I have a question here about manuscript variants. A variant is a difference between one manuscript of the New Testament and another, in this case, and there are lots of variations since the New Testament was handed down for 1400 years or so by recopying the manuscripts one-by-one. There’s going to be differences in the text, and some people have made a big deal about those differences. It turns out there are three different things you need to think about with regards to variations. One is whether they’re meaningful, secondly whether they’re viable, and third whether they’re theologically significant.
When I say meaningful, the vast majority of variations are spelling errors. That is, they don’t get in the way of us reconstructing the original, so they’re not meaningful to reconstruct the original. Sometimes words are transposed like “Jesus Christ” or “Christ Jesus,” it means the same thing. Ninety percent or so of all the variations fall in that category.
Some are not viable. That is, they are meaningful, they show a difference in the meaning of the text, but there’s so few of them that it is unlikely this is the original reading. Looks like something drifted in from some over-ambitious scribe, and so consequently those are eliminated as well. There’s a famous verse in first John chapter 5 that seems to suggest of the Trinity. It’s called the Johannine Comma, but so few texts have that in it, it’s pretty clear it’s been added by somebody else.
Now there are two large sections that most people know about that study this at all that are variants and that is the long ending to the Gospel of Mark and also the woman caught in adultery in the book of John, beginning of chapter 6, I think, and going into chapter 7. It actually occurs in different manuscripts in different gospels, and it doesn’t occur in the earliest ones, and so it’s pretty clear that this is an addition. And I’ve been asked, are there any other significant ones than those three I just mentioned - the long ending of Mark, the section of John, and the Johannine Comma in first John 5.
What’s curious to me is that I don’t even consider those significant. They are large, but they are not significant in the sense that there’s any debate about whether they belong in or out of the original text. They don’t. And secondly, there’s nothing theological that really hangs from any of those passages. What about the Johannine Comma? That suggests the Trinity. Sure, but we can do without that passage and still make our case fully for the Trinity from other texts. So that particular thing is not an issue. Simply put, there are a number of other meaningful and viable variations and manuscripts but none that are theologically significant, and meaningful, and viable.
I heard Dan Wallace said once, who is an expert in this area, there probably hasn’t been a manuscript difference that’s come up in the last 50, or 60, or 70 years that’s made any difference to our understanding of the theology of the New Testament. And that’s the thing to keep in mind when you think about the claims about the massive number of manuscript variants. There is a massive number, and the reason there’s a massive number is because we have a massive number of manuscripts to compare. But the massive number of manuscripts which causes the massive number of variants also allows us to solve the problems.
And it turns out that the vast, vast, vast majority of these are are not meaningful to regaining the original. They are not viable because in some cases there’s so few in a particular kind. And as to their theological significance, it’s inconsequential. The text that we know for sure contains all the solid theology that has anything to do with with basic Christianity. And so not only are there not any other big variations that matter than those three that I mentioned, I don’t even think those three that I mentioned – the woman caught in adultery, the Johannine Comma, and the long ending of Mark – they themselves are not theologically significant because anything significant in any of those passages in question is repeated clearly in passages that are not in question.
Simply put, though there’s a challenge about the manuscript evidence, it is not something we have to worry about because the evidence falls completely in our favor.