Textual Variants: It’s the Nature, Not the Number, That Matters

Author Tim Barnett Published on 05/24/2016

While taking questions at a recent event, a young girl stood up and boldly stated, “The Bible has been changed so many times over the last 2000 years, it’s impossible to know what it originally said.” As ammunition for her claim, she cited the hundreds of thousands of differences between the New Testament manuscripts. This fact alone was supposed to convince us that the New Testament documents are unreliable.

Does the New Testament we possess correctly reflect the words the authors penned in the first century? Leading textual critic Bart Ehrman says, no.

In his bestselling book, Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman writes,

“What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways.... There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”

These places where the manuscripts differ from one another are called variants. A textual variant is any place among the manuscripts in which there is variation in wording, including word order, omission or addition of words, even spelling differences.

Most scholars put the number of variants for the New Testament at around 400,000. This is a staggering number when coupled with the fact that there are only about 138,000 words in the Greek New Testament. That means there are almost three variants per word.

Do you feel the weight of this challenge? You should. No other document from the ancient world has this many textual variants. Yet, I believe that the New Testament is the most reliable document from antiquity. How can this be?

When it comes to the New Testament, it’s not the number of variants that’s important, it’s the nature of the variants. It’s not the quantity of the differences; it’s the quality of the differences.

There are four kinds of textual variants. Variants are categorized by whether or not they are viable, and whether or not they are meaningful. A variant is viable only if the variant has a good possibility of being part of the original wording. A variant is meaningful only if it changes the meaning of the text.

Neither Viable nor Meaningful

Most of the variants fall into this category. For example, differences in spelling make up 70% of all textual variants. These are very easy for Greek scholars to detect. These variants have no hope of being in the original, and they don’t alter the meaning of the text.

Viable, but Not Meaningful

These are variants that could be part of the original text. However, they ultimately make no meaningful change to the text. For example, New Testament manuscripts spell John’s name two different ways in Greek: Ιω?ννης and Ιω?νης. Both are viable options.

We just don’t know if John’s name was spelled with one “ν” or two. Of course, this trivial detail does not change the meaning of any particular passage.

Meaningful, but Not Viable

These are variants that do change the meaning of the text, but they could not possibly be in the original. For example, the earliest and most important manuscripts of Luke 6:22 say, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man.”

However, we have a single eleventh century manuscript, Codex 2882, which says, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil.” Notice this ancient document does not include the phrase “on account of the Son of Man.” This is a meaningful variant. In the first case, Jesus is offering a blessing on those who are hated and mistreated because of their allegiance to Christ. In the second case, Jesus is blessing anyone who is hated and mistreated for any reason. Since this aberrant reading only occurs in one late manuscript, it is not viable.

Viable and Meaningful

Meaningful and viable is the smallest and most significant group of variants. These have a good chance of being authentic and they change the meaning of the text. This group accounts for less than 1% of all textual variants. If you do the math, less than 4,000 variants of the 400,000 total variants are both viable and meaningful.

Let me give you an example from 1 John 1:4. New Testament scholars debate over whether this text should say, “And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” or “And we are writing these things so that your joy may be complete.” There are important manuscripts that record the word ‘your’ (?μ?ν), and there are important manuscripts that record the word ‘our’ (?μ?ν). In the original language, these two words differ by only one letter. The meaning of 1 John 1:4 is clearly altered depending on which rendering is used.

It is this small subset of variants that is a legitimate cause for concern. However, no major doctrines depend on any meaningful and viable variants. In fact, Bart Ehrman was once asked if these variants put the core tenets of Christian orthodoxy in jeopardy. Ehrman responded, “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.”

This young girl thought that the mere fact of hundreds of thousands of differences in the manuscripts was enough to conclude that the New Testament text has been hopelessly corrupted. However, it’s not the number of variants that’s important, it’s the nature of the variants. Most variants are trivial, affecting nothing. In fact, more than 99% fall into this category.

There are only a small number of meaningful variants that are viable. But even these affect no cardinal doctrine. The New Testament has an impressive transmission history that should give Christians confidence that we have the words written by the apostles. You can learn more about how we can reproduce the original New Testament to a high degree of certainty in Greg Koukl’s article “Misquoting” Jesus? Answering Bart Ehrman.