verses 7a-8b aren’t found in any Greek manuscript until about A.D.1500-1550, nor does it appear in the earliest Latin manuscripts. The church father Cyprian seems to refer to it sometime between A.D. 200-250, but only indirectly when writing about another passage. It was probably not in the original writing by John, but added later by a scribe, perhaps accidentally copying a note an earlier scribe wrote in the margin.

Theological Changes

Papyrus 72 (P72) is believed to have been written sometime after A.D. 200, but the date is unknown. Because it is considered an early manuscript, it is possible some textual variants originated in this codex. Many readings in it have a theological nature.

The codex [P72] has been discussed with regard to its theological tendencies and the significance of those tendencies in recent years. These examinations have shown that there is good reason to view its variants as having a high Christology and stressing the divinity of Jesus. It seems that these changes also reflect some of the contemporaneous dialogue happening within proto-orthodox circles in regards to heretical claims. Therefore, not only do the variants consistently demonstrate a high Christology, and do so across books (Jude and 1-2 Pet), but they also do so right in line with what would be expected within their communities given the concurrent theological discussions.6

Codex Bezae (GA 05) is dated A.D. 400-500. Because of its later date, the textual variants in it are generally copied from other manuscripts, rather than being original to it. Textual scholars can even identity some of the earlier manuscripts with the same readings.

Here [Codex Bezae], not only do the variants seem to contain a specific bias but also considering (1) the amount of them, (2) the fact that both significant and insignificant variants function the same way, and (3) the universal nature of the bias throughout the manuscript, one is hard-pressed to argue that the scribe of Bezae does not have such a bias. This example is a clear illustration of a study demonstrating scribal corruption at work within a specific manuscript and by a specific scribe.7

Conclusion

Some textual variants in the New Testament were definitely created for theological reasons. Marcion removed over 75% of the Bible because he didn’t like Jews. Someone add a reference to the Trinity to 1 John 5:7-8. We also see that some scribes didn’t create new textual variants, but selected existing ones which best fit their theology.

Resources

  1. What are Unintentional Textual Variants?
  2. What are Intentional Textual Variants?
  3. How Long did the Autograph or Original New Testament Manuscripts Last?
  4. Tertullian. Prescription Against Heretics. Quoted in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885) Chapter XXXVIII – Harmony of the Church and the Scriptures. (CCEL.org)
  5. Marcello, Robert D. “Myths About Orthodox Corruption: We’re Scribes Influenced By Theology, and How Can We Tell?” In: Hixson, Elijah and Gurry, Peter J. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019; Logos) Page  214. (Amazon) (Logos)
  6. Marcello, Robert D. “Myths About Orthodox Corruption: We’re Scribes Influenced By Theology, and How Can We Tell?” In: Hixson, Elijah and Gurry, Peter J. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019; Logos) Page 222. (Amazon) (Logos)
  7. Marcello, Robert D. “Myths About Orthodox Corruption: We’re Scribes Influenced By Theology, and How Can We Tell?” In: Hixson, Elijah and Gurry, Peter J. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019; Logos) Page  221-222. (Amazon) (Logos)

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